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Excerpt: The Dragon Master

Book 3: Dragon Series

The Dragon Master by Allyson James

He didn’t know where he was, or who he was, or why he was. He stood upright in a naked human body in a dark, cold place that smelled metallic, damp, and oily.

The only light came from a crude lamp set high on a wall, a flickering orb surrounded by insects craving brightness. He didn’t blame them. A few moments ago, his world had been one of heat and light and now he stood in terrifying cold and darkness.

The dim light showed dirty walls and hard stones with letters scrawled beside a solid door. For some reason he could read the letters, though they made no sense to him.

Ming Ue’s Dim Sum.

He went toward the windowless door, the dragon magic tangled across it making him nauseous. He had been summoned by a Dragon Master once before, long, long ago, and he tasted the rage of it still.

He moved along the wall to the door, his bare feet aching from the sharp pebbles strewn across the ground. He heard voices coming from behind the door, and he cocked his head to listen . . .

“I won’t do it, and that is my final word.”

Tiny Ming Ue stood with her back straight, hands on her cane, eyes flashing black fire.

Carol clenched her well-manicured hands and tried not to lose her temper. Ming Ue was half Carol’s size and wrinkled and gray, but she wielded all the power in the room, and she knew it.

Ming Ue’s nephew Shaiming quietly sipped tea at another table in the closed restaurant. He pretended to be absorbed in his cup, but the twitch of his eyes betrayed his interest.

Carol dropped her voice to reasonable tones, the ones that persuaded hard-hearted venture capitalists in the financial district to sign fortunes over to her. “It won’t be much of a change, Grandmother. You’ll be doing the same things, and I know you’ll welcome the help.”

“I don’t need any help. I’ve run this restaurant for thirty years, not to mention raising you nearly all that time. Your mother entrusted you to me when she died, and this is the thanks I get.”

Ming Ue spoke in her sharp Cantonese, the language with which she bullied the great and terrible. Carol loved her grandmother, but sometimes her stubborn insistence in clinging to the old ways drove her crazy.

“All I ask is that you add a few things to the menu to bring it in line with our other restaurants.”

Your other restaurants. I let you run those as you please, but you will not turn my dim sum house into an over-Americanized, make-believe Chinese tourist trap. My dim sum is the best in San Francisco–the best in California. People come from all over to try it.”

It was true that the restaurant with its plain cream-colored walls and small tables did attract those who wanted to try real dim sum. The only pictures on the walls were artful cut-paper dragons and flowers, and the tablecloths were all bright red, a lucky color.

Unfortunately, nowadays people expected more flash and glamour in a restaurant, and the many-times washed white plates and dim sum cart with the squeaky wheel didn’t quite measure up.

“Grandmother, please be realistic. You’re losing business here. If we don’t modernize the menu, we’ll never raise the customer base. And with a manager–one you’ll supervise, of course–you’ll be able to take it easy. Maybe even retire and look in on the restaurant when you want to.”

“Retire?” Ming Ue screeched, and Carol realized she’d miscalculated. “I’m only seventy-six years old, why should I retire?” She jabbed her cane at Carol. “You are a smart young woman, and I love you, but I will not let you turn my restaurant into no better than a fast-food joint. I own Ming Ue’s, not you.”

Carol closed her mouth in frustration. She’d built her portfolio to great heights by knowing when to stop arguing with difficult investors, but Ming Ue always seemed to win. Business at Ming Ue’s had slacked to almost half in the last six months, never mind how much lucky magic her grandmother claimed had seeped into the restaurant’s walls.

Dragon magic, Ming Ue said. The luckiest kind of all.

Shaiming only drank his tea, knowing better than to get involved in an argument between the women of his family.

“All right, Grandmother,” Carol said, trying to sound reasonable. “We’ll talk about it later. I have an important meeting first thing in the morning, so I’ll go on home.”

Carol would bring over the proposed changes to the restaurant after lunch, when Ming Ue was sure to be full of tea, dim sum, and happiness. Lunch drew the best crowd, and Ming Ue was always content after chatting with her regulars.

“You do that,” Ming Ue said with a scowl.

Carol turned away. Back off now, save up arguments for later, that was the way to win over a reluctant client.

“And you’ll not make me change my mind!” Ming Ue shouted after her.

Carol rolled her eyes. She walked out of the restaurant, very carefully not slamming the door behind her.

Carol made herself feel better by muttering very unprofessional curses under her breath as she made for her car parked a little way down the alley. She wasn’t afraid to be out here alone–no one with any sense would bother the alley behind Ming Ue’s. Whether it was lucky magic or Ming Ue’s iron personality, thieves and those who extorted “protection” from small businesses steered clear.

She fished for her keys, still fuming. The investors she’d meet with tomorrow were enthusiastic about taking Ming Ue’s restaurants nationwide but worried about the low profits of the original restaurant. If Carol could persuade them she could turn Ming Ue’s around, and show them her detailed outline to do so, she could save the day.

She heard a step behind her, but she didn’t turn.

“She’ll be all right, Shaiming,” she said, assuming her cousin had come out to try placation. “I won’t push her too hard, I know her health is frail, no matter what she says.”

Another footstep, and no answer. Shaiming was ordinarily quiet but the silence behind her made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. She turned around.

A tall man she’d never seen before stood directly behind her. The streetlight at the end of the alley glinted on red hair, night-dark eyes, and the gleam of naked muscle. He was huge and powerfully built, his shoulders massive, pectorals hard and flat. He also wasn’t wearing stitch of clothing.

Carol dragged in a breath to shout for help, but he put his hands on her shoulders and shoved her back against the car. He smelled like wind, sweat, and clean air, and he was enormously strong.

Carol fumbled in her purse and whipped her canister of pepper spray in front of the man’s face. He knocked it out of her hand, and the stray squirt she managed to get off didn’t seem to affect him in the slightest.

His eyes were pools of dark shadow, black all the way across, and a tangle of red hair framed a harsh, hard face.

“Why did you summon me?”

“What? Let go of me.”

He shook her. “I smell your power. Great power.” His hands hurt her wrists, but his eyes were filled with fear. “I won’t serve you.”

She had no idea what he meant. She only knew that he was strong enough to snuff her life out if he wanted without breaking a sweat.

Still, a spark in his eyes seemed to call to something deep inside herself. She felt that thing inside stir and respond, and the spark flickered. He tilted his head in surprise and studied her, in a manner that reminded her of someone she couldn’t think of right now.

The alley flooded with sudden light, and Ming Ue marched into the glare with Shaiming close behind.

“You there. Leave her alone.”

“Grandmother, go back inside! Call the police.”

“Release her, now.” Ming Ue struck the ground with her cane, a tiny thunder-crack that echoed up and down the alley.

The red-haired man stared at Ming Ue and abruptly let go of Carol. Carol slid out from under him and dashed back to Ming Ue.

The man faced them in the floodlight’s bright circle. Except for his mane of wild hair and his not-right eyes he had a perfect male body, like a sculpture come alive. Every limb rippled with muscle, perfectly proportioned and raw with strength. His phallus, as proportionate as the rest of him, hung heavily from a thatch of red hair.

Ming Ue regarded at him without fear. “Who are you?”

He only looked back at her, dark eyes glittering under the light. He made no move to run away or to attack, he simply watched the three of them huddled together with the wariness of an animal.

“Grandmother, we should call the police.”

“No, we shouldn’t. I’ve already called Malcolm.”

Malcolm was a tall man with black hair and silver eyes on whom Ming Ue doted, claiming he had powerful and lucky magic. Ming Ue also claimed Malcolm was a dragon.

Malcolm did have strength, both physically and in personality, Carol couldn’t deny that. She’d be thrilled right now to have his bulk between her and the large man in the alley.

Ming Ue jabbed her cane toward the red-haired man. “This is a dragon, Li Mei,” she said, calling Carol by the pet name she’d gone by as a little girl. “I don’t know what kind, but he obviously has no idea where he is or why he’s here.”

The old human woman unnerved him far more than the other two–the silent man and the young woman who smelled so good. When he’d had the young woman’s body under his for a few seconds, he’d had the strangest and strongest feeling that she belonged there.

As his mind cleared he’d realized that this was the human world, and that he’d responded to the binding call of a very powerful witch or a Dragon Master.

Which of them had called him? The old woman glittered with power but not enough to trap a dragon. The man had only a glimmer of magic. There was a deep glow inside the young woman, a flame she hid, something enormously powerful. But when she’d looked at him with her soft, dark eyes, he’d seen nothing of the arrogance of a Dragon Master, no evil.

Of course the three of them could have banded together, pooling their talents to bring him here. Enslaving him . . .

He balled his fists and took a step forward. He shouldn’t understand the human speak of this time and place, but magic had quickly adapted his senses.

“Why do you want me?”

“We don’t,” the old woman said. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t mean his true name. She meant, What should we call you?

Other dragons gave themselves human-sounding names, but fire dragons never did. They rarely interacted with other dragons, or even with their own kind. They lived in blissful solitude until they chose to mate, then they knew their mates so well, bound in thought and body, that there was no need for names.

“This one is different,” the old woman said to the other two. “Not like Caleb or Malcolm.”

“I can see that,” the young woman replied. She was nervous and afraid, yet her voice was strong.

“What kind of dragon are you?” the old woman asked. “A great one, obviously.”

The fire dragon simply looked at her without answering. If they didn’t know what kind of dragon they’d called, it was their own fault. They should be slaves to him, not the other way around.

“He’s coming,” the old woman announced.

Lights pricked the darkness behind him, followed by a strange squeal and a metallic taint in the air. A vehicle much like the one the fire dragon stood next to halted some distance away, and a large man rose from it.

A black dragon. The fire dragon’s fury boiled over.

Black dragons were ice-cold creatures who cared for no beings but themselves. The ancient beasts lived inside mountains of stone, pouring over incomprehensible and strange calculations. They were powerful, not because of their fighting strength, but because their minds were sharp as steel.

The black dragon’s human form was as tall as the fire dragon’s, but he had a fall of long black hair, and his eyes were silver. He moved with confidence toward the fire dragon, but the fire dragon regarded him with contempt–the black dragon had answered a summons by these humans.

A woman emerged from the vehicle behind the black dragon. She was small, but her magic burned like a bright-white flame–a witchling. She could have summoned the fire dragon, though he felt no binding threads from her.

The black dragon cocked his head, looking the fire dragon up and down with his bright eyes.

“Damn.” His voice was soft, almost silken.

“What’s the matter?” the witch behind him asked. “Do you know him?”

The black dragon shook his head. He held his hand out to the witch, giving her a look that spoke of tenderness. He might be talking to a mate, but dragons and witches didn’t mate.

“He’s a fire dragon.”

Give the mighty black dragon ten points.

The old woman sucked in her breath. “Truly?”

“What’s a fire dragon?” the witch asked.

“I’ve never seen one before,” the black dragon said. “They are elusive and volatile and don’t interact with other dragons. Some dragons think they’re only legend.”

“Like the silver dragon?” the witch asked him.

“Not quite, but almost.”

The old one clasped her hands. “How wonderful. You see, Carol? Dragons always find me, even the rarest of them. I am the luckiest woman in Chinatown.”

The beautiful woman with the deep flame stood tall in front of the old one. “This has gone far enough, Grandmother. I want the police.”

“That would be a bad idea,” the black dragon said mildly. “Let me take care of this.”

The fire dragon knew that the black dragon–Malcolm–was the strongest being in this alley, the one he’d have to get past to stay free.

“Why are you here, black dragon?” he snarled. “In this form, summoned by these mages? Do you belong to them?”

“I protect them,” Malcolm answered.

“Enslaved.” The accusation sounded hollow because the fire dragon knew he’d been enslaved himself.

“I protect them by choice. Why have you come here?”

The fire dragon put his fists to his bare neck. “Harnessed. Dragged here. Did you do it?”

“Not me, but I know what it feels like to be ripped from Dragonspace, believe me. So which of you summoned him? Shaiming?”

The silent man jumped, then beamed a smile and shook his head.

“None of us did,” the old woman said. “We wouldn’t know how. He just showed up in the alley.”

Malcolm’s eyes narrowed. “Now that’s very interesting.”

Curiosity was a black dragon’s weakness. The arrogant creatures could lose a battle because they’d stopped to investigate something trivial.

Malcolm drew close, and the fire dragon growled, feeling the need to challenge. He drew every ounce of power he had deep inside himself and willed the fire to take over.

His body heated white-hot, and he felt the triumph that came with the change. Yes!

The small group collectively gaped as he became living fire, a string of incandescent light that blasted back the darkness of the alley. Malcolm started for him, but the fire dragon sailed out of reach.

The fire dragon swooped and swirled around the tiny old woman then the lovely, flame-filled young woman at her side. His flame called to hers, and she stared up at him with fear and wonder in her eyes.

“What are you?” she breathed. She lifted a slim-fingered hand toward him.

The fire dragon flitted out of reach, sensing that if he touched her, she’d bind him forever.

The strange human world pulled at him, and he rose in an arrow of flame over the glittering, odd-smelling, alien city.