The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Chapter 8: The Hilt

The swan glided the length of Itruzca Street before swooping onto a street lamp in front of the guard tower. When the lone guard stepped from his post to dicker with a street vendor over a cart of savory smells—warm bread, soup redolent of rosemary, and roasted garlic—the swan decided to wait out lunch hour. Though he loathed shape changing, it was his most powerful gift, and he desired a larger audience to appreciate it. This was, after all, the reason why he traveled in his natural shape, though he was more comfortable clothed in humanity, his second skin.

However, when he recognized a familiar face among three guards exiting the tower, the swan fluttered from the post, then seemed to unspool in mid-air, expanding and re-knitting into a man that, the instant after the transformation, stepped lightly to the ground as if he had often rehearsed it. He had.

“Don’t you remember me, Czebek?” Khlarn wore a jacket of purple silk, its sleeves overlapping his palms, and its bell-like cuffs trimmed with golden arrows. The wizard’s pants were azure blue, and on his curly black hair rested a thin copper circlet inset with an opaque, opaline stone, so darkened that at first the setting seemed empty. This was his favorite human shape, that of a noble Lord who had once owned the pier, as well as half of the rest of the harbor. They were fast friends a hundred years ago, when Cjantosk was a more broad-minded place, before the coming of the strange sisters and their two-faced goddess brought with them a creeping intolerance that encouraged the departure of those that worshiped other gods, and those that didn’t have the white faces of the Corunans’ cursed tapestries. Twenty years after Mazrac left Cjantosk, Khlarn had seen the monks’ true faces, and he would never wear white again, whether clothes or skin. He wanted that evil Goddess never to be confused that he might be one of her chosen ones.

On recognizing the wizard, the tall, lanky guard said, “Well met, Khlarn. Boys, this is the wizard we brought back with the sword. Our bonus, you might say.” Czebek’s nose looked like it might have been an internal organ that was attached to his face by a drunken healer, for it had undoubtedly been broken in a number of brawls. Though his nose looked like a mistake, Czebek was a kind human, which is to say callous and unloving by the standards of Khlarn’s people, though in his years among humanity, he had learned to settle for hello, goodbye, offensive jokes, and a gruff offer of food and drink.

“Very droll, Czebek. I would match wits with you if taking a match to your wits wouldn’t burn them to ash.”

“Well, that’s rude,” said Czebek.

“Was it? I’m sorry. Where I’m from, we prefer metaphor to feelings. Now there isn’t much time. I must speak to Tilonus.”

“He’s at home, taking his midday lunch.”

“His midday lunch? How many others are in the lunch bestiary? And how many lunches does our Captain of the Guard take?”

“Be seeing you, Khlarn.” Having arrived at his post, Czebek took his “at ease” position, put on his most stoic face, and avoided Khlarn’s eyes.

“Tell me where Tilonus lives, Czebek.”

Czebek groaned and gestured over a stone wall to a large manse, constructed in the classic Cjantoskan style of six minarets bordering six walls in the configuration of an elongated diamond. Though originally painted white, now the manor was streaked with soot and smoke from Urgu’s depredations. A hundred years ago, Itruzca Street had ran all the way to the docks, but now it stopped at the outer walls of the Guard Captain’s estate.

Though Khlarn started for it on foot, when he passed a large tea bistro with a strong bouquet of jasmine, scented tallow candles, and many patrons on wooden stools drinking from small brown bowls, he changed into a furry dog, one of his other familiar shapes, and pranced on all fours the rest of the way, thrilled by the startled cries and claps of the onlookers.

Since it was fun to stay in character, the dog stood on his hind legs to scratch the door. When Tilonus’s manservant answered abruptly, with a cudgel in hand, the dog fell on his forefeet and scampered inside.

“Out!.I’ll kill you, mongrel,” said the manservant, taking a step closer to the shape-changed wizard, who then stood on hind legs to mime shaking the servant’s hand.

“I’ll give you a shake.” When the dog ducked under the manservant’s cudgel to run behind him, he spun on his heels to find no dog, but an outlander in strange garb. “Who are you? Let yourself out as quickly as you let yourself in.”

“Though your master expects me,” said the wizard, “I can wait outside if you wish. It’s all the same to me. Beautiful day, is it not?”

“A day’s a day, my lord. If the master’s waiting, I’ll fetch you to him. Follow me.”

“I’m not a lord, and I’ll happily follow you.”

“No, not yet. First, your boots. And come to think of it, your coat. What have you been doing, running on all fours?”

Khlarn laughed. Most days, he delighted in the innocence of the Cjantoskans. Today was different. It was said, babies will chew serpents when breasts are dry. What would the Guard Captain do if he believed that the city’s treasury of faith was bankrupt?

“I might have, so be warned,” said Khlarn. “Being barefoot makes me even more carefree, and being jacket-less makes me light of step.”

The servant made a sneering little moue and turned on the wizard to put Khlarn’s coat on a door peg then throw the shoes outside.

That a strapping, capable man was contented not by self-sufficience, but in serving another man, was beyond Khlarn’s understanding. Though many bemused Cjantoskans had explained money to him, all he heard was slavery justified as pragmatism. Every day that he stayed away from his home, he remembered the most succinct of these defenders of commerce, who said, “without money, no one would work. Human incentive is the root of all trade and labor.”

Tilonus entered in a warm woolen robe. “Do I know you?”

“It’s your business to know who the strangers are,” smirked Khlarn.

“Fine,” grumped the weary old man. “I know of you, Khlarn. But not that you were rude.“.”

“And you are Tilonus, Captain of the Guard and infamous philanderer. Introductions have been made. Now would come small talk, like weather, food and news of other realms from my travels. Isn’t the accepted order of conversation tiresome? I think so.”

“I don’t care what you think, wizard. Why are you here?”

“Your mother is a harpy.”

“What?” said Tilonus, groping under his robe for the hilt of a dagger.

“Forgive me! As usual, I embellish too much. Not your mother, your grandmother.” Tilonus sputtered. “No, no,” continued Khlarn, “I err in translation. It is your Great Mother that is the monster.”

“The Great Mother? You can’t be serious?” The Captain of the Guard’s hand rattled the dagger’s hilt. Though he did not draw his blade, the hand remained there.

“Yes, your Great Mother. She has lived on a diet of divine whispers for so long that now she a stretched out shadow, barely human and only partly mortal. The kindly woman you think you see is the shadow’s penumbra, and her true self is an oceanic, umbral abyss.”

“I understood half of that, and the other half is nonsense. You need to leave.”

“Think on this...where are the beggars and the waifs?”

“Begging and waifing, and unlikely to appreciate your competition.”

“That was quick,” said Khlarn, “and it would be witty, if it wasn’t a lie.”

“Why should I care where beggars and orphans are?”

“Is it not your duty, Captain?”

“You don’t speak for me.”

“I only say that should you look for them, you will not find them.”

When Tilonus seized Khlarn’s, the larger, older man’s hand circled the wizard’s wrist as easily as a mother’s might her child’s. “I don’t like the game you’re playing.” He yanked the wizard through the foyer to the front yard of his manor, then continued to drag the shoe-less and jacket-less Khlarn forward over the dirt path. Though Khlarn’s feet were toughened by long adventures, without a jacket he shivered in the late winter air. Though he could conjure another in moments, it was not something he could do on the drag.

Though clad only in a robe, Tilonus did not seem to mind the chilly mid-morning. “You!” he called to two stationed near his outer gate, and they came running. “Take him. Don’t ask me the charge, and hold him in the keep.” When the Captain of the Guard shoved Khlarn toward them, the wizard stumbled, then tucked into a roll, emerging as a goat that sidestepped Tilonus’ thrown dagger, then nimbly dodged the guard phalanx that converged on their captain’s orders. When the goat scampered around the corner of Tilonus’ manor, turned into a chipmunk, then scrambled up the vast oak tree that overlooked the grounds, he heard Tilonus’s roar “Can’t you catch a goat?” yelled Tilonus. “He’s not even a real goat! Are you dumb as stones because he magicked rocks to look like guards?”

When one of his men was about to reply, Tilonus sneered “don’t answer that.”

***

In the shape of a chipmunk and known to most as a man, the swan wizard knew the difference between being and seeming. Deceiving, a twofold crime, shamed the deceiver and enfolded the deceived in distrust and doubt. If Tilonus sacked those he chose not to discipline, the blame would be Khlarn’s. It was easier to lie when he knew less about the human way of life; now that he thought as a man more than half the time, it was hard not to sympathize. Did this make him half man or half swan, he wondered? Having lived most of his life as a man, who is to say that he was not now a human wizard changing to a swan? Fortunately, Khlarn was not only clever enough to phrase such sophistries, he was too wise not to know the difference between creating an image of a life, and truly becoming that life.

Home was the island Djaltoujim, where he lived two-hundred summers before the outsiders arrived in wooden ships and woolen robe to the human city they magicked for show, to receive the guests that sought to sell earthly goods and unnecessary ideas, such as the monks, who read from ornate scrolls that explained the Djaltoujimin were beholden to the great goddess Coruna. Since the Djaltoujimin believed not in gods but magic and their own souls, they listened attentively, but less than tolerantly, and when the monks attempted to justify their faith, the youngest whooped and snickered.

When the monks knew they were first humored, then mocked, they brought arms against the Djaltoujimin, who allowed the illusions of their human bodies to seem to die as they fell back to their nests. The Corunans came with black words, dark hearts, and hands that wielded fatal light; even their hate was divinely inspired, and blessed by the descent of Coruna’s manifold shadows, the baleful beings that the monks called her Passions, which exhorted the monks to cast the life out of all Djaltoujimin, even fledglings, and were not averse to snuffing out the swans themselves. The heavens had opened hate on their loving race, their only crime denying the sovereignty of the two-faced goddess. Those Djaltoujimin that could fled in every direction, which soon made the swans a dispossessed race that believed in their now hated human guises as best they could, to mingle with humans where they were accepted.

As the Djaltoujimin magics were so precise that one disguised swan couldn’t tell another from a true human, their diaspora was long-lived, and Khlarn had not commiserated with any of his kind, or even thought or lived as a swan, for decades.

Perhaps because Khlarn’s grief was all swan, he had lived with a light step as a man, though in his heart he knew that he did not truly feel the jaunty, carefree persona with which he imbued his human guise.

While the pity and grief lay buried in the still waters of his soul, their faint image clouded his mirror of humanity, so that he remained ever unable to adapt to certain iniquities of the humans. When he thought to complete his magical studies under a human wizard, he learned combative shapes, like the boar and the falcon, but though he was a pliant student, his mind could not bend to the mysteries that befouled human battle magic. While he could will violence, even to the point of killing the bandit chief, like many animals—sentient or not—he could not will evil itself, and as that seemed the root of human battle magic, it remained beyond him. It maddened Khlarn, who wanted justice for his beloved Djaltoujimin, and closure in the matter of the stolen eggs, but all he could do was learn different shapes and more indirect means of magical violence. This was when he thought to search also for the lost scrolls of his people, for they contained many miraculous powers beyond the mightiest of the human wizards. In the meantime, the puzzle-loving wizard continued to attempt the weaponized human magic, thinking it was a riddle that would fall to him in time, like every other puzzle he had mastered.

***

After Tilonus and his men stopped searching, Khlarn climbed to the roof of an adjoining inn, returned to his human form, and considered the formula of a burning ray. When he attempted it, the spell failed, though he could see the verses and focus images perfectly in his mind’s eye. Each time he attempted it, his denial was so great that he believed his inflections and gestures slightly different, though they were no different than the other times he had tried the spell.

From the inn’s roof, he could see the arched roof of the monastery, and its eave-mounted statues of Coruna’s Passions, each holding aloft a Sword of Sacred Light. The holy fear neither righteousness nor wickedness, but hold them by their hilt. It was the only verse he remembered from the day of the massacre, as it closed the sermon that would be the last argument the outraged monks delivered to the swans. The verse had tortured him over the years, not because of the memory of the thrown gauntlet, but because of this hilt he could not grasp.

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