Princess Ousmani had fallen asleep in her chains, from boredom. She woke to the weight of a dragon’s head resting uncomfortably on her stomach. One rough, scaly paw kneaded her left shoulder, pricking at her skin.
Ousmani closed her eyes again. She did not believe in dragons, any more than in the afrits and djinns of her father’s homeland, or the water-demonesses of Mali, where her mother had been born. “It is a horse,” she told herself. “A large and very ugly horse.” Peering out under her long, dark lashes, she considered the dragon’s glittering snout, its gleaming, golden eyes. Its irises were formed like slits, as were the nostrils inches from her own, from which an occasional wisp of steam escaped.
“You have stopped sleeping,” the dragon said. It spoke French, a mountain dialect of course. Ousmani understood, though at first with some difficulty. The beast continued. “Why do you pretend? To fool yourself, perhaps, for you can see it is impossible to convince me.”
The princess shrugged, then winced as the tips of the dragon’s claws insinuated themselves into her shoulder. “The illusion seemed a sensible one: If I slept, I dreamt. You have spoiled it, though, and must provide another.”
“Must I?” Her ribs vibrated with its voice, which possessed an odd, dry timbre, seeming wide rather than deep.
“It seems only fair.”
“Life is not fair,” said the dragon. “Consider, for example, your plight.” It drew back its head as if doing just that.
“I must admit, it does appear to be an unfortunate one.” Princess Ousmani lay chained flat on her back, close to the edge of a precipice. She was not naked, but an unfriendly Northern chill pierced her scarlet silks. It had done so all day, except for a brief, sunny respite around noon. “My only comfort has been philosophy. But then, this has been true most of my life.”
“A most unprey-like speech. I grow increasingly intrigued,” the dragon said, consideringly. “Let us continue this conversation in an atmosphere more conducive.”
The garish head moved from her field of vision. She heard a loud hissing, felt a sudden heat in first one, then the other of her shackled wrists.
“Rise.” She tried, and found she was able to sit. The chains which had run from wrist shackles to iron bolts fixed in granite now ended in red-hot, half-melted links.
The chains which bound her feet were considerably shorter. The dragon paced closer and considered them dubiously. “I should like to melt these, too, but I fear to cause you unnecessary pain. Do you suggest another remedy?”
Unlike the others, these chains ended in a common terminus, an iron staple driven into the ground. Ousmani thought back to certain Greek texts she had recently acquired for translation; in particular a work by one Archimedes. “A stout stick, I think, will make the trick. And a stone of middling girth, flat on one side.”
The dragon dove off the precipice, then circled overhead on oily-looking wings to shout one word:
“Patience!” The Princess Ousmani wondered when, if ever, some other virtue would be urged upon her, such as courage or resourcefulness. She shivered, and not entirely with the cold. Despite her show of stoicism, the princess had never really resigned herself to death. Though rejecting as false the conclusion that because offerings made to a dragon disappeared, ergo there must be a dragon, she had made what hasty arrangements she could to be spared consumption by more prosaically horrible beasts. Barring treachery, she had expected rescue to come with the fall of night. But now it looked as though she might not be present to be rescued.
“I must just keep my wits about me,” Ousmani admonished herself. “If my perceptions remain unclouded by expectations of any sort, the possibilities inherent in the moment will present themselves to me with much more readiness.” So saying she tucked her goose-bumped arms between her satin-trousered legs and amused herself with speculations as to the range of European wolves.
It was getting dark by the time the dragon returned, dropping to the ground with a rattling clatter. The source of this sound was soon revealed: a pike, a slim, straight Frankish sword, and a badly dented helm. “I hope you don’t mind,” the dragon said, depositing his acquisitions at her feet.
“Mind? Why should I mind? They are not exactly what I asked for, but they will do most admirably.” She began scraping away the soil beneath the iron staple with the sword.
“Well, but what I meant was, the former owner of these implements is now completely incapacitated, and I thought you perhaps—”
“Might object? To the death of one of my father’s enemies?” She dropped the sword and positioned the helm, dent-side down. “Or if not, of some turncoat who persuaded him to place me as I am now?” She picked up the pike, measured it against the helm and staple, moved the helm, and inserted the butt of the pike.
“We see. Perhaps you will do the favor of explaining recent political developments in greater detail.”
“With pleasure, once we reach your conducive atmosphere, which I fervently hope will be a warm one.” The princess gave a shiver. “And now if you will be so kind as to stand upon this pike-head, I will very soon be free.” The dragon did, and it was as she had predicted. A little more scraping with the sword and the staple came up in the princess’s hands.
“Now I will take you home.”
“Is it far?” asked Ousmani, for she was hungry, cold, and despite her earlier nap, tired.
“Not far,” the dragon reassured her. “But I’m afraid it will not be possible for you to walk.”
The flight was a short one, and unspectacular. Evening mists obscured the view. Ousmani’s only impressions were of rough, rushing winds and a bone-numbing chill, combined with the dull realization that the dragon failed to crash into any unseen obstacles. She discovered as she dismounted that the dragon’s wings were quite as oily as they looked.
“You approve?” asked the dragon, as the princess gazed around its lair. A central fire revealed many-fissured walls hung with strands of jewels, and a floor of glittering white sand.
“Oh, yes,” answered Ousmani, hurrying to the fire. “Now if only—” She stopped suddenly. Perhaps it would be unwise to introduce the idea of eating. Reptiles, she remembered reading, could go for long periods without nourishment.
“If only what?”
The princess made no answer.
“But, naturally, you do not wish to appear rude. I, by corollary, do not wish to epitomize the insufficient host. If you will examine the leather wallet directly opposite you, lying against that breastplate, I believe its contents will satisfy.”
Ousmani seized the leather pouch and untied the draw-string. It held a crumbling lump of leavened bread, a withered onion, and four trapezoidal segments of some unrecognizable dried meat. Pork, probably, Ousmani thought, but she did not in the least care. It had been a day, more than twenty-four hours of the clock, since her last meal. She stuffed a brown slab in her mouth and chewed, suffusing her tongue with a delicious saltiness.
More than twenty years of training in the niceties of court conduct made themselves felt, and Ousmani spoke without thinking. “Sir, will you dine?”
“Not tonight,” replied the dragon.
This ambiguous reply renewed Ousmani’s uneasiness.
When the dragon saw that the princess had finished her meal, it directed her to a spring hidden in a recess of the cave. She returned refreshed and ready, as bid, to tell her tale.
“Kind Sir—” She faltered. “Or Madame, I know not which, and ought not to assume without scientific proofs—”
“Sir will do,” interrupted the dragon.
“Kind Sir, then, know that I am Ousmani, oldest daughter of Musa the Magnificent, third cousin twice removed to the most merciful Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abd-er Raman. I was born of my father’s third wife, Omiyinke, who also gave birth during that same night to a son, my brother Tikar. The best lawyers in Cordoba having spent several years arguing the question, they determined that as Tikar’s birth preceded mine by some minutes of the clock, our mother’s manumission took effect before I emerged into this world. Thus, at the age of ten, I was declared free.”
A susurrus escaped from the dragon at this point, and Ousmani glanced suspiciously in his direction. “Most interesting, pray to go on,” he assured her. “I was merely venting steam.”
“Owing perhaps to these early legalistic associations,” the princess continued, “my mind took an unusual turn for a woman. I immersed myself in scholarly pursuits, amassing a notable collection of scrolls, ancient and modern. My mother took no notice of this, being concerned with the advancement of my brother’s career at court. She sent various suitors my way, but when they became discouraged by my unfeminine wit, did not press matters.
“My father, however, is a different kettle of fish.” The princess paused, perplexed as to how to elucidate the nature of this paternal bouillabaisse. “Although in almost all respects a worthy man, he has a—a mania. He wants to conquer France,” she confessed.
“Languedoc?” inquired the dragon.
“No, France. All the land beyond these mountains. He says he will be the Hannibal of the Pyrenees.” Both were silent a moment out of respect for this monumental folly.
“Hannibal, I believe, failed,” said the dragon thoughtfully. “And then, if he must needs conquer, the sea would seem a less toilsome route, would it not?”
“I know. But he will not be dissuaded from his course by any counsel. The Caliph gives him leave, undoubtedly to prevent my father’s ambitions from being directed towards the throne. Also, of course, any progress he does make enlarges the Caliphate.”
“And I—I must admit I was happy in his misguided happiness, for he never seemed to care what I did. Until now.” She rose and circled the fire, standing before the armor of the fallen Frankish knight.
“Upon testimony of some captives that a dragon dwelled among these peaks, and that it demanded as sacrifice on each of four certain days of their calendar a virgin, live, and of noble blood, he decided that to secure his safe passage into France he would offer—me.” Ousmani kicked a nail-studded gauntlet, nudged it closer to the fire, watched it curl, blackening. “What better use for an heterodox daughter, long past marrying age?”
“Twenty-six,” said the princess. “I never hesitate to tell anyone. The delights of matrimony are beyond me,” she added, in a tone of voice which indicated that for their own good they had best maintain themselves in that position.
“I comprehend,” said the dragon. “That is to say, your situation now seems clear. Mine, on the contrary, is enormously complicated by your advent, and by the news you bring.” He stretched, let loose another audible burst of steam, half unfurled his wings and folded them back again. “Let us see what wisdom sleep procures.” Settling in the sand, he composed himself as if for the night. “Good rest, Ousmani.”
Perforce, the princess laid herself down also. The sand was warm, she was weary, and soon she sunk in slumber, regardless of the threat of circumstance.
When she revived, she found herself alone and entirely uneaten. She refreshed herself at the spring, and at a little crevice further in, where she hoped the smell would be unnoticeable.
Surely, she reflected, the most reasonable moment to have attacked her would have been during her incapacitation by sleep? Therefore it seemed probable that she should consider herself safe from consumption.
But as she explored the dragon’s lair her critical faculties sharpened, though not as quickly as they would have with her customary morning cup of koffie. The dying fire showed her no excreta, an absence unsurprising given the evidence of her nose. A cat could be just as cleanly, and there was all that sand.
More intriguing was the lack of bones. Ximonedes and all the more reliable bestiaries were emphatic in placing carnivorous middens within the confines of their constructor’s quarters. There ought to be one here somewhere. Close inspection of former victims’ remains might provide valuable information as to the dragon’s method of attack. Did it lull its prey, or exhale poisonous vapors? And if she found no bones, how might that be interpreted?
Abandoning for the moment speculations on archaic mid-flight feeding reflexes, Ousmani dropped to her knees to examine the dead knight’s armor. She found no knives or other weapons, nor anything more useful than a delicate garter of green and purple ribands, attached to the front of a padded jacket. She had heard of this immodest habit of infidel knights, decking themselves with their paramour’s linens. She donned the jacket for warmth, deciding that the stains were rust, not blood. As an afterthought she removed the garter and used it to secure her lustrous black curls.
The fire guttered low, almost all embers now. The jeweled walls barely glittered. Ousmani found the leather wallet and fortified herself with more unclean meat, also consuming half the onion. The last flame died, and she was left in a red twilight.
The princess was not afraid of darkness. But conditions made a scientific program of exploration impossible. She moved her inquiries out towards the cave’s opening.
It was morning. Quite early; dawn, in fact. Thin, delicate clouds the color of apricots drifted jauntily above and on all sides. And as the princess discovered by inching out to the edge on her silk-covered stomach, they drifted below as well. The dragon’s lair was indeed completely unapproachable by foot. Unretreatable, too, or whatever the complementary verb might be. She was trapped.
Ousmani sat for some time contemplating the prospect of the new day, outwardly so bright and cheerful, yet in its essence bleak. She allowed herself some melancholy, for would not her situation upon escaping from the cave be almost as hopeless as it was now? Her rescuers, followers of the Imam, had been persuaded to deliver her to this holy man’s hareem. There she would live, if breath alone meant life. But her mind would stifle, smothered in layers of doctrine like muslin, light but numberless swathes of it falling upon her till she was buried, though yet undead. And her body … she shuddered and drew back from the cave’s opening. Best not to dwell on that. There would be a struggle, between the Imam and her father, between her father and the Caliph. Her loins would be the battlefield.
Resolutely, the princess turned her back on these problems. If life looked to be so insupportable outside the cave, she would concentrate once more on what went on within it.
Her eyes adjusted, and gradually she saw what had escaped her notice on her way to the opening: dim recesses on either side. The one on the left proved to contain logs of wood, stacked in rough pyramids. If the dragon’s absence continued long, she might be glad of such a ready supply of fuel. But from what she had observed on the journey into this cold and barbarous land, she would need some sort of kindling as well.
The recess opposite appeared to be smaller, containing only pair of moldy boots and, further in, a large, open chest overflowing with pale, cylindrical objects. These might do, thought the princess, if they were composed of some combustible material. Hastening to slip the boots over her saffron satin slippers, which were beginning to show a bit of wear, she shuffled eagerly towards the chest. She found to her delight that its contents were indeed of a highly combustible material, but that they would not do at all for starting up the fire. The chest was filled with books.
Reverently, Princess Ousmani knelt in the sand and began sorting through the dragon’s library. She found a number of treatises on obscure points of infidel doctrine; some extremely unexciting plays; that humorously inexact History by Paulus Orosius; The Book of Ceremonies from Porphyrogenitus; Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, untranslated, and sure to be authentic—alas that she had so little Greek—
She barely glanced up when, some time later, the dragon made its return. “Good day.”
“Good day to you, Princess. I see you wasted no time in discovering my true treasure. Will you plunder me of my books, then?”
“Not I, but mice and insects have made a very good start. You should keep a cat,” she said, forgetting to whom she spoke. “How came you by all these?”
“The legacy of a cleric, a plump young monk. He traveled here from Narbonne in hopes of converting me to the one true faith.”
The words “plump” and “young” recalled to Ousmani that she was in the presence of an anthropophagic animal, an animal which had recently, perhaps only yesterday, slain the paladin whose weskit she now wore. She looked at him closely, searching for signs of hostility or hunger. “Of which one true faith do you speak?”
“Surely there can be only one,” said the dragon, bringing his head closer in what she hoped was an inquisitive gesture.
“By definition, yes. But in my experience of religious claims they are all `true’, and all similarly singular in this truth.”
“You have a pragmatic turn of mind.”
“Yes,” said the princess, rolling up the scroll she held and reaching automatically for another. “And pragmatically speaking I have been throughout my life a follower of the Prophet, Mohammed. But now that I am here with you, I should no doubt subscribe to some more dragonish creed—unless, of course, the monk from Narbonne met with success?”
“Sad to relate, he did not.”
“Then you must teach me all of your beliefs.”
“I am afraid there will be insufficient time for that exercise.”
So it would be soon. “I am not nearly so dull as I look,” Ousmani asserted in a voice that quavered slightly. “You might at least attempt—” Words failed her.
“I have assessed the situation,” said the dragon, “and find it to be worse than your words led me to fear. It is more than conquest your father desires; it is colonization.” A gentle hiss of escaping vapors, a fitful flick of one glistening wing betrayed its agitation. “His train contains not only siege machines but seeds, not just warriors, but women. He has recruited his retainers from the inhabitants of some far Southern mountains; the Atlas range, I gather they are called.”
“You discovered all this … how?”
“An outrider was careless, and when I captured him, rather rude. It took much restraint to—But these explanations are unnecessary.” He turned his golden gaze full on her face. “I regret to inform you that your stay must end all too abruptly for my tastes.”
“Really?” asked Ousmani, fascinated with dread. “It will be quite, quite quick, then?”
“No more than the time it takes to sing a roundelay,” the dragon promised. “But first I must turn myself around the right way. I have never really mastered the reverse ascent.” With this puzzling assertion the dragon moved into the depths of its lair. Ousmani had only a moment’s wonder before it reappeared, this time with its head foremost.
“Be seated, Princess, and we will be off.”
Ousmani remained where she was, cross-legged before the chest, arms full of books. She shook her head. “No. I have concluded that it would be unreasonable for me to co-operate with you in my destruction. If you must slay me, it shall be here, no matter what your custom or instincts.”
“Slay you? You—my dear princess, how did you manage to arrive at this deduction? Slay you? I am merely attempting to return you to your father’s camp.”
“I thought you were going to eat me. Like the monk.”
“At first, I admit, the thought did enter my head. But soon enough, I had already supped to a sufficiency. Again, you proved so charming that the notion of you as no more than a source of nourishment became offensive. Finally, at my age, consuming large quantities of humans is a luxury I simply can no longer afford.”
“Salt. You all have an abominably high salt content. It makes you difficult to resist, but I am convinced that the retention of fluids which inevitably results when I succumb is damaging to my delicate constitution.”
While Ousmani digested this novel concept, the dragon slithered to the cave’s entrance and peered out, wings flickering nervously. “This will proceed the better,” it suggested, “the sooner we depart. You wish to arrive before the evening, do you not?”
The princess gathered her wits. “On the contrary,” she asserted, “I see no necessity for me to arrive there ever. At any time. If you explained this before, I am afraid I missed your arguments, which I hope you will not object to repeat in all their doubtless elegance.”
“Why, I—” The dragon’s glittering head drew back, and a hiss of steam came from its suddenly dilated nostrils. “It appears obvious. These mountains will soon be filled with your people, who at best will be far more punctilious than the present scattered peasants in offering me a food which I know to be too rich for my health. This while removing my accustomed dietary sources through their husbandry.
“At the worst, they will hunt me down and slaughter me. Their greater concentrations betoken a greater likelihood of success.”
Ousmani opened her hands and held them up as if to protect herself from this eventuality. The opportunity for research, the wasted knowledge, the sheer, strange beauty of the beast, lost to her father’s madness. Not to mention access to a marvelous and altogether unappreciated library. “This must not happen.”
The dragon smiled. “I am glad to see you agree. Princess, I must leave, and while it desolates me to deprive myself of your discourse, I cannot take you with me, for I know not where I go. I have some distant relatives in Sind. Also, in Hyperborea…”
“Stay!” said Ousmani. “There is another solution, one which has just now occurred to me. The more I think upon it, the more good I see. But wait—your cleric from Narbonne, had he upon him any implements for writing, or tools with which one might illuminate a book?”
“He did, princess, though I fail to see what use such scholarly activities will prove in the face of my persecution.”
“You will see, though, for I shall show you. First, the tools. Or, no, stay—we must prepare a suitable place in which to work. A desk—I suppose a log will do, if you will roll it near the fire. And speaking of the fire, I must ask you to build it up—”
The dragon proved most pliable when apprised of the details of the princess’ plan. It kept the flames burning brightly through the entire night, sleeping but fitfully. The princess slept not at all, but toiled without ceasing, for penmanship was not one of her areas of greatest expertise.
“Your name,” said Ousmani, when the dragon put its head over her shoulder during one of its wakeful spells. “We ought to include your name, and I don’t know what it is.”
“My mother called me Bumpsy … I suppose that will not do.”
“No.” The princess retied the dead knight’s garter, from which tendrils of black hair were escaping to daub themselves with gold and cochineal. “What of your victims? Did they construct any memorable epithets?”
“Their remarks were always decidedly insipid, dear Princess, unlike yours. `Gaaah,’ I believe, was one of the more cogent exclamations.”
“Have you no preference as to how you will be styled?”
“I never gave the matter any thought. I am that which I am.”
“You are the very seat of reason. I will name you Aegyptus,” decided the princess. “Aegyptus was the ancient ruler of a kind and learned land called Egypt. Many defenders of the faith call this place their home. Also, it is warm there.”
The proclamation of Aegyptus’ conversion to Islam and renunciation of his former dragonish ways was complete by mid-morning. After a lengthy nap, the princess declared herself much refreshed, and not at all hungry. So they set off at once in order to be able to deliver the proclamation during the call for evening prayer.
Unlike her previous ride, this trip afforded the princess a splendid prospect. Partially obscured by her mount, marguerite-embroidered valleys and dazzling waterfalls fell behind her. The wide-winged shadow of the dragon’s passage stained white snows with purple, scattered flocks of sheep and dark-winged birds, rippled over grey fog-banks, growing larger and more distorted with the lowering of the sun.
All too soon, the last straggling slaves and pack animals of her father’s train slid into view, plodding wearily through the dust of their superiors. Next she saw a broad, marshy looking meadow full of half-erected tents. Above the noisy wind of their passage, Ousmani asked Aegyptus to circle higher, that they might wait for the most opportune moment unobserved.
It seemed forever coming. The horses, understandably nervous due to the hovering draconic presence, took forever to settle, and the tents were pitched and re-pitched in a futile search for dry ground. In fact, the camp was still in total disarray when the piercing cry of the muezzin floated up to Ousmani’s ears. But those with prayer rugs procured them and rolled them out aside those less fortunate, all prostrating themselves on the damp, green ground. All aligned with the hope of the faithful, the source of enlightenment on Earth, with Mecca and the East. “Now,” shouted Ousmani in her dragon’s ear, and they soared out of the West, swooping over the backs of the astonished congregation.
Circling back, Aegyptus held his huge golden wings fully unfurled, gilding them again with the light of sunset. Impossibly, they seemed to pause, and Ousmani held her breath, expecting to drop helplessly from the sky.
“There is no God but Allah,” intoned the dragon into this unnatural silence. “And Mohammed is his prophet.” With that he lowered his tail almost to the ground, and, uncurling it, deposited the parchment scroll detailing his conversion exactly at the head of the alarmed and immobile Imam. Glancing back as they flew away, Ousmani saw him rise to stand, still reading.
“Success!” she screamed into the wind.
“Perhaps,” Aegyptus equivocated. “I have my doubts.” Suddenly veering, the dragon flew in an unfamiliar direction. Presently they came to the base of a steep cliff. Aegyptus climbed the updraft, circling like a hawk. Again, it was startlingly quiet.
“You are as much a Muslim as I,” she tried to reassure her mount. No, her friend. “More, for you have never consumed alcohol, nor rebelled against the wearing of the veil. The scroll we left for my father tells nothing but the truth. You decided to convert because of my example.”
“But even if they believe you, will they not abominate me as an—an abomination?”
Ousmani had considered this carefully, from the instant in which she formulated her plan. “Some might,” she replied. “But my third cousin, thrice removed, the most merciful Caliph of Al-Andalus, Abd-er Raman III, is of a liberal turn of mind. If I were you, I should prepare myself for guests. Interesting and illustrious ones.”
“Of a certainty?”
“Of a complete and utterly ravishing certainty.”
“It is necessary, then, that we make adjustments in the economy of our household, do you not think?”
And the dragon and the princess turned homeward to do just that.
(with apologies to Jay Williams)
© 1999 Nisi Shawl
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.