Welcome to the weekly Wednesday read of The Dragon Token!
Another hundred pages, another chunk o’ chapters. Part Three comes to a close in a tangle of complex politics, pitched warfare, new and significant losses on both sides, and a surprising show of strength from a hitherto very weak character.
The Dragon Token: Chapters 14-17
Here’s What Happens: We begin Chapter 14 with another very quick offstage major battle. Tallain wipes out Birioc and takes his head, goes home, goes to bed.
I guess we don’t like writing battle scenes.
There’s no rest for the wicked, or the righteous either. Three ships are seen, and Tallain figures they’re coming to help Birioc. The only semi-reasonable defense involves the Sunrunner Vamanis’ offer to break his oath and use Fire. That gets several pages of debate, versus two paragraphs and a bit for the destruction of Birioc. We leave the scene with a pyre of the dead, ignited by Fire, and the actual defense of Tiglath, as it were, hanging fire.
Camanto’s plot to destroy his brother Edirne and take control of Fessenden isn’t working as well as he’d hoped. Edirne is thriving on campaign. Camanto ponders his options. He’s on Pol’s side and against Yarin, which makes him nominally a good guy, but…
And there’s his sister-in-law Arnisaya, who distracts him terribly.
Suddenly Edirne takes a fall (described at length and in detail), and an armor malfunction kills him. Thus thwarting Camanto’s plans while furthering them tremendously.
Then Arnisaya lets him know, coyly, that she helped Edirne into his armor that morning.
A group of cheerful strangers, meanwhile, arrives in Swalekeep. Most of them are very grateful to the one who has saved them from bandits. This, we discover, is Andry. He takes time to polish up his disguise and recap the journey, then discovers Tilal has left and Halian is dead, along with the rest of the news. He’s not tracking well, and misses connections among the various flights and departures.
Camanto shows a surprising level of squeamishness about sleeping with a woman who arranged her husband’s death, and seeks audience with Laric. He gives Laric all the news and gives him free passage through Fessenden, for political reasons.
Sioned is cranky. Hollis won’t let her help with the wounded, and her minders have been watering the wine. She wallows in grief and memory, and tries to kill herself by conjuring her mind into a stone thrown into water—a combination of water-sickness and being shadow-lost.
Her own fear and her dragon Elisel rescue her. Sioned doesn’t see Elisel as very bright. The dragon comforts her.
Pol, Sunrunning, sees (but incompletely) Tallain’s death in battle. He wants to help Sionell but can’t. Tobin tells him to give it a day—because Sionell will need someone to rage at, and Pol will be it. She explains, in detail. Pol is not entirely sure he understands. He does understand that he’s a failure, again.
Tobin advises him to get drunk. He goes to join Sioned, but finds Meath with the wine instead, and Sioned asleep. They talk about Sioned.
He wakes to find her standing over him, and reflects on strong women and weak, dependent Meiglan. Whom he loves! Yes he does! He really does!
But he envies all the husbands of strong women, and hates himself for having a hangover. Sioned is bracing. Their teasing takes a bitter turn.
In Chapter 15, Pol takes his time recovering from his hangover, with extended reflections on water, home, Meiglan, Sionell, his own failures and oversights, the increasing and dangerous gaps in Sunrunner communications, and Andry’s role therein and his disappearance. He then walks out into an empty castle.
Meiglan has emulated Rohan by dressing in her very best and playing High Princess to the hilt. She oversees the trial and sentencing of her three brothers, who are shocked to discover Birioc is dead.
She does a remarkable job here of pretending to be strong—which shows actual, genuine strength. At the end, she sees Pol, who looks “stricken.” But he orders Birioc’s head to be wrapped and tied with a ribbon and sent to the High Warlord.
That’s a striking switch. She’s the strong one, who knew what to do and did it—a serious case, for him, of “Be careful what you wish for.” He’s all shaky and full of doubts and fears.
Andry leaves Swalekeep in a temper over Ostvel’s sending Alasen into danger. He’s hunting Chiana and Rinhoel, for whom he has plans. He approves, grudgingly, of Ostvel’s stewardship of the place.
He stops in a cottage that reminds him of a certain sorceress’ cottage in the Veresch, from the last trilogy, and searches on sunlight for both women.
Meanwhile, in Goddess Keep, the people left in charge argue about sending the refugees away. Torien is against, with faith the Goddess will provide. The women, more practical, are strongly in favor. Torien wins for now, while the women continue to argue about Jayachin’s ambitions—just as she appears to ask for more help for the refugees. She’s hinting strongly at moving into the Keep.
Torien startles the women by suggesting, sweetly, that the refugees all return home to Waes. But the moment doesn’t last: a young, inexperienced Sunrunner runs in and blurts in front of Jayachin that Vellant’im are sailing toward the Keep.
Jayachin immediately takes charge and starts giving orders—starting with evacuating everyone to the Keep. This sets off a pointed power struggle, which the Sunrunners just barely win. There won’t be refugees in the Keep—yet.
The Sunrunners have to ask outside nobles for help. They aren’t any happier about this than about Jayachin’s machinations, but they’re also setting up Tilal’s wife Gemma for a fall, as revenge for Tilal’s taking Andrev as his squire.
Even in total war, personal animosity and partisan pride manage to prevail.
Tilal surveys Haldenat, the field Roelstra once sowed with salt, which is still a stinking wasteland, and reflects on plans, strategy, and Andrev’s secure place in his following. Suddenly they meet another company in the dark—and discover it’s not the enemy but Saumer, likewise on the move.
They exchange news. Tilal decides to hand his troops over to Saumer, forget his duty to Pol, and go to his wounded son Rihani at High Kirat.
Gemma is in a right temper, and the brunt of it is aimed at Andry. Her son Sorin reminds her that her daughter Sioneva is “a Sunrunner too.” She flat refuses to help Goddess Keep, as expected, and even though she is warned that there will be reprisals.
She laughs it off, because Andry’s eldest son is her husband’s squire.
Chiana is hysterical. Rinhoel is fed up. He’s going to Pol, and he has his lies all lined up.
A messenger arrives from, allegedly, Lord Varek, ordering Rinhoel not to go to Dragon’s Rest; he’s to wait for Varek at Rezeld for twenty days. The man doesn’t speak the language well. Rinhoel agrees, haughtily, and sends the man away unfed.
Andry, safely out of sight and free of the sorcerous disguise, indulges in a fit of glee. Valeda contacts him. They have a good laugh. He has no idea what he’s going to do with Rinhoel, but he’s bought some time.
They exchange news. He affirms Torien’s authority over Jayachin. He’s not going to pursue Andrev—because of Alasen.
As Chapter 16 opens, Chayla has lost another patient, one of Kazander’s men. She and Kazander strike sparks over her anger at the death and her lack of grief. He calls her on it, and she is offended. He makes it worse by countering her temper with laughter.
Her emotions are complex, and she chews over her many roles, her gender, her gifts, and her losses. She hates herself because she can’t heal every patient.
He turns tender. He wishes he could “mend your world for you.” She thanks him.
He’s making headway. Clearly.
Pol is avoiding Sionell (and she’s avoiding him), and is shocked by the show of strength in his poor little Meggie. She solved the problem of her rebellious brothers with ruthless efficiency, and now everybody knows who’s High Princess.
Sionell’s children have a disease called “silk-eye,” as diagnosed by Chayla. Pol has tagged after her. She’s glad to have something she can treat. Pol stays when she leaves. Sionell is distant and polite. Pol gets the painful message.
Alasen arrives at Dragon’s Rest and offers to help Edrel deal with the Miyon problem. They exchange news and gossip. No one there knows where Chiana is.
Alasen pokes at Miyon about the Merida, and gets rid of him at dinner. The rest of the nobles continue to discuss Chiana’s whereabouts and Miyon’s doings. They also discuss Branig and the second faction of sorcerers. (Lisiel, be it noted, is Yarin’s sister. This comes into consideration.) Thanys walks in, playing maid; they change the subject rapidly. When she leaves, they continue to discuss the sorcerers.
Alasen has been trying to find them. She hasn’t had much luck, though she thinks she got through to a girl in an inn on the way to Dragon’s Rest.
The resident Sunrunner brings the news that Andry has left Goddess Keep and Norian’s crippled brother Elsen is out in the field trying to defend it. Norian announces that she and Edrel are leaving immediately.
Alasen and the Sunrunner continue to discuss the situation, including Miyon, who is safely bottled up here, and Torien, who must be desperate. Alasen will leave for Feruche shortly.
The High Warlord and a priest arrive in Rivenrock Canyon. The priest is full of mythology about dragons, thanks to the strategically fragmentary copy of Feylin’s book that was planted for that purpose at Remagev. The Warlord is not pleased by the priest’s increase in power and prestige.
This is a conflict between faith and military discipline. The Warlord reflects on it at length and not entirely happily.
Within the canyon, a masked rider (well, he has a bag over his head, so more or less a mask) on a Radzyn stallion appears, flings a sack at the Warlord’s feet, and gallops off. The sack contains Birioc’s head, beads and beard and chin scar and all.
The priest goes off on a rant, having mistaken the head for that of a Merida. We learn a little history, and a little more about why the Vellant’im are here, along with their plans.
He wants to take Feruche immediately. The High Warlord reels him in, temporarily—knowing he won’t stay put.
The priest takes a troop of the faithful against the Warlord’s orders. He has to allow it; it’s a power struggle, and he has to gamble on the priest’s failure and the young (and inferior to the old) Azhrei’s short-term victory, which will suit the Warlord’s larger purposes.
In Chapter 17, Karanaya is bound and determined to have all the Tears of the Dragon in her possession, including the one that was thrown into the moat at Faolain Lowland. She has the moat drained and puts the resident Sunrunner to work searching, since the Tears have an odd magical signature.
The Vellant’im also want them back—all of them. (And again I wonder how the merchant got them in the first place, and why he sold them to this particular set of nobles.) They show up just as the draining project gets underway.
The Sunrunner contacts Pol, who observes the result: the enemy are trapped, comically, in the mud of the partially drained moat. They’re shot down or driven off by laughing defenders.
This leaves Pol with a frustrating conundrum. The enemy will keep trying for the Tears. And nobody on his side knows yet what it is about the enemy and dragons.
Rihani dreams in lengthy delirium, with terrible guilt for what he did to the Merida who killed Kostas. Finally his father manages to wake him up. Tilal comforts him, and soothes away his guilt. He dies peacefully.
Andrev, in the aftermath, receives a message on sunlight from Pol, whom he hasn’t met before, in person or on sunlight. Pol asks him to ask Tilal to go to the aid of Faolain Lowland.
Andrev tells him Rihani is dead. Pol is shocked, and honest about his own helplessness. Andrev agrees to pass the message to Tilal when he’s ready.
The conversation ends positively, with Andrev in awe and Pol tactful and polite. When Andrev comes to, Tilal is there, empty-eyed. Andrev doesn’t give him the message.
They discuss how to give Gemma the news that her son is dead, since there’s no official Sunrunner where she is. This segues into family history, and the reasons why Andry is so unpopular with the family.
This is reminiscent of Rohan and Pol in earlier books: father-figure lectures, son-figure asks leading questions. The upshot here is that the family hates Andry for inventing rituals that require people to contact the Goddess through him rather than directly.
The lecture ends with Tilal bent over in grief for his Rohan-like, peace-loving son. Andrev understands Pol’s earlier helplessness, and does the one thing he can do: sends on sunlight to Feruche.
Where Hollis and Maarken are trying to find out where Andry is, fretting over what he might be getting up to, and worrying about Sioneva and Rohannon and the rest of the family—and, ultimately, Sioned. Who has to get out of the wine barrel and get to work. This turns into an intimate moment. With, yes, teasing.
Suddenly Maarken’s dragon, Pavisel, flies over, calling for Maarken. Vellant’im are marching toward Skybowl. She wants Maarken to do something about it. He offers Pol’s troops. She adds his own.
Meiglan has mastered the appearance of authority, but she’s still weak and scared inside. She sees the High Princess as a separate and ruthlessly competent entity. Everyone now thinks that entity and Meiglan are one, but Meiglan knows that’s not true. There’s no one she can talk to about this.
She arms Pol, and the High Princess does the talking. He wants her to go back to Dragon’s Rest. She protests, but he says the High Princess can easily deal with Miyon.
He needs her and the children to be safe. Jihan is his heir if he dies. And she’s dhiarmadhi, which means Branig’s people will help her. Andry won’t, she points out, but the High Princess will take care of him. Pol agrees.
Pol is tender, speaking of war’s end and peace and no need to kill anyone any more. They talk about this, with Meiglan inwardly afraid but outwardly speaking of, and as, High Princess. She tells him he can do anything. Which is just the right thing to say.
Meiglan always did feed Pol’s ego, one way and another.
She promises to leave for Dragon’s Rest tomorrow. They part after a passionate clinch, and the girls run in to get their own farewell. They run back out to watch the army leave. Meiglan stays.
“Quietly, efficiently, the High Princess began to pack.”
And I’m Thinking: The writing craft here keeps getting better. All the complicated interactions among the huge cast of characters manage to stay straight and mostly comprehensible (though I’m glad there’s an index at the back).
Pol is still pretty mediocre, and we never fail to be reminded that he’s not the man his father was. Sioned is starting to come out of her funk, but what she’s coming out to is not a happy situation.
The rest of the cast of thousands continue to be amazing or awful as labeled on the tin. Tilal is not headed in a good direction, emotionally or politically. Andry could go either way; he’s having a grand time running around incognito, though it’s not to Goddess Keep’s advantage. At heart he’s a Desert prince, and that’s coming through more and more.
The real startler of the piece is Meiglan. Rohan was always a master of playing High Prince while he wallowed in secret doubts—but he had Sioned and his family to talk to. Meiglan has only herself, and she’s dissociating to what might become a clinical degree.
I actually feel for her. She’s instinctively good at political pragmatism—an instinct hinted at in her considerable musical talent; there’s strength and passion there. But her fears and her history of childhood abuse make that instinct a dangerous thing for her mental health.
Everybody else in that family has someone to share with. Even Chayla has Kazander. All Meiglan has is the jock with the giant ego. Who is actually pretty perceptive with people like Andrev, but he can’t see her clearly at all. He doesn’t understand her and I don’t get the impression he wants to.
Not a recipe for a perfect marriage. Which is interesting considering how much of that there is among the good guys in this series.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in April. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.