“So. About that dragon.” Wizard Blank could see a gleam of firelight as one of Marky’s eyes opened. A fringe of lashes tinted orange. Blank felt his lips thin. He looked around his pupil’s kitchen, which was flagstone and sweated with a cauldron of soup. Two chairs panted either side of the table, scabby and pockmarked, their straw seats sagging.
“I heard it flew right over here,” he continued, probing for a reaction.
“I didn’t hear that.”
“No? What did you hear?”
Silence. Blank listened to the impatience of the clock while he waited; then he leaned across the table, and tapped him. “Mark-Spark?”
Marky sat up, gave him an irritated look, and then slouched back in his chair. The firelight played on his lips, turned one cheek gold and the other eye socket black.
Blank lit his pipe, tasting the marl of tobacco. “You made a quick recovery from the flu.”
“I never said I had the flu. Shouldn’t you be teaching?” Marky asked.
“I don’t have any pupils at weekends.” Blank stared at him. He was disappointed, but not surprised, when Marky looked away, and waved a hand at the fire. It dipped, and drew in its tendrils, until they murmured around the edges of the logs. Bacon, the cat, flicked her ears in annoyance and turned her head to stare at them.
In the absence of their voices, the clock fell into conversation with itself. Tick? Tock. Tick? Tock. Blank thumbed a knot on the table.
Marky’s voice caught him by surprise.
“It’s funny what major panic does to a city. I bet a dragon hasn’t flown over here since the first houses were built.”
“I expect not. That’s why it’s so peculiar that one decided to do so now. The same day that you missed your exam.”
“It is peculiar, isn’t it?”
“Very peculiar.” Blank scowled.
“I wish I’d seen it.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“You saw it, didn’t you?”
“It shot flames a few feet away from me, and set my sleeve on fire. I think one could say I saw it.”
Marky clicked his fingers at Bacon, who ignored him. “One could say that.”
“I think one could say you saw it too.”
His eyes flickered. “Are you accusing me?”
Marky regarded the ceiling, his fingers laced on his chest. “I see.”
Blank stared at him across the table. Marky shifted, and looked at him.
“No.” Marky toyed with one of the ties on his tunic, glanced at him, then away, then back again. Blank lowered his chin and furrowed his brows.
“I didn’t expect you to be so upset, actually.”
“You set a dragon on the city.”
“But aren’t you just a little impressed? It was a dragon. A real, live dragon. It wasn’t an illusion. And note, it didn’t hurt anyone.”
Blank looked pointedly at his arm.
“Yes, alright. It set fire to a garden and burned your arm. I’m sorry about that.”
“Why would you set a dragon on the city?” Blank struggled to even ask the question, it was so absurd.
“I need some tea.” Blank stood up.
Marky spluttered. “That’s your only comment?”
“You reasoned out a dragon with politics. Where are the cups?”
“In the cup pile.” Marky sounded amused.
Blank scowled at the pile. “That,” he said, “is not a cup pile. That is an everything pile.”
“There’s cups in it.”
“If I’d asked for plates?”
“Then it would be the plate pile. Kettle’s in the nasturtiums.”
“Oh, good grief.” Blank rescued the kettle from the bed of leaves on the windowsill, and pumped water into it. He hung it above the fire and then went to brave the cup pile, extracted two chipped mugs, and wrinkled his nose when his arm brushed a slush of used tea-leaves.
“I didn’t think you’d want to talk about it.”
“You set a dragon on the city. I’m your guardian. I think this might need talking about.”
The firelight made Marky’s face strange, and yet there was familiarity in his hands, which rested on the table. Blank tried to fathom him as he washed the cups, tracing the trails of thought Marky had scattered in his words. He was four years younger than Blank, still shy of twenty. Idealism?
“So, talk to me.” He opened a drawer in search of a tea towel, and Marky leaned over to take the cups instead. Blank let him, struggling with ribbons of anger. Marky dried them on his sleeve. There was familiarity in the gesture, too, and their hands touched when Marky returned the cups to him.
Blank swallowed and looked away, sitting down again. In Marky’s world of chaos, where cups belonged in a filthy state on the sink, and the kettle nested with nasturtiums, a political dragon didn’t seem so unlikely.
Blank exhaled. “Talk, Marky.”
“I heard the baker finally paid you for the spell he -”
“About the dragon.”
“I don’t know what to say about the dragon. There. We’ve talked about it.” Marky fidgeted.
“We might need to go into a little more depth than that.” Blank shifted, and let the space loom between them.
Marky looked down, brows pinched, and juddered his nail over the tabletop. Blank saw the edges of his lips quiver, in search of an expression.
The kettle began to squeal as its belly became too hot for comfort, and Blank crooked a finger at it. He conducted it to the cups, and watched it pour.
“I’m not sure you deserve tea.” He beckoned the cups to him and pushed one across the table. Marky’s face took a darker tone.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re a hypocrite. You hate the system as much as I do.”
Blank drew his cup to his lips and let the steam seep across them. It was too hot to drink. “How does a dragon do something about the system?”
“A dragon causes chaos.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do.” A smirk curled across Marky’s lips. “Come, Blank. This whole city runs because one man has every aspect of it tucked under his thumb. So I found something which he didn’t have control of, and introduced it. Result – chaos. That in itself proves that the system’s flawed. Anything which is sound doesn’t shake that easily.”
“Most things shake where dragons are involved.”
Marky looked annoyed. “Yes, yes.”
“I… just dislike the monarchical system.”
“Big word.” Blank felt a flash of coldness at Marky’s arrogance. Marky’s eyes narrowed and his lips thinned.
“You needn’t be so superior. All I’m saying is that we don’t need a single ruler.”
“I feel a desire to distance myself from someone so childish in his approach to politics.”
Marky’s lips parted, but no words came. He looked away, and a blush pillowed out across his face. Bacon jumped into his lap and butted his chest. He dropped a hand to fondle her ears while he stared at the fire. Blank shifted.
Silence. Even the clock sounded accusing now. Tock.
“Very well.” Marky ran a hand through his curls. “I’m not the only one who wants a different system, you know. There are people helping me.”
“What makes you think you have the right?”
“What makes you think that the king has the right to sit where he does? He doesn’t. Kings exist because their ancestors were the best at wielding swords and manipulating people. Good grief.” Marky made a derisive noise. “What utter ridiculousness.”
“And I suppose persuading a dragon to fly over the city and spurt some flames makes you a leader?”
“Who said I wanted to be a leader?”
“Then what do you want, Marky?”
“I would have thought you would know.”
Blank stared into his cup, and realised that he didn’t know. He rarely knew what Marky wanted, but the more he thought about it, the more his mind wandered back to when they’d first met, at a ball. Blank had never liked balls. Shiny curtsies. Candy dresses. An evening of how do you dos and nice to meet yous and lipstick greetings and – Marky, who
arrived with a live peacock, and set it loose in the room during the final waltz. The mess it had caused. And as they cleared the room, he’d found himself next to the red-haired boy, with every feature caught and pearled with laughter.
That was brilliant.
It was all he’d found time to say. And Marky’s uncle, Blank’s second cousin eight times removed – or was it six? – had sent him a letter three days later to ask if he might take Marky as a pupil. When the uncle died, Blank also became Marky’s guardian.
The difference between a peacock and a dragon wasn’t small. For starters, the peacock hadn’t done much except beat its wings and drive the party guests into a frenzy with its squawking. But then, the more he thought about it, the more he realised that the dragon had done almost exactly the same. If you discounted the burn on his arm and the broken tiles on the rooftops which had served as perches.
Blank sat back in his chair and Marky watched him. One of his nails cut a groove in his lip as he pressed on it.
“Still angry, Blank?”
Marky exhaled, cast his eyes down, and took some dice from his pocket to play with. Bacon watched as they burst from his hand onto the tabletop.
“Anyway,” Marky continued as he collected them into his palm again. “I decided that enough was enough. So I gathered some help, got some friends in the palace to assist me. We… uhh… borrowed something from the king. You might remember the fuss before the incident with the dragon?”
“The king’s seal? You stole the king’s seal?”
“Technically, no. Someone borrowed it for me.”
“Marky,” Blank growled. “I might make you write out the definition of the word ‘steal’ a few hundred times.”
“We returned it.”
“Probably out of cockiness. Borrowing requires permission.”
Marky put his chin on his hands. “It depends. The way I see it, the king borrows power from the people, but he tries to keep it. And I don’t like it, Blank. I don’t like it.”
They stared at each other for a while, until Marky looked away. Blank heard him draw a shallow breath.
“I want your help.”
“I won’t put you on the throne.”
“There won’t be a throne. I don’t want a throne. I want a system free from the fingerprints of tyranny. I want a system that works for the people of the city.” He tossed his curls off his face, forehead slick with sweat.
The tea was cool enough to drink now. Blank forced some down his throat. Marky threw the dice again and they rattled when they hit the wood. A chunk of coal dropped down in the fire.
“So, when the baker told me you were ill…”
“Yes, I asked him to.”
“I was worried about you.”
Marky looked down at the table, stirring a finger round and round on the wood. “Would you help me? Are you still angry, Blank?”
Blank reached across to stop the movement and took Marky’s hands while he thought about it. The warm fingers flexed in his own, the dice huddled in the middle. Blank thought about how they’d sat by the fire, played dice with some of Blank’s other friends, and how they’d all talked about the system. How Marky had listened. How he would destroy himself trying to change things.
He could feel Marky trembling, and together their hands made a nest, a valley, a world for the dice. Marky’s fingers were thin and small, and Blank folded them closed, until they were hidden by his own.