Betrothed to the Dragon
I’m engaged to a stranger, a man -- dragon. If I don’t marry him, I’m as good as dead.
I’ve been hiding all my life.
Unlike the rest of my once powerful family, I have no magic.
The immortal monster that ate them all, still hunts me.
And my grandmother thinks that the only way to save me from the monster is to marry me to another monster: a dragon.
Only this monster is perfection in human form: all rippling golden muscle and more gorgeous than anyone who shifts into a scaled monstrous beast has a right to be. His magic calls me, his heat enthralls me and my mind melts at the touch of his inhumanely hot hands on my skin.
There is no way I can marry him.
I know what he truly wants: access to my family’s power.
But I have no magic, no power of my own.
He thinks he knows what he’s getting with me.
I don’t play those games.
It’s better to run from a monster, than to marry one.
I’m no dragon’s treasure.
Even if my heart wishes otherwise.
BETROTHED TO THE DRAGON
is the first book in Kara Lockharte's
Dragon Lovers / Lick of Fire series!
“What do you mean I’m betrothed in an arranged marriage?”
I glanced at my phone. Only one of the connection bars was filled, indicating barely audible service. I must have heard her wrong. No way my Alexander McQueen-clutch-carrying-Bitcoin-gambling grandmother would say something like that.
I glanced at the phone again and saw that the call was disconnected.
Of course. I teetered on the stupid heels I had bought for today, in the museum where I worked. The early twentieth century building was gorgeous with its hand-carved window frames and Italian marble floors, but sorely lacking when it came to areas with good phone service. I danced around a pile of dusty books resting on the floor and navigated around the cubicle maze that passed for the doctoral student office.
Grandma loved playing games. Once she had played politics with the fate of empires, and now she invested that talent into stocks and virtual currency.
Outside I made my way down the great expanse of stone steps, fat gray pigeons glared at me, dodging my footsteps. I hit redial on my phone, and she picked up almost immediately. “You lost a bet, right? You know, I’m pretty sure it’s not legal to put up your granddaughter’s hand in marriage as collateral.”
Next to me, Chinese tourists were having a heated discussion about the best pizza places in the Lower East Side.
Grandma exhaled. “No, Sophie. I made the deal so that we would be allowed to come to this country. It was a different, more desperate time.”
I had tried to assimilate and adapt to human life in America, with blue jeans, chicken nuggets, and a PhD in Museum Conservation. All of it was easier than remembering what I truly was—the reason why so many of my family had died.
I paced trying to release the nervous energy of an all too familiar frustration. “I wasn’t even a year old. There’s no way that will hold up in court.”
Grandma made that harrumphing, barking cough she always made when she was done listening to me whine. “Not legal by human standards, no. But by that of our people, yes. I’ve tried to let you live a life of freedom and to make your own choices as much as you could. But my protection won’t hold forever. I need to know you are safe. And marriage into this family will protect you.” Her voice hardened. “Sophie, you are the last of our line. Even if your power hasn’t manifested, the potential of your blood is still there. This is the only way to keep you safe.”
I was a black belt in Krav Maga, had extensive firearms training from a grizzled old ex-Army Ranger sniper who said I had potential, yet none of it mattered. I had to be protected. Unlike my grandmother, my mother, and my father before me, I had no magic.
I stopped pacing, and pinched the bridge of my nose. As much as we pretended to be human, we were not.
I clenched the phone tighter. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this before?”
“I’d hoped some of the plans I made, the champions I sent against the monster, would succeed before it would come to this.” There was a note of sadness in her voice. “But each time it fights, it learns. And every day it grows more and more powerful.”
My alarm vibrated, startling me into dropping my phone. I tried to catch it, but it was too late. When I picked it up, there was a hairline crack on the screen. Wonderful.
I picked up the phone, turned on the speaker, and spoke louder than I intended, so much so that it startled the pigeons around me into grudging hops. “Grandma, I have to get ready for my talk.”
“There is more that I have to tell you. But we’ll talk more later. Good luck on your presentation, Sophie.” She hung up because she knew I was in no mood to say goodbye.
More? What more could she tell me? Next she’d be telling me I was actually a human adoptee. That would have been less of a surprise.
The picture of us appeared on my phone’s lock screen.
We looked so different, her and I. Grandma with her white skin, straight hair, and me with my dark skin and wavy hair. The only thing we shared was our eye-shape that humans called Asian. In school, I had always checked off whatever box felt more convenient at the time. African, Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic—I had convincingly claimed them all. Grandma scoffed at the idea of labeling ourselves according to human ideas of ethnicity.
“Our family spans the Earth,” she had said. “A shen does not identify themselves by the tribal groupings of humans any more than a lion distinguishes itself by the particulars of ant kingdoms.” As much as we looked like and pretended to be, we weren’t human. We were the first intelligent life forms on this planet and connected to the deep magical nodes of the Earth. Humans had many names for us: fae, yokai, djinn, apsaras, gods, demons, monsters on so on, never realizing that we were all one people. It was sort of strange that humans hadn’t, considering what a wide range of colors, shapes, and abilities humans came had. And yet somehow humans made the assumption that physical appearance for magical shape-shifting creatures meant we were all different species.
We weren’t. We may have had different strengths, different magics, but from gorgons to thunderbirds to naga we were all just shen.
But years and years of intermingling with humans had dissipated most of our legendary magic.
And for the remaining shen with magic? None of it was enough to fight the Devourer when it had entered this world, seeking new victims.
Including my parents.
They had died to save me, not knowing how they had thrown their lives away for the unforgivably flawed shen that I was.
My phone buzzed again with the alarm I’d set to prepare for the one event I’d been dreading and anticipating for the last six months. It was time for my post-dissertation fellowship presentation on religious motifs in East and Near Eastern art at the museum.
Giving the public lecture as required by my fellowship put worms in my stomach so much more than defending the actual dissertation in front of a panel of peers and experts. I had to simplify things, touch upon other areas that weren’t necessarily my specialty, and make the topic more appealing to the public; even I could admit that a discussion over the proper application of persimmon juice in scrollwork conservation could get pretty dry.
I swiped at the tablet in my arm, changing the slide display. A collage of a Tlingit wood carving of a woman with closed eyes, surrounded by mouths and dripping with blood, was juxtaposed with that of a Heian Japanese scroll painting.
“And as you can see, the image of the Devourer is one found across several cultures from ancient Rome to Heian Japan to the totemic carvings of the Tlingit peoples of the First Nations of Canada.”
I clicked through the slides, kept moving, kept talking, even as I tried to ignore the striking gaze of the man in the back of the room. He had entered about five minutes into my talk, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so aware of him.
It was foolish of me to include the Devourer. But I had felt a strange streak of defiance that Grandma once said was the lot of the young and reckless.
And yet she had, oddly enough, given her blessing for me to speak of the monster.
“Little fox, as difficult as things are, I want you to bloom as you can, not in fear.”
He couldn’t be working for the Devourer, could he?
Long ago, there had been good reason for people not to call the names of gods or monsters in vain. In a sense, I was doing that here.
I walked across the stage, my heels clicking loudly.
“Of course, it is not the only common motif across cultures. Dragons are another common motif…”
For all my fear and worry, the actual talk went by faster than I expected. As the crowd dissipated, my future boss, the assistant curator of the renowned Metro NYC museum, came up to me. Even in heels, I still found myself looking up at the tall black woman. Her British accent was as crisp as the pleats in her trousers. “That was excellent, Sophie,” You handled those questions quite nicely.”
The tall, broad-shouldered man dawdled in the back of the room, leaning against the wall, swiping at his phone as the crowd flowed around him. Why was he hanging around? There was something extraordinary about him that I couldn’t quite figure out, yet the dark business suit with an open collar and loose tie made him seem like he was just another worker on a lunch break.
“Um, thanks.” His suit looked as if it were tailored to him but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more disguise than truth. No, he wouldn’t be just another worker, not with that confidence and stance. More like a CEO.
She followed my line of sight, and smiled. “That one is quite tidy.”
He glanced upward and saw us looking and smiled. It was as if the sound in the room fell away for a single heartbeat.
Sound filled my ears and I realized my future boss was giving me a playful smile.
And then I realized he was walking over towards me.
“Oh um, I uh –”
She winked. “Oh to be young again. He must have a question.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Answer his questions. It’s part of the requirement that you answer questions from the public after all.” She winked. “I’ll see you later.”
I felt my heart speed up as he approached me.
“Hi.” My voice came out higher than I’d intended, and I looked up at him. “Did you have any questions about the talk?”
He looked at me with golden light-brown eyes. He had runway-model cheekbones and the kind of chin that jutted from the bands of Roman centurion helmets.
I had the strangest feeling that his gaze was stripping me, not just of my clothes, but to some invisible core. My muscles felt unreasonably tense, ready to fight or flee, maybe both at the same time.
His smooth bass voice rolled across my skin like a caress. “I have many questions, none of which I have time to ask.”
“Well, umm, there’s going to be another talk in, umm—” I glanced at my watch, even though I knew precisely when the next talk would be. “About an hour?” Dammit, why had I made that sound like a question?
The corner of those full lips quirked up into a smile. “Will you be leading it?”
“A shame.” He turned, looked over his shoulder, and nodded at me. “I enjoyed listening to you.”
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