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I didn’t sense danger in his gesture, so I took it.

His skin was hot, almost scorching hot as he led me between two flames and onto the straw that had been his seat.

He gestured for me to step up onto it.

My throat was sore, and it felt like I’d swallowed some blood based on the unpleasant coppery taste at the back of my mouth.

My whole body was sticky from the substance as it began to dry on my skin beneath the heat of the flames billowing up around the pool.

The man let go of my hand and knelt on the ground on one knee, the other men following his lead.

I stood there awkwardly, waiting for them to face me again.

They exchanged glances among themselves, and then one of the men stepped forward suddenly and picked me up.

Shivers ran through my body as I felt his hot skin against mine.

Spines began to spread from his shoulders until he was completely covered with scales, and then his whole body began expanding—his head, his arms, his legs, until the creature holding me was no longer a man, but a dragon.

His heavy wings beat either side of him as he lifted me up toward the hole at the roof of the mountain.

The other men transformed too and flew after us.

These aren’t just dragons.

These are dragon shifters.

Chapter 22: Rose

I was relieved when the dragon finally touched down on the ground again.

His claws scratched my skin, and I was baking hot from the heat of his body.

I looked around at the clearing we’d landed in.

It was lined with tall trees and in the center was what appeared to be a well.

The other dragons touched down shortly after us and, remaining in their giant forms, formed a line across the clearing, their fiery eyes fixed on me.

I could feel the heat emanating from their bodies even a dozen yards away.

The dragon who’d been carrying me resumed his human form and strode over to the well.

He pulled up a bucket and, taking me by the hand, began to tip water over me.

I was grateful for the coolness, but it was bizarre being soaked down by this man.

I would rather have done it myself.

He tipped bucket after bucket over me, until my dress was soaked and the dried blood had disappeared.

He placed the bucket on the floor.

I was afraid to even speak a word lest I shatter their illusion and place myself in danger.

But it was hard to keep up the impression of being somebody else when I had no idea who that person was.

I looked as steadily as I could back at the man, my lips sealed.

The other dragons approached closer now that I’d finished my bucket bath.

They continued to eye me curiously.

One option was to just wait for them to offer up information, and in the meantime, pretend that I knew what I was doing.

But they were standing so still, just staring at me, I realized that they were expecting me to do something.

If I ever needed courage and confidence in myself, it was then.

And those were two things I didn’t possess as I stood there in that clearing, surrounded by the most formidable beasts I’d ever laid eyes on.

Speaking could either save my life, or be my downfall.

I had no idea which one it was.

But it felt like remaining silent wasn’t an option any more.

I was going to have to take the risk.

The only flicker of confidence I had was the feeling that they weren’t entirely sure what to expect from me either.

They were clearly superstitious creatures, and for whatever strange reason, they’d labeled me as some sort of auspicious sign.

It struck me that perhaps they themselves didn’t know what to expect of me.

Hell, I’d just dropped through the roof of their cave, it wasn’t like they’d been expecting me.

By some fluke, I’d just fallen in at the right minute.

Under any other circumstances, God knew what they might have done with me.

I had to be confident and fill the shoes of this role.

If I didn’t, they’d be more likely to suspect me to be the phony that I was.

Hiking up the hem of my dress so I could walk forward, I approached the nearest dragon to me and reached for his right hand.

I pressed my palm flat against his, assuming a look of concentration as though I had any semblance of an idea of what the hell I was doing.

Then I looked up at the dragon.

“I’d like a tour of the kingdom.” I found myself assuming a posh British accent, and I had no idea why.

Perhaps I thought I sounded more otherworldly—and less like myself, Rose Novak, the weak human girl—if I did.

The dragon who’d previously been leading the chanting nodded.

“Charis,” he said, eyeing the man I’d just touched palms with.

“You heard her.

See to it that the human has what she asks for and is content.

We don’t want to displease her.” Casting one last glance at me, the leader beckoned to the other men and they all launched off into the air, leaving Charis and me alone.

As Charis transformed back into a dragon and reached out his giant hand for me to climb onto, I found myself wondering what other requests I might get away with.

He was about to close his scratchy fingers around me when I patted his thick wrist.

His scales were so tough they were like armor, and he didn’t even sense it.

I had to speak.

“I’d rather travel on your back than in your palm,” I said, forcing confidence into my voice.

There was no hesitation on his part as he raised me onto his shoulders.

Slotting both my feet carefully into his sharp scales, I clung to the back of his neck as he launched into the air.

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