By Jo Hart
Valentin leaned against the brick doorway and lit up a battered cigarette as he waited. Around him, the sounds of urban decay at lunchtime; cars trickling between one traffic jam and the next, kids screaming at each other, blue collar workers yapping on mobile phones as they walked down to the sandwich shop. He didn't bother to glance back at his car it was a battered old Renault that no one would bother to trash.
He took a long drag, and was about to lean on the doorbell again when the door opened. Inside, silhouetted against the relentlessly 70s decor, was a statuesque Indian woman. Her sari was shot silk, the colours bleeding from sky blue to olive green. Her nail polish matched. And as she recognised him, her expression shifted from a barrier of broken glass that promised a world of pain to unwary intruders to a suspicious acceptance.
"Hello, Aunt Madhari," the young firedrake said cheerfully. "Can I come in?"
"I'm surprised, and somewhat disturbed to see you here," the woman had explained solemnly. "And I have yet to fully understand what this means, or indeed if you have led heaven's wolves to my door. Your welcome in my house is therefore conditional. I would like that understood."
"Tea?" she asked, pausing at the corridor.
Val settled himself in an overstuffed armchair, and nodded gratefully. "White, no sugar. Unless it's Earl Grey or Lapsang."
"It will be Darjeeling, and you can take it or leave it as you please." There was a whisk of blue-green silk, and of smooth hair that was darker and richer than the greenest of jade as she whirled and left the room.
"That's cool," the student called after her. The sitting room was small and cluttered. Framed prints of Indian dancers in stylised poses hung on the walls and no shelf or cranny that could hold a knick-knack was unfilled. The blinds were drawn, leaving a gloom to which even the yellow wallpaper could only lend a sickly tinge. Candles in painted glasses were placed strategically, and when Valentin closed his eyes - as he did now, taking the opportunity to mentally review his reasons for visiting - he could feel their pinprick glows caressing his skin, like the kisses of miniature suns.
From another room, the distant whistling of steam through a kettle mingled with a local radio station. The man's thoughts drifted, reflecting on old memories, and on new hopes. He'd found her current earthly incarnation, and that was the first step. He thought that the last time they had spoken, she'd been more friendly. He had been 15 years younger then ... no more than a child.
The floor creaked. When it creaked again, and the doorframe groaned in answer, his eyes flicked open and his head snapped round automatically. The Indian woman was holding a mug of tea in each hand, and the insouciant smile and wary eyes were unchanged. But now, her head brushed the ceiling. From the waist downwards, heavy coils tessellated in gleaming blue-green scales bore her from the ground, the muscles rippling as she moved. Behind her, more of those coils filled the corridor, and who knows how far beyond. Her upper body was unclothed, except in henna patterns and bright tattoos.
"I thought I would change into something more comfortable." That careful serpentine smile again as she swayed forwards, placing the mugs on a table with a dancer's movement, perfect and controlled. Smooth cinnamon skin, soft breasts, luminous eyes, tattoos of snakes and women that moved as she moved.
"Beautiful," Val murmured, riveted. "I remembered that you were beautiful. But memories fade." He shifted his weight, and added carefully. "Thank you."
"You are very like your grandsire, although he would have been more eloquent," answered the naga queen. With barely a warning, her coils rearranged themselves swiftly and her torso swung back to the rear of the room. "Now explain, Valerian." It was not a request.
"It's Valentin," he corrected her, and then he began.
"Yes, Economics. And learning better English will be useful, no?"
Madhari drank tea from an ugly brown mug, her hands glittering with jeweled rings. A brow lifted, perhaps amused.
Val continued, "I was left a great deal of gold, precious stones. You know my family likes to hoard? So I thought it would be useful to learn financial skills. I may hoard shares and investments. Gold is sweet, but this is the 21st century, non? And so I came to London to study."
"There was a reason we fostered you in Geneva. You should have stayed."
The naga shook her head, and her gleaming coils rippled with movement as she rearranged them. She extracted a file from the top of a bookcase, opening it. Val drank more tea, politely.
"There was a fire in a pub in Peckham two weeks ago. Three people died in the blaze." Madhari skimmed the page, and directed a pale stare at her visitor. Her brows curved lightly upwards in quizzical arcs.
Val shrugged and shook his head. "I heard it go up," he said, "But nothing to do with me."
"Mmm." She turned a page. "Car bomb in Edgware the same week. No organisation claimed responsibility. It took out a gas main. Must have been quite a fire."
"Guess so. I've never been to Edgware."
"Incendiary device in the lift at Covent Garden tube station", the woman continued to read. "That one was in the news last week."
She pinned him with an incurious stare.
This time, Val looked away. "I lost it there," he admitted. "That was pretty bad."
"Fine blaze, no doubt."
"Any more fires?"
The student shook his head, and reached again for his mug. "I know there have been a lot in the city recently but I promise you, that's the only one that was me. I figure there must be a lot of celestials fighting, I heard the disturbance too and I can feel the flames from the far side of town. But --"
"Are they on your trail?"
He glanced at the naga, and then into the tiny heart of a candle flame. "Hope not," he said eventually. "I don't want that sort of trouble."
"That sort of trouble killed your ancestors," she answered tartly. "And it will kill the both of us also if you let it."
"Yeah, I know," said the firedrake.
"So." Again, the coils rearranged at lightning speed and the Naga's head now hovered on the same level as his own, eyes narrowing. "Why are you here now? If you wished help, it were easier to ask without the added danger of leading hunters to my door."
"I ... have a bit of a problem, and I thought maybe, you being a woman and all. I mean, I didn't know who to talk to and -"
"- and there's this girl."
"Ah." Madhari's eyes danced beneath lidded eyes.
"- and she's pregnant."
For three heartbeats, there was silence. Three dragon's heartbeats, which are far more distantly spaced than those of fast-living mammals.
"If you kill her, that would solve your problem."
"I don't want to do that."
"It is what they will do if they find her," the snake-woman said coolly. "You have lived perhaps too long amongst the humans, from the look on your face. If you come to me for advice, expect it to be cold-blooded."
"I know." He looked up at her. "I do appreciate it, Madhari. But I can't do that."
Despite the propaganda, not every dragon perished during the purity crusade.
The great drakes, who arrogantly called themselves the lords of the world, fought terrifying battles against Uriel's finest. Great swathes of the marches are still wastelands from the fighting, strewn with the bones and feathers of angels who bravely died many centuries ago. Younger angels may dream of slaying dragons in the name of God, but those who were there remember the flames and the casualties, and the many difficulties of waging a war in the far marches against creatures who ruled the domains there.
Some dragons such as the cunning chinese water dragon, or dragon-kin like the cowardly cockatrice or the relentlessly logical naga, fled before the wars ran to their inevitable conclusion. But they did not flee alone. The eggs of the great dragons were given into their keeping; a trust which has in the main not been betrayed, although none of those creatures are perfect foster-parents.
And only recently have those eggs begun to hatch.
There are now a small handful of young dragons once more, roaming the Earth and the Marches. Watched over by the ancient and secretive council of dragon-kin, they grow and learn on Earth -- a much safer place to hide young dragons against whom heaven once swore blood-vendetta than in the Marches.
Like Valentin, the firedrake, they have no elders to teach them the ways of the past, or how to best use their powers. So destruction tends to follow them quite closely. Some have been seduced into Hell's maw with the promise of power and protection. Beleth and Baal have privately come to blows already over who can best use the new recruits, and how best to produce an army of the creatures.
As yet, Heaven doesn't know. But however innocent or harmless these young dragons may seem now, who can say whether they could potentially become as deadly and as malicious as their terrible forbears.
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