Dragon Queen Excerpt: Fickle Fortune

She lay sprawled flat, staring up at the sky. The silver man with the white face and the bloody eyes was looking down at her again. Other faces peered down around her. Dark-skins marked with tattoos. Taiytakei. The wooden deck was unforgiving and hard against her skin, bruising her to the bone. She felt crushed by her own weight. One by one a forest of little sounds touched her. Creaking wood. Straining ropes. The wind whistling through the rigging. The shuffle of feet on the deck. Distant voices, orders barked and the calls of seagulls wheeling overhead. The air smelled of salt and of the sea.

The faces didn’t speak. They stroked their chins and looked at her. If there was anyone left to write a history of her reign, their words wouldn’t be kind. They wouldn’t say that Speaker Zafir of the Silver City had been wise or good or just and they certainly wouldn’t speak of peace and glory. The miracle would be if there were any voices left to speak at all. But for now none of that mattered, for now she was about to die.

She rose shakily to her feet. Black-skinned Taiytakei sailors in their thin bright silks, yellows and pinks and pale greens and blues, stood around her. Beyond them, past the rocking of the ship, the sea shifted with a lazy swell, the water a deep blue under the summer sun. Around them half a hundred other ships rolled slowly back and forth.

Nausea stabbed at her. She coughed, vomiting up another mouthful of water, then glared at the men around her, ready to fight if she had to, but a cautious thought held her back: of the dragon she had ridden with its vengeful flames, snuffed out in the air like you might snuff out a candle. Crashing dead to the water with her still strapped to its back. Sinking and pulling her under.

No. She was a dragon-queen. She lived and flew and commanded monsters. She had a knife in her boot. She would cut through them like dragon fire or she would fall in the attempt.

She staggered as the pitching of the deck caught her unawares. Her ankle was still weak from her duel with Lystra. She dropped to one knee and found she couldn’t rise again, that it was too breathlessly hard. Lystra. Stupid girl.

The silver men dispersed into glittering mist and drifted into the air. She watched them go to the other dragons who had fled from the Pinnacles with her, three of them, motionless, frozen in the sky as though for them time had stopped. The silver mists wrapped around them. They seemed to whisper in the dragons’ ears. Even the Taiytakei stood transfixed, watching the alien sorcerers ascend to the sky.

The oldest of the Taiytakei turned away first and looked at her. He was shaking but it was only his age. Or maybe it was laughter. His face was wrinkled, so dark that his eyes seemed like lamps beneath the tight braids of his ghost-white hair. His fingers were knobbly, all skin and bone. His clothes, though . . . He wore bright silk from head to toe and was collared and cuffed with iridescent feathers, red and yellow and orange and gold, shimmering in the sun so that he looked almost aflame. The braids of his hair reached to his feet. A rich man among their kind, then. Very rich indeed.

He told her his name, Quai’Shu, and how he’d traded her for dragons. She let him, taking the time it gave her to find her strength again, to find the fury of the dragon inside. When he was done, another Taiytakei, taller and younger but just as skinny and frail-looking, whispered in the old man’s ear. He had his feathers made into a cloak, and when the wind died down and it fell still she saw that the feathers formed a picture. The sea, and mountainous stones rising from the waves that reminded her of her home in the Pinnacles. A golden cloud rose above the scene and two bright bolts of lightning crossed it. His braids too almost touched the deck. She wondered how many times he tripped over them each day.

The old man frowned, shrugged, nodded and turned to walk slowly away. The younger Taiytakei smiled. His eyes felt like unwanted fingers over her skin, all greed and desire. She was cold, the wet soft leather under what was left of her dragon-scale clinging unpleasantly to her, seawater still dripping from her sleeves, trickling down her arms and legs. She knew what was on his mind. What was on the mind of most men when they saw her. She wasn’t sure whether it made her want to laugh or cry. Men were so pathetically predictable.

And for one bizarre moment she found herself thinking of Jehal. Missing him. He’d made no pretence of being anything but himself. He’d lived up to his promises, at least until Evenspire.

She rose again, unsteady, slipping her boot knife into her sleeve. Above, her last three dragons snapped into motion again. No bodies fell splashing to the sea but she knew the riders who’d flown with her were gone. Snuffed out. Her last loyal few. These silver men, what were they? Not Taiytakei. The Silver Kings themselves? But a thought like that was too big for this moment, too laden with questions as large as the world. This moment was black and white, life and death.

‘Hold her!’

A sailor reached out and grabbed her and it was almost a relief to have something simple to deal with. She jumped straight at him, knocking him back, and the sailor gave a yelp of surprise and for a moment she was free. She had no doubts about what came next. The whole world narrowed down to the Taiytakei in the cloak, the one who presumed to own a dragon-queen. She sprang and knocked him over. They fell, locked together, and she had the knife in her hand before they hit the deck, sharp and free and already coming down. She’d waged wars, burned cities and called down fire from the skies; she’d stroked the hearts of men and taken lovers as she chose, she’d betrayed her own blood and her desire had betrayed her in its turn. Princess, queen, speaker, she’d been all these and she would not submit to anything, not any more. Never again. Certainly not to a man who’d traded her life and her ambition with King Valmeyan of the Worldspine for his stolen dragons.

‘Not.’ Stab. ‘Yours.’ Stab. ‘To give!’ Flecks of spittle flew from the corners of her mouth. He wanted her, and just for that, for the mere thought that he could have her without begging to ask, she slit him open from his gut to his gullet and let his blood wash the deck of his own ship. Bodies piled on top of her – sailors – one, two, a dozen maybe – trying to pin her, trying to hold her still. Too late.

She wondered, as the whole ship hit her around the head, why she hadn’t dived into the sea to drown and be with her riders instead of killing this Taiytakei. But the moment didn’t give her an answer; everything was sharp and loud and then black and silent and still. She welcomed, at last, an end.

Yet the ghosts of the underworld didn’t come. Perhaps the spirit hordes of those who’d died at Evenspire and the Pinnacles weren’t waiting in wrathful judgement for her after all. Not the mother who’d betrayed her and whom she’d conspired to murder, nor the father who had made her what she was. The dark room she feared beyond all else didn’t come to claim her after all, not yet.

She hurt. That was the first thing she knew. Her head pounded and her shoulders throbbed. When she tried to move, the pain was sharp and piercing. When her eyes opened again, she was in a bed in a tiny room that rolled from side to side. Ships were rare in the dragon realms and so it took a moment for her to realise where she was.

The sheets were soft like the ones Jehal had brought her from his silk farms on Tyan’s Peninsula but here they carried an unfamiliar scent, something bitter and foreign. She tried to move but waves of pain and nausea overwhelmed her. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply against them. For a while she lay still. Her fingers explored her skin, searching out the damage. It was all she could do.

She was dressed in unfamiliar clothes and the smell wasn’t the sheets, it was her. They’d torn her dragon out of the sky, bruised and battered her, stripped her, half killed her, and then they’d bathed and cleaned her, washed her in oils and ointments which smelled sharp and foul and dressed her in alien silks.

Her left foot was so swollen she could barely move it. One shoulder felt stiff and sore, too uncomfortable to move. She didn’t remember either injury happening.

The pain slowly ebbed but the nausea didn’t. She gagged. Sat up, sharp with sudden fear, and threw up into a bronze pissing pot beside the bed, a few trickles of sticky bile. The smell of it tied her stomach into a tighter knot. She turned away. Lay back, head thumping. The low wooden beams were oppressive and too close. At least it wasn’t dark. That would have been too much to bear.

A metal ring was bolted through the middle beam, the sort that might be used to hang a lantern except this one had a wrought silver chain attached to it. It seemed an odd thing until she realised that the chain reached down to the bed and to a bracelet around her wrist, silver and worked into a tangle of lightning bolts. She’d never seen silver of such delicate strength but in a stroke it turned her room into a prison.

She closed her eyes. The sickness wouldn’t leave her and the pain in her head was drilling into her bones. They hadn’t killed her then. She wasn’t sure whether she was glad of that or not. She’d meant them to, meant to give them no choice, but now . . . life was more . . . more desirable than death? Was it? Better than facing her ancestors, perhaps? Or perhaps not, because now it would be as it always was: there would be a man, sooner or later, who sought to own her, a man who saw her as a pretty thing for his own pleasure and nothing else. Even Jehal had been like that, although at least he had been equally exquisite.

I killed the last one, she told herself as she drifted away. If there’s another, I’ll kill him too.

When she woke, there were strangers in her cabin. Three women, scared little birds with white belted tunics flapping like wings. She flew at them, heedless of her pain, and they squealed and shrieked and wept and cringed in the furthest corners where her chain wouldn’t let her reach them. They had dark skin, night-dark like the Taiytakei, but they were slaves. They came from the deserts in the far north, perhaps. There were whispers of dark-skinned men up there, far across the sands. She hadn’t heard of Shezira or Hyram dealing in slaves but that didn’t mean they didn’t.

‘Who are you?’ They cringed. ‘Who is your master?’ They shook their heads. One of them started to weep. ‘Do you know who I am?’ They cringed again. ‘Where are you taking me? Why? Whoever is your mistress or master, bring them here!’ More questions, until she felt light-headed, but all they ever did was quiver and stare.

Scared little birds. Weary to the bone she lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, listening to them. When they thought she was asleep they scurried about and then ran away like fearful mice and left her alone. The room stank again, some new bitter spice over the lingering smell of stale vomit. It disgusted her. At least her head felt clearer.

They’d emptied the pissing pot. Good. She needed it, and this time she just about had the strength to swing her legs out of the bed and squat. Awkward with one foot and one arm not working, but she found a way. When she was done she looked around. Her cabin might have been a fine place as little wooden rooms on tiny floating palaces were measured, but Zafir wrinkled her nose at almost every part of it. The silk hangings on the walls were bright and pretty and intricate, woven patterns of emerald-green and lapis-blue and white and gold but they were just patterns and had no story to them. The wooden bed, chest, table and chairs were dark carved wood and the bath was plain bronze. They were all as good as any she might find in the dragon realms, but no better. No better because the speaker of the nine realms already owned the best that any Taiytakei craftsman would ever carry across the seas and every last piece was tainted and tarnished by the metal around her wrist.

There were clothes in the chest. Gauzy silks, the colours gaudy, the weave as soft as the sheets but with the same alien tang. The glass in the round windows that looked out across the sea, now that was another matter. She’d never seen glass so clear, nor glass like the decanter that sat in a silver rack on the table.

She looked at all these things and then hobbled to her feet and stood right under the ring in the ceiling to put as much slack in the chain as she could make. Enough to wrap it once around her waist. She took a deep breath, tensed, then jumped and let her whole weight snap the chain taut. It bit into her skin but didn’t snap, didn’t even give. She tried it again. This time she ripped her silk shift and drew blood. She sat back on the bed, gasping, wincing at the renewed pains in her shoulder and her ankle. When she had her breath again she stared blankly at the floor. For a few short months she’d had everything. She’d been the speaker of the nine realms. Dragon-queen of the world. Until Evenspire and the great betrayal, and after that everything had unravelled, one thread after another until now, and now she had nothing. Worse than nothing. A slave to the Taiytakei. What would that make her? A curiosity perhaps for a while because of who she was and what she’d been.

She’d seen the way the one she’d killed had looked at her. He wouldn’t be the last.

And then what?

She stood up, hopped back to the middle of the cabin and very slowly wrapped the chain twice around her neck. To see if it would go. It would.

Suddenly her heart was beating very fast.

Maybe it would work. And maybe it wouldn’t.

Maybe she didn’t want it to.

Not yet.

Carefully she unwrapped the chain. She sat heavily back on the bed and held her head in her hands and screwed up her eyes. Tears wanted to come but she wouldn’t let them. Couldn’t. She’d learned that. Tears had only ever made it worse. Tears showed you were weak and a dragon-rider was never weak.

Slow deep breaths until they went away.

She stood up again. Movement was good. Doing anything at all, that was good. She was thirsty. She unstoppered the glass decanter and sniffed at it, tasted the liquid, decided it was simply water and drained it, then held the glass in her hand and stared into its facets. There was a thing of wonder. It was beautiful. She’d never seen anything like it. She paused, staring into it, and then she hurled it across the room with all the violence she could find. It hit the wall and smashed into a million glittering shards. She stared at them. It was like staring at her own life.

She hadn’t moved when the three timid women came back later with food and water and more of their oils and ointments. They shuffled in with their heads bowed and didn’t dare to look up at her, but she heard one of them gasp when they saw the broken glass.

‘What did I do to you?’ she asked them. ‘What do you want?’ But they ignored her. They were shaking as they swept up the broken glass and hurried away. Zafir grabbed the last before she could escape and shook her. Flame, but they were passive, docile, broken little things! Yet underneath their fear she saw how much they loathed her. ‘Why? Why do you hate me? Was it the man I killed?’

The girl shook her head as if to refuse an answer but it was written all over her face. No. So they hated her for something else.

‘You’re right to be afraid of me,’ she said and let go. The girl ran away.

After the second day, when she saw there could be no escape, she let them bring her food. She let them wash and dress her because whatever little she had left, she could still keep her pride for as long as they let her. They brought her tall thin bottles of wine and she started to pretend the women were hers, her own servants, and let them be. The pain in her head eased. The bruises faded. The cuts where she’d lacerated herself with the chain quickly healed. Her ankle and the shoulder were wrenched but not broken. Two weeks and the swelling had gone; another two and they’d be as strong as ever. No damage done. On the outside at least she’d be perfect again.

‘What are your names?’ she asked the women but they still refused to speak. Were afraid to utter even a single word. She found out what she could by reading their faces as she asked her questions. They were slaves whose master was dead. They didn’t know what would happen to her when the ship reached their home. They knew nothing of the war Jehal had waged against her or how it had ended. They’d never heard of her, or of him, or of the Pinnacles or the Silver City. They had no idea at all who she was except that she’d killed a man. The white-haired Taiytakei Quai’Shu – yes, she remembered his name, she made sure of that – was the ruler of this little floating kingdom, she got that much; but they didn’t know his purpose and they shook with fear and almost cried when she asked them about her dragons.

It wasn’t so hard to guess. She’d had a shrewd idea, by the end, what Valmeyan had been doing in Clifftop, what he’d been looking for.

One night, two weeks after they’d taken her, the ship sailed through a great storm and bucked and heaved like a dragon at war. In the middle of it was a stillness. She lay on her bed trembling in the darkness, alone, the scared little girl she spent so much time trying to forget. When her broken birds came the morning after it was gone she was still trembling inside. She kept it buried though, carefully hidden from sight, and none of them saw, and by the time they came again, the fear was gone.

They painted her, made her beautiful to their own queer eyes, and that was when the dragon voice ripped all their thoughts into pieces.

I am Silence and I am hungry.

Dragon eggs. That was the treasure the Taiytakei had stolen. And now, that voice told her, the eggs were hatching and they were all going to burn. She smiled. Laughed a bitter laugh while her heart stayed as hard as diamond.

She was Zafir. She was the dragon-queen.