He had always been fond of flying animals. They made the long, hot days out on the raft more interesting, especially around noon when the glade was mostly quiet. Once he had befriended a raven—loosely speaking—by feeding it some of the undergrown crayfish he caught that he knew wouldn’t sell well at market. Its personality was much different from the usual bat-winged tigvi kept by rich women in the cities; less capricious, more patient. Admirable, in its own way. It had vanished a few days later, but not before returning the favour by depositing a clutch of worms directly into his tackle box as it flew off. How he envied its freedom.
Behind her silver mask, the fisherman could tell that she was sneering at him. Again, she pivoted on her heel and paced, the clatter of the dragon-woman’s boot upon the polished marble taunting him. Through the slight gaps in the plates of her armor, and despite the obfuscation of her leathery black wings, he could see patches of pale skin, almost ivory. He reckoned she went outside rarely, if at all. Those of the Ministry of Secrets rarely did.
Suddenly, she drew her knife—a wild, gnarled-looking thing, its hooked and serrated blade dripping with green venom—and held its tip only a few inches from his nose, the liquid almost the same color as his skin. Instinctively, he raised his manacled hands to defend himself, but as they were chained to a belt of iron, he could scarcely raise them above his stomach.
Between them was the dead body of something hideously unnatural; a serpent, almost like an eel, its trunk thick enough to nearly brush against the noblewoman’s arm.
“So tell me again, gono,” she rasped, furious, “why the Minister should believe that you found this sick joke, this heresy, this bit of Sarthian trickery in the Marshlands.”
He began to stammer, repeating his explanation of the events he had witnessed. Like most hateli fishers, he was a pauper, and had no choice but to keep at the slow, unreliable work in the peat despite the rain, even when arcs of lightning had begun to span the sky. A flash of the storm had illuminated the bizarre, misshapen carcass, half-coiled, rising in a lump out of the reeds a hundred yards off from his boat. It had, as far as he could tell, washed in from the sea.
Hoping to earn enough vigli to feed his family that night, he had assumed it was some sort of deep-sea monster, the stuff of sailors’ tales, and had taken it to the schoolhouse where his son went, in search of some egg-head who would pay a few good coins for it. Instead, he found the school’s headmistress speaking to a woman in black and purple robes. That woman had been an agent of the Uravidi, the secret police of the great city of Sur’daro. She had recognized the remains immediately, even in the low lamp-light of the dingy, repurposed villa.
As the adjutant considered this information, she tapped her fingertips on the pommel of her knife, rhythmically.
“So many words and yet so little said,” she concluded. Her voice was cold, distant, almost like a despondent little girl who’d fallen down a well. It was a peculiar affectation, common to those in the service of the law, cultivated to have an inevitable effect of chilling the blood of those who heard it. “Is that what you think of the Uravidi? That we could be fooled so easily as to think you were innocent in this hoax?”
Confronted again with the accusation that his find was a forgery, the fisherman was bewildered and speechless. He swallowed anxiously, fidgeting and unable to take his eyes off the strange blade that trembled, shimmering and menacing in the light, almost as if it had a life of its own, like some sort of horrible, toxic silver-bodied eel. He had heard once that the Sarthians—the backward, primitive ancestors of the dragon-women, including the one who stood before him—thought that strong feelings were spirits, predators that infested the mind and coerced it into action. Was the Uravida holding the knife, or was she holding it back? Perhaps objects could be infested with such spirits, too.
In desperation, he shared this theory, a moment of panic giving him no choice but to attempt to recruit his interrogator against the blade. “Your dagger—please, do not trust it! It will turn on you next!” he cried.
The statement was so perplexing that she faltered, her eyes softening in confusion. Something seemed to dawn on her, then, and she broke out in pitiless laughter, thinking that perhaps the man was mad from quicksilver poisoning. “You daft oaf!” she gloated, turning on her heel to pace the room again. “Why, I have half a mind to let you go, for that alone.”
He whimpered, unsurely, and stared on, his heart half lifted with unreal hope and half crushed with anxious certainty, anticipation, definite knowledge of how these sorts of encounters were reputed to always end.
“Which, apparently, is more than you have,” she said.
His gaze was fixed in the distance now, looking out the lead-glass window of the ziggurat, imagining that a great black bird had spread its wings and leapt from a neighboring building, soaring through the air towards him. Perhaps if he timed it right, he thought, he could imagine that at the moment of his death, that bird would crash through the window, slay the adjutant, and rescue him, riding high on the summer thermals, and carry him off to the mountains far to the north, where the Empire’s grip was so loose as to be nonexistent.
Realistically, of course, he would not leave this room.
The adjutant was saying something again, her tone harsher than before. He saw no point in acknowledging her questions, as eventually he would die by her hand. His attention was focused on the bird.
Vaguely, he was aware that she had raised her knife and was now gripping the pommel underhanded, with both fists, as one might when preparing to strike down a crippled beast for sacrifice.
With a terrific, furious sound, the inch-thick pane shattered, showering the room in shards of chartreuse-tinted glass. The fisherman simply stood and stared, unflinching, at it, aware of the blood pooling in his tunic but unconcerned with the sensation. He turned his head slowly with mild interest, expecting to see the adjutant’s blade driven into his heart. Instead she lay in a crumpled heap against the far side of the room, knocked off her feet by the explosion. A wicked-looking shard extended from her left eye, the mask’s protection defeated.
The saboteur lifted her beaked helm, her webbed wings and hair fluttering softly in the fierce, high-altitude wind that whipped between the great city’s tallest buildings. Far from the patient and capable animal he had imagined, she was young—not even yet an adult—and nervous, her gaze casting about the room with something less than professional diligence. Behind her dangled a rope, which she had used to swing from across the street.
“You are Heln Jadt, fishmonger?”
He took a moment to respond. The possibility that this was real had not yet seriously occurred to him.
“No, no, I only catch fish,” he said, slowly, bewildered. She rolled her eyes, strode across the small room in just two steps, gripped his arm, and pushed his hand against the body of the dead serpent, not letting go. Her slender fingers were cold from the wind, but sweaty and uncomfortable—and almost startlingly real. The numbness was beginning to fade.
In a moment she had drawn from her pocket a dull red rod. He had seen its like before—an instrument of Haja, of fabulous, terrible, obscure power, able to move mountains, supposedly, and kill with a flick. Instinctively he attempted to withdraw, but the youth was stronger than she looked.
“The Resistance has spent a lot of blood and sweat tracking you and your discovery down, Mr. Jadt. It would be better for everyone if you came with me through the portal I am about to summon—before the guards arrive.”
“But what is it?” he cried, staring at the eel. “What does it mean?”
“It means,” she said, “that in a matter of months, this world and all its thieving, small-minded fascists will be ground to a pulp under the heel of the Hogedepi.”
“I—I don’t understand,” he stammered. “Someone is going to attack us?”
“That’s right,” she said. Her free hand, the one holding the rod, moved in a slow circular motion as she spoke, and in the air a bright red disk appeared, like the setting sun. It was almost painfully luminous, in fact, and cast off an unpleasant amount of heat, from which he could not help but look away. “And you are going to keep helping us fight them. This will all make sense in time.”
He cast one last look around the unfurnished marble room, where he had been held for the past week as the rotting body of the beast he had found slowly grew more and more odorous. Never for so long had he been in such an opulent place—or in the vicinity of such a squalid stench.
The young woman reached out and touched the glowing disk. In a flash, they were gone, leaving behind the adjutant’s corpse, the shattered window, and a single black feather.
A month later, the world was plunged into war.
From Sur'daro, The City of the Dragon-Women.