Tooth and Claw
By Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2003 Jo Walton
All rights reserved.
The Death of Bon Agornin
1. A CONFESSION
Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body. The doctors had shaken their heads and left, even his daughters had stopped telling him he was about to get well. He put his head down on the scant gold in his great draughty undercave, struggling to keep still and draw breath. He had only this little time left, to affect everything that was to come after. Perhaps it would be an hour, perhaps less. He would be glad to leave the pains of the flesh, but he wished he had not so much to regret.
He groaned and shifted on the gold, and tried to feel as positive as possible about the events of his life. The Church taught that it was neither wings nor flame that gave one a fortunate rebirth, but rather innocence and calmness of spirit. He strove for that fortunate calm. It was hard to achieve.
"What is wrong, Father?" asked his son Penn, approaching now that Bon was still and putting out a gentle claw to touch Bon's shoulder.
Penn Agornin, or rather the Blessed Penn Agornin, for young Penn was already a parson, imagined he understood what troubled his father. He had attended many deathbeds in his professional capacity, and was glad to be here to help ease his father into death and to spare him the presence of a stranger at such a time. The local parson, Blessed Frelt, was far from being his father's friend. They had been at quiet feud for years, of a kind Penn thought quite unbecoming to a parson.
"Calm yourself, Father," he said. "You have lived a good life. Indeed, it is hard to think of anyone who should have less to fret them on their deathbed." Penn admired his father greatly. "Beginning from very little more than a gentle name, you have grown to be seventy feet long, with wings and flame, a splendid establishment and the respect of all the district. Five of your children survive to this day. I am in the Church therefore safe." He raised a wing, bound with the red cord that, to the pious, symbolized the parson's dedication to gods and dragonkind, and to others meant mere immunity. "Berend is well married and has children, her husband is powerful and an Illustrious Lord. Avan is making his way in Irieth. His is perhaps the most perilous course, but he has strong friends and has done well thus far, as you did before him. As for the other two, Haner and Selendra, though they are young and vulnerable do not fear. Berend will take in Haner and see her well married under her husband's protection, while I will do the same for Selendra."
Bon drew a careful breath, then exhaled with a little puff of flame and smoke. Penn skipped nimbly aside. "You must all stick to my agreement," Bon said. "The younger ones who are not settled must have my gold, what there is of it. You and Berend have begun your hoards already, let you each take only one symbolic piece of mine, and let the other three share what little is left. I have not amassed a great store, but it will be enough to help them."
"We had already agreed that, Father," Penn said. "And ofcourse they will likewise take the greater shares when we eat you. Berend and I are established, while our brother and sisters are still in need."
"You have always been just what brothers and sisters should be to each other," Bon said, and sighed more smoke. "I want to confess, Penn, before I die. Will you hear my confession?"
Penn drew back, folding his wings hard around him. "Father, you know the teaching of the Church. Not for three thousand years, six lifetimes of dragons, has confession been a sacrament. It reeks of the Time of Subjugation and the heathen ways of the Yarge."
Bon rolled his huge golden eyes. Sometimes his son, so careful of propriety, seemed a stranger to him. Penn could never have endured what he had endured, never have survived. "Six lifetimes you may have been taught, but when I was young there were priests who would still give absolution to those who wanted it. It is only in my lifetime and yours that it is forgiveness that has become a sin. What was wrong was paying for absolution, not forgiving the burdens of those who would lay them down. The rite of absolution is still in the book of prayers. Frelt would have refused me this, I know, out of spite, but I had thought you would have had spirit enough to do it."
"Yet it is a sin, Father, and one the Church preaches against as strongly as priest-flight." Penn flexed his bound wing again. "It is not an article of religion, true, but a difference in practice that has arisen over time. Confession is now abhorrent. I cannot possibly give you absolution. If anyone discovered it, I would lose my position. Besides, my own conscience would not allow it."
Bon shifted again, and felt loose scales falling from him down to the gold below. He did not have long left, and he was afraid. "I am not asking you for absolution, if you cannot give it. I merely think I will die more easily if I do not take this secret on with me." His voice sounded weak even to himself.
"You may tell me anything you wish, dear Father," Penn said, drawing closer again. "But you may not call it confession, or say that you are doing it because I am a parson. That could endanger my calling if it became known."
Bon looked at the red cords on his son's wings, remembering what he had paid to have him accepted into the Church and all the good fortune he had encountered there since. "Isn't it wonderful how so much came of your little friend Sher?" he said. Then he felt the pain spreading from his lungs, and wanted to cough, but did not dare. Penn had drawn breath to answer, but he subsided, letting it trickle out of his snout, watching his father's struggle in silence. Little Sher, once his schoolfellow, was the Exalted Sher Benandi now, lord of his own domain, and Penn was his parson, with his own house and wife and children.
"It is the way of the dragon to eat each other," Bon said at last.
"These days —" Penn began.
"You know I was the only survivor of my family, the only one of my brothers and sisters to grow wings," Bon went on, speaking over his son. "You thought that Eminent Telstie had eaten them, or perhaps his wife, Eminence Telstie? They did eat some of them, swooping down out of the sky to devour the weaklings, always leaving me alive, because I was the oldest and strongest. They held hard to the idea the Church teaches that they were improving dragonkind by eating the weaklings, they were even kind to me. I did not forgive them for eating my father and my siblings. Yet I pretended to be a friend to them, and to their children, for my mother had little power to protect me or prevent them eating us all if they chose. They had taken my father's gold and we had nothing but our name. When there were but three of us left, I had grown wings, but was only seven feet long, ready to leave home to seek my fortune but in great peril if I did. I needed length and strength I could not gain from beef. I ate my remaining brother and sister myself."
Penn lay frozen beside his dying father, shocked far beyond anything he could have imagined the old dragon could have said.
"Will I die entire?" Bon asked. "Will my spirit fall like ash from smoke as the Church teaches? Or will I be reborn as a muttonwool to catch in the teeth of someone's hunger, or worse, a creeping worm or a loathsome wingless Yarge?" His eyes caught his son's, and still Penn stared dumbstruck at his father. "I have lived a good life since, as you said. I have regretted it bitterly many times, but I was young and hungry and had nobody to help me and a great need to fly away."
Bon's scales were falling with a steady pattering. His breath was more smoke than air. His eyes were beginning to dim. Penn was a parson and had attended many deaths. He knew there were only minutes left. He spread his wings and began the last prayer, "Fly now with Veld, go free to rebirth with Camran at your side —" but the smoke caught in his throat and he could not go on. He had read the old rite of absolution once, in horrified fascination; his father was right that it was still printed in the prayerbook. It was absolution his father needed, and a clear spirit to go on. Penn was a conventional young dragon, and a parson, but he loved his father. "It is a custom, there is no theology behind it," he muttered. He held his claws up before his father's eyes, where he could see them. "I have heard your —" He hesitated an instant, it was the word that seemed so bad. Could he call it something else? No, not to give his father the comfort and absolution he needed. "Your confession, Dignified Bon Agornin, and I absolve and forgive you in the name of Camran, in the name of Jurale, in the name of Veld."
He saw a smile deep in his father's fading eyes, which wasreplaced by peace, and then, last, as always, a profound surprise. However many times Penn saw this he never became accustomed to it. He often wondered what there was beyond the gate of death that, however prepared the dying dragon was, it should always astonish them. He waited the prescribed moment, repeating the last prayer three times, in case the eyes should begin to whirl again. As always, nothing happened, death was death. He delicately reached out a claw and ate both eyes, as was always the parson's part. Only then did he call his sibs, with the ritual cry, "The good dragon Bon Agornin has begun his journey towards the light, let the family be gathered to feast!"
He felt no grief, no shame at having gone against the teachings of the Church to give his father absolution, no horror at what his father had done. He felt nothing whatsoever, for he knew that he was in a state of shock and that once it wore off he would be quietly miserable for a long time.
2. THE SPEAKING ROOM
The whole family had gathered in the upper caves as soon as the doctors had shaken their heads and Bon Agornin had crawled down to the undercave to die, accompanied only by Penn. In addition to Bon's four remaining children, the party consisted of the Illustrious Daverak, Berend's husband, the three dragonets that were the fruits of her first clutch, now four years past, and the local parson, Blessed Frelt. They were attended by four of Berend's servants, their wings tightly bound back. Also present in a serving capacity was the family's old retainer Amer, whose wings were fastened down, to be sure, but through long trust and casual habit of the family, scarcely tighter than those of a parson. None of them approached the full length of old Bon. Illustrious Daverak came closest at forty feet from head to tail-tip, but even so, eleven grown dragons and three dragonets can make anywhere but a ballroom seem crowded.
In consequence, after the first greetings and lamentations and exclamations as to who had come farthest to be there, they had divided themselves into two groups. The first, consisting of Berend and her party, accompanied by Blessed Frelt, went into the elegant speaking room to the right of the entrance, and the rest withdrew to the big dining room.
There was nothing whatsoever for any of them to do but wait and quarrel and they might just as well have remained in their own homes and waited for the cry to go up and then come circling down to swoop on the corpse. But some say this is what dragons did long ago, and this is why nowadays they know better and make themselves caves and undercaves so they can retreat into the undercaves to die in peace. This means that only those they choose can share the body. Still, it seems very hard to some that civilization and modern ethical beliefs should lead to such interminable waits as the one imposed on Bon Agornin's family.
The speaking room was carved from the same dark natural rock as the rest of the establishment. It was not embellished with lighter pebbles as was the fashion in Irieth, for the owners of the establishment had never heard of such a custom and thought it best to let the rock speak for itself. It had been carved here and there with fashionable landscapes, portrayed as seen from the air. These Bon Agornin had sanctioned, as they cost nothing. They had been done by the young ladies of the house, most especially Haner, who regarded herself as talented in that direction. Illustrious Daverak, who had a splendidly decorated home of his own in the country and another in Irieth for use in the two months of the year that the capital is in fashion, must have disagreed, for he gave the carvings one glance and then settled down by the door. His wife, Berend, or Illust' Daverak as her husband's rank now entitled her to be addressed, was less discriminating, for she exclaimed to her servants and children on the beauty of the newest of them, lamenting that they never had anything half so fine when she was a maiden, as if it had been three hundred years ago instead of a mere seven.
When the last flakes of interest had been scraped from the carvings, she settled herself in an alcove under the huge mantel on which were arranged a few pieces of stone sculpture, of no value, as one would expect in an upper cave, but of a certain charm nonetheless.
Blessed Frelt came and stood beside Berend as soon as she had stopped her restless wandering, which would have risked knocking over any companion. He arranged himself comfortably at her side. Berend turned her head to survey him. It was some time since she had last visited her father's home, and she had not seen Frelt since she left to marry Daverak.
The red priestly cords around his wings were long and trailing, his teeth were polished and filed almost flat. In contrast, his scales were burnished to a bright bronze glow, all of which reflected the rather conflicting views he held of his own position. On the one hand, a parson must be humble, on the other, he holds a high spiritual position, perhaps the highest in the community. Frelt explained it to himself as a strong belief in the sanctity of parsons, which encompassed both his humble teeth and his fine scales. He would never have flown, not even across a ravine, but he did not regard himself as beneath any dragon in the land, however well born. He held his head much higher than those immune were wont to do.
"What beautiful dragonets," he said now, cooing over them. Long ago he had had aspirations to marry Berend, which was the heart of the trouble between him and her father. Because he had never spoken to her of the subject, she had no official knowledge of this, and they could thus be on civil terms in public. Unofficially, she had known it perfectly well, as well as any maiden who had heard her father fulminate against a suit and been sternly bidden to stay indoors to keep from being carried off. She had remained obediently within doors, but been much more flattered than offended. She had even hoped for a little while that the match would be made. Now that she was settled elsewhere and her scales shone the glorious red of a dragon both married and a mother, she thought him a safe and charming partner for conversation. On his side, he was inclined to see Berend's lofty marriage as proof of his own good taste, and he liked her more rather than less for it. He had found no other bride in the years between, though as a well-found parson with his own establishment there was no shortage of hopeful partners.
"Yes, all three at my first laying," she said, looking indulgently down at the dragonets playing under their nanny's feet. One was black, one was gold, and the third a pale green that would have caused it to be snapped up at once were it not the child of a powerful lord.
"How fortunate for you both," Frelt said, inclining his head towards Illustrious Daverak, whose posture spoke impatience and who was ignoring the conversation utterly.
"My mother never bore more than two at a time," Berend said. "I am hoping my next will be three also. The more children the better, under Veld."
"It is good to see you so obedient to the teachings of the Church," Frelt said, inclining his head to her this time. "Many of the farmers here seem reluctant to lay at all."
"It is exactly the same at Daverak," Berend lamented.
"What is?" Illustrious Daverak asked, looking interested for the first time when he heard his domain mentioned. He was almost as dark as his black dragonet, and very broad-shouldered, his eyes were so pale as to seem almost pink, not at all a good-looking dragon. If it were not for the binding of the wings, anyone would have thought Frelt a finer specimen, and Frelt rejoiced a little more than he should have to know it.
"The lack of dragonets among the farmers and lower classes, dear," replied Berend fondly.
"I don't know, there are plenty, plenty indeed," Illustrious Daverak replied. "Why, the Majes on the causeway farm had another clutch only six days ago. I meant to fly down and check them over today, if it hadn't been for this confounded summons." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2003 Jo Walton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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