Black Dragon: Chapter Four | Verso.ink

Black Dragon: Chapter Four

By Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

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Ilse

The climb grew steeper, the path becoming stone steps, and Erica found herself looking up as she walked. Asami believed a ship had come through the sky there. She remembered the murals of the ship in the clouds and shook her head. It wasn’t possible. Was it? She could imagine it, but only like she imagined fairy tales.

“Do you live very far up?” she asked Adam, pausing a moment to catch her breath. She’d never been the most active person, and all the walking today and yesterday was a little exhausting.

“Not too much farther. Are you all right?” Adam stopped walking to wait for her. “I’m sorry. The islanders don’t come up here; it must be a little tiring for you.”

“They… don’t come up at all?” Erica asked.

“Not often. I’ve invited someone up once or twice, but…” he glanced up the path and lowered his voice. “To be honest, it’s not usually a good idea. Besides, my parents never invited anyone up. That’s why no one knew Ilse or I existed until we came down the first time.”

Erica followed his gaze. “Are your parents still up there?” she asked, remembering Asami’s mysterious stories. Adam blinked, and Erica realized she was probably being quite rude. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,” she said quickly, starting up the stairs again.

“I don’t mind you asking,” he said, falling into step with her. “Most people don’t have the courage to ask, but the answers aren’t secret.” He took a long breath. “No, my parents aren’t here. They left two centuries ago. I don’t know where they are now, or why they had to go. I don’t really have much more information on that account than anyone else.”

“Two hundred years?” It was the same number Asami had given, wasn’t it? She’d assumed that was nonsense, but magic or not, he had some kind of real power. “It was really you back then?”

He nodded. “There’s only four of us altogether, so far as I know. My parents, Ilse, and me. That goes for all history on the island, when it comes to the dragons.”

“I’m sorry.”

He paused. “Sorry? Why?”

Erica flushed, pulling at her hat. “I… Isn’t it lonely for you?” she asked. “If you’ve been here so long, with just your sister…”

Adam blinked at her. “It… it is.” He looked up the path again and spoke quietly. “Often it is. But it’s not something people usually notice. And it’s fine.” His voice returned to a normal volume as he continued. “Our parents must have had a good reason to leave; they wouldn’t have abandoned us unless they had to. We manage all right with just the two of us, and there are people in the city we can talk to. Chief Kokoro, for example.”

It still sounded lonely, given the way people seemed to treat them. Even Chief Kokoro had acted with reverence towards them, hadn’t he? They couldn’t have many friends if everyone believed them some sort of gods, could they? And he sounded so certain about his parents, but if they really just left, it seemed more reasonable that they simply didn’t care.

And yet, her own father had sent her away without explanation, and she couldn’t imagine him as anything but loving to her.

Erica glanced up to ask if any of the murals of Adam’s parents, back in the city, were at all accurate, but stopped as her eyes fell on what must be their destination. Adam smiled a little awkwardly at her wide-eyed stare.

“Home,” he said softly. “What do you think?”

It was a castle. Probably as large as six or more of Hitomi’s house, all stacked up on each other like building blocks. The castle was built of stones, and a tower decorated one side. Beneath the tower lay a newer-looking building, much smaller, where a cow and several chickens grazed in a little, fenced- in area. The other side of the castle held a door, carved from wood, which seemed to be the main entrance.

“It’s… big,” Erica said. Beside her, Adam laughed.

“You don’t say.” He shook his head in amusement. “Yes, I believe you’re right. It is rather large.”

She flushed, pulling at her hat. “I just… there’s really only two of you living there? What can you possibly do with so much space?”

Adam smiled at her and she felt herself relax a little. “Yes, it’s just us two,” he confirmed after a moment, starting to walk again.“Who else would live here? There aren’t any more dragons.”

Erica pulled at her hat, shaking her head in wonder. “Servants?” she offered.

“We don’t need them. I can manage all right; I’d get bored quickly without all the work to do,” Adam shrugged. “Besides, it’s better not to have… well, regular people up here.” He lowered his voice. “I couldn’t ask it of anyone. Not every day: they’d probably go mad.”

Erica was about to ask why, but Adam suddenly stopped and she lost the question, startled. She followed his gaze up to a high window in the castle, where a tiny, dark figure was watching them. Erica could see the glitter of her silver eyes in the early light, even from so far.

“Sorry Ilse,” Adam murmured, and the figure looked like it might have nodded in reply. Erica stiffened.

“Can she… hear us?” she asked nervously. Surely not…

“I don’t know if she was listening the whole time,” Adam said. “But she could have been. She could have been watching us too… I probably should have warned you,” he apologized. “I just wasn’t thinking about it. She usually watches when I go out without her, so I’m used to it, but I know it can be disconcerting for other people.”

“It’s alright,” Erica said automatically, though she wasn’t sure it really was. She gave a shiver at the idea of those tiny, glittering eyes following her without her knowledge, and she lowered her voice. “So, you’re always either with her or being watched by her? Constantly?”

He nodded. “Most of the time.” Looking up again, they saw that Black Dragon had left the window, and he let out a low breath. “It’s all right,” he continued, starting to walk again. “I’m all Ilse has. I don’t mind her watching me. Besides, I’m used to it.”

Erica studied the empty window as she walked. “How long has she been doing that? Watching you all the time, I mean?”

“Centuries,” he said. “As long as she’s been able to. Of course, I’m not the only one she watches; when my parents were here, she spent more time watching them than me, but that may be because I was more often actually with her.”

Centuries. “And you’re afraid of her?” Erica asked. “Like everyone else? I can’t imagine spending so much time around someone who frightened me so much.”

Adam flinched, looking up towards the empty castle window. “Please, she may be listening still,” he said softly, and Erica flushed.

“Sorry,” she whispered.

“It’s all right. Just… I don’t like to talk about it when I know she… well.” he swallowed, his hands clenching slightly behind his back. “It isn’t her fault, Erica. I want her to be comfortable with me, and it’s hard enough without adding tension by talking about it like that. She’s a little kid, however long she’s lived: she needs me.”

Erica nodded, and they fell into silence as they walked the last stretch of the path, reaching the castle doors at last. The sun was higher in the sky now, and the sunrise’s colors nearly gone. Adam pulled the doors open with ease and stepped aside, to let his guest in before him. Erica murmured a thank you as she passed him, a nervous feeling growing in her stomach. It wasn’t that she expected anything horrible, but all she’d seen and heard about the dragons since she arrived in this strange new place was just… too much. She couldn’t quite process it all, and a fearful voice in her mind warned that this could be a trap to get rid of the one person who didn’t fall prey to whatever their power was. She could be an unwitting fly being lured into a spider’s web, oblivious to her upcoming fate as her host’s meal.

Erica shook her head to banish the thought. Asami’s stories were getting to her head: no one was going to be eaten here. Shuddering at the image of such a scene, she forced herself to take her first look around inside a castle. The entry room was large and mostly empty, with no windows and no torches or lanterns that Erica could find, but somehow she could see as well as if she were outside on a bright summer’s day. There was a sort of faint blur to the walls, and she guessed they were somehow generating the light themselves, by the same power Adam had used to make the tree grow.

“This way,” Adam said, stepping past her to open another door on the far side of the room. He led her through several hallways, all lit the same way the entry room was, and to a flight of stairs. All along the way, doors popped up here and there as if to invite the castle’s guest to explore and lose herself in endless passages, each door elaborately carved with symbols and pictures Erica didn’t know. Of course, it was unlikely to actually get too lost going through them; the castle wasn’t that enormous. But Erica couldn’t help being curious of what they might be hiding. Adam chuckled uncomfortably at her awed expression as they passed another door halfway up the stairs.

“You shouldn’t be so excited about those,” he observed. “Those rooms are almost all just filled with storage.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “Things pile up over the centuries. There’s only two of us here: we don’t have use for half of it. But there isn’t really a good way to get rid of what we don’t need, so we just leave them in the rooms we don’t spend much time in.”

Erica glanced at the door again. “What will you do when you run out of space?”

“... I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “We’ll figure something out. Maybe I’ll build a storage building to put it in, somewhere else on the mountain.” He let out a long breath. “We’re almost there, come on.”

The room they reached a minute later was on the third story of the castle: higher than Erica had ever been before. The door was carved with the picture of a dragon emerging from an egg, stylized like the flag but a little more detailed. It was really beautiful.

“Did your parents carve all of these?” Erica asked, glancing up at Adam as he moved to open the door. She was surprised to see how tense he was as he answered.

“Yes. This used to be Ilse’s bedroom,” he said, his gaze fixed firmly on the door’s handle. “We moved her into the tower later, but she still spends… a lot of her time in here.” He pulled it open and stepped aside, nodding for Erica to enter. She hesitated, tempted to ask if he was all right, but she remembered what he'd said about talking about it while his sister was nearby. A cold shiver ran through her at the thought. What kind of child could inspire such fear in her own family? But there was nothing to do but step inside to meet her.

Black Dragon was kneeling on a blanket in the middle of the floor, looking up at Erica as she entered. Several stuffed dolls and animals decorated the scene, each sitting by a teacup and saucer, and before the dragon on the blanket sat a teapot, delicately painted with an integrated, silver dragon picture. Two mismatched teacups and saucers were set next to it, without any toys to claim them.

Erica stared at the little scene for a moment as Adam followed her in and closed the door. Ilse stared back, her little expression blank and her silver eyes wide.

“Ilse, this is Erica,” Adam said with a smile. “Erica, this is my sister, Ilse.”

Erica’s gaze flickered between them for a heartbeat, unsure. Adam was a little stiff, his hands folded carefully behind his back, but his smile looked genuine. Ilse wasn’t really frightening, despite her serious, almost unreadable expression. She still looked like a little girl more than anything else.

“Err, hello,” Erica greeted the child after a pause. Ilse’s eyes somehow managed to grow wider and Erica offered an awkward curtsy, unsure what else to do. Finally, the child blinked. She looked Erica up and down, and their eyes met.

Ilse smiled. “Hello!”

Her greeting wasn’t loud, and her smile was small, but Erica felt her nervousness melt away. She knelt down on the edge of the blanket with a genuine smile for the child. “That’s a very nice teapot,” she observed.

“Adam brought it,” Ilse said, her voice still quiet, but eager. She pointed to the great window that let light in from behind her. “From the offerings.”

It was the only room Erica had seen so far that wasn’t lit by mysterious forces, she realized as Ilse lifted the teapot and awkwardly poured a white liquid from it into one of the teacups. All the lighting was natural, pouring in through the window, which was large enough for two people to crawl through at once.

“It has my Ma on it.” Ilse put it down and held the cup out to Erica. “It’s not tea,” she warned, her voice disappointed. “Adam says I can’t drink it ‘till I’m bigger.”

Erica took the cup, returning her attention to the teapot. “Your mother? You mean… Silver Dragon?”

“That’s what the islanders called her,” Adam said. He was still standing, leaning back against the door. “Her name is Jessica though.”

“She’s not… I mean, she didn’t actually look like that, did she?” Erica asked, looking at the pot. Adam laughed, and Ilse’s eyes grew wide again.

“No, it’s just a representation,” Adam assured his guest. “I’ve never seen any creature that looked like that outside of artwork.”

At least they weren’t pretending to be real dragons, from the myths. Erica took a sip of the drink and discovered it to be milk, probably from the cow outside.

Ilse poured her own cup, her gaze focussed intently on the teapot. She spilled a little on the blanket, but ignored it other than giving a little pout that was actually quite adorable. When she finished and set the teapot down again, she looked up at her brother with expressionless eyes.

“Adam. We need food too,” she said. Erica thought she might have seen Adam flinch at Ilse’s words, but she wasn’t certain, and his smile didn’t waver. He nodded and turned to go.

“I’ll see what I can find. I’ll be back soon.” He stepped out the door and let it close behind him.

For a moment there was silence. Ilse lifted one of the cups to a doll’s painted lips, and Erica sipped her own milk, glancing around for something to say. There was a shelf at one wall, covered in little scrolls, and more dolls and toys lay around the room’s edges.

“My ma was pretty,” Ilse said before Erica could decide what to comment on. “I remember her pretty-ness,” the child informed her. “And there are pictures of her. She was pretty.”

“I saw pictures of her too,” Erica said, remembering all the murals. “I’m sure she was beautiful.” The woman in the pictures had been white-haired and thin, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t lovely.

“In the city?” Ilse asked. “I see those too.” She turned to look at the window, a gloomy look overshadowing her face. “I like my window,” she said. “I see lots of things through it.”

Erica looked at the window. It must have been from here that Ilse was watching them earlier, maybe with all this already set up and waiting. It was an adorable thought. “What kinds of things do you see?” she asked.

“People. They do lots of stuff, and I draw them.” She took another sip of her milk and leaned over to help another toy pretend to drink. “They don’t do lots of stuff when I’m there though, because I’m too scary.”

Poor child. Adam was probably lonely enough with just her for two hundred years, but at least other people were able to talk with him. Whatever was going on with Ilse, she clearly hadn’t had many opportunities to have friends. “You like to draw?” Erica asked her, hoping to return to her attention to something happy. Ilse’s little smile flickered into sight again.

“Uh-huh. Do you want to see?” she asked hopefully.

“I’d love to,” Erica said, and Ilse put her stuffed cat’s teacup down. She stood and walked over to the shelf, grabbing an armful of scrolls. Then she returned to her seat, her movements calm and short, graceful in a way Erica had never seen in a little child before. She set the teapot aside and spread the scrolls out, looking up at her guest with an expectant look. Erica picked one of them up and unrolled it, expecting the scribbles of a seven year old.

Why was it so hard to remember that this child was, somehow, ancient? Erica couldn’t have drawn such a picture if she’d practiced for months, and she enjoyed sketching as a hobby. Each scroll had several pictures on it, drawn with the black strokes of a brush and often colored with vibrant pains. They depicted people doing regular things: walking down the road, holding hands, playing ball, eating… a majority of them were children, and every picture held at least two people interacting together. They were also all drawn from above, as if the artist were looking down at them. Which she was, Erica realized, glancing at the window again. How much time did Ilse spend just watching people in the city?

“Do you like them?” Ilse asked. Erica looked at her, forcing a smile past her pity.

“I think they’re amazing. You’re really talented, Ilse!”

The child’s smile grew a tiny bit, and her eyes brightened. “Look, look,” she said, shuffling through the scrolls still on the floor. “Look, it’s you!” she said, holding one out. Erica took it and spread it out on the floor, and found herself staring at a picture of a girl curled up in a blanket, sleeping on a mat by a window. It was well done, unpainted, and very clearly Erica.

“Is this from… last night?” Erica asked slowly, her eyes widening. Ilse watched her eagerly.

“It was morning,” she said. “But still dark. Adam didn’t want to wake up yet, so I drew you. Do you like it?”

No wonder Adam just got used to being watched all the time. “You can see into the buildings?” Erica demanded, a little freaked out. Ilse drew back, the light in her eyes vanishing completely in a moment. She poured herself more milk, her gaze firmly on the teacup. Erica felt a rush of guilt for upsetting her, but… the idea of being watched constantly was too nerve wracking to just be fine with, even if Adam could handle it. He was her brother, after all, and centuries old.

Before she could think of something to say, the door opened and Adam stepped back in with a plate in his hands. He took one look at the scrolls and his sister’s expression, his silver eyes falling on the picture of Erica, and let out a sigh.

“All right, I think that’s enough for today,” he said, kneeling to set the plate down by his sister. “I’m sure Erica has other things to do this morning: I’ll walk her back down to the city.”

Ilse looked up sharply. “No. I want her to stay,” she snapped, and Adan cringed.

“She needs to go now,” he said firmly, taking a breath and looking up to meet her eyes. “You can see her again another time.”

“I want her to stay!” Ilse cried, slamming her cup down onto the blanket. Adam blinked hard, shying away from her. It was a strange sight, a man flinching at the cry of a child. Erica set her own cup down and stood up, hoping to spare him more argument on her account.

“Thank you so much for having me over,” she told Ilse, who blinked at her in surprise. “I’m really glad to meet you. Maybe I can come back again sometime?”

The Black Dragon’s eyes grew round as a coin. “Yes. Tomorrow.” She whipped around to look at Adam. “She can come back tomorrow. Please?”

Adam hesitated, blinking at the two of them. “I- I guess so.” He cast Erica a look that was almost awed, and climbed to his feet, offering her a hand. “But for now she can go.”

Ilse sniffed pitiably and nodded. “Okay. But she’ll come back tomorrow?”

“Probably,” Adam said, and Erica let him help her up. “Say goodbye now.”

The child murmured a goodbye, and Erica curtsied again. She put a hand on the door to open it, but was surprised to find it unreasonably heavy, and Adam stepped up to get it for her before she could drag it aside. He didn’t seem to have the slightest trouble with it, she thought with a metal sigh. He didn’t look particularly strong, so either he was using his power, or she was just very weak. Or, it was possible that appearances were just deceiving, and under his tunic Adam was as muscular as could be.

Erica suddenly flushed, jerking her hat rim down over her face as she realized she was thinking about a young man shirtless. Even if he was technically hundreds of years older than her, Adam still looked her age. She wasn’t usually so shameless.

“Are you all right?” Adam asked, his voice worried.

“Fine! I’m completely fine,” Ericac fumbled. “Just, uh… maybe a little overwhelmed. These last few weeks have been a lot to take in.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have asked you to come here so soon.”

“No, that’s all right,” Erica assured him quickly. “Your sister is very sweet; I probably overreacted to the picture anyway. I’m just not used to… powers, like you have.”

“... she is sweet,” Adam agreed softly. “But she can be too much. Even if you aren’t affected by her aura like we are, I’m sure it’s not an easy situation to navigate. Talking with her, I mean.”

“I overreacted,” Erica decided with a sigh, fiddling with her hat again. “It was just a picture, Adam. She’s not an ocean current, she’s just a little girl. I’m sure it’s not so hard to talk with her if you stay and keep trying. Well, I suppose I can try again tomorrow.”

They’d reached the castle’s entrance, and Adam pulled the doors aside, his gaze firmly on his hands. “You… you don’t have to,” he whispered.

“Don’t have to what?” Erica asked in surprise.

“Come again tomorrow. I know Ilse-”

“But I said I would,” Erica protested, then slapped a hand over her mouth as she realized she’d interrupted. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just… there’s no reason not to come, is there? But if you don’t want me, I’ll certainly stay away…” It just seemed like they’d wanted her there. But she didn’t want to intrude: she could just stay in the city and find occupation for herself with Hitomi and Asami. She was lucky the island’s guardians had been willing to trust her: she couldn’t ask more of them.

“No, that’s not…” Adam hesitated, staring at her, then stepped out of the way to let her outside. “I do want you to come. I just… I…” He trailed off, glancing back into the castle, in the direction they’d come from, and lowered his voice again. “I don’t want you to feel obligated, Erica. But then… it’s hard to believe you really aren’t bothered by it…”

“I’m not,” Erica assured him. “Don’t worry. I don’t know what exactly is going on with you and your… abilities, but I really don’t mind playing dolls with a lonely child. I love children.” In Aiamas Erica often watched over her neighbors' children when they were busy, or just played with them and helped them with their lessons because they liked her. She’d always loved to spend time with them… she hoped they wouldn’t forget about her while she was here. Children could forget so quickly…

She looked up at Adam again, trying to force her thoughts away from such depressing topics. He was shaking his head in amazement as he closed the doors behind them. “It’s so odd to hear someone talk about her like she’s just any child,” he said. Erica pursed her lips.

“Well, she’s not just any child,” she admitted, thinking of the little girl watching them climb the mountain, sitting in her room, surrounded by lifeless toys that couldn’t be afraid of her. “She’s more lonely than most little children I know. But that makes me want to help her out more, not less.”

He shook his head again and gestured towards the path. “You’re welcome to come up any time,” he told her as they began to walk again.

“Are you sure?” Erica asked. “You said you don’t have people up very often…” and besides, wasn’t she still at least under a little suspicion for coming with their flag? He said he believed her, but it seemed ridiculous for someone called a guardian to throw all caution to the wind like that.

“I’ve hardly met anyone able to meet my sister’s eye,” Adam said. “If you’re willing to spend time with her, I can’t possibly try to turn you away.” He let a hand trail against the trees as they walked. “My parents would have been so glad to find someone like you,” he murmured. “They tried to enchant each other to be immune to Ilse’s powers once, but… well.” He shuddered. “It didn’t work.”

“Did they hurt themselves?” Erica asked, startled by his suddenly grim expression.

“They… sort of,” he said. “They removed the enchantment pretty quickly though; before any real harm could be done. It’s the only time I remember seeing my mother acting aggressively.”

Erica studied him, waiting to ask more, but she couldn’t find any words that didn’t sound insensitive. He looked away and she cleared her throat, looking around for something to say to change the subject to something more comfortable. “I didn’t realize cherry blossoms were in season,” she said, reaching up to pick one of the white buds as they passed under the flowery branches.

“They aren’t.” Adam smiled. “These trees never stop blooming, all year round. My parents enchanted them when we first came, almost a thousand years ago, and they’ve never stopped…” he trailed off as he saw Erica’s expression. “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, no, just…” Erica’s cheeks warmed. She didn’t want to say anything hurtful about his parents or their trees. “Doesn’t seem a little sad to you?” she asked uncomfortably.

“...sad?” Adam asked, expression blank.

“Well, they’ll never be anything else,” Erica explained. “Flowers are beautiful, but so is the green of summer leaves, and the fruits, and even the bare branches in winter. Right? The trees will never fulfil their purpose, or be anything but… one kind of beauty, frozen forever.” She glanced over at her companion to see if he was offended. “I’m not trying to insult your parents’ trees though: they are beautiful.”

“... no, you’re right,” Adam said, looking up at the blossoms with new eyes. “I’d never thought of it like that, but… I guess it is a little sad.” He took a deep breath. “It makes sense for my parents, though. A single happy moment, the same for all eternity.” Reaching up, he pulled a twig of blossoms down and studied them in his hands. “I always had the sense they didn’t trust the future to stay beautiful for long.”

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About Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

Genevieve is an aspiring author who has been dabbling in the arts of storytelling and writing for almost as long as she remembers. She writes mostly in the fantasy genre, and has received an Honorable Mention in the 'Writer's of the Future' contest for her short story 'A Faerie's Will'.

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