Aliah stood on the cliff and listened to the song of the Silver Dragon. It combed reverberating notes through her skull, wrapped around her like a net of pearls pulling her closer to the waves. A deceptively simple melody, but that voice ... it sang with the longing and depth and ancient promises of the sea.
Aliah stepped toward the cliff’s edge, toward the crashing waves, which beat a weak percussion beneath the Silver Dragon’s song. She imagined the West Sea spraying across her face, imagined its salt on her tongue. But the sea lay far below, and what she tasted were only her tears. The last time she’d cried ... When her mother left? When her brother hurled himself into these waves? Her tears hadn’t been for them—just herself, as they were now. Selfish, her father had called her. He was right. And he was probably burning to ash right now along with everything they owned. Aliah could still smell the smoke, still taste the fire.
The wind blew back her dark hair, which was gathered in a green ribbon once worn by her mother. The Silver Dragon’s song called to the abandoned, the broken. It had called to her brother, and though Aliah wasn’t broken, not the way he was, she didn’t hesitate to throw herself from the cliff.
Falling, arms outstretched, wash-softened hemp robes billowing, she must have looked like the subject of her mother’s masterpiece, Maiden Enchanted by the Silver Dragon. She just lacked the panicked father in the background, racing over too late to stop his daughter from jumping.
Aliah hit the water. The impact rattled her bones, threatening to turn her into more jumbled pieces, more white foam upon the sea. Saltwater pooled inside her nose, sloshed around her mouth. At first sunlight stretched trembling fingers beneath the waves, but soon she sank below where the sun could reach. Her body shivered but her lungs burned, as if she and not her father were the one choking on smoke. Bubbles burst from her lips. The Silver Dragon’s song enfolded her, dragging her deeper.
Aliah didn’t fear death. The Red and Blue Dragons promised paradise, but everyone knew the Silver Dragon lured people to their ends. She feared only one thing: that the most boring legend was true, that she’d see nothing more than the dark sea as she drowned. Stretching out a hand, she thought, You will show yourself—Karonin, the Silver Dragon. I refuse to die without seeing you.
Something wrapped around her arms. Aliah forced open stinging eyes and saw dark tendrils encircling her, pulling her down, down. She glimpsed light in the distance: at first a tiny sphere, then expanding to encompass her field of view. A palace appeared on the ocean sand, and before it stood the Silver Dragon.
He was so beautiful her pained eyes banished all thoughts of closing. Thin silver lines patterned his delicately carved face, suggesting scales. The black tendrils were his hair, silken ropes towing her toward him. His white robes shone, edged with shimmering detail Aliah had seen only in her mother’s paintings.
Karonin, the Silver Dragon, reached for her with a long-fingered hand. Something stirred in her heart, something parasitic, foreign. Someone else’s will seemed to extend through her arm and lift it, and her fingers clasped Karonin’s. His skin was smooth, cool, with no hint of scales. His hair slipped from her arms, unwinding and retracting, and without it to support her Aliah sank toward the sea floor. But Karonin’s hand caught her chin, holding her up and keeping her eyes trained on his. Within his eyes she saw distant oceans and alien seas, ever-shifting in shades of blue and black. She was still staring into their depths when he pressed his mouth against hers.
His lips were cool, but his breath shot through her like summer wind. Aliah felt her innards shift. She brushed fingers across her neck, detected no gills, but when they broke apart she could breathe again. Her eyes, no longer stinging, drank in the palace. Its walls shone like polished bone, edged with silver patterns and crystals that glittered like stars. The Ocean Pillars stood before her, bases thrust into the seabed, capitals supporting the overhanging roof. They steadied the West Sea, calmed the waves and their desire to swallow the lands above. White dragons no larger than water snakes crawled across the pillars, flashing stone scales and blinking green jade eyes.
Karonin’s hand rested on her shoulder. His lips moved and his voice enveloped her, rich and soul-stirring as his song. “Welcome, Aliah. I am glad you came.”
She should accept his greeting. He was the Silver Dragon, and he could end her in a heartbeat. But she knew his welcome wasn’t hers alone, but a phrase he’d repeated countless times, to her brother before her and to every human before him.
“How do you know my name?” Aliah said.
He traced a finger across her lips. “You gave it to me when we kissed. It is the price you pay to survive here.”
“The first price of many?”
“If that is what you believe, why did you come?”
“Why does anyone come?”
Karonin smiled, showing teeth as white as a shark’s underbelly. “Because I will accept them when the world does not. I will love them when no one else does. Is that your reason as well?”
He didn’t wait for her reply, just extended a hand and pulled her toward the palace. His hair drifted behind him like ink dripping into water, ends unfurling then disappearing. They floated between the pillars, past a school of magenta fish. The steel-studded gates opened and spilled what looked like white smoke, though of course it could not be.
Karonin led her past a garden of silver trees whose branches held bells instead of fruit. Past a dining hall which wafted scents of spiced stew and steamed crab. Past a stage with a folding screen decorated by blue eels. Through a maze of endless doors, all closed, which Aliah thought would never end, until they finally burst into a vast circular chamber. Couches with clam-shaped backs rested against the curved wall. At the center, a marble table held a seashell as large as a peddler’s cart, and from it spilled anemones and starfish and seahorses.
Aliah knelt beside the table, eye to eye with the seahorses. Their delicate tails curled around a pomegranate-red coral. Aliah brushed a hand down the back of the swollen-bellied male, and that was when it returned, howling for her to smash the coral, to rip the starfish to five pieces, to gut the seahorse and scatter sprout-like embryos through the water. All to see how Karonin would react.
She withdrew her hand, quickly.
Karonin led her to a chamber with a canopy bed. Serpentine dragons crawled across the silver frame, and the curtains drifted around her like windblown snow. She lay on the silk sheets and Karonin knelt beside her, robes discarded. An open clam on the nightstand spilled steady, soothing light, which mapped out the silver-edged scales on Karonin’s skin. But when Aliah pressed a finger to his throat and located his still-steady pulse, when she drew her tongue over his breastbone, down his abdomen, into the dark hollow of his navel, she touched only soft human skin.
She twined a hand through his hair, which spilled down his back like black fire. His embrace was warm now, had felt warm since his kiss remade her. He was beautiful, monstrous, and she took everything he gave, allowing herself to believe he was hers as nothing had ever been hers. An illusion, of course, and already she lusted for more. Every time her fingers traced those silver lines, she longed to see his true dragon’s form.
He gave her his first gift and she returned it with a lie.
The clam opened at her touch. Inside, a miniature sun rose over a tiny house. The mirage captured every detail, from the needle-thin rafters to the ant-sized leaves of the bushes. “It changes with the time of day and the seasons,” Karonin said. “You can use it to tell time.”
Aliah handed it back. “I don’t need this. If I cared how much time passed, I wouldn’t have come here.”
He only furrowed his brows. He didn’t push her to accept the gift, not like a human lover would have.
But she’d lied about not caring. She didn’t want to count, but the monster inside her did. It built a house of sundials in her head, furnished it with sandglasses and tolling bells. It measured her days by how many times she fell asleep in Karonin’s arms. Her brother Ruon had hurled himself into the sea three years ago. He wasn’t here anymore. He’d lasted three years at most, and Aliah knew she wouldn’t have even that. Ruon had been better at everything, and surviving the Silver Dragon should be little different.
Sometimes Aliah woke, gasping water in what passed for the middle of the night. Panic suffused her, and she’d dig her nails into Karonin’s shoulders, sink her teeth into his flesh, drawing silver-red blood as if with this she could consume his immortality. He’d tell her to do with him as she wished, that his body and heart belonged to her. Aliah wasn’t fooled. He was the Silver Dragon, and no story spoke of him gifting love and immortality like his brothers did.
Most times, Aliah ignored the bells in her head, the counting of days, the rising and setting sun in her mind’s eye. She hadn’t come here expecting to live.
They would walk through the garden, listening to the eerie melodies of the bells. Sometimes Karonin performed the sword dance, weightless and elegant in the water. Aliah didn’t need to eat, not anymore, but Karonin still hosted feasts of lobster and soft-shelled crab and salmon curled in the shape of an oyster, all on ever-replenishing dishes. He showed her the library stacked full of bamboo scrolls. They made love in the canopy bed, against the Ocean Pillars, or floating beneath the high crystalline ceiling. Sometimes he sang and she listened, the notes strumming through her body and seizing her with an inexplicable urge to cry.
But more than anything, she loved his stories.
His voice was a mellifluous whisper, an origami boat trundling down white-water currents. “The Widow reached for the Weaver but caught only the end of his starsilk. She fell from the sky, starlight unravelling behind her. She screamed his name—his true name, the one he’d shared with her and no other ...”
At a wave of Karonin’s hand, the wall and ceiling of the circular room became the night sky. Stars gathered in the Cosmic Weave. The table, seashell, and anemones disappeared, leaving the couch where they sat as the one remainder of the palace.
Aliah had seen the Cosmic Weave before. Sprawled on the grass, gazing up at it while her brother rattled off star names she could never remember. Cracking open the door to see her mother staring at the night sky, tears streaming down her face and a brush snapped in two in her hand. But never had Aliah seen the Cosmic Weave like this: so clear, so bright, a band of crumpled silk against the black sky. In some places it was thinner than rice paper, made of only a few stars. In others it was a cluster, fold upon dazzling fold rendering its patch of sky as bright as dawn.
As Karonin spoke of the falling Widow, the Cosmic Weave unspooled. Hands reached across the distance like shadow puppets. Aliah’s heart ached for the Widow, for the Weaver, but ... why? Why did she love stories of these long-dead people when she hadn’t cared about the flesh-and-blood humans in her life?
Her eyes strayed to Karonin’s face. Storytelling transformed him. His eyes shifted through the colors of the ocean, from bright sunrise waves to deep-sea black. His nostrils flared when he spoke of injustice—the Ukauri queen beheading General Nierah, Isia Ubaren falling on his sword—and his phantom scales reflected the worlds he brought to life. Gold, when they visited the Eharo Desert. Green, as they dashed through bamboo forests. Back to silver, beneath the Cosmic Weave. Karonin knew stories from lands she’d never heard of, knew stories from a time when the world was young.
As the Weaver’s story ended, the night sky faded, leaving curving bone-white wall and crystal ceiling. The table and seashell returned, and the mirror-silver floor unfurled around them like the Weaver’s cloak.
“What happens if I step off the couch in the middle of a story?” Aliah asked.
The corners of Karonin’s mouth twitched. “That’s your first question? Nothing about how the Midnight Lady reacted to the deal? No question about what they said when they met each other again?”
He was teasing, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. Too human. “Just answer the question,” she snapped. “Will I fall into the story’s world and never return? Will you rip my heart out as punishment?”
He trailed a hand down her chest. “Try it next time. I promise there will be no punishment.”
She tried. When he spoke of the Herdsman of Ezo-Dal, she stood and pushed away from the couch. Grass brushed against her bare feet, but she still trod in water, not air, for when she kicked off from the ground she floated.
She’d barely drifted four paces when she hit a wall. No, not a wall. Something soft, slippery, like sea foam made impenetrable. She clawed at the barrier but couldn’t part it.
Horses galloped in the distance, their manes streaming black and ivory and chestnut. Their hooves thundered like war drums, and she even smelled the dust they kicked up. But she couldn’t reach them. She floated in a circle, testing the prison from all sides, then swam to the top and pushed against the dome’s ceiling.
She refused to look at Karonin when she sat back on the couch. Nothing had happened. It would’ve been more exciting if he’d tried to rip her heart out.
But the Silver Dragon only continued his story, his voice never wavering the whole time she explored. Afterward, he didn’t ask her about what happened, didn’t force her to voice her disappointment.
Half a year had passed—her body said, it said, still counting nights—when she asked, “The doors. Can I open them?”
They were drifting through the maze, past identical stone doors bedecked with pearl and opal and wickedly sharp crystals. She’d wandered here many times but hadn’t managed to open the doors. Nor had she tried very hard. Perhaps opening these doors would be one step too far, one unveiled mystery he wouldn’t tolerate. But what did she have to lose? Only her life, and so far the Silver Dragon seemed disinterested in taking it.
He looked at her, face inscrutable. “You wish to open them?”
“Then I recommend starting at the beginning.” He led her to the door closest to the palace entrance. “It requires payment—in blood, for blood holds memory.” He swiped his hand across the sharp edge of a crystal, then pressed the cut against the opal plaque. The stone groaned, then slid upward.
A garden grew within, ferns and flowers glowing purple beneath a twilight sky. Quickly, wondering if the stone would crash down on her, Aliah stepped inside—and stumbled, for, unlike with Karonin’s story worlds, the water stopped at the door. It felt strange to be back in air. The smallest movements threatened to topple her, and she missed being able to scale walls, to swim to ceilings. She touched a frond and felt fuzz against her fingertips, but the stem didn’t move when she flicked it. Aliah stepped toward the orange trees in the distance—and once again felt that invisible barrier. It swelled and shifted and breathed beneath her fingers, encasing her in an area smaller than her family’s cabin.
She heard laughter. Two pairs of skinny legs skipped though the trees: twin girls, faces like identical coins, their hair braided in pigtails.
“I am the Golden Warrior!” the girl brandishing a tree branch shouted. “Surrender or fall to my sword!”
Panting, her twin said, “Can’t we go back? If we’re late, Mother’s going to ...” Their voices drifted away. Aliah lingered for a moment, then stepped outside. The door slid shut behind her.
At the second door, she cut her hand on the crystal and pressed it against the plaque. Tiny pearls beneath her palm shaped the character for “two.” As the door shuddered open, she saw Karonin’s eyes widen. Was he surprised it responded to her blood as it did his? Or had he expected her to demand his blood rather than offering payment herself?
Door two led to a sandy beach, where a boy collected seashells and showed them to a tall woman in a grey cape.
Door three held a summer-green rice field. Just beyond the invisible barrier, a man bent to pull weeds, his face shadowed by a wide straw hat.
Even then, Aliah could guess what the rooms held.
The blinding waterfall and hazy rainbow faded back into the circular room as Karonin ended the story. Two years, the voice inside Aliah whispered. Almost the end.
“I want your story,” Karonin said.
Aliah had expected this. Her story—the last, greatest thing he’d collect. “You’ve taken my name,” she said. “Will you take my story as well?”
“You thought I’d take your life. Is a story such a high price to pay?”
Aliah closed her eyes. She’d prepared her answer. “I was born beneath Farer’s Axe, under inauspicious stars. My mother left me and my father hated me. I dreamed no dreams, loved no one, lost nothing but what I destroyed with my own hands. I have no story to tell.”
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “To me at least, your story is worth telling.”
I’m not ready, were the words she could not say. So she swam through corridors and out the palace gates. She sat by the Ocean Pillars, stone dragons moving against her back. She watched a charcoal-black stingray bury itself in the sand. In the murky waters beyond the palace, she glimpsed a vast, pale-grey shape with yawning mouth and triangular teeth. She wondered if this were the thousand-year shark of the West Sea. Out of curiosity more than a desire to escape, she swam to the edge of the palace’s light. Her outstretched hands met a barrier. But this one wasn’t fleshy and slick. It scraped against her palms like scales—hard, segmented, in constant motion as if alive.
She hid in the maze of a hundred doors, in others’ stories, and when she emerged, the Silver Dragon did not pry for an answer.
Some days Aliah opened one door. Some days, two. Then she would go three or four days without opening another.
She saw a father hoisting a boy on his shoulders during a festival, so the boy could see the fan dance above the crowd. She stood on unfamiliar city walls as people crawled beneath her like broken-winged birds. A swordswoman rifled through a room of books, searching but never finding. In a humid forest a young man sat reading, napping, reading again, his face flitting between seething concentration and drowsy bliss. He sat close enough that the fleshy barrier didn’t block him from her, so Aliah reached out and stroked his sweat-dampened hair. Yet when she tried to shake him awake, it felt like trying to uproot the world’s oldest banyan tree with her bare hands. She could make no impact on the world of his memories.
The sandglass inside her said three years when she reached the ninety-ninth door. Had she outlasted Ruon? She felt no weakness, no pain. If death came, it would be sudden and violent.
Aliah pressed a scratched finger against the plaque, traced the characters for “ninety-nine.” The door slid open. She’d known long ago what she would find.
A familiar room. Fire crackling. A bearded man threw pieces of chopped fish into a pot. A boy and girl sat at the table, holding their first brushes, awaiting instruction from a woman with long dark hair gathered in a green ribbon.
Aliah felt her brother’s arms settle over her, felt his heartbeat against her own. Each room held its own emotion. Joy, for the boy at the festival. Urgency, for the woman in the room of books. This one held nostalgia, held promise. The room confirmed what she’d always known: that their childhoods, those evenings she recalled with frustration and loathing, were Ruon’s most precious memories.
She stepped out of the room. Pressed her bleeding hand against the hundredth door, the final door. It did not open.
Aliah spoke one night as she and Karonin lay in the canopy bed. “My mother was an imperial painter.”
Karonin fell still, his eyes unreadable as the jade ones of the stone dragons.
“She met my father by chance,” Aliah said. “He and some other fishermen had marched to the capital to complain about the Emperor’s taxes. My father wasn’t beheaded, but he didn’t win the Emperor’s sympathy either. He did, however, win my mother’s heart. The Emperor, disgusted by her choice of partner, released her from his service, though she was the greatest painter in the land.”
Karonin didn’t question her appraisal of her mother, not like her father and brother did, not like her mother herself sometimes did. Something swelled inside Aliah and the words tumbled out. “My mother followed him to his village. They married, had two children. They were ... not happy. My mother missed seeing her works hang in the imperial gallery. She continued painting—the sea, the village, the fishermen—but it wasn’t the same. During those years, only one painting of hers became famous. A travelling merchant liked it, bought it, sold it to the Minister of Rites, who displayed it in his guest room. Visitors wept at its beauty, and the fall of the artist who’d painted it.”
Aliah held Karonin’s gaze. “It was called Maiden Enchanted by the Silver Dragon.”
Karonin remained silent, so Aliah continued. “My father didn’t sympathize. He loved the idea of luring away the imperial painter more than he loved my mother herself. Her children offered little solace. My brother Ruon had a talent for painting, as he had talent for all things. But he’d already attracted attention from a city scholar, and my father encouraged him to focus on his studies. Someday, my father said, Ruon would take the imperial exams and climb through the civil service. That would be our family’s triumph.
“As for me, I tried. I didn’t love painting. I don’t know if I even loved my mother. But sometimes I’d see her watching the sky, looking so lonely and lost that I had to do something. Unfortunately, I was an unremarkable painter, as I was unremarkable at everything. In my studies I fell behind my brother despite being a year older, and my father kicked me off his boat, saying I was more hindrance than help. Only my mother continued teaching me, and for that I thought I owed her.
“I was unremarkable in every way. Except, inside me was ... a monster, perhaps. When I was five years old, I grabbed our wine pitcher and smashed it against my father’s head.”
Karonin’s gaze held no judgement. This pleased her, but she also wondered if he already knew her story and was only forcing her to say it. “It was one of the few luxuries we owned,” Aliah said. “A gift from the Emperor to my mother, long ago, though by then it was my father who used it most. I didn’t even have a good reason for smashing it on my father. My mother was teaching us, and I got annoyed that Ruon drew better clouds than me. My father talked louder and louder with every drink, rambling about my mother teaching his children frivolities. I saw my mother look away, tears in her eyes. Then next thing I knew I was standing by my father’s chair, broken pieces of the wine pitcher strewn across his temple.
“He didn’t lose an eye, but he did get a nasty scar. He suggested throwing me to the sea. My mother said I was only a child. But other children didn’t black out and reawaken with their father’s face cut up.
“My brother grew up, memorized books I struggled to finish, fell in love and had his heart broken. I made no friends, loved no one. I was nothing and people were nothing to me.
“But sometimes the monster returned. The day my father refused to take me fishing ... I don’t remember who struck the first blow, but we beat each other bloody until Ruon and my mother pulled us apart.
“Ruon was . . . kind. Patronizing. Always offering advice I didn’t want. I managed to keep from attacking him but ripped apart his favourite book instead. It belonged to his teacher, and we were both beaten for this. That was the first time I saw him break down. He knelt by the sea, crying, and it took both my parents to coax him back. I just stood there. Watching him. Thrilled, disgusted. Confused, and a little sorry.
“My mother grew thinner, her silences longer, her hair dusted with grey. My brother memorized text after text, spending weeks in the city with his teacher. My father directed smug smiles at my mother, tossed around comments about how her flowery court ass couldn’t raise a child half as well as he had. I knew my mother must leave this place before it killed her, but she refused to abandon us, her children.
“Let me be clear: though I was jealous of Ruon, though I sometimes dreamed of destroying his brilliant mind, I did what I did purely to spite my father.
“On the day Ruon was to take the first exam, I poisoned him.
“I didn’t kill him, of course. Didn’t plan to. The serra-root in his rice porridge was just enough to send him into sweats and fever dreams as he struggled to mount the fancy carriage my father had hired. They rode to the city, but my brother was in no state to complete a day-long exam.”
Aliah remembered the look on Ruon’s face as he stumbled back to their cabin a day later. He’d been pale as a ghost, while their father was livid red. “It was meant to be a small hitch in my father’s plans,” Aliah whispered. “A mere pebble in Ruon’s path. It was only the first exam. He could take it again in three years. But he was inconsolable. He’d prepared for that day his whole life. He became convinced he was cursed, that the gods themselves hated him. He was only a fragile human, and perhaps my father’s demands had worn him down as surely as they’d worn down my mother. Three days later, Ruon heard your song and leapt into the sea.”
Aliah searched for some sign of recognition from Karonin, if only for a prelude of how he’d remember her when she was gone. But from his face she could read nothing.
“My mother left after that,” Aliah said. “Back to the capital, retaking her position as imperial painter. The old emperor had died, and his daughter remembered my mother and was enamoured with Maiden Enchanted by the Silver Dragon. I was happy for my mother, though the monster whispered, ‘Look, even she loved your brother more. She stayed for him.’
“Somehow my father and I survived another three years together. We should’ve gone our separate ways, but we both needed someone to blame. We fought every day. He fell into his cups and I fished alone, for all that he’d deemed me a useless seafarer.
“Eventually I snapped. Some comment about the fish. Some comment about my mother. It doesn’t matter. Three years was already a miracle, and it’s not like the world needed either of us. So I burned down our house with him still in it. I didn’t lock any doors, so he could still be alive if he woke up in time. I didn’t check if he lived. Didn’t care. I was kinslayer twice over in spirit if not in deed, and I’d had enough of that pathetic world. I heard your song and threw myself into the sea.”
Aliah leaned back against the pillows. “Let me be clear. I didn’t come here to avenge my brother. I won’t ask what you did with him. I came because you alone won’t look upon me with human judgement. I came because I’ve already achieved everything I wanted: My brother, leading a life no greater than my own. My father, gone. My mother, saved.”
Aliah reached out and traced a hand along Karonin’s jaw. “If I thought of my brother at all, it was only to wonder: What kind of creature could make him abandon his duty, his dream, his life, all for the promises held in a song?”
“And your conclusion?” Karonin said, speaking for the first time since she began her story.
“You’re nothing special.”
His laughter echoed through the palace. Aliah joined in, her voice as inhuman as his.
She woke to find him gone.
The half-open clam had dimmed, leaving just enough light for her to find the door. She drifted into the cavernous room where Karonin told his stories and found it equally shadowed, as if night had finally fallen on the palace. The table with the giant seashell remained, but something had swept away the starfish, seahorses, and anemones, replacing them with a scattering of rotted petals.
She wandered through the maze of doors. Darkness transformed the palace, walls of polished bone becoming the dark intestinal tracts of some colossal beast. Aliah stopped before the ninety-ninth door, cut herself on the crystal, and placed her hand on the plaque.
The room roiled like the sea in storm. Her head pounded, and shivers wracked her body though her skin felt flame-hot. Something sour burned the back of her throat. She saw a flapping curtain, smelled road dust and horse sweat. Her father’s voice came in fragments.
Her brother’s answer, breathless and broken: “Father ... I can’t, I can’t.”
Aliah exited the room. Was the Silver Dragon, of all creatures, trying to teach her loss?
She opened doors with her still-bleeding hand. Fire consumed the room of books, and the swordswoman threw her body on the flames to quench them. An army gathered below the high walls of that unfamiliar city. A man crumpled a letter in his hand and walked, walked, walked until the sea submerged him.
As the rooms once held cherished memories, so did they now hold endings. Endings, and reasons why her predecessors had answered the Silver Dragon’s song.
Aliah searched the dining hall. Knocked down the screen of blue eels. Combed through the garden of silver trees. Opened the palace gates, white smoke pooling at her feet.
She found Karonin kneeling by an Ocean Pillar. He brushed a hand against the stone, murmuring something. He didn’t seem to notice the gates opening, didn’t look up when Aliah drew within hearing distance.
“And still you torment me,” Karonin said to the stone. “Three years I had you. Not long. Not long at all, for me. You should be a painless memory by now, yet I ...” Karonin pressed his lips to the pillar—
Aliah’s world shifted, and she saw.
Karonin’s lips didn’t meet stone, nor the body of a jade-eyed dragon. Instead it was her brother’s face on the pillar, her brother’s mouth the Silver Dragon kissed.
Ruon’s body melded into the pillar, was the pillar. Twisted, upside-down, distended in parts and crushed in others. Bony shoulders braced against the sand, and his arms stuck to his sides as if pinned there by mortar. Silver scales crept up his gnarled legs, patched over the death-pale skin of his torso, ringed his angled neck. But his eyes moved still, wide and darting and mad.
Karonin, his eyes closed, cradled Ruon’s cheek. A spike of jealousy lodged itself somewhere between Aliah’s ribs. Father’s right. Even now, I only think of myself.
“You were right, Ruon,” Karonin whispered. “Aliah is truly special.”
Aliah reached out, clawed a hand through Karonin’s hair, forced him to face her. His eyes opened and his mouth parted with surprise when he finally, finally noticed her.
“This . . .” Aliah stared at what remained of her brother. “Ruon. He’s still ... alive?”
Karonin rose to his feet. His eyes held sadness and pity—human, so human, and in that moment he disgusted her like the rest of them did. “I don’t know if you can call him alive,” Karonin said. “Pieces of his soul remain, and like the others who answered my call, his eyes came alive when I attached him to the palace. But his mind is ... gone.”
“Then the others who came before him, before me ...?”
In his eyes she saw a hundred ships dashed upon the rocks. She heard the prayers of drowning sailors and the song of the merciless sea. “Look around,” he said, “and see the palace’s true face.”
Aliah turned, and gasped.
In every pillar was a human body. Twisted, reshaped, overgrown with scales—but with faces she recognized from behind the stone doors. Aliah swam through the gates into once-familiar rooms and everywhere she saw bodies. Lying spread-eagle in the dining table, meat locked in stone. Strung across the walls, hands clasped and legs dangling, scales fusing their fingers together. In her favorite room, that circular chamber where Karonin told his stories, she discovered the table with the seashell was also a body: the swordswoman from the room of books, bent over, her silver-scarred back serving as the table surface.
Aliah returned to the palace entrance. She stared at the Silver Dragon, then at the pillar of flesh that had been her brother.
“You gave me your story,” Karonin said. “Now I give you mine.”
Aliah listened. Because he had listened to her. Because she never interrupted his stories.
“You’ve heard of the palaces of my brothers,” Karonin said. “Gatherings of their beloved humans, paradise beneath the sea. I alone command this barren place. Have you ever wondered why?”
Karonin glanced at Ruon. “A dragon’s kiss transforms a human. My breath allows you and every human before you to survive in my palace. In this respect I am no different from my brothers. But while their humans remained eternally young, mine ... died. Sickening, deteriorating, in a few short years.
“My eldest brother, the Gold Dragon, thought I was a mistake, a monster. He tried to bind me. I hadn’t lured a single human once I realized my breath was poison, but I hated him for trying to imprison me.
“We fought. And I ... I slew him. I didn’t mean to, but as his magic entangled me I lashed out. My claw pierced his eye and dug into his brain. I scarcely realized what had happened before the North Sea started roiling. Unsettled by my brother’s death, it threatened to swallow the lands above. I did the only thing I could: I bound my brother’s body to his crumpling palace, made the pillars his bones, the gates his scales, the walls his flesh. And the sea calmed.
“My remaining two brothers plotted revenge. Together they imprisoned me with the very technique I’d used to pacify the North Sea. They stripped me of my dragon’s form, entangled my flesh and bones with the palace. But I was alive, not a carcass like my eldest brother, and I knew these stones well enough to untangle myself. Perhaps my brothers didn’t know that. Or perhaps they did, but they knew I wouldn’t leave, for then the palace would collapse and the West Sea would swallow the world.
“But I had my songs, and with them I lured humans. First in spite, then in loneliness. Then I realized something: the bodies of my human companions, which I’d once released into the sea, didn’t rot upon death. Instead, silver scales climbed their skin, and when I cut them they bled silver-red. I pressed an ear to their chests and heard no heartbeat, but I sensed the faint cry of their trapped souls. My poison had transformed them, turned them into some weak mimicry of me. And I realized, if I worked slowly, carefully, like the Weaver sewing the stars to the sky one-by-one, I could use their bodies to replace mine. A rib here, a claw there, a patch of scales somewhere else. Then someday their bodies would support the palace, and I would be free.
“So I sang. I lured the hopeless and broken. No matter who they were or what stories had brought them here, I accepted them, loved them. When they died I offered their bodies to the palace, freeing another piece of myself. Before then they lived a year, or two. Your brother lasted three, and I ...” Karonin closed his eyes, and a shudder wracked his body. “How I loved him. I could’ve stayed trapped here forever so long as he were with me. But he died, and I mounted his body to the palace like I had the rest.” Karonin knelt and brushed a hand through Ruon’s hair. “I try to keep the palace’s true face veiled. Yet there are times like tonight when I desperately miss him.”
Karonin pulled away, quickly, as if otherwise he would never be able to let go. “Ninety-nine souls I collected, over three hundred years. It’s almost done now. I need one more body, one more story behind the doors. One last soul and I am free. I could’ve disentangled myself and left the world to drown. But I stayed, and I chose to free myself the hard way. Is a hundred souls so high a price?”
He raised his hand and his sword appeared, its twisting handle reminiscent of the bodies grafted to the palace. He flicked his wrist and the sword floated through the water, settling at Aliah’s feet. “You, Aliah ...” Karonin said, “you are doomed to die. I cannot save you from my poison. But I can give you a choice—as the last one, as the only one fit to judge me, as the beneficiary of a promise I made to your brother. You can plunge that sword into my breast and kill me, releasing the souls I’ve bound here. My carcass will remain, supporting this palace, keeping the West Sea calm like the Gold Dragon’s body still calms the North Sea. Or you can become part of this palace as the one hundredth soul. You can set me free, Aliah.”
She picked up the sword. For once Karonin’s eyes were solid black, no longer swirling with distant waves. She imagined plunging the blade through his heart, letting silver-red blood sprinkle the sand. The roving, mad eyes of the corpses weighed on her, judged her. The stories hadn’t been far off. Karonin, too, was kinslayer, and more monster than she could ever hope to be. Becoming a mass of contorted flesh, stuck forever in his palace, was all that awaited every human who’d ever loved him. Aliah knew what the right choice was, what every person before her would’ve done.
Which made her pause.
She met her brother’s eyes, and in the madness she saw a wordless plea. Perhaps Ruon’s thoughts reached her. Perhaps she pieced it together on her own, knowing Karonin’s defiant nature, so similar to her own. Most likely she hadn’t guessed anything at all. She chose with her heart, and her heart did not care.
Aliah released the sword, let it drift down to the sand. “Take your freedom,” she said. “Trapped here, or in another hell, it’s all the same to me. As for the rest of them ... what do I care?”
The sea around her sang, and shattered.
She saw him then, the full length of his serpent’s body undulating around her. His eyes were wide as doorways, leading to worlds unknown. Each silver scale stretched as long as her forearm, blinding her with their light. His claws, wickedly sharp, held her gently as her mother’s embrace.
“I really did love you,” the Silver Dragon said, and his voice was distant wind and forgotten thunder.
She pressed her lips to a scale on his back. “I don’t believe you.”
His only reply was his song, beautiful and deafening. Aliah wanted to say more, but the last lights of the palace blinked out.
She woke in the room of stories. She sat up, hands planted on the gleaming floor. Light flooded the palace, and the walls were white, hard, smooth. The table was marble once more, coral and starfish spilling from the seashell. The darkness, the twisted bodies, and her brother’s mad eyes could’ve been a dream, except that Karonin’s sword now rested at her feet.
Aliah swam to the maze of doorways. She cut her hand and pressed it against the ninety-ninth door. No nightmarish carriage ride awaited inside, nor the crackling fireplace and yet unbroken family she’d seen the first time. The room was empty, and its walls glittered with silver scales.
She tried a few more doors and found more of the same: scaly walls and emptiness. Turning to the hundredth door, the one that hadn’t opened, she laid her hand against its plaque. This time the stone moved, and Aliah stepped inside.
She hovered in a blue sky, above a sandy coastline that led to tiny villages, which led to rolling hills and green valleys and walled cities. This room had no scaled walls, no membranous barrier. She flew on invisible wings and kept going.
Familiar arms settled on her shoulders. Now that they stood in air and not water, she felt his breath against her neck. “I do not know if this will work, if you can hear me,” Karonin said. “If you are listening to this, that means I’m gone. But I wanted some part of me to stay with you, because you have the right to know.”
Aliah wanted to turn around and meet his eyes, but she didn’t dare. She feared if she looked, she would find only endless sky.
“Your brother and I made a bet,” Karonin said. “I said no human, no matter how they loved me, would forgive me when they saw what I’ve done, not to mention what I’ve planned for them. None of them would choose me over those one hundred souls. Ruon said his sister would. And he made me promise that if you chose me, I would release those ninety-nine souls and sacrifice myself. I agreed, because I thought it would never happen. Because I loved him. Because I was tired, and wondered if death were acceptable if I found someone who loved me that much.” He chuckled. “Imagine my surprise, when I realized you didn’t love me much at all.”
Aliah almost laughed. Of course this was how it ended. The Silver Dragon had loved her brother, had died for a promise made to her brother. She, Aliah, was only the weapon in their hands. That Karonin would throw away his life now, after all the souls he’d collected, after drawing so close to his freedom ... Aliah couldn’t say she understood him, any more than she understood Ruon or her father or any other human up on land.
Still, some piece of Karonin had stayed with her. Perhaps, perhaps, that meant something.
Aliah stared at the changing landscape. A ribbon of blue shimmered in the distance—the sea. She fixed her eyes on it and suddenly she was there, waves lapping at her feet. “Is this only a message?” she said. “Or can you still hear me?”
Karonin didn’t answer her question. But she heard his voice again:
“Here you’ll find the tale of the Four Seas, how they were born, and how each of us was tasked with guarding one of them. Shall I tell you this story?”
“Yes,” Aliah whispered. And she found herself dragged beneath the water. For a moment all was sun-kissed blue, but then the world darkened. The blue was no longer water but sky, indigo and specked with stars. A shimmering sphere floated before her, and the four dragons—red and gold and silver and blue—coiled around the surface that would someday become the world.
Karonin spoke in the melodic whisper he reserved for storytelling.
“When Mother handed the Seas to us, she gave us two commands: to calm the waters, and to love them as we did each other.”
It had all gone terribly wrong, Aliah knew. But the beauty of a story lay in how.
Three years since Karonin had kissed her. She should be dead by now, or at least deteriorating, but she felt no different. Was she doomed, or had he lied about that as well? Was she so like him—fellow kinslayer, fellow monster—that she alone might survive his poison?
She had time still. How much she didn’t know, and wasn’t sure she cared. Time enough, perhaps, to walk the memories of the Silver Dragon. To understand why he had kept his promise to her brother. And why he had left her this final gift: his stories, all that she loved in the world.