The Widow's House

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For Kat and Scarlet

PrologueInys, the Last Dragon

The dragon rose.

With every stroke of his great wings, his sinews creaked. Before—only hours before, it seemed—he had flown this same coast, this same air, with ease. Now, rising above the ice-cracking waves taxed him. The strength he assumed was gone, and the weakness was also testimony that all his worst fears were true. He set his jaw and pressed himself up, up, up, rising to clouds that frosted his scales as he touched them. Brown earth and green water stretched below him. The snow on the ground matched the chill foam on the wave tops, and he labored.

Before—only hours, moments—the war had been at its height. The trap he had set for his mad brother, the last, desperate hope for victory, had been in its final phase. All that had remained was to convince his imperial brother that he, Inys, the last of their clutch, had died in the fall of Aastapal. And then, when mad Morade went to the island to claim his victory, to mount one last attack and drive Morade and his allies deep into the palaces and laboratories, and sink the island.

All would drown as one.

Inys had sent his friends, his lover, and the servants he trusted most to accomplish what he could not be there to complete. His scent would have distracted Morade and turned the whole business to chaos, so he had allowed himself to be buried in a secret tomb, and invoked the silence. Morade would drown, and his unclean allies with him. The madness would end, and those who remained would come and draw him back to wakefulness. Together, they would remake the world torn to ribbons by the war. Or else Morade would survive the trap, and Inys would die there, hidden in his hole, and the world would end in a delirium made of fire and false certainties.

Those had been his hopes and his fears, only hours ago, it seemed. Days at the most. Not centuries. Not millennia.

What’s become of Drakkis Stormcrow? he had asked, and the slave—a Firstblood calling himself Marcus Wester—had answered. Drakkis, the most brilliant general of the slave races, had fallen long ago into legend. Her name had become only a story. The Dragon Empire that formed the world—that was the world—had fallen so long ago that a full history had grown and fallen and grown again since the last time the masters of humanity had taken to the free air. Word by word, the world was unmade before him, and Inys’s great breast filled with disbelief, and then fear, and then rage. And yet this Marcus Wester who had woken him had one of the tainted at his side, and so nothing he said could be trusted. But he had also held a culling blade. By what madness could the corruption and its cure stand side by side together if not the erosion of strange ages…?

Nothing could be certain unless it was seen and smelled, touched and tasted. If Morade’s weapons showed anything, it was that any report or story might be false. The ages might not have slipped away while Inys lay in the silence, dead as stone but dreaming. Morade might live. Erex might. Even Drakkis Stormcrow, short-lived though her race was, might. Might.

But the thin winter air was empty of dragon scent.

Inys pumped, lifting his body, and thinking against his will that his weakness was evidence that the Firstblood slave Marcus Wester had spoken truth. Inys did not know how many years a dragon had to abide in the silence to grow weak as a hatchling, and yet it had to be many. The silence had taken Sannyn for a century, and she had risen from it as from a night’s rest. Her scales had been undimmed, her laughter as bright and as violent. Inys remembered her as he pushed himself—almost inch by inch, it felt—through air he should have owned. So perhaps the ages had passed. Perhaps the world was new and different and strange.

Still, even if it had been so terribly long, was he not evidence that dragonflesh could weather time itself? Might the same silence have taken others? Or perhaps there were new dragons carrying through the generations, and his incomplete death had simply dulled his senses so that he could not find them.

The land came into sight below him again, the coastline familiar only in the manner of a rough outline. The bays and heights had changed from the ones he knew. There, where the great body of the land curved to the north, had once been a thin spine of stone, just large enough for two dragons to perch upon, wings folded against each other, thick tails entwined. There, he and Erex had first pledged their love. Flying above the water now, he saw no sign of it. The waves themselves denied that it had ever been. The panic in Inys’s heart shifted, but he would not let himself descend to sorrow.

Not yet.

He shifted his wings, catching the updraft from the seaside cliffs and riding the rough and unsteady air. With every turn of his gyre, more became clear. To the south, a slave town stank of weak, cold fires. Wood and coal. The thin green thread of a slave path snaked across the ground. The island, if it stood, would be north and west. The hive would be out of Inys’s way, but it was so near, and the twin spurs of curiosity and fear bit his flanks.

It was a large town, and poorly designed. The slaves that traveled its streets were scattered. If there was a central task for them, it was unclear. There was a harbor with oddly made ships, a dozen or more spaces inside the town walls where work might be done but wasn’t. The air had a rich stink of a thousand different things—tanners and dyers and launderers’ yards, forge-hot iron and butchered meat. No purpose seemed to organize its streets, no design gave it meaning. Above the town where a true city would have had perches and feeding tables, there was nothing. If Inys had been set to create an image to capture the idea of a civilized animal that had gone feral, it would have been this.

Grief rose in his throat, and he turned away to the north. At the edge of the land, he sloped down for a moment, landing beside a rounded hut that stank of fish and slave. Birds and tiny winged lizards squeaked and fluttered and fled. Fatigue dragged him toward the bare, frost-hardened earth. His wings settled to the frozen ground and he felt no urge to lift them. He felt the despair beginning to stir in his heart and closed his eyes against it. He could not afford to feel anything, not yet. Exhaustion pulled at him, bearing him down toward a black and dreamless sleep. He let it take him.

Dreams came to him, inchoate and disturbing. He felt himself calling out in them, but could not say to whom, or to what end.

“The fuck are you doing on my land?”

Inys opened an eye. The Jasuru slave held a fisherman’s axe in his broad hand, and poorly tanned furs were tied around him for warmth. His black tongue rolled behind pointed teeth, and the bronze of his scales caught the sunlight. The fear-smell was rich. Inys opened the other eye.

“Get on! I’m not afraid of you. This is my place, you get out of it!”

Inys popped the slave’s belly with a foreclaw and watched the amber eyes go first wide and then dull. His grandfather’s sister had made the Jasuru centuries before he’d been hatched, but not as fishers. They had been pen-keepers of the other slaves, freeing the dragons of that generation to take on other work than the dull maintenance of their servant races. They had been meant as honorable servants, halfway between the minimally altered Firstblood and the dragons themselves. As the slave died, Inys recalled the bronze of his grandfather’s sister’s scales, much the same color. The sharpness of her teeth. The blackness of her mouth. It was an aspect of her design that she placed a part of herself within her creation, as he had put something of himself into the black-chitined Timzinae. The weapon he had brought to the war. His answer to the chaos and madness of Morade’s slave-corrupting blood spiders.

He chewed the corpse thoughtfully. The blood was hot and salty, the bones delicate and crisp. It was terrible that the three brothers and clutch-mates had turned the beauty and elegance of design against one another. To think what they might have accomplished if only Inys had not been so young. If his pranks had not struck so near his brother’s heart. Or if Morade, in his rage and brilliance, had not seen how deeply the others had come to rely on the slave races they had created. When Morade’s vengeance came, the blow fell where none expected it. Not in the wide, smoking air of battle, not at first. But in the lowest. With his blood spiders, he maddened the slaves until all order fell away. Only then did the full scale of his vengeance come clear.

And so perhaps there was something of his brother in the corrupted, just as there was something of h ...

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