The City as a Heart
Jandra looked down at her notes on the thick oak table beside her. “Unlatch safety,” was underlined. “One second delay between spark and shot,” was underlined twice. “Keep butt of gun against shoulder,” had four thick lines beneath it.
She looked back across the spacious loft at the target, a round wooden shield balanced atop a stool about fifty feet away, with a feather mattress behind it, and a thick brick wall behind that. She braced herself as she aimed, gritting her teeth as she pressed the butt of the weapon firmly against her bruised shoulder. She pulled the trigger. There was a flash, a hiss, a curl of peppery smoke, then BOOM. The force rattled every bone in her body, but she kept her balance. A cloud of thick white smoke in front of her hid the target for a few seconds. When it dispersed, she found the target gone, reduced to splinters jutting from the feather mattress. A few puffs of down floated in the air.
“Bull’s-eye,” said Burke. “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
Anza had her fingers in her ears. Her nose wrinkled as the acrid smoke reached her.
“Does it have to be so loud?” Jandra asked.
“Yes,” said Burke. “The cannon I’m building will be even louder. It’s the sound of the future, girl. Get used to it.”
Jandra tried reloading the weapon the way Burke had shown her, stuffing the wad of powder-filled cotton down the barrel with the ramrod, then stuffing the shot bag in with it. She tapped some fresh powder into the flash pan, and inserted a new fuse.
“This isn’t exactly a fast weapon to reload,” said Jandra.
“I’m still working on a percussion-activated cartridge,” said Burke. “In the Human Age, guns took centuries to refine. I had a week.”
“I wasn’t criticizing your work.”
Burke sighed. “Sorry if I’m defensive. I’ve had almost no sleep in the last week. It’s got me on edge.”
“Is your leg keeping you awake?”
“That’s part of it. The bigger part is trying to keep this town running. Ragnar’s management skills are somewhat lacking. He had no plans for securing resources like food and water, let alone coal and ore. We’ve had some lucky breaks so far, but it’s only a matter of time before the dragons reorganize and set up a blockade. It’s what I would do. Holding onto the town isn’t enough. We have to be able to project force.”
Anza set up a new target, the top of a crate on which the crude outline of an earth-dragon had been drawn. Jandra looked toward the fireplace, where Lizard, the earth-dragon child, sat on the hearth, staring at the flames. The scales on his back shifted slowly through shades of dull orange and red. If Lizard had been frightened by the rifle shot, he didn’t show it. She wondered if he’d even recognized the outline on the board. Once Anza was clear, Jandra pulled the trigger again. She clenched her jaw as the fuse sizzled… BLAM! Her shoulder felt bruised down to the bone. Again, though, she was pleased with the results. The target was shredded.
“Okay,” Jandra said, lowering the gun. “This gives me the firepower I need if I get into a bad spot. And, I still have this if I need to turn invisible.” She raised her left arm, sporting the silver bracelet, the ring of invisibility she’d created for her sun-dragon friend Hex. Her former friend, to be exact, now that Hex had stolen her genie, the source of her powers. Jandra had charged the bracelet with enough reflective nanites to work a half-dozen times. Hex had used it once, to her knowledge, meaning she had five chances to vanish from sight if needed.
Burke said, “Anza will be along to help remove obstacles. I’m also sending Vance.”
“Vance?” Jandra asked. Anza glanced up from the stack of targets, looking as if she, too, was surprised by this news. “The short guy with the bad mustache? Why him?”
“He’s the best archer we have with a skywall bow,” said Burke. “Also, I like him. He’s got a good heart. I trust him.”
Anza made a flurry of hand signals toward her father. Burke frowned. “How can you say he’s just a kid? I think he’s the same age you are. He’s definitely older than Jandra. He’s going. I don’t have the energy to discuss it further.”
Anza scowled. Though Anza’s feelings were easy to interpret at the moment, Jandra worried more about Anza as a companion than Vance. Anza didn’t speak, and Jandra didn’t understand her hand signals. Without Burke around to translate, she was worried about how they were supposed to communicate. Jandra was also worried about Burke’s health. He was sweating despite the frigid drafts that cut through the loft. If she still had her powers, healing his leg would be a simple matter. She was frustrated that he had to be in such pain.
There was a knock on the floor. The trap door swung open, revealing the bald pate of Burke’s chief foreman, a portly fellow everyone called Biscuit. “I know you said no visitors, Burke, but I think you’re gonna want to talk to this guy. He says he’s an escaped slave from the College of Spires. Used to work for Chapelion himself.”
Burke raised an eyebrow. “Of course. Bring him up.”
The man who followed Biscuit up through the trap door was dressed in a fine red coat with shiny metal buttons. The coat was mud-flecked and covered with brambles and small rips. Despite the poor state of the coat, it reminded Jandra of the finery she used to have access to growing up in the palace. Unlike many of the rough, rugged rebels who populated Dragon Forge, the new arrival looked as if he had at least a passing familiarity with soap. His bright orange hair was pulled back into a short braid with a black ribbon. He was young, in his early twenties perhaps, quite tall despite his atrocious posture, and too thin for his height. His face had a slightly feminine quality, perhaps due to the unusual fullness of his lips; his cheeks were dotted with freckles.
The new arrival cleared his throat. “You must be Kanati,” he said, addressing Burke. “My name is Shay. I can’t believe I’ve actually found you.”
“Nobody calls me Kanati anymore,” said Burke. “I left that name behind when I fled Conyers. I don’t miss it. Call me Burke.”
“By whatever name, it’s an honor, sir,” Shay said, crossing the room and extending his hand. Burke reached out and grasped it, giving it a good shake. “Chapelion wrote the history of the battle of Conyers. Even though Chapelion wrote from the perspective of the victors, you remain a sympathetic character in his narrative. Chapelion respects genius.”
Burke cocked his head. “You can read?”
“Yes sir,” said Shay. “Chapelion used me as a living quill. He would dictate his books while eating his dinner, or taking his bath, or simply walking the grounds of the College. I faithfully followed behind, recording his every thought. In the hours when his duties took him elsewhere, I had access to his private collection of books, some of the rarest manuscripts in the kingdom.”
“How rare?” asked Burke.
“From the Human Age.”
Shay slipped his leather pack from over his shoulder and sat it on the floor. “I stole several works from Chapelion before I escaped,” he said, pulling out books one by one. The tomes looked ancient; Jandra noted the titles: The Origin of Species, The Wealth of Nations, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Leviathan. The fifth book was comparatively new— A Glorious Victory: The Defeat of the Southern Uprising. Shay held this book out to Burke. “I’ve marked the pages documenting your role in the rebellion.”
Burke didn’t reach to take the book. “Why would any man want to read a catalog of his failures? My sole claim to fame before Dragon Forge has been losing a rebellion.” Burke shook his head, then glanced toward the fireplace. “Now I fear the next history written about me will say I learned nothing from my mistakes. They’ll note how poorly planned our uprising was, and how little thought was given to what would come after we took Dragon Forge.” He took off his spectacles and cleaned them on his shirt. “It’s bad enough that people who don’t read history fail to learn from it; how much worse is it that the men who lived it are unable to gain any wisdom?”
“The blow you struck here is still echoing through the kingdom,” said Shay. “The dragon hierarchy is on the verge of collapse. Sun-dragons plot to seize advantage over other sun-dragons in this time of turmoil. And now, Chapelion has allied himself with the valkyries and plots to overthrow Androkom as High Biologian, risking a civil war among the colleges. The dragons are so busy with their intrigues, you may never face an attempt to retake Dragon Forge.”
Burke shook his head. “We can’t count on that. If it does work out that way, I still don’t expect to wind up as a hero in anyone’s history. Ragnar is going to get all the glory.”
As if the sound of Ragnar’s name had summoned him, a voice boomed from below: “All glory belongs to God!” The elevator that carried Burke’s chair up to the loft rattled as the chains lifted it. The bushy, unkempt mane of hair that wreathed Ragnar’s leathery face came into view. As usual, Ragnar was naked. He’d taken a sacred vow not to wear clothes or cut his hair until the last dragon was slain. His body was crisscrossed with scabs, souvenirs from the battle to capture Dragon Forge.
Jandra cast her gaze at his feet. Ragnar was her brother, though they’d been raised apart. As an orphan, she’d dreamed her whole life of finding a blood relative, someone who would instantly resonate as a member of her true family. Now that she’d found one, it had left her feeling even more orphaned than before.
Ragnar hadn’t arrived alone. He was surrounded by eight burly warriors in armor he’d taken to calling his Mighty Men. The biggest of these, Stonewall, was a true giant—easily seven feet tall and thickly muscled. Unlike the other Mighty Men, veterans of battle whose grizzled faces were marred with scars, Stonewall’s face was pristine, youthful, and clean-shaven, beneath wavy black locks.
Frost, the man she’d shot, stepped from behind Stonewall, looking furious. His head was wrapped in bandages, and brown blood stained the cotton gauze where his ear had been. Jandra felt a twinge of guilt; she’d only intended to frighten Frost. If she still had her powers, she could have grown him a new ear. Of course, she would likely have been denounced as a witch for the effort.
“Burke,” Ragnar growled. “My tolerance has limits. Your usefulness as a weapon maker doesn’t give you the right to shelter a witch. This is to be a holy city; turn over Jandra, that she may face the fitting punishment for her kind.”
Jandra used the ramrod to slide a new bag of powder down the muzzle of the gun.
“I’m not a witch,” she said, calmly. “And I’m not Burke’s to turn over.”
“If you’re innocent you have nothing to fear,” said Stonewall. His voice was as deep and smooth as a sun-dragon’s. “There are tests we will apply to determine whether or not you’ve been touched by the devil.”
Jandra pushed a bag of shot into the gun.
Suddenly, there was a heavy weight clawing up her back. Lizard, the dragon-child, scrambled onto her shoulder and flashed the same shade of green as her coat.
“No eat! No eat!” he hissed at Frost.
“And now you harbor dragons?” asked Ragnar.
“Where did that come from?” Shay asked, approaching Jandra. “Did it just change color?”
“He was sitting by the fireplace,” said Jandra. “He blends into the background when he’s not moving.”
“Remarkable,” said Shay. “The chameleon mutation is exceedingly rare; fewer than one in ten thousand earth-dragons display it. When he’s fully grown, he’ll become part of the assassin unit known as the Black Silence.”
Jandra already knew more than she wanted to know about these assassins. She’d nearly died when one of them had slit her throat.
“If he’s one of those monsters, it’s all the more reason to kill him,” said Frost.
“And all the more proof that you are a witch,” growled Ragnar.
“Consorting with dragons doesn’t make one a witch,” Shay argued. “I’ve been a slave of dragons since birth, yet I’m not a witch. I’ve come to volunteer for the cause. I confess I’m lacking as a warrior, but I have other skills that may prove useful. I’ve brought books, great works from the Human Age.” He held up a tome by Charles Darwin in one hand and by Adam Smith in the other. “If there are children here, I could set up a school. I want to lay the foundation for a new golden age of humanity.”
Ragnar walked toward Shay, his eyes contemplating the books. He picked up the copy of The Origin of Species. The book was over a thousand years old. Shay held his breath as Ragnar opened the yellowed pages. Jandra’s finely tuned eyes could see the dust that showered down from the book as it was opened, fine flecks of the ancient paper crumbling away.
“It’s very fragile,” Shay said softly, as if fearing that his own breath might damage the pages. “Please be careful. I intend to transcribe it before I—”
“The world needs only one book,” Ragnar said, closing the pages with a violent clap. He flung the tome into the fireplace.
Shay sucked air, as if he’d been punched in the stomach. He dived for the fireplace, reaching into the bright flames to retrieve the book. He snatched it out, but it was too late. The ancient paper flared as quickly as gunpowder in a flash pan. In seconds, all that remained of the manuscript was a mound of black ash.
“You monster!” Shay, shouted, spinning around, his fists clenched. “Do you know what you just destroyed?”
“Useless old words by a man long dead,” said Ragnar. His Mighty Men drew their swords, ready to strike if Shay approached.
Jandra raised her gun. Frost stepped back behind Stonewall.
“Stop this!” Burke snapped, wincing as he shifted in his seat. “Ragnar, you’re not taking Jandra. She’s brought us the secret to gunpowder. Right now, I’m designing and testing weapons that will make the skywall bows seem like toys. She and I are the only two people who know the secret. If you so much as lay a finger on Jandra, I’ll have Anza slit my throat. I won’t use my talents in the service of a man dedicated to launching a new dark age.”
“Suicide will damn your soul to eternal torment,” Ragnar growled.
“And it will rob you of the weapons that will let mankind rule this world. I’m a pessimist, Ragnar. I’ve anticipated that you’d ruin this since the day we met. I’ve been in constant, nonstop, pain since Charkon ruined my leg. Don’t think I wouldn’t welcome death.”
Ragnar glared at Burke, as if trying to determine if the machinist was bluffing. Ragnar frowned; no doubt in his mind all heathens were unstable enough to kill themselves out of spite. The prophet turned his gaze toward Jandra. Lizard hissed at the hairy man. Glowering, Ragnar looked toward Shay, then to the pile of books beside the leather backpack.
“Take the books,” he barked to Stonewall.
“No!” said Shay, rushing to grab the pile.
“Let him have the books,” Burke snapped. Anza leapt forward, sword drawn, putting herself between Shay and the bag. She shook her head slowly as she eyed Shay.
“These may be the only copies of these books left in the world,” Shay said, on the verge of begging. “You can’t let him take them.”
“Books aren’t equal to human lives,” Burke grumbled. “Ragnar, take the books. Use them to wrap fish for all I care. As for Jandra, she’s leaving Dragon Forge before nightfall. You won’t have to worry about her witching up any more of your men.”
“I’ll allow her to leave,” Ragnar said, “provided she doesn’t return.”
“Fine,” said Burke.
“But—” said Jandra.
“Drop it,” Burke said, through gritted teeth. It was obvious that the stress of the encounter was causing him great pain.
Stonewall gathered up the books and went to Ragnar’s side. Ragnar and his Mighty Men turned and went back to the elevator. He glanced back over his shoulder.
“Burke,” he said. “Don’t think I will tolerate your blasphemy indefinitely. I can be pushed too far.”
“So can I,” said Burke, narrowing his eyes. The elevator rumbled, lowering Ragnar and his men from view.
Shay fell to his knees in front of the charred remains of the book on the hearth. “This book survived twelve centuries, only to vanish at the whim of a fanatic. Why did you give him the books, Kanati? I would have thought you, of all people, would have valued those writings. Aren’t you one of the Anudahdeesdee? The tribe that calls itself the Memory?”
“The Anudahdeesdee have copies of all the books you showed me,” said Burke. “I’ve got a collection of over two-hundred manuscripts in the basement of my tavern. The physical books you lost were rare, but the information inside them is more than just the paper they’re printed on. Information is essentially immortal with a little technological assistance. At my tribal home beyond the mountains, my people maintain an old press to preserve copies of essential works. We lost nothing here today.”
Shay perked up. “There’s a printing press in human control? That’s fantastic! I wish I could see it.”
“Maybe you can,” said Burke. “You aren’t going to be on Ragnar’s list of favorite people. You should get out of here tonight. Go with Jandra and Anza. They’ll be passing through Burke’s Tavern, my adopted hometown. Assuming the town is still standing, and hasn’t fallen victim to reprisals by retreating earth-dragons, there’s a map in my basement that would be of interest to you. It contains instructions on how to go to my homeland. It’s coded, but Anza can give you the key.”
“But… but I only just arrived,” said Shay. “I came to fight for the liberty of mankind.”
“Stay here and you’ll get your throat cut in your sleep by one of the Mighty Men,” said Burke. “You’ve never held a sword in your life, have you?”
Shay lowered his head, looking embarrassed. “No, sir.”
“You’re lucky I’ve already forged the pieces to make a second shotgun,” said Burke. “The beauty of a gun is the way it equalizes the slave and the warrior. Let me get the crew to assemble it and whip you up an ammo belt. I’ll send you off with Anza, Jandra, and Vance.”
Shay looked as if he were about to argue further, but held his tongue. Lizard, still on Jandra’s shoulder, stared intently as Burke rolled his wheeled chair over to the elevator and pulled the lever to raise the cage.
“Strong boss,” the little dragon whispered, sounding awed.
Vulpine drifted on the winds high above Dragon Forge, with Balikan a few yards off his left wing. Reports were that the sky-wall bows could reach a mile, and Vulpine took care to stay well beyond that range. He could see scores of humans armed with bows crowded onto the thick stone walls that surrounded the town. They watched him closely, though he knew at this distance he was little more than a speck.
“They look rather alert,” said Balikan.
“Alert enough,” said Vulpine. “This is why the brute strength, head-on approach of the sun-dragons was doomed to failure. Shandrazel was too eager to prove his strength and crush the rebellion in a grand slaughter, the way his father crushed the rebellion at Conyers. If he’d been more patient, he could have broken this insurgency without spilling a drop of dragon blood.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Balikan. “He had catapults in his army with a greater range than the bows. He could have lobbed in barrels of flaming pitch and burned the town to the ground.”
Vulpine shook his head. “There’s a difference between destroying Dragon Forge and reclaiming it.”
Vulpine motioned with his head, inviting Balikan to follow his gaze. Dragon Forge wasn’t a large town. The fortress was diamond-shaped, encompassing roughly one square mile of earth. Save for a few broad avenues, the interior of the fortress was cramped with buildings built on top of buildings, so that one dragon’s floor was another dragon’s roof. Three smokestacks dominated the skyline of Dragon Forge, belching plumes of ash high into the sky.
Outside of the walls there were hundreds of heaps of rusting metal dotting the low red hills, the raw material of the foundries. Amid these heaps were hovels where gleaners lived, among the poorest humans in the kingdom.
Threading through these heaps were four major roads. All were busy with traffic. In the absence of dragons, humans throughout the kingdom rushed to Dragon Forge. Some of this traffic, though, wasn’t here for the rebellion. Mule trains hauling wagon loads of coal wound along the western road. They cared little who bought their wares, be it human or dragon.
Along the southern side of Dragon Forge there was a river; a canal had been dug long ago to divert water into the city, where a water wheel powered the bellows that fanned the foundries. The water also served to flush the gutters and sewers of the town — crude but effective sanitation. In addition to this water, Vulpine could see a large well at the center of the town. The rebels wouldn’t perish from thirst. “With the right eyes, you can see the city as a heart. The roads and rivers serve as arteries and veins, carrying in the lifeblood, carting off the waste. Choke off the roads and the city dies.”
“But by now the rebels will have been stocking up on supplies. They could hold out for weeks, or months.”
“And is the world suddenly in short supply of weeks and months?” asked Vulpine.
Balikan clamped his mouth shut, looking properly chastised.
“In any case, I don’t think they will hold out for months,” said Vulpine. “Humans lack the capacity for long-term planning we sky-dragon’s possess. Presented with a blockade, with food and resources dwindling, they will likely turn on themselves in short order, especially once plague breaks out.”
“If plague breaks out,” said Balikan. “I must admit, it looks as if they are doing a fair job of keeping the town clean.”
“This need not be something left to chance,” said Vulpine. “Let’s pay a visit to the Nest. It’s only thirty miles away and a few dozen valkyries can easily blockade the western road and cut off the coal supply. The valkyrie engineers can also block off the canal feeding water into the town. After that, we’ll follow the Forge Road back to the Palace to confer with Chapelion and get the authority to gather all the elements I need to truly solve this problem.”
“Will he grant us this authority? We’re slavecatchers, not soldiers.”
“After I tell him his books are in the fort,” said Vulpine, “he’ll give me every last soldier in the kingdom.”
Author's notes: I've been accused of Christian-bashing in the past, and I can't help but think that this chapter will contribute to my reputation as a heretic. Burning books is probably the most villianous thing you can have a character do. Killing people is so common in books (at least in my books!) that it doesn't cause most readers to bat an eye. I'd like to preemptively say that Ragnar doesn't represent all Christians any more than Burke represents all indians, or Jandra represents all humans raised by dragons. Well, okay, maybe Jandra does deserve that label. To me, Ragnar's underlying religion isn't important. Ragnar instead represents a fundamentalist mindset that plagues many religions. He has more in common with the Taliban than with, say, James Dobson.
For what it's worth, as the book unfolds I'll try to balance Ragnar's extremism with a second professed Christian character who espouses a more liberal philosophy. Also, Burke, an avowed rationalist, is going to find himself facing a crisis of faith as he encounters evidence that there's more to a man than just his body. Stay tuned.
For those of you keeping track of religious references in my stories, the Mighty Men draw their name from the band of rebels that David built around him when Saul was trying to kill him.
Aside from ratcheting up the tension between Burke and Ragnar, my big goal for this chapter was to introduce Shay to Burke, Anza, and Jandra. Their intertwining plot threads drive the action for the first half of the book. For those of you wondering where Bitterwood, Zeeky, Hex, and Blasphet might be lurking, many are still a few chapters away, but rest assured they make up for lost time once they do appear. At least one of them drops in for a scene in the next chapter.
The second half of the chapter focuses on Vulpine and drops hints as to his plan to reclaim Dragon Forge. I think the most insightful line into his character comes when he asks, “And is the world suddenly in short supply of weeks and months?” Vulpine is someone who thinks in the long term. I find his calm patience both his most admirable attribute, and also the most chilling, given his goals.