Apr 1 2011 9:14am
The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City
“Isn’t it?” Morde said. “Now, captain. What is it you wished to see me about?”
“Three of my guards went missing in the night, your eminence,” Ealth said, and then held out a roughly hexagonal object, the size of a small plate. “At their station, we found this.”
Morde took it and examined it. “Found it on the wall, you say?” he said to the captain.
“Yes,” Ealth said.
“Anything else?” Morde asked.
“A broken sword hilt,” Ealth said.
“No blood?” Morde asked. “Torn limbs? Severed heads? Curiously placed organs? Notes explaining that the guards had gone for ale?”
“Nothing but this and the sword hilt,” Ealth said.
“Curious,” Morde said, looking at the object again.
“Your eminence,” Ealth said. “I can’t help but notice that it looks like a large reptile sca—”
“Has anyone seen this but you, captain?” Morde asked, interrupting him.
“A guard named Filbert found it and the sword hilt, and brought them to me,” Ealth said. “I told him to remain silent until I had spoken to you.”
“Very wise, captain,” Morde said. “I will want to speak to this Filbert as well.”
“He’s on duty at the moment,” Ealth said.
“At the end of his watch, then. You and he both,” Morde said, and set the object down.
“Very well, your eminence,” Ealth said. “What should I say about the missing guards? The other guards are sure to ask.”
“For now say they are engaged in a task I have asked of them, about which you may not speak,” Morde said. “That should be sufficient.”
“Yes, your eminence,” Ealth said.
“Very good, then. See you and Filbert in a few hours,” Morde said, returned his attention to writing up the results of his experiment, and made a waving motion with his hand, dismissing the captain. Ealth bowed and retreated. Morde waited until he was gone and then picked up the object again, lightly stroking the dark, slate-like surface. He frowned at the implications of the thing.
“Shall we set up the players again, your eminence?” one of the standing men asked Morde, wiggling his bucket for emphasis.
“What?” Morde said, distracted, and then refocused. He set down the object. “Oh. Yes, let’s.”
“I think I need some time to recover,” slurred the green player, from the ground, as he feebly tried to pull off his leeches.
“Nonsense,” Morde said. “Everyone knows blood spontaneously regenerates after about five minutes. You’ll be fine. In fact, this time, let’s try some bigger leeches, shall we?”
There are many legends about the night dragons. You know about three (well, four). Here are some more.
It is said that as fledglings, night dragons are sustained only by the tears of distraught unicorns.
It is said that if you call the name of a night dragon at the exact instant of a full moon, it will come to you. If you then whisper a name into its ear, the dragon will then fly to the exact location of that person and eat them.
It is said that if you bathe in the blood of a night dragon, you will be invincible at caber tossing.
It is said that earthquakes are what happen when two night dragons love each other very much.
It is said that the most hated natural enemy of the night dragon is the lemur, which is a very bad deal for the lemur.
It is said that salt made from the dried tears of a night dragon will take fifty years off your life, so putting night dragon tear salt in the food a 49-year-old is not advised, unless you do not like them.
It is said night dragons can speak to the moon, but don’t because all the moon wants to talk about is how much it likes basalt.
It is said that if a night dragon is caught in the sunlight, it will turn either into a porpoise or a tortoise, depending on whether it is over land or sea, until the sun goes down. Sometimes it turns into the wrong thing. It will then have a very uncomfortable day.
It is said that if you anger a night dragon, you may appease it with cheese. But you better have a lot of it.
It is said that the only way to truly kill a night dragon is to bore it to death.
It is said that the scales of a night dragon are impervious to cutting, chopping and grinding. It is also said that night dragon scale powder is the most amazing aphrodisiac known to man, but given the first part of this legend, good luck with the whole “making a powder out of a dragon scale” thing.
Finally, it is said that night dragons can live forever, but often choose not to, because when you come right down to it, the world isn’t nearly exciting enough to stick around on for that long. Theologians have argued, to great and sometimes bloody length, about whether this means that night dragons believe in an existence beyond this world, or whether it just means that eventually, even suicide is preferable to having to be on the same planet as humans.
None of these legends are true, although some of them are closer to true than others, specifically that most species eventually find humans interminable, and it’s unlikely night dragons would be an exception to the rule.
Here is a true thing about night dragons:
They don’t exist.
Never have. Because—as the apparently doomed Ruell cogently noted—they are biologically impossible. You might as well put wings on an elephant and expect them to pull themselves through the air, and land with anything other than a most discouraging splatter. The largest flying animal anywhere near Skalandarharia was the Great Southern Albatross, the largest example of which had a wingspan longer than two not excessively large men. As impressive as that was—and it is impressive, as Great Southern Albatross could easily beat the hell out of most unarmed humans and enjoy itself while doing so—it’s nowhere as large as a night dragon is supposed to be, since legend has it peeking its head into second story windows.
However, what the night dragons have always been, is a convenient excuse. One used by the Emperors of Skalandarharia when from time to time they find it useful to remove some of the more annoying thorns in their sides. For example, wealthy caravan traders who have begun to balk at the taxes and tariffs imposed on their trade. Or the occasional citizens who have begun to question whether having a hereditary head of state with unquestioned authority is really the best and most efficient way to run a government. Or, from time to time, someone who just annoys the emperor for one reason or another—say, an ambassador who does not show proper deference, a former lover who is not accepting exile from court with the proper gratitude, or a courtier who chews too loudly and laughs with his mouth full.
An emperor doesn’t have to use a cover for such things—what fun is being an emperor if you can’t do whatever you want? You might as well be a king then—but even an emperor knows that from time to time perhaps it’s best not to show your hand holding the knife.
An emperor can’t use the night dragons too often or too carelessly. Use it too often, people will figure it out, because they stubbornly persist in not being stupid. For little things, it’s better to blame vampires and werewolves. But once per reign, more or less, when things are beginning to look a little messy, it’s an option. If you’re the emperor you have to make it count (so make sure you have a long list), and you also have to throw in a little collateral damage here and there just to make sure it doesn’t look too targeted. Among other things. There’s a manual. But each emperor is also encouraged to be creative.
The current Emperor of Skalandarharia was Sukesun IV, and as Skalandarharian emperors go he was near the bottom of the pack: Not as abjectly stupid as Blintin II, who banned Tuesdays and believed that babies came from geese (and goslings from ham), and not as wantonly cruel as Gorsig the Pitiless, whose official cause of death of “sudden perforated bowel” neglects to cover the scope of having an entire coliseum of people come after you in your sky box with knives, including the fruit vendors and the dancing girls, but plenty stupid and cruel for all of that. Now in the twelfth year of his reign, Sukesun IV had amassed enough enemies and troubles that he was advised by his counsel—Imo Morde chief among them—to exercise the option, and engage in the shadow war of the night dragon.
Which was going swimmingly, until three imperial castle guards went missing and Captain Ealth presented Morde with what was a clear, obvious, unambiguous, absolutely no doubt about it night dragon scale. It couldn’t be a night dragon scale, and yet it couldn’t be anything else, either. Everything in myth and legend described it exactly as it was when it landed on Morde’s desk.
How could a thing that could not exist, exist? If it did exist, which of the many legends about it would turn out to be true? What did its existence mean for Imo Morde, for Sukesun IV, and for the city and empire of Skalandarharia?
Therein, my friends, lies a tale. A tale of war. And dragons.
And a dead city.
A tale, which, as it so happens, begins on another dark and stormy night.
Cover illustrated by John Stanko
The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue) © 2011 John Scalzi