The Emperor's Dragon

 


I crouch in my tiny saddle. Despite the huge wing spread on the ground behind me, I do not feel like a dragon. I feel like a scribe who is not only far from home, but also far from himself.
 
“Are you ready?”
 
I am not, but the question is not directed at me. The runner is asking An Su, my crew chief. Just as well; my mouth is too dry to reply.
 
I miss the rustle of scrolls and the taste of ink beneath my fingernails. I should never have designed a kite. It was just for the spring festival; a few nights of tinkering with bamboo and paper seemed like harmless entertainment, and I remember looking forward to an event where my tiny size would not matter. I apprenticed as a scribe because I am too small to labor like my brothers. Master Chan understood, and under his patient tutelage, I was improving. I should have devoted my spare time to calligraphy instead of entering the kite competition.
 
Fate was cruel to me: I won.
 
Winning brought me to the attention of Commander Lin Ho. I noticed his face between the shoulders of other men because they gave him space, and because he was watching me. When he limped over to speak to me as I collected my purse, I thought he wanted to hear about my kite design, about how the instability that made it hard to fly was its greatest asset in maneuverability. Instead, he told me I had the heart of a warrior. I should not have smiled. He was convinced he was right, and he drafted me into the dragons on the spot. I looked to Master Chan, but he shook his head. You do not refuse the Emperor’s man.
 
Commander Lin promised I can go back to my ink and scrolls if I fly one mission with them, but it is a hollow promise. The mission is deadly.
 
“Why do you call yourselves dragons?” I asked him.
 
“We fly, breathe fire and deliver death,” he said. “What else could you call us?”
 
As far as I can tell, the man has no doubt at all.
 
Nor does An Su. He nods confidently, and the runner vanishes back into the morning gloom.
 
An Su ties my hair back, turning my head toward the wall. I know the wall intimately. This stretch of it is impressive, a massive stone construct that no Mongol raider would dare to attack. In the weeks since we arrived, I have been running on it every morning, turning the soft legs of a scribe into weapons of war. I can climb every stair of the four towers now, and run from one to the next without stopping for breath, and I can do it with heavy shin-guards on, which amazes me.
     
“Good,” said Commander Lin. “You are ready.”
     
He is so wrong.
     
I am not ready, and neither is the wall. Teams of oxen haul earth and sand and stone, night and day, and men exhaust themselves to raise the newer parts to the height and strength of this small completed stretch. It is too late. No number of men can finish the wall in time. I know how it feels. I also wish I was bigger, stronger, or somewhere else.
     
Wong Mei startles me. She has dismounted and walked back to my position.
     
“I can spare a grenade,” she says. “Would you like one?”
     
“I don’t see how my having one grenade will help.”
     
She holds the earthenware ball against her temple, and meets my eye.
     
The scraps of iron within would guarantee a quick death. I can’t speak, but I shake my head.
     
She squeezes my shoulder and returns to her crew, bouncing the grenade in her hand as if it were a melon at a fruit stall.
     
The wing can only lift so much. Mei can carry a score of grenades, Jun Li a few less, Commander Lin perhaps a dozen. I am the only one light enough to take the enormous crossbow mounted in front of my saddle.
     
An Su hauls the heavy bowstring from tip to tip and hooks it on with a grunt. Even at low tension, the bow thrums ominously, turning my legs and arms to water.
     
“Remember,” he says as he casually places the three iron bolts in firing position, “if you wind the bow back too soon, it will begin to weaken. It can only hold full tension for one or two breaths before the wood will start to crack.”
     
I nod. I have practiced. I know how long I need.
     
“Get it right,” he adds cheerfully, “and these quarrels will go right through a horse, never mind a man!”
     
Three bolts. One shot. I taste bile, and swallow it down.
     
An Su crouches to inspect the banner furled below me, and then walks behind me to inspect the shaft and the wheels.
     
I don’t turn around. I stare ahead, into the west wind. Before me, three grey shadows billow up one by one in the morning twilight. This will be the dawn of the dragons.
     
At a word from An Su, my handlers lift the silk wing up to catch the breeze, and it flaps and riffles before it snaps taut. I scan the form above me as it begins to tug upwards on my saddle. The wing arches overhead like a footbridge from my left to my right. Unlike my little paper kite, the wing is completely frameless, taking its shape from wind breathing into the open mouths of the silk compartments and the lines supporting me.
     
“You won’t get far without this.” An Su grins as he hands me a tarry length of rope, glowing red at one end. A whiff of smoke from the tip catches in my lung, and then I am rising as the crew winches out my line.
     
There is a great commotion behind me, and I tighten my grip on the control handles before I realize it isn’t an attack by the Mongols. It’s our diversion, drawing the attention of any enemy sentries who might be watching.
     
We won’t go unnoticed for long, but we don’t have to.
     
My saddle is above the wall now, and I can see the campfires of the enemy. This will be no mere market raid, led by young men with more bravery than brains. Our emperor has been pushing the border north, and the Mongols want their land back. They have been massing for weeks, and sorties have been probing our defenses, controlled by a Khan who watches from the rear.
     
Commander Lin casts off his line and turns to cross the wall, and Jun Li and Wong Mei follow. I look left, over the peaceful farms of the empire. Somewhere beyond the horizon is my home in Szechuan province. I stifle a moan and turn right like the others. We will glide for a time, quietly closing the distance. I don’t have to navigate, I just follow Jun Li.
     
The horses notice us first. They whinny and begin to mill around beneath us. As the men near them look up, Mei drops a grenade. It explodes over the clump of ponies, and they break free of their handlers, and crash through the camp, trampling men and tearing down tents.
     
Officers bellow orders and men begin to shoot when we are still high above them. The arrows lose speed as they climb toward us, then pass under us so slowly that we could reach down and catch them before they turn over and plummet back toward the enemy ranks. I hear the order to cease firing ripple below as the commanders relay it to the men. The shooting stops. They will wait for us to lose height. It will soon be obvious that we cannot glide far, but the enemy is in for a surprise. Behind my saddle sits a strange fan, with a central spindle and four blades like a little windmill.
     
For now it is calm, and I check that my fuse is still burning. The wheels of fireworks on the shaft beneath my saddle are within easy reach behind me. I will light up at the first sign of smoke from Lin or the others. I pull my goggles down over my eyes.
     
“Ignition!” Lin’s cry is barely audible. I light the first wheel. It sputters to life and sparks fly outward as it starts to turn the shaft. I taste smoke until the fan begins to make a wind. The dragon is breathing. As the fireworks accelerate, they begin to whistle and shriek. Hurling sparks and trailing smoke, the four of us set course for the heart of an army.
     
Lin has gauged it well. As the first wheel fizzles and dies, I can see I am within striking distance. In the moment of quiet, I hear the next order.
     
“Banners!”
     
I jerk the knot, and the silk unfurls beneath me, the serpentine black dragon painted upon it rippling in the wind. I hope the enemy bowmen will aim at it. The banner doesn’t look like much of a barrier, but the flapping fabric works like magic. Arrows cannot pierce it. It catches them, yielding like a net and dissipating their striking force.
     
“Ignition!” The others light their second wheel and surge ahead. Mine is different, smaller and less powerful, without noisemakers. I start a shallow dive toward the Khan’s observation tower, a bamboo scaffold that allows him to oversee the field of battle right to the wall. The other dragons circle overhead, spewing fire and noise, trying to draw the attention of the bowmen. The first arrow strikes my banner with a soft whap. I start pedaling.
     
The pedals turn easily at first, winding line onto the axle, drawing the arms of my great crossbow slowly back. As the stiff arms bend, I have to work harder. This is why I ran the stairs of the towers every morning, unburdened at first, then with my legs weighed down by the heavy shin-guards. The arrows are striking harder now. WHAP. WHAP-WHAP. I cannot see the shooters. To reach me, the soldiers must fire from below, and the banner that devours the strength of the missiles blocks my view. I am straining to turn the pedals now as the bowstring closes in on the hook. Grenades fall and burst above the throng. The other dragons are sowing panic in my path, trying to give me a shot.
     
I can see men on the tower. The Khan has climbed it to see what is going on. He stands among his men, jade glinting from his armor. He looks directly at me, and takes up his crossbow. He ignores the dragons wheeling above, even as grenades explode and men topple screaming from the little platform. I am the danger, but I am also the vulnerable one, and he knows it. From his tower, the Khan and his guard can shoot at me head on. For the first time in my life, I wish I was smaller, and it makes me grunt out a laugh.
     
I power the last strokes. I feel the thunk of the bowstring locking back, and stop pedaling. In the midst of all the noise, calm settles on me. The huge crossbow is armed. My legs stop shaking. The three bolts are ready. And so am I.
     
The general and his last remaining guard draw their bows. I pull my knees up to my chest, to make the smallest target and to put the shin-guards to the fore. They are my only armor. He loads a bolt as I rush toward him. I can see his face through the sighting tube. He is unafraid. He raises his bow to fire.
     
A crack across my knee as his bolt is deflected by my shin-pads.
 
He stoops to cock his bow, and when he straightens, I fire.
     
Two of my iron bolts punch through his armor, and his shot goes wild. As I turn to light the last wheel, a bolt hisses by my ear, fired at my face by his guard. Then the fireworks crackle and catch as I zoom over the tower.
     
I climb away, and set course for the wall.
     
In the quieter air aloft, out of range of the enemy, it finally filters through that I have accomplished the impossible. I have slain the Khan and survived. I can ask for my freedom; go home to my ink and scrolls.
     
But I know I will not. There is new fire in my heart and it flares white hot.
     
I am a dragon.