Then to the dragon mountain
rode the scarred king
with nine guards to shield him,
closer than brothers.

“What is this? Meat?”
Li, captain of King Xau’s guards,
chewed on a hardened lump
from the way-fort
where they’d changed horses.

“Diseased pig,” said Leong.

“Old dog,” said Atun.

“Dog food,” said Gan.

“Lunch,” said King Xau.

And so they rode.
Sixteen, seventeen hours a day,
setting out before dawn,
eating in the saddle;
Captain Li careful to keep
at least two guards
riding ahead of the king,
two behind, two flanking him;
every traveler, every tree
measured for threat.

Yet, dried dog food or not,
the journey itself a joy to Li,
to ride at Xau’s side
past farmers tilling fields,
a scattering of sheep.

On the fourth dayDragonMountain
an undulation on the horizon,
a hazy blue-gray unevenness
that formed into foothills,
a ridge of rock and ice and snow,
the dragon mountain itself,
where kings were chosen,
where Xau’s brothers’ bones lay,
where Xau, then only a boy,
had claimed a throne.

Li’s third time at the mountain,
his first to accompany the king
to the heights.

Leaving the others behind
at the mountain fastness,
Li and Xau set off
in the middle afternoon.
No weapons. No armor. No horses.

Li looked up at the mass
of sharp-edged rock and ice,
holding back questions.

Three miles. Four miles.
The way steepened.
the mountain fastness
lost in shadow below.
A black speck descended,
growing, hinged wings beating.

Li placed himself
between the dragon
and his king.

Wind, a reek of smoke
as the dragon landed a man’s length from Li,
its golden eyes, dark-flecked,
staring right at him,
steam issuing from the black holes
of its nostrils.

“Step aside, Captain,”
said the dragon, her breath ash.
“I could burn your king to cinders
whether you stand in front of him
or not.”

Li held his ground.

“Hah!” said the dragon. “You defy me.
Good. Shield your king at all costs.”

Xau moved alongside him,
set his hand on Li’s shoulder.
“It’s all right, Li. We trust her.”

“Do not! Do not trust anyone!
The Hidden Queen died three hours ago.
Murdered. Poisoned. A gasping death,
eight days from start to finish.”

(How could the dragon know that?
No pigeon, no messenger so swift.)

She turned her head away, flamed hugely.
The thin snow cover vaporized,
the air where they stood flaring hot
as a blast from a blacksmith’s forge.

Li weighed his options
if the dragon should attack–
to try for her eye sockets, barehanded,
perhaps gain enough time for Xau to run–

“We are sorry.” Xau’s voice soft.
“We met her once. We liked her.”

“Liked her? She was manipulative,
gluttonous and devious.”
The dragon lowered her neck,
laid her head flat.
“I will miss her greatly.
We spoke to each other often,
she in her underground squalor,
I on my mountain.”

(They’d spoken–
with hundreds of miles between them–
Li careful not to react.)

“Are you in danger also?” asked Xau.
“Can we help you?”

“Me?!” An explosive snort.
“I summoned you to warn you.
The Hidden Queen’s death
will be ruled an accident. It was not.
I have tasted a foulness in my dreams,
a creeping cruelty unlike the demon.
Strengthen your alliances. Ready your army.”

“How much time do we have?” asked Xau.

“Years, not months, I think.”
She lifted her head, looked at Li.
“Captain, you must be ready now.
They may try to murder Xau
long before they move to open war.”

“Thank you for the warning.”
Bleak the thought of how many ways
a king, his king, might be killed.

His king who stepped past him,
sat down by the dragon,
leaning his back against her
as if it were a normal thing to do,
a thing he had done before.

Then the king and the dragon talked,
and Li stood, watching them,
as dusk darkened to night.
The sky hung bright with stars
when Xau at last settled himself
against the dragon’s bulk,

The dragon sighed. Closed her eyes.

The slow-wheeling stars marked another hour
while Li stood guard, his back chilled,
the heat of the dragon’s body
warming his face, his chest,
the front of his legs.

The world below him charcoal on charcoal.
Remote. Unreal.

The dragon opened one eye,
a faint golden glow.
“Do you plan,” she asked Li,
“on staying awake all night?”

“I do.”

That eye considered him.
“Good. He chose his captain well.”
The eye closed.

Li stood,
watching over his king,
as the stars swept out the hours.



Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but now lives in Pittsburgh. “Dragon Mountain” is part of her epic fantasy told in poems, The Sign of the Dragon. The first part of this epic, Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon, Book 1, won the 2016 Elgin Award, and the opening poem, “Interregnum,” won the 2015 Rhysling Award. A dozen of the poems may be read at http://www.thesignofthedragon.com



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