There had been rain that morning. It had pounded and penetrated the earth, going straight to the lush green of the trees, followed by a golden afternoon. Now the sky was clear and the moon was lighting the new blossoms on the almond and cherry trees outside the tiny teahouse, painting them white as ghosts and making spun cotton of the drifting mist.
It was out of that mist that the stranger came.
Arukoru owned the teahouse, and carried with him a mild but constant caution on its behalf. Serving cups of warming liquor, wakeful tea, and the occasional meal, talking with a few of the men in the low and businesslike tone that the evening seemed to merit, he was the first to hear the approaching footsteps, and he glanced up with a slight frown, pausing in the midst of setting down a steaming bowl of rice and vegetables with no acknowledgment for the look of confusion from the man he’d been handing it to.
A few of the house patrons noticed his sudden stillness and followed Arukoru’s gaze, and a few more looked up when a slight thud and a low curse announced that someone had attempted to duck through the teahouse’s low door wearing a sword-belt. There was another, lighter thud from the wall as the sword was laid against the side of the house, and a few moments later, the man’s head appeared in the doorway. He had to kneel to get in, and he rose into the lamplight brushing splinters from his shoulders. Dark-clothed, he seemed to absorb rather than reflect the warm light from the paper lanterns, and carried the scent of rain and mist in with him. There was a kind of shadow in his eyes as he looked around the room, and one by one the patrons realized that they were all staring, rather rudely, at a man who owned a sword. The room fell back into a stilted resemblance of its former ease, and Arukoru, frown still on his brow, finally set down the bowl he was holding. It was requisitioned rather peevishly by the man for whom it was intended.
“Honor on your house,” the stranger rasped, bowing lightly as Arukoru came near. He was young, Arukoru realized, beneath the hard-set lines of his face.
“Fortune to your steps.” He offered his own bow, just as slight, in return. “How may I serve you, sir?”
“One cup of tea, if you please.”
Arukoru did his best to hide his displeasure. Tea was the cheapest thing he offered. The only thing cheaper was water, and that was free.
“Of course. If I may suggest, tea is a wonderful complement to a meal.”
The stranger huffed an amused breath. “Just the tea.”
Arukoru silently bade good-bye to the notion of earning a few more coppers, and bowed again to go and prepare one single solitary cup of tea while the stranger seated himself on the farthest side of the room, statue-still and eyes shaded so that he could have been watching everyone in the room–or no one–and it would be impossible to guess which. A faint shiver went down Arukoru’s spine, and he disappeared gratefully, offering up the dim hope that the stranger would pay his copper and be gone.
* * *
It is difficult to remember anything, even a mysterious spirit of mist and moonlight, when it hides in a corner of the room and says nothing. So, ever so slowly, the teahouse came alive again. The conversation swept to and fro like a lazy broom, stirring up more than it made clear, going from the recent rains (good for the crops, bad for the livestock, would there be more and when) to whether Gaiken would go through with building his well (of course he would, and the whole village was welcome to draw from it, the slightly tipsy man declared) to whether or not they would be able to grow enough this season.
“If I had only myself and my wife to feed, I’d know the answer to that easy enough,” one of the younger men said, shrugging as he looked down into his steaming cup. “But with the…other one, it’s no certainty for any one of us.”
“Don’t speak of him,” someone else hissed. “You never know who’s listening.”
But, however wise that statement might have been, the subject of the Other One was not dropped. The opportunity to complain had presented itself, and no one was going to turn down their chance at it.
“Ah, I’m with you, boy,” another man said, clapping the young man on the shoulder. “And it only grows harder the more mouths there are to feed. The snake cares little whether our children be fed or no.”
The stranger was bent savoringly over his cup of tea, having yet to take a sip. At this last, his head came up, the first hint that the conversation held any interest for him; but no one noted it.
“I tell you, no good can come of talking about it,” the same man who had hushed the boy before said, eyes strained. “The Clever One has better ears than any man. Do none of you remember–”
What it was that everyone was supposed to remember was never said. The man’s warning was once again brushed aside.
“Clever One!” someone snapped. “What has that dragon done to earn the name, I ask you? Does it take cleverness to steal and terrify?”
They had all forgotten the stranger in the corner. Thus, when a rain-rasped voice asked, “What dragon?” every eye turned toward it. Arukoru straightened, frowning. He didn’t like the intruder, and liked less that he’d forgotten the man.
“What’s your name, stranger?”
A question for a question; that was fair enough.
Though the young man had been inside long enough to shake off the strange smell of the mist, he had a face that seemed to belong to the night it had come from. Expressionless, as a beast might be, save for one small and unsettling turn of feeling–in the line of his lips, perhaps, or the darks of his eyes–that teased, not allowing itself to be read.
Arukoru waited. The man shrugged, the ley line of emotion in his face seeming to turn to levity for a moment.
Stranger. Arukoru raised one eyebrow. A sense of humor, then.
Sitting motionless at his table, half-wrapped in darkness in spite of the lantern light, Sutoro’s silence demanded an answer of its own.
“The Clever One is the lord of this valley, and of the mountain over it.” He watched the stranger’s expression for any hint of approval or disapproval. The old snake had never used human servants before, but Arukoru knew well enough that the Clever One was not above spying. The last person caught speaking ill of the dragon had been found the next morning, impaled on a pole in the middle of the town and charred to a crisp.
He was careful with his words.
“He offers us protection, and asks for a percentage of all we earn in return,” he went on, and heard a few grumblings from the men behind him at that. (percentage? More like all he can squeeze) (protection from what, anyway?)
Sutoro’s gaze flicked over the speakers, and Arukoru stiffened, trying to will the men behind him into silence. He didn’t want to lose another friend to a loose tongue.
The stranger seemed to be considering the information. He looked down, swirling the tea in a lazy circle in its cup, then drinking it down in a single gulp. He set the cup down so that it barely made a sound against the solid wood of the table. Rising, he pulled loose a single copper coin and dropped it beside the cup.
“My thanks for your hospitality,” he said, bowing again. Arukoru, still wary of the man, did not take his eyes from the stranger’s face even as he offered a bow in return.
“I have no more coin to pay for a meal,” Sutoro said, gaze drifting back to the empty cup of tea, and Arukoru’s jaw set. So he was a spy after all, here to bully and demand and blackmail–
Sutoro looked up, expression as night-dull as ever, betraying nothing.
“Would the head of your dragon suffice, in place of coin?”
Arukoru’s thoughts tripped over themselves in an attempt to halt on the unpleasant path they’d been speeding down, and wavered with newfound uncertainty. The man was a stranger. He could be a spy. He had a sword sitting outside the door and he had appeared out of the mists like a demon clothed in flesh and bone.
He remembered Youjo’s fire-blackened body, hanging death-stiff on its pole like a roasted chicken on a stick, and his caution–always since held over his words like a shield–dropped for a single instant.
“For the head of that dragon, you may have the whole of my household and myself as your servant.”
* * *
Halfway up the mountain, the teahouse and its warmth were nothing but a memory. Sutoro did not mind. The night with its cold mists and brisk breezes fit his mood, and the now-clear sky was filled with a billion shining stars. There was a cautious whisper in the branches of the trees as he climbed, and whirls of sharp-scented pine needles were blown up, pelting weakly at him as the waving boughs hissed go back. He ignored them, fixing his eyes on the stars above his head. The mountain was a steep but gradual slope, and from the bottom it seemed that one would have reached the stars before one found the peak.
Sutoro–it was a name the man used often, and after years of wandering as true to him as any other–contemplated as he walked.
The villagers in the teahouse had been full of warnings as he prepared to leave: the Clever One had a hide tough as diamonds, a mind sharp as a razor, eyes that could read his soul and claws that could shatter stone. One warning was as often repeated as any well-wishes and just as useless: he was a fool, and would surely die.
Sutoro did not plan on dying.
The slow, grassy slope stuttered and ended, giving way to a harder climb, clefts of jagged stone and shifting rock. He halted a moment, studying the rock with a practiced eye in preparation to climb it, when he realized that the wind’s warning whispers had finally quieted, leaving the night as still and clear as the sky itself. He took a step back, one foot on shifting rock and the other on tough-grown grass, and set a cautious hand to the hilt of his sword, scanning the moonlight rocks again.
“Come out of hiding, Ancient One,” he said, in a voice that would not have been heard over the relatively mild clamor of the teahouse, but which rang between the rocks like the clanging of a time-bell. “Someone has come to challenge you.”
A dull rattle of laughter answered him, echoing off the sharp and shifting rocks on every side.
Sutoro’s gaze darted from rock to rock, hoping to catch some glimpse of it–or, no, he thought, the melodious voice traipsing through his memory. Of her.
There was a rattle and a slither to his right, and he jumped to face it.
The Clever One was sliding over the rocks, her golden scales making a kind of music against them. She cocked her head, looking at the sword on his hip, then back to his face, bemusement sparkling in age-old eyes.
“Are you going to slice my head off with that toothpick? It’s quite ambitious of you. I applaud your confidence.”
With a grin that was all teeth, she raised herself, long body coiling as she clacked her foreclaws together ironically. Sutoro rubbed his thumb along the sword-hilt, looking down at the weapon. It seemed an ill match for the creature that lay on the rocks before him.
“You are wise, Ancient One,” he began.
“My pride takes to stroking as well as that sword would take to my hide, little thing.”
The sword was a comfortable weight at Sutoro’s side, a pleasant solidness for his knuckles to go white upon. It would shatter the second he tried to use it against her, surely, but it was not quite useless. It was all that kept his voice steady, his feet planted, as he met the dragon’s gaze.
“Forgive me. I meant no flattery,” he said, slow and even as he could. “I mention your wisdom only to ask why you are currently acting the fool.”
The dragon blinked at him. Then she raised her head up and laughed. It was a terrible sound–sharp as her claws on the rock, clear as a midnight moon, shimmering as her scales; but, in spite of shaking the dragon’s sides until they threatened to split, there was no trace of humor in it.
“Ah, little one,” she said, when the last shudderings of it left her. “What do you know of wisdom?”
“Enough to know that it doesn’t lend itself to tyranny.”
“Oh, is that what they call me now? A tyrant?”
Sutoro was silent. It was answer enough. The dragon laughed again, low and dull, a stagnant pool with something rotting in the waters.
“I was born into this world when the world itself was new. I watched your kind, naked and mewling, and I took pity on you. It was I who plucked the words from your mouths and set them into lines of ink so that they could never be lost. It was I who wrapped furs around your shivering bodies and kindled fire in your greedy eyes. It was I who dug gold and silver ore from the earth and showed you how they sparkled. I have raised kings up to their thrones–and taken them off again, when they became cruel with their power. I have watched more born than you will ever meet, and I have seen as many die. Still, your kind learns nothing. You live, you eat, and then you die. Your kind always dies, and you always forget that you die, and you make mistake after mistake, generation after generation. I am done trying to save you. That is wisdom, little one.”
“We don’t forget.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“About death,” Sutoro explained. “We never forget.”
“Is that why you have come to meet me? Do you tempt the inevitable?”
“No. I’d rather not die, to honest.”
“It’s all hopeless, then?” Sutoro asked, ignoring this last. “From the beginning of time, you’ve seen nothing–nothing different?”
She huffed a ring of smoke, chuckling again, and Sutoro shifted his feet. The rocks shifted with him.
“So it’s different you’re looking for,” she said. “Funny. I could have sworn, from the look on your face, that you meant better. The answer’s the same, either way; nothing is new. Nothing is good. Not then, not now, not ever. One might as well do as one likes.” She grinned. “I happen to like being feared.”
Sutoro gripped the hilt of his sword tighter, staring down at his feet.
“There must be something,” he said. “There has to be.”
She had settled on the rocks as if on a sleeping-mat, but at that last she gave a snort and gathered her legs beneath her.
“It is folly, caring about things like that. It all ends the same, whatever you do; for what do you fight? For what do you struggle? In a hundred years all you fight for will be dust. Nothing more.”
Sutoro considered this. Then he shrugged.
“I suppose I should be glad that I won’t be here to see that, then,” he said, offering the dragon a smile as he began to untie the sword from his belt. She watched as he laid it down on the ground, her eyes mere slits of suspicion. He smiled at her again. “No sense in breaking a perfectly good sword against your scales, Ancient One.”
She shook her head, raising up onto her feet. She was lovely, he thought; all aglow and aglitter in the moonlight.
“Very well then, little one,” she said with a sigh. “Let me give you a gift, then, before your end: I will show you the futility of your life. You will see the solid things you fight for turn to dust, before you see the face of death.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Hm. I don’t think you’ve got a choice,” she informed, and lunged for him.
In spite of the dragon’s lazy mein, when she moved, she moved like a striking viper. She seized him effortlessly and leapt, flying out and up. The rolling plains-ground dropped off farther and father below them both.
“I will show you fear!” She purred, in a voice that rumbled thunder-deep through her coiling body and shook Sutoro to the very bone. She could have crushed him in her grip at any moment, but she did not, instead holding him just tight enough to keep him from wrestling free. He struggled, trying to pry the tight-gripping fingers from his chest, but it was in vain.
“Stop struggling, little one. You’ll die if I drop you.”
Sutoro’s heart was a fast-galloping warhorse, pounding against his ribcage as though it wished to break free of it, and he was half-twisted in the dragon’s grip, dangling oh-so-far above the ground below and watching it speed by–mist-and-moonlight fields, the black mass of a pine forest. And then, in an open space where the moon shone slick and unimpeded by the mists, he saw the shining roofs and wire-bright muddy streets of the little village, distant still but growing ever closer.
“I am owed respect,” the dragon rumbled, “From those whose lives are but dust mites to mine. And if respect cannot be given, it is still mine to take.”
Sutoro could make out the dark square of the rain-soaked teahouse. He remembered the villagers gathered inside it with their good humor and mild complaints, the warm lamplight thick with the scent of old wood and dry tea, and a spike of panic went through his chest.
He was no match for her strength, and they both knew it. Bent on their destination, she had ceased to pay any attention to him. Mind racing, Sutoro stared at what was within his reach, hoping to find something–anything–that he could use to keep her away from the village and its people. There was the dragon’s chest, pale and broad and covered in impenetrable scales; no help there. Her claws, wrapped around his chest, razor-sharp and shining even in the dim light.
He stared at the long golden talons for a mere second. Then he grabbed hold of one of them, digging mercilessly into the soft flesh at its edges and wrenching it with all his might.
She shrieked, twisting dizzily in midair as the talon–long as a sword and diamond-sharp–came free in Sutoro’s hands. Teeth clacked together beside his ear, a narrow miss as she snapped at him; the next bite she tried would take his head off. She had drawn him closer to her chest to gain a better grip. It was all he needed. He set the point of the talon over her heart. She was still writhing and screaming–or possibly shouting, though no words reached him–when he drove it in.
It was as easy a thing as driving a stake into soft earth. Hot golden blood hissed and sizzled on his face, his chest, his arms, and the dragon’s furious scream garbled. Her grip grew loose, then gave way completely, and Sutoro was falling free through the icy mist, with the great golden coil of the dragon hurtling silent as moonlight after him. The moment was outside of time. It was a picture in a book, set down in pigment and ink, sitting and gathering dust with no one to look at it. Sutoro’s mouth was dry.
Blackness met him only a second after the earth did.
* * *
He awoke to the dim knowledge of hands around his wrists, gripping tight enough to bruise, and a warm dark weight on top of him. The hands tugged, dragging him out from underneath it, and mud was squelching beneath his back as Sutoro took a ragged breath, sucking in the suddenly cool air like a benediction. He felt like something that had spent a week hanging in a butcher’s shop as he struggled to get upright. The world smelled of sick and sulphur, but at least he was standing on his own two feet.
People were moving around him, strangely tall. He looked down at his legs, gathered crookedly under him. Oh. He wasn’t standing, but sitting.
The discovery absorbed the whole of his mind for a moment, and he didn’t realize that he was slowly tipping over until hands caught him on the way down and set him upright again.
Voices gabbled all around him, and every so often a string of words became comprehensible to his heavily throbbing brain.
“–should be dead–”
“–get back, it could be a trick–”
The hands that had kept him from falling over were still on his shoulders, solid in a world that seemed as steady as a stomped puddle, and Sutoro blinked, staring into an age-lined face that seemed familiar, somehow. The man from the teahouse, looking him over with something like concern. Sutoro had never asked his name.
“Stranger, you’ve more than earned your meal.”
Sutoro managed a bleary smile.
* * *
The teahouse was packed to the brim with people. Arukoru could have made a year’s wages in coin that night, if he’d wished; but somehow the sight of the dragon, dead and dull-eyed in the mud of the very village it had thought to destroy, was too large. It pushed every petty thought of money and exchange from his head. He might be depleting his stores and destroying his business by giving away food and drink to all comers, but that hardly mattered, because the dragon was dead.
The dragon was dead. He could hardly believe it.
Men, women and children all had joined the celebration, eating and drinking and dancing as though there was no tomorrow–or, rather, because there was a tomorrow, and it was a much brighter tomorrow than anyone had dared to hope for.
As for the stranger, he had resumed his dark corner, nursing a cup of tea and a bowl of rice–all the thanks he would accept. His face had gone animal-blank again, but for a few moments, after they had dragged him free of the monster’s body, dull and dizzy and dripping with golden blood, it had been raw and open, full of human fear and confusion. It had been an odd, almost frightening sight; the bleary-eyed man, face like a confused child’s, sitting slumped in the dirt mere feet away from the monster he had killed.
Arukoru shook the thought from his head, turning to serve another steaming plate to a woman whose smile nearly split her face, and she knelt, offering the plate to share with the wide-eyed little boy who hugged her leg.
When he next looked around to check on the stranger, Sutoro was gone.
* * *
The mist had cleared, and the night was black edged in silver. For the second time that evening, Sutoro walked up the mountain. His legs shook, and his head felt as though it was swimming, but no trees whispered at him to go back. The wind was still.
It was the same mountain, he thought; the same climb. There was no reason for him to feel as though it was an impossible task. He had done it before. He could manage it again. One foot in front of the other.
Finally, the grass gave way to shifting rock beneath his feet, and he winced as he knelt, feeling on the uneven ground until his hands found the outline of his sword. He picked it up and tied it around his waist–the familiar weight a comfort, as always, but in the chill air a strangely inadequate one.
He let out a heavy sigh and got to his feet again, closing his eyes against the hurt in his skull. The dragon’s blood had dried on his clothes, but the smell of it was still there, doing no favors for his head. He let himself sink down for a moment, the rock that shifted under his knees reminding him of her laugh–so lifeless, after so many years of living. The sound of it–he didn’t think he’d ever forget it. Her words, too. For what do you fight? It’ll all be dust in a hundred years.
The echo in his head was nothing new, but he still grimaced against it. For a brief moment, he wanted nothing more than to remain where he was, kneeling, until the dragon’s promise to become dust came true.
He pushed the thought back to its proper place, to the edge of his mind, beyond the border of things he allowed himself to dwell upon. It could lurk there all it liked. For now, he just had to stand up. It was a minute until he managed it, but manage it he did.
He turned around, and halted, wavering on his feet, when instead of the slow moonlit slope he was confronted with the silver-edged outline of a man.
“Steady, stranger,” the shape said, holding out a hand. The man from the teahouse, Sutoro remembered. Arukoru, was the man’s name.
He remained silent and still, wondering what it was he wanted. Why he’d followed him up here, alone. He had hoped to slip away unnoticed; find another town, another monster to kill, another mountain to climb; but Arukoru was standing in his way, and to his water-wobbling mind, the shape of a man in his path presented an insurmountable obstacle.
“You’re not planning on traveling tonight,” Arukoru said, making the question into something that had no room for questioning in it at all.
“I cannot stay.”
If Arukoru’s question sounded like an order, his own statement had decided to dress itself in mourning-clothes when he had meant to parade it out in silks and armor.
“I never stay,” he added. The heavy thing in his throat did not disappear with the words. If anything, it grew heavier.
Arukoru only stared at him, face hidden in shadow, for a long moment. Sutoro’s legs felt weak beneath him, and his head did not want to stay solid on his shoulders. He could still feel the dragon’s claws around his chest, pressing tight. He swallowed, realizing what an easy thing it would be to step around the man, walk away from him and the little village with its warm teahouse and laughing people. He could leave this place, Arukoru’s outstretched hand, behind.
The freedom should have been a comfort, but instead it terrified him.
Arukoru was silent, a shadow that smelled like lantern-paper and candle-wax, as alien to the dark and cold as a shaft of sunlight.
“Boy,” he said, “don’t be a fool.”
He could leave. He should.
His hand slipped off the hilt of his sword, and he let everything that had made his knuckles go white on it–all the fear, all the trembling tiredness–seep into his voice.
“Perhaps,” he said, “just one more cup of tea.”
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