io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we’ll be featuring a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Dragon Brides” by Nghi Vo. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast. Enjoy!
Image © 2016 by Sam Schechter.
Dragon brides are notoriously difficult women. We have lived with dragons, after all, those strange and terrible animals with their curiously human eyes, and some of us come back down from the broken mountains with their hisses still in our ears.
I was taken by the green dragon of Mahr when I was fifteen, and it was a full year before my lord brought me back down. Forty years would pass before I would come to those steep paths again. The first time I was flown, clutched in horny talons with my silk dress fluttering like a banner, and the second time I was carried down half-unconscious, slung like a dead woman over the back of a bay stallion.
This time, I wore the clean white robe of the penitent, and I was on foot. I stared up at the mountains, where men never went save to rescue princesses, and where it was said that women never went at all unless it was on the coppery wings of a dragon.
It was dawn when I started my climb up the mountain, and by midday I was sweaty and hot. I had memories of being only a young girl, and scaling steeper paths and byways to find the tender plants that grew in the crevasses and ridges of the mountain.
I found one of those plants almost as soon as I had the thought, and for a moment I stared at it. It was a shrubby thing, barely a handspan high, but there were a dozen plump little leaves tinged with ruby. I knelt to twist the leaves away, leaving the plant still growing from a crack in the stone.
The leaf flooded my mouth with an astringent green liquid, and I thought about how the spring melt washed grains of dirt down the mountain, and how after decades, the dirt filled the crack until a passing bird dropped a seed into it. I remembered the hiss in my ear telling me that this plant, which humans called hand-in-hand, was safe to eat so long as the leaves were not all gone red.
Of course, the dragon’s voice continued, it’s unlikely you’ll see such a thing in these cold climes. By all rights, it is a plant of warmer lands.
I had never asked the dragon where hand-in-hand came from, I realized, whether it came from the murky feverish lowlands to the west or some place even more distant. It was not the only thing I regretted not asking the dragon, and after a few moments’ rest, I continued on my way.
By dawn of the second day, I reached the cave, and I had to haul myself up the last few miles. I lay at the cave opening, breathing hard, and slowly I became aware of the hot, faintly sulfurous smell that touched everything around it. For a moment, I wondered if another dragon had taken up residence, and if I would be met with fire and fang, but then I realize that it was the last of my dragon’s scent.
When I came down from the mountain, of course they had burned my rags, but my hair and my skin had had a tang of brimstone for weeks afterward. I am flesh, and the cave was stone, and stone remembers better than flesh.
After a moment, I walked into the cave, and two turns past the opening, I was as blind as a cave bat in the sun. Foolish woman, I had thought that my feet would remember the dark places as well as they would when I was fifteen, but a barked shin and a stone pillar where I had not remembered one told me that I was wrong.
Grimly, I made myself walk back and forth, and within an hour, I remembered to listen for the shuffling echoes of my feet, and an hour after that, I could walk from one end of the enormously hollow place to the other. The floor was relatively flat, and after a few timorous rounds, I took off my shoes and instantly remembered more than I had a moment ago. Flesh is not stone, but it still remembers some things.
During the course of my rounds, my toes found small bits of gold. There was a square coin with hole in it, of the kind that they make in Kyhm, and half a golden beetle. There was what I suspected was a gold-capped tooth and a tiny golden hand. Even if they had not been the remnants of a dragon’s horde, I knew them for gold from their weight, and their cool smoothness. That, at least, I knew from before, as the daughter of a king.
I gathered the pieces of gold, weighing them critically in my hand before placing them squarely in the center of the room. They were a small enough horde, I thought, but it was a beginning anyway.
I took off my gold wedding ring, twisted about with ivy vines and set with a single winking ruby. It should have been harder to drop it into the pile, but instead, I dropped it as easily as I would a stone, and when it fell down next to the coin and the spoon, it became one more piece of gold on a cold stone floor.
My decision to leave the palace was one that I described as a calling, and I allowed my husband to believe that that calling was one for the nunnery on the other side of the kingdom. The Sweet Laurens were a contemplative order known for their silence and their weaving, and though I’ve had little enough interest in either, he allowed me to go.
When I told him of my desire, I saw the gears of the old war machine turning in his head. I knew he wondered if it would be better to forbid me, or even to kill me as I went on the high road to the nunnery’s whitewashed walls. I know this, because it is what I would have thought as well, and I forgave it, because long ago, he had also looked a dragon in the eye.
“Go then, and walk in grace,” he rumbled, rubbing his hands by the fire. These days, he looks like a stick man held together with loose leather straps, a far cry from the cavalier who came up the mountain, and I turned to go. There was nothing more to be said between us, and those were the last words he spoke to me.
It took me the better part of two weeks before I really knew my way around the mountain again. Legs are more sore at fifty-five than they were at fifteen, and often, as I panted up the slope, seeking ahead of me with a stick for treacherous loose scree, I marveled that once I had danced up the slope.
Sometimes it was my own shadow that I chased up the mountain, that of a girl who could not imagine growing old, and sometimes it was the shadow of a great beast with leathery wings that could span the broad castle gate.
At night I slept on the cold floor of the cave, curling tightly around the small pile of gold there. Silver tarnishes and copper goes to verdigris, but gold stays golden. The coin was as bright as the day that it was minted, and the golden spoon could belong with any gentleman’s snuff kit. They were artifacts, and in the night, I touched them, finding their curves and learning their weight.
One night, as I rolled the tooth between my fingers, I fell into a reverie, half dream and half the spirit walk that the mystics speak of.
I was on a plain, and it burned. The sun stared down with a merciless glare, and the only movement was the flutter of white banners held up to a sky that looked worn of all color.
The animals only move because we tell them to do so, and our commanders are vicious because they are worried. Thirst will kill an army better than any armored host, and it has been too long.
A cry goes up, there is water sighted, and the whole train moves forward, jerking like an inchworm.
The company tops the rise, and suddenly, with a chill of premonition, I know what I shall see next.
What was supposed to be an oasis, a patch of green in the parched field, instead spreads wide wings and throws a jade-block head back to hiss steam. With a single flap of its leathery wings it is aloft, and even as the men scatter and the animals stampede, I know that none will escape.
I awaken from my reverie and look at the tooth more carefully. Now I know it was once worn by a man named Haseem, and that his tooth pained him until he went to a black-eyed girl in Al-Aresh who leafed it with gold.
I set the tooth down carefully, and I think I understand a little more about dragons and hordes.
It was as though I had returned from the dead.
My parents embraced me stiffly, but cautiously, as though afraid that I was no longer quite safe, and my younger sister stared at me from around corners, her eyes wide. There was something they no longer trusted about me, and they were relieved to have my wedding before us. It was a safe place for them to put me.
They had stuffed the dragon’s head, and at my wedding feast, my lord and I ate under the dragon’s very mouth.
“It is a travesty,” my husband whispered. His eyes kept straying to the dragon’s head, and he was right. A dragon is a thing of fire and fury. This was only a dead animal’s head stuffed with sawdust and mounted to a wall.
I shrugged. The dragon was dead, and I could not see it caring what we did with the thing that had once housed its memories.
Now that I knew the trick of it, I sat with the coin in my hand. It warmed but was unresponsive, even when I held it so tight it left dents in my palm. When I brushed it over my lower lip however, a cool shiver ran up my spine. It took a full day, a day where I sat in the unflinching sun and held the coin in my mouth, but I fell into the memory that coin held.
Khym is a cold land, and the men and women alike wear fur coats that turn them into round bears. The only place where this is not so is in Keph-Valee, where the furnaces are kept roaring all year round so that the beautiful girls and boys may dance in sheer silks and gemstones. The coin rolls in the fingers of a woman dressed as a man, and she sweats from the unaccustomed heat. She is a thief and a murderer, but she is in love, and she watches the tallest girl dancing in green silk on the stage and hands her the square coin. I sat up suddenly, choking and spitting the coin out into my hand. It is covered in my spit and I wipe it clean before returning to the cave.
The girl in green silk had carried the coin in a leather pouch for years until it became clear that her thief was not going to return, and she ventured into the wilderness, looking for a dragon.
I was getting closer to the secret, I thought.
My husband took the throne when my father died, and so I became queen. We did no worse than others, and better than many, and when I proved barren, we adopted my sister’s son. He was a smart boy, with no brothers, which is best for young princes, and between my husband and I, we taught him what we could of statecraft and gave him enough freedom to learn the rest on his own. He’s grown now, and fighting our wars for us in the west. Sometime in the next few years, my husband’s health will falter and he will call my nephew back, to be king in his place.
My husband was a hunter, and when there were no wars to distract him, his treks into the wilderness with his man, his hound, and his horn could take him away for weeks at a time. A rumor came back to me of the night he chased a solid white stag, only to have the stag turn into a young man who took him to live a hundred years in a night beneath the cold earth. I never asked him about that boy, or of the kiss shaped like a scar behind his right ear. He let me keep my secrets, after all.
I intrigued, I schemed, I gardened. I wrote a little, I commissioned the construction of a university, which I suspect will be my great life’s work to the people who never knew me.
It wasn’t a bad life.
Some part of me never left the mountain, and some part of me never stopped watching the sky for the glint of sunlight on jade scales.
Half a gold scarab fell from a jeweler’s hand, striking the stone track. He wished, before the dragon stove his head in, that he had had time to finish it.
I remember very little before the dragon, and what I do remember seems muted and worn. I woke in the morning and bathed my face, I spun with the other women, and when my father returned from battle, I helped my mother bathe his scars.
I no longer remember why we were on the northern downs. I wasn’t alone. No young girl of noble birth ever was. No, the downs bloomed with the red, yellow, orange, and blue dresses of my mother and her ladies. Perhaps they were playing at shepherdesses; once in a great while, I remembered that my mother would engage in such foolishness.
I don’t remember being unhappy. I don’t remember being happy. There was an envoy come to ask for my hand that day, but that had been happening since I was a child in swaddling clothes.
I do remember the grass that was mostly still dead that early in the spring, how at first glance it looked gray, but upon closer examination instead turned out to be lilac. I took off my shoes and carried them in my hand, venturing farther away than I should. Perhaps that was what caught the dragon’s eye, a patch of red silk moving away from the others, vivid like a pool of fresh blood.
I wasn’t wearing any gold. That was for married women.
I walked farther away than I should have, and when I felt the chill of the dragon’s shadow over my head, blocking out the light and filling my gaze, it was far too late.
The gold hand was stubborn. I held it in my mouth, I slept with it underneath my cheek, and when all else failed, I simply sewed it snugly to the collar of my shirt and let it stay while I wandered over the mountain. It was still high summer, but there was a chill to the air that did not roll down to the dales. I did not think about what would happen if I was still there when the winter came.
The dragon fed me as it fed itself, on red raw meat that I would inexpertly singe at a small cook fire. Most of the time, it was one of the great horned deer that haunted the slopes, solitary and lonely on the peaks. Sometimes it was cattle, taken from the valleys below, and once, it was a warhorse, decked out in jingling tack. That one I refused to eat, and though the dragon did, it never brought another.
One gray day, when it seemed that the sun would never break from behind the clouds, I climbed as high as I could on the mountain. I could see clouds above me, and then I sat cross-legged on the bare stone, looking up and looking down.
I stroked the little hand with my thumb, and the memory crept in, like a thief into a room where people are sleeping.
The old woman is angry because they have taken her son away from her. He marches in a war that no one really understands, for a queen that they only know through her face, poorly stamped on the coin. They made her son kiss the coin and throw down a mugful of coarse ale before they dragged him away, him and all of the other likely-looking boys in the village.
The gold hand was a thing she bought from a witch. If she took it to the swamp, and offered it to the first thing that asked for it in the name of Lunai, the Goddess of Flies and Carrion, then she could ask for her son to be saved.
She wrapped her cloak around her thin, thin shoulders and stumped towards the swamp, determined and grim. She met a tinker, who asked for the gold hand in the name of Father Rot and a willow-wisp girl who asked for it in the name of the Queen Mother of the West.
The dragon never asked her anything, and the gold hand fell with a sharp metallic clink onto the horde.
“Why gold?” I asked the dragon one day. It was cold, and I stuck my hands tight under my arms.
The dragon made a thrumming sound deep in its body before answering. It might have been thinking, or it might have been the beast’s strange way of laughing.
“Because gold never tarnishes like silver,” the dragon said finally. “Because the gold you see now holds a perfect memory of the goldsmith’s hand and the goldsmith’s hammer.”
“Unless it’s struck by a hammer or chewed by a dog,” I objected.
The dragon thrummed again, tilting its head so that I could see into its broad gold eye, slit down the middle with black, like a cat’s or a demon’s.
“See how well you remember if you have been struck by a hammer or chewed by a dog,” the dragon replied.
I gathered the small pieces of gold together and placed them in the center of the cavern, and when I curled around them, I could feel the memories crushing close. There was the frustrated goldsmith, the lovelorn dancing girl, the thirsty soldier, and the bitter old woman. Beneath all of those were my own memories as well, good and bad.
There was the first time I was whipped for failing at my lessons, and the first time I realized my own strength and agility by climbing higher in the old linden tree than anyone else could. I remembered the hiss of the dragon in my ear, but also my father’s absent-minded affection, and my mother’s sharply whispered instructions, which, I realize now, twenty years after her death, were as much love as they were spite. I remembered my sister’s red baby face, and the look of mingled fear and boldness when her son arrived at the palace for the first time, knowing he was to one day rule over it. I remembered my wedding night, and the nights that came after, and the mornings, too, when we would speak with our heads on the same pillow.
I dreamed of the dragon, of a beast that spoke with the tongue of a man, but which had once told me that it was no lesser thing to be a beast. In my dreams, the dragon’s body unrolled like a length of satin ribbon, catching glints of sunset light on its green hide, and it leaped into the air with a pouncing motion, like a cat or fox kit. I remembered its death, which was a fast thing, and the parts of its life that I knew, which were not.
I dreamed out a generation. I could have slept while towers rose and fell, wars were fought and won. I slept, and I dreamed, and I remembered, and I realized why dragons love gold, because it remembers, in a way that flesh does not.
I woke up, and I stretched long limbs that were lithe with muscle. My heart was flesh and fire, and I knew that it would keep me warm even when the sun could not. I ducked my head to leave the cave, and in the bright new light of winter morning, I stretched my wings underneath the sky for the first time.
I could tell they were good wings. They would grab the air and throw me high, taking me anywhere I wanted to go, whether it was south to the lush forests where dragons came from first, or north to the dry cold deserts.
Behind me, the gold was gathered in a small heap. I had disturbed it not at all when I rose up on four legs instead of two. It waited there to remind me of all those people, of who I was when I met them, and everything I had been and done.
I spread my broad wings and leaped into the sky, climbing higher and higher with an ease akin to breathing. I didn’t need the gold to remember, not yet. Perhaps someday I would, but now, my memories were as bright as fireworks, as bold as the glint of jade scales in the sun.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the April 2016 issue, which features 8 science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.