In Pursuit of Dragons
Scotland, March 1885
The rotten, inbred popinjay.
Upon his death, a list of outstanding bills had been forwarded to her. A headache—beginning at the back of her neck and spreading upward to encompass her entire skull—had grown as she’d flipped through sheaves of paper detailing his extensive purchases. Unlike her, her husband—Stuart Kinross, Laird of Kinlarig—had been accustomed to living in luxury. Oolong tea from China. Blood oranges from Spain. Embroidered textiles from India. All indulgences he enjoyed because the Department of Cryptozoology had awarded her a generous stipend to conduct research into the therapeutic properties of dragon venom. But the funds were deposited in her husband’s accounts, affording him complete and total control; the paltry amount he had allocated to his wife barely covered basic research and household expenses.
Never mind she’d swallowed her pride and begged for more.
Not once in three years had her absent husband deigned to visit his family’s ancestral castle, not until the Department of Cryptozoology declined to continue funding her research. With his lifestyle threatened, he’d returned with a sole purpose in mind. Frowning, Natalia sat back on her heels and studied the treasure trove heaped within the fireplace. A dragon that spent her days pillaging the countryside for items he could pawn—golden goblets, strands of lustrous pearls, or gemstone-studded tiaras—might have pleased him. Alas, the dragon collected nothing so grand. Quite simply, he had decided her dragon was worth more dead than alive.
But to knowingly sell his wife’s beloved pet to a lowlife like Rathail, a man who would butcher a rare and precious creature, selling the dragon’s parts and pieces on the black market to the highest bidder? Comparing her dead husband to a spineless worm was too kind.
A flash of silver caught her eye. That was new. She plucked the coin out of her dragon’s treasure trove, leaving Zia’s other prized possessions within the fireplace untouched. Scattered throughout a heap of smooth stones fetched from alongside the nearby River Teith were several items of questionable value: silver spoons, shards of a broken mirror, a pewter tankard, twisted fragments of metal, buttons, a pearl earring, a brass shoe buckle, a key, a handful of iron nails. Natalia’s dead husband’s pocket watch.
A faint—and entirely inappropriate—smile tugged at her lips. She couldn’t begrudge Zia her trophy, not after what Kinross tried to do.
Greedy bastard. What had he expected to happen? She shook her head. Trying to cage a dragon with sharp claws and teeth, never mind the poison glands. Served him right for merely pretending to listen when she’d spoken about her research.
Castle Kinlarig was now legally hers, but without funds, continuing to reside within its walls would soon become untenable. But her options were poor. A fugitive from the Russian government, she’d arrived on British shores with nothing to her name save the possession of a very real, mythological creature. Keen to have a dragon on British soil, the Department of Cryptozoology had offered her asylum in the form of a Scottish husband.
Despite the silver threads in his hair, Kinross was no more than a decade or two older than her and still handsome. In the space of a heartbeat, she’d agreed. Marriage altered her citizenship, provided her a residence outside a quiet, Stirlingshire village, and—via a subsidy—funded her research into the properties of dragon venom.
Still mourning her father, she’d not thought to ask why a Scottish laird would agree to marry a foreign woman, sight unseen. Stupid of her. Her own childhood had been so very lonely that twice now she’d placed her trust in the hands of unworthy men, all in pursuit of safety, security, and hopes of starting a family.
Children, however, were not on Kinross’s list of interests. After a perfunctory wedding night, he’d taken his leave, appropriated the vast majority of her money—legally his—and returned to the arms of his mistresses. She’d not seen her husband again. Not until he returned a month past, bringing with him most unwelcome news: he’d sold the dragon. To Rathail, a man who sold exotic animals, piece by piece. Dragon blood. Dragon scales. Teeth. Skin. Bones.
Tucking the coin inside a pocket sewn onto her corset for safekeeping, she bent back to her chore. Her housekeeper, Aileen, would welcome the addition of the half-crown into the household funds. Of late, the cabbage soup they’d been subsisting upon was growing rather thin, a poor substitute for a hot, buttered scone. Her stomach growled. She glanced at the empty bowl resting upon her workbench. They needed money. And the only way to convince the Department of Cryptozoology to renew her grant was to produce results. She was so very close, but how could she continue to collect Zia’s venom, depleting her reserves when—
Zia—who had been guarding the door—darted into the great hall. A low, warning hiss skittered over the worn stone floors.
“Come here,” a man’s voice cajoled, his hands making soft patting sounds. Rathail’s hired hunter. A nasty little man who had arrived mere days after Kinross’s death, asserting his right to collect one Russian Mountain Dragon. “Come here, girl.”
Natalia closed her eyes and muttered under her breath, then leapt to her feet. McKay, her elderly butler, had forgotten again. A lifetime’s habit of unlocking the castle’s door at dawn was proving impossible to break. It might crush his pride, but she would have to take away his key.
“Do you have a death wish?” she called to Rathail’s hunter. She snatched up her crossbow and quiver. “It’s unwise to enter without my leave. Again. This behavior is becoming intolerable.”
She peered around the edge of the doorframe to the far end of the great hall, marking his position. Tail thrashing, Zia’s leathery, vestigial wings unfolded as she rose up onto her hindquarters, unsheathing her claws. Yet still Rathail’s man approached, dangling a dead rat by its tail, as if it were a dainty treat when there were hundreds of live rodents in the castle cellars. Teeth bared, Zia lunged, spitting poison. Pungent venom droplets blistered the exposed skin of his hands, and he let loose a string of curses, but the halfwit didn’t back away.
Saving men from dragons wasn’t on her list of tasks for the day, but neither did she wish to have the town judge knocking upon her door. Explaining her husband’s gruesome remains had been troublesome enough. Her jaw clenched. The judge had grudgingly accepted her explanation, but a second such death might well land her in prison.
“No good?” Rathail’s hunter asked Zia, then threw the rat to the floor in frustration. “Perhaps this will make you more obedient.” Crouched low to the ground, he pointed a long metal rod in Zia’s direction, backing the dragon into a corner.
Outrage shot through Natalia’s nerves. Whatever Rathail’s hunter had been paid to collect Zia, he was a stupid man to think any price was worth the risk. But what did she expect? This hunter was a mercenary, motivated by money and unencumbered by ethics. Much like her husband.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Natalia notched an arrow and began to crank the tension spring. An arrow to his shoulder would send a strong message. The simple cloth of the trousers encasing her legs made no sound as she stepped through the door, braced the crossbow against her shoulder, and took aim.
A second too late.
She fired at the very moment the hunter lunged. Thwack. She swore. Her arrow had gone wide, skewering the portrait of an ancient Kinross ancestor instead. Distracted, the man blinked, and Zia lunged, slashing him across the torso, ripping four long gashes through his waistcoat and the shirt beneath. He growled his annoyance from between clenched teeth as blood welled on his chest.
Zia looked up, her golden eyes glinting with pride.
Natalia nodded her approval as she drew another arrow from her quiver, reloading. Rathail’s hunter was proving hard to deter. She lifted her weapon. “Go now, and I’ll let you live.”
Instead of fleeing, the fool looked over his shoulder—a bad plan to break eye contact with a dragon—and unhooked a leather muzzle from his belt. “The creature is bought and paid for, Lady Kinlarig. Rathail is running out of patience. The dragon needs to come with me. Today. Help me crate it, and I’ll split the collection fee.”
It. He didn’t know he was dealing with a female Laudakia alpino from the crimson of her dorsal crest scales. Rathail was playing his cards close to his chest, not daring—yet—to send a proper cryptozoologist. Which meant his minion wasn’t aware that the venom eating through his skin would keep those claw wounds from healing properly. Another swipe from Zia or an arrow through his chest, and he might well bleed out at her feet.
Natalia spit on the ground. Such an offer wasn’t worthy of any other answer.
He narrowed his eyes. “Have it your way.”
Without warning the man touched the end of his long, metal rod—a voltaic prod—to Zia’s scaly skin. A loud, electric crackle sounded, and Zia jerked, her yellow eyes flashing wide before her knees gave out and she crashed to the floor. With a roar, Natalia pulled the trigger and half a second later her arrow pierced his shoulder.
The man screamed—both in pain and in shock. Had he thought her threat empty?
Her focus narrowed to Zia. Though she was unconscious, her chest rose and fell. The metal rod was intended to stun, not kill. Natalia growled. Not so her crossbow. But she’d missed. Again. Too much time in the laboratory and not enough on target practice.
Enough. Throwing aside her bow and arrows, she drew her blade from its scabbard. Pointing the rapier at him, she ran down the hall with every intention of skewering him to the wall. The man’s eyes flashed wide the second before he turned tail and ran.
Natalia dropped to her knee beside the injured dragon, skimming a hand over the charred patch of scales. Zia’s slitted eyes opened, and she let out a pitiful mewl.
This needed to end. Instead of following the hunter into the courtyard, Natalia tore up the curving staircase to the castle’s curtain wall. Her boots pounded across stone as she ran to a mounted arrow gun. She slid an arrow into its notch and took aim at a waiting clockwork horse. She didn’t have to wait long.
Rathail’s hunter leapt onto his mechanical beast and threw the lever, but before the contraption could take four steps, Natalia pulled the trigger. Whoosh! A second arrow pierced his upper arm. The man screamed as the contraption cantered away down the rough and pitted road. Too far now for her to put an arrow through his neck.
Between his injuries and the venom coursing through his blood vessels, he would need to seek out medical care to survive. In a feverish haze, he might babble about a dragon in a castle. But if the villagers didn’t come for her, Rathail’s hunter—or another man—would be sent to try again. A knot of worry twisted in her stomach.
She and Zia needed to leave Castle Kinlarig. And soon. But where could they run? All their options were poor. Live rough in the nearby hills of the Trossachs? Without assistance, they wouldn’t survive long. Move to her husband’s townhome in Edinburgh and sell the castle? A city was no place for a dragon. Flee to yet another country? Zia might end in chains. Or worse.
She couldn’t allow the dragon to come to harm. Not after Zia’s birth had saved Natalia’s life. She rubbed a hand over the back of her neck, across the cluster of dragon scales beneath her scarf. After three years, the evidence of her father’s act of treason was still embedded in her very skin. A flash of pain ripped through her. But for the discovery of dragons, she would still be in Russia, still have a father. She might even be married and surrounded by children.
Annoyed at herself for allowing her mind to stray down such pathways, she shook her head and began to lower the weapon. A movement caught her eye. Another man. Walking toward her castle. Walking! The audacity!
Had Rathail—tiring of his hunter’s inability to complete his assigned task—already sent a new man to collect her dragon?
She notched another arrow.
Only a handful of sheep dotted the fields on either side of the deserted road that led to Castle Kinlarig. They grazed unaware or unconcerned—impossible to tell with sheep—as a pteryform circled lazily overhead in the dull, gray sky. Late for such a nocturnal creature to still fly, though the sun was noticeably absent. Rumors had reached his ears that the Russians had managed to train—even saddle—a few such creatures. At the unnerving thought, a whisper of worry brushed over his skin, but Luke Dryden saw no rider upon its back.
Unlike the clockwork horse bolting in his direction.
Its rider slumped forward hanging on to the contraption’s neck, an arrow—no, two arrows—protruding from his shoulder.
“Turn back!” Eyes wild, the man yanked at the control lever, slowing the horse, but not stopping. His shirt was torn and bloody. Oozing, pitted ulcers spotted the exposed skin of his face and hands. Not a man in any condition to issue orders, yet he tried. “The creature is bought and paid for. The collection contract is mine alone.”
“Creature?” Luke hedged, feigning ignorance and nonchalance. But inside his stomach, worry twisted itself into a knot. “Insofar as I am aware, men shoot arrows, not beasts.”
No one was supposed to know about Zia. That was the entire reason the Department of Cryptozoology had tucked the dragon away in such a remote location. Hell, he’d even bypassed reporting to his supervisor in Edinburgh—as per protocol—to prevent anyone from following him to this castle, a decision that would likely cost him his job. Yet here was a man ostensibly claiming authority over the Russian Mountain Dragon.
Organic chemistry was Natalia’s passion. Fencing followed as a close second, and they’d spent long hours in the great hall, in the castle courtyard, sparing with the antique armor a distant Kinross ancestor had pinned to various walls. A married woman, thus forbidden to him, it was the only physical activity in which they could honorably engage to melt away the tension that stretched between them.
But archery? Not once had he seen her lift the crossbow from the wall, yet—he eyed the man’s injuries—her aim was excellent. Still, the dragon’s existence was known, and she was taking deadly aim at living men. His stomach twisted. Perseverance and grit had brought him back to Scotland, urging him onward as he traversed mile upon mile. He only hoped he’d arrived in time to extract her from whatever circumstances brought this man to her door.
“A crazy witch defends the dragon,” the man spat, his eyes narrow. “Job’s barely worth the coin if I have to pay for a suit of armor first.” He took in Luke’s ragtag appearance, his lack of weaponry, and decided he wasn’t competition. “Best turn back, lest she run you through. I’ll not be burying your corpse when I return.” He shoved the clockwork horse’s lever forward and rode away.
Natalia had clearly kept her skills sharp, along with the edge of her blade and the tips of her arrows. For the first time in a short forever, Luke smiled. Hitching his pack higher on his back, he trudged forward, impatient to deliver his news to the woman who held his heart.
He was ten feet from the castle door when an arrow whistled through the air, embedding its tip in the dirt not three inches from his foot. Perhaps his newfound optimism was misplaced. It had been—
“Two years!” Natalia yelled from above.
He glanced up in time to catch a glimpse of her head disappearing behind the parapet.
A door at the castle’s gate stood open. A pair of rheumy eyes surmounted by white, wiry eyebrows peered at him around its edge, then threw a careful glance over Luke’s shoulder. They blinked, and the entirety of old Willie McKay’s welcome face appeared.
“Sir.” Kinross’s ancient butler beckoned him inward. “Your return is fortuitous. Lady Kinlarig is in desperate need of protection. You must take her to Edinburgh immediately and place her under your department’s safekeeping.” McKay began a slow shuffle down the passageway into the courtyard. “I shall instruct Aileen to pack the lady’s trunk.”
Flee. Luke agreed with the sentiment, though given that last arrow, she was unlikely to concur. He followed the old man. “Will her husband not object?”
McKay made a most interesting noise in the back of his throat. “The laird passed a month ago.”
Hope shot through him. Not an acceptable response to such news, but if she was widowed, then she was free to remarry. His stomach sank. Impossible. He wasn’t a fit husband for any woman. “What happened?”
Clearing his throat, McKay stepped into the courtyard and waved at a large, iron-barred cage that sat atop a steam wagon. “A most unfortunate event—”
Thundering feet sounded. A galloping accompanied by the unmistakable scrape of claws over wood and stone. Forked tongue flicking, Zia half-flew, half-slid down the stairs, scampering across the ground to throw herself against Luke’s legs, nearly knocking him to the ground. She looked up at him, her golden eyes shining.
He stroked the smooth scales of her head. “How’s my girl doing?” he crooned. Slipping a hand into his pocket, he pulled out a lump of sulfur, both a treat and good for a dragon’s skin. “Did you miss me?” He held it out on his palm.
Zia nuzzled his hand with her drool-laden lips, swallowing the yellow rock whole, and Luke quickly wiped his hands on his trousers, removing any residual toxin.
A Russian Mountain Dragon, they’d told him at the Department of Cryptozoology three years ago. He’d gaped at them in shock, hardly daring to believe his good luck. By virtue of time served, a number of other employees ranked higher than him, and by rights the assignment should have been theirs. But this undertaking came with a complication that most were unwilling to shoulder. A Russian fugitive married to a notorious, loud-mouthed, skirt-chasing Scottish laird. As tensions between Britain and Russia increased concerning the Afghan border, it was imperative the gentleman be placated and the woman well-settled so her presence in Scotland would not be revealed.
He’d seen to that before he left, extracting promises and assurances from his colleagues that they would monitor her situation while he was away. However, the arrows in the man’s shoulder and his words indicated their efforts had been insufficient. Good that he arrived with a plan.
He crouched beside the dragon, frowning as he ran his palm over a charred patch of scales just behind her shoulder. If that man had put this mark upon Zia—
“Luke Dryden.” Natalia’s voice sliced through the air.
With a final pat to the dragon’s head, he straightened and met her ice-blue gaze. Aether, he’d missed her. Though, judging from the grip she had on the swept hilt of a sixteenth century Italian rapier, she didn’t feel the same. Guilt tightened his chest. He’d been wrong not to say a proper farewell.
Her soft-soled, leather-laced boots didn’t make a sound as she descended the stairs into the courtyard, her dark scowl brightened only by golden hair that was swept back from her face, braided and tightly secured in a crowning circlet. About her neck, the ever-present scarf. A corset, cut and boned for ease of movement. Gone were her skirts, replaced by trousers that hugged her lean curves… in a manner that was going to see him killed.
He lifted his gaze and nodded, careful not to smile. “Lady Kinlarig.” The moment called for diplomacy. He was, after all, long overdue. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
She snorted. “Kinross’s death, though unanticipated, was not the least bit objectionable.” From the look on her face, his death would also be welcome. “I refuse to mourn.”
“Many apologies,” Luke began. “I did not intend to be away for so many months.”
“Months?” Her eyebrows rose. There was a sharp edge to her voice. “Two years have passed without so much as a skeet pigeon. After the actions of your department this past year, or lack thereof, I’m surprised you dare return.” She tested the weight of the blade in her hand, as if considering which body part of his to remove first.
Clearly he’d made a mistake, not consulting with his colleagues before returning to Castle Kinlarig. “What—”
She stepped her right foot forward, lifting her blade and widening her stance. “I agreed to marry a degenerate laird on the condition that the Department of Cryptozoology provide me with a yearly stipend. Me. Instead, the funds were sent to my thieving husband while I worked tirelessly in the service of the Crown.” She pulled a parrying dagger from a sheath on her hip and tossed it at his feet. “It’s been months since I last heard from your supervisor. Longer still since any funds were sent.”
Tail lashing, Zia backed away, looking from Natalia to Luke, confused. McKay tottered out of range.
Though teaching her to wield a sword had begun in jest, Natalia was a quick study and had soon sought to arm herself against discovery, plucking a variety of different weapons from the castle’s largely decorative armory. Largely. For—despite its age—this rapier’s steel blade gleamed in the dim lamplight. She’d sharpened it. He swallowed. Impossible not to imagine her dragging its long length—over and over—across a whetstone, waiting.
He refused to engage. “I don’t want to fight with you,” Luke said. “Natalia, we need to speak.”
“We will do both.” She pointed her chin at the ground. “Pick it up.”
A mere courtesy, that dagger. He could not hope to stave off her attack with such a blade. Not for long. And certainly not in his travel-fatigued condition.
She lunged, slicing the tip of her sword through the strap of his pack and dropping it to the ground. “Defend yourself.”
With a sigh he picked up the blade. “I can take you and Zia someplace safe.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you. Nor is Zia.”
She attacked, forcing him to parry with the forte—the thickest part—of his blade. Metal clanged against metal. He rocked into a defensive stance, attempting to throw her blade high using the cross-guard of the dagger’s hilt, to execute a croisé. Though the muscles of his arm struggled to execute his brain’s demands, he was exhausted and out of practice. She barely stepped backward.
“Pfft. Have you not held a blade in two years?” She advanced, slashing at his stomach, forcing him to leap aside to avoid its tip.
“Not in swordplay.” Any knives he’d held had been short, sharp and used with great stealth. Escaping a Russian prison involved no duels of honor.
“Play?” Her eyebrows rose. She attacked again.
He parried and bound down with his dagger, pushing her blade away.
“Better,” she snapped, advancing upon him with increased speed. Blades clanged and scraped against each other as they circled about the courtyard. She was toying with him, else she’d have already drawn blood. If this was what she needed to release her anger so they could speak rationally, he would oblige.
But his heavy, thick-soled boots weren’t made for agility. They were better suited to hiking through mountains. His heel caught upon the edge of a stone, and he tripped. As his arse landed on hard-packed dirt, his dagger slipped, and the tip of Natalia’s rapier sliced through the skin of his forearm. He hissed in pain.
No sympathy was forthcoming. Instead, the sole of her shoe planted itself in the middle of his chest, forcing him to lie flat upon the ground. Lips pressed into a flat line, she leaned over his sprawled form, both triumphant and disgusted. “Never have you been so weak, moving like a slug.”
Insults. But such a relief to finally hear her voice again. He grunted. “It’s been a rough few years.”
Confusion twisted her face, and she bent closer. “Why are your eyes yellow?”