*Some very nice people have sent me guest posts, but since today is my double-blog day it didn’t feel right. OTOH I’m so exhausted I’m not even going to try publishing work tonight. I slept about 5 hours last night. So, instead, I’m fobbing you off with the new opening of Noah’s Boy.*
The sun was setting in a splendor of red and gold over the Rocky Mountains, glistening like a fire over the remaining snow on the mountain tops when the young woman drove into Goldport in a brand new red pickup truck.
No one watching would have been particularly struck by her or by the pick up truck.
Nestled against the peaks of the Rockies, Goldport had once been a settlement of miners and frontiersmen and it was now a city of students and computer technicians, with a Victorian core forming the center of a town that was gentrifying and growing, acquiring a few spectacular glass-fronted highrises and a vibrant art and tourism scene.
In that environment, a college-age woman driving a four wheel vehicle was the most common of sights. That she was Asian or partly Asian would startle no one since Golport was host to a vibrant Asian community. And no one would have thought anything was particularly strange when she parked outside a low slung building atop of which a neon sign blinked the words Three Luck Dragon.
Someone might have thought it a little odd, though, when she entered the shiny red lacquered door and a hand reached out to the window and turned the Open sign to Closed, right at the beginning of the dinner hour.
* * *
Beatrice Bao Ryu, better known to her friends as Bea Ryu, didn’t find it funny, when they closed the restaurant as she came in. She found it distinctly unsettling. But she managed a small smile, striking a pose of nonchalance as she said, “I don’t actually intend to shift and start a battle with Himself in here, you know?” Her warm GeorRya accent drawled out onto what seemed for a moment to be the uncomprehending server – a skinny young man with Asian features. But he bowed to her, looking scared. “No,” he said. His accent less obvious but no more Asian. But he didn’t flip the sign to Open again. Instead, he led her to a door next to the one marked “restrooms” and knocked politely, then said something in rapid-fire Chinese.
Bea didn’t understand it. Her maternal grandmother was Chinese, but her maternal grandfather was tall, blond and of Germanic ancestry. As for Bea’s father, he was the great-grandson of Japanese immigrants to the United States. Bea’s parents spoke English and their daughter had never learned either Chinese or Japanese till college, where she’d taken two years of Japanese – which meant she could catch the occasional word and say almost nothing.
A curt Chinese word answered from inside the mysterious door. The server opened the door and remained bowed while Bea went in.
If she’d thought about it, and she’d never done so in so many words, she’d have expected the room into which she was ushered to be a sort of throne room, perhaps with some ancient gilded chair in the center.
That would have fit with what she’d read in the letters in her father’s desk drawer.
Whatever this criminal organization was, it dressed its leader in very pretty words: “Himself”, “Revered One.” “Ancient One.”
Instead, the room she entered was small – only big enough to contain a desk-like table and two chairs, one on either side of it. It might have been an interrogation cell, except that the person on the other side of the table had a Ryant metal bowl in front of him into which he was shelling peas. With a pile of unshelled peas to the right of the bowl, and a pile of shells to the left, the sleeves of his white button-down rolled up to his elbows, and his hands working busily at the homely task, the man could have been any of a hundred middle-aged Chinese employees at a hundred different Chinese restaurants.
Bea cleared her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I’ve come to the wrong room. You see, I was came to talk to The Ancient On—”
The man looked up and Bea took a step back and caught her breath, not scared exactly but startled, because the eyes were older than the middle-aged face. They were older than any face. Looking out of barely creased features, they appeared old as time and twice as deep, as though he’d existed through the uncounted ages of mankind and kept track of every slip, every error humans had made on the way to civilization.
“Oh,” Bea said.
The man said three brief words in Chinese and then his eyes widened, as though in shock. He closed his eyes a moment. “You don’t speak Chinese.” It wasn’t a question. He raised an eyebrow. “Japanese, then?”
She cleared her throat. “I– No. You see, I took a year in college, but—”
He shrugged, dismissing the matter. “It’s of little importance,” he said. “Our people have spoken many tongues, throughout the centuries. What we speak doesn’t matter, except for comfort and a sense of heritage.” His own English was almost unaccented, save for a faint hint of something British and very high bred. “What I need from you requires no great linguistic competency.”
Bea swallowed hard. She’d rehearsed this, all the long drive from Atlanta, and the nights in motel rooms, but somehow, suddenly it seemed very hard to say the words she’d planned. It was the look of immense age in the man’s eyes, she thought. But she swallowed again and said, her voice sounding strangely wavering in her own ears, “I don’t care what you require from me. I came to tell you to leave my parents alone– To leave dad’s business alone.”
The man looked up and frowned a little. His hands resumed his work of shelling peas. “Your parents,” he said at last. “Finally saw the light and sent you over. Now they have nothing more to fear from my people.”
She shook her head. “My parents did not send me over. Not that it matters. I have no intention of doing whatever you want me to do. And why you think—”
“Sit down,” the man said, gently.
Bea shook her head. Those soft words had sounded like an order, but she had no intention of obeying. In fact, despite all her best intentions and everything she’d intended to tell this creature about himself and his criminal organization, face to face with him, she found the best she could do was disobey. Just – disobey and hold on to her rebellion with every fiber in her being, even as she felt him trying to bend her to his will.
He raised his eyebrows at her. “Surely,” he said. “Your parents have told you what you owe me.”
“No,” she said. “Owe you? I don’t even know who you are except someone who has been messing with dad’s business.”
“Truly? Then you don’t know we’re an organization of dragon shape shifters?”
“Sure,” she said. “I know that. But the only reason I even knew you existed and that you wanted something with me was that I overheard mom and dad talking. I found out you were the reason dad’s office got vandalized and about the calls to his clients. The reason dad has had so much trouble keeping afloat as a veterinarian. And that to make it stop you wanted me to come and… And do something. I wasn’t sure what.”
“I see. Well, you came. That’s what matters.”
“I came to tell you it must stop.”
The man looked up at her and smiled. “Ah. Spirit will serve you well, but do sit down. I have a long explanation to make, and I despise having to look up to do it.”
She hesitated, but the truth was she wanted to know why anyone, even a criminal organization of shifters would require her presence urgently enough to interfere with her father’s business to get it.
She knew she was attractive. She had a mirror. She knew that the combination of her varied heritage had resulted in an oval face, large green eyes, and a pleasant combination of other features, all of which looked striking with her long, glossy black hair. Since about the age of sixteen, she’d become used to looks of admiration from the male half of the species.
But the truth was too that she had no illusions about the full extent of her beauty. She was pretty and striking, but not so out of the normal leagues in attractiveness that dreams of modeling had ever occurred to her. The campus of the college where she studied art could count at least a hundred women more beautiful than her.
None of her other characteristics were any further out of the ordinary. She was smart and talented, but was not going to set the world on fire with either her intellect or even with her art talent. So why would this criminal organization want her that badly?
She knew it had something to do with her turning into a dragon, but it was just now and then. Occasionally. Truly, hardly ever, since she’d turned twenty and learned to control herself.
“So?” Bea asked. “Why is it so important that I come here? And why do you think I should obey you? Or that I owe you anything?”
The man smiled. It was a surprisingly engaging smile. It seemed to her as he narrowed his eyes that a sense of amusement touched them too. “I think,” he said, softly. “That I’m about to shock you very much. However, I trust you’ll let me explain my motives before dismissing them.”
She swallowed, wondering what he meant by that.
“Forget what I said about owing me. That was… You see, where I come from, it is assumed you owe your ancestors unusual respect, and I’m the ancestor of most of the dragon shifters alive today.”
“That is hardly likely,” she said. “I know all my grandparents, and I—”
“I am not your grandfather. Not even your great grandfather. It’s much… older than that. Thousands of years. How many, I’m afraid I’ve lost track.
“But that’s imposs—”
“Please, Miss Ryu.” He paused, his hands holding a pea pod over the bowl, looking at her. Then he said, “Hear me out.”
It wasn’t a command – or it shouldn’t have been, spoken in that voice as soft as crackling flame. But she stopped and listened.
His nail ripped the pea pod apart and his finger swept down the green envelope, trickling glistening little globes into the bowl. “I have… that is… I don’t suppose your parents told you that I am your ancestor in—” He seemed to be counting in his head. “Your mother’s mother’s side and your father’s mother’s side.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “My father is Japanese and you—”
“Oh.” He dropped another spent pea pod on the growing pile and made a gesture, either dismissing that restaurant or the entire world. “This is an identity of convenience,” he said. “I told you my people predate most such things. Dragons—Dragons belong to the whole world, even if our type is mostly of Asia. There are other types—”
He resumed shelling peas, now very fast, as he spoke. “It is the immutable rule of our people that the Great Sky Dragon must be a descendant of the previous Great Sky Dragon in the male line. Unbroken male line. And that he must be a Dragon shifter. We don’t know why but that’s how… that’s how it works.” Peas tinkled into the metal bowl like falling rain. A green smell filled the room. “That was me, the many times grandson of the Great Sky Dragon, growing up on the banks of the Yalu River at a time when—” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, except to say that in my very long life, and sometimes I forget how many thousands of years it is, exactly, I’ve had wives, concubines and lovers, but—” He looked up and smiled at her. “There is no reason to blush. In a life as long as mine, well, there will be friendship and love, and, occasionally, less honorable associations. But what I meant to say is that of all my connections with human and shifter, many daughters were born. My line is threaded through dragon kind, Ryus and Lungs and many other family names are honorably descended from me. But in that time, only one son was ever born to me.” He looked up again, and amusement pulled at the corner of his mouth. “He was not born of a normal marriage. It was more… a treaty and a ritual pairing. Years ago, there was a … another dragon tribe. Near the frozen… ah… I believe what is now called Scandinavia. Their ruler was a woman, a female. She was called the Queen of The West, as I was the King of the East. We made a treaty, to keep our people from fighting each other, and.. There was a symbolic marriage. Which resulted in a son, who was not a shifter. I thought our blood didn’t work together, that we’d never have children who were shifters from that line, so I ignored it.
“Until someone stole the Pearl of Heaven and I found that while I could touch his mind, I could not control him as I could other dragon shifters. And it wasn’t just because he had dragon-blood from the tribe of the west, for I could sense he had my blood too. I had people trace back through his ancestry and found that he was descended from that long ago forgotten son. And he is my only male descendant on the unbroken male line, the only one with a power close to my own. The only one who can carry my burden. The one who will carry my burden.”
A fleeting poor bastard crossed Bea’s mind, but she did her best to look attentive and blank.
“His name is Tom Ormson and he is…” The man she was now sure was The Great Sky Dragon shrugged. “Very young. I think in his early twenties. He lives here in town and owns a diner, the George.”
“Yes?” Bea said.
“I’d like you to marry him.”
For a while, Bea was speechless. She’d heard of arranged marriages, of course, particularly in Asia, but her parents were American and thoroughly modern, and they would no more think of contracting a marriage for her, than they would think of binding her feet. When she found her voice, she said, “And he’s agreed to this?”
“Oh, no. He doesn’t even know about it.” A frown pulled at the old dragon’s mouth. “In fact, I think he has plans of marrying a panther shifter. At least he’s living with her. Completely unsuitable, of course. Her people are not our people.”
“But you think he’ll agree?” Bea asked.
“I think he’ll tell me to go to hell,” the old dragon said, and looked up with a faint smile. “And so will his girlfriend. She’s feisty enough, and she has no fear of me.”
“But… you want me to marry him? You said you can’t make him do what you wish, so…”
“No. You’ll have to find how to make him do what I wish.”
Bea stood up. Her legs were trembling. She couldn’t let her father lose the business he’d worked for all his life, but neither could she agree to this. The elderly man-dragon wanted her to seduce a total stranger one who was in a serious relationship. No. There were limits to what she was willing to do, even for her beloved father. They’d get tired of trying to force his hand eventually. They’d leave them alone. Bea couldn’t sell herself for life for the sake of her father. That was prostitution and slavery, combined.
Standing, she glared down at the Great Sky Dragon. She could feel power rolling off him, though she could not have explained what type of power or how she felt it.
And anyway, though she didn’t have a boyfriend, she’d be damned if she was going to be thrown at this stranger and make him marry her even though he was living with someone else.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ve got the wrong person. I’m sure there’s someone else you can call on, who will be willing to do it. I don’t want to trick a man who is in love with someone else into marrying me. I don’t want an arranged marriage.”
There was a long silence. “I’ll let myself out,” Bea said.
“Stay!” It wasn’t so much an order as a sudden plea. She’d turned to leave the room and now turned again. The Great Sky Dragon was looking up at her, and his eyes held an expression she’d have thought impossible: raw, undiluted fear.
“Don’t you understand?” the Great Sky Dragon said, his voice low. “Do you think this is something I’d want, throwing an untrained girl at a stubborn boy and hoping for the best? Compared to me you’re nothing but babies. I thought he could have his panther girl and be happy, and when it dissolved in a century or two, then I could guide him towards a marriage that will produce dragons.
“But there is a trial coming and I’m not sure I can– If I’m not here, he’ll need to be married to one of our own, recognizably our own. He doesn’t look like our kind. My people will rebel at his orders. And it will need to be known that he will have dragon children, to rule after him. In the battle ahead, there might not be thousands of years to spawn.”
Bea didn’t realize she’d sat down, but her trembling legs were about to not let her stand up anymore. “Why would he be giving orders?”
“My grandfather told me of the dragons-beyond-the-stars who could—who would one day attack the Earth.” The Great Sky Dragon shrugged. “I always thought it was a legend, nothing more. But– Lately I’ve had signs that it is not. There is a great power out there, encircling, trying to remove me, trying to…” He frowned. “I think trying to attack my people. I’ve lived very long, and death doesn’t scare me, but—”
“But when I go all my power, and the destiny of my people will fall on the head of Tom Ormson, a stranger, raised outside our traditions.” He held up a hand to keep her from interrupting. “Oh, I know, you also have not been taught our traditions, but everyone knows your parents, both of them, are descended from my first-born daughter. They will fall in line. And you can help your husband through the trial to come by winning for him the respect of our people.”