Series: Dragons of Tarakona #10
Published by: Meankitty Publishing
Release Date: June 8, 2021
Contributors: Jody Wallace
Buy the Book: Books2Read; Amazon; Kobo; Apple; Barnes & Noble
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Shapeshifters, Shared Worlds
ABOUT THE BOOK
Blackmailed by the only man who can heal her—what’s a Pearl to do?
Pearl Courtier is a nobody. A human from Tarakona who just happens to have a famous wizard brother. When a lab accident transforms her into a walking lie detector, Pearl travels across worlds to seek help from a wizard on another planet.
But the price of stiff-necked enchanter Everett DeBoer’s agreement to remove her curse is high. Pose as his companion during a business conference, and use her unique skill to tell him which of his colleagues are lying. What will Pearl do when she discovers how he's been lying to himself—and how deadly that might be for both of them?
Tropes: Fake Relationship, Just One Bed!, Nerd Hero
Also in this series:
FROM CHAPTER ONE:
A piercing whine followed by a hiss of steam and a ping! announced the failure of the R&D team’s latest magical experiment. With agility born of pure adrenaline, Pearl Courtier dodged the brass gear that exploded off the intricate contraption being tested. The gear thudded into one of the wooden supply cabinets and stuck in the door, both vibrating.
Gillian, the architect of said contraption, shoved her goggles to the top of her head and turned toward Pearl’s brother Barnabas. He and his spouse Nadia, the silver dragon in her human form, stood next to a long pipe attached to the complicated device. “Barnabas, I told you to trickle the silver magic into the receptor. We need to control the release of the magic and shield it from catalysts—like wizards. It’s quite reactive, and, for lack of a better word, volatile. It dissipates so quickly. That’s why it’s difficult to store.”
White smoke from the release valves, nowhere near as much this time, trickled to a stop. Did that mean the experiment had almost worked? Or was the machine as exhausted as the team? They’d been running this trial all day, and Pearl wasn’t sure she could keep dodging various flying brass bobbles without some dinner.
Pearl was nothing if not practical. As a human on Tarakona, she had to be, since she was surrounded by wizards and dragons and all their feuds and magic.
“Perhaps we need to give the charging device time to cool down,” she suggested to Gillian, who pulled a face. “Twelve times is not the magic number.”
“Haha, magic number, nice pun.” Gillian gave her a thumbs up.
Pearl grinned. “I do what I can. I’m the comic relief.” She was also the person keeping their resident genius inventor focused on one project at a time. Not the future she’d envisioned for herself, but better than the horse farm. Magic, she had come to realize, was somewhat wasted on wizards, who often lacked common sense.
“My sister is correct,” Barnabas said gravely. Her stuffy brother had removed his cravat and frock coat after the fourth run-through. He had a little more common sense than most wizards. “Not about her being comic relief but about the experiment. It could be that our haste is resulting in mistakes.”
Nadia flicked the brass pipe with a fingernail. She was a head shorter than Pearl’s tall, brown-skinned brother and clad in a warm blue dress. “We’re running a risk every time I go to Victoria and let her drain my magic. I don’t want to keep subjecting myself to her torture. Who knows when she’ll change her mind about our arrangement and try to imprison me again?” Nadia’s voice grew louder and then broke. “We need to find a way to store my magic in a talisman so we can sell her those, and I won’t have to see her stupid face ever again.”
“She’s not actually stupid,” Pearl countered. Victoria the Valiant, the ruling wizard of Valiant Province and probably the strongest wizard in all of Tarakona, governed her lands with a stern hand but did more charitable work than most people realized. Yet her insistence that wizards should continue to rule Tarakona instead of having equality between wizards, humans, and dragons made her the enemy. “But your point is valid. She has a very stupid face.”
Nadia cracked out a laugh, easing some of the tension.
Pearl, the only human in the room, yanked the gear free from the cabinet door and checked it for bent spokes. As a magically inert person, she’d been functioning as Gillian’s lab assistant for months, doing her part to support the DLF in its goal to free the dragons of Tarakona. And to free herself from dying of boredom on the farm. She wore a pair of Barnabas’s old breeches, a wool jumper, and a leather lab apron. “Hey, Gillian? I’ve heard rumors that the gnomes on Earth have an inventor who has almost mastered funneling dragon magic into talismans without needing a wizard’s help. They don’t have access to silver, obviously, since it’s so rare, but we could reach out to the gnomes and—”
Gillian cut her off with a curse, but Pearl knew she wasn’t mad—just frustrated that their weeks of planning this experiment were not coming to fruition. “The same gnomes who stole my gold battery technology and retrofitted it in a way that was never intended? That isn’t safe? To make weapons that hurt dragons instead of protect them? Those gnomes? I am not reaching out to them.”
“Do you know anyone else from Magic? Any tech wizards? Or maybe Aiden does,” Pearl suggested. Gillian’s lover, Aiden Silver, had grown up on Earth in the town of Magic, New Mexico, where the gnomes lived. “It doesn’t have to be one of the gnomes.”
Gillian humphed. “Supposedly there’s this old guy named Everett DeBoer who’s a computer specialist, but I don’t know him and we can’t trust him with…” She waved a hand around. “Everything going on here.”
Since Gillian was also from Earth, her talents weren’t the same as Tarakonan wizards. “If someone from Earth understood more about your native magic,” Pearl ventured, “it might be worth a try.”
“It just feel like we’re so close.” Gillian paced around the contraption, adjusting sensors here and gears there. Resetting it for another go, Pearl recognized. “You can tell by this measurement that the magic almost reached the talisman. The magic is definitely coming out of Nadia and into the charger, but then it fizzles. Nadia, how drained are you? Do you have enough magic to run this one more time, or should we call Aiden?”
Nadia was a pale-skinned blond in human form, but she didn’t have that pallid look she got when all of her magic was gone. Her silver dragon tracery glimmered faintly beneath her skin. “I can go one more time. But you’re gonna owe me chocolate. So much chocolate.”
Tarakonan people were all born the same. Human. At some point in their teen years, they underwent a transformation, or some did. A few turned into wizards and a few turned into dragon shapeshifters who produced and contained magic—magic only the wizards could access. The rest, like Pearl, remained human. Unremarkable, unimpressive, unimportant, and puttering along without any control over their own fate while wizards and dragons flew through the skies.
At least her connection to her infamous brother meant her life could have more meaning than the various jobs assigned to lowly humans in a magically based culture. As far as Pearl was concerned, she should have become the wizard, not her brother. Or in addition to her brother—she wasn’t greedy.
The things she could accomplish if she were the one with the power…
No use musing on fantasies. Pearl had a job to do.
Gillian adjusted the machine and gestured for assistance. “Can you bring me a gear? No, not that one. Bring a size ten. I have an idea.”
Gillian’s ideas, which combined her personal magic with machines and devices, often resulted in brilliant inventions. When they didn’t result in flying gears, small explosions, yelling, cuts, and bruises. Humans didn’t usually have much access to dragon magic, but Pearl had definitely gotten some green healing action in the year since she’d talked Barnabas into letting her come work with the DLF.
She located the larger gear from the supply cabinet and handed it to Gillian, along with a bulkier screw. Gillian’s hand glowed faintly as she affixed the gear to the convoluted device she had dubbed a talisman charger and hammered in the screw. A wizard and dragon pair sent the dragon’s magic into the receptor at one end of the tube, which led into the squat bowels of the machine, which, thanks to the infusion of Gillian’s magic, should then pipe the magic into the amulet placed on the collection plate. Silver magic was the one type of dragon magic that could not be stored in a talisman, and Gillian was determined to change that with some good old Earth ingenuity.
“That wasn’t a nail you were hammering,” Pearl said, raising her eyebrows at Gillian. She’d come to understand a great deal about the witch’s work. Most of Gillian’s tech was forged on Tarakona, but she did import Earth items when the DLF could afford it.
“But it’s not coming lose this time and letting all the magic steam out, is it?” Gillian smacked the screw one last time and gave the gear a flip. It turned, albeit grudgingly. “It’ll be fine. I added some woowoo. Way better than a butane torch.”
“I’m just going to…get out of the way,” Pearl said, hustling around the machine and preparing to take cover. That gear was not going to come anywhere close to her when it sprang loose. A size ten could do some real damage.
Gillian popped her goggles back on and checked the lump of shiny dark grey galena on the collection plate. “Molecular integrity intact. Object still empty.” She rattled off a set of numbers into a handheld recording device before tucking it into her leather apron pocket. Then she began cranking the hand wheel, and the machine coughed to life.
Gears turned and hissed. The machine whirred. Tiny bits of smoke seeped from a few spots. When the dial in front of Gillian reached the predetermined level, she shouted at Barnabas. “Hit it!”
Barnabas, clasping Nadia’s hand, drew the silver power from his lady dragon and drizzled it into the receptor. Nadia’s silver tracery throbbed with light, and she grimaced. The charger’s primary drum began to spin. Slowly. Then faster. A few seams in the machine glowed with silver.
It was going to work! This time, it was going to work.
The machine spun harder, rattling the sturdy table on which it rested. It thumped toward the edge in a dangerous fashion.
“I can’t supply magic much longer,” Nadia gasped. “I’m going to get the ague.” The machine lurched, and Pearl eased toward it. Should she grab it now or wait for orders?
“I will not hurt Nadia,” Barnabas warned. The rattle of the machine increased alarmingly, but all the gears turned, all the dials whirred, all the pieces remained intact.
“One more minute,” Gillian urged. “We’ve almost got it. Pearl, grab the other side, don’t let it fall.”
Pearl leapt forward just in time to stop the machine from bumping itself off the edge of the table. Gillian was cranking like a mad person, sweat beading her forehead above the goggles.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she chanted. “Work, work, work.”
Pearl chanted with her, but only inside her head.
The machine emitted a loud groan before the tube that was supposed to channel the silver magic into the talisman split open like the skin of an overripe plum. Brilliant silver fire splashed across Pearl, the shockwave sending her flying into the shelving behind her.
Pain cracked up and down her back. Her vision blurred, and Pearl screamed so loudly she hurt her own ears. Every inch of her body felt raw, enflamed by a horrific inferno. The magic blazed through her skeleton. Hands groped at her, but they only caused more pain, and she punched toward the source of it. Her consciousness broke free of her form in a desperate attempt to escape the agony.
Finally the crisp green scent of healing magic penetrated through the suffering, and she returned to her body. She blinked up at the concerned expressions of her brother and Nadia, and Gillian’s tear-streaked face.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” Barnabas said. “I love you very much.”
“Love you, too,” she managed with a pained cough. Damn, that was rough.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” Gillian cried. “My friend, I am so sorry. Are you all right? Tell me you’re all right.”
Pearl raised a hand to her head and checked to see if she still had hair. Yep, still gorgeous, tight and curled. Her face seemed to be intact, too, she found, as she patted her cheeks. Her hands worked. Barnabas helped her sit up, and Nadia offered her a glass of water.
“I’m all right. Did it charge the talisman?” Pearl asked, flicking a tired hand at the device.
“No,” Gillian moaned. “The machine doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. I endangered you. I’m going to start using orange magic shields when we conduct experiments. Except we don’t have many orange dragons in the DLF and their power is needed for battle.”
“What do you mean the machine doesn’t matter?” Pearl asked, bewildered. They had increased lab safety since Pearl had started helping Gillian, but no safety precautions were perfect—not on a horse ranch and not in a laboratory. “This machine is going to be revolutionary.”
“I must invent shields,” Gillian said. “Like the armor I made Aiden. Except for you in the lab.”
“And for you,” Pearl said.
“Pearl’s assistance in the lab after tonight is a subject we will discuss at some other time,” Barnabas said darkly, and Pearl glared at him. She might be his younger sister, but she was not a child. She’d been a woman grown for years.
“Yes, I suppose so.” Then Gillian’s face brightened. “But I know what went wrong. The magic from Nadia wasn’t turning into steam after all. It was pooled up in the drum, and it was too much, and that’s why…”
“It exploded all over me,” Pearl guessed. She felt as good as she ever did when healed after a lab accident. The water tasted crisp and cold, and she handed it back to Nadia with a nod of thanks. “Good thing it wasn’t red fire magic or something. The next time, we should—”
“We are not running more experiments,” Barnabas said in a voice that brooked no argument.
“Well, no,” Gillian agreed. “I’m going to have to smelt more brass for another tube, or we can import something from Earth this time, except the shields are more important. Protecting people is more important. If something had happened to you, I’d never forgive myself.”
“I volunteered for this,” Pearl said. “I knew the risks.” Granted, nobody truly knew the risks of combining Earth and Tarakonan magic since it was an entirely new field.
“Doesn’t matter. This can’t happen again.” Gillian grabbed her in a ferocious hug before releasing her just as abruptly. “Here’s what I’m thinking. If I could transmute orange magic into that armor…” The Earth witch stood and hustled toward another part of the lab, talking to herself.
“It’s a good time for a break,” Pearl commented to Barnabas and Nadia. She didn’t feel like standing up yet, and something about the expression on Barnabas’s face worried her. His concern had not lightened now that she was conscious, but it was his skill that had healed her, so he should know she was fine. “Dunno about you, but I’d like some dinner.”
She started to draw up her feet, but Barnabas put out his hands to stop her. “Take it easy. It was a sizeable healing.”
“It’s not like I was dead,” she complained, her stomach grumbling. “And I’m starving.” The particular DLF encampment where they resided masqueraded as a human logging town. There was usually a good crowd of people to chat with anytime she went to the kitchens, which Pearl appreciated.
Barnabas’s gaze fixed on hers, his dark eyes troubled. “Correct. You were not dead.”
As he said the words, sparks of silver burst from his mouth and shot toward her face.
Pearl gasped and jerked back. “What the heck?”
She wasn’t quick enough. The silver sparks, as bright and pure as Nadia’s dragon tracery, splattered across her face and eyes, making her vision blur. And in that blur, knowledge leapt into her head, as if spoken by the gods.
You were dead.
Her vision cleared as quickly as it had distorted. Barnabas was still frowning. “What was that?” she asked.
“What was what?”
“The sparks that came out of your mouth. And…who said I was dead?”
Barnabas’s eyes widened and he exchanged a glance with Nadia, whose face was now the color of snow. Either Nadia had the ague from being drained of her magic or she was extremely upset.
“No sparks came out of my mouth,” Barnabas said slowly.
“I didn’t see any sparks, either,” Nadia added. “And I never heard anyone say…that thing. That you were…”
Silver sparks burst from Nadia’s mouth this time, and Pearl flinched away with a shriek. They struck her face, her vision blurred, and knowledge jumped into her head.
Barnabas said you were dead.
Pearl blinked away the annoying blur and clambered to her feet, filled with a lot more energy than she’d had moments ago. “You said I was dead. Barnabas. I was dead. Are you telling me I was dead?”
“I…” Barnabas got to his feet, too, and reached a hand toward her. “I need to assess your condition. If I may?”
“Fine.” She smacked her hand into his palm and felt green magic tingle against her skin. This time, though, it was different. Not healing. Not hurting, either.
Barnabas withdrew the magic he was probably pulling from a green talisman and promptly sat back down. Standing above her tall older brother, the mighty wizard, seeing him hunched on the floor as if he were in pain, was not…right. “What is it?”
“I know what happened to the silver magic,” he said. “From the explosion. It’s inside you.”
“So?” she said, looking at Nadia, who shrugged. “I’m not a wizard. I can’t do anything with it. Sadly.” Silver magic was the magic of prophecy, one few wizards had mastered since there were only two silver dragons on all of Tarakona…and both were a million times more useful than Pearl.
“It doesn’t seem to want to leave,” he explained, staring up at her. “I can’t touch it. It’s as if it’s fused into your bones.”
Pearl glanced at her hands, the pale palms the same as ever, the brown creases long and unbroken. She wiggled her fingers. Her bones didn’t feel silver or magical. Everything was normal. “Can we get back to this thing about me being dead? And then some dinner.”
Barnabas’s head drooped. “You weren’t dead.”
Even though he faced the ground, silver sparks sprang from his mouth to Pearl’s face. This time she was ready for it when the mysterious knowledge appeared. You were dead.
“I keep seeing silver sparks when you say certain things,” Pearl said slowly. “And then I know what the truth is.”
“I don’t know what that means, and I don’t like it,” Barnabas said. No silver sparks. “It must have something to do with the prophecy magic in your bones.”
“I’m not seeing the future,” Pearl argued. “I’m seeing when you lie. Like how I was dead yet you insist I wasn’t.”
Nadia’s eyes grew wet with tears. “We think you might have been dead. Very briefly,” she added when Pearl stiffened with shock. “Barnabas used two amulets to heal you and Gillian added some of her Earth magic since I couldn’t find any other wizards to help and…” Nadia bit her lip. “I’m just a dragon. I don’t know what happened.”
“Seriously? Why did you lie to me?” she exclaimed, balling her hands into fists.
“I was frightened.” Barnabas’s low voice did have a tremble to it. “I didn’t want to say it because that would have made it true. How close we came to losing you, sister.”
Pearl’s heartbeat accelerated as the facts hit home. The lab accident had nearly done her in, and it had taken the combined power of a Tarakonan wizard and an Earth witch to revive her. Gillian’s magic didn’t even work that way, but apparently Pearl had been so injured, so…dead…that two magic users together had almost been unable to save her.
It explained Gillian’s tears and Nadia’s pallor and Barnabas’s droop. And now she had silver magic inside her.
“But you didn’t lose me.” She was uncertain how to fix this but positive about one thing. “And I am telling you, I’m starving.” She couldn’t think about this on an empty stomach, and this was chicken and dumplings night. “Tomorrow, bright and early, Gillian and I can get started on that new tube and—”
“You’re not working in the lab again,” Barnabas declared.
“He’s right. You’re too vulnerable,” Gillian commented over her shoulder. Pearl hadn’t even realized Gillian was still paying attention. “I’ll beg one of the lower level wizards who can shield herself to help.”
“But me being human…me being inert…makes your experiments more pure,” Pearl argued, frightened that they would take this away from her after one tiny accident that resulted in her being a tiny bit dead. She craved interaction and excitement, and she was so tired of other people deciding what she was allowed to do with her life. “I’m good at it. We can be more careful.”
“After I create shields, we’ll talk,” Gillian said. “I have learned my lesson.”
“But what the hells am I supposed to do?” Pearl said, tossing up her hands. “Cook? Do laundry? Groom horses? You have people for those things. This was my thing.”
“Pearl, it’s just not safe,” Nadia told her. “We’ll find something for you. You’re family.”
“I need a thing,” Pearl insisted. All her life, she’d had one future, a tedious human future, around the same tedious faces, until Barnabas had allowed her to enlist with the DLF.
Allowed, ha. Her future should be her choice. Like wizards got to choose. Like dragons…didn’t. Hasn’t she joined the DLF to change that?
Barnabas rose shakily to his feet. “It might be best to put you in isolation until we can figure out the implications of the silver magic inside you.”
“We already know what it does. Tell me a lie,” Pearl demanded. “I dare you.”
“Um. I’m pregnant?” Nadia said with a little smile.
Silver sparks again, splatting into Pearl. And the voice. I am not pregnant.
Pearl cackled. “No, you’re not.”
Barnabas put a hand to his chest. “I believe I have been terrified enough for one night, Nadia.”
“Gillian, tell me a lie,” Pearl urged. “It’s an experiment, to see if it works the same on a person from Earth.”
Gillian turned from a laden utility table, pushed back her goggles, and said, “The first time I saw Aiden, I was very polite and definitely didn’t knock him out.”
A plume of sparks crossed the room into Pearl’s eyes, and she laughed. Now that she knew what to expect, it was much easier to handle. “Everyone knows how you and Aiden met. You kidnapped him. Do another one.”
The four of them ran a few more tests on Pearl’s new ability, and they concluded she could indeed discern when someone lied, though if the lie were minor, she was unable to hear the true statement. It was unprecedented. Amazing.
Pearl felt like she could fly as inspiration surged inside her. “How long do you think this will last? Until the magic gets used up? I’m like a talisman, except I can do the magic myself. This will definitely earn me a better job in the DLF, won’t it? I can be a spy. I can question our enemies. I can…I can find out Victoria the Valiant’s secrets.”
Though her brother and friends looked worried, Pearl laughed with glee. She’d always thought she should have been the magical one in the family. With this ability, combined with the common sense she’d had to develop as a human on Tarakona, she could truly be of service to the world.
She could change everything.
“I don’t think using this power is a good idea,” Barnabas said. “You should be isolated. We don’t know anything about it. It could be injuring you internally.”
“On a cellular level,” Gillian added. “I should run some tests. Not dangerous ones,” she added hastily.
“I’m fine,” Pearl said, stretching her arms into the air and crackling her spine before putting her hands on her hips. “See? Same ole body. Now can we please go eat? And don’t try to lie to me about anything, I’ll know.”
Pearl was a lowly peasant on Tarakona, a nobody, a person who could never achieve greatness or fame because of the essence of who she was. Human.
But now? She was more. This power wasn’t the end of anything. It was the beginning of a new journey. And it wasn’t as if knowing the truth could hurt her.