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 —
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?”
“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 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.