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The Sign of the Dragon

by Mary Soon Lee

Recent news: my poems Returning, Not Like This and First Lesson are in The 2017 Rhysling Anthology.

The Sign of the Dragon is an epic fantasy about King Xau, chosen by a dragon to be ruler, and what it costs him. The story is presented in the form of poems, a dozen of which may be read below. The beginning of the epic, Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon, Book 1, may be purchased from Amazon or Dark Regions Press. Crowned includes wonderful illustrations by M. Wayne Miller.

Information about the author is available on her antiquated home page.



INTERREGNUM
(first published in Star*Line)
(winner of the 2014 Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem)

Sixteen years old, fourth son,
still they sent him to the mountain

together with his brothers
before their father's body stiffened,

the kingdom suspended without a king:
four princes, one crown

(a crown he had no use for,
a crown of war, alliances, duty).

He slept on straw near his horse,
displacing the stableboy,

waited for his eldest brother to return
triumphant, ready for the throne--

then brother after brother vanished
into rock and ice and cloud.

The steward took his sword,
his shield, sent him out at dusk:

no torch, no guide, no horse,
no servant, no food, no water.

Snow deepened under his boots;
he waded through drifts,

fell once, twice. The wind mocked him;
he thought of the warm stable,

the bed of straw, his horse,
sleep -- but sleep meant death,

so he stumbled on. The wind
called his brothers' names.

He shouted back his own name;
the wind laughed. Snow fell.

He walked half-blind; sleet kissed
his forehead. The wind said sleep.

He sang to drown it, sang hymns,
nursery songs, drinking songs,

dirges, ballads, marching tunes,
the love songs his mother had favored

(she who was bartered for peace
to a man she'd never met).

He fell, pushed himself upright,
saw a black cloud speed against the wind.

She landed beside him, her breath ash,
snow steaming from her wings.

He knelt, but did not beg,
and asked after his brothers.

"One slept. One fought. One pissed
himself. They didn't taste like kings."

She laughed. "And you? What will you
pay for a crown, little princeling?"

"Nothing. I don't want it."
She flamed, and he saw himself reflected

in her scales, a kneeling, shivering boy.
"Then why," she asked, "are you here?"

"Because they sent me." He stopped. "No."
He was so tired, he couldn't think--

"Because the kingdom needs a king."
He struggled to his feet.

"And what will you pay for the crown,
little princeling? Gold? Men? A song?"

"My freedom!" he shouted at her.
"Well," she said, "that's a start."

                    *

Years later, on a spring morning,
his queen asked, greatly daring,

about the woman whose name he cried
in his sleep. "Not a woman," he said,

his heart on the mountain
where he entered his kingship.

Illustration Illustration by M. Wayne Miller



GUARDED
(first published in "Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon, Book 1")

Waking, that first morning,
in the king's bed--his bed--
dawn brightening the paper windows,
Xau saw the guard, Gan,
standing in the same position
he had been in when Xau fell asleep.
(Had he stood there all night?
Or silently paced the room?
What if he'd needed to piss?)
Xau didn't know what to say,
but he would not say nothing.
Xau got out of bed, bowed to Gan,
poured a cup of water:
"Thank you. Are you thirsty?"

Gan stared at the boy, the king,
standing there in his pajamas
holding out a cup of water
to him, the guard.
A small thing,
but the boy's father
had never done it.
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
Gan bowed back,
took the cup, drank.


TRAINING: WEIGHTS
(first published in "Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon, Book 1")

Tsung, used to masking
his reactions so opponents
did not anticipate his moves,
showed none of his disappointment
as he assessed the boy
who would be both his charge
and his student:
sixteen years old,
close to full height,
but the boy could not even lift
the medium-weight bar.

Clear then to Tsung that the boy
was not his father's equal,
was not his brothers' equal.
Un-muscled, overlooked
fourth son.
Now king.

The boy, Xau,
struggled to hold the lightest bar,
sheened in sweat,
arms trembling,
but at least he held it,
didn't use his newfound rank
to demand a rest.

Small consolation
to carry away
when training was done,
when Tsung instructed the guards
who would protect the boy
for the rest of the day,
when Tsung himself returned
to his darkened room
and burned incense
for Xau's father,
the weight of that loss
hard to lift.


SUCCESSION
(first published in Red Rock Review)

One king dead, a new one crowned.
The royal court seething with rumors,
fibs, fears, fancies, phantasms, fictions.

Gossip for innkeepers, beer drinkers,
wine merchants, vintners, sots, soldiers,
servants, slatterns, strumpets.

Mothers name their sons for the new king;
little girls name toys after him;
little boys crown themselves with twigs.

The royal bees in the royal hives
huddle in clusters, shivering,
waiting for spring, ignorant of kings.


THE HORSE LORD
(first published in Ideomancer)

Three months into his kingship,
the young king rode to claim fealty
from the horse lords.

They bowed to King Xau,
their braided hair swinging
like so many horse tails.
Though their leader bowed with the others,
Xau read in his eyes a mocking amusement.

"Such a great King," said the horse lord,
"such fine armor, so many soldiers.
They must think you too young
to look after yourself."
He raised a hand. "Fetch a cup
of mare's milk to help the king
grow into a man."

The counselor beside Xau
made the finger motion for death:
he had advised Xau again and again
to assert authority early.

Xau had but to order his archers
to shoot the horse lord,
a word, a gesture, quickly over,
but Xau said instead, "Save the milk
for your many and excellent children.
Let the two of us walk to the hills--"

"Sire!" said the counselor.

"It is their custom, is it not?"
said the king. "You taught us that."

"It is our custom," said the horse lord.
"Yet your father never honored it."

"Sire!" said his counselor.
"You are the ruler of these men,
not one of them.
Their ways are not our ways!"

The king said to the horse lord,
"Before we take your horses for our wars,
we will honor your custom."

The horse lord bowed,
and this time the king saw no sign of mockery.
They set aside their weapons, their armor,
left the king's entourage
gabbling behind them.

They walked to the hills,
drinking from each other's water bottles.
The king knew they might meet bears ... or dragons,
that even wolves could kill them both.
He didn't care.
He was fed up with prudence, politics, protocol,
people prostrating themselves.

A clear, cold night.
Trees silhouetted by the half moon.
No wolves howled. No bears prowled.
No dragons threatened.
But sometime after midnight
the wild horses came:
first a pounding of hooves,
then the smell, heat, breath of them:
forty, fifty, too many to count.

The horse lord knelt
while Xau went from horse to horse,
speaking to them,
laying his hands on them.
At his touch, the horses
lowered their heads.
All night, more horses came.

At dawn, the two men saw below them
the hillside covered in horses.

Eighteen hundred horses followed them back
to the other horse lords (who prostrated themselves)
and the king's soldiers (who cheered)
and his counselors (who looked peeved).
In front of all these people
the horse lord bowed so low
that his braid brushed the dirt.

"Your horses are in our heart,"
said the king. "We will ride them to war,
but we will not squander their lives."

And Xau gave one of the horses,
a black stallion,
to the horse lord,
who rode it and none other
for the rest of his life.

Illustration Illustration by M. Wayne Miller



TUTOR
(first published in Rune)

"That turned out rather well,"
said King Xau, triumphant,
happy as I'd ever seen him.

The other counselors
studied the patterned rug
on the floor of his tent.
Even Artoch, who had shouted
at the King two days ago,
had nothing left to say since
the King's rashness had led,
most regrettably,
to success.

"Good outcomes are not proof
of good decisions," I said.

"So you think our decision was poor?"

"Very."

"What should we have done then?"
King Xau directed the full beaming force
of his pleasure upon me--
the lowest of his counselors,
there only as a courtesy
for having drummed
the barest hint of algebra
into his royal head
when he was the least and youngest
of four princes.
"Should we have killed him as Artoch wished?"

"Yes," I said. "Or ridiculed him--
cut off his braid, or spanked his bottom,
or merely laughed at him."

"So we could make an enemy rather than a friend?"
He looked decidedly less pleased.
"So we could take his horses by force,
rather than having them come to us?"

"So you could live."

All trace of pleasure left him.
I imagined what he would have said
had the two of us been alone--
that it wasn't a life he wanted,
neither prudence nor diplomacy nor war.
He wore power well, but he wasn't one
who craved it, not like his eldest brother.
In another world, he might have been
a farrier or a groom.
In this world, he stalked out of the tent.

"That turned out rather poorly," I offered.

"Perhaps," said Artoch. "But what you said
needed to be said."

"Perhaps," I said. "But he's unlikely
to thank me for it."

"Where do you think he went?" said Artoch.

"To his horses."

When the King returned, a long while later,
I saw by the quietness in his face
that I had guessed correctly.

"There are lessons we do not like to learn."
He nodded first to me, then to Artoch.
"We will ... strive to be more cautious,
but we will not hide.
We will not watch from the hilltop
while our soldiers fight our battles below us."
He sat down cross-legged on the rug.
"Sit with us. Eat with us. But no more advice.
Not tonight."

It is hard not to admire him,
but I do my best not to show it.


"Tutor" (above) takes place 3 months into the story. Five months later, immediately after the end of Xau's first war, comes "The Matter of the Horses" (below).

THE MATTER OF THE HORSES
(first published in Ideomancer)
(nominated for the 2015 Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem)

General Qiang stood in King Xau's tent
with the king's other generals
and the king's advisors
and the king's guards
and the king's serving boy
and the king himself,
the tent crowded with men,
rank with sweat.

The young king sat on a stool,
his left arm in a sling,
a grimness about him
that matched Qiang's own mood
though the war was over,
the victory theirs,
the king's advisors jubilant.

Qiang hadn't slept last night.
Had tried to sleep. Failed.
Yesterday's battle still with him.
The horses. Mud, rain, blood.

In the tent, the talk moved
to the matter of the horses,
to how it could be exploited
for conquest.

"No," said the king.
One word enough to quiet the tent.
"We do not crave conquest."

"Even so," said an advisor,
"we should test the limits
of your control over the horses,
the better to employ it for defense."

The advisor turned to Qiang.
"General, how would you proceed?"

Qiang looked at the advisor,
a man who'd never fought a single battle,
who'd sheltered in a tent yesterday,
warm and dry,
while rain cascaded from Qiang's saddle, his armor,
turning earth and horse-shit to stinking mud,
Qiang riding on the king's right
(the king, injured, unable to hold a shield,
but still riding),
Qiang's horse maneuvering beneath him
before he even gave the commands,
all the horses in perfect unison
as if they were a thousand shadows
of a single faultless form--
a thing out of legend,
out of the old times
when dragons flew to King Nariz
and demons walked the earth--
the stench,
the pounding of hooves, of Qiang's pulse,
as he rode beside the king,
as the enemy charged full at them--

And stopped.

Every horse in the Red King's army
rooted to the spot
though their riders kicked them.
Whereupon the Red King,
red-haired and red-handed in war,
screamed in his barbarous language.
And then the enemy had slaughtered
their own horses,
slitting their necks,
the horses floundering in blood--

Qiang looked at the advisor and said,
"If it were my decision,
I wouldn't test the horses.
I would let them be."

"Even if inaction now leads to defeat later?"

"Even then."

Into the stretching silence,
the king spoke:
"What happened with the horses
is not a trick to practice and parade,
but a gift. A gift the horses gave.
A gift for which many of them died."

The king's gaze rested on Qiang, anchoring him.

Qiang touched his hand to his heart,
offered it palm-up to the king,
a gesture Qiang had never made before,
the sign of allegiance of warriors
in the old tales.

The tent crowded with men,
but for that moment
only the two of them.


STABLES
(first published in Songs of Eretz Poetry Review)

In the stables,
King Xau found himself again,
or found the man
he might have been
if he had never been crowned,
never gone to war,
never led other men
to their deaths.

Half an hour at a time
squeezed between meetings
and training exercises,
the stables secured by his guards.
Only Khyert, once his stableboy,
inside to watch him groom Micha
or Pica or Narson or Romer,
to sit beside him on the feed sacks
breathing leather, manure, dust,
the scent of the horses.

Xau's words already spent
on rice farmers, ministers,
ambassadors, advisors;
on irrigation, taxation,
alliances, strategy,
so that sometimes
he had no more
than a handful of words
for the boy--
Khyert, younger even than Xau,
turned fifteen that autumn.

But sometimes they spoke
at length about the horses,
both Xau's own mounts
and the others in the stable,
about the condition of the pastures,
the chafing of a girth,
a horse off its feed,
while Khyert rubbed oil
into the saddles,
asking nothing of Xau,
then or later.

Xau listened
more than he spoke,
received more than he gave,
though he asked nothing of boy or horses
beyond their company,
but boy and horses alike offering him,
unasked and without restriction,
their hearts.


COMPANIONSHIP
(first published in Songs of Eretz Poetry Review)

Fall. Winter. Spring.
The birth of their first child.
Quiet days that quickly slip behind them.
His hand reaching for hers
after supper is cleared.
Her arm reaching for him
in her sleep.

A strategic marriage,
a political marriage.
Unasked-for, unnegotiated,
this friendship.

Shazia softly singing to their soft-cheeked son
in her own language, the words unknown to Xau,
but the string of sounds stored in his memory,
so that one night,
far from her,
on the eve of his second war,
he will remember each rolling syllable,
the way she smelled,
his son's hand fisted
round his finger.


Three years after "Companionship," comes "What Xau Remembered."

WHAT XAU REMEMBERED
(first published in Uppagus)

Not the Ritan court,
nor the twenty-foot-tall mural
round the banquet chamber;
not the Ritan princesses dancing,
nor his own queen's laughter;
but a glint of light,
a hand yanking his shoulder,
the bench toppling,
floor knocking the air from him,
so that he lay sideways, unable to breathe,
staring at pastry crumbs on polished planks
for several dazed seconds
before he understood
why two of his guards
were covering him with their bodies,
why a third guard --
Shang, his youngest guard --
sat on the floor,
an arrow wedged in his chest.

Not the Ritan soldiers
taking down the assassin,
nor the guests being
cleared from the room;
not the Ritan king
promising vengeance,
nor his own queen
checking him for injury;
but Tsung, the captain of his guards,
saying to Shang, "You're dying. You did well,"
and then the uncounted minutes
when he and Tsung knelt either side of Shang,
trying to ease him when he coughed,
but no help possible,
blood puddling on the floor,
and how the young guard's fingers
clutched at Xau's like a child's
as his lips went blue.


The next poem, "Numbers," takes place six years into the story, shortly after Xau has slain a demon....

NUMBERS
(first published in Star*Line)
(nominated for the 2015 Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem)

Later, a historian, striving for the appearance
of candor, said he couldn't determine precisely
how many people the demon burnt in their towns,
but that, by using the most meticulous methods,
he estimated between 16,020 and 16,150 perished
thus.

Seeking the authority of precision, the historian
next stated that 18,272 men, 16,164 women,
and 4,769 children followed the demon to his
island fortress and there served him in dubious
ways.

When the demon died,
fewer than two thousand
of his servants remained alive
within his fortress.

He had not hoarded his human treasure,
but spent it, singly or by the dozen,
setting servants aflame
in the dining hall.

Fewer than two thousand left
when King Xau came,
yet still the number
seemed overwhelming--

people lay collapsed in chambers,
passages, stairwells;
inert, parched, many injured,
all dying of thirst.

The same historian, a soured and stunted specimen,
dismissed King Xau's part in a peevish paragraph. He
said that doubtless the king visited the fortress,
but that the king himself saved no one, merely
ordered his soldiers to wake the dazed sufferers.

The king's soldiers tried
to rouse the survivors;
the sailors who had brought
the king to the island tried:

they could not rouse
one man, woman, child.
Instead they wet the sufferers' lips
(most swallowed, some did not),

and took them to the king --
who did not look kingly
(a fact the historian would have reported
gleefully had he guessed it).

Xau slouched, slovenly, sweat-soaked
over body after body;
his hands on chest, face, neck;
speaking, whispering, croaking.

Five died before the king
had time to help them.
Thirteen more (injured, weak)
woke, but died within days.

A few of the survivors
achieved distinction:
the glassblower from Angshan
rose to the head of his guild;

the china bowls made by one
female potter were hailed
(over a century later)
as the greatest of their age;

thirty-two men enlisted in the army,
of whom one became a captain of note.
Most returned, their names unrecorded
by history, to ordinary lives.

Curiously, when they remembered
the king kneeling over them,
each recalled a heroic figure:
young, handsome, clean, richly dressed.

Many described him as crowned,
the crowns as various as the speakers --
plain or jeweled, arched or unarched,
gold or silver or iron.

Only the soldier who carried the king
back to the ship accurately remembered
the man in his arms: smelly, shaking,
stammering, crownless but a king.


The next poem, "The Ride," takes place eleven years into the story.

THE RIDE
(first published in Star*Line)

Xau offered Hana his kingdom;
she declined.

The horse lord who ruled her tribe
ordered her to marry Xau.
Hana lay facedown in the dirt
at the horse lord's feet. And declined.

A second king,
father to Xau's dead queen,
took such offense at the possibility
of Xau replacing his daughter
with a barbarian horse-woman
that he unleashed
his assassins.

Not on Hana herself,
honorably, in open challenge--
barbarian that she was,
she would have met them
with bow and knife,
without fear, gladly--
but against King Xau by night,
by stealth, by trickery.

The captain of Xau's guards
yelled at him to flee.
Instead Xau fought
beside his men.

No mannered fencing match, no rules.
In a single minute, five men slain.
Xau himself barely scratched,
but the assassins' blades
sticky with a poison
that crept along Xau's veins
and burned him from within.
He tossed, tormented,
in the moonless country
between death and life.

So Hana rode,
rode to marry Xau
if she could reach him in time,
if he could still mouth her name,
rode though she might be widowed
the same day that she wed.

No man would tell her
whom she would or would not marry.
Not her brothers.
Not the horse lords.
Not the craven King Vihaz
whose name she cursed
as she rode.

Rode with her brothers
and two horse lords
and thirty spare horses.
No tents, no pack animals,
drinking their mares' milk,
six hundred and ninety miles
in four days;
by dawn, day, dusk, dark,
across the grasslands
into the interior of Meqing
with its paved roads
and bricks and peasants
(the peasants abandoning
their wheelbarrows to gawp
at Hana and the others).

Rode,
the horses failing one by one,
until only Hana, her eldest brother,
and six horses remained.

Rode,
not knowing if she would ever
ride again:
if Xau, should he live,
would then, having won her,
wall her up like treasure
inside his palace,
until her heart died
remembering the plains,
the smell and sound and touch
of the horses she rode to reach him.

Rode faster
than the news of her coming,
so that, at the last,
Xau's soldiers delayed her,
blocking her approach to the palace,
to Xau--who yet lived--
until she explained,
four times over,
who she was.

Surrendered her bow, her arrows,
her knife, her past,
her future
to come to the king.

Illustration Illustration by Lucy Lee-Moore



Read more of the poems: Crowned, the beginning of the epic, is available from Amazon or Dark Regions Press.

Receive the latest news: if you would like to receive email updates about The Sign of the Dragon, please send an email request to:
m a r y s o o n l e e @ g m a i l . c o m

You may also be interested in Mary Soon Lee's (antiquated) home page or her venerable Mailbox Blues.

N.B. The tale is named in honor of At the Sign of the Dragon, the lovely SF/fantasy/detective bookshop that I went to when I was growing up. The owners, Richard and Marion van der Voort, were invariably kind to me.


Last updated January 2017 by Mary Soon Lee