The Dragon Quartet – THE BOOK OF FIRE



It’s the wind, she tells herself. Only the wind. Making a little adjustment, minute but perceptible, like a singer sliding off-key. But she stills her breath anyway, to listen around the hard dry corners of the wind’s howl for whatever might have waked her.

Only the wind. Paia whispers it aloud. An incantation of hope: the wind, and not some herdsman famished into an ill-advised grudge. Not the murderously disillusioned acolyte that she’s always fearing will hack a path through the several layers of her bodyguard and gain her inner sanctum. Perhaps a timid servant, then, one of the newer ones, stumbling upstairs in haste to inform her of the God’s return.

But the door does not burst open. There is no warning clatter down the hall. Just the wind. It has to be.

Paia eases one hand beneath her pillows. The move is slow and noiseless, through folds as silky as feathers, glimmering in the dull red night. Who ever it is might already be in the room. Her hand is a wave under sand. It’s only the wind, but with the little gun cradled in her palm, almost cool against her heated skin, she feels much better.

Paia resettles herself. If she can make herself stop listening, she can will sleep to come. She has learned to sleep with the gun. She’s trained her right hand to rest on it lightly, immobile, relaxed but ready. The God insisted, when he presented it to her: she must keep it close by at all times. At all times. Especially at night. At first, it was like carrying a live scorpion around. She hated it. She did everything she could think of to convince the God to rescind this command. She accused him of being paranoid and over-protective. He assured her he had good reason. She implied he was afraid someone would steal it – such a rare relic, priceless, really, a functioning firearm. The God waved a gold-ringed claw and snorted. She threatened to sell it. Another snort, and a reminder that while the little weapon might be her most valuable possession, he the God was magic and could simply conjure another. And by the way, he noted, it would only take the one time she needed it and didn’t have it on her for all her protests to be moot.

So that was the end of it. The God would trust no one to instruct her, which was awkward, as the only training he himself could supply was verbal. Paia taught herself by experiment how to care for the thing, and how to shoot it. She had a soft leather harness crafted, part garment, part holster – and learned to live with it.

And now she feels half-naked without it.

She’s stopped listening, she realizes, except in the usual reflex way. There’s nothing to hear, nothing but the incessant wind, swirling past the upper terraces, moaning among the steel balustrades. But Paia is wide-awake, and her body is taut with an odd, restless energy that cannot be accounted for as mere adrenaline rush. She rolls over and runs an inventory: not thirsty, no hotter than usual, no need to visit the privy. She rarely has trouble sleeping, except in the early hours before a major festival, when her brain won’t cease rehearsing every step and detail of the coming ritual. But tomorrow isn’t even a minor holy day. In fact, tomorrow her temple calendar is practically empty. So what is this? She feels like she’s downed a big swallow from the Sacred Well. It’s the same sort of liquid invasion, power and pure sensation coursing toward the very ends of her extremities, pooling in her toes and fingertips, alien, sweet and chill. She wonders what it means.

She flips the pale sheet aside and sits up. An unlit lantern waits on her bedside table. When the lectric first went off, she kept a flame burning through the night. Then the God pointed out that the light left her just as visible as any potential assailant. So, as she learned to live with the gun, she learned to sleep in darkness. It’s never total darkness anyway, not in any room with a window. Paia squints into the deeper shadows at the corners of the room. She considers waking the God, to solicit his opinion of this peculiar sleeplessness. The God has an answer for everything. Paia can’t recall him ever saying, “I don’t know.” Then she remembers he’s not at home. Off on one of his mysterious week-long expeditions. He’d be irritable as a viper anyway, having his sleep broken without (what he would consider) due cause, like if the Fortress was under attack, or if it began to rain.

Sitting alone in the hot red gloom, Paia allows herself a moment of self-pity. If only she had someone to talk to. Not just servants and acolytes, or her subordinate priests, always jockeying for position. A friend. The God, of course, would insist that he’s all the friend she needs. When he’s around, he encourages all manner of intimacy. But Paia knows he doesn’t really listen unless she’s talking about something that directly concerns him, such as the accounts of the monthly tithing, or his own participation in the next Sacred Festival. He does show a keen appetite for news of her meetings with the various Official Suitors. He demands the finest detail, yet leaves her with the distinct impression that he considers this pretty tame stuff – as if, each time, he’s hoping for something racier. When he instituted the requirement that all Suitors disrobe, Paia assumed this to be another of his endless security measures, or a (typically) crass way of allowing her to fully inspect the goods on offer. But she recalls him chiding her sternly for exempting Suitors she knows she will reject the moment they enter the Hall of Audiences. She wonders now if what the God really enjoys is the full spectacle of each poor man’s vulnerability and abject humiliation.

She gets up abruptly and lights the lamp, as if its pale spot of flame could dispel the shadows left in her heart by the last such encounter. She might have favored that one a little, if not for the dull gleam of hatred he could not keep from his eyes as he dropped his robe and stood before her. She wanted to say she would not ask it if the God did not insist, but that would be questioning the God’s word in public, a dire offense. As the God has told her many times: he is the God. His word is law.

Paia turns up the lamp flame. The light throws the coffered ceiling into high relief and deepens the folds of the velvet draperies into columns of mystery. She quells her rush of resentment with a sour, quiet chuckle. One day soon, she vows, I will begin to embroider my reports. Catch the God by surprise. Describe in painstaking detail all the clothing I took off, and then what happened after. She wonders: would the God be jealous?

She leaves the lamp burning on the table, her emphatic stride muffled by the layers of antique and threadbare carpets strewn across the slate floor. In her cavernous dressing room, her hand finds the dead light switch by instinct, pressing it before she can stop herself. Paia grimaces. She prefers not to be reminded that the lectric is now a precious commodity, reserved for an hour or two of pre-curfew darkness, or for any and all temple ceremonies. Better to pretend that it’s always been this way. She grabs the nearest robe and throws it on. When she was a child, the House Monitor ran twenty-four hours a day…well, at least when it wasn’t broken. Climate control, music and light, intercom and sonic cleanser, ice water, hot water – all this in every one of the hundred or so rooms in the House. That’s what they still called it then, a house, even though it was already becoming a fortress. When the God came, he deactivated the Monitor and gave all of its functions to people. And people, Paia is just old enough to remember, are not nearly as reliable as machines. And it’s hot all the time now, whatever season, whatever time of day, though cooler in the Citadel than outside, due to the interior temperature of the bedrock, and the giant circulation fans turned by the windmill array at the top of the scarp.

She wraps the robe around her, and then her arms as well, hugging the thin fabric against her ribs as if its embroidered sheen could smooth away her unexplained restlessness. Halfway to her favorite window alcove, she stops, turns on her heel and paces back to the dressing room, shedding the robe as she goes. Rooting in drawers, she tosses out fistfuls of clothing behind her – sheer, clinging silks and brocaded robes, cloth-of-gold vests and gowns studded with seed pearls, strewn all across the floor in her search for the garb she can wear only when the God is not around: her old sweatpants, worn soft with use and laundering, and a tunic length T-shirt. Her chambermaid disapproves of these garments as much as the God does, and tries to hide them from her. But Paia uncovers them with a quiet whoop of victory and slides into them, grateful for the rare opportunity to be unaware of the shape of her body.

Now the odd surging inside her feels good. Strong, and positive. Purposeful. She’s awake and comfortable; so far, she’s roused no one with all her moving about, and suddenly she knows what to do. The restlessness has left her extremities and withdrawn its force tide-like into her interior. Images are washing up on the shores of her mind in waves of white and green and blue. Nothing specific yet – that will come only when the right language is available, when she has a brush and colors in her hand.

Her fingers are on the doorknob when she remembers the gun. She races back to the bed to snatch it from under the silken pile of pillows and shove it into a pocket. Across the room again, Paia twists the knob soundlessly and hauls on the door. Chances are good that the sentries right outside in the hall will be asleep, due to the God’s absence and to an archaic and inefficient system of seniority that, for his own private reasons, the God has chosen not to overturn. It makes a certain kind of dull sense, Paia admits, to station the youngest and most vigorous downstairs at the points of entry into the Citadel. But she doubts that the God is aware that higher rank also means high priority for the booze ration. She would complain, except that this tends to work in her favor, granting her an extra measure of freedom now and then, as long as she’s quiet about it.

Another thing she’s learned since the God came: to move about the endless stairs and corridors in near total silence. And because she’s positive that her guards try to cultivate a convenient layer of rust on the hinges, she foils them by oiling them regularly. Twice as tall as she and two arms’ length wide, the heavy slab of paneled oak drifts towards her without so much as a murmur.

“Ha,” Paia grins.

A soft chorus of snores floats through the narrow opening. A discord of drunken slumber. Paia pokes her head around the edge of the door. There are four of them, two men and two women – the God thrives on symmetry. There’s not a booze jug in sight, but the sweet-sour aroma hangs heavy in the still air. They’ve all loosened their braided formal collars and drawn up the most comfortable of the stiff, half-upholstered chairs that inhabit the corridor. Their single lantern is burning low. Paia marvels at their bravery. If the God were to materialize here suddenly, their lives would be ended. But the God is not home, and besides, he’d be forced to appear in man-form in order to fit in this human-sized space. For reasons that Paia does not comprehend, most people find the God less frightening in man-form. Perhaps these four have told themselves that as a group, they could take him if they had to. They would be wrong.

It’s the implied presumption, even more than their lack of proper discipline, that rouses Paia’s ire. Who do they think they are, sleeping on the job? Is this how the Honor Guard of the Temple protects its High Priestess? When her father was alive, she would have reported such insubordination without a qualm. Their sodden snores abruptly disgust her. She thinks she might report them after all. She draws herself up in the doorway, ready to end their careers, if not their lives. Then she remembers her sweats and T-shirt. How can she appear before these men and women, her servants, her Faithful, dressed no better than they would be in their own homes? Her hair isn’t even done. What would they think? Even worse, what would the God say if he found out? Paia is well aware that this issue of reporting infractions goes both ways.

Her shoulders sag. Her chambermaid is right. The High Priestess of the Temple of the Apocalypse needs to be protected from her own impulses.


She just cannot imagine going back to bed. There is still this swarm of images inside her head, demanding to be dealt with. Even if she could resist, this opportunity is too precious to waste. She peers at the snorers more carefully, then eases around the edge of the door and ghosts it shut behind her.

Scattered about the hall, tilted this way and that in their straight-backed chairs, the sleeping guards look like a child’s tin army abandoned after play. Paia negotiates a slalom course through red-clad legs and spit-polished black boots, careful not even to create a draft that might alert their soldier’s instincts. She’s counting on the booze to keep them oblivious.

To her left yawns the wide, dark well of the stairs, leading down to Level Five and further, younger contingents of the Honor Guard. To her right, several shadowed doorways, more chairs and windowless corridor: true darkness. But this is the most “secure” part of the house and Paia’s feet know the way by heart. Now she welcomes the darkness as an ally, abetting her escape. She pads along with her arms stretched low to either side, in case some forgetful cleaner has moved a chair. Sensing a turn, she slows but continues straight ahead until her fingers touch the cut-velvet wall fabric and the hard edge of a deactivated picture box. She does a silent right-face, gliding one hand along the wall – no furniture left along this corridor to avoid. She moves down one long hall, a left turn, down another, until her fingertips find and trace out the intricate profile of the molding that frames the entrance to the tower. Just inside the arch is a little niche for a lantern and matches.

This rising stair is narrower than the formal staircases leading down, which are sized like the corridors to allow a regiment to march through in formation. The tower’s steep steps, barely one person wide, coil up serpent-like around a central stone shaft. Paia’s hands are shaking with eagerness to be at the top. As if her head might shatter like a dropped melon if she can’t let loose the raucous crowd inside. She strikes a match. Once upon a time, the House Monitor’s sensors would have provided light, and then betrayed her presence to an on-duty House security guard. But all those banks of screens are dark now. Raising the lamp, Paia begins her climb.

It’s a long climb, but Paia claimed this part of the house as her own precisely because of the tower, knowing that its claustrophobic dimensions and its exhausting, dizzying spiral would discourage any but the most determined visitors. She’s counted the steps: there are sixty-six of them, carved from the rock of the cliff itself. The front edge of each bears a shallow, depression, worn smooth during the two and a half centuries since her family’s retreat to this stronghold. There is a faint stain of handprints at waist level along the outside curve of the wall.

She gains the top and steps into a large vaulted chamber lit by the dim red murk pressing in from outside through a far wall of armored glass. A polished stone floor gleams ruddily. Paia’s lantern illuminates a chair and a few simple tables, and then the unfinished rear and side walls, still as coarse-textured as if blasted out of the rock only yesterday. Leaning against the walls, rows and rows of stacked canvases. In front of the vast glass wall, a tall wooden easel, empty now, but not for long.

The thrumming in her body intensifies. Paia sets the lantern down on a table, afraid she’ll drop it. Then she hurries around the room, gathering up every available lamp and candle, sets them near the easel, and lights them all. She’s only adding to the heat in the room, but she doesn’t care. Her hands move almost without her knowledge. The image waves are breaking harder and faster now. Her brain is a tornado, a storm at sea. She doesn’t want to have to grind and mash and mix and measure, the patient, painstaking process of paint-making that she normally enjoys. She needs to get right to work. She gathers in a hopeful breath, uncovers her palette, lets out the breath in a rush. The paint is still workable. She finds brushes, oil and an unused canvas. She sets the pale, blank oblong up on the easel and stares at it for half a millisecond. Then she dips her brush and begins to paint.