Last year I wrote two ficlit pieces for the blog tour of Death Mask. I thought I'd go ahead and put them up on the blog and create a page for the Death Mask series. Both of these pieces are about how Grim came to meet his best friend Lalios. The is Part One of Two.
Opium and Lung
The blue-gray haze of pipe smoke clouded the air, coating my tongue with every inhale. Three days ago I entered the docks searching for a particular ship. I'd heard a vessel from Chinese Empire was sitting in the harbor and it took only a couple of well-placed questions and a bit of money to find a boat that would take me to her. The ribbed red sails had stood out like a beacon in the light of the dying sun.
Normally, I wouldn't give a damn. I'm no ship lover. The only vessel I'd been on was the one that set sail from my homeland to the Americas. But the rumor was this particular ship had hosted a Chinese Lung, a fabled wyrm and type of dragon shifter that didn't often leave the lush forest of their birth. The handful who did were known far and wide for the quality of their opium stash. I was more than interested in tasting the seed that was rumored to make a man forget. Oh, God above, how I needed to forget.
But as I lay on the mound of silk cushions staring at the faded wood of the ship's rafters, already the blessed numbness was receding and the crisp pain crushing me returned. Nothing I'd taken part in for the last ten years had relieved the agony of being rejected and betrayed by my husband. Neither drink nor food nor tonic nor smoke, no matter how potent or mind twisting, gave me relief for long. The open wound in my chest where my heart was supposed to be was hallow, never healing the interminable ache left in the wake of abandonment. Fucking warlock. The opium had been my last hope at oblivion and yet again I was denied. Perhaps my fate was to walk alone, a punishment for putting my faith in a person of gray magic. I only wanted to forget his face, his scent, and the touch of his skin against mine, but it seemed my desire would never be fulfilled.
The silk drapes fluttered and the meager candlelight flickered even though I felt no draft. "I see you are lucid, Irishman. I would encourage you to take another toke or two but—" When I'd first arrived, I'd expected accented English but had been surprised by the fluidity in which the dragon spoke.
The shadow of my benefactor moved behind the sheer material, the only barrier that separated him from me, never quite giving me a peek at the shifter. I'd been in the belly of his ship for three days and I'd yet seen him face to face. Come to think of it, neither had he shared his name. Not that I cared. I wasn't there to partake in social niceties. I paid for my opium and he'd watched me imbibe. More than once, I heard scales slide along the planks as he moved, pacing back and forth as if waiting for something. Still partially floating in the clouds, I wondered if he couldn't look fully human. Perhaps that was the reason he didn't show himself. He didn't need to hide from me but he didn't know that. Shifters only scented the human in me, nothing else. I didn't want to encourage familiarity between us, so I kept what I was to myself, allowing the dragon to draw his own conclusions even though he was wrong.
The shifter stopped his pacing behind the panel nearest my feet. Futilely, I squinted attempting to see through the gauzy material. "You have a strong will and body." His pleasure was obvious in the tone of his voice. "I've seen men bigger than you who were unable to handle the quantity you consumed in an hour, never mind what you smoked these past several days." The shifter took up pacing again, his movements fluid, like a rolling marble across a smooth surface.
Even though my mind was clearing, my body was lax, a dead weight when I attempted to move. "I paid good coin for the smoke." My voice came out raspy, as if dried out by all the heated air I'd inhaled.
"Your coin is no what I wish to speak of." The sound of clacking teeth, as if the dragon gnashed the air, caused me to halt my attempt to rise.
All the time I'd spent in the shifter's company he'd only been calm and curiously watchful, until now. I didn't know much about Lungs or dragons in general, only what I'd heard and that was sorely little.
"Be at ease." The last word was more of a hiss, barely recognizable. "I'm merely excited. I haven't met one as strong as you in centuries. There have been rumors… but I didn't imagine I would cross one of your kind who wasn't attached to a family."
Alarm bells sounded in my head. That more than anything else burned the lingering stupor away, leaving me stone cold sober. I sank into the cushions, schooling my expression into bland indifference. The shifter wasn't fooled and he gave a hissy laugh. I surreptitiously scented the air, attempting to get a whiff of my opium benefactor.
I threw away caution, needing to know what the shifter wanted of me. "You know who I am?"
"Oh, I know what you are. I've heard tell of a child of your ilk who'd wandered into the western wilderness nigh ten years ago. Some said he searched for his heart's desire, other claimed he ran from the calamity that swallowed his hearth and home after the deepest of betrayals. Fewer still spread rumors that he sought to meet death. But here you sit in my lair, numbing a pain so deep I easily sense the poignancy and depth."
The sheer material rippled again, the shifter's shadow darkening the silk the closer he came to me. Fingers curled around the edge of the cloth and for the first time I glimpsed a part of the shifter. His skin was the color of gold bullion; dainty scales covered the length of his fingers between the joints. A thick, black braid longer than my arm dangled in view when the shifter peered around the fabric. His golden-brown eyes flickered between human and reptilian as if the shifter struggled to hold his shape.
"I search for a… companion. Someone to stand by my side as guardian and lover."
I snorted out a laugh and was mesmerized how the shifter's eye crinkled as he shared my unbecoming mirth. "I am not the strong man you believe me to be."
"I beg to differ Grim Misery. If you've carried this level of pain with you for as long as the rumors suggest, then you are indeed immensely strong. You would father fine children. Even if you didn't wish to stay with me forever," he hurriedly added after a brief pause. "Our offspring would be the envy of our world. Imagine a Lung with your coloring being able to take flight. No longer the wyrm relegated to the ground but with wings and able to take to the sky."
The wistful quality of the shifter's voice told me he wanted a family desperately even though he'd offered an out. I couldn't be who or what he wanted. A warlock had worked his way under my skin and I couldn't get rid of him. Besides what the shifter spoke of—a flying drake—they had died out long ago, before the human population exploded over the Earth. Where would no place for such in this new world, but for some reason I couldn't tell him so. I blamed my softheartedness on the linger effects of the opium.
"I cannot." I struggled to sit, suddenly feeling ridiculous amidst the mound of brilliantly colored pillows. I looked around, finally seeing what I'd been oblivious to when I'd entered seeking relief. He'd called this place his lair and indeed it was. Luxurious, decorated to appeal and seduce and I hadn't noticed any of the subtle hints, didn't question why a shifter would allow me onto his vessel with no questions asked. I'd been lucky the ship wasn't operated by brigands. If I'd been captured and sold underground to someone who could suss out who and what I was, such as the dragon had, then… I didn't want to think about the consequences. I wouldn't be luck enough to be saved again.
The shifter was diminutive but suddenly, he seemed to loom as if he was twice my size. My blood ran cold and I watched his every move warily. "Cannot or will not?" he asked, steel in his tone.
"Cannot," I reaffirmed. Watching as the silk in his grip tore when his claws unsheathed. "You search for someone to share your life and bed with. I won't mislead you. I'm tethered to another, whether I like it or not."
The dragon released the bolt of cloth and he moved away. I didn't know why I spoke but there was something itching to be released and I gave into the impulse without thinking it through. "There is another like me, without a family. He helped me, sobered me up about a year ago." And kicked my butt for the selfishness of my pursuit of oblivion. Shame swamped me at the thought of what he'd have said if he saw me now. "He lives out west in South Dakota, a Ute by the name of Iron Lightning. He lives on a butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation. He's not… not broken like I am."
I glanced away from the shifter's shadow, wondering if giving this dragon Iron's location was a mistake. It didn't feel like one but neither did I feel as if I bumbled when handfasted a warlock.
"He is like you? And would be open to my request?" The shifter pressed close to the sheer curtain, his slender frame definitely not ending in a pair of legs.
"I'm not going to court him for you. Besides, you might take one look at him and how he lives and walk away. If you truly want a partner, then you're going to have to put in the work. I can tell you right now, if you try to win him with opium, he'll walk away from you." Deciding that I needed to leave before I said anything more, I rolled woozily to my knees and carefully climbed to my feet. Once I'd ascertained I wouldn't topple flat on my face, I brushed down the buckskins I hadn't bothered to exchange for eastern duds when I reached civilization. Slowly, I headed toward the stairs that led to the deck.
"My thanks, Grim Misery," the dragon called after me almost cheerily. "If you are ever in need, give my name to the ruling snake shifter clan and I will come."
I scowled over my shoulder. What he offered as a boon beyond measure, especially after I'd shunned his advances. "You never gave me your name."
"You are one of a few who will have it." The statement was followed by a weighted pause that warned me to keep what he would reveal to myself. "I'm called Jian Chin. For the information you gave me, I will give you some in exchange. I'll have my man drop you off near Eastern Avenue. There is… someone there who you need to meet."
I was tempted to throw the curtains aside and follow Jian Chin as he retreated. I wasn't sure I wanted to meet this person he spoke of. But as I contemplated my course of action, the sound of a door closing and the bar set in place told me that avenue of action was closed to me. Grumbling under my breath, I climbed the steep steps and was unsurprisingly met on deck by a grizzled old man who ushered me off the vessel into a long boat.
As the half dozen men at the oars rowed, I glance back at the ship to see someone in red silk robes standing on deck watching me being taken away. I had the sudden feeling this would not be the last time I saw Jian Chin.