Part II, Chapter 1: Old Souls and Second Skins
(Hello, there! While the novel as a whole is called The Dragon's Dollhouse, all that's gone before comes under the heading Her Two Faces, and this second part is called Her Two Sides.)
While the village was only a few hundred yards wide, as each building was a few hundred feet tall the impression given was less peculiar than grotesque, as if they were not built but roosted there like monolithic gargoyles. The gigantic buildings not only dwarfed the foothills that lay behind them, but sprang into being without connection to a single road, not even a path or trail worn down by feet and hooves. Unsurprisingly, its residents thought it commonplace, not since living there had inured them to its wonders, but in comparison to the dragon that carried them there in its claws. Urgu’s new hoard was the hostage village constructed with the sagacious rapacity of a fanatical collector, for avarice would always be in his blood, though lust for gold, gems, and even fabled lore paled for the dragon.
Like an antiquarian eager to hear the provenance of a dearly bought artifact, learning his human trinkets’ stories made them more dear, so that he desired their society to minister to his loneliness, though he thought of them not as peers, but the raw materials for his village, or talking dolls. And occasionally, laughing to himself, scrubby, wingless dragons.
In human form he walked among them, less like a lord than a curator, though he was liberal in giving each acquisition a spacious venue in the vertical village. Whereas in Cjantosk, Senek slept on bar benches or in strumpets’ beds, and wrote ditties in his head to pay for his meals, in the hostage village, Senek had an apartment and paper and ink for composition. Iola had not only rooms and dresses, but fabulous toys that would be illuminating archaeological finds to Cjantoskan historians, who did not believe their ancient artisans, the deep-delvers, existed. Though Berulla was accustomed to more opulence as The Great Mother, she was relieved to have a surfeit of time, free from material concerns, and the reins of temporal power, even free to love the old musician, and adopt Iola as their own. Though Urgu was the richest being in the world, he had become a model socialist, if along a dictatorial model.
Aside from Urgu himself—who journeyed no more than a day’s flight so that his hostages felt the short, uncertain leash of being unable to flee far enough—the only one at liberty to depart the village was the wizard Khlarn. Though few were motivated to trade the comfort and repose of the hostage village for the conditional freedoms of Cjantosk, and the cruel punishment of a dragon, Berulla wondered, not for the first time, why Khlarn avoided her.
In human form and a green tunic, Urgu listened to Senek compose a new tune for two voices and a freshly oiled deep-delver piano harp that sounded melodies and motifs for the first time in centuries. Berulla sat beside the shape-changed dragon, perspiring from the heat he radiatied even draped in human skin, and asked “Why does Khlarn hate me?”
Urgu did not answer right away, for shaping human words was more awkward than sitting on two legs, rather than squarely on four legs and his belly, the way nature intended. After an hour politely listening to music, his rump was so sore from sitting that he never wanted to wear human skin again. “He’ll get over it.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“Didn’t you suffer the condemnation of some when you were Great Mother? Or did all your underlings worship you with the Goddess?”
“The insinuation is that I am naive, and should know not to care for the opinions of others. I might have said the same during my reign. Urgu, you’re a born leader.”
“I’m nothing of the sort.”
“You cultivate us like a prophet picking his followers.”
“I’m building a model village. Not an exemplary one, but a literal model, just as you might model a church before building one. This social experiment takes place on a hobby table, so to speak.”
“What’s next, war games?”
“What a model idea,” the dragon half-joked, though his eyes narrowed to consider it.
Though Berulla knew it not to be true beauty, in his man’s skin, Urgu was strikingly handsome, though extremely hirsute, with braids snaking through his long, red mane. His beard was also a single braided thatch of red, and his arms bristled with copper hair.
“Could you appear less hairy and mannish?” asked the Great Mother.
“Do I offend?”
“While you are pleasant to behold, why should a shape changer always takes the same shape?”
“Magic is the art of forms. To become a different man, I would have to create a different form, and as it would be less familiar, I couldn’t maintain that shape as long as this one. While learning one dance makes it easier to learn the next, and learning this form has prepared me to learn others, why should I, when I am also curious of fish, birds, butterflies, and other more useful forms?” While Berulla had heard this answer before, having asked more than one variation on this question, the answer didn’t sit right. When Urgu’s eyes narrowed again to scrutinize her, she wondered, not for the first time, if he knew that his human facial expressions were easy to read.
When Urgu stood, the flowery notes stopped, and the musician stood to return the dragon’s cordial bow. “I like what I hear,” said Urgu, “and I’m curious to hear the finished score.”
Senek laughed and said, “if anything you heard makes it into the composition. Good day, my lord.”
“I’m no lord.”
Berulla followed Urgu into the hall. “Do you know that, for a century, we have had our own shape-shifters at the monastery?”
“If it was a secret,” said the dragon, “you couldn’t expect me to know. That said, I may have been privy to your poorly-kept secret swans.”
“I thought the laws of magic didn’t care what kind of bird I became, only that I fall back into this skin as a human.”
“I am not surprised that laws circumscribe human magic. Though human mystics may need the comfort of axioms, dragons have long known that nothing is fixed, that there are only points of attachment. When the familiar becomes ingrained, however, it resembles a law; for instance, I have lived so long with this human skin that it seems innate, and it would be unbearable to both my true nature and my second nature to cast aside this face in favor of a new mask.”
They continued across the central commons, skirting the play of children, none of which resembled each other or were closer than a year apart in age. Even to the cold heart of she who had been The Great Mother, recognitions like this were a constant, chilling reminder of their status. They were captives, collectibles, or specimens, not citizens.
“I guess that’s as plausible an explanation as any,” said Berulla, waving to one of the workers putting a festive trim on a scaffolded stage.
“It’s a true one, as well.”
“I still have need of you, Great Mother,” snarled Urgu. then pulled her behind him. Berulla did not pull away, knowing that this long-haired, freakishly strong tyrant was the dragon’s good face. She did her best to keep up with his longer gait. “A friend wants a word,” he finished. She would remember later that Urgu would not want another word for several weeks,
In the ornately paneled and carpeted tea room, there were plump divans, ottomans, low wooden tea tables, and an oil and gold leaf portrait of two men playing chavoru. A kettle hung over the fire raging in the brick oven. Though a tea service was set for three, only Khlarn reclined in one of the couches, and Urgu bowed, backed through the door, and closed it behind him.
When she thought she might learn why the jovial wizard singled her out with hatred, she grew cold.
“Please sit,” said Klharn, “we have much to discuss.”
Though he had tonsured his hair, and wore the celestial robes of one versed in Corunan mysteries, Berulla would never have allowed a black-skinned islander into the monastery. The suggestion would have been blasphemy. That what was once taboo under her rule had become everyday in her absence overcame her timidity. “Do we? Did you earn those robes?” Her voice raised. Until that moment, she had not realized how much she cared, not only about what happened in her monastery, but about how she lived. Though Berulla nodded her head and smiled at whatever neighbors the dragon procured, harmony was not society, and the dragon’s motly collection was not a neighborhood. Of all the dragon’s keepsakes, there were only two worth keeping.
“Did you not know?” said Khlarn. “I’m ordained. While I don’t like the style, it is in truth but an image of a haircut, just as these robes are but the shared sentiment of a faith I do not feel. Which is not to say that your religion has not scourged me with austerities. If you would like, I could divest myself of this appearance, though it would not be so easy to strip me of my wounds that never heal.”
“What do you know of old wounds, wizard? Your hair is a gray lie, and age cannot touch you.”
When Khlarn’s eyes narrowed, it was as if that piercing gaze scattered her into motes of dust, and he was alone in the tea room not only with his thoughts, but her thoughts, picking and choosing from the terrified fragments of her personality. While Berulla had once been the Great Mother, and in that role she commanded power, her shame was so great that she did not ask the Goddess for anything, not for fear that the Goddess would spurn her, but for fear the Goddess no longer knew her. This heathen’s power was not divine, but the outpouring of his diabolical soul, which he could pour into a multitude of animal forms, and produce no end of minor miracles, like light, fire, wood, steel, or food. When Berulla averted her eyes from the wizard’s gaze, he asked “where are the Djaltoujimin scrolls?”
As Great Mother, Berulla knew how to make a wall of her face before promises, demands and entreaties, but now she struggled to regain eye contact when she smiled at him. Why did this man seem familiar? “Why are you looking for them, wizard? And why would you ask me? I no longer command the keys of the monastery.”
“You were there!” Khlarn hissed. He stepped forward until his face was a few inches apart from her own. “You were there!” he squalled, his arms waving and his head bobbing, and when the false form slipped for a moment, revealing the livid swan outstretched, its neck rigid and wings taut with rage, she shuddered with fear, but remembered.
“Don’t forget yourself so quickly,” Berulla said with laconic, stately grace, “for while our faith might admit wizards, blacks, and foreigners, it is unthinkable that we should allow a swan to take vows.”
“Where are they?” Khlarn’s face settled into its imperturbable smile. “I can see why you were elected Great Mother, for the luster of your greatness outshined your glaring lack of motherliness. What have you done with the scrolls?”
Berulla threw her head back in a scornful laugh. “If we were in Cjantosk, you would learn what I know of the mysteries, but as you have a dragon in your corner, I will say only that a bird brain will never find them. Why not ask what’s really on your mind? Your concerns are how we’ve raised your eggs and where they roost.”
“Where are the scrolls?” Khlarn insisted.
“We swept them out with the egg shells.” She snorted derisively.
In that black moment, Khlarn wanted to break Berulla’s neck with the onslaught of his wings, and only his desperation for the Djaltoujimin scrolls lent him restraint. Berulla never knew how close she came to death, for decades had drummed the Djaltoujimin’s pacific ways out of Khlarn, so that most of the time he thought and acted as the man he pretended to be.
““Have you a friend, Great Mother? Not a kept pet, like your musician or the girl, but one that you respect enough to share the shape of your thoughts. Though I promised Urgu I would do no violence to you, he suggested this sport.” When Khlarn’s sinuous grin elongated into a serpentine snout, and the rest of him swelled to fill much of the room, Berulla leaped back to avoid being crushed. While the small dragon was scarcely bigger than a horse, that fact was lost on the fearful woman, especially when eight foot wings raised, then burst through the doors, dragging her into the sky.
Since dragon form was new to Khlarn, dragon’s vocal chords puzzled him greatly, but though he could not reiterate his question, he found another way to repeat himself. When he first dropped Berulla, it was startling and terrifying, despite Khlarn’s promise to Urgu. After he caught her, he made a game of dropping, swooping, and snatching, so that soon she was breathless, not only from exhaustion, but from the stiffening fear that made her only able to take shallow gulps of the thin, cold air. Khlarn’s unflagging enjoyment of her torment soon overwhelmed his certainty that he would not dare to drop her. “They’re in the library!” she screamed. “The library!” She screamed library over and over until the word was blurred into more screams, and so that she did not notice their decent until he released her several feet from the ground. When she stumbled, nearly falling on her face, she pinwheeled her arms to keep her footing.and fell hard on her tailbone.
The wracking pain, dizziness, and the aftershock of terror made her black out, and when she came to moments later, two things that might have seemed harmless any other day were burned into her sight. Which is not to say that she gave these things much credence at first. Since the old woman’s eyes were not what they used to be, when she glimpsed things which troubled her or gave her hope, the uncertainty of what she had seen made two-faced traitors of her own eyes.
When Urgu looked down from the balcony of her own residence, had she also seen the musician, talking as if nothing had happened? When Khlarn, still in dragon form, passed over the horizon towards Cjantosk, was that a vee of swans in the wizard’s wake?