"Your name, pale one?" the manticore asked, eyes gleaming red, and Draco felt the points of claws dig slightly into his robes.
"Draco… Malfoy," he wheezed.
"How about this, Dray-co Mal-foy," hissed the manticore, "since you are a chatty child instead of a screaming one, which is quite a rare treat! I'll tell you a riddle, and you take one guess. If you win, I'll let you go. If you lose…" the manticore tilted its face back, grinning with its three rows of monster teeth.
The manticore tilted its face forward again, smiling. "If a blue house is made out of blue bricks, a yellow house is made out of yellow bricks, and a red house is made out of red bricks, what is a green house made of?"
"Green bricks," he almost gasped, but stopped himself. Riddles were practically never the obvious answer. What is a green house made of? A greenhouse?
"Glass," he said. The manticore narrowed its eyes, but its grin widened.
"Best two of three, Dray-co."
"You said if I win…"
The claws dug into his chest. Was he just going to have to keep besting the manticore at riddling until daylight broke and someone came looking for him? His wand was just barely out of reach. He'd never been good at wandless magic, but maybe… maybe he could pull it to him while the beast was distracted.
He said, "How about this? We take turns asking riddles. If you miss one, you let me go. If I miss one… you don't."
The manticore tilted its head. "Tell me a riddle, Draco."
Draco wracked his brain for riddles. He'd read a book of them, he thought, when he was a child. Hell if he remembered any good ones.
"Okay," he said, feeling sweat start to dampen his neck, "If I have it, I don't share it. If I share it, I don't have it. What is it?"
The manticore tilted its head in the other direction. It was growling, softly, as it stared down at him.
"Well?" Draco demanded.
"…A secret," said the manticore, "Ooh, I liked that one. Now it's my turn. What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end, and the end of every place?"
Merlin's pants. He tried focusing on pulling the wand to his hand. No dice. He was hardcore going to die in the gut of a manticore.
"Well?" the manticore demanded.
"Give me a second!" Draco snapped, "You took your sweet time with mine."
Accio! He screamed, inside his head, ignoring the riddle, focusing on one thing only. Come on!
He felt his wand fly into his hand, and shouted, "Protego!"
The manticore snarled as a shield burst between them, shoving it back and away from him. He sat up, shakily, wand held aloft, shield shimmering faintly in the air. The manticore stalked around him, searching for a crack in the shield, and Draco followed it with his wand.
"Dray-co," the manticore sang, and soft, lilting music started to hum from its monster throat once more, "You didn't answer my riddle."
The answer came to him, painted in his mind's eye. This one was a word game.
"The letter E," he spat, "And that's two of three. Let me go."
The manticore sat down on its haunches and stared at him, face cocked slightly to the right. Its stinging tail lashed left and right.
"Why are you here in my forest, anyway?" it asked him.
Draco fought a groan of frustration and exhaustion. He reminded himself that he now had a shield between himself and the beast, which was a much better circumstance to be in than pinned wandless.
"I couldn't sleep."
"Oh? But why are you here? In my forest?"
"I'm visiting the Singhs," he said.
"The Singhs," the manticore repeated, "Ah. Tell me, have you met Samira?"
"My mother's hoping I marry her," he said dully, "But it's not going great."
"Ohhhhh," said the manticore, eyes widening, "Ohhhh! You're Dray-co Mal-foy! You're family!"
"Uh," said Draco, "Yes, I did tell you so. Are you going to let me walk home now or not?"
"I'll escort you," said the manticore importantly, getting to its feet, "I'll make sure nothing in this forest tries to snatch you. There are quite dangerous creatures living here, you know?"
"Delightful," said Draco acidly, "You'll forgive me if I leave my shield up."
The manticore laughed, and its music faded. "Lady Singh should've told me we had guests. But c'mon. I was so hungry for human flesh, you can't blame me for trying."
"Bloody hell," Malfoy muttered, under his breath.
The manticore padded alongside him all the way down the road. They arrived at the back door of the Singh palace, and the manticore sat back down on its haunches.
"Hey," it said, its face suddenly serious. He still had his wand out in front of him, holding the shield steady.
He narrowed his eyes, backing up against the door.
"Do me a favor, pale one?"
"Depends on the favor."
"Invite me into the palace."
Draco snorted. "Not a chance."
The manticore's tail lashed, once. "Pretty please?"
"Like I said, not a bloody chance in hell."
"Fine, you inedible, intractable bone-tower. Then tell Samira, I remember what she's done."
Without waiting for a reply, the manticore stood, whirled, and loped off into the night.
Draco stood at the doorway for a while, staring into the forest, insect-song ringing in the air. He finally took down the shield and went back inside.
He wouldn't sleep again that night.
Just after dawn, Draco went down to the dining patio in the gardens. Samira was already there, looking sleepy. Her usually immaculate hair was slightly disheveled, her robes informal and beige-toned. She had a book floating open in front of her, and a glass of juice in her hand.
"You're up early," he said to her, and pulled up a chair. A spread of warm food and cold, glistening fruit appeared in front of him.
She looked up from her book, and absently wiped at the corner of her eye.
"You too," she said.
Draco picked up a fork and helped himself to a strawberry. "I went for a walk in the grounds last night."
She kept looking at him. She raised a wand and waved it vaguely, and the book vanished with a soft whoosh.
"That was bold of you. Didn't Mother warn you about the beasts?"
The corner of his mouth twitched. "I ran into a manticore. Please tell me you only have one of those murderous beasts on your grounds?"
Samira's face remained studiously impassive. "Just the one. I'm impressed you're still here in the waking world."
"It very nearly ate me," he said, as casually as possible, "But in the end it walked me back and asked to be invited in."
Her face was almost rigid in its expressionlessness. "And did you?"
"Of course not," he said, deeply insulted, "Do I look like an idiot?"
After another second of blankness, Samira cracked a smile, "Oh come on, cousin, you're just begging for it now."
"It had a message for you. 'I remember what you've done.' I don't suppose you'll tell me what that means?"
"Nope," she said cheerfully, and waved her wand again. The book popped back into being. "Come with me to town today, I've got some shopping to do."
The downtown turned out to be much louder and more colorful than Draco remembered. The streets were narrow to begin with, and crowded with small stalls full of witches and wizards selling their wares.
Samira slipped through the crowd as easily as water, and Draco fought to keep her in sight, desperately keeping his eyes fixed on the shimmering golden scarf she had draped over head. He suspected it had been enhanced with an Allurement Charm, which thankfully made it easier to follow.
Abruptly, his fifth-cousin squeezed gracefully between two stalls and stepped into a storefront, and when Draco tried to follow her he nearly toppled a delicate stack of crystal cauldrons, and was shouted at for it. He had no idea how Samira, who was surely two or three times as wide as him, was able to navigate the tight spaces with ease.
The store was dimly lit, and pungent with the smell of a thousand spices. He swept his eyes across the store and concluded it must be a specialty apothecary for potion ingredients. Jars and boxes and shelves were stacked floor to ceiling along every wall. Barrels and baskets each labeled in three unrecognizable languages littered the floor. An incredibly bored-looking witch sat behind the counter, wearing three glass lenses over one eye and inspecting an silver egg held in her gloved hand. On the counter was a small basket with two more eggs, and Samira's elbows. She was chatting animatedly at the stoic witch, who eventually set the egg back in the basket and shrugged, shook her head, tapped a hand on the counter.
Samira's grin did not slip, and the two witches argued back and forth, until eventually the clerk nodded and took two of the three eggs. She put them behind the counter, and withdrew a cloth sack that clinked as she set it down on the counter. Samira took the sack, stowed it up her sleeve, and then did the same with the basket.
She turned, golden scarf swirling gently around her as she did so. "Draco! Anything you want from here?"
He shook his head, and watched her purchase a paper bag and several glass jars of ingredients, which she stowed up her sleeve. She then zipped out the apothecary, and he trailed after her.
And so he spent the rest of that morning continually trying to chase down Samira as she went from store to stand to store, selling and buying and selling again. He wondered if this was some sort of test of athletics, and tried not to think about how he'd rather be back at the palace sleeping.
When the sun reached a blazing heat overhead, the two of them stopped at a marble fountain in the middle of a square. Draco felt the cooling charms in his robe working overtime, cool air breezing through his sleeves, but sweat still prickled at his forehead.
"I love this fountain," Samira said, sitting down at the marble edge. She produced about five plates of food from up her sleeve and gestured for him to sit down. He did.
"You've been running me through an obstacle course," he said, picking up a small dumpling-like thing from its floating plate and biting into it.
"And you've been keeping up pretty well," she grinned, "But hm, how do I put this? I think you ought to go back to England."
He stared at her, silently, and raised his eyebrows slightly, putting on and expression of mild discontent.
"Why put me through this rigamarole this morning, then?" he demanded.
"Oh, I didn't want anyone to overhear us," she said, "Look, I like you well enough, but I'm not all that comfortable with the fact that your home country's enforcement officers are after you. Our palace is not some kind of refugee camp. You ought to go sort that out first, and then come back and see if I'm still available."
He took another bite of the dumpling, chewed, swallowed. The spices left his whole mouth tingling.
"You're awfully blunt, aren't you?" he observed, "And you already knew my family was having a… political vacation at your house. Why are you bringing this up now?"
She shrugged. "Hey, it's not my fault your family sided with some nutter who wanted to exterminate the dirty lower castes or whatever it was. A foolish thing to do, if you ask me. If we didn't have the dirty lower castes, just who would you and I be superior to?"
"You haven't answered my question," he said, narrowing his eyes.
She took a piece of naan and dipped it into a sauce. "I guess… I've started to like you a little bit better. But I don't like your baggage. And also…" she paused, leaned in, "I'm worried about you being enchanted by that beast."
"What beast, the manticore?"
"You have got to be joking."
"I'm deadly serious," she said, though she was smiling faintly, "That creature is under a curse, only to be lifted if it eats enough people and enchants enough people. I've had three suitors fall in love with it already. And eaten. Wait." She held up a hand, and counted on her fingers, "Yeah, three."
Draco stared at her, completely at a loss. She surely had to be pulling his leg.
"It's a manticore," he said.
"Well, if you can survive the manticore, you can survive my family. But I don't want your Malfoy family Dark Lord politics cramping my style in the future. So, here is my proposal to you."
She held out one hand, and the third, unsold silver egg rolled out onto her palm.
"I, Samira, heir of line Singh, set you these challenges three: First, tame the creature that hatches from this egg. Next, clear your name in the court of England. Finally, take the manticore that stalks our forest with you to your homeland, and slay it. If you do these things, we may marry."
Draco looked at her. She looked dead serious. The henna winding around her fingers and wrist began to glow a faint gold.
"You do like me," he said, faintly surprised, "Even though you go out partying every night."
"That's part of the reason I like you," she said, "you don't get in my way."
He considered Samira. This was a formal sort of marriage request from her, very traditional, modern only in that she had issued it directly, rather than having their parents work it out. Magically binding. They had come to know each other quite well over the past few weeks, and Draco found that he did like her well enough.
He took the egg from her hand. "I accept your challenges."
He raised the egg up to eye-level. It was speckled with shimmering flecks of tyrian purple. "What sort of egg is this?" he asked.
Her smile widened, "If I told you, that'd be cheating, wouldn't it?"
A/N: thanks 4 reading, send me Commentsss