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Justin lay hidden, watching, as the girl entered her room, shut the door, and locked it. He sighed inwardly. She wasn't really a girl, but to him, she seemed so young. All of them did, all the girl-women who filled this modern world.
Her fairy face could transform from child to woman and back again in half a minute, allowing him to peer through her thin veneer of adulthood to the child beneath. The cosmetics she applied, the clothes she wore, the airs she affected, these were her defenses: the thorns of a rosebush that thought itself invulnerable, safely ignorant of the world's sharp shears. Shears to which youthful thorns were no threat at all.
She paused in front of the mirror and stared at her image. Standing behind her, he knew the silvered surface would show nothing but her own reflection against the walls of her bedroom, though he was close enough to touch her.
He wondered what she would do if he materialized behind her. He could do it merely by wishing to. But he had no wish to terrify her, especially not now as she reached out to touch the glass before her, fingers brushing gently over the reflection of her face. He wondered what she was thinking.
With a small sigh, she unbuttoned her blouse and tossed it away. The silk fluttered down, a silent ripple of creamy femininity.
She crossed to her closet, hips swaying. She opened the door, looked inside, riffled through the clothing there. She tossed a few things onto the bed. The air smelled of her; he drank in her scent and sighed again.
She turned back to the closet, paused, reached for another pair of pants, stopped. She took her jeans off,kicked them away, and stood there in her white undergarments. He willed himself to ignore the display, to concentrate on her face.
She picked up a short, flowered cotton shirt and pressed it against her shoulders, the gesture impossibly vulnerable in her ignorance of his presence.
He still considered clothes a kind of architecture. In his youth, he'd worn rich fabrics, carefully cut and finely worked. The resulting attire had obscured virtually every portion of his body except his hands and face, creating an image that only a select few could aspire to. But that time was long gone, and those rules no longer applied to current fashions.
These days, in this place, the body itself was the major architectural structure, shaped and molded by pumping iron, rigorous dance, endless hours on treadmills, starvation, distance running . . . the machines and regimented tortures that were the real tailors of this time.
Smooth, tanned skin over well-muscled flesh was the most appealing garment now. The body as a self-creation, and clothing simply stretched over it, hiding little or nothing, only accentuating. Especially true for the young . . .
The girl moved closer to the mirror. He watched her fingers work at the back of her bra. Suddenly, inexplicably embarrassed, he turned away an instant before she bared herself
He looked out the window into the beginning of the evening, listening to her movements instead of watching.
You were once this young, weren't you, Gwendolyne? And she resembles you so closely . . .
He caught the tiny, whispering hiss of her underwear sliding down her legs. A drawer opened and closed. He heard the rustle of silk moving across skin. He listened to her skirt rustle into place, to the soft sounds as she buttoned her blouse. He turned around.
Her long, dark tresses tumbled down around her shoulders. She took a comb off the dresser, her hair responding with tiny electric snaps and hisses as she pulled the teeth through.
Another half an hour and the child had become a woman. He watched her every move, from the way she twisted and styled her thick hair to the small movements her hands made as she brushed hints of rose onto her cheeks and lips.
No matter how many times he observed her, her fascination never lessened. So like Gwendolyne. The memory of his dead wife burned in the light that danced around her.
A knock sounded: "Tina?"
The girl's mother.
"Zack is downstairs."
"I'm almost ready. Tell him I'm on my way."
Tina regarded herself in the mirror, pressed her lips together experimentally, nodded. With a final murmur of approval she turned her back on the mirror, snatched her purse from the nightstand, and clicked off the light.
He stood alone in the darkness, listening to her feet patter down the hall. He knew her name. He knew her destination. Tonight, as he often did, he would follow her.
Justin walked to the dresser and picked up her comb. He removed a strand of her hair, drew it slowly through his fingers. Standing there, thinking of her, thinking of her light and his darkness, he forgot himself. His gaze crossed the mirror.
Two glowing red glints appeared, strangely glimmering beneath the surface of the glass.
Caught! His stomach clenched and his eyes ached. He gritted his teeth. The two burning slits of red grew brighter. In the mirror, wisps of crimson smoke began to drift upward from the blazing eyes.
A familiar voice filled his mind like steel searing into a mold, hissing and glowing with unbearable heat.
"My servant," It said.
"Master," he whispered.
"My own gallant knight, Justinian, the honorable Earl of Sterling," the voice mused, as if enumerating the features of a particularly prized possession. The sound wrapped him in its coils. He could feel the pressure, suddenly found it hard to breathe.
"Are you well this evening?"
"Quite well, master."
"I rejoice in the news. Do inform me, my loyal servant, of your mission here. I'm curious."
"I am merely watching, master."
"As am I. Such a fragile flower, is she not?" The Dragon's fiery gaze bored into him. "And, of course, one so easily crushed. Like all such flowers."