The Pearl Ch. 05byThistlethorn©
Edited by Wicked
This is a copyrighted work of fiction. All rights reserved.
Dakota left for the night shortly after Chang. I went to sleep, and spent most of my morning trying to explain boundaries to the river. I don't know if it's something common to all rivers or just a quirk of mine, but the river really didn't get boundaries. The river understood only inside the banks and outside of the banks. Anything outside of the banks it couldn't reach or affect, anything within the banks was fair game. The river considered me within the banks. I was trying to explain I was both within and outside of the banks when Chang arrived. Well, appeared anyway, at about midmorning the next day as a human.
"How are you this morning?" he asked.
I sighed deeply and smacked the river with my fore claw. "Just trying to establish boundaries with a river that has no freaking clue what I'm talking about."
Chang nodded sympathetically. "It can be difficult. Where do you seem to be having problems?"
I thought a moment, trying to verbalize what was largely an impression-based form of communication. "Well, the river seems to feel if it can get into somewhere, it should go everywhere within that space."
Chang nodded. "That is the nature of water. Consider water in a vessel, or lake, or even reservoir. It completely covers and fills any receptacle. Water is also well known for wearing down barriers to go further."
"But I'm the receptacle we're talking about, and I don't necessarily want the river everywhere inside me," I asserted.
"A reasonable position, from a certain point of view," he conceded.
"But not the river's point of view," I guessed.
I bit back a sarcastic response. Instead, I asked exactly what I was thinking. "Are these answers meant to teach me patience or something?"
He shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips. "That's entirely possible."
"Thanks," I replied, giving into the sarcasm.
It didn't even phase him. "You're welcome. But, if you have a moment to spare, I have located the other dragon. It seems to me that now is as good a time as any to speak with him."
I perked up, partially out of curiosity, and partially because I was glad to get away from the river. "Cool. What's his deal?"
"We will discover that in time. First, I think this would be better accomplished in human guise."
I closed my eyes and focused on being human. The shift and form came easier this time, but was still a bit of a challenge. "OK, now what?"
Chang took my hand and the world lurched out from underneath me. Everything blurred, and then I was standing in a public commons. I grabbed onto Chang as a sudden wave of vertigo hit me. When it passed I looked at Chang and asked, "What the hell was that?"
"Remember when you were moved by the river?" I nodded. "It was the same thing. It's a simple trick, really, but now isn't the time."
Chang pointed across the commons and I recognized the dragon from the night before, still in human form. Of course, it would be damn silly to be a dragon amidst all these people. I became aware that people were walking around us, but didn't seem to be paying any attention. "Now is your chance to determine what is going on between you two." I felt Chang do something and the dragon was suddenly looking in our direction.
"Um, what are you going to say?" I asked.
"Nothing," he replied, "you are." Then he was gone again. Motherfuck, how does he do that? was about all I had time to think before the other dragon was in front of me.
He was handsome, with typical Asian features. He wore his black hair a little longer than I've usually seen worn in that culture. Upon closer inspection, a ring of red-gold circled the brown of his eyes. But except for that, and the rolling somersaults my pearl felt like it was doing, I never would have guessed he was anything but human. A very angry human who looked like he was about to hand me my ass.
"Um, I don't think we got off on the right foot last night-" I began.
He appeared to cross over into whatever field was around me. People continued walking around us, paying no attention. He was glaring daggers again, and it was worse up close and personal.
"You have a lot of damn nerve," he snarled.
"I'm sorry?" I asked.
"How dare you show yourself!"
He was building quite a head of steam. I thought it might be best to end this quickly.
"Well, I'm sorry for whatever I've done to upset you," I said calmly but sincerely. "Tell me what do you want of me, and I'll be out of your hair."
"Give me the pearl," he demanded.
Unlike when Chang demanded my pearl, there was no accompanying compulsion to surrender it. "Come again?"
"The pearl, gweilo, give it to me," he repeated flatly.
I didn't know what gweilo meant. The way he said it seemed to indicate it wasn't complimentary, though, and it certainly didn't make me any more inclined to give him what he wanted.
"No. Now, I'm open to figuring out some means of relatively peaceful co-existence, but-"
"What I want is the pearl, and I want it now," he snapped, interrupting me. "You have no right to it, gweilo."
Again with that word. I was officially done. "Not just no," I said with almost equal disregard, "but hell no. If that's what it takes, I'm out of here. I'll stay out of your way, you stay out of mine. How's that work for you?"
His expression turned as black as Chang's storm clouds. "It doesn't. Now give it to me or I'll take it."
His words didn't appear to be an idle threat as he closed what little distance there was between us. I was unsure if he had a means to back his threat up or not, and was trying to come up with a counter plan when between one moment and the next Chang stood between us. The other dragon was forced to take a step back. At first it looked like he might attack Chang blindly. But when he got a good look at Chang, he immediately backed down.
Chang stood ramrod straight and unflinching in what appeared to be almost archaic Chinese garments. His arms were crossed in front of him and his hands were in his sleeves.
"What is the problem here?" he asked.
The words were spoken with the chilling calmness he used with me at our first meeting, and they once again carried the undercurrent of the storm. I could sense and smell ozone, like before a big thunderstorm hits.
The other dragon sensed it, too. He was clearly uncertain how to proceed. After a short pause, he began speaking, pointing rather dramatically in my direction.
"This gweilo," judging from Chang's look, it wasn't a complimentary word. The dragon immediately amended himself. "This...person clearly has a dragon's pearl. I was seeking it back."
"I am quite well aware of the item in his possession. The pearl was of my making several centuries past. The pearl chose him and by the laws of heaven he is a dragon: to be treated as such and given the accords as such."
Even though Chang's tone did not invite rebuttal, the other dragon tried. "He is gwe... He is American." When this didn't seem to phase Chang, he switched tactics. "He came to my lair without invitation."
"He is in his first century of learning. Therefore any error of etiquette is mine, not his. Tell me what harm he has done and I will set about fixing it."
The dragon looked away, foiled, though still clearly angry. "None," he said tersely.
"Very well then. I shall instruct him to avoid your den and there will be no further problems."
The other dragon said nothing, prompting Chang to repeat, "And there will be no further problems?" His tone indicated that there had better not be.
"As you say," he replied. He then turned and walked away.
Chang looked back to me. "I am sorry," he said. "I misinterpreted his concerns. Had I known what this was about, I would have dealt with him myself to begin with."
"What was his malfunction?" I asked.
"You are not the human he would have chosen."
"Because I'm gwa...something?" I asked, mangling the word.
"Gweilo," Chang corrected. "It means 'ghost man,' but it is used as a Chinese slur for Caucasian." He shook his head sadly. "Even amongst dragons this sort of foolishness exists. Still, he is barely over 200. They all think they know everything at that age. Hopefully, he will become wiser as he ages." He looked at me with an odd mix of stern amusement. "I should hope when you reach 200, you will be wise enough not to make these most particular mistakes."
I smiled back, "These most particular mistakes? Are there other mistakes you think I will be making?"
The stern expression disappeared, and he was merely amused. "Oh, you will make mistakes. We all do, born dragons and chosen. That's why there's a century to learn given to all youngsters. Mistakes born out of ignorance, or frustration, or simply misstepping I can accept. But anything born from hate, bigotry, or pure malice I will not accept." He paused for a moment while I thought about that. It wasn't surprising, really. Plainly spoken, it marked a clear boundary of behavior. Then he continued. "However, from what I've seen, these things are not in your nature. Nor do I think the pearl would have chosen you if they were. I was, however, surprised you kept a civil tongue as long as you did. I would have preferred that you maintained such throughout the entire conversation, but I suppose I must take what I can get."
* * * *
On the Saturday that marked my first two weeks as a dragon, Dakota and I collected trash from the river. I was in dragon form. I tried to stay in human form, but it proved nearly impossible to hold the form at the river. Chang's recommendation had been that the river, then, would be the perfect place to practice. The logic had born out somewhat. But that day, after several failed attempts, I was simply tired of the practice. So I was in dragon form, trying to help pick stuff up. Fine dexterity eludes me as a dragon, so Dakota gathered the smaller pieces. When a bag was filled, she would hang it off my antlers. Dignified? Not in the least. But the trade off was that I got to see Dakota bend over a great deal, and that seemed well worth the sacrifice.
Chang had not been around that day. He usually stopped by at least once a day, usually just for casual conversation and to answer any of my questions. I was surprised there wasn't a more formal teaching arrangement, considering he was my mentor as far as all things dragon. But he seemed content to let me set the pace of learning. I wasn't sure what he did when he wasn't around. When I asked, he said he'd never seen this country and was exploring. The image of Chang as a tourist amused me to no end.
"Have you had any more trouble with Chad?" I asked. I almost said Chappy, but thought better of it, remembering Chang's statement about keeping a civil tongue.
"No," she said. "I haven't even seen him around." Her expression was unreadable.
Dakota was dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, which were pulled up to her knees in consideration of the current. It was the end of the first week of September, but the temperature was still pretty warm. I swore I could smell autumn on the air, though. Dakota stood up and wiped her brow.
"Is that a good thing?" I asked.
She crossed her arms and appeared to be considering. "I don't know," she said at last. "If I haven't seen him because he's left never to return, then, yeah, it's good. But if he's just biding his time for a while to pop back up like a bad penny, then no. I would rather have him out in the open."
I could see her point. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing. "I guess time will tell," I said.
"Yeah, and that's the part I hate. The waiting." She bent back to work.
"You know, I've been meaning to ask you, what is your major?" I asked.
She stood back up, ruining the magnificent view. Then she turned and gave me an even better one. "Library sciences," she said.
"What, like a librarian?" I asked.
"I wasn't aware you had to go the college for that. I mean, you need a college course for the Dewey decimal system?"
She shook her head at my obvious ignorance. She went back to picking up garbage while saying, "There's way more to it than that, and particularly, reference desk librarians need to know everything. Besides, with technology what it is, practically the only job that doesn't require some form of formal training is Wal-Mart greeter. What about you? What was your major?"
"Wal-Mart greeter," I said without missing a beat.
She stood and looked at me with a rather put-upon look. "Seriously."
"Seriously, I was still undeclared. This would have been my second year, and I was going to try to figure it out this year." I looked down at myself. "Kind of a moot point now," I added.
Dakota waved her hand in what appeared to be her standard form of dismissal. "Nonsense. I think you should go for an Asian Studies major. It would suit you way better than Wal-Mart greeter."
"Hey, I'm a people person," I protested.
"Yeah, until they annoy you," she said, picking up more trash. "Then it would be 'get your shit and get out.'"
"I'm sure I would be far more clever than that. Besides, they deserved it."
"Oh, well, in that case then..." she trailed off, continuing to pick up trash.
The river was relatively quite during the activities. I could tell it was gratified that we were seeing to it. I also suspected the river considered Dakota one of the main reasons I stayed and wasn't going to do anything to upset that arrangement. The river was more correct in its reasoning than I wanted to admit.
But then out of the blue I felt a strong pull on my pearl along with an almost frenzied he is coming.
"Who's coming?" I asked.
Dakota looked up, confused, and I realized she heard my response without having heard the river.
"The river said somebody's coming," I explained.
the other dragon
"Oh, fuck me," I muttered.
"What, who is it?" Dakota asked.
"That other dragon. I thought after the run in with Chang a couple of days ago we were done. Apparently not."
She immediately placed the partially filled bag she was carrying on the bank and carefully but quickly untangled the full bags from my antlers. "OK, what are we going to do?" she asked.
Sadly, I had no idea. "Which way is he coming?"
against the current
I received an image of where on the river he was traveling. About two miles down, coming slowly. He appeared to be looking for me. I thought for a moment about what I wanted to do, or what I could do for that matter. He was older, stronger, and knew a damn sight more about being a dragon than I did. Then it occurred to me; he was after the pearl. I could at least make his goal harder to obtain. I willed the pearl into my hand and gave it to Dakota.
"Take this and run," I instructed.
The precious stone that once fit on a ring was now a little smaller than a basketball. Dakota took it without hesitating, but then just stood there for a moment. "Run where?" she finally asked.
She stared at the pearl and then slipped it under her shirt. At least the shirt fit loosely on her. Even so, it was pretty clear something was under there. I nudged her with my snout. "Go."
She looked like she might say something further, but then she turned and ran. We were in a section that was heavily wooded and thankfully deserted. I knew that once she got away from me, she would be visible. Hopefully, she would be well away before the other dragon arrived. Though the pearl was an awkward hindrance, she seemed to be making good time. The girl could run. Was there anything this woman couldn't do?
"Where is he now?" I asked the river. I received another visionary flash. He appeared to have picked up my scent, or whatever he was tracking by, and was moving much more quickly in my direction. It occurred to me that if I intercepted him, it would put that much more distance between him and Dakota. I turned to face the way he was coming and prepared myself as best I could. I felt a disconcerting emptiness without the pearl, but I could feel the river trying to compensate. I let it in further, the irony of it filling the spaces I had so wanted to keep from it not lost on me. This was, however, my only means of defense. The water around my legs deepened and the current began to run much faster.
"Let's do this thing," I said to the river with way more bravado than I felt. I took off in the direction of the other dragon.
* * * *
I ran. I had been in track and tried a sprint to begin with, but the pearl was too much in the way, especially the way I was carrying it, with my arms holding it in place under my shirt. I tucked my shirt into my sweat pants and tied the cord tightly to try to hold it in place. Even with this adjustment, the terrain was still too wooded for a good sprint, so eventually I had to settle for a cross-country run. I lettered in cross-country in high school, so I easily fell into a pace that ate up the distance. Unfortunately, I had no idea where to go.
My car was parked in the direction the nasty dragon was coming from, so that wasn't an option. I was pretty sure I knew where I was, and if I was correct, there was a shopping district on the other side of this little wooded area. I headed in that direction. If, God forbid, the dragon got past Sebastian, he would be hampered with what he could do in a crush of people. I hoped. Saturday on a nice day, the area would be packed. I would have to pick up a bag or something to put the pearl in, but I could think of several shops that would carry something I could use, that I might even get some use out of later.
As I ran, I felt the pearl move back and forth against my skin, bumping and rubbing. So warm and smooth, the feeling of it nudging my abdomen as I ran was surprisingly pleasant. I had to keep my attention focused on where I was running so that I didn't trip over a root or stone and twist or pull something in a fall. When I felt the pearl pushing against my stomach, I didn't think much of it. But when I felt it push into my torso, I almost went sprawling.
I stopped immediately but had to fight my shirt out of my tightly knotted waistband. By the time I got my shirt pulled out and yanked it up, I was just in time to watch the pearl somehow phase entirely into my body. Sheer panic slapped me but was quickly forgotten. A nauseating sensation rippled up through me in waves as the pearl made itself right at home inside of me.
* * * *
I came to a halt and stood my ground as my adversary came in low. It took me a second to realize he was flying just slightly above the water. He looked fantastic shimmering against the water, gold-tinted red scales with gold underscales and a red-gold mane, antlers branching proudly above his head. He was clearly strong and healthy, and his coloring was magnificent. A real bummer he was here to kick my ass.
The overpowering mass of red and gold immediately made me think of fire. Well, if fire was his element, maybe I could use the water to my advantage. I focused the energy of the river and pulled it into me, then forced it forward at the incoming dragon. A wave much larger than I would have believed possible rose up and struck the dragon, throwing him partway back the way he'd come.
He stood, no longer airborne, sopping wet from the attack. His mane clung to his face and hung sloppily down. He looked like a oversized drowned rat. While I was unsure how much real damage I'd done, the hit to his majesty was certainly an ego boost.
Then out of nowhere I felt surrounded by Dakota, and was completely distracted. The feeling was unnervingly similar to when Chang swallowed the pearl, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out how Dakota could have accomplished such a thing. Then the river wrenched my attention back to the matter at hand.