This story contains spoilers for The Dragon Marshal’s Treasure! Make sure you’ve read it before you continue…
by Zoe Chant
Isabelle Benoit had never been so nervous in her life.
“Breathe,” Jillian advised her, squeezing Isabelle’s shoulders reassuringly. Jillian was mated to Isabelle’s cousin Theo, the first dragon in the history of their clan to permanently leave the valley of Riell and find his true mate in the outside world.
His human mate. A lot of people in Riell had a problem with that, but Isabelle had learned firsthand that humans and dragons both only deserved the honor and respect they earned with their actions. Her father was a dragon, and he’d chosen to take money in exchange for keeping a human fugitive—Jillian’s thieving father—from justice. He had dishonored Isabelle’s whole family, and it was up to Isabelle to redeem their honor.
And she wasn’t going to do it by hiding in Riell her whole life and becoming as narrow-minded as her father. She needed to get out into the world, just like cousin Theo.
Today was supposed to be the start of her grand adventure in leaving Riell, and here she was, shaking like a leaf.
“I am breathing,” she said to Jillian, lifting her chin high in the hope that it would hide any panic in her eyes.
Jillian didn’t seem to buy it for a second. “I’ve been in your shoes, you know.”
Isabelle glanced down at her own costly Fendi boots and then at Jillian’s typically practical sneakers. It didn’t seem like a good metaphor choice to her.
Jillian followed her gaze and then laughed. “Okay, not literally. Not for years, anyway. But you know I grew up the same way you did—as a princess in a castle. I had to leave that life too. I know how scary it is to walk away from everything you’ve ever known. But you’ve got me and Theo to walk towards, and we’ll always be there if you need us.”
Isabelle knew that was true. Jillian and Cousin Theo had been nothing but supportive. Jillian had helped her fill out her college applications—she had even proofread her essays—and Theo had told her all the little things about the human world that he wished he’d known from the start. Apparently, the human world didn’t care about coins at all, and Theo had even seen people throw their spare change away. Isabelle vowed to never get so used to the outside world that she had that kind of disrespect for coins. Just because they weren’t the traditional gold didn’t mean that they were garbage. They could still be part of a properly maintained hoard.
She was armed with allies, knowledge, and a silver dagger that was a family heirloom. She was ready.
Perhaps if she said it out loud, it would sound more convincing.
She squared her shoulders. “I’m ready.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“I’ll conquer this college visit,” Isabelle said firmly. She lifted her overnight bag, which contained only the bare essentials for her one-night stay at Rocky Vale College: toothbrush, change of clothes, silk pajamas, complete cosmetics kit, hand lotion, razor, perfume, lavender sachet to keep the clothes smelling fresh, higher-thread count sheets than the college was willing to provide, perfumed soap, towel, loofa, lemon-sugar body scrub, shampoo, conditioner, white noise generator, nail polish, aromatherapy oils, and a box of chocolates for the student who’d be hosting her. Plus a few other odds and ends that might come in handy.
“I’ll take your bag,” Jillian said, reaching for it. Isabelle started to pass it to her with thanks when Jillian yelped, the weight of the bag pulling her down towards the ground. “Izzie, what do you have in this, bricks?”
“Just the essentials,” Isabelle said loftily. She had stayed in Theo and Jillian’s townhouse before and knew that Jillian’s morning routine consisted mostly of brushing her teeth and pulling her hair back into a sloppy ponytail. Jillian wouldn’t understand.
Jillian rubbed her shoulder, wincing. “Well, I’m sorry, I’d love to help out, but you’re going to have to use your dragon strength to lug around your essentials.”
Isabelle’s host for the night was a bubbly, thoroughly human girl named Kelsey. She had a short Afro and wore a vintage swishy buttercup yellow dress that Isabelle approved of completely: she and Kelsey talked enthusiastically about the local dress shops for fifteen minutes before Kelsey remembered she was supposed to be getting Isabelle settled in her dorm room.
They only had fifteen minutes before Isabelle had to report to the auditorium, so Kelsey hustled her across the quad, into a handsome stone building, and up three flights of stairs before hurling them both into a dorm room that seemed to have a split personality.
One side was decorated in bold colors, with a hot pink bedspread offset with a cool dark blue chenille throw and pillows. A collection of unusual stuffed animals—a lobster, a scowling teddy bear with an ax, a shark, a—
Isabelle gasped. “Is that a dragon?”
“This little guy?” Kelsey hoisted him up. He was bigger than his fellow stuffed companions and covered completely with black and green sequins. “Yep. I won him at the carnival last year.”
Real dragons were red and gold, of course, but Kelsey couldn’t be expected to know that. Isabelle couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or offended about her inner animal being a cheerful little stuffed toy.
I am fierce, her dragon grumbled. But Kelsey means well. And he is cute.
Isabelle patted the toy dragon between his ears. “He’s very adorable,” she said politely. “Does he have a name?” A traditional dragon name could give him some dignity even if he was a toy. Maybe Elric or Wulf the Destroyer or even plain old Maximilian.
“Jeff,” Kelsey said.
“Jeff the dragon,” Isabelle said, trying to make the best of it.
She patted him again. Already the stuffed dragon looked a little less serious and a little more resigned. She could almost see him shrugging at her, saying, What can you do? I guess I’m just a Jeff. She handed him back to Kelsey, feeling a surprising little pang in her stomach at giving him up: he was sort of family, after all.
“So this is your side of the room,” Isabelle said. She could have guessed that even without Kelsey claiming the dragons: the explosion of surprisingly well-coordinated colors was very Kelsey. “But the other side…”
The other side looked like it had been decorated by a very careful and very bored committee. The desk was an unremarkable blond wood without any amiable clutter to make it look inviting. The bed had a tan fleece blanket over dull white sheets. There was a single poster: a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
“My roommate’s,” Kelsey said dismissively. “It’s okay, she’s never here. I figured I’d be the perfect host for a visiting student because you wouldn’t even have to sleep on the floor.”
“But where is she?”
“Amanda? Her boyfriend has an apartment.”
Isabelle had never been allowed to date, let alone spend the night with anyone.
“Is that what happens at college?” she said tentatively.
“Roommates shacking up with their significant others and freeing up your space? Only if you’re lucky.”
“No, I mean the…” She lowered her voice. “The shacking up.”
A trace of rosy pink crept into Kelsey’s cheeks. “Oh! Um, sometimes. You can probably get away with it if you want to, even if your parents are making you officially live in the dorms. No one’s really going to check where you’re sleeping. Do you already have a boyfriend or a girlfriend here or something?”
Isabelle shook her head. “I’ve never even kissed anyone,” she said shyly. She remembered that Cousin Theo had sometimes said he’d felt like a country rube in the outside world. Riell hadn’t made them sophisticated, it had just kept them provincial. Suddenly, she felt awkward. “Does that make me weird?”
“Definitely not,” Kelsey said immediately. “Don’t even worry about it. Stuff happens when it happens, and if it happens while you’re in college, well—” She grinned. “Like I said, no one’s going to check to see where you’re sleeping. And if you don’t like anybody like that, you’ll always still have gorgeous, spacious accommodations like these to return to.” She spread out her arms, ironically encompassing the small room with its rattling air conditioner and industrial carpet. “I’m a dorm girl myself. It’s not bad at all.”
That made Isabelle feel a lot better—and just in time. She’d only just put her bag down on the bed before Kelsey looked at the time and yelped. She dragged Isabelle out of the room again and showed her to the auditorium, issuing a flurry of advice that Isabelle, dazed, already knew she would forget. Kelsey deposited her at the auditorium doors with a wave and a promise to meet her later.
Isabelle gulped and headed inside.
To her surprise, she instantly felt at home. The auditorium had polished mahogany floors, vaulted ceilings, velvet-upholstered chairs, and a number of carved stone lions. It was just like her Cousin Ignatius’s house.
Feeling like she was on much more solid ground now, she glided to an available chair and took her seat.
A tall man with a bad sunburn came onto the stage, rubbing his hands together. “Hello, hello, hello!” he said. “I’m Dr. Harvey, the director of Admissions, and I’d like to welcome all of you to Rocky Vale. It’s no secret that we have one of the best liberal arts programs in the country, and we know that that’s what’s drawn many of you here today. It can’t be our hockey team.” He laughed loudly at his own joke.
A few more obliging visiting students chuckled along with him. Isabelle just wondered if she was supposed to know the merits of Rocky Vale’s hockey team. That seemed like a lot to ask.
“We’ll start off by showing you a short film,” Dr. Harvey said.
The film, when they actually got to it, was indeed short. The interval in which Dr. Harvey tried and failed to set up the projector, then got the projector to work but discovered his YouTube video had been taken down due to copyright infringement, and then sent a student to retrieve a flash drive with the relevant file—that was quite long. Isabelle could hear students shuffling around in their seats. They were growing impatient, and Dr. Harvey was growing sweaty and nervous.
What would her father do? That answer was easy. He would be contemptuous of Dr. Harvey’s incompetence and ineffectiveness, and he would do absolutely nothing to help. Her mother—well, her mother would be quietly sympathetic to Dr. Harvey, but she wouldn’t want to get involved.
What would Cousin Theo do? What would Jillian do? What would Kelsey do?
Most importantly of all, Isabelle thought wryly, what would Jeff the Dragon do?
Jeff the Dragon was fierce, but he was laidback enough to know that coming valiantly to Dr. Harvey’s defense might only embarrass him. She was, after all, not even a college student yet. But she could see a few people snickering, and she was at least able to turn to them and offer them her warmest, most diplomatic smile. She could channel her mother, Riell’s best hostess, and use those powers for good.
“I know how to work my phone,” Isabelle said confidentially, “but I don’t have any idea how to work one of those projectors, do you?”
The other students looked at her, momentarily startled. One of them, a boy with sleek black hair, seemed to almost blink the laughter out of his eyes before he went on.
“No,” he said thoughtfully. “Not a clue.”
“I bet giving these lectures is a pain in the ass,” one of the girls said. “My sister works in admissions over at Bradford, and she says they have to give so many tours their brains go numb.”
They looked back at Dr. Harvey with a little more sympathy now. As if on cue, he dropped something.
There’s only so much I can do for you, you know, Isabelle thought in his direction.
“I’m Isabelle,” she said, holding out her hand. She remembered at the last minute to tilt it for a handshake rather than a hand kiss.
By the time poor Dr. Harvey successfully cued up his introductory video—it appeared to mainly focus on good-looking students standing under trees and being enthusiastic at each other—Isabelle had acquired human friends.
After that, the whole orientation period seemed to zip by. She, Pete, and Liv all managed to get spots observing the same class, an Introduction to Film Studies where the professor had the hardened, thousand-yard stare of someone who had wrangled with the projector many times. They watched clips of a bunch of silent comedies, and Isabelle found herself falling in love with them. They were so funny! And there was something magical about the way their sad-eyed heroes struggled through constant pratfalls and still wrangled a little bit of dignity. When Charlie Chaplin’s mournful Tramp got a flower from the blind girl he was in love with, Isabelle found herself tearing up.
This was what she’d wanted from the human world. As much as she longed to redeem her family’s honor, she wanted this kind of freshness just as much. There was so much richness to the world, and she’d always been kept from it.
She wanted a hoard of knowledge. A hoard of goodness. And she wanted to know how to appreciate all of it—and how to protect it, the way Cousin Theo protected the people he cared about.
I have a purpose, Isabelle thought.
With a rustle of its wings, her dragon agreed with her. We have a purpose. Protect beauty. Serve justice. Practice kindness. Watch more movies.
She practically floated to the dining hall on a cloud. The dining hall food, however, brought her solidly back down to earth.
Isabelle looked at her plate, which had something very brown on it.
“I was hoping they’d give us vouchers to Weston,” Liv grumbled, poking at something that looked like a blanched, distorted pea pod. “The other big dining hall here? It’s supposed to be like a food court. They even have an ice cream machine.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how this is supposed to make us want to come to Rocky Vale,” Pete said.
Isabelle, still studying the puddle of brown, didn’t know either, but she felt fiercely defensive of the place that had shown her Charlie Chaplin films and Jeff the dragon. “Food isn’t everything,” she said haughtily. She forced herself to cut into the brown thing and take a bite. “I know I’m going to come here. Aren’t you?”
“Relax,” Liv said, smiling. “Everybody in my family goes to Rocky Vale. I’m definitely coming here. I just want to register a complain about the lack of ice cream.”
“Good!” Isabelle turned the full intensity of her focus on Pete, who looked a little frightened by it. “And you?” she demanded.
“Um, yeah, sure, definitely,” Pete said. He tried to take a drink and spilled some Coke down his shirt.
It was undignified, but Isabelle decided to overlook it. It had been her fault for letting her dragon come to the fore in such an intimidating fashion. Cousin Theo had warned her about that.
And she had to admit that terrifying Pete with her grandeur had been a little… exciting. She was getting to be old enough to recognize her true mate when she saw him. Could Pete be her mate? She didn’t feel any electric prickling of desire when she looked at him, and her dragon didn’t roar in delight, but she did think his features were very symmetrical. He was handsome. This was what Kelsey had been telling her about. She could like someone—even someone who wasn’t her mate.
But at least for right now, she didn’t want to like someone who wasn’t her mate. Not like that. She just wanted friends. She would be perfectly happy to sleep in her own dorm room for the foreseeable future, as long as she got to decorate it so that it looked more like Kelsey’s side and less like the absent Amanda’s.
With that goal in mind, she pumped Kelsey for decorating tips far too late into the night, asking her host what changes they were allowed to make to the dorm rooms, where one purchased a mini-fridge, and more, until Kelsey finally yawned and laughed at the same time.
“Iz, I like your enthusiasm, but I need to sleep.”
Iz. No one had ever called her that before. Cousin Theo still sometimes called her Izzie, which she officially resented—and sometimes secretly liked—but usually she was just Isabelle, a name befitting a dragon.
But she liked Iz.
Iz the dragon.
Iz the dragon sounded like someone who would be considerate of others and let them sleep, but she had to ask one more question before she dropped off.
“Where is a carnival where I could win my own stuffed Jeff?”
Kelsey rolled over onto her side, propping herself up on her elbow. “You really like him, don’t you?”
Isabelle nodded. “Dragons are… important to me.” That probably sounded silly to a human, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Luckily, Kelsey seemed to understand, even if Isabelle felt like her reply might as well have been in another language. “Like your daemon. Or your Patronus.” She gestured at the various books piled up on her desk, and Isabelle, squinting through the darkness, saw a few titles: The Golden Compass, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and something called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Right. Dragons were supposed to be the stuff of human fairy tales and fantasy novels.
“Exactly like one of those things,” Isabelle said, hoping that answer was right.
Kelsey swung her legs off the bed and stood up, padding over to her desk. She picked up Jeff and tossed him to Isabelle.
“Take him. He’s yours.”
Isabelle sat up. “Really?”
“Yeah, I’m crazy good at carnival games anyway. I win tons and tons of pet goldfish and stuff.” She smiled. “Think of Jeff as your official souvenir of Rocky Vale.”
“You’re an incredible representative of your school,” Isabelle said. She knew she sounded more draconian than ever when she got excited, and she tried to tone it down. She needed to be more modern. “Thank you so much, really—I love him. He’s so adorable.”
She couldn’t believe Kelsey would just offer her something from her hoard like that. She should make some kind of gesture in return. Suddenly the chocolates didn’t seem like enough. She could give them to Jillian and Cousin Theo as thanks for the drive—Kelsey deserved something else, something more.
She slid out of bed. “Here, I want to give you something too.” She dug through her overnight bag, searching for something that would be perfect.
“I’d say you don’t have to,” Kelsey said, watching Isabelle rummage around, “but I’ve already seen the silk sheets you pulled out of that thing, so I’m kind of curious.”
“You’ve been an excellent host,” Isabelle said. She found an unopened bottle of perfume. It was costly, and at the time she’d first acquired it, it had seemed like it would be a crown jewel in her hoard: it was Parisian, a complex and compelling scent with a lingering hint of cinnamon. For a second, she didn’t want to uncurl her fingers from it. But a freely given gift was a greater prize than something that was only bought. Kelsey had given her something she never would have thought to buy on her own, and she wanted to do the same for her.
She handed over the bottle.
Kelsey turned it over, looking at the label. When she spoke, her voice was hushed. “Iz, I know perfume. This must have cost a fortune. I can’t take this.”
“No, please do. My family has money, but we’ve never really had any fun. I’ve never been to a carnival. I’ve never been anywhere, until now. I can get more perfume, but I’m going to treasure the memory of today forever, and I want to thank you.”
“If you’re sure…”
“I’m sure,” Isabelle said firmly.
Kelsey held the perfume bottle close to her heart. “Thanks,” she said. “Seriously. Nobody’s going to believe this.” She looked at Isabelle like she was studying her and then said, “You don’t really talk like you’re from around here, you know?”
Cousin Theo had told her what to say in response to things like this. “My parents are British,” she said.
“Oh,” Kelsey said. She sounded like everything had just clicked into place. “That explains it.”
Jillian and Cousin Theo picked her up in the morning, after an unremarkable dining hall breakfast of very soggy scrambled eggs.
“Well?” Theo said, twisting around in his seat. “How was it?”
It had been absolutely amazing, but Isabelle refused to be undignified in front of relatives. She smoothed her skirt over her knees. “I enjoyed myself very much,” she said.
“She can’t believe how much fun she had,” Theo translated for Jillian.
Isabelle rolled her eyes. “The food is very unremarkable,” she said, feeling like she should say something negative just to keep up appearances. “I ate something rubbery called a Salisbury steak.”
“Yeah, dorm food mostly sucks,” Jillian said. “The human world can offer you better food elsewhere, I promise. Theo and I can take you to this great diner sometime. How was everything else?”
This time, Isabelle’s mouth outpaced her sense of decorum. “Wonderful,” she said, flopping back in her seat and sighing with pleasure. “I watched Charlie Chaplin movies and made three friends and intimidated a boy and was given a stuffed dragon named Jeff. I’m absolutely, one hundred percent going to Rocky Vale even though the food is disgusting and the showers were terrifying.” She lowered her voice. “I had to wear shoes.”
“Yep, shower shoes are a thing,” Jillian confirmed.
“I remember,” Theo said. “It’s regrettable. But I think you’ll do just fine, Izzie.”
“I go by Iz now,” she said, and then fell asleep in the backseat.