The night after she met the alžayn, Takaleyel kel Auzheghan heard that a greenland witch had come to Teleleiyya.
She was still camped in the sand sea to the west of the northern caravan route, in case the alžayn should return, but her son had ridden through the kel Hàhlé town on one final, triumphal sweep of the southern desert and he told her the news over dates from the tree that was the sole green thing for miles in any direction.
“She came with a Dorikan caravan,” he reported. “But she stayed when the caravan went back to the Ten Cities. She’s pretty, they say.” He gave a complicated shrug. “The Dorikans at Teleleiyya say white hair on a young woman marks a magic worker. Do you know why?”
Takaleyel stirred the fire with the butt of her spear. Around her camp, the horses moved and muttered. “No.”
She would have looked up at the stars for a map, but she knew already that the stars above only mapped the contours of the wilderness below. What she needed was a map of time, specifically of the time to come. She knew what her riders were going to say when she told them what the alžayn had said. It wasn’t going to be helpful.
A greenland witch, she thought. There might be something in that.
Her son plucked at his blue veil and grinned at her over it. “Did you find water?” he said eagerly. “Did El speak to you?”
“No. Something else happened.”
“Are we going to fight the kel Zaïer now?”
“Not yet. I have to do something first.”
“I have to kill the dragon,” Takaleyel said. “But before that, I’m going to Teleleiyya. I want to see this white-haired witch of yours.”
The alžayn’s words rattled in Takaleyel’s head on the way to Teleleiyya.
Three weeks earlier, more or less, she had sworn the Seeker’s Oath and headed into the wilderness with a handful of riders. On the shores of the sand sea, she had heard the drumming of the People of Solitude in the dunes and taken that to mean she was riding in the right direction. For two days and nights, the wind had howled in her veil, then fallen abruptly silent. That dawn, she had met the alžayn.
She had gone to pluck dates from the date palm and found the alžayn sitting there with its hands on its knees, veiled right up to its eyelashes, looking every bit like a man except for its bronze irises and thumbless hands. The head of the spear stuck in the ground beside the alžayn was bronze too. When Takaleyel looked back for her riders, she saw only clouds and dust.
The alžayn had mumbled all the greetings. Takaleyel had not been fooled.
“I heard your drumming,” she told the alžayn. “Tell me where to find water. I need to talk to God.”
“Seekers ride alone,” the alžayn said. “You don’t.”
It was the first thing the alžayn had said that Takaleyel had not said first. “So you are more than a mimic,” Takaleyel said. “Twenty days ago, I defeated the kel Hàhlé at Amatral’s Well and took the drum of the southern federation from Karoza’s son. Does El think I should ride alone through kel Hàhlé country?”
The alžayn stretched out its legs and peered up at her.
“Seekers ride alone,” it repeated. “Whoever they are.”
“Last year, I broke the kel Memar drum-band. Twice. I need to talk to El. If I send my riders away, will El talk to me?”
“No,” the alžayn said. “But I will. I can tell you what you want to know, Takaleyel kel Tekel.” She had reacted to the name, and the alžayn had seen her react, and grinned, perhaps not very nicely, behind its veil. “I know what you need to break all your enemies. Talk to me instead.”
Takaleyel kel Tekel. To Takaleyel, the alžayn’s words resounded like the great voice of the Drum of the South. She had already decided that every one of the ten drum-bands would one day know her by that name.
She had talked to the alžayn. It had told her what she wanted to know and without blinking she had said, “Then I’ll do that.”
The alžayn got up, billowing dust.
“Do it,” it said. “Do it, and when you have, we shall speak again.”
It took up its spear, glancing around with a flash of mocking bronze. “There is water here,” it added. “But don’t bother digging for it. It’s bitter. You wouldn’t want to drink this water, Takaleyel kel Tekel.”
It vanished in a roar of sudden wind that swept sand through the palm branches, forcing Takaleyel to cover her eyes until the wind dropped and she could pull down her veil again, only to find herself alone and her riders emerging, confused and alarmed, from the dunes. She had not dug for water. All the same, the alžayn’s final words reverberated in Takaleyel’s ears as she rode to Teleleiyya, if not quite so loudly as the promise of that name.
She had left most of her drum-band at the kel Hàhlé town, a shabby congregation of mud houses with little of interest except a sacred spring and a market, where some subdued business was going on, mostly involving Takaleyel’s riders. There were no kel Hàhlé veils to be seen. “Shall I find the Dorikan witch for you?” her son said, and Takaleyel shook her head.
“You can take letters to your sisters for me,” she said. “After that, ride north and see how much of the kel Memar drum-band your father managed to round up. I’ll find the witch myself.”
She strolled into Teleleiyya with only two riders in attendance and came across the witch almost immediately, maddening a merchant in the marketplace. The famous white hair had been covered with a veil, but the man’s flushed face and raised voice attracted almost as much attention as the hair would have done, especially since the quarrel was going on in Dorikan.
“– infamous lie!” the man was saying, while his customer, a bony woman in a Dorikan cloak and peplos, picked over the dusty trinkets spread out between them. A crowd had gathered. “I would never –”
The woman hooked a string of glowing beads. “And this isn’t amber,” she said critically. “It is a very good imitation, though. How is it done?”
The merchant, who was really a peddler, by the look of him, exploded. The woman bent her head over his wares, conveying an indifference that verged on boredom.
Takaleyel set her shoulders against a nearby wall and looked the woman up and down. Her clothes were travel-stained, tending towards ragged at the hems, but her hands were pale and she showed no inclination to be moved by the peddler’s outrage. “Did you do it yourself?” she asked, taking advantage of the peddler’s human need to breathe. “Or did you get it from someone else?”
The peddler puffed out his scarlet cheeks. Takaleyel rapped her spear against the ground, with a flick of her fingers for her riders. “Do you want to bring a complaint?” she said to the Dorikan woman, while the crowd scattered like startled sheep and the peddler, seized, looked from side to side in sudden terror. “I’ll hear it.”
The woman turned slowly. Her face was as pale as her hands and her eyes were blue; under her veil, so far as it could be seen, her hair was pallid too. Unlike the scattered oasis sheep, she showed no sign of fear. In fact, she surveyed Takaleyel as levelly as Takaleyel had surveyed her, with a coolness that could not have been surpassed.
“No,” she replied. “I want to know how it’s done.”
She looked like a girl, as the alžayn had looked like a man. Takaleyel experienced a moment of profound satisfaction. “It may be the false amber they make in the northern desert. But that can’t be told by the eye. Someone bring me a piece of cotton.”
A tattered rag appeared. Takaleyel observed the peddler without appearing to, noting that he seemed to be praying and that the pale Dorikan woman paid him no attention whatsoever. “Give it to me,” Takaleyel said, holding out her hand. The string of amber beads was laid across her palm. She rubbed one of the beads with a corner of the cotton rag, which sparked no static and did not cling to the bead, as it should have done with real amber. “You’re right,” she said to the Dorikan woman. “It is the false amber.”
“Of course I’m right,” the woman said and took the beads when Takaleyel offered them to her. She twisted them around her fingers, holding them up to the light. “I just don’t know how it’s done. The green stones are topaz, not emerald. Someone treated them with verdigris and vinegar. The pearls started off as mica. Most of the other gems are quartz. But I don’t have a recipe for amber. That’s new to me.”
The peddler glanced from the woman to Takaleyel, then visibly decided his only remaining option was to cast himself on Takaleyel’s mercy. He threw himself to his knees, streaming panicked tears. Takaleyel nodded to her riders, who hauled the peddler to his feet. “Let the lady have the beads,” she said to him. “Consider yourself lucky.”
“Thank you,” said the Dorikan woman, after a moment.
Takaleyel tweaked her veil higher. “He’s kel Hàhlé,” she said. “They hear the truth, but don’t speak it. I’m kel Auzheghan. I see things as they are. Why do you Dorikans say white hair marks a magic worker?”
“There are Dorikan women who spin silk from their hair,” the woman said, after another, longer moment. “It turns their hair white. Usually.”
“Do you spin silk from your hair?”
“Why did you come here? To find out how to make false amber?”
“No,” the woman said. “I want to go to Khivrenté. No one here will take me. They say the kel Auzheghan queen — ” her lapis lazuli eyes flickered over Takaleyel ” — will go to war with the kel Zaïer next, so no one dares to travel in the eastern desert. I don’t have enough money to hire guides. I was at Khelikë when it sank into the sea. I lost almost everything.”
Takaleyel rubbed her fingertips over her spear.
“I heard there were no survivors,” she said. “I heard the city and all its people vanished overnight, taking all the ships in the harbor with it. Evidently I heard wrong. You make me think of a man I saw once in Khivrenté. They called him a Maguš. I think he worked more than silk. Is that why you want to go there? To learn?”
A magpie scratched in the dirt nearby. The woman glanced down with a frown. “Yes.”
Behind the Dorikan woman, the kel Hàhlé peddler’s involuntary grimace told Takaleyel everything she needed to know about that answer. She smiled. “I can help you,” she told the woman. “I can give you a drum-band to cross the eastern desert. I can give you money, too. You can stop teasing these oasis sheep and go on to Khivrenté.”
The woman subjected Takaleyel to an unyielding blue gaze. “What do you want?”
“I think you can help me. I need to kill the dragon.”
“A dragon?” the woman said, with a flicker of genuine interest. “Really? I’ve never seen a dragon before. Do you have many here?”
“No,” Takaleyel said. “There’s one dragon left in the southern desert. It lives in the mountains not far from here. I went there once, when I was younger. It’s been there longer than anyone can remember. It likes talking to people. The kel Hàhlé say it gives them more advice than they need.”
The Dorikan woman pressed the amber beads against the underside of her chin. “Interesting,” she said. “All right. I’ll help you. But I want the body afterwards. I’ve never cut up a dragon. I’d like to see what’s inside it.”
“Help me kill it and you can have whatever you want. It’s bigger than three of these oasis houses put together and it never leaves its cave. I want to kill it, but I don’t want to lose anyone doing it.”
“Mm. I see.”
The peddler, edging sideways, knocked his table and tipped a tray of glittering rings across the dusty ground. He flapped his hands angrily at the magpie, which stopped scratching for worms and leapt at once for the treasure, wings and talons outspread.
The woman snapped her fingers. Takaleyel frowned. “What’s that?”
It wasn’t a bird. At least, it wasn’t a bird any more. It was losing its feathers; another slipped out as the magpie clawed its way up through the air to the woman’s shoulder, fluttering unheeded to the ground. Takaleyel saw shriveled skin when she looked at it, and glazed eyes, and a hint of movement under its remaining feathers that might have been maggots.
“It followed me out of Khelikë,” the woman said. “Why do you want to kill this dragon?”
“Come with me and I’ll tell you,” Takaleyel said, dismissing the magpie as an unpleasant curiosity of the sort it was better not to spend too much time contemplating. “There is one other thing you should know.”
“It’s not an animal. The dragon, I mean. It’s a spirit wearing an animal’s body. How much difference will that make?”
Ann found the last dragon in the southern desert in a nostalgic mood. It sprawled out on its side in the clean white sand, showing half its ribs through its glassy hide, and told Ann wistfully to make herself comfortable. If Ann had recognized the emotion, she might have said she was relieved. She hadn’t realized how big the dragon would be.
She sat down and let the dragon talk. It wanted to tell her about the old days, when its bones had been fresh and the mountains surrounded by grasslands and jungle; when it had gone out to hunt whenever it felt hungry; when the great greasy rivers had run gray-green with water every day of the year, not just during the rainy season. When the painted dogs yipping outside the cave for leftovers had shown the dragon due respect. The dragon laid its head on its paws and gazed at Ann under the whiskery ridges of its eye-sockets. Those had been good days, it thought.
Ann straightened her peplos over her knees. The cave was broad, but low, and the ceiling had been rubbed smooth over the years. Someone had painted a series of ochre hunts across the walls: gazelle, leopards, splotched long-necked things, hunters with spears. It probably hadn’t been painted by the dragon.
“What happened?” she asked.
The dragon heaved its huge shoulders and settled back with a whirlwind of a sigh that filled the scorched air with sand.
“The alžaynan came,” it said gloomily.
Ann had already gleaned a little of this. She didn’t mind hearing more, though. She let the dragon tell her about the war with the spirits of air the Tekel called alžaynan and the People of Solitude and a great many other things, since the Tekel seemed to spend most of their time finding new ways not to call anything by its proper name. The dragons had used fire and the alžaynan had used wind and all that remained, this desolate expanse of sand and cracked clay and dusty, thorn-stubbled valleys, was the skeleton seared bare beneath those lush primeval plains.
“They won by treachery,” said the dragon. “They caught us in our caves. When we sleep, we leave our bodies empty and go flying. One by one, they drove us out of our bones.”
When the dragon arched its spine to rub its back against the ceiling, the fire inside its petrified ribcage cast a reddish glow on the sandy floor. Ann watched its tail twitching. “Indignant to the shades?” she suggested.
The dragon thought about it. “Yes. Very.”
Ann straightened her peplos again.
“I expect you know,” she said, “that Takaleyel kel Auzheghan and her riders are waiting outside.”
She hadn’t been sure the dragon did know, but it only tipped its colossal head to one side and looked mournful. “You don’t say,” it said. “Why?”
“She wants to fight the kel Zaïer. And then the northern federation. She’s already beaten her enemies in her own federation. She wants to rule all four deserts.”
The dragon blinked its transparent inner eyelids. “So?”
“A thumbless man told her she had to make a new drum to win. From a dragon’s hide.”
She hadn’t expected the dragon to react well. It growled deep in its smoky gullet and snapped its teeth, scattering sparks. The way it raked the floor must have torn furrows through the stone beneath the sand. “Alžayn.”
Ann nodded. The dragon’s throat, she noted, was beginning to glow too.
“After all this time! Sending mortals to do it!” The dragon sounded almost as aggrieved as angry. “That coward! I’ve always been good to them, too. Left their animals alone. Gave them advice. Do they call this gratitude?”
It seemed impolitic to answer. The dragon glared. “Why are you here?”
Ann set her palms against the wall behind her. It was sandstone, which she liked and found reassuringly responsive, but the tremor in the dragon’s talons suggested barely trammeled rage. And there was hardly any space between the dragon’s shoulders and the ceiling. It was about to bring down a great deal of stone on top of them. She wasn’t sure even she could walk away from that.
“There was a misunderstanding in the Ten Cities,” she said. “Well. The Nine Cities now, I suppose. And I wanted to go to Khivrenté anyway. There are people I want to meet there. But I need Takaleyel’s help to cross the eastern desert.” She took a breath. “I told her I could put you to sleep.”
The dragon’s tail was lashing. “Can you?”
Probably not. “I don’t know,” Ann said. “I did wonder how attached you were to those bones.”
They stared at each other. The dragon’s lamp-like eyes were as big as Ann’s head. For an unpleasant moment, she thought she might burn up in them.
Then the dragon blinked both sets of eyelids, lowering its hackles. “I’ve had them for a long time,” it said. “I killed the beast myself. They’re all gone now. And you don’t find the sort of sand I used to cover them these days.”
The furious glow of the fire spirit that animated the dragon’s glassy body was dimming. Ann relaxed. This time, she did recognize what she felt as relief.
“Try something new,” she said. “It’s only temporary.”
Takaleyel kel Auzheghan, squatting in the shadow of a wild olive tree, saw the greenland witch emerge from the dragon’s cave and pulled herself to her feet. Ann seemed in no particular rush, so Takaleyel signed to her riders to stay put; if the dragon, as promised, was asleep, the last thing Takaleyel wanted was to wake it.
Ann’s expression was abstracted. “It’s asleep. You can kill it, if you want. Do I have safe passage now?”
“When I have the hide,” Takaleyel said. “What’s in there?”
She rapped Ann’s squirming bag with her spear. The woman glanced down as if only then remembering she carried anything. “Just that magpie,” she said, and gave her bag a shake that stopped it struggling, although a muffled squawk emerged in protest. “Don’t ask.”
The dragon died cleanly. Takaleyel was surprised by how little blood there was when she opened up its throat. A viscous trickle of liquid slid down the dragon’s muzzle, disappearing into the crevice of its lipless jaws. The edges of the wound glistened like hot obsidian, clouding over as the dragon’s massive body settled and sighed.
She worked to strip off enough of the hide for a drumskin, while the greenland witch walked around the cave and examined the cooling body. By the time Takaleyel was done, the sun was setting. Her riders brought lamps, which lit up the walls of the cave and the dragon’s glittering contours, flashing off the raw hide like smoky quartz.
The witch loomed up out of the shadows like a pale ghost. At some point, she had let the magpie out of her bag and it sat on her shoulder twisting its black neck every which way, glaring around the cave with scarlet eyes.
Takaleyel laid down her knife and cracked her knuckles over her head. “Do you want to cut up the body now?” she said to Ann.
“No,” Ann said distantly. “I don’t think I will after all.”
“What will you do with it?”
The magpie chittered in Ann’s ear. Ann winced and turned her head away. “It should be buried,” she said to Takaleyel. “I can close up the cave after we leave. I want something to take away, though. Something I can carry. A tooth would do.”
“Take whatever you want. It’s yours.”
It smelt as if something was burning. Takaleyel gave the magpie a closer look. This time, she saw neither death nor dissolution under its molting feather coat. Instead, she caught a shimmer of glass and fire.
She glanced up at the dead dragon, which seemed to be gradually petrifying. Not even a wisp of smoke had flickered under its eyelids before she killed it. That had surprised her too.
But Takaleyel had enough hide for a drumskin. As far as she was concerned, that was the only thing that mattered. When she met the alžayn again, she could say truthfully that she had killed the dragon.
“With this, I’ll cut you a road to Khivrenté,” she told Ann, slapping the hide. “It might take a season or two, but you’ll get there. What will you do? Learning aside.”
The magpie clacked its beak smugly. “Apparently I have to find another dragon,” Ann said, without much enthusiasm. “For preference, a bigger one. I don’t suppose you have any idea where one might be?”
|Julia August is still looking for that false amber recipe. Her short fiction has appeared in various places, including Women Destroy Fantasy!, PodCastle, Lackington’s Magazine and the anthologies Triangulation: Parch and Star Quake 2. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on tumblr. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.|