Serena had never seen a dragon before.
She’d read about them, in the books her father brought home from the rubbish piles and carefully cleaned before letting her touch them. There was a slowly-growing pile under her bed. The books held all sorts of fantastic creatures — witches and fairies and princesses disguised as rag-pickers.
But though Serena had read about dragons, dreamed about dragons, and begged her father to tell her stories about dragons, she had never before seen such a creature in the flesh.
She found the sight to be somewhat disappointing. Unlike the majestic creatures of her story-books, which struck fear into the hearts of heroes with their shining scales, sharp claws, and twenty-foot wingspans, the creature in the back of the Catcher’s van was, quite frankly, pathetic. He cowered against the bars, so thin that Serena could count every vertebra down to the tip of his long, limp tail. His scales were dull and peeling. She thought he might once have been green-and-gold striped, but it was hard to tell under all the dirt and soot. His breaths came in uneven wheezes.
Serena stepped closer. His eyes were rheumy, but there was something in his gaze, something intelligent. Something sharp.
The bells rang the hour. Serena looked up, startled; if she didn’t hurry she’d be late for supper and her father would be angry. She turned to go.
The sound slithered into her skull, hovering in the spaces between her thoughts without ever having entered her ears. She shivered at the psychic touch, as cold and smooth and dry as the skin of a snake.
“Yes?” she whispered.
The dragon reared its head suddenly in surprise. Serena gasped. Had the dragon spoken to her?
The creature had turned its head so that its left eye was fixed firmly on her face. She stumbled closer, her hands reaching out to grasp the cold iron of the cage bars. The dragon’s face was inches away from hers, and she could smell rotting meat on his breath even despite the rope that wound around his muzzle, clamping those powerful jaws shut.
The dragon was talking. The dragon was talking to her. Her, the trashman’s daughter. Wasn’t this how adventures started?
“Serena,” she whispered. “My name is Serena.”
The dragon blinked.
Serena. Open the door.