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Story: “Another Dragon and Another Prince” (May 2024 )

In spring and autumn, dragons swarm in Kettle Cove, fighting with a ferocity that drives surf up the cliffs, and fornicating in a way that makes children ask their parents difficult questions.

The dragons’ blood stains the seawater purple. The dragons are too big to be seen in full by the naked eye, and too numerous to count. You get an impression of teeth and scales. It is unclear what they eat, apart from each other.

In the bad old days, people used to throw condemned criminals down there to be eaten, but even the most crime-riddled society couldn’t produce enough convicts to feed all those dragons.

In the even worse and older days, one woman turned another woman into a dragon and drove her into the water. She’s been there ever since, biting and clawing and killing her lovers twice a year, and migrating in between times. They say she can only be freed if a prince with a certain name should kiss her three times on the lips (or whatever the edges of a dragon’s jaws are called). They say you’ll know her by the rage and pain in her face. Still, all dragons look rageful and pained. It seems to just be the way their faces are.

Once a real prince tried to win her. He was eighteen and bright-eyed and fit, and in front of his own soldiers and the peasants on the cliff tops, he stripped and dove into the salt water seething with dragons. Avoiding death by boiling, burning, or drowning, and likewise avoiding being eaten, he swam to the hugest and most fearsome creature, whom popular opinion considered to be the enchanted woman. She loomed up out of the water, holding court covered in other dragons’ blood.

The prince flung his arms around her jaws and kissed her right on the reeking teeth three times.

The outcome was only that the dragon snorted and pitched him off into the water. No one was sure she had noticed he was there. The prince had much ado to save his own life. One or two people laughed at him.

“I’ll show you,” he said, but he did not say it out loud.

Ten years later he came back with an army of observers, and a ship, and an advanced degree in magical arts, and he showed her. He had himself rowed into the cove, into the midst of an orgy of dragons, as people on the shore explained to each other that actually, the dragons were at their least dangerous to humanity at this time of year because of physical reasons.

The prince steered to the same huge beast from long ago, who was currently digging her teeth into the gills of a hapless male. While she was distracted, the prince used arts of magic to compel her to leave her prey. He made her lay her head on the ship’s deck, tilting it towards the water at an angle of thirty degrees. Her sinuous neck and body continued down into the depths, past where the light ran out.

The prince was no longer bright-eyed, fit, and eighteen. Years of learning to do terrible things had wasted, pickled, and condensed him. Still, he applied three kisses to that man-eating mouth. Then her form writhed under his hands, compressing and shrinking. It pulled itself up with a slimy sound and gathered onto the deck of the ship, growing ever smaller till it compressed into the shape of a woman. He drew her substance together until she was small enough to lie on the deck of the ship and narrow enough to fit in his arms.

She was still huge by human standards. If she had stood up, she would have towered over the prince. She did not stand. She rose on her elbows and snarled at him and at the women who advanced to put clothes on her.

“She has been a beast for a very long time,” said the sorcerer prince, regarding her with the pleasure of fulfillment. “She’ll have to learn to walk and talk and be a woman again.”

The former dragon was now a woman with long narrow green eyes. She was extremely naked, and she slithered around the deck on her belly at a shocking speed, biting ankles with her pearly white teeth and laughing whenever she got somebody. The prince stood out of range and devoured her with his eyes.

In the months that followed, the reformed dragon learned to walk upright, with the aid of many kindly trainers. She practiced talking, and progressed from grunts to monosyllables to full sentences. The courage she displayed won the admiration of everyone who saw her, and she received letters of congratulation from the public when she managed to sound out “Give me the water” for the first time. She learned to wear clothing again, with a touching incompetence. Nothing ever seemed to fit her correctly, regardless of the cut and material, and all clothing made her visibly uncomfortable. Her hems tore, her sleeves untied themselves, her petticoats rode down, and she walked with such a willowy, swaying motion that she couldn’t keep a hat on her head. It didn’t stop people from liking her. Everyone thought she was a brave girl for trying so hard. She had people to pick up her hat when she launched it. Of course she did; she would be the next queen. It was an accepted idea that the prince was only waiting for her to recover fully to marry her.

One day, when the woman had not yet fully recovered, but still walked as if she was surging forward underwater, she went to see the prince. He was alone, on the roof of one of his towers, which itself stood atop a cliff, on an aesthetically pleasing coast. The prince needed to be alone because he was sacrificing to the sun. This was not a requirement, but it didn’t hurt. It was one of his more palatable sacrifices, involving cinnamon bark and peppercorns thrown in a flame, but it still required solitude.

“Love of my heart,” said the prince, “my life’s goal. Go back indoors till I join you there. This isn’t a good place for you.”

The woman surged up to him. “How do you know I’m the right one?” she said. “Hypothetically.”

The prince’s torch dropped out of his fingers, rolled across the roof, and fell a long way off the cliff without touching anything. “You can’t think about things like that,” he said, and then made matters worse by correcting himself, “I mean, you shouldn’t.”

“For the sake of argument,” the woman went on, gazing tenderly down at him as she circled. Her green dress was hitched up under one arm and sliding off the other shoulder. Her smile didn’t seem to mean the same thing as when a human smiled. “Of course, you got the right dragon. But you’re the sorcerer here. You can do anything. Even if you weren’t the predestined prince, noble-hearted, who restored me by three kisses given for love and in selflessness, you can still do magic. You could shape a woman out of a dragon, even a dragon who had never been a woman in the first place. Yea or nay?”

“Your vocabulary and speaking voice are advancing,” said the prince.

The woman grabbed her chest. “Why did you have to make them this size?” she said, as if he had been candid with her from the beginning. “They hurt my back.”

“It was how I always pictured you,” said the prince, with the same surge of honesty. He couldn’t stop himself from going on: “Did you ever meet her?”

The woman smiled all over her face. “Who?”

“The enchanted maiden. Is she still out there? Was she ever?”

“I wouldn’t have noticed. There were other dragons, and there was food.” She made a fluid gesture at the sea. “I wouldn’t have been able to tell an enchanted princess beast from just ordinary beasts. Sometime I want to go back there and see if I can still talk to them.”

“No, you won’t,” said the prince, picturing her telling everyone who came near her about what had happened. He couldn’t help it: he gauged how far she was standing from the edge.

She noticed, and stood at the very edge of the roof, her heels over empty air and her clothing whipping in the wind. “Don’t try it,” she said. “Three reasons. One is that you’ve devoted a third of your life to gaining me. Precisely me and no one else. Another is that your subjects love me. You righted my ancient wrong, and I am a victim of circumstances who is trying her best. People will love me. They’re starting to love you on account of me. They never loved you before, did they? Fear is a different thing.”

“And the third reason?”

She swayed closer, looming over him. She hadn’t let her attendants bathe her for some time, and she smelled like seaweed drying in the sun. “I understand strength,” she said. “What will you do with your power, now that you’ve created me?”

He let the word “created” slide, and shook his head.

She wound her arms around him. “Do you want the land? Do you want the sea? I’ll help you get them.”

He did, and over the years they acquired them together. Many years later still, unpleasant nicknames were applied to them in the history books, but no one ever doubted that they loved each other very much.