Chapter Four (or something like it)

Jurai Tainumaun was a good king. He lived well, died well, and is well remembered. The enormous painting in the great hall shows him at his valiant last defense, standing with drawn sword on the prow of the ill-fated flagship. It is not an excellent likeness in the face. But how well can one do with needle and thread and nothing but memory’s guess instead of a living subject?

The attack was sudden. The enemy ship was fast, for it was one of our own commandeered; it reached Ruanet before any warning of its loss could get through. Our new flagship was only on an inspection tour of the bay. The enemy may have known the royal family was (in large part) aboard it, or may only have been disastrously lucky, but seeing a warship between them and the capital island and knowing the element of surprise yet theirs, they engaged it of course — running up their colors only at the last wretched moment. They knew then. My father in his twenty minutes as a ship’s captain made good the Tainumaun name. He knew that ship’s builder and he knew its timbers; he knew its weak spot and ordered a shot straight through it. Both ships sank.

I was not there. I heard the cannon fire from the top of the castle wall, and instantly leaped up from my studies, scattering paper and heedlessly dropping volume two of The Natural History of the Archipelago over the edge. By the time I fought through panicked crowds around the docks I found the lifeboats had already arrived and emptied. I ran back home and followed faces of mute panic up to my father’s bedchamber where they had laid him down.

He breathed shallowly. A spot of deep vital red soaked fast through his bandage, and his face was paler than the bedlinens. He saved the lives of twenty men, said the bloodied sailors who had carried him, and the elder prince put an arrow through the eye of the enemy captain before he fell. I looked out the window. One sunk ship was no victory. Countless masts of Resaivus now rimmed the the horizon.

“Where is Derek?” I asked. “Where is my brother?”

No answers came but miserable silence.

Elias shuffled into the room after me. I pushed his hand off my shoulder.

I hated that line of ships. I felt like a speck of dust against so many swords and cannons. They would force apart with might and number what that one swift lie had split open, and we could not hope to survive it. If only I could make the sea swallow them all —

The red spot spread, and I hated it. I hated my father’s paleness and gasping. I hated that my father must die, so suddenly and yet with such an agonizing and breathless delay; that rather than die in a rush of valor he should instead have time to see the loss of his heir and kingdom, and maybe even to foresee the failure and death of a second son unprepared to be king. I hated the way his searching eyes lighted on my face with such fear and pleading in them. Doom rolled from his shoulders, missing my dead brother’s to fall heavy on mine, and I was sure my bones would crack under its weight. I was eighteen.

***

“I’m sorry,” Neivain said. Her hands twisted in her lap, twitching with an impulse to take one of mine, clasping again with uncertainty. She did keep that clear gaze fixed resolutely on my face — she would look steadily into my eyes while I spoke, hidden though they were. I marveled at myself for letting my own eyes drop so often abstractedly to the floor, though she certainly couldn’t see me doing it.

“Thank you,” I said.

***

We do not have enough ships to meet them, the sailors were telling Elias, not here. If Resaivus’ fleet has come this far, it has surely left wrecked ships in its wake. None of our islands can come to our aid in time. Nothing but a scant hour stands between us and that advancing line of destruction. If Kun Tainumaun is to survive, we will need a miracle.

And they were right. That was the day, you see, that the dragon returned to Kun Tainumaun. How, I cannot say. When there were dragons in the old days, there was always war; maybe it went the other way, maybe the war summoned the dragon. There he was. He swooped round the mountaintop and saw Ruanet surrounded by ships. And they saw him. For a moment nobody was sure what would happen.

An insane notion sprang into my mind, and I seized upon it with all the certainty that fear of death creates by contrast. Wasn’t half a chance worth taking, on a day like this? A dragon could do what I could not. I had to try.

I ran to the dungeons and the ear-marked pages of old books. I knew that if I were to succeed, I must be able to match the dragon’s will with mine; I must place the magic lever and pivot that would turn all that power of wind and fire easily under a boy’s hand.
This problem I had studied carefully and at length, in private hours of study. I had scoured the old books for dragons’ strength, weakness, desire; I had calculated the terrible buying power of an infant’s heartbeat, the weight of summer sunshine. I had planned the magical device one would build to hold a dragon and the bargains one could make to tighten it. I knew that the impossible was only wildly expensive. I do not know whether obedience, or fear, or simple want of an excuse had kept these spells constrained so long to paper, never taken up and tested in my hands; all three, perhaps. All three that day failed me.

I had half the spell laid in by the time Elias caught up.

“I know what I can do,” I said fiercely. “And if I can do it, I must do it now.”

“Magic, my lord! This is madness. You vowed to your father that you would never turn this unprofitable study to practice,” Elias said. “The danger is too great. Come with me!”

I did not.

I steadied myself and let my prices fall through my spell, like deadbolts. One half this mortal life I pay: one bolt riveted me in place. One channel of my heart I sever: the other fell. The chain to bind him was now in my hand, and my hand likewise bound to it; I could not let go, and the dragon’s only way forward was in my harness.

He noticed. He saw my magic. He traced it back and saw me.

I felt him with fear and freezing, as one feels an accusing gaze nearly stop the heart, and I stood frozen as his terrible eye in my mind seemed to grow larger and closer. The windowless room in which I stood faded from my view. That eye, and my spell (intricate and fragile as a child’s castle of playing cards) were the only solid things in the world. Elias called to me as though from a great distance, but I could not understand the words; instead there were only the sounds, layered tones making visible ripples in the air, each individual vibration with clarity and weight and distinct value. The stones under my feet were quantities of mass and motion. I shut it all out. I dared not let my focus drift.

Who are you? he demanded, and his voice was no voice in my ear but a sickening question in my own gut, Who am I

I am Estan Tainumaun and your master, I bluffed —

He laughed.

Why should I serve you? — and the solid ground slithered like sand under my shaking legs, Why —

Because I hate my enemy, was the most foolish thing I could possibly have said, and in panic I said it.

His scornful eye roved over me a long moment. He saw my rage, and suddenly his fire flowed into that space and seared it. He found the threat of my enemy in my mind, and turned his own yellow eye with delighted malice toward the north. Then he found my title, still so new it stung, and sank his talons greedily in.

Which channel? He asked. I felt the certainty of my preparations shake out of my hands and for a moment I could no longer remember. Which channel do you sever for me? Do you forfeit speech? Touch? Sight? Which one?

Does it matter which, as long as the weight is equal? I choked out, and he laughed again.

You choose, then, magician and Master; and I will choose which half of your life you lose.

And the bargain was struck. He stepped into my balance and I was lifted into the void to hang opposite him. A shift of my weight, a pressure of my hand on that magic apparatus, and he rose into the air like a kite turning where I wished. It was a rush like no other.

My rage was his. His power was mine.

Under my command he broke masts, capsized and burned ships, tore flesh. He plucked a captain or two from the water and flung them terrified but alive on beaches bristling with swords. Within an hour the entire fleet of Resaivus was at the bottom of the sea, and the war of seven long years was won.

The dragon perched himself on a cliff and watched the sun go down. Below him uproar raged along the streets and breathless panic boiled away into the night. Then he slithered into the trees. I collapsed against a cold stone wall shaking with relief. What was done was done. I had fulfilled my duty as protector. I had saved lives; I had won the war; I had subdued the dragon, though it cost me dearly. The tricky part was over and now all that remained was to pick up the pieces.

***

“You did do magic, then?”

“Once,” I said.

“Which half of your life did he choose?” Neivain asked urgently. “What does that mean?”

“It’s —”

“How old are you? Thirty, nearly thirty? How long have you got?”

“Ah, I see,” I said, and took her clenched hand in mine. “No, it’s not like that. At least, I don’t know how long I’ve got — nobody does — but I have no plans to die soon. Don’t worry.”

She had known me three days. It could not be love yet — why should I think so? — it was likely a dozen other fears of her own. I could ask her not to fear becoming a widow immediately after becoming a wife, but I dared not try to explain why. I feared I had already drawn her too close to the truth.

“Is that answer enough?” I asked.

Neivain blinked thoughtfully. “I imagine you can’t tell me what the magic actually was?”

One half this mortal life I pay, one channel of my heart I sever,” I repeated. “Those aren’t the magic, but they are the spell the magic made. They’re the bargains that keep the dragon bound to my service. You wouldn’t want to know the magic itself — it’s deceptively simple, and easy to do wrong.”

“Oh! I didn’t mean to try it!”

“And I never intended to, really. Things happen to force one’s hand. You’re better off not knowing.”

“So the dragon obeys you, then,” she said, “in exchange for half your life, however long that will be — and as long as you keep your face hidden.” She scrutinized my mask. “Your face; that’s the channel you chose, isn’t it? It’s not that you can’t show your face. It’s that you mustn’t, or he will go free.”

I had not said so. Her guess was not completely true, but it was frighteningly close. The imperative in it was correct at least, and that was the only part I needed her to understand.

“So if you are going to be my wife,” I said, “you must promise me you will never look at my face. Setting loose that dragon is not worth a single moment’s curiosity. I have held him more than ten years and I will not loose him now. I dare not.”

“I understand.”

“I know you don’t. But —”

“I understand. And I promise,” she said. She curtsied slightly, finally dropping her eyes — “And I will be your wife, if that is still your intention. My lord. Estan.”

I knew she had more questions than she dared ask all at once. I knew — we both knew — that my answers had been half-answers. But she took what I gave her and demanded no more. Elias had made a prudent choice.

Her face was kind. She stood without fear — no, not fearlessly, but bravely. I would have kissed her then, if I could have; instead I touched her lips with the back of my fingers, and I think she understood what I meant, though she didn’t know quite how to reciprocate. I wouldn’t have known either. She bid me goodnight with dignity and grace and a quick smile.

***

My father lived until barely two in the morning. As soon as I was able to climb the stairs again — I was shaking and exhausted — Elias helped me into his room. It was dark. He had been asking for me.

I leaned close and caught the words he whispered.

“Have you seen it? Has a dragon really returned?” he asked. And when I nodded, his face fell yet further into weak despair.

Elias spoke quietly, his hand on my shoulder. “It has destroyed our enemy, my lord. Whatever its meaning, it has protected our people and killed only our invaders.”

But my father only shook his head.

“I fear for us nonetheless. The return of a dragon must be an evil sign. I fear for you, Estan; you might have inherited only a war with men, and that was a fearsome enough thing, but now you must do battle with a monster. It is out of my hands.”

I wanted to comfort him, to tell him that I had already won that battle.

“Where did it come from?” he asked. His eyes were on the ceiling now. He asked this question of the universe, he asked it of God; he did not expect an answer from me. And I was grateful at the time, for I could not have given it to him. I could not have borne to do it even had I dared speak. I could feel Elias watching me, and I was grateful that he, too, stayed silent.

Elias had seen it all. He had seen the dragon before anyone else saw it, before it swooped down on the sea; he had seen it burst out through a barred dungeon window; he had seen it burst into the world through my skin. He knew what I had done.

I had unlocked the door that separated oblivion from the world of flesh and blood. The spells to bind the dragon had been intricate, of necessity, but the spell to summon him had been simpler than I had even expected. Scarcely had I touched the latch than the door burst open, his will at once awoken behind it. He was like a tidal wave, a lava flow, a hurricane; and under his onrush I wound certainly have died, and the whole of Tainumaun likely after me, had my bolts not fallen just in time. He stepped into my harness because I had fixed it, and myself, across that door; and when he came into the world, he came through me. He was in me still.

I held the locked magic desperately tight. I held my tongue.

“Please tell me you will not despair,” my father said, seeing the distress on my face. “I know the blood of dragonslayers is in you, though it is centuries old.”

I shook my head. He lifted a cold hand to my face. “Why will you not speak, my son?”

I could not answer.

I wished I had chosen any other channel to sever, for this one night. Let me be blind. Let my skin feel nothing, let my hands wither, let me cover my face forever — that, I felt certain, would have the same weight in the spell — if only I could have spoken that night. But what was done was done and the cold clenched tight around my chest so that I could barely breathe. I dared not speak.

My father died without an answer.

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Chapter 3

She arrived on an afternoon draped in sunlight and autumn crimson. From a high cliff through the dragon’s eye I saw the Kiavanu ship glide into the bay. I did not fly down. Elias received them on my behalf, with all due ceremony and his own gruff cheerfulness to fill in the gaps. I had given Rikkar the day off.

That night was warmer than most. So in accordance with my wish, lanterns were lit all along the terrace and a fire in its great open chimney, and dinner was served outdoors. The last of the sunset sparkled off silver and crystal. Shadows gathered under the trees below in the garden. Snatches of easy conversation and the notes of a harp drifted in through open windows, with the perfumes of woodsmoke and dry leaves. A perfect reception, apparently, in all possible respects — but for my absence.

I hesitated in the front room making sure I hadn’t missed a button or fastened the Tainumaun shoulder-pin upside down. Elias would have groused at me to let the servants help more with my clothing, but Elias was busy and so I had again escaped as much of that uncomfortable fate as I could. I stepped back from the door and regarded myself a second time in the mirror. The buttons and pin were perfect. I knew they were. Nothing was amiss, except of course the mask, and my continued presence alone in this room.

I heard a young woman’s laugh. I resisted the temptation to peer around the sill of the window.

I approached the door again with purpose in my stride.

“Will His Highness be joining us soon?” An older woman’s voice, courteous but a little fussy. I turned aside and paced once pointlessly around the room while outside Elias explained something essentially true about my duties and how eager I was to finish them.

I remembered the Lady Kiavan vaguely; I remembered her husband better. I had spoken with them in person once, years ago, on business. And at that time Lord Kiavan had made no secret of his disapproval of me. But — as my father had put into law while he lived — words spoken to the king face-to-face in the hearing of peers were sacred, and were to be answered in the same manner or not at all; I was young and preoccupied and I chose the latter. Since then Lord Kiavan had remained a forthright and sensible subject, resisting close oversight but upholding the law and his duties. I doubted his mind had changed in my regard. Yet he had come, with his daughter, to my castle. What happened now — it was already happening, with or without me.

I threw myself at the door before a second or third thought could interfere. Unannounced, with no fanfare and no attendants, as I preferred; the door’s hinges were hilariously silent as well, and so it took a few strange seconds for the dinner party to notice. The Lord and Lady Kiavan sat facing Elias and his wife Anja, all four engaged in conversation; it was the young red-haired lady sitting comfortably at the end of the table, resting her chin on her hand and her gaze on the castle doors, who saw me first. No surprise crossed her face. No shock, not even a change in posture. Her eyes only opened a little wider and she drew in a long slow breath.

Then Elias stood and rather loudly announced His Highness the King Estan Tainumaun, which of course shattered the repose of the evening as efficiently as a bucket of cold water. The ladies stopped their conversation mid-sentence, and everyone set down their glasses and scrambled to their feet so as to bow or curtsy.

“I’m sorry I’ve had to keep you all waiting,” I said. “Please, please, sit! I hope your wait hasn’t been tiresome.” I sat down between Elias and Lord Kiavan and leaned hard into friendly conversation — my only recourse when anxious eyes couldn’t stop darting so rapidly from my mask to the floor and back.

I asked after their travels (long, but in fair weather), their island (should be a good year for wine), their health (tolerable, though Lady Kiavan suffers from a mild cough). I graciously deflected compliments about the dinner and the gardens (it was Anja, primarily, who had arranged them).

“It has been a long time since I’ve seen the capitol,” Lord Kiavan said. He sat straight, but rested his hands comfortably on the table. They were hands that looked capable of easily crushing mine. “There was more travel for me in those days, under your father the king. I always liked to see this place.”

“Those were good days,” I agreed. “I would be glad to see any aspect of them return.”

Lord Kiavan chuckled. “Except the war, I suppose?”

“Except that, obviously.”

“I jest, my lord! You and I both remember it too well for disrespect. At least, I meant nothing against your father or his reign. He was a good and honorable king. He fought for us better than I daresay any king ever has.”

“He was,” I said after a pause. The pause was too like the enigmatic silence, regrettably, which had no place at this table, but it allowed me to choose the second option once again. “He was a good king. A good father, too. If I cannot have him back, then perhaps I can learn to be half the man he was.” I raised a glass (either Elias or Anja had set one for me, though they knew I wouldn’t drink anything) and offered, “To better times again.”

Everyone repeated the toast, and drank. Elias shot me a half-nod and a half-smile.

All this time the young lady Neivain sat silently watching me, with her hands tightly clasped in her lap. Her face was like rain on a window — peaceful, only by its muting effect on the lashing storm behind it. She dropped her gaze only once or twice and I found myself faltering, distracted and waiting nervously for it to drop again.

When the dinner party began to dissolve and I asked her to walk in the garden, she accepted graciously and with a smile, but her hand when I took it was shaking.

We went slowly through the trees under the terrace wall. The lingering voices were dim above us. I had thought to show her the rose garden; when we reached it I hastened to assure her that it looked a lot more interesting in summer. Most of the bushes had given up for the year, but here and there a flower remained, looking especially luxuriant by isolation among withered branches. Neivain obligingly bent to smell one.

I couldn’t quite think of what else to say.

“Right,” I said, as she straightened up. “Well. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that I wear a mask.”

Her trembling poise finally fell apart, and for a moment I was certain she would cry. But then an undignified snorting noise turned into a full-throated laugh. She attempted to restrain it behind both hands.

“I’m sorry,” she coughed out between gales of laughter, “Excuse me — your Highness, I—”

“Oh, don’t bother with the Your Highness business.”

“My lord! My lord, of course — I’m not laughing at you, I promise I’m—”

“I mean, you may just call me Estan,” I said. “Estan. That’s what’s buried underneath all the titles. Just my name.”

She wiped her eyes with a shaking hand. “Are you sure?”

“Fairly sure,” I said drily. “I mean, you might as well call me by name at this point. Anyway I’m king, so who’s going to say you can’t?”

She laughed again and agreed this was so, then apologized again. I rather helplessly shook my head.

“I’m not usually like this,” she protested, “at least, I hope I’m not — I’m just nervous!” No sooner had this confession burst from her lips than the storm of panic burst over her face again.

I replied with the first words that sprang to mind, for better or worse, and found I could hardly have done otherwise. “Well, you’re not the only one,” I said.

She mustered a thin smile. I sat down on a low wall and motioned for her to join me.

“Listen,” I said, “I wear a mask. I stay up most of the night. I know you have questions. And I suppose I owe you apologies in advance, because you must understand there are certain arrangements I cannot change, and there are certain questions I will not — cannot answer. But you need have no fear of asking. What I can answer, I will answer honestly. I promise that.”

Neivain thought for a while, biting her lip. Then she asked with surprising intensity, “Is it true that when you were sixteen, your brother knocked you out a tower window and you fell twenty feet but somehow weren’t hurt, but then you hid in the bushes —”

I laughed — a real laugh.

“— hid in the bushes for an hour afterward to make sure he was really sorry, and everyone thought you’d vanished and they went so far as to send a search party into the woods that didn’t come back until after dark, and after everyone was in a panic they discovered you waiting in the main hall like nothing had happened? Or is that just one of those stories people tell?”

“To be clear,” I replied, “he didn’t do it on purpose. But essentially, yes.”

“How did you fall twenty feet and not get hurt?”

“Ivy, followed by some bushes, and then an unused passage behind the kitchens. I’ll show you sometime. And if I did bruise a rib or two, I certainly didn’t let on.”

“Hm!”

“That’s the question you wanted to ask first?” I said incredulously.

“I’ve been wondering about that for years. It didn’t seem plausible.”

“Well, that was my aim at the time. My sixteen year old self would be pleased to know it worked.”

We both looked back at the castle for a while.

“Oh, go on, go on,” I finally said. “Please. The suspense is too thick.”

“Alright, then — my lord—”

“Estan—”

“—Estan … why do you wear a mask?”

“Right,” I said. “That one I can’t answer. At least not just yet.”

She shrugged. “Of course.” She looked searchingly all over the mask. “At least — please don’t be offended, but — you have got a face under there, right?”

“Yes. What? Of course I have a face!”

“I just mean — well, nobody rightly knows I’m sure, but people say things anyway. They say that some magic you did once required your face as payment for something, and so you wear a mask because there’s nothing underneath it —”

“No! God, no.” I reflected a moment. “That would be horrific. People really think that?”

She laughed nervously. “Well, they say it. Not that I ever really believed it. I didn’t actually think of it much at all. Think of you. At all. Until two weeks ago.”

“I hope it hasn’t been an excruciating two weeks,” I said.

“Why, has it been so for you?”

“No,” I said slowly, and regretted that my bemused smile couldn’t assist. “Though I confess some relief at finding this evening far more pleasant an engagement than… than I typically expect my appearance to produce.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “I admit, it does feel better to know than to wonder.”

We looked around the gardens for a while. Then she shivered. In response to questioning she admitted forthrightly that she was cold, and tired as well. I accompanied her inside and left her in the capable hands of Anja and an assortment of maids at the bottom of the stairs to the east wing where her chambers awaited.

Lord Kiavan was in the front room, holding a drink and regarding the line of portraits over the fireplace.

“She’s a wonderful young woman,” I said, coming up at his elbow. He recovered from a near spill, and agreed.

“I am glad you came,” I pressed on. “As you said. It’s been far too long since our two islands have communicated.”

“I expect that will change if my daughter wishes to stay.”

“I hope it will change regardless. We don’t wish our border islands to be neglected.”

“Of course not, my lord.”

A pause.

“There was a ship,” I said, “a ship from the north at anchor in your bay these two weeks ago.”

“Indeed there was.”

“When was I going to hear about that ship?”

“I assumed you already had, my lord,” he said, “as your dragon saw it the day it arrived.”

I conceded his point with a tip of my head.

“And, as I received your summons two days later, I determined to carry the details myself,” he continued. “It was a message, my lord, from the king of Resaivus, to this effect: that they are considering declaring the dragon’s activity at sea, including his surveillance of trade, an impermissible war crime. They wished to negotiate some concessions in the dragon’s regard and though the messenger did not ever say so in so many words, he made it clear that any man of them would kill the dragon if given the opportunity.”

I digested this. I was grateful for the thin space of privacy behind my mask where I could panic unobserved.

“If their intention was truly to negotiate, why stop at my outer islands? Why not ask an audience with me?” I asked. My voice shook a little — let it seem like anger, not fear. In truth it was both.

“Wanted to find out whether the lord of a border island felt the same way about the beast, and whether he would help them.” Lord Kiavan took a long drink and watched the fire.

“And?”

“I told him yes to the first,” he said flatly, turning his eyes to me. “You know, my lord, that I do not trust the dragon overmuch. But I told him that the second question smacked of treason. He denied having really asked it, of course, and the ship departed the next day bearing what I imagine is displeasing news. And if and when Resaivus learns of my current errand, he will probably be even more displeased.”

“I have wondered whether he would stoop to something like this,” I said.

“Subterfuge? Well, he is persistent. And now that … now that Tainumaun has eyes and fire in the sky that have rendered his fleet so ineffectual, what other tactics could he pursue?”

I drew in a long breath and watched the firelight flicker. I felt suddenly very tired, though it was still not even midnight.

“My lord,” said Kiavan after a while, “I await my daughter’s answer, but for my part, I only wish to know that the dragon will never hurt her if she stays here.”

“I promise it,” I said vehemently. “Few things could I promise with such certainty. The dragon is in my power and I swear that it will not harm her. She will be safe here. And I will do all I can to make her happy here as well.”

“Good,” he said. His face did not quite echo the sentiment, I thought.

I watched the fire a long time after he left.

(the first half-ish of) Chapter 3

She arrived on an afternoon draped in sunlight and autumn crimson. From a high cliff through the dragon’s eye I saw the Kiavanu ship glide into the bay. I did not fly down. Elias received them on my behalf, with all due ceremony and his own gruff cheerfulness to fill in the gaps. I had given Rikkar the day off.

That night was warmer than most. So in accordance with my wish, lanterns were lit all along the terrace and a fire in its great open chimney, and dinner was served outdoors. The last of the sunset sparkled off silver and crystal. Shadows gathered under the trees below in the garden. Snatches of easy conversation and the notes of a harp drifted in through open windows, with the perfumes of woodsmoke and dry leaves. A perfect reception, apparently, in all possible respects — but for my absence.

I hesitated alone in the front room making sure I hadn’t missed a button or fastened the Tainumaun shoulder-pin upside down. Elias would have groused at me to let a servant help with dressing, but Elias was busy and so I had escaped this fate yet again. I stepped back from the door and regarded myself a second time in the mirror. My buttons and pin were perfect. I knew they were. I looked regal yet comfortable, fashionable yet understated. Nothing was amiss, except of course the mask and my continued presence alone in this room.

I heard a young woman’s laugh. I resisted the temptation to peer around the sill of the window.

I approached the door again with purpose in my stride.

“Will His Highness be joining us soon?” An older woman’s voice, courteous but a little fussy. I turned aside and paced once pointlessly around the room while Elias explained something essentially true about my duties and how eager I was to finish them.

I remembered the Lady Kiavan vaguely; I remembered her husband better. I had spoken with them in person once, years ago, on business. And at that time Lord Kiavan had made no secret of his disapproval of me. But — as my father had put into law while he lived — words spoken to the king face-to-face in the hearing of peers were sacred, and were to be answered in the same manner or not at all; I was young and preoccupied and I chose the latter. Since then Lord Kiavan had remained a forthright and sensible subject, resisting close oversight but upholding the law and his duties. I doubted his mind had changed in my regard. Yet he had come, with his daughter, to my castle. What happened now — it was already happening, with or without me.

I threw myself at the door before a second or third thought could interfere.

Unannounced, with no fanfare and no attendants, as I preferred. The door’s hinges were hilariously silent. And so it took a few strange seconds for the dinner party to notice. The young red-haired lady, sitting comfortably at the far side of the table resting her gaze idly on the castle doors, saw me first. No surprise crossed her face, no shock, not even a change in posture. Her eyes only sharpened their focus and she drew in a calm breath.

Then Elias went and announced me.

(the entirety this time of) Chapter Two

The first dragon I ever saw was lying in attitude dormant, wings folded, amid ornate scrollwork at the base of Kun Tainumaun’s coat of arms. He was only there to be stood on by the knight. Silver stitches held his eyes shut.

The clearest description I could find in the history books was of great beasts with leathern winges and sharpe teethe, in whose bellies a furnesse burneth that fyre and smoke may issue from their mouthes. The drawings were just guesses. Some would have dragons as winged horses, while others made them more like serpents, others like birds. The authors and illustrators had clearly never seen a dragon themselves. And they were less concerned with describing them than with listing the cities they burned, and the names of men who had killed or banished them. But I already knew the history of the Tainumaun line. I wanted more. I found different books.

The drawings are much more accurate these days. And the bestiary I could write, if I chose —

I would write that his great head is like an axe-blade, and with a single blow can split the hull of a battleship like the shell of a nut. I would write that his black hide folds softly as old leather but can turn the point of a sword without pain. His claws are clever enough to unlock a door. His eyes are set in opposite sides of his face, like an eagle’s, and he can see the whole horizon and sky at once without turning his head. And his wings! They span thirty feet when spread out, but he can fold them up small and walk on them as on forefeet with surprising grace. He holds them taut as a sail over updrafts, slicing through headwinds, buffeting treetops, churning spray from the waves. He is power. He is freedom. And his fire —

A dragon has no furnace burning in his belly. This was my first lesson. His fire is is a stinging alchemy of sparks and fume at the back of his throat; its heat never reaches his heart. He might burn a forest down only to warm himself among its embers. A dragon is cold.

It began, as always, in my chest. My heartbeat shuddered and stopped for a breathless moment. Then it pounded again, more slowly, more violently, clanging against my ribs — and I coughed with what breath I had left. The bones next, with a sound like dry sticks breaking, and some pain. A momentary confusion of sound and light. The sound of blood rushing in my ears. Then the rest was easier. It was all quick: he was alert and eager in the dawn, and we had learned how to meet each other half way.

The seaward sky was clear and promised a warm day. I took a deep breath and stretched my wings, then leaped stiffly from the eyrie. I dove towards the sea and the land rolled away beneath me.

The forested slopes gave ground to pastures; the sheep ran a little, when they saw me, and then the pastures were behind me too. Shorn farmland sparkled with melting frost. Mists blew and melted along the beaches. The southern fishing villages were awake and their little boats already dotting the bay like water striders. Tide was high; foam splashed and boomed around the necks of the Amai Stones. The shallows glittered aquamarine and emerald, and then beyond the green ribbons of barrier islands the deep water plunged to cobalt.

I doubled back. A few fishermen looked up as I passed. Most did not.

The mountain stood crowned with ice and cloud, its green cliffs draped in thin white waterfalls. My eyrie was a mere scratch in its shoulder. Keeping it on my right I turned and followed the coast south. Rocky cliffs gave way to wide beaches, and then changed back. I named the little farms and towns to myself as I passed over them. The whole circuit of my island took less than an hour, at such speed. But the dragon’s eyes saw every detail and his memory for such things was just as good as mine, if not better. The apple farmers below _[whatever]_ had cut down two of their trees since yesterday.

My wings were well warmed by sun and exertion when at last I cut over the pass and saw the City again. I coasted over the old wall and flew low above red-tiled roofs. The river was full of trade boats, and carts full of cargo already crowded along its many bridges. Looking over it all from the mountain’s great spur stood Castle Tainumaun. Its windows flashed in the sun.

Kupain Ruanet was a beautiful island. I wished every one of its people could see it as I did.

I beat my wings hard, climbed higher and higher, circled once and left it behind. Put these islands to my left, that one to my right: a straight shot north-northeast over the sea lay Kupain Kiavan. Perhaps two hours’ hard flight, and another two hours back.

I had been planning to survey the northern islands again soon. It might as well be today, and I might as well add Kiavan to the circuit. I could manage it before Rikkar delivered my address. This is what I repeated to myself, mile after mile of blinding sunlit sea, and it was with a feeling almost of relief when I passed the Evu Reefs and knew that I was far enough along that I might as well go on to Kiavan as turn back.

The season was not so much advanced here. Kiavan’s snow caps were thin, and the leaves on its rolling slopes still full and green. The island was nearly as large and fertile as the capitol island, though a good portion of its western ranges were uninhabitable — noxious and arid, full of bubbling pits and gusts of sulfur. But its cities were prosperous. Trade ships crowded its bay, most of them flying the red and white of Kun Resaivus. Here the people looked up and pointed when I passed.

I counted the foreign ships. Four docked at one time, beyond the first breakwater: they were indeed keeping within regulation.

Castle Kiavan faced watchfully north. It clung low and gray atop a sea cliff, more fortification than palace. Below it another ship flying red-and-white rode at anchor. A fifth trade ship ought not to be there; though perhaps this vessel looked too light and fast to be a trade ship, and an emissary was allowed as long as it had an escort. Whatever its errand, no doubt I would have heard about it through normal channels in about a week or two. I probably would not have heard about the technicalities of its visit and whether it had followed regulation. Peevishly, I hissed sparks into the air. I wished to investigate.

Instead I circled the castle once. I scanned its windows and grounds with more interest than I had planned. I saw gardens and stables. All looked quiet. No sign of a state visit. And of course I saw no red-haired lady at any window.

I wasn’t sure I had expected anything of the sort.

Surely it was well past time to return.

I flew low over the Resaivusu ship, turning my head to glare with one yellow eye, watching one or two sailors run and duck despite themselves. One of them shouted an epithet up at me. I did not know what it meant in their language, but I was pleased enough to have invited it.

To be feared by foreign sailors was good. To be feared too much by my own subjects was arguably not so good; to be unexpectedly seen was enough. I did not land on Kiavan. Despite my fatigue I turned back south and flew high and hard and fast, without stopping, so that by the time I returned to the capitol my wings were almost shaking with exhaustion.

I landed rather ungracefully slap on the top of the tallest Amai Stone, and lay there a few moments, watching crabs wandering the tide pools and a few children wandering the beach digging for clams. I considered snatching a crab out of the water but decided that all those bits of shell weren’t worth the little scrap of meat, not for me in this shape and at this size. And it was already afternoon. Despite the mad speed of my return I was already late.

I hurried back to Castle Tainumaun and swooped in to the gardens behind the southern gallery. From the great hall wafted the well-projected voice of Rikkar.

“…Not least of which,” he was saying, “is the certainty of invasion—”

Murmurs followed this statement. The lords of the other islands were always uncomfortable when war was mentioned. Few of them wanted to think the old days could return.

I stalked through the open doors at the back of the great hall and paused behind a pillar. The Earl of Seilipan saw me, and instinctively scooted his chair a few inches away. Another uncomfortable mutter rippled through the room and Rikkar paused.

The Lord of Heastan took advantage of the temporary silence. “But, Your Highness,” he said, “surely if an invasion is to be expected, we must increase our fleet regardless!”

Rikkar waited while I stalked up the aisle to gratefully recline at the back of the dais behind him. Fortunately a dragon’s face shows little expression; my fatigue probably looked like haughty languor given the circumstances. When the assembled council had settled, Rikkar nodded toward me.

“We have more than adequate surveillance and protection of our further islands,” he said.

“But, Your Highness — a single tamed beast, however tame he may be, however you may trust the beast … one beast, against all the might of the north?”

Rikkar sat back, and let the enigmatic silence blossom into unspoken threat. The black mask, my mask, had this effect already; Heastan had not dropped his gaze from Rikkar’s hidden face, but he was sweating.

“Ships burn. Do you forget so quickly, Heastan?” Rikkar asked. “Besides, we do not propose fighting a war. We propose to prevent one. Our … methods have been adequate for ten years; the king of Resaivus has a longer memory than you seem to have.” He leaned forward. “But suddenly to add fortifications, border patrols? The appearance of distrust may well produce similar distrust. For the sake of our lands and people, for the sake of peace, we do not wish to provoke Kun Resaivus needlessly.”

He had embellished it a little, but made my point very well. Good lingering emphasis on the word peace.

“Therefore we do resolve to maintain our northern border in such wise as it has been,” he concluded. He stood up, and added, “We have heard your concerns. Our only wish is to serve and protect the people of Kun Tainumaun. We will not fail you.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” said the Lord of Heastan.

They each kissed his ring — his hand, my ring — before they left. Rikkar was watching me, I could tell, though his eyes were just shadows in the mask. I nodded my head slowly. He had done well. There would be time tonight for talk. But now —

I got up and slithered out, heading for the cattle pasture, and then likely the eyrie; I had been awake for fourteen hours, and the dragon had not eaten in eight.

oh good the kingdom’s still there

The first dragon I ever saw was lying in attitude dormant, wings folded, amid ornate scrollwork at the base of Kun Tainumaun’s coat of arms. He was only there to be stood on by the knight. Silver stitches held his eyes shut.

The clearest description in the history books was they are great beestes with leathern winges and sharpe tythe, in whose bellies a fournesse burneth that fyre and smoke may issue from their mouthes. The drawings were just guesses. Some would have dragons as winged horses, while others made them more like serpents, others like birds. The authors and illustrators had clearly never seen a dragon themselves. And they were less concerned with describing dragons than with listing the cities they burned, and the names of men who had killed or banished them. But I already knew the history of the Tainumaun line. I wanted more. I found different books.

The drawings are much more accurate these days.

His great head is like an axe-blade, and with a single blow can split the hull of a battleship like the shell of a nut. His hide has blunted sword points. His talons are clever enough to turn a key in a lock. His eyes are small but they are keen, and they do not blink, and from either side of his head they can see the whole horizon and sky at once. And his wings! His great wings span thirty feet when spread out, taut as a sail over updrafts, slicing through headwinds, buffeting treetops, churning spray from the waves. He is power. He is freedom. And his fire —

A dragon has no furnace burning in his belly. I learned this first. His fire is is a stinging alchemy of sparks and fume at the back of his throat; its heat never reaches his heart. He might burn a forest down only to warm himself among its embers. A dragon is cold.

I leaped stiffly from the eyrie.

The seaward sky was clear and promised a warm day. I raced towards the sea. The forested slopes gave ground to pastures; the sheep ran a little, when they saw me, and then the pastures were behind me too. Shorn farmland sparkled with melting frost. Mists blew and melted along the beaches. The southern fishing villages were awake and their little boats already dotting the bay like water striders. Tide was high; foam splashed and boomed around the necks of the Amai Stones. The shallows glittered aquamarine and emerald, and then beyond the green ribbons of barrier islands the deep water plunged to cobalt. The horizon called —

I doubled back. A few fishermen looked up as I passed. Most did not.

The mountain stood crowned with cloud and its green cliffs draped in thin white waterfalls. My eyrie was a mere scratch in its shoulder. Keeping it on my right I turned and followed the coast south. Rocky cliffs gave way to wide beaches, and then changed back again. I named the little towns to myself as I passed over them. Then I cut over the pass and saw the City again. I soared over the old wall and flew low over red-tiled roofs. The river was full of trade boats, and carts full of cargo crowded along its many bridges. Looking over it all from the mountain’s great spur stood Castle Tainumaun. Its windows flashed in the sun.

Kupain Ruanet was a beautiful island. I wished every one of its people could see it as I did.

I left it behind. These islands to my left, those to my right: and so northeast over the horizon lay Kupain Kiavan.

Do I Have to Write a Whole Novel, Can’t I Just Write One Million Short Stories that Exist in Loosely-Connected Parallel Timelines

UGH it has been the busiest autumn. I am completely off my routine; as far as I can foresee, I may not really get back onto it until January *fingers crossed*

Here is the only prose I have produced. It was like a burp.

See you soon.

Continue reading “Do I Have to Write a Whole Novel, Can’t I Just Write One Million Short Stories that Exist in Loosely-Connected Parallel Timelines”

Writing This Novel Feels Like Playing Jenga

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this blob of prose. Frankly I am just throwing it up here for the feeling of accomplishment a blog post gives me, after spending weeks obsessively restructuring. But if you were thinking to yourself “boy, i’d love to read an enormous scene-and-a-half of character and culture establishment that I might recognize from a previous version, and then critique it on pacing and tone”, well then today is your lucky day.

Over 6K words following the jump.

Continue reading “Writing This Novel Feels Like Playing Jenga”

I Might?

I am currently entertaining the notion that this story would be better served if we met (character) before being sideswiped by (event), rather than allowing (event) to push characters together in what I suspect would be a dishearteningly mercenary way. So I’m backing up and trying out an alternate beginning, and a character introduction that’s more character-driven than plot-driven. I expect I’ll flail around trying various versions of The Beginning until I exhaust myself, or until every successive attempt has become so similar that they all converge.

I hope.

Continue reading “I Might?”

It’s Finally Andar

Perhaps it was foolish to try and introduce a character smack-dabbus in the middle of an action scene involving bomber planes and explosions?

What I have finally banged out, here, may be finally working, though… I hope. I’d love to hear what you think of Andar now that we’re finally sorta meeting him, and whether you think this introduction gives you a distinct glimpse and some new questions (or whether it’s just hitting you as “…k”). Also (if you’ve read any of the lead-in to this scene) I’d love to hear whether the catching-Andar-up conversation is really just so much redundant overexplained plot-rehashing. ‘Cause if it is, I’mma fix it.

Roughly 1700 words following.

Continue reading “It’s Finally Andar”

Maybe NOT spelling static phonetically after all

Static is a key player in this scene, though.

So yeah, I reworked that scene wherein Tedis and her dad drive out to investigate an apparent UFO landing site and have unfortunate interactions with both an extraterrestrial THING and a pair of trigger-happy bomber pilots. Various things have changed and I will not bore you by enumerating them; if you’re up for reading a pile of text that you maybe kinda already read… here’s the actual scene for you.

Slightly under 2K words after the jump:

Continue reading “Maybe NOT spelling static phonetically after all”