Written by Olga Godim / Artwork by Marge Simon
The Taxidermist's Riddle
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
The flames shot up over the dry kindling, and Vasilisa shivered.  Somehow, burning her father’s body felt final. He
had been dead for two days, but while she could still see his white face, she could pretend he was here. No more.
From now on, she was on her own.

She scuttled deeper into the shallow cave, away from the drizzle and the cold breeze that carried the repulsive stink
of burning meat. Her father had said in his will that he wanted to be burned here, not in the city cemetery, and
Vasilisa obeyed his last wish. She had driven his body, wrapped in canvas, into the hillside village where he was
born. Then she had left her donkey at the inn below and labored up the steep path with a barrow, pushing her
father’s heavy corpse up the hill. Stupid man. Why did he have to make this last parting so hard on her?

She opened the letter included in his will again, but it was the same as before. It contained nothing but a riddle. Not
a very good one; her father had been the best taxidermist in the kingdom but no poet. Whatever tails and claws he
wanted her to find—probably a stash of some rare hides for a rainy day—she couldn’t even guess at the location.
Why a flame? Why scales? Why didn’t he tell her straightaway instead of composing his silly riddle?

She sighed, wishing Altenay was with her, to share her grief and exasperation. They had been best friends forever,
but last year, Altenay’s father, a roofer, had fallen from a roof and broke his neck. He died but left huge debts
behind. His daughter Altenay wasn’t married, so the Duke’s court had sold her into indentured servitude for ten
years to pay the creditors. She had already served one year. Nine more years before she was free.

Poor Altenay. She might be able to guess what the riddle meant and find whatever was hidden. She was smart and
like many Bessars, she had some minor witchy powers. She could find things, but only if she knew exactly what to
look for. As Vasilisa herself didn’t know what her secretive father had hidden, Altenay probably couldn’t help her
either.

At least, her father didn’t leave any debts, or she would’ve shared Altenay’s fate. Vasilisa missed her friend so
much. In the past year, since Altenay became a serf, they had only met a few times, and that briefly in the market,
while Altenay shopped for her masters. And every time, Altenay was dispirited, her former bubbly exuberance gone.

No surprise there. Altenay’s master, Gunter, was an unpleasant man, dour and petty. He was also Vasilisa’s
father’s bitter rival, the only other taxidermist in town. Now, Gunter would be her rival. He would probably take all
her father’s clients away from her. She was as good a taxidermist as her father had been, but who would believe
that. In the eyes of most townsfolk, a girl of nineteen could only cook and raise babies. Why did her father have to
fall ill and die?   

Vasilisa shook off her morbid thoughts and glanced at her father’s funereal fire again. Despite the drizzle, the
flames danced merrily, crackling in elation, a festival of red and orange under the gray overcast sky. Tears trickled
down Vasilisa’s cheeks, blurring her vision. Behind the tears, behind the fire, the heated, saturated with moisture
air shimmered, coalescing into strange shapes and colors, as if rainbows romped atop the next hill. A few sparse
dwarf pines, bent from constant winds, framed a pretty picture of fantastic creatures with wings as bright and
whimsical as begonias.

No! Vasilisa bolted upright. Hastily wiping off her tears and blinking furiously, she stared at the next hilltop. There
were real creatures there, not phantoms produced by the hot air waves. Dragons. The chasm between the two hills
was deep but not very wide, and she could see the dragons clearly. Their iridescent residual wings blazed with
multicolored scales, as they capered around, not paying attention to her or her fire. Good thing they were gamma
dragons and couldn’t fly, or she would’ve been their dinner for sure.

Gammas were among the most feared dragons, much more clever and dangerous than the huge stupid alphas or
betas the mountain tribes used as beasts of burden. Nobody could use a gamma for anything. Untamable and
savage, they didn’t abide humans and they never got captured. They lived in swarms and fought in swarms.
Nobody had ever faced a swarm of gammas and survived to tell the tale. Now a swarm of gammas performed in
front of her like a troupe of dancers, graceful and lethal.  

She hoped they wouldn’t notice her behind her bonfire, hiding in the shadows inside the cave. Anyway, they
couldn’t reach her hilltop, just as she couldn’t reach theirs. She didn’t hear anything either beyond the rustling of
the flames and the whispering of the wind. The dragons danced in eerie silence. Or maybe the breeze that carried
away the stink of burning flesh also blew away their cries.

Strangely, she wasn’t afraid. She just wished she could share the incredible view of the cavorting dragons with
Altenay. If she had a dragon’s skin, she could make a mounted dragon, sell it to the Duke, and become rich
overnight. Nobody in the kingdom had a mounted gamma. She would make a fortune. Then she could free Altenay,
and they would live happily together. She caught herself smiling, but her smile faded. She had always been a
dreamer.

Wait, maybe not. Maybe she could still make enough money from her father’s existing skins to buy Altenay’s serf
contract? Yes, that’s it. As soon as she returned home, she would start working on the lions group her father had
started before he died. He had three hides: a male lion, a female lion, and a cub. It had taken him several years to
collect all three. He had paid a fortune for them too. It would’ve been his triumph, but now it would be hers. The
Duke was interested in the group. How much would he pay for it? Would it be enough to buy Altenay from the
dreadful Gunter? Vasilisa kept on dreaming.

She spent the night at the inn below the hills and returned to the city in the afternoon of the next day. She drove
her donkey through the city gates, past the familiar square with a small fountain, past Martha’s bakery. One more
block, and she would be home.

Passing the last block, she turned at the intersection and gasped in horror. All thoughts of the Duke, the lions, and
Altenay flew out of her mind. Her hands slackened on the reins, as if suddenly boneless, but the donkey stopped
on its own in front of the familiar house. The house wasn’t there anymore. Only blackened splinters and a pile of
ashes remained of it.

Vasilisa stared at the devastation. Everything was gone: the furniture, the clothing, her father’s workshop. All the
prepped animal hides, all the tools and stuffing, everything had burned. Her pride of lions went up in smoke. How?
It had been raining on and off for the last fortnight, a typical autumn weather. Everything was wet. How had the
fire started?

More to the point, what was she to do now? Her father was dead, her house gone. How would she survive? Would
they sell her as a serf too, when the money in her purse ran out? The only thing left on the property was a small
stone shed in the far corner of the yard, where they kept the donkey, the cart, and some garden tools. It was still
intact. At least she would have a roof to sleep under tonight, even if she had to share it with her donkey.

Her lips trembled, and her tears began falling anew, mixing with rain on her wet cheeks. She had cried for her father
already, but this was infinitely worse. She had no home and no one. Her nose ran together with the tears, and she
couldn’t summon the energy to wipe off the snot. Gripped by dread, she sobbed in the cart for a long time.

When she finally put herself together enough to lead the donkey to its stall, unhitch it, pile feed into its trough, and
do all the other routine tasks, it was evening. A round of her neighbors produced a couple of threadbare blankets,
a few charity kitchen items, and supper at Martha’s house. Everyone expressed their sympathy, a few invited her to
spend the night, but nobody could answer her most urgent question: how the fire started. They were just relieved
it didn’t spread to their own houses.   

Vasilisa made a small fire circle out of stray rocks in a corner of the shed, built a tiny fire, and huddled next to it.
She had already counted the coins in her purse. Twice. It was enough for her to eat for about a month, maybe six
weeks. Enough to travel to the capital, if she started in the next few days, before the winter snows. At least she
still had this shed to sleep in. She hoped her aunt would take her in, but whether she stayed home or left, she had
to start looking for a job very soon.  

Cold and numb, she rubbed her arms for warmth, but it didn’t help. She couldn’t stop shivering. The rain beat on
the roof of the shed, the fire crackled, the donkey dozed, while she sat on one of her folded blankets, hugged her
knees, and felt so alone she wanted to bawl. Maybe she should hug the donkey.

“Vasilisa?” a familiar voice whispered from the door.

“Altenay.” Vasilisa shot up and rushed to her friend. They embraced tightly.  

“Come to the fire.” Vasilisa tugged Altenay towards her miniature spot of domesticity. “How did you get out of
Gunter’s house? Did he allow you to visit me?”

“No. I climbed out the window.” Altenay dropped cross-legged on the floor in front of the fire. “I’m so sorry for
everything: for your house and for your dad. I wanted to see you after he died, but Gunter, the swine, wouldn’t
allow me. I brought you something.” She put a basket in front of Vasilisa.

Vasilisa lifted the towel covering it. Inside were half a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, and two apples. “Thanks,”
she whispered. “I already ate at Martha’s. You shouldn’t have. If Gunter finds out, he’ll beat you.”

“He won’t,” Altenay said. “Keep the food for tomorrow. What are you going to do?”

Vasilisa shrugged. “Probably go to my aunt in the capital. I still have the donkey and the cart for traveling.” She
gazed at her friend. Despite the serf’s collar and a bruise on her cheek, Altenay was lovely. Unlike Vasilisa’s own flat
russet hair and fair skin, typical for most of her compatriots, Altenay had thick mahogany curls as long as her
waist. Like many Bessar women, she wore them in four braids, and they swished behind her back, when she
lowered her shawl. Her tawny skin looked even darker in the dimly lit shed.

“Gunter tried to bed you again?” Vasilisa muttered, nodding at the bruise.

Altenay’s bright brown eyes glinted in the firelight, and her nostrils flared. “This time, he succeeded, the snake. It’s
a small price to pay for not getting his fists in my face. Nobody to keep my virginity for,” she said cynically. “Even
when I’m free, what local man would want to wed a Bessar woman after ten years of serfdom?”     

“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. I had such grand plans,” Vasilisa murmured. “I thought I’d finish the lions group, sell them
to the Duke, and buy off your serf contract. I wanted to free you, but now…”

“It wouldn’t be enough anyway,” Altenay said. “My contract is expensive.”

“I know.” Absently, Vasilisa picked up one of the apples, sniffled convulsively in memory of her crying fit, and
started munching. She couldn’t cry anymore; she had no tears left. “I hate Gunter,” she said and bit off a huge
chunk of her apple. “I’d flay him alive if I could.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“I saw dragons dancing when I burned my father’s body. They danced on the next hilltop. So beautiful.”

“You’re crazy, Vas. You’re lucky you didn’t burn with your house and you’re thinking about dragons?”

“I don’t understand how the fire could’ve started,” Vasilisa said. “It’s been raining for weeks. The roof and the walls
were wet. How could it have happened?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Altenay said grimly. “It might’ve been deliberate.”

“What do you mean? Arson? Who would do such a thing? And why? My father didn’t have enemies.”

“Last night, I saw Gunter and his fat uncle in the middle of the night. I didn’t hear them leaving the house, I was
asleep in my attic, but I saw them coming back. They didn’t come to the house right away and they didn’t light a
lamp. They tried to make as little noise as possible and they both carried huge rolled-up bundles, like carpets. Or
rolled up animal skins. They behaved like thieves in their own yard. They stashed the bundles in the wood shack
before returning to the house. I heard some commotion afterwards, but my attic window faces away from your
street, so I didn’t see the fire. I didn’t think about it much, just went back to sleep, but this morning, I heard in the
market that your house burned down. And I remembered.”

Vasilisa’s mouth dropped open. “You think they stole my father’s skins and burned my house to cover up the
theft?” She couldn’t quite believe it.

“I don’t know. It might not have been your dad’s skins. They might not have burned your house. But they
definitely behaved strangely. And I heard them talking about you. Your dad almost drove Gunter out of business.
Gunter wasn’t happy. He is a mean bastard.”

“Now he doesn’t have a competition,” Vasilisa said quietly. “This fire was fortunate for him.”

Altenay nodded.

“He would get all my father’s clients too, but many people knew Father had the lions’ hides. The Duke knew. Gunter
can’t use the lions.”

“He can for some faraway clients. Or, if you leave town, there is nobody to accuse him of stealing the hides, even if
he mounts the lions. He can always say he bought them from your dad, if anyone asked. If you’re not here, he’ll
get away with it. There is nothing to connect him to the arson either, is there?”

Vasilisa shook her head. “No. I asked the neighbors. Nobody saw anything, until the fire started. But if Gunter did
it, I don’t want him to get away with such villainy.”  

“What can you do, even if you stay here? He might produce some fake debt notes of your dad. I don’t think he’ll
stop at anything, Vas. He’ll get you sold into serfdom, like me. He wants to get rid of you. Better leave soon.”

“No,” Vasilisa said. Something was unfurling in her chest, something bright and vicious, like a gamma dragon. It
was stronger than her mourning for her father, stronger even than the pain of losing her house. Hatred maybe? Or
desire for revenge. She wouldn’t lie down meekly and let Gunter kick her. She would fight.

“No,” she said again. “I’ll go to the Duke tomorrow and ask for justice.”

“What if it isn’t true? What if Gunter didn’t steal anything? You don’t have any proof, do you? Neither do I. And
you can’t tell them I told you. I’m a serf, a property. Nobody would believe me anyway, and Gunter might kill me for
opening my mouth.”

“Of course you didn’t tell me. I haven’t seen you since before my father’s death. You’re not here now, are you?
You’re sleeping back at Gunter’s home, in your attic. Anyway, why would anyone ask about you? You don’t enter
into this at all.”

“But what could you say? You can’t accuse a respected guild member like Gunter of arson and robbery. Not without
proof,” Altenay insisted. She gripped her hands together, as if resisting the urge to grab something and squeeze,
maybe Gunter’s neck.  

“What I’ll say?” Vasilisa stared into the flames of her puny fire. “I’ll lie. I’ll say that I met a Bessar fortuneteller when
I burned my father’s body, and he told me a riddle. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but now I’m
suspicious. I’ll ask the Duke to check on my suspicions. He can’t believe that the fire started by itself under all this
rain. He is not that stupid. He must suspect something too.”

“They’re all in this together, all those rich men. Filthy pigs.” Altenay pursed her lips. “I must be going. I hope they
haven’t decided to check on me tonight.”

Vasilisa opened her mouth and closed it without a word. Her guts clenched in sympathetic pain. Gunter had hurt
her friend multiple times, but they were both powerless to stop the abuse. Unless she could prove that Gunter did
steal her father’s property. Then, he would pay. For everything: for Altenay and for Vasilisa’s house. The Duke
wouldn’t condone outright theft and arson, would he? Her father had always believed the Duke to be a just man.
She had to believe it too.

“Wait.” Altenay stopped at the door. “What riddle?”

“Oh, I didn’t tell you. It was in my father’s will, and I hadn’t seen you since he died. I really don’t know what it
means. I thought he hid some hides for me, in case something happened to him, but maybe he could foresee the
future? This future. Or he really met a Bessar fortuneteller. Here it is: ‘Wily master hid the tails, Didn’t leave a chart,
Gloomy night expanded veils, To preserve and guard, Blazing flame unlocked the scales, Teeth and claws and all,
Graceful maiden found trails, Where shadows fall.’”

“Hmm. It does sound a bit like a Bessar prophesy. What about scales? What scales?”

“Maybe scales of justice,” Vasilisa said. “Or just for a better rhyme.”  

“Right. But what if the Duke agrees to investigate and then doesn’t find anything in Gunter’s shack. What if I’m
wrong, Vas?”

“I’ll think of something,” Vasilisa said. “Go, before they raise the stink about you gone.”

Altenay slipped out onto the night. Vasilisa banked the fire, climbed into the cart, put one old blanket on the
bottom and covered herself with the second one, but she couldn’t sleep. Her body was tired and achy, her eyes
swollen from crying, but she couldn’t stop thinking. What would she do if the Duke’s soldiers didn’t find the lions’
skins in Gunter’s shack? What if it wasn’t Gunter? What would happen to her?  

For a long time, she tossed and turned on her hard bed. The old blanket didn’t make the boards of the cart’s
bottom any softer, but eventually, she slept. The next morning, she woke up at dawn, still achy and cold,
breakfasted on Altenay’s bread and cheese, hitched the donkey to the cart again, and left for the Duke’s Justice
Hall with an apple in her pocket. Her turn to present her case to the Duke came shortly after noon.

“Your Grace.” Vasilisa knelt in front of the Duke’s throne-like chair.

“Do you seek justice, Mistress?” he asked the customary question.

“I seek knowledge, Your Grace,” Vasilisa replied. “I don’t know where justice lies. My house burned down two night
ago, the night I was out of town because of my father’s funeral. How could the fire start in all this rain? Nobody
was in the house. I think somebody started that fire but I don’t have any proof, only suspicions and a foretelling of
an old Bessar. I met him after the funeral. He told it to me in a riddle.”

The Duke lifted his bushy eyebrows. In his fifties, portly and large, he was respected by everyone in town and had a
reputation of a decent overlord. The guards on either side of his chair and along the walls of the Justice Hall were all
equally large and resplendent in the Duke’s gaudy house uniform. The few justice seekers sitting on the hard
benches near the entrance seemed colorless and shrunken in comparison. Vasilisa felt so small and insignificant she
was almost ashamed to trouble the Duke with her problem, but what choice did she have?

“Stand up,” he said and beckoned her.

Quaking inside, her knees wobbly, she approached his chair. She had never seen him so close, only behind crowds
in holiday processions. His face was covered with fine wrinkles, and an old scar snaked along one ruddy cheek under
his trimmed graying beard.

“Tell me more,” he said. “What riddle?”

By now, Vasilisa had read the riddle so many times she remembered it by heart, so she recited it for the Duke. “I
didn’t know what it meant at first. I thought it was about some secret stash of animal skins my father left for me,
although I couldn’t figure out how to find it. Then I came home and found my house burned to the ground. Maybe
someone, the same one who started the fire, removed the animal skins beforehand and hid them. It all fits the
riddle somehow.”

The Duke tapped one thick finger on the carved and gilded arm of his chair and nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said.
“Maybe. Continue.”

“My father had the lions’ skins. He was going to mount them for you. He already started working on them when he
fell ill.”

“I know,” the Duke murmured.

“I would’ve finished his job. Now I can’t, but I can identify the skins. My father marked them, and only I know where
and how.”

“And do you have a suspicion as to the identity of the thief and the arsonist?”

“Yes, Your Grace. But I don’t have proof, so I won’t say the name aloud. The man I suspect might be innocent.”

“Then how would my soldiers know where to search for your skins?”

“I will write down his name and give it to you, so you will know,” Vasilisa whispered. Her mouth was dry. Her heart
pounded. She stood in front of the most powerful man in town and was about to gamble her future on her father’s
conviction that the Duke was a good fellow. If her father was wrong and the Duke was in league with Gunter, then
her life and possibly Altenay’s life as well would be horrible from this moment on. She had already gone too far. She
couldn’t stop now. “I’ll also draw the mark my father put on all his skins and write down the location of the mark.”

“You can write?”

“Yes, Your Grace. My father taught me reading and writing and sums. And he taught me his trade too. I’m as good
a taxidermist as he was. I’d have applied to the guild, if my house didn’t burn down.”

The Duke signaled to his secretary to bring him a portable writing table, a sheet of parchment, and a pen. “Write
down the riddle too,” he ordered.

Vasilisa obliged. She wrote down the riddle and Gunter’s name. Then she wrote down that “where shadows fall”
probably meant some windowless place, a woodshed or a cellar. She couldn’t be too specific. She also drew the sigil
she herself had embroidered on every skin her father acquired. It consisted of the interlocked letters of their
names, V and T—Vasilisa and Timofey. The mark was the size of her thumbnail and embroidered on the inside of
the right front paw of every skin, in the thread of a matching color. The mark was practically invisible, unless one
knew what to look for. Then she gave the sheet of her writing to the Duke.

He read it, grunted, and called forth one of his officers. “You, young lady, wait on the petitioners’ bench,” he said.

“Yes, thank you, Your Grace. What will happen, if I’m wrong about the name?”

“Nothing, but I suggest, if you’re wrong, you might want to leave town quickly, because the man you are accusing
wouldn’t be happy with you.”

“Of course,” Vasilisa whispered and retreated to the bench.

The officer and several soldiers left soon after. The Duke proceeded to judge the next case brought before him, but
Vasilisa didn’t listen. She tried not to think about the soldiers searching Gunter’s house, too afraid she had made a
mistake. Maybe Gunter had already moved the skins some place else. Or maybe he was innocent. Or maybe he was
doing the Duke’s bidding, and they both would have her killed. Her brain played out one scary scenario after
another, and her stomach twisted with anxiety.

People screamed and pleaded and wept around her, but she sat in a stupor on her bench, stared ahead without
seeing anything, and wished the last few days hadn’t happened. She wanted her father back among the living, her
house intact, and her life as it was before, without the need to make life-changing decisions. She wasn’t equipped
to make them.   

When the soldiers came back, she almost missed their entrance. She would’ve missed it, if Gunter’s indignant yells
didn’t announce his presence in the Hall. Vasilisa straightened from her slump and bit her lip. Her throat was tight.

The soldiers marched both Gunter and his uncle to the Duke’s chair. Then more soldiers deposited a pile of animal
skins at the Duke’s feet. The officer whispered something into the Duke’s ear and stepped aside, his face impassive.

The Duke’s eyes found her on the bench, and he gestured for her to come forward. In that moment, Gunter
noticed her for the first time.

“She lied,” he spattered. “The spiteful whore lied.” He rushed towards her, his fists bunched, his face full of hatred.
Vasilisa flinched, but before he could hit her, the soldiers restrained him and forced him to his knees in front of the
Duke’s chair. Gunter’s uncle stood quietly, his head down. He didn’t look at Vasilisa, but Gunter continued reviling
Vasilisa despite his kneeling position.

“Silence,” the Duke said. He didn’t raise his voice, but somehow his command reverberated through the hall.

Gunter opened his mouth for another enraged tirade, but the Duke shook his head. “I’ll order you gagged, if you
don’t stop your protestations, Master Gunter.”

Gunter closed his mouth with a gulp and glared at Vasilisa. His eyes radiated venom.

“Show me your father’s marks on the skins,” the Duke said to Vasilisa. “If it’s there.”

Trying to keep her shuddering under control, she rummaged through the pile of skins. Everything in the pile
belonged to her: the lions’ family, the otter, the deer. Gunter did steal the skins, Altenay was right. Vasilisa found
the lion’s cub, the smallest of the skins, and brought it to the Duke. “See here.” She pointed at the mark. Her
finger shook.

He took the skin, touched the mark with his finger, and snorted. “Clever,” he said. “Almost invisible. Is the mark on
every skin?” he addressed his officer.

“Yes, Your Grace,” the officer said.

“What mark?” Gunter whined. “Those are all my skins. There is no mark there. I bought them, paid honest money
for them. The tart is accusing me out of malice.”

“Not so,” the Duke said. “She is pretty convincing, and her proof is damning you. These skins obviously belonged
to her father. How did they end up at your place?”

“I bought them from him.”

“No!” Vasilisa exclaimed, terrified the Duke would believe Gunter’s lie.

“When did you remove them from the mistress’s house then?” the Duke asked. “Was it before her father died or
after?”

“Uhm. After,” Gunter said uncertainly.

“When she was out of town, to burn her father’s body?”

“Yes.”

“So you broke into her house while she was away? That’s a crime,” the Duke said mildly.

“I had their permission to enter the house.” Gunter was obviously floundering.

Vasilisa’s incredulity almost overcame her fear. “No! Nobody gave him permission.”

“He owned me.” Gunter tacked a different angle. “I had to save the skins from the fire.”

“You entered the house after the fire started?” the Duke prompted. “To save the skins?”

“Of course.”

“In that case, the skins would absorb the smell of burning. It only happened a couple days ago. Officer, please tell
me, do the skins smell like smoke?”

The officer bent to the skins and then straightened again. “No, Your Grace.”

The Duke shook his head. “I think you’re lying, Master Gunter, about everything. I think you stole the skins and
then started the fire yourself. Of course, I can’t convict you without proof, so I’ll have my sorcerer present during
the rest of the interrogation.”

He gestured behind his throne, and an older man in a black robe came forward, leaning on an ornate wooden staff,
decorated with carvings and golden inlays. A blue crystal resided on top of the staff, mounted in silver filigree. The
Duke nodded in satisfaction.

“Now,” he said. “I’ll ask you questions, Master Gunter, and you’ll answer. The crystal in my sorcerer’s staff will flash,
if you lie. Did you start the fire that burned Mistress Vasilisa’s house?”

“No!” Gunter exclaimed. The crystal didn’t react.

“Hmm,” the Duke said. “Did you order someone else to start that fire?”

“No,” Gunter said again, but this time, the crystal pulsed with lavender light.

“Did you order your uncle to start the fire?”

Gunter opened his mouth, glanced at the crystal, and closed his lips again. The uncle beside him moaned.

“Answer,” the Duke said sharply.

“Yes,” Gunter said. The crystal remained inert.

“Did you buy the skins from Master Timofey, Mistress Vasilisa’s late father?”

Gunter deflated. “Yes,” he squeaked. The crystal flashed with the angry blue sparks.

“No,” Gunter mouthed dejectedly. The crystal stayed dim.

Vasilisa should’ve been happy; she had won her case, but instead, she felt miserable. Gunter’s hatred pushed him
to a terrible crime, and he would’ve gotten away with it, if Altenay didn’t alert Vasilisa. Why did he hate her so
much? She had never suspected it. Was she so gullible? She stood unmoving in front of the Duke’s chair, while the
Duke asked a few more questions.

“Hear my judgment,” the Duke said finally. “For the crimes of arson and robbery, you’ll be stripped of all your
possessions. Your house with everything inside it will be sold. Part of the proceeds would go to Mistress Vasilisa to
pay for her lost house. She will also have her stolen property back. The rest will be paid to the ducal treasury. You
and your uncle will spend six months in the town jail, starting today. Take them away, Captain.”

“No!” Gunter howled. Two soldiers had to drag him away. The uncle with another two soldiers shambled after them
on his own feet.

“Young mistress,” the Duke said with a small smile. “Is my judgment to your satisfaction?”

Until this moment, Vasilisa wasn’t sure what she wanted. Of course, she wanted Gunter punished and her stolen
skins returned, but what else? When the Duke said that everything Gunter owned would be sold, her decision
unfurled like a daffodil in spring.

“Your Grace,” she whispered. “Could I have one thing Gunter owned—his serf? And maybe some small household
items. I don’t even have a spoon or a spare shirt. Everything is gone.”

“His serf?”

Vasilisa nodded. “She is my friend.” Would he grant her wish? She couldn’t look at him, just stared at the marble
floor of his hall and prayed.

“Fine,” he said after a short silence. “You can have his serf and whatever else you can carry from his house, but no
money. Go there right now, with my soldiers. Take whatever you wish. The rest will go to the ducal treasury.”

“I came here on a cart pulled by my donkey,” she said, brave enough now to look up at him. Maybe she could
bargain a little? “The donkey and the cart are the only things I have left after the house burned down. Could I take
the cart there and load it with… whatever? I don’t have to carry what I want, right?”

He guffawed. “You’re as clever as your father. Do that. Soldiers, load her skins into the cart.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.” Vasilisa bowed deeply and scurried after the soldiers.

It took her a couple of candlemarks to load the cart with as much household goods from Gunter’s house as she
dared, including good blankets and kitchen stuff. She also took all Gunter’s taxidermy instruments and threads, as
her own had burned with the house. The soldiers waited outside and didn’t interfere with her selection. Whatever
she brought to the cart, they just watched with indulgent smirks. Altenay packed her own clothing and climbed into
the cart too.

“We are going to the city magistrate first,” Vasilisa told Altenay. She flicked the reins to start the donkey moving.

“Why?”

“I need the certificate that you’re officially free and I want to get that repulsive serf’s collar off your neck.”

“Thank you,” Altenay said softly.

Unfortunately, the magistrate clerk shook his head. “I can’t issue the freedom certificate until I see your proof of
ownership, Mistress.”

“But the Duke himself said I could have Gunter’s serf. They will cry the Duke’s decision tomorrow at the
marketplace. I wouldn’t lie about it,” Vasilisa objected.

The clerk didn’t badge. “I can’t change the rules. I need to see the servitude contract, with your name as the
owner, before I can issue the freedom certificate. And you’ll have to pay, of course.” He named the price, which was
pretty stiff. Vasilisa wouldn’t have much left afterwards.

“Oh, of all the…” Throwing up her hands in frustration, she glanced at Altenay, to share the absurdity of the rules,
to laugh together, but Altenay’s expression was wooden. She didn’t look at Vasilisa or at the clerk. She stared at
the office wall, her body taut, as if bracing herself for a blow. Vasilisa looked away. Did Altenay expect complications?

“Right,” Vasilisa said quietly. “I’ll just go back to the Duke’s Justice Hall and ask a clerk there to give me my
ownership papers. Then I’ll come back here.”

They drove to the Duke’s palace in silence. Altenay continued her space gathering, while Vasilisa grew uneasy. What
was wrong with her friend?

The clerk at the Duke’s office was accommodating. As soon as Vasilisa paid the fee, he would issue her the
ownership papers. The Duke’s sentencing was already a matter of record.

“Another fee? How much.”

The clerk told her. “So much?” Vasilisa gasped, her euphoria at finally freeing her friend popping like a soap bubble.
She calculated rapidly, adding the two amounts, plus the money she would have to pay a smith to remove the
collar, and came up with a dismal total. If she paid it all today, she would have only a few copper coins left in her
purse, enough for a couple loafs of bread. They would both be free, but they would have nothing to eat starting
tomorrow.

“Look, Altenay,” she said. “I can’t really afford to pay all these fees. Not today. We’ll have nothing to eat if I do.
Maybe you’ll stay a serf for a while. You won’t be, not really, just on paper, until I have some money.”

“It’s your decision and your money,” Altenay said tonelessly.

Vasilisa couldn’t understand her friend’s blank expression and dull eyes. Why wouldn’t Altenay say anything, argue,
suggest a better solution? Why did she behave like a piece of furniture?
Or a serf?

A cold knot tied itself in Vasilisa’s stomach. She was such an idiot. “To hell with it,” she muttered angrily. She had
to wipe that mute anguish off Altenay’s face. Whatever the cost, she would free her friend. Today. “Write the
papers,” she snapped at the clerk and opened her purse.     

They went to the magistrate next for the freedom certificate, and then to a smith to remove the collar, and through
it all, Altenay continued her mum treatment. Vasilisa chatted about the morning in the Duke’s Justice Hall, about
Gunter and the Duke’s sorcerer, but Altenay didn’t comment.

When they arrived home to the shed, Vasilisa didn’t unload most of the stuff, leaving the skins and the blankets in
the cart. There was not much extra space in the shed, and the padding would make their sleeping in the cart much
more comfortable.

“What is it, Altenay?” she asked, when they both collapsed on the floor in front of her fire circle. She put her one
purloined pot on the fire to cook a root stew and stirred it slowly.

At last, Altenay climbed out of her apathy spell. “How much money do you have left?”

“None to speak of,” Vasilisa said cheerfully. “I’ll have to sell some skins tomorrow to get a bit of money, so we both
can go to the capital, to my aunt. Then we’ll find jobs. I don’t want to stay here. In six months, Gunter would get
out of jail and he might come after me. After us. I think we should leave in a couple days. What do you think?”

“I owe you,” Altenay said.

“No you don’t. We’re friends.”

“I need to repay you,” Altenay continued, as if Vasilisa hadn’t spoken.

Vasilisa harrumphed in exasperation. “Alter some of your dresses for me. I don’t have anything besides what I’m
wearing and no money to buy more. And I’m smaller than you, so your things would hang on me.”

Altenay looked at her as if she said something inane. “Of course. Choose which ones. That’s not what I’m talking
about.”

“Altenay.” Vasilisa hugged her friend. She felt Altenay’s shoulders stiffening and caressed her friend wherever she
could reach: her arms, her back, her hair. She kissed her cheeks and nose and forehead. Her fingers caught one of
Altenay’s braids, and she brought the little curling brush on its end to tickle her ear. “You don’t have to stay with
me if you don’t want to,” she whispered. “You can go find your people in the south or get married or do whatever
you want. You’re free.”

Altenay clutched her tightly, hid her face in the folds of Vasilisa’s shawl, and started weeping. Vasilisa held her and
said nothing more.

“I didn’t cry,” Altenay sobbed. “I didn’t. When he beat me and when he raped me, I didn’t cry.” She wailed, and her
fingers dug into Vasilisa’s shoulders so hard, Vasilisa was sure she would have bruises come morning. “I didn’t cry.”

“I know,” Vasilisa murmured. “Now you don’t have to. We’ll manage. Two free girls, we’ll do fine.”

“Nobody would ever own me again. Never!”

“Of course not.”

Altenay pulled away and stared into Vasilisa’s eyes, her gaze intent behind the film of tears. “I took all Gunter’s
hidden money. When I packed my things, I just got his money and packed it with my skirts.” She wiped her tears
with her sleeves and glared at Vasilisa, as if daring her to contradict. “I deserve it.”

Vasilisa grinned. “You definitely do. You knew where he hid them?”

“Of course not. But I have a gift, remember? I can find things. I just thought about coins, and my gift took me
straight to them, under a floorboard beneath his bed. Two fat purses. I’m sure we can start our new lives with
those anywhere. We don’t have to ask your aunt for charity, and you don’t have to sell the skins. You can start
your own taxidermy business and apply to the guild. ”

“This is your money,” Vasilisa objected.

Altenay’s nostrils flexed, as if she smelled something nasty. “You spent yours for my freedom. I can spend mine
anyway I wish. We share,” she said firmly. “One purse per girl.”

“Fine,” Vasilisa said. “We’ll share tomorrow. Now we eat. I’m hungry, and the stew is ready.” She pulled the pot off
the fire.

“No, wait. I’ve been thinking about your dad’s riddle. I don’t think he knew the future. And I don’t think you should
disregard the most important word in the riddle.”

“And what is that?” Vasilisa loaded the stew into two tin bowls, spoils from her foray into Gunter’s kitchen. “The
riddle has already served its purpose—it got you free and Gunter in jail, where he belongs.”

“No. The word is ‘scales.’” Altenay picked up her spoon. “We’re not done,” she threatened as she attacked the
stew. “What has scales? I don’t think he meant justice. He wanted you to find something, and I can find it for you
but I need to know what it is.”

Vasilisa processed her friend’s words as she ate. “Fish has scales,” she said doubtfully. “Snakes and lizards.”

“Dragons, dummy.” Altenay put her clean bowl away with a clank. “I think your dad left you a dragon skin.” Her face
was swollen from crying, but she clambered decisively to her feet. “How do they look, those dragons you saw?”

“You mean gammas? They are beautiful, but nobody has ever captured a gamma. And it can’t possibly be an alpha
or a beta. They are both huge. Nobody would want them mounted.”

“Gammas are smaller, right? How do they look?”

Reluctantly, Vasilisa stood up too. “They’re about my height, and their scales are brightly colored. Red, blue, green.
I only saw them from a distance.”

“How big are the scales? My nail? My hand?”

“Probably about the size of your nails, but Altenay, wait. It can’t be a gamma. It’s impossible. Nobody in living
memory ever caught a gamma.”

Altenay didn’t reply. She stood very still, her eyes half-closed, as if listening to something only she could hear. She
turned around slowly until she faced the donkey in his stall. “Somewhere behind the donkey,” she said pointing.

“My house was behind the donkey.”

“Makes sense. Do you have a traveling lantern?” Altenay stomped out of the shed. “And a spade,” she called back.

“Yeah, I have a spade. I’ve lost the house but I still have a spade. It was in the shed,” Vasilisa muttered. She
grabbed the spade, lit the lantern, and hurried after her friend.

It was already dark outside and drizzling again. The small lamp didn’t provide ample illumination but enough so they
didn’t stumble on the ragged remains of the house. Altenay stopped at the edge of the burned area farthest from
the shed.

“What was here?”

“A fool’s errand,” Vasilisa grumbled. “But I’ll do anything for a friend, won’t I, even traipse over my house’s ashes
with her? Would you come back to the shed? We should go to bed. I’m tired.”

“Stop whining. What was here?” Altenay repeated.

“Father’s bedroom,” Vasilisa said.

“I guess he thought his bedroom the best hiding place, just as Gunter did.” Altenay chuckled. She squatted and
began clearing the ashes with her hands.

Vasilisa put down the lantern and joined her with the spade. It didn’t take them long. Whatever wrapping her father
had used on his stash had burned away with the house, but the scales gleamed in the weak lantern’s light. They
didn’t seem affected by the fire. Altenay pulled her finger along the shining scales and recoiled with an oath.

“Ouch! They are sharp, the buggers.” Blood welled up on her cut finger.

“Oh,” Vasilisa said. She didn’t feel anything, neither surprise nor elation. She felt tired and stupid. “They do look like
gammas. A whole lot of gammas. There is more than one color here.”

“You dig them out. I’ll bring a barrow,” Altenay said.

Numbly, Vasilisa started clearing dirt and ashes from the scales. She tried to be gentle, but it was dark, and she did
hit some scales with her spade. It felt like hitting a rock, with a similar clanging sound. She didn’t think the scales
took any damage, but she might’ve dulled the spade. What were those scales made of?  

Only after they loaded their booty into the barrow and rolled it back to the shed did she take a good look at her
father’s legacy. He had left her two gamma skins. One sported all shades of blue, green, and turquoise. Another
one was fuchsia color with the occasional splashes of crimson and pink. The sizes of the scales varied too, from the
size of a large gold coin on the back and wings to the much smaller size on the gammas’ bellies. Despite the fire
that had burned the house, despite lying under the floorboards for gods knew how many years, the scales seemed
to retain their original color and texture.

I think these scales are like gems,” Altenay said slowly, awe in her voice.

“I don’t think I can mount these dragons. No needle would pierce them,” Vasilisa said. “How did Father manage to
get hold of two such perfect skins? They are practically intact, teeth and claws and all…Oops.”

“Just what your dad said in the riddle.”

“Yes. We’re going to be rich, Altenay.”

“You’re going to be rich. They are your inheritance.”

Vasilisa smiled, the first real smile she had had since her father fell ill. “As you just told me, we share,” she said.
“One dragon per girl.”   
Wily master hid the tails,
Didn’t leave a chart.
Gloomy night expanded veils,

To preserve and guard.
Blazing flame unlocked the scales,

Teeth and claws and all.
Graceful maiden found trails,

Where shadows fall.

Olga Godim is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her
short stories have been published in multiple internet and print
magazines. Her fantasy novels ALMOST ADEPT and EAGLE EN GARDE
were released by Champagne/Burst in 2014. In 2015, EAGLE EN
GARDE won EPIC eBook Award in the Fantasy category. When Olga
isn't writing, she is collecting toy monkeys. By now, there are over
300 monkeys in her collection.