A Reckoning of Dragons
The morning of the court martial found Severa waiting on the straight-backed bench outside the courtroom, ignoring the passers-by who glanced curiously at her on their way to more important cases. She wasn’t chained, because there was no question of running. Even if she’d been able to see properly, even if her collarbone and ribs weren’t cracked, even if there’d been anyone to help her, Severa Bittersea, six-time champion of the Transcontinental Race, didn’t run.
A pair of scuffed boots stopped in front of her. She could see the warm outlines of feet beneath the leather—Leonin ran hotter than most men, and his boots were worn thin. She would’ve been able to tell it was him regardless, by the sound of him; he never walked when he could stomp like a boy in a puddle.
“Bittersea,” he said, and when she didn’t react, “Look at me, damn you.”
She lifted her eyes. They had a long way to go; Warden Leonin Rook towered over most of his riders, though the face at the top was still boyish behind its mustache. She’d noticed a few silver threads in it not long ago; she supposed she’d never know when it went all gray. The ability to perceive color was one of the things she’d lost.
He loomed over her, weight shifting foot to foot; he wasn’t the sort of man to sit down when he could pace, but he couldn’t pace here. “This trial isn’t about you, y’know,” he said. “Not at the heart of it.”
“I know,” she said tonelessly. There was a fog in her head that had come out of a little glass bottle of laudanum. It was a fog she tried hard not to puncture by thinking too much.
“It isn’t even about your dragon. Or money. It’s about who’s in charge. J. Hevery wants to make damned sure we know it’s not us.”
J. Hevery, senatorial auditor, recently dispatched from the Unified Departments of the Southern Seaboard to oversee the finances of the Ninth Reckoning of the U.D.S.S. Aerial Corps in the Windward Territory. She couldn’t find the energy to sneer. The warden clapped her hard on the shoulder, jarring her half-healed collarbone. “Bear up. You’re my soldier in this, eh? Remember what we rehearsed.”
She nodded dully. They’d been up half the night getting the story straight, her and him and his wily secretary. The fog in her head was making it hard to remember why it mattered.
“There’s nothing left to do for Egalitarian,” said Leonin. “But I’ll be damned if they’re taking you down with him.” He thrust out a hand. “Up you come, Bittersea.”
She took it limply. He dragged her to her feet. Her collarbone throbbed. But a minute later, when the doors opened and he escorted her into the courtroom, she raised her chin and walked like the officer she was.
The courtroom was vast and cold and slick, with galleries enough for an army of reporters, but only a handful of listless journalists gathered in a back row. A photographer from the Timberline Gazette set up his equipment by the door. She scanned the assembled faces and didn’t see the one she was looking for. She was looking too high. On her second pass, she dropped her eyes to waist-height and found him—Daley, her former harnessman, in his wicker wheelchair. This new thermal vision of hers swallowed colors, reducing eyes to blank marbles. He might have been looking at her; he might not.
She glanced at the warden, who nodded shallowly. He knew Daley was there.
The court martial was a shambles from the start, and degenerated quickly into legal quagmire:
“Tell us what your instruments said when you departed Saddleback.”
“Don’t know. Didn’t look.”
“Why didn’t you look?”
“Didn’t need to. I knew my route.”
“Then why,” the prosecutor stressed, “did you go down twenty miles east of it?”
“She must have been blown,” said her defense.
“If she had been blown, she would have been blown twenty miles west. Lieutenant Bittersea, what was east?”
She muttered, “The storm.”
As the warden had predicted, the prosecution began to pick at older scabs. He dredged up her cadet record. “Erratic,” he droned distantly. “Irresponsible. Prone to drink.”
No more or less prone than every other rider in this time-forsaken corps, she thought, as the courtroom was treated to a reading of her long string of disciplinary hearings. Of particular interest was the time she’d shared her tipsy mind with Egalitarian and they’d gone chasing geese in the park and knocked over the bandstand.
“She was fourteen,” her defense said.
The portrait that emerged was of an unruly young champion and her wildly overindulged dragon, promoted too fast and given too long a leash in deference to the trophies they’d brought home. Severa’s eyes sought Daley at the back of the room. He’d been there for all of it—the travels, the trophies, the indiscretions. He’d been the chief of her private ground crew and the closest to her in age. She bit her cheek until blood oozed. She knew what was coming, and so did he.
“The prosecution calls Hieronymo Daley to the stand.”
The creak of wicker; the grind of aluminum rims as he wheeled himself down the aisle. He was a slope-shouldered man with a prematurely thinning scalp. He’d gone to flab since the last time she’d seen him. She tried to meet his eyes, or at least fix her attention in the right vicinity. It wouldn’t do any good. All the story-straightening in the world couldn’t stop Hieronymo Daley from raising his shirt and showing them the scars.
But as the questions began, he left it tucked.
“Severa Bittersea is an arrogant ass,” he said in his laconic wrong-side-of-the-mountains drawl, not so different from the one she’d shed as an adolescent. He couldn’t reach the podium, so he parked his chair beside it. “Head barely fits through the mountain pass. Sore loser, too. Damn fine generous winner, though.”
She blinked. So did the prosecution.
“Sure, I seen her drink,” Daley acknowledged. “Bought us lads a whole case of vintage the night she and Eggy won the Transcontinental the fifth time.”
She listened to her victories recited one last time. All the times she and Egalitarian swept the Transcontinental. The day they tied with the South Coast Company’s new train. The year when, funded by subscription, they’d crossed the ocean to outfly the Sava Suali dragonriders in their own skies. The flying pair Bittersea and Egalitarian had carried the Windward Territory to victory over and over. The governor had commended them for putting Windward on the map; the Ninth Reckoning adored them for putting it in the headlines. The former harnessman in the wicker chair made sure the courtroom remembered.
When he was finished, he wheeled himself down the corridor between the benches. She watched him go, unable to say a word. Only she, he, Leonin, and Leonin’s secretary knew what he had just done for her.
The doors shut behind him. It was the last she would see of him for a long time.
Finally, Dr. Rogan, the Territory’s leading draconologist, took the stand. The tide was turning sluggishly in her favor, and in his phlegmatic way, he prodded it along. “Think of it like this,” he said, leaning his elbows on the podium. “Two sheets of calico. That’s your mind and your dragon’s, hypothetically. Long as you’re in the same vicinity, the corners overlap. You know he’s there, he knows you are, and if someone flaps one of you hard enough, the other feels it. Now, if you reach your mind out to his, those sheets of calico overlap more, press so tight you can feel the weave; and under pressure, they roll up together. Hard to separate, see? Now, mortal danger is a lot of pressure. At that point, what you have isn’t two pieces of calico, it’s a sheet of two-ply. If you rip it—as death does—they both tear. That’s why they call it the fabric of the mind, see? I can vouch for the normality of Lieutenant Severa Bittersea’s eyes; I’ve examined them. Yet she sees in thermic signatures. That suggests that some of the threads in her head aren’t hers. If you’re inclined toward sentiment, Your Honor, you might say that she’ll always carry a piece of her dragon with her. But let me ask you this. If she has her dragon’s visual cortex, what did she trade for it?”
Nearly all her own weak testimony was thrown out on grounds of incompetence—the laudanum bottle had found its way into evidence. As the trial ground on, it became apparent even to the civil magistrate that the whole grueling, humiliating exercise was a proxy war between J. Hevery and Warden Leonin Rook; that in fact, the question was not whether Lieutenant Severa Bittersea was responsible for her dragon’s death, but whether ultimate power rested with the man who commanded a flying army or the man who determined whether it ate. Still, a dragon was dead, and someone’s head had to roll.
The rider in the small tintype that appeared on the fourteenth page of the Gazette the next day bore little resemblance to the rider who’d won the Transcontinental six years running. Severa Bittersea had never been any great beauty, with her long nose and lanky frame; but in her uniform, with her hair crisply bobbed and her flight goggles around her neck, she’d cut a gallant figure. Now she looked much older than her twenty-nine years. And there was something unsettling about her eyes. It was hard to put a name to. The only word that really fit was reptilian.
The verdict was two days in coming. A lesser rider would have waited for it on the floor of a holding cell. Severa was allowed to wait it out on the floor of her friend Clementina’s shabby sitting room. All her laurels hadn’t saved her own quarters from passing to an up-and-coming young officer and his dragon, and besides, she couldn’t be left unsupervised. She wouldn’t have been the first rider to open her wrists and follow her dragon.
The verdict came. Recklessness, definitely; negligence, maybe; penalty, redundant. No doubt J. Hevery would have liked to see her drummed out of the Ninth, except that a rider with a dragon couldn’t exist outside it and a rider without a dragon already did.
After that, no one, including Leonin, seemed quite sure what to do with her. The only family listed in her personnel file was a father somewhere on the leeward side of the mountains whom she hadn’t seen in twenty-two years. There was talk of pension, but prying it out of J. Hevery would be another battle. Even in the war years, most decommissioned riders had ended their days in a sanitarium, being fed through a tube.
For the next several months, Dr. Rogan checked in on her every evening. He generally found her in the same position, prone on Clementina’s ratty secondhand Cambry carpet. Not a rider himself, Dr. Rogan was content to treat her like any other wounded young officer, albeit one with a bad and lingering concussion, a burgeoning laudanum habit, and the potential to make an interesting chapter in a parapsychology textbook. Leonin, too, made a point of treating her as a dragonrider still. But on the rare occasions when she ventured out of Clementina’s quarters, riders ordinary and ground crewmen turned down side corridors to avoid walking past her. A dragonrider ought to die with her dragon.
One night, in a particularly black bout, she borrowed Clementina’s mending scissors and ripped the patch from the arm of her flying jacket. She thought of other things that could be done with scissors, but she lacked the dedication to do them.
Autumn dripped past. J. Hevery proposed to reduce the staffers by a third.
“They’ll be cutting rations next,” Clementina lamented when the news trickled down to the riders ordinary. “And when Flagellation gets hungry enough, he’ll eat a staffer.”
“Assuming he can find one,” her sister said, and tossed a playing card into the discard pile. “Your turn, Benson.”
Benson shuffled his fistful of cards. “I invite Flagellation to start with J. Hevery.”
A murmur of agreement from the others. It was all talk. Severa knew because she used to talk it. She roused herself from the carpet to say, “The amazing thing’s no one’s done it already.”
Benson averted his eyes as if he had no idea where her voice had come from. Clementina just sighed.
Just after the new year, a knock at Clementina’s door roused Severa from fitful, laudanum-aided sleep. She was addled enough to reflexively answer it and lucid enough, when she saw who was there, to regret it.
“Good, you’re up,” said Leonin. “Come with me, Bittersea.” He practically propelled her down the corridor, never mind that she was out of uniform and smelled like something scraped off the floor of an outhouse.
They made their way down one of the long, rambling flights of stairs that led into the subterranean bowels of Polestar Bask. Down here, copper pipes rattled on the walls, carrying boiling water from the center of the lake to heat all the dragon garages. They passed staffers in tan coveralls who scattered like pigeons. She realized where he was taking her before they arrived.
“Don’t bother,” she said, dragging her feet, but stopping Leonin was like trying to halt a glacier. They arrived in the antechamber outside the incubatory. There was a viewing window, but glass was harder to see through than wood or drywall; it smeared all heat signatures into one. Leonin roared for the husbandman, who unlocked the service door. They descended into the egg pit.
Three eggs glowed warmly, half-buried in black volcanic sand. A lacy shadow of lichen covered the shells, feeding off the calcium.
She couldn’t help it. “Where are the rest?”
“You haven’t been following the news, then.”
“No.” Occasionally an egg cracked too soon, spilling a dracling onto the hot sands with no one for it to imprint on, forcing ground crew to put it down; other times, an egg just never hatched. But there should have been ten or twelve here.
“The senate ordered them taken off the sand,” Leonin said. “Just after they were laid.”
She’d never heard him sound so grim. Angry, yes. She’d seen him kick a hole in the drywall once, after a particularly harrowing negotiation with J. Hevery. But he had the buoyant heart of a schoolboy; it wasn’t in his nature to be grim. The note in his voice jarred her more than the underpopulated sands.
“J. Hevery had charts,” he added. “Population growth, birth rate, death rate. All his tidy little figures. Incremental change. Must prepare for the future.”
“You’ll fight him.”
“Not alone.” His hand was still on her shoulder. He turned her to face him. “The name Egalitarian is back in the pool.”
That landed like a kick. “Yes,” she said hollowly. “So’s Gallantry.” The dragon Gallantry at the outlying Thresh Bask had died the previous week, age seventy-nine, taking his rider peacefully with him; she’d heard it from Clementina. “It’s not a shallow pool.”
“Prudence. Temperance. Amity. Fine names for cattle. Next they’ll be approving Senility and declawing dragons at hatching time. But—three eggs.” A little of the grimness faded out of his voice. “That’ll mean three new draclings this summer.”
“Three fresh cadets. They’ll need training.”
“I’m making you an offer.” He gave her a little shake, like he could rattle sense and spirit into her. “You’ve had your wallow.”
“Sergeant Tuani doesn’t need a lackey to carry his whistle for him.”
“Tiptoes Tuani trains me mail couriers. I want you to train me more of you.”
Severa’s eyes traced the whorls of lichen. She’d always driven Egalitarian hard and herself harder to make sure there weren’t more like them. The idea of teaching new cadets filled her with revulsion. She was no teacher. She’d run rings around her teachers. And besides, a voice that sounded like Clementina’s whispered in the back of her mind, what if you’re good at it? They’d surpass her.
That was something Leonin would have understood, probably even respected, but no sound made it past the knot in her throat. Finally, he made a noise of disgust. “We’re finished,” he told the husbandman. “Let us out.”
After the feverish heat of the incubatory, the air in the antechamber was clammy. Leonin didn’t look at her. He preceded her up the stairs. It wasn’t until they reached the fork in the corridor that some last shred of pride spurred her to say, “Egalitarian is a fine name.”
She couldn’t see his face. But he said, “Back in the pool, then.”
She was going soppy. The idea of three cadets and three dragons in the first flush of their new bond turned her stomach.
Clementina, once keen to court the favor of the great Lieutenant Severa Bittersea, finally began to make noises about wanting her sitting room carpet back, and after the incident in the incubatory, Severa was ready to oblige her. The following month, when Hevery finally approved her pension, she pocketed the first envelope, donned the only blouse and real skirt and coat she owned, rolled her scanty effects into a carpetbag scrounged from supply, took a last swig from her laudanum bottle for luck, and let herself out the staffers’ door.