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Dragon in Chainsby Daniel Fox
They called the fog her breath, the Dragon-in-Chains.
They were peasants, of course, both sides of the strait. Superstitious and ignorant, they were apt to see traces of her in everything they feared.
Also, they were right.
Up high on the Forge, he could look down and see it exactly, how she breathed. How the first wisps hung like trails of smoke, silk floss in the last of the days sun; how they reached for one another, how they clung. How they drank moonlight when the sun was gone, how they thickened and spread. How her breath spilled across the strait to cloak the sea that held her, to brush two rocky shores with an inverted shadow of white.
From above, it didnt seem so dangerous: like bales of silk wadding that gleamed in the chill of the light, that stirred in waves and eddies like the waters that they hid. In truth, he knew, it was a banner of war flung down.
At his back was heat and noise and light, the boom of the mighty hammer striking a solemn toll, a sudden flare from the fire sending his own stark shadow rushing after.
Below—all the miles of living water from the mainland to Taishu-island, the farthest fringe of empire—was blank and si?lent, cold.
He shuddered, and turned away. It would be a hard night, a cruel night down there, in the dragons breath. The fog swallowed sound and moon and starlight, it swallowed lives. He could be glad her breath didnt reach this high.
He hoped he could be glad.
Han would kill, or he would die tonight. On the water, in the fog.
If there was a choice, he couldnt see it. There would be a body, a dead boy pitched over the side into that dense white chill that hid the dark sea from the deck. It would be him, or else it would be Yerli. His new friend, Yerli. They didnt get to choose, only to fight.
He had seen death already: executed criminals and starveling children, an old woman in a ditch. A magician paraded on a board in the pomp of his magisterial robes, for all his townsfolk to wonder at the fact that he could die.
Hans own mother, dead in the family bed, with the babe that had ripped her lifeless in her arms and the copper reek of so much blood in the room.
He had seen death more closely, this day gone. His recent master, the scribe Hans father had sold him to: Master Doshu had died a scribes death, brutal and swift and meaningless, and the brushes of his trade adorned his killers topknot.
Theyd been on their way from one village to the next, the endless circuit of the wandering craftsman. Master Doshu rode his donkey, his pride, while Han trotted in the dust of its heels carrying all his masters packs and baggages, his folded writing- desk, his shoes. The donkey was more useful, more valuable than Han; that was simply so, and he was used to it. He was happy enough: fetching and carrying, crying his masters skill in the marketplace, buying or begging his masters supper and bed, his own if he was lucky. Learning his characters. Learning to carry his bruises, his hunger, his other pains in the quiet of his heart. It was a boys life, and one to be content with.
Their road kept them a cautious mile from the coast, the ingrained wisdom of travelers. It wasnt enough.
A bridge, that crossed a stream tumbling over itself in its eagerness for the sea. Three men, emerging late and swift from the shadows beneath, where they must have stood a long time waiting thigh-deep in bitter water. They were bitter too, to find a threadbare scribe and a boy where the clipping of hooves must have had them hoping for a magistrate.
Still, one seized the donkeys bridle, while another dropped a neat loop of cord over Master Doshus head. Han saw that noose drawn tight, snaring his masters beard as it went, tugging the long hairs back beneath his chin so that he looked ridiculously unlike himself as he mouthed fish-like at air he couldnt reach, as his fingers scrabbled for a thong sunk too deep into his wattles.
Han screamed, and was cuffed aside. He scrambled up, knife in hand, and was seized and bound and beaten while all the time Master Doshus face darkened, his legs slowly ceased their kicking, his hands fell slackly to the ground.
Han was let see that, all of that. Strong callused hands quieted the donkey, slapped its rump. Dizzily, Han heard a rough voice, “We eat well tonight.” Those same hands checked his bonds, slapped him with the same casual dispatch. Someone chuckled.
Master Doshus body was stripped of everything that might have use or value, which meant apparently everything he wore, down to his smallclothes. His ivory rings were grunted over; the poverty of his purse earned Han another slap, less contented. All the bundles and bags were divided up smartly, between donkey and boy; once burdened—more lightly than before, both of them, if fear and doom have no weight—donkey and boy were led away, each on a halter of rope.
They followed the stream to an inlet below a promontory. In the shadows there, a high junk rode at anchor. Pirates, then—but Han had been sure of that already. Regular bandits wouldnt be so swift to dispose of a donkey.
They slaughtered it right there on the stony beach, butchered it crudely and made mocking play with its head. A boat brought more men ashore; the bags were picked over while the meat roasted over a hasty bamboo fire. Han was poked and prodded, cuffed, discussed, not spoken to.
Another raiding-party brought another boy and three women besides, tearful and gagged with rags. Tossed down beside Han, the boy—Yerli—hissed questions at him until they were both kicked silent. Han watched the men, listened to their talk, tried to understand what he—and, yes, now Yerli—were here for.
What the women were for had been clear from the start, and the pirates made no attempt to hide it. They ate, they leered, they gambled and squabbled among themselves; mostly, Han thought, they waited. As he did, and the other boy beside him, and the women who were pawed at but nothing worse. Not yet.
An hour before sunset came their captain. Broad and squat, gray-bearded in a profession that should not run to age, he gazed down at the boys and smiled thinly.
“Two of them, is it? We only want the one. One will learn obedience, and it may only cost him a finger or two; two boys together is a hatch of trouble. Well. They can fight for it, hmm? Lads? One of you can be one of us in the morning, tagged as crew,” and he reached out a hand, drew the nearest man close and showed them the heavy iron ring that pierced his left ear. “Tagged for the Shalla,” and his fingers flicked the ring so that late sun picked out scratches on the metal, “not for me. If it makes any difference, if either of you can read.”
“I can read, sir.” To his own astonishment, that was Han, struggling awkwardly up onto his knees. “And write too.”
The captain barked a laugh. “Its not a qualification, boy. My crew takes my word for it, that their tags tie them to my ship. So can you. Or your little friend here,” the toe of his boot digging into Yerlis ribs. “Or are you a reader too, shall I be amazed?”
“I can read futures,” Yerli said. “My master, that your men killed? He was a magician. He taught me.”
The men muttered among themselves: Wizards pup? Worth the keeping . . . worth the selling . . . worth the killing, do it now . . .
“Can you make spells?” the captain demanded, his face entirely not saying what the proper answer was, what might lead to keeping, or selling, or killing.
“No, sir. But I can show you what I see—and I can see some of what lies before you, where your blood will take you.”
The captain grunted and turned away. “Leave him bound. I say where our future lies. And his, too. One knife between them, and well have one boy before morning. Get that meat cooked, and all of this aboard,” what poor loot theyd gleaned, and their captives too, loot too. “Tide is turning, and I want to be stood well off by sunset, in case the wind shifts. After dark, lads, after dinner. Youll have your fight.”
They took the women first, trussed and gagged. One at least had some spirit left, trying to kick a man out of the boat; the way that man used his bamboo after, she must have regretted it.
That same long bamboo that poled the boat to and from the junk, he put to yet another use when it was the boys turn. Half his teeth had been knocked out by whatever mighty blow it was with whatever weapon that twisted his lips into a pattern of scars; he grinned gappily down at where they lay in the ribs of the boat and slurred, “Boys dont need to read. Boys scrub and sew and carry water. And fight, when they are told to. And try to please the captain. Here is our last boy, see?”
And he reached out that long bamboo and nudged something black where it swung on a chain from the foredeck, half in and half out of the water. It erupted into a seething, swarming mass of flies. What theyd cloaked must have been a boy once, bound to the chain. His face was blackly empty, and Han couldnt tell whether hed lost his eyes before or after he was dangled there.
Below the waist, below the waterline, he was barely more than half a boy, so much of him had been eaten away. His legs were bones, held together by rags of flesh and tendon.
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