Where the dragon came from, nobody knows. It may have flown down from the torrid north, up from the icy south, east across the endless red deserts of Hethria, or west over the bulging blue eyeball of Nerrys’yr, the Peaceful Ocean. Whatever its origins, most people were sorry that it fell upon Everran, which was not only a small kingdom but prosperous, and not only a prosperous land but a contented one. They may have felt such a place should be dragon-proof as well as extraordinary.
As dragons go it was quite ordinary. That is, it was longer than an ocean-going ship, black, mail-clad, claw-toed, fire-breathing, winged, and ravenous. Or silver, fire-breathing, crested with stings, bearing a scorpion’s tail, and ravenous. Or molten gold, crocodile-legged, fire-breathing, winged, clawed, possessing eyes that spellbound its prey before the teeth dismembered him. And ravenous. Always ravenous.
These descriptions come from eyewitnesses, or, at least, those who left at speed from a safe distance. No one close enough for accuracy survived.
Which brings me into this song: my name is Harran, and for three years before the dragon came I was hearthbard to the Everran kings. Being hearthbard, I am naturally a harper, which as naturally means, lore-keeper: the guardian of past and present, to whom truth is a sacred trust. I shall have cause to remember that, before this song ends. But I pledged myself to make it, and the holder of that pledge shall have truth entire and unbroken, however discreditable it proves to me.
My own origins are not a mystery. I come from Meldene, those high western hills where the winds riot and the yeldtar bloom crimson amid the gray rocks and gray hethel trees. People call it a hard country, grudging, dull: but if you pause to watch the sun slide on the hethellin groves, or try to number the subtle shades of gray that play amid the leaves in their twinkling galaxies, you may never crave bright colors again.
Perhaps that vision, like the memory of my parents’ tall, narrow house above the gate in Vethmel, is biased by time as well as miles. After all, it is eleven years since I left for Saphar with a harp under my elbow and a most noble ambition to be the crower of the age, eleven years that have brought me from the carriers’ taverns to the houses of the carriers’ masters, thence to the hethel oil and vineyard owners’ halls, and on to the marble floors and rosewood ceilings of the palace itself. It is a fine palace, despite its oddity. It overlooks Saphar as Saphar overlooks Everran: a thin angular heap of towers and sun-rooms and open audience halls, straggling along the thin high cinnabar scarp from which Saphar falls in rucks of red tile and golden thatch and whitewash to the loop of Azilien, whose clear blue currents girdle the city like a gemstone in a ring.
Curiously for a capital, Saphar itself was a happy town. There were few beggars, except those too lazy to work, and Everran has plenty of work. The soil of Gebria and Tirs and Meldene is too poor for our neighbors to covet, but the vineyards of Stiriand and Saphar and the hethel groves of Meldene demand much labor, and repay in kind. Hethel oil has underwritten half our aristocrats, and our wine is counted the best in the Confederacy. Since our people are too canny to breed big, expensive families, we need not export men, and our lords learnt three generations back to keep their place in things. There were cobbles in the streets, good engineers had arranged the water supply to the many fountains, and the houses rarely fell down, causing lawsuits more often than funerals when they did
I knew little of that when I looked up that first time, pausing on the bridge over Azilien. It was a clear sunset, with a sky like a vast azure bell, making the crimson-shot bulk of the Helkent ranges a mere backdrop for the city beneath. In the elbow-crook of river and range it rose upon its knoll in cornice after cornice of golden light, glossed blue with smoke, edged bright with sunset gilt, buzzing and ringing like a happy human hive. Close by came a cheerful racket from a wayside inn. Higher, a harper was playing in some wine-lord’s feast. Highest of all, silver bells rang out from Asterne’s lookout post, a sweet wind out of the autumn sky. I shifted my father’s harp in its old leather sling, and thought: I shall be a song-king. Here is my inheritance.
If there may be more than one kind of king, there was only one king in Saphar, as Beryx taught me the first time I played for him. It was in the great audience hall, at the feast on Fire’s day. My patron was a high lord, since I was well up my peak by then, and he took me as others took their jesters or jugglers or fire-swallowers: to amuse Beryx, after the lord Iahn had been pledged on His hearth, and the real drinking of the night began.
In such a small capital royalty is not remote. Beryx had crossed my path a score of times, riding out with hawk or hound or border cavalry, banqueting in guildhalls, dispensing justice or inspecting half-built porticoes, overseeing the wine and oil weighed in market when the Confederate traders came. That night in the palace still seems my first real sight of him.
Red light from burning tarsal wood and golden light from pendant hethel lamps overflowed the hall, cascading through open arches into the sky where Valinhynga, the evening’s herald, loveliest of planets, was just pricking through. In Saphar, men dress their halls in air and dress to allow for it. All down the table the lords wore fur-lined jackets and trousers of creamy Quarred wool, with gold chains of office shining over everything. They answered the silver tableware, the ruby glow of wine, the glitter of gems on the ceremonial sword sheaths propped against each chair. But at the table’s head Beryx leant a little aside, chin in palm, elbow on the arm of the king’s seat, and all the light of the hall seemed to gather on his royal crimson cloak, his raven hair, and his long, lazy, twinkling green eyes, that saw so much and made such a joke of it all.
Sea-eyes, the name means, so it was of sea I sang: not Nerrys’yr, the wide blue ocean, but Berfing, the green southern sea where the whalers of Hazghend stain the ice-floes red with blood. Everyone knows that in boyhood he ran away to ship with them. As I sang I could see the royal brooch, a huge circlet of whale-tooth ivory, rich cream upon his crimson cloak.
The lords clapped at the end, in more than courtesy. It made my patron flush. He was high in his clique, and ambitious of climbing higher, and had seen me as a chancy ladder rung. He called to Beryx, “Is he not a prince of harpers, lord?”
Beryx nodded. Then the corners of his long mouth went up, and he drawled, “A prince of harpers, Vellan. But not—yet—a king.”
Though Vellan was a ruddy man I saw his color fade. It was a mere moment, a tiny aside. Yet I, too, saw those eyes were the color of an iceberg’s shadow, and I, too, understood.
Then Beryx looked back to me and smiled, a real smile this time. “Harpers are long-minded in Meldene,” he said. “So, you will find, are kings.”
So I went back to the lords’ halls, and I wrought with my art as vinegrowers do with weeds. And two years later, when the corsairs ravaged Quarred and Beryx took his soldiers down to a great cleansing by the sea, I made a song about newer deeds.
When I finished, he leant back in the high seat and nodded toward the right side of the fire, the place of a hearthbard, which had been empty since his father’s harper Quennis died.
“Bring a seat for the harper, Kyvan,” he told his chamberlain. “He has been standing long enough.”