When I wake up again, distant birds are chirping away. I am lying on something soft, body sinking into the material, and tucked under warm, thick sheets. Content and drowsy, I think for a moment I'm in my mother's arms--no, no, that's not right, she's not--she’s not here anymore. Then, I am very likely back in my cell again, the healer waiting patiently on me after having dressed my wounds. But it's too warm, as if sunlight itself was soaking in my chest. Too pleasant. This isn't heaven, not when my body tenses and my hand twitches on one arm, and the other--absent--isn't there at all.
Distress gathers between my eyebrows.
I open my eyes to a blue frog-like creature sitting on my chest. Its big circular eyes are all over its body, and its multiple eyes blink once and then twice at me. Afraid to move, all I can do is stare.
It lashes its tongue out at me. A long, dark pink tongue smacks my nose.
I jolt, knees bucking up instinctively, arms trying to wretch off the blankets, and manage to knock it into the air.
"It's awake!" it cries, as if the spell is broken. The slippery-legged creature lands on the stone floor without a problem, pushing off with strong hind-legs to leap over a beautiful silk folding screen that separates the bed area from the outside of the room. "It's awake, the human's awake!"
It's gone before I can respond, but outside the clamour has brought with it the clamour of excitement.
"The human's awake?!"
"How long has it been?"
"The Old Lady, where is she?!"
"Quick, tell the master!"
Slowly, I sit up to what is surprisingly no pain. The bed dips slowly with me. I don't know where I am, but I survived, somehow. My arm and hand are exactly the same as they were before, and my skin--looks worse off than it did when the healer had been putting other people's skin over my wounds. Brilliant red scarring. My hands slowly move, shaking, to my face. My eyes close and I swallow heavily.
I need to come to terms, with this. This will have to be my reality.
The commotions outside haven't settled. My eyes cast over the lacquered wooden walls, and the screens set over them to keep the sun from pouring in. Shadows of humanoids are passing by the gaps: they're not human from what I can see, not with things like wings and claws and sharp teeth.
There are beautiful pots set with flowers in the corners of the room, and on the walls are wooden plaques and ornaments. A desk with wooden chairs sits at the other corner of the room, and my bed is at the side.
When I glance back out where the multi-eyed frog had disappeared to, an old woman, dressed in plain servant robes appears from behind the silk-screen, holding a tray. She's accompanied by a beautiful girl with sharp features on her face, face powdered white and long hair tied up in an intricate fashion on her head.
The girl looks at me, and then titters, hiding her lower-face behind her sleeve. "Are you a male or female? Or neither?" Her voice is lilting, hypnotic, as she sways her hips from side to side. "I can never tell, about humans."
"It's a young man," the old woman corrects, and as she draws nearer, I grow warier. Her skin unblemished and unwrinkled, with no age-spots. It is only the grey in her hair and the way she speaks that tells the secret. "You have no need to fear, child. I was once like you when the Master brought me in."
"Master?" My voice ends up hoarse. I clear it, wincing, coughing.
When I look up again, the old woman has set the tray on the table beside me, and pours what looks like tea into a cup. She offers it to me, but I can't hold it, fingers on my right trembling to the tip. Her face doesn't change from its soft expression. Wordlessly, she helps me drink.
There's no taste to it, just a warmth that I swallow down that spreads to my fingers and toes.
"That's right." The girl laughs again, when I pull back. "Our Master is the Lord of our realm, and you are first human in a century that he has allowed to live after they have passed into our realm. We are really glad that you're here."
I think back about when I arrived: how fearful and in pain I was, and how cold it had been. My remaining fingers reach out to touch my throat. It was cool before.
"A dragon's element is naturally of water," the old woman tells me. "Our Master is powerful as he is benevolent. You are alive due to his magic." She hesitates, staring at me. "Magic he usually does not care to use."
I look back, unsure.
Before I know what is happening, the old woman has fallen to her knees and bowed deeply to me. "Please," she says, her forehead pressed to the floor. "Break our Master's curse!"
The beautiful girl, who I would not have thought proud, is also on her knees. She does not bow as low, but her hands fold in a salute before her, and the smile has disappeared from her face. "This fox spirit also entreats this human to help save our Lord. We do not have long."
"Long?" I asked, mystified. "For what?"
Before either of them can respond to me, a voice resounds outside the room, declaring:
"The Master arrives!"