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Did he think she was angry, before?

Well, yes. He did think it, and he was not wrong. He had felt the slow stew of her anger, after centuries in chains below the sea; he had seen the sudden flare of it when she was suddenly free, when she destroyed a whole fleet of men and ships for their impertinence, abroad upon her waters; he had endured the storm of it when she found herself not so free after all, when she raged through the typhoon.

He had faced her in her fury more than once, eye to eye and far too close.

He still thought he had never seen her quite this angry, and entirely at him.

Little thing, you promised.

There were proverbs Han knew, teaching people how very foolish it was to make promises to a dragon.

I know I did. She loured above him, where he stood too close. I did promise, and I am sorry. I had not meant for this to happen.

She knew that, she was in his head.

Because she was in his head, she must know this too: that there were just two things he would not willingly relinquish, out of all the world. Despite all terror, and all betrayal. Tien was one of them, and actually this was the other: this constant grinding oppression of scale, this teetering always on the edge of a catastrophic fall. This revealed savagery, this terrible landscape, eternal wrath, this dragon.

He had tried to free her once, and failed. Her chains - or were they his chains? - were more than simple iron, and not so easily cut. He had promised it again, and meant it truly. And had betrayed her anyway, and now he could not free her anywhere this side of death. She was written on his skin, in some spell-crafted liquor more potent than mere ink. And that was Tien's doing altogether, and what he knew the dragon knew, and...

I will eat her. If I cannot eat you, little thing. Which they had absolutely established by now: not eat, not drown, not crush or starve or dement him into suicide, no. I will eat your vicious girl instead.

No, he said. You will not.

You cannot always keep her close. You cannot always watch her.

Right now he did not want her close. But, I don't need to, he said. The dragon was in his head, overwhelming; he was in hers, mortal and tiny and insignificant. She was written on his skin, and she could not close him out. If you go near Tien, I will know. I will not let you harm her.

Betrayal made no difference, apparently. He was no more free than the dragon; he could still not relinquish Tien.

He couldn't even match the dragon's anger. Tien understood about sacrifice, where he kicked like a rabbit in a snare. She would have sacrificed herself without a thought. Seizing an opportunity, she had sacrificed Han instead.

He knew. He had been there, helpless under her hands.

He was always helpless, it seemed, except when it came to dragons.

She said, You have to sleep, little thing. Little mortal thing. While you walk in nightmare, I will kill your girl and everything you care for.

No, he said. I don't believe you can. That part of me that rides with you, that doesn't need to sleep.

His body was the least of him, it seemed to him these days. Like the paper of a book: fit for writing on, but not itself the words. Not the idea, not the book itself. Not Han.

If that was true of him, of course it must be true of her too. If her body was a vastness, a sodden hulk that reared above him like the stormclouds of her temper, her spirit was immeasurably greater.

He felt the grip of it, and slithered free like a pip between two fingers.

He felt the mighty weight of her mind bear down on his body, cramping and cruel; he rolled writhing in the mud, all pain, all overwhelmed.

But still there was that little part of him that huddled in her head, watchful, untouched. And no mud could smear those words that Tien's needle had driven into his skin, words for sleep and stillness, that he could spill like ink into the turbulent waters of her will.

The pain was unbearable but Han bore it anyway, with something close to patience, till it ebbed. Then he dragged himself shudderingly into the stink of her where she lay slumped and barely aware, sullen and seething, a storm in a bottle.

He sat on one great sprawled foot and stared into the slit of her eye, and even that deep shimmering jade seemed clouded; and he shook his head and said, You can't. However you come at me, however you hurt me, the words will overrule you now. This isn't something we can break. Either of us.

Not till I die, he said, and my skin rots and the words rot with it. Not till then. You'll just have to wait.

You can do that, can't you? he said. Just wait. Another sixty, seventy years. You've waited centuries.

We can find a way to live, he said, for one puny mortal lifetime. The two of us together.

You might enjoy it, even, he said. Once your temper cools. It'll be like nothing else.

When you swim, he said. you'll still have to swim alone; but we can learn to fly together.

And he walked up that unresisting leg, high onto the spine of her; and settled himself like a man astride a roof-ridge and loosed her mind from the weight of his words, clinging on grimly with nothing more than his hands now as she rose..

Hidden Cities - cover image

Extract from Hidden Cities, by Daniel Fox
Del Rey, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-345-50303-9

© Daniel Fox, 2010; reproduced with permission

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