Owen III Count XXI Hanowald watched his sea-captain stump and jingle away, and drummed fingers on the chart upon his dark oak desk. He looked over the inked outline of the Gold Coast. A wondrous profitable voyage, he thought, if the ships return . . . but then they'll not sail if they're not to return, will they, Sherez?
He rolled the map tight and put it in the white sash of his green silk robe. Did it matter to Sherez, that now he wore fine clean silks to visit the dragonium? The Count doubted that it did. He did not doubt that, should it make a difference to Sherez, Owen would put on salty burlap again. And chains, yes.
He walked the corridors of the Serpent Wing: Two turns left, one right, sharp left, up and down a ramp, ignoring the dozens of false passages. A rumble and whine coming from the Artificers' Tower, where they prepared some marvelous and expensive experiment, distracted his thoughts, but his feet knew the way. Owen could walk these halls blindfold, literally. His father had seen to that.
As he opened the door to the dragonium, Count Hanowald heard Sherez greet him. Smiling faintly, the Count went down the black iron steps, his boots making hollow sounds of doom, the jangle of the grip-chain echoing in his memory.
"Watch your sstep, Owen," Sherez' voice came from the pit, and a moment later the Count stumbled, grabbing the chain with both hands, scraping a heel-tendon on the leading edge of a step, on the iron rasp put there to gash the dragon's belly should he try to ascend . . . escape . . . from the dragonium.
Owen laughed at that, and at the pain in his ankle. Four Counts Hanowald had died mangled on these stairs, Owen's father one of them, all the same way -- descending in haste to see Sherez. None had ever fallen while climbing. Who indeed could, with a dragon's counsel upon him as he departed the pit?
I keep the dragonium as have twenty Hanowalds before me, Owen thought, the maze and the stair and the catacomb, and yet if Sherez sprawled on my chair and held my wand in his teeth, would he rule any more than now?
The Count reached the foot of the stair. A shaft of yellow light from Sherez' left eye picked out the lantern on the wall. Before Owen struck the flint, he noticed a small glimmer near the bright beam.
"Your right eye is healing," he said.
"Ssslowly," said Sherez. "I can tell light from dark, now. The blow was well sstruck, Owen. Your grandfather's arm was sstrong."
The lantern blazed up, and the dragonlight was lost. Owen saw a yellow sphere the size of his head, bloodshot and diffuse. The old split in the closed lid beside it was a mere green groove now, the flake-gold luster of dried dragon blood that Owen's brush could never erase nearly gone. Sherez' ropy arms, thinner than Owen's own, were stretched out before the dragon's head, holding a piece of chain. Rust was scoured from some of the links.
"What, Sherez, must you polish your own teeth now? I've given Emael orders that you're not to go three days without a filing."
"Your sson fears me," said the dragon. "He thinkss I sshall ssnap him up."
"So did I, when I was no bigger than your fang. Emael wears a sword now. He can wield a rasp."
"But you will not chain your sson to the sstair, as your father did you, will you, Owen? He iss no coward, your sson. Only young, and uncertain."
"He will be Count one day, Sherez, and he must know you."
Owen stared. "What do you mean by that? What is going to happen to my son?"
"I do not know, Owen."
"Not . . . know?" The Count looked at the dragon's head, twice Owen's own height, and behind it the hunched scaly back and thick hind legs. The vestigial wings were folded flat, fanning open and shut slightly as Sherez breathed. What a creature is dragon, the poets sang, though for his wisdom he resigned the air to crawl . . . Years ago, a traveling artificer had displayed a whole dragon brain, preserved in smelly liquid. The arms of three men could not span it round. How could that brain--
As the mazes of the dragonium wound above and below, that brain coiled through time; time past, time future. All moments were one to a dragon, tomorrow as real as yesterday, this very instant the same to it as last year or next generation. Sherez could tell Owen the hour of the Count's death, had he only the courage to ask.
How could that brain not know?
"Emael is no less healthy than you were at his age -- nor less brave," said Sherez. "But I do not know what will happen to him."
"You mean that you are going to die."
"We do not die, as you know."
"Then tell me who will kill you. I'll put the tongs to him. I'll roast him in an iron box!"
"Even if it were your son?"
Owen lost his voice. After three hard breaths he said, "Yes, even so," and thought, oh gods old, oh God new, what have I said?
Sherez closed his eye. "It is not," he said. "It is no such blow at all. But I wondered . . .
"Do you know what your artificers do, even now?"
Again Owen could not speak. The dragon wondered. Owen had knelt down here with a file and a brush and pans of salt and fresh water -- and his own weight of iron on his feet -- and cared for Sherez' teeth and blind eye, and the small wounds done by the stones and the deep creatures. After not too much time Owen remained in the dragonium of his own will. Yet though Owen loved Sherez, and knew he loved Sherez, still there were times when he could have raised his hand and put out that other eye.
The wind in his soul subsided. Voice came back. "The artificers are raising some new assemblage. It's consumed pounds of silver, and good steel, but I don't know what it's meant to do."
"They mean to examine causality," said the dragon. "The silver goes for mirrors. The springs hurl pellets, and divide off time, and smash vials of prussic acid so that cats die horribly."
"It is all in a good cause, the furtherance of knowledge."
"What is 'causality'?"
"They wish to know if the cause of an action must happen before the action, or if perhaps the action may precede the cause."
"For this they use steel and silver? To find if, perhaps, a man may cut down a tree after it falls?"
"It is subtler than that. Ancient philosophies are involved, concerning the nature of light."
"Light or falling trees, who cares? A thing is done; its consequences follow."
"Yet if a dragon said your son was to slay him, you would have put hot iron to the boy to prevent the act. How may I be killed tomorrow by a man who dies today?"
"Then . . . there is no . . . causality."
"Oh, but there is. And the artificers will prove so. It is dragons who are wrong."
Owen pulled the map from his sash. "I would all my advisers were wrong so perfectly."
Sherez clapped his weak hands. Dragons could not laugh. "Count Owen, how exceptional you are. Any of your artificers would be confounded for days by such a paradox, but you deny that paradox can exist in a rational world."
"Only as long," said Sherez, "as no one notices there is a paradox. I think one day the artificers will prove two objects cannot occupy the same place simultaneously; but until then, who knows? Perhaps they can."
"You are saying that, as a result of these mirrors and levers, all dragons are about to die."
"No. No. Dragons cannot die . . . because it is inherent in the concept of dragons that we shall live forever."
"You can be slain by men."
"Because your concept of dragons so strongly demands that we can be slain. We were here before your evolution, O man; would you believe me if I said, before that time, no hand could kill us?"
"Then what is to happen to you, if not death? What else is there but death at the end?"
"Many things," said the dragon, "an infinity -- but for us, oblivion. It shall, I think, be as if we never were at all."
"What of this pit? I'll put up a plaque in gold on silver, that here were dragons."
Sherez applauded, patter-patter-pat. "A worthy gesture, Owen Hanowald, but perhaps not. You will probably recall this place as having been built for human pain and the confinement of those who frighten you or have information of value. Which -- pardon me, Owen -- is true."
The Count moved near Sherez' right second fang, the one with the bit of ivory-cementum in it, and crouched, not caring a damn for his robes or his dignity. "I will remember," he said. "Is it not in our concept that we remember our friends?"
Sherez rolled his eye. The split lid creaked a little open. "Exsseptional," the dragon said softly. "Yesss, Owen . . . there may be . . . legendsss."
"What should I do without you, dragon?"
"Substitute reason for prophecy."
Owen stood. "Like an artificer? Then it is the end of life." He looked at the map, crumpled in his white-knuckled hand. "How can I send out ships, men, not knowing if they will return?"
Sherez growled, though Owen did not think it was with anger. "It endss nothing. You will ssend shipss, and ssometimes they will return, and ssometimes they will not, and ssometimes they will be blown off course and disscover new worldsss . . . Owen, I think this is a good thing, for men."
"To live like artificers? Without faith, except in what hands can touch and measure and take apart?" Owen looked up the stairwell, put his hand on the chain. "I'll smash every one of their mirrors. I'll drive them out with iron and fire!"
"No. There is not even time left. I have thought of a good joke, Owen . . . Ssuppose this experiment itsself contains a paradox? Ssuppose that, succeeding, their success vanishesss too, matter and memory?" Sherez clapped. "Owen, Owen, be sstill. I tell you, there iss no time to make a differensse."
"Will may do what time might not," the Count shouted. He shuttered the lantern with a blow, and ran up the steps, his boots making them ring like a cathedral full of bells.
"Salt-Owen!" roared the dragon, and Count Hanowald . . . had to . . . stop.
Eyelight spotted him. "Owen, Sssalt-Owen . . . be careful, on the stairsss."
As he neared the top, climbing as fast as care would permit, Count Hanowald heard sounds from the Artificers' Tower, the grate of a steel mainspring, a crash of glass, the yowl of a cat.
As he stepped from iron onto stone, there was a sucking wind behind him, like the breeze that follows a departing army.
The Count turned round and looked down at the black cold dungeon, and wondered why the Devil the door was open.
Copyright © 1980 John M. Ford
Originally published in Dragons of Light, ed. Orson Scott Card, Ace Books, 1980.
Reprinted by permission.