Sunlight scattered like fire

from the dragon’s wings

as she landed beside Prince Keng

in a rush of air and smoke,

snow melting beneath her belly,

beneath her clawed feet.


Keng bowed to her,

willed his face calm.

Two and a half weeks of lessons–

he should be used to her–

shouldn’t keep thinking

she was about to eat him–


She grinned at him,

baring teeth long as daggers,

her breath ash, her eyes gold.

“Good morning, Princeling.

Today we will discuss

your father’s failings.”


Indignation braced Keng:

“A short lesson then.

My father is brave, honest,

honorable, always puts

the kingdom before himself,

always does what’s right.”


She snorted. “For a start,

excessive honesty is a failing

not a strength in a ruler.

Better to break your word

than lose your kingdom.

Name two more of Xau’s flaws.”


“If you fault him

for being honest,

then maybe you also fault him

for being weaker than you–

though that’s unfair–

he’s a great warrior.”


“Perhaps not great,

but certainly proficient,

a skill he acquired

through hard work

not natural aptitude.

Try again.”


Keng sat down on a rock,

scuffed his boot in the snow,

thought about his father,

whom he had been trying

not to think about,

not to worry about.


He said, not looking at her,

remembering his father

taking him riding, “Sometimes,

when he’s not meeting people,

he looks … ordinary,

not like a king.”


“Good,” said the dragon.

“A king’s power derives

from people acknowledging

him as a king. Wiser not

to give them cause to doubt it.

Name one more failing.”


Keng hesitated,

not wanting to say it,

as if to say it was a betrayal,

shouted it in the end:

“Hana! There was no advantage

to the kingdom from marrying Hana!”


“Not quite, but close.

Xau’s mistake was in seeking

to marry Hana in the first place.

Once that mistake was made,

it would have been still worse

to back down to Vihaz.”


The dragon turned aside,

flamed hugely, vaporizing snow.

“Difficulties Xau might have avoided

by separating sex from marriage.

Better to bed her than wed her,

whoring expected of a king.”


“He loved her!”


“A weakness.”

Darker gold in the dragon’s eyes.

“Love, friendship, affection,

all three are weaknesses.

Yet she who lacks all three

is worthless.”


The dragon’s eyes nearly black now.

“No other human I have ever

liked so well as your father.”

She stared at Keng,

laid her head flat on the snow.

“He is hurt, Princeling.”




“For the past three days,

he has been in pain.

I cannot tell the cause.”


A thickness in Keng’s throat.

“If you knew–three days?

Why didn’t you tell me?”


“I hoped he would recover.

He has not yet done so,

and you are very young.

You will need time

to prepare yourself, if he dies, 

if I name you king.”


Keng shook his head,

as if that would push

her words away.

“I don’t want to be king.”


“Nor did he.”


The lesson forgotten.

Both of them silent.


Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for over twenty years. “Seventeenth Lesson” is part of her epic fantasy told in poems, The Sign of the Dragon. Several more poems from the epic, including her Rhysling-Award-winning poem “Interregnum,” may be read at her website

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