In an empire at the wide sea’s boundaries, where the clouds were the color of alabaster and mother-of-pearl, and the winds bore the smells of salt and faraway fruits, the young and old of every caste gathered for their empress’s funeral. In life she had gone by the name Beryl-Beneath-the-Storm. Now that she was dead, the court historians were already calling her Weave-the-Storm, for she had been a fearsome naval commander.
The embalmers had anointed Weave-the-Storm in fragrant oils and hidden her face, as was proper, with a mask carved from white jade. In one hand they had placed a small banner sewn with the empire’s sword-and-anchor emblem in dark blue; in the other, a sharp, unsheathed knife whose enameled hilt winked white and gold and blue. She had been dressed in heavy silk robes that had only been worn once before, at the last harvest moon festival. The empire’s people believed in supplying their ruler well for the life in the sea-to-come, so that she would intercede with the dragon spirits for them.
The empress had left behind a single daughter. She was only thirteen years old, so the old empress’s advisors had named her Early-Tern-Journeying. Tern had a gravity beyond her years. Even at the funeral, dressed in the white-and-gray robes of mourning, she was nearly impassive. If her eyes glistened when the priests chanted their blessings for the road-into-sunset, that was only to be expected.
Before nightfall, the old empress’s bier was placed upon a funeral boat painted red to guide her sunward. One priest cut the boat loose while the empress’s guard set it ablaze with fire arrows.
Tern’s oldest advisor, a sage who had visited many foreign shrines in his youth, turned to her and said over the crackling flames and the lapping water, “You must rest well tonight, my liege. Tomorrow you will hold court before the Twenty-Seven Great Families. They must see in you your mother’s commanding presence, for all your tender years.”
Tern knew perfectly well, as did he, that no matter how steely her composure, the Great Families would see her as an easy mark. But she merely nodded and retired to the meditation chamber.
She did not sleep that night, although no one would have blamed her if she had. Instead, she thought long and hard about the problem before her. At times, as she inhaled the sweet incense, she wanted desperately to call her mother back from the funeral ship and ask her advice. But the advice her mother had already passed down to her during the years of her life would have to suffice.
Two hours before dawn, she rang a silver bell to summon her servants. “Wake up the chancellor of the exchequer,” she said to them. “I need his advice.”
The chancellor was not pleased to be roused from his sleep, and even less pleased when Tern explained her intent. “Buy off the Families?” he said. “It’s a bad precedent.”
“We’re not buying them off,” Tern said severely. “We are displaying a bounty they cannot hope to equal. They will ask themselves, if the imperial house can afford to give away such treasures, what greater might is it concealing?”
The chancellor grumbled and muttered, but accompanied Tern to the first treasury. The treasury’s walls were hung with silk scrolls painted with exquisite landscapes and piled high with illuminated books. The shapes of cranes and playful cats were stamped onto the books’ covers in gold leaf. Tiny ivory figurines no larger than a thumbnail were arrayed like vigilant armies, if not for the curious fact that each one had the head of an extinct bird. Swords rested on polished stands, cabochons of opal and aquamarine gleaming from their gold-washed scabbards, their pale tassels decorated with knots sacred to the compass winds. There were crowns of braided wire cradling fossils inscribed with fractured prophecies, some still tangled with the hair of long-dead sovereigns, and twisted ropes of pearls perfectly graduated in size and color, from shimmering white to violet-gray to lustrous black.
“None of these will do,” Tern said. “These are quotidian treasures, fit for rewarding captains, but not for impressing the Twenty-Seven Great Families.”
The chancellor blanched. “Surely you don’t mean—”
But the young empress had swept past him and was heading toward the second treasury. She drew out her heaviest key and opened the doors, which swung with deceptive ease on their hinges. The guards at the door eyed her nervously.
The smell of salt water and kelp was suddenly strong. A dragon’s single, heavy-lidded eye opened in the darkness beyond the doors. “Who desires to drown?” asked the dragon spirit in a low, resonant voice. It sounded hopeful. Most people knew better than to disturb the guardian spirit.
“I am Weave-the-Storm’s daughter,” Tern said. “They call me Early-Tern-Journeying.”
The eye slitted. “So you are,” the dragon said, less threateningly. “I’ve never understood your dynasty’s need to change names at random intervals. It’s dreadfully confusing.”
“Does the tradition trouble you?” Tern asked. “It would be difficult to change, but—”
The light from the hallway glinted on the dragon’s long teeth. “Don’t trouble yourself on my account,” it said. Musingly, it added, “It’s remarkable how you resemble her around the eyes. Come in, then.”
“This is unwise,” the chancellor said. “Anything guarded by a dragon is locked away for a reason.”
“Treasures hidden forever do no good,” Tern said. She entered the treasury, leaving the chancellor behind. The door swung quietly shut behind her.
Despite the dragon’s protection, it was difficult to breathe through the dream of ocean, and difficult to move. Even the color of the light was like that of rain and lightning and foam mixed together. The smell of salt grew stronger, interspersed curiously with the fragrance of chrysanthemums. But then, it was better than drowning.
“What brings you here?” asked the dragon, swimming alongside her. Its coils revealed themselves in pearlescent flashes.
“I must select twenty-seven gifts for the Twenty-Seven Great Families to impress them with the dynasty’s might,” Tern said. “I don’t know what to give them.”
“Is that all?” the dragon said, sounding disappointed. “There are suits of armor here for woman and man, horse and elephant. Give one to the head of each family—although I presume none of them are elephants—and if they should plot treachery, the ghosts that live in the armor will strike down your enemies. Unless you’ve invented gunpowder yet? The armor’s no good against decent guns. It’s so easy to lose track of time while drowsing here.”
Tern craned her head to look at the indistinct shapes of skeleton and coral. “Gunpowder?” she asked.
“Don’t trouble yourself about it. It’s not important. Shall I show you the armor?” The undulating light revealed finely wrought armor paired with demon-faced masks or impressively spiked chamfrons. She could almost see her face, distorted, in the polished breastplates.
“That’s no true gift,” Tern said, “practical though it is.”
The dragon sighed gustily. “An idealist. Well, then. What about this?”
As though they stood to either side of a brook, a flotilla of paper boats bobbed toward them. Tern knelt to examine the boats and half a verse was written on one’s sail.
“Go ahead,” the dragon said, “unfold it.”
She did. “That’s almost a poem by Crescent-Sword-Descending,” she said: one of the empire’s most celebrated admirals, who had turned back the Irrilesh invasion 349 years ago. “But it’s less elegant than the version my tutors taught me.”
“That’s because Crescent was a mediocre poet, for all her victories at sea,” the dragon said. “Her empress had one of the court poets discreetly rewrite everything.” Its tone of voice implied that it didn’t understand this human undertaking, either. “In any case, each of the boats is inscribed with verses by some hero or admiral. If you float them in the sea on the night of a gravid moon, they will grow into fine warships. To restore them to their paper form—useful for avoiding docking fees—recite their verses on a new moon. And they’re loyal, if that’s a concern. They won’t sail against you.”
Tern considered it. “It’s an impressive gift, but not quite right.” She envisioned her subjects warring with each other.
“These, then,” the dragon said, knotting and unknotting itself. A cold current rushed through the room, and the boats scattered, vanishing into dark corners.
When the chill abated, twenty-seven fine coats were arrayed before them. Some were sewn with baroque pearls and star sapphires, others embroidered with gold and silver thread. Some had ruffs lined with lace finer than foam, others sleeves decorated with fantastic flowers of wire and stiff dyed silk. One was white and pale blue and silver, like the moon on a snowy night; another was deep orange and decorated with amber in which trapped insects spelled out liturgies in brittle characters; yet another was black fading into smoke-gray at the hems, with several translucent capes fluttering down from the collar like moth wings, each hung with tiny, clapperless glass bells.
“They’re marvelous indeed,” Tern said. She peered more closely: Each coat, however different, had a glittering crest at its breast. “Are those dragons’ scales?”
“Indeed they are,” the dragon said. “There are dragons of every kind of storm imaginable: ion storms, solar flares, the quantum froth of the emptiest vacuum . . . in any case, have you never wondered what it’s like to view the world from a dragon’s perspective?”
“Not especially,” Tern said. In her daydreams she had roved the imperial gardens, pretending she could understand the language of carp and cat, or could sleep among the mothering branches of the willow; that she could run away. But dutiful child that she was, she had never done so in truth.
“Each year at the Festival of Dragons,” the dragon said, “those who wear the coats will have the opportunity to take on a dragon’s shape. It’s not terribly useful for insurrection, if that’s what the expression in your eyes means. But dragons love to dance, and sometimes people so transformed choose never to abandon that dance. At festival’s end, whoever stands in a dragon’s skin remains in that dragon’s skin.”
Tern walked among the coats, careful not to touch them even with the hem of her gown. The dragon rippled as it watched her, but forbore comment.
“Yes,” she said at last. “This will do.” The coats were wondrous, but they offered their wearers an honest choice, or so she hoped.
“What of something for yourself?” the dragon asked.
Some undercurrent in the dragon’s tone made her look at it sharply. “It’s one thing to use the treasury for a matter of state,” she said, “and another to pillage it for my own pleasure.”
“You’re the empress, aren’t you?”
“Which makes it all the more important that I behave responsibly.” Tern tilted her chin up to meet the dragon’s dispassionate gaze. “The treasury isn’t the only reason you’re here, is it.”
“Ah, so you’ve figured it out.” The dragon’s smile showed no teeth. It extended a hand with eight clawed fingers. Dangling from the smallest claw, which was still longer than Tern’s hand, was a disc rather like a coin, except it was made of dull green stone with specks in it like blood clots, and the hole drilled through the center was circular rather than a square. The most interesting thing was the snake carved into the surface, with every scale polished and distinct.
“Is it watching me?” Tern asked, disconcerted by the way the snake’s eyes were a brighter red than the flecks in the rest of the stone. “What is it called?”
“That is the Coin of Heart’s Desire,” the dragon said with no particular inflection.
“Nothing with such a name can possibly bring good fortune,” she said.
“It never harmed your mother.”
Then why had she never heard of it? “In all the transactions I have ever witnessed,” Tern said, “a coin must be spent to be used.”
The dragon’s smile displayed the full length of its jagged teeth. “You’re not wrong.”
Tern inspected the coin again. She was certain that the snake had changed position. “How many of my ancestors have spent the coin?”
“I lost count,” the dragon said. “This business of reign-names and funeral-names makes it difficult to keep track. But some never spent it at all.”
“Why isn’t it mentioned in the histories?”
The dragon’s eyelid dipped. “Because I like to eat historians. Their bones whisper the most delicious secrets.”
There was a saying in the empire: Never sing before an empty shrine; never dance with ghosts at low tide; never cross jests with a dragon. Tern said slowly, “Yet the empire has prospered, if those historians are to be believed. We can’t all have failed this test.”
The dragon did not deny that it was, indeed, a test.
Tern looked over her shoulder at the door. Its outline was visible only as an intersection of shadow and murky light. “There’s no other way out of this treasury.” When the dragon remained silent, she touched the coin with her fingertip. It was warm, as if it had lain in the eye of a hidden sun. She half-expected to feel the rasp of scales as the snake moved again.
The dragon withdrew its hand suddenly. The coin dropped, and Tern caught it reflexively. “I’m afraid not,” it said. “But that’s not to say that you won’t receive some benefit on your way out. The question is, what do you want?”
“What did my mother trade it for?”
“She asked to leave the treasury and never return,” the dragon said. “Two days and two nights she spent in here, contemplating her options, and that was what she came up with. She didn’t trust the treasury’s temptations. Of course, she thought she had been here much longer. Time moves differently underwater, after all.”
Tern tried to imagine her mother as a young woman, newly-crowned empress, hazy with sleeplessness and desperate to escape this test. “How long have I been here?” she asked.
“Not long as humans reckon time,” the dragon said. Its cheerfulness was not reassuring.
“The gifts for the Twenty-Seven Families,” Tern said. “Whatever becomes of me, will they be delivered to the court?”
The dragon waved a hand. “They’re yours to dispose of as you see fit. I’m done looking at them, so I don’t see why not.”
Tern glanced around again. She might be here for a very long time if this went wrong. “I know what I want,” she said.
The dragon drifted closer.
Her voice quavered in spite of herself, but she looked the dragon full in the eye. “I don’t know what bargain has bound you here all these years, but I want no more of it. Let this coin purchase your freedom.”
The dragon was silent for a long time. At last it said, “Dragons are unpredictable allies, you know.”
“I will take that chance,” Tern said. Was this reckless? Perhaps. But as she saw it, the empresses of her line were as much prisoners as the dragon was. Best to let the dragon pursue its own destiny.
“Someone needs to guard the treasury, you know.” The dragon canted its head. “You don’t seem to have a spare dragon.”
So this was the real price. “I will stay,” Tern whispered.
“A determined thief would make mince of you in minutes, you realize.”
Tern frowned. “I thought you’d want to leave.”
“I do,” the dragon said, “but I take my duty seriously. There’s only one thing to be done, then. Pass me the coin, will you?”
Not sure whether she was more bemused or bewildered, Tern did so. She felt a curious pang as the coin left her hand.
“The guardian of a dragon’s treasure,” the dragon said, “should have a dragon’s own defenses.”
With that, the dragon slipped out of its skin, so subtly that at first Tern did not realize what was happening. Scales sparkled deep blue and kelp-green, piling up in irregular coils around the dragon’s legs. The dragon itself took on the shape of a woman perhaps ten years older than Tern. Her black hair drifted around her face; her eyes were brown. Indeed, she could have been one of Tern’s people.
“The skin is yours,” the dragon said in much the same voice as before, “to use or discard as you please. Don’t tell me that I never gave you choices.”
“At least wear something,” Tern said, appalled at the thought of the dragon surprising the chancellor while not wearing any human clothes.
“Your empire won’t thank you for giving it to a dragon to rule,” the dragon said, although it did, at least, choose for itself a plain robe of wool.
“You will rule with a dragon’s sense of justice,” Tern said, “which is more than I can expect from the women and men out there who are hungering after a child’s throne.” She handed over the keys of her office.
The dragon’s smile was respectful. “We’ll see.” And, pausing at the threshold: “I won’t forget you.”
The door closed, and Tern was left with the coin and the dragon skin.
It was not until many generations later, when one of the dragon’s descendants braved the second treasury, that Tern learned that she had been given a dragon-name. Not a reign-name, for she was done with that, and not a funeral-name, for she was far from dead. The empire she had ceded was now calling her Devourer-of-Bargains. After all this time, she had come around to the dragon’s own opinion on this matter. It was a confusing human practice, but she wasn’t in any position to argue.
A number of generations after that, when a different empress braved the treasury, Tern asked what had become of the Dragon Empress from so many years ago.
The empress said, “According to the records, she disappeared after a sixty-year reign, leaving only a note that said, ‘I’m looking for another coin.’”
The empress was looking wistfully at a particularly lovely beryl set in silver filigree. Eventually she returned her attention to Tern, but she kept glancing back at it. The woman’s face looked oddly familiar, but Tern couldn’t place it. Probably a trick of her imagination.
The rest of the conversation was fairly predictable, but Tern contemplated the dragon’s sense of justice once the empress had gone. Time moved differently underwater, after all. She could wait.
Spread the word!