There was a dragon in the capital.
Its long, black talons reached over the crowd, hovering above the masses like a shadow of death looming over the horizon. Its tail slithered behind the path, curling over the rocks and cobblestone that bumped and bumped and bumped. Cheers clamored, hollow yet soothing, fearful yet welcoming, everything expected at the arrival of the king of Asborough.
The new dawn of war and tumult shattered twelve generations of peace, but no one felt the weight of the destruction when victory clouded judgment and blinded them from the base fear of reality. Perverse as it was, the dragon was a reckoning, the might of a forlorn hero, for wherever it trod, it paved paths of gold from crimson like magic, a sleight of hand.
Confetti danced like colorful wisps of falling snow, landing on my hair and tickling my nose. I sneezed, but the sound went unheard, meaningless amongst the high adrenaline sparking from the flint and steel that braved our enemies’ front lines.
“Long live the king! Long live the protector of the realm! Long live the Dragon of the East!”
Ahead on his golden armor-clad stallion, my father smiled and waved—so different of a mien than the one I grew accustomed to. His silver hair was greased back with sweat, and despite the wrinkles creasing his face, his looks maintained his boyish luster that charmed everyone he met. The tailed ends of his cape fluttered in the dying winds, billowing and flapping, almost like the wings of a great dragon.
Azure powder burst in the air, flaunting the color of our nation. Stragglers joined the excitement, shoving and reaching towards their king, raising their children as if one touch was a blessing from God himself. They only saw what the eyes of their desire commanded; they only saw a pristine king making conquest through the realm. They never saw the blood, nor torture, nor death. They only basked in the prospect of saccharine triumph, not a single thought wasted on the sacrifices made.
We all knew: the soldiers behind me, ahead of me, beside me. But we sealed our mouths shut, for there were more menacing threats to consider before foolishly easing the ire in our souls. To my chagrin, my father deluded himself in his blood-tinged rewards, skillfully concealing his sharp fangs and passing yet again as the king of Asborough.
* * *
The dragon’s presence coiled around me like a snake, suffocating, dominating. Every huff from its flaring nostrils boiled the air, scorched my exposed skin, and not even the southern breeze could abate the sweltering heat.
Below, the Kingdom of Asborough reveled in its subsequent successes. Rolling hills stretched over the vast southern landscape that was dyed red under the setting sun, and flocks of birds from the war-torn south traveled north, passing overhead in high-pitched caws and screeches as they followed the gusts of the autumn wind that wafted the stench of the malodorous harbor.
From the balcony overlooking the kingdom, I watched the city thrive. The throng of commoners thinned as the moon ascended, casting a spell of silence over the land. But countless merchants and sailors still wandered the docks, carrying goods and wares to the markets for the next sale.
The flourishing city pulled me from the bitter truth of reality for a fraction of a second until my father clapped my shoulder. His cursed presence weighed me down, anchoring me like chains shackled to my limbs. He extended his arm, gesturing for me to look.
“This is your legacy, Son. Our legacy.”
The dragon was back. Every breath it took burned my nape, and for fear of death, I wordlessly nodded. My father glorified the beautiful landscape, pointing at the luscious trees and glimmering lakes, but his voice faded as my eyes landed on the horizon.
Everything eluded me—my father’s gloats, the crows gathering like black clouds, the first glints of the bright constellations in the east. Far, far away, my eyes trained on a plume of smoke devouring the southern skies.
* * *
Though thousands died in the raids, the dragon’s bloodlust was not sated. Its pointed tail sliced the air and pounded the marbled ground in aggravated impatience. Soft growls from its throat ignited bursts of flame so intense that firelight seeped through the fissures of its scales. Occasionally, the ominous clacks of its talons reverberated through the palace halls, carrying centuries’ worth of threats.
While I could not stomach even looking at the food lavishly set on the long table, my father engorged himself with detestable glee.
“We won,” he had said on the balcony many days ago, his iron grip on my shoulder toeing the edge of pain. “We are victorious.”
We are monsters, I had nearly retorted, but there was no amnesty for traitors, not even for a prince.
As always, the streets commenced celebration, rousing lively spirits in the taverns and inns that boomed with animated chaos. Dusk to dawn, dawn to dusk, the merriment persisted, ignorant to the screams and bloodshed miles away at the border. So close, yet so far.
I remained in my seat like a forsaken puppet loose on its strings, deaf to the cheers but aware of the iron-tang scent of blood layered beneath the duplicitous aroma of sweet ale. People were dying. Mothers holding their children. Fathers daring to dissent. Soldiers burning in flames. A nation decimated at its core.
“Eat,” my father commanded, tearing into his chicken thigh.
I gritted my teeth. What I wanted to do was throw my goblet and slam my palms on the tabletop. What I wanted to do was fling my knife at my father and revel in his screams as blood gushed from his forehead. What I wanted to do was smash my father’s head with a metal plate, and strangle him with my bare hands, and feel his pulse diminishing under my fingertips as he fruitlessly struggled. What I did was cut a portion of my pork and eat it, repulsed by the vile blood each chew rewarded.
Tearing another chunk of meat, my father looked satisfied. I was on the verge of curling into a ball and retching, but the dragon pressed against my shoulders with unrelenting pressure, a reminder of what was to happen should I object.
As I swallowed, the wrangled meat clawed at my throat like human nails slowing their descent to the pits of hell. Each blazing scar was a cry, a demand: “Why do you slaughter next to that beast?”
For them, I had no answer. But for me, their anguish grew louder, stronger, faster, harder. “Why!?” the torrents screamed, shredding my throat raw, parching it faster than an inferno would a puddle. “Why do you slaughter next to that beast!?”
Dust hung heavy in the smoky air, glittering like white stars in the bars of sunlight that burst behind the swelling drapes. The dragon breathed, colored the room with soot, and wrapped its barbed tail around me. With shaky hands, I reached for my goblet. A warped reflection of my paled face stared at me and tilted its head without my consent.
“Why do you enjoy slaughtering next to that beast?” my reflection asked. I silenced it with my hand and drained the wine, ignoring the red lines it drew over my chin. Quelling my rapid breaths constricted in the grasp of a demon, I excused myself with a smile and raced to my chambers, not bothering to wait for the servants trailing behind. Locked in the pretense of privacy, I coughed up the meat, leaving the bitter sting of acid on my tongue.
Scarce patterns of the moonlight danced across my skin. The stars were alight, glimmering their mockeries in the dead silence, praying on my weakness and servitude. Smoke still clouded the south, and faint screams resonated over the rolling hills—whether reality or my imagination I did not know.
Chatter and laughs slighted the pain Asborough wrought, the truth everyone blatantly ignored, while clacks of the dragon’s talons ticked one by one, counting the seconds to my unbidden revelation. Fiery breaths surrounded me, blurring my thoughts, buzzing in my ears, blindsiding my fear, and I let it wash over and through me like sand in an hourglass, each granule a stolen life.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I raised my head to the blackened skies, felt my puppet strings grow taut. As the son of a tyrant, a monster, a dragon, no longer would I remain idle.
* * *
The apothecary called it a concoction that must not be named, a practice rooted in sacrilege and iniquity, a poison brewed from the flesh of a slain dragon. In its vial, the liquid shone a crimson akin to the blood of fallen soldiers. And like blood, it spilled gracefully into my father’s goblet until the last drip, the last ripple, and the doors of the great hall burst open in celebratory fervor.
That night, as the generals and advisors enjoyed a feast befitting gods and blinded themselves in the charms of pretty women, my father drank every last drop of his wine. I honored my victory in disguised laughter with the concubines and relished the prospect of the Dragon of the East falling at the hands of his own kin.
* * *
Colorful flowers of all shapes and sizes graced the gardens despite the whips of winter tailing the razor-edged winds. As I strolled through the gardens with my father, servants followed a distance away to allow the illusion of privacy, the crunch of their steps joining the chitters of the last insects and the chirps of the birds flocking north. Ahead, my father staggered, paused, and continued walking.
A fortnight had passed since the last embers of celebration had died in the city. Since then, the grave haste of wartime unease had settled like a dense fog, like an invisible beast waiting to pounce when least expected. Normally, I would be among those who frequented the war rooms and the barracks to mitigate my discomposure, but with the king at the precipice of his inexplicable ailment, I could not afford to divide my attention.
My father stumbled and retched, bracing his stomach as he coughed bursts of scarlet that colored the yellowing grass. I offered my hand, accustomed to the routine. Despite being unfit to leave his chambers, my father opted to show his face in public, to hold his head high and his shoulders broad, to boast our nation’s strength for all to behold.
I gripped his shoulder. To him, it was a sign of gentle reassurance. To me, it was a barrier to suppress my exhilaration. The dragon was wailing, its breaths dwindling, its presence no longer guarding the halls. Its once-mighty wings beat the ground, too debilitated to take flight, and when its bones groaned and cracked under its undulating scales that grew duller and duller, my father fell unconscious.
The servants were the first to cry in horror. I stood beside my father’s crumpled form, unmoving, embracing the tears blurring my sight. Guards raced to our aid, and I sank to my knees, weeping like a child. But my sobs were that of joyous delight, for the dragon was finally dying.
* * *
The throne was laden with emeralds and rubies, spoils of past wars and conquests. They shone like rays of light in the dimmed throne room, bouncing off the grim walls and painting a myriad of colors on my father’s face.
His silk robes swept across the marbled floor as he paced, whispering unintelligible thoughts, his thumping footfalls uneven. A haze had settled in his grayed eyes, and his body, though fully present, was doomed without a captain, a lost boat at sea. Mindless, he shuffled as he scratched clean marks on his reddening neck. I kneeled before him, studying his pitiful state, tapping my fingers to his steps.
One. Kill him.
Two. Kill him not.
One. Kill him.
Two. Kill him not.
My fingers twitched, itching to grab my sword resting at my side, but I refrained. Killing him was mercy. My father draped himself over his throne, his pants echoing. One hand covered his face, while the other played with the crown by his side.
I lowered my head in deference and said, “The enemy draws nearer, Father.”
“I did not summon you for your counsel.”
“I merely state a fact. Rumors carry the word that the Dragon of the East has fallen. Once our enemies hear of our weakness, they will surround us.”
With a pained scream, my father threw his crown against the ground. It clattered and bounced down the steps of the dais, rolling to a rattling stop beside my left knee. Blankly, I stared at it—my glorious birthright, my legacy—and blinked, holding back a grimace.
“Send our strongest men to the southern border!” my father bellowed, digging his nails into his arm. Perspiration doused his brow, and the wrinkles on his face deepened with every breath he took as if he was aging decades each second.
Hiding a smirk, I bowed. “As you wish, Father.”
* * *
Blood and fire rained on Asborough like a silken veil smothering the city. Worn and drenched soldiers paved the way through the muddied streets, dragging the thick chains around their wrists and ankles. Their blue uniforms were tattered, and the sigils of the Azure Dragon etched onto their backs were stained after the grisly waltz of battle. Through the silence, past the mothers shielding their children, past the commoners watching the advancing army in terror-stricken awe, a banner showcasing the Vermillion Bird stormed the capital.
Our soldiers sent to the south were quickly dismantled, for a young general had risen through the ranks of the southern forces. He was a phoenix—one that had flown from the depths of the ashes, had dared to face the almighty Dragon of the East.
My father was perched on his golden throne atop the hundred stone steps, looking down at the general with the most disgust his enfeebled body could muster. At his side, I waited for his surrender, but his order never came. And that marked the start of an encore of bloodshed.
Our surviving soldiers were beheaded, and the capital was doused in malignant flames of bright red and blue. All the while, the general smiled, donning the face of a man who had tasted pure vengeance. With a torch in hand, he took the first step up the stone stairs, then another, and another until he stood before my father, looking down at him with all the pride his youth could muster.
Two beasts roared, and I, though close, observed from afar, ignorant to the screams and death below. The general glanced from me to my father, who had lapsed into another coughing fit, heaving through wave after wave of blood and acid. I gripped his shoulder, but he still fell limp in his throne, breathing his death sentence.
There was no mercy in the general’s gait as he set fire to the scrolls and books in the great library, letting the explosive blaze evolve into an inferno that engulfed the palace. Ashes fell like snow on a peaceful winter morning, and red shadowed the blue sky. As I threw my sword to the side and kneeled in submission, my father drew his sword and approached the general on trembling legs.
“I will not lose to the likes of you, boy,” my father said, wheezing. Before he could raise his sword, his legs gave out and he crumbled to his knees.
The general spat. “Surrender, lest the Dragon of the East should fall to the hands of the Vermillion Bird of the South.”
With a shake of his head, my father sealed his demise. The general threw the torch on my father’s silk robes, and red flames licked my father’s skin that melted like wax on a candle, every drop of flesh repentance for the havoc he had wreaked. Leaving my father to writhe, the general drew his sword and rested it under my chin.
“Do you surrender, Prince of Asborough?”
With a nod, I sealed my fate.
Sparing me, the general stood atop the stairs for the kingdom, the world, to behold and raised his sword, shouting a chant of triumph. Behind him, the dragon squirmed with the last ounce of life, and once it stilled forevermore, from the chaos, the shouts of men filled the air. It was the trumpet of victory, the song of angels, the fall of a kingdom, and the death of a dragon.
* * *
The great halls of the palace rumbled in memory of that day many years ago as I opened the charred doors crooked on their hinges. Gleams of sunlight filtering through the splinters in the wooden walls shone on the clouds of ash that flurried as I limped towards the throne, glimpsing shadows of my childhood running in my peripheral vision.
An infant evading the snare of the servants’ grasps as the king and queen laughed. A child sitting beside the king with his head held high as he listened attentively to the processes of a council. A boy mourning under the thunderous boom of a storm as the king sobbed from his throne. And a prince kneeling before the king, pondering whether to execute death.
The mirages evanesced as I ascended the steps of the dais and faced the once-golden throne marred with scorch marks. Without its owner, the den was hollow, but still, I brushed the grime and debris and uncovered the crown resting beside the throne. Somewhere in the deep recesses of the palace, roars shook the earth, and flapping wings sent gales of wind swirling like a tempest.
Grabbing the crown, I blew the surface clean, stared at my aged reflection, and smirked.
There would be a dragon in the capital again.
Gina Kotinek is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPOT Lit. She is interested in social issues and enjoys implementing them into her writing in hopes that her message will be heard.