MIND OF THE WORLD,
OPEN YOUR EYES.
At the bottom of the world lies a Serpent, the last of its kind.
Finding the Serpent will change lives.
Tess is a girl on a mission to save a friend.
Spira is a dragon seeking a new identity.
Marga is an explorer staking her claim on a man’s world.
Jacomo is a priest searching for his soul.
There are those who would give their lives to keep it hidden.
And those who would destroy it.
But the only people who will truly find the Serpent are those who have awakened to the world around them—with eyes open to the wondrous, the terrible, and the just.
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Tess of the Road
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Remember, Worthy One:
The world knew nothing at first. Then it gave birth to plants, who noticed what sunlight tasted like, and worms, who reveled in the luxuriant touch of soil. Soon the world’s bright birds were perceiving the color of sound, its playful quigutl discerned the shapes of smells, and myriad eyes of every kind discovered sight and saw differently.
Behind these senses were minds—so many! The world was too vast to fit into just one mind; it needed millions of them to consider itself from every possible angle.
The difficulty with minds is that each perceives itself as a separate thing, alone. And so the minds spin stories to bridge the gaps between them, like a spider’s web. There are a million stories, and yet they are all one.
But come, Mind of the World. Open your eyes.
We have teased apart one filament, which might be a beginning.
Once upon a time (the world always starts with time), a dragon scholar climbed the stairs of an inn in the bustling port city of Mardou.
There were fifty-six stairs. It only felt like twice as many as yesterday.
The dragon was in human form, a saarantras; they wouldn’t have fit in the stairwell otherwise. They paused on each landing, leaning on a hooked cane. Dragons shouldn’t feel irritated or bitter, but Scholar Spira was usually in enough pain to feel a bit of both.
Today their irritation was directed at Professor the dragon Ondir, who seemed determined to meddle endlessly with Spira’s expedition. Their bitterness was for their knees, which gritted and stabbed with every step as if they were full of broken glass.
At the top of the stairs, muffled voices were audible behind the professor’s door. Spira couldn’t discern the words, but a sniff at the doorknob answered their most pertinent question. The person they’d come to complain about—the person Ondir had foisted onto Spira at the last minute, whose hundred barrels of pyria were even now being loaded onto the Sweet Jessia—had arrived before them. This was going to be awkward.
Spira feared no awkwardness, however. Spira was born awkward.
They flung wide the door without knocking.
“Enter,” said Professor the dragon Ondir, rather too late.
The room was large and well appointed, with a view of the sea. A four-poster bed loomed at the end, curtains drawn (like a market stall, Spira thought). The right wall was dominated by windows, the left by a broad, roaring hearth.
Ondir, whose chair faced the door, was tall and gaunt like a proper saarantras (and utterly unlike Spira). His guest, facing him, looked to be much shorter. Spira could see only tightly curled hair, so fair as to be almost white.
“Lord Hamish, have you met Scholar Spira, leader of our expedition?” said Ondir.
“We weren’t properly introduced,” said the pale man, leaping up to perform the elaborate genuflections Southlanders called courtesy.
Dragons generally ignored such performative nonsense and never bothered learning to distinguish one degree of courtesy from another. Spira had bothered. Spira had Tathlann’s syndrome; their egg had been ripped from the maternal oviduct before the last, crucial hormonal infusions. Spira had no maternal memories, none of the basic knowledge other dragons hatched with: language; flight; who was likely to eat you. Ondir had once calculated that a dragon with Tathlann’s syndrome must study four times harder just to make up for that congenital deficit.
Spira had taken it upon themself to study 6.3 times harder. It paid off in surprising ways.
Lord Hamish gave five-sixteenths courtesy—the tiniest increment more than they deserved. Either the man was insulting them, or he had an idiosyncratic sense of humor. Spira didn’t care which; the fact got filed away for later.
His lordship, pale and petite, was dressed head to toe in cream-colored wool. His doublet and breeches were expensively cut but almost aggressively unadorned. His soft boots were the color of parchment, and his earrings (four per ear, very unusual) looked like little woolly cocoons. The only contrasting darkness on his person was a pair of smoked-glass spectacles.
He finished his manner-dance, saying, “Thank you for agreeing to take me along.”
Spira had agreed to no such thing. Given a choice, Spira wouldn’t be on this expedition themself. The risks outweighed the benefits by more than sixty-eight to one. The scholars in the high towers of the Mootseye had calculated the precise ratio out to twenty decimal places and concluded thereby that the expedition should be led by their most expendable researcher, the one who made everyone uncomfortable.
Spira considered disconcerting others a cultivated skill, in fact. They aimed their most off-putting stare at Lord Hamish and said, “Are those your hundred barrels of pyria cluttering up my hold and endangering my expedition?”
Lord Hamish’s face fell in confusion. “One hundred? I requested half that amount.”
“Only half are yours,” Professor the dragon Ondir cut in. “The rest are ours.”
“What do we want with pyria?” said Spira. Even without maternal memories, they had a reflexive horror of the stuff. It had been the Goreddi knights’ most potent dragon-slaying weapon for centuries. In this era of peace with humankind, it was appalling to think the oily substance still existed in great enough quantity to fill barrels.
“I expect it will have nautical applications,” said Ondir. “It burns underwater. You could douse the Polar Serpent with it, unless you’ve formulated some better plan to kill it?”
Lord Hamish was physically incapable of turning paler, and yet Spira could smell that the blood had drained from his face. That was a sign of upset; Spira filed it away.
“I’ve made no such plan,” said Spira, eyes widening ingenuously for Lord Hamish’s benefit; Ondir wouldn’t notice. “I must have misunderstood your orders.”
This was a lie; they’d understood the professor perfectly well. Spira kept one eye on Lord Hamish, however, and noted his look of relief and gratitude.
It was a map to where a wedge could be driven.
“How else are we to study the serpent?” said Ondir slowly, as if explaining to a hatchling. “It gets too cold at the pole for us to live there for any extended period. Did you hope to bring it home alive? I don’t see how. Perhaps you’d send in a team of hardy quigutl to observe it in its natural environment? They’re unreliable; they’d forget to report back.”
Ondir had another reason for wanting the serpent dead. If Spira could goad the professor into saying it aloud, Lord Hamish might become upset enough to quit the expedition. The pyria would still be aboard—it seemed to be Ondir’s pyria, ultimately—but at least Spira wouldn’t have to babysit an irritating human stranger for the entire voyage.
“The serpents are reputed to be sentient beings,” said Spira. “Surely I should try to find a way to communicate with it. Wouldn’t we learn more by talking to it than by cutting it up?”
“These serpents should not exist,” cried Ondir. “We’ve run the equations; they’re impossible. Unless and until we understand how they work, none of us can call ourselves knowledgeable. None of us are safe. If nature makes exceptions to its own rules, then what can we rely on? Unless you think this animal has a grasp of higher mathematics and can explain itself on that level—and why would it have language at all? Whom does it have to talk to?—we’re much better off studying it in pieces.”
“Do you mean to say,” said Lord Hamish slowly, “that when you come across something bigger, older, and mightier than you, all you can think to do is destroy it?”
“You seem not to care about all the theories and paradigms it has destroyed,” said Ondir.
Only a dragon would think an argument like that carried any weight. Spira, born ignorant of so many things, was more accustomed to humiliation than most dragons and didn’t take the serpents’ existence personally.
Lord Hamish looked ill. Good. Spira was poised to nudge him overboard, metaphorically.
“You seem upset,” Spira said. “Perhaps ours is not the right ship for you to—”
“It absolutely is,” said Lord Hamish, while Ondir cried, “Of course he must.”
The double reaction took Spira aback. There was a miscalculation somewhere.
“Lord Hamish,” said Spira, “I need to speak with my supervisor in private.”
The little man bowed and showed himself out. Spira sniffed; his lordship stood just on the other side of the door, likely listening in.
“Why have you burdened me with this human and his cargo?” said Spira in soft-mouth Mootya, the draconic tongue as spoken by saarantrai. Lord Hamish likely wouldn’t understand it.
“He won’t be a burden,” said the professor. “You’ve assessed incorrectly. He’s Count Pesavolta’s enforcer of southern treaties and has traveled the Archipelagos extensively. He knows the region well. His expertise will save you a lot of time.”
“You sought him out on purpose?” asked Spira, sinking into Lord Hamish’s vacated seat, wincing as their knees cracked.
“He sought us out. He needs pyria and transport south. It’s mutually beneficial.”
It seemed superficially reasonable, but Spira hadn’t survived 134 years by taking anyone’s word for anything. “Why would an enforcer of treaties need pyria?”
“He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. It’s his price for helping us.”
“And he’ll guide us all the way south? All the way to the Polar Serpent?”
Professor the dragon Ondir shifted in his seat. Here was the rub, apparently. “He has not yet agreed to it, no. He claims he’s never crossed the sixty-fifth parallel, because the treaties forbid it, but I suspect he’s gone farther. He knows too much; he may even have seen the creature.”
“If he thinks we want to kill it, he’ll never take us to it,” said Spira. Making Ondir spell that out looked foolish in hindsight.
“Give him no choice,” said Ondir, as if this were the easiest thing in the world.
Anything seemed easy if you had someone else to do it for you.
Spira felt suddenly exhausted. It had taken so much energy just to come here and complain—and for what? They were still stuck with Lord Hamish, and now they had to force him to lead them to the pole. How? If he was mistreated, it would be Spira’s neck on the line.
The saar were bound by treaties as well. It wouldn’t do to forget that.
“You look peaked,” said Ondir, eyeing Spira dubiously. “Do you have enough medicinal herbs? Store them properly. You won’t get far if you have another flare-up.”
Tathlann’s syndrome meant joint and heart trouble, ambiguous anatomy, autoimmune conditions, and what dragons called hyperemotionality—meaning any emotions at all.
Spira was feeling one now, in fact. Patronized.
Spira’s last “flare-up” had been a conflagration—they’d almost died—and they chafed at the suggestion that their own carelessness had caused it. One of Ondir’s human students, William of Affle, and his dreadful girlfriend had maliciously stolen and destroyed Spira’s herbs. Spira had been ill for three months, during which time William absconded from St. Bert’s, leaving his miserable girlfriend pregnant. Spira had assumed she’d be packed off to a convent, the usual practice among Southlanders, but she’d escaped that fate somehow.
The nefarious girlfriend—Therese? Tess? She’d gone by both names—had walked to Ninys, fallen down a hole (a fate Spira had very much wished upon her), and discovered the so-called Continental Serpent. Through dumb luck, she’d affirmed the existence of World Serpents, previously considered a quigutl delusion. Dragonkind had been forced to take action, of course, so in some sense it was her fault that Spira had been coerced into this polar expedition.
There weren’t enough holes in the world for her to fall down—or William of Affle, either.
“Your graduate students are acceptable, I presume,” said Ondir, breaking Spira’s reverie. He was clearly checking off some kind of list.
The graduate students were absolutely not acceptable, but Spira was stuck with them and knew it would be pointless to complain—again—at this juncture. Still, the scholar couldn’t help grousing: “It’s a pity that Quaali couldn’t get her second submersible design to work. I’d have preferred to travel to the pole alone, underwater.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Where would you stow your medicines in a vessel like that? To say nothing of food and water,” said Ondir. “Quaali is a gifted engineer, but she failed to take several important things into account. Our intern almost suffocated. I shudder to think what a deathtrap her first design must have been. Just as well she lost it.
“What you really should do,” Ondir continued, “is fly south. That’s the way we’re meant to travel, the way we’ve dominated this world. You’re being overly cautious.”
It would have been unimaginable agony for Spira to fly all the way to the pole. Their natural shape was more painful even than their saarantras. Ondir never seemed to remember, no matter how many times he was told.
But that wasn’t the only reason not to fly. “Flying would be suicide. I’ve explained this. The pole is ringed by volcanoes. Their gases poison you over time, or knock you unconscious—”
“And then hitting the ground kills you—I was listening,” said Ondir. “If I disagree, it doesn’t mean I didn’t hear."
“It means you haven’t done the research,” grumbled Spira, planting their cane and rising to their feet again. “My whole life, everyone has mocked me for being pedantic; when will you recognize that the slow-but-thorough researcher always knows what they’re talking about?”
“If it’s recognition you’re after,” said Ondir, not rising to open the door, “I remind you that a successful voyage might go a long way toward convincing the hiring committee at the Mootseye that you’re worth considering for a professorship.”
His words were carefully hedged, but Spira had no illusions on this point. The committee could always find another reason to reject their application.
Professor the dragon Ondir did not bid Spira farewell or wish them good luck. No self-respecting dragon had use for such coddling; Spira grudgingly conceded that at least they were treated like any other dragon in that regard.
The corridor was disconcertingly dark, but Spira could still discern Lord Hamish. He’d moved a bit away from the door. “Scholar Spira,” he said, his wafting scent indicating that he’d bowed. “Shall we walk to the ship together?”
Here was another who was welcome to fall down a hole.
Spira began picking their way down the stairs. It took some concentration until their eyes adjusted. Each step felt like someone was trying to pry off their kneecaps with a hot knife.
“I appreciate your reluctance to kill the Polar Serpent,” said Lord Hamish, at Spira’s heels like a terrier. “You’re right that it’s a sentient being and should be approached as such.”
Spira snorted. “I was pulling Ondir’s tail.”
“Still,” the man insisted. “Humans long believed dragons to be mindless beasts, but we’ve learned better.”
“I believe you have that backward,” said Spira, pausing on the landing to let their knees recover; regrettably, this meant Lord Hamish paused beside them.
The pale man glanced warily up the stairs, then cupped a hand to his mouth. “You’re wondering what the pyria is for. It’s for my client in St. Claresse. He requested fifty barrels, but I’m sure he could use a hundred. What if I sold him all the pyria and split the profits with you?”
That left no pyria to kill the serpent with, Spira noted. Of course, the Continental Serpent had died of a ballista bolt through the eye; there was more than one way to do the deed.
Lord Hamish continued: “I think you’d like my client. Like you, he fits uneasily into this world and chafes at its injustice. Have you never wished to see it all burn? His cause is righteous. You’d be helping an indigenous island nation push back against Ninysh tyranny.”
Spira did not give two snorts for injustice, but they did chafe at this human noticing how poorly they fit and intuiting that they’d like to burn everything down. That was surely a lucky guess. Observing that a dragon wanted to set things on fire was not a particularly deep insight.
And yet. Spira felt unexpectedly exposed.
“I accept your offer,” said Spira. “Double the barrels, half the profits.”
Lord Hamish opened his mouth, but Spira wasn’t done.
“In addition, you will lead us all the way to the pole. None of this sixty-fifth-parallel nonsense. You’ve seen the serpent. You will take us to it.”
The man hesitated.
“I’m voluntarily relinquishing the means of killing it,” said Spira, hoping this would do in lieu of an actual promise. People tended to react badly to broken promises.
Lord Hamish inhaled shakily, then said, “I agree.”
He thrust his hand forward. Spira looked at it distastefully and then shook it.
It hadn’t been so difficult to persuade Lord Hamish after all. Spira was feeling slightly smug about this and was on the verge of congratulating themself when they caught the faintest whiff of . . . prevarication.
According to experts at the Mootseye, it was impossible to smell humans lying, but Spira’s nose and experience said otherwise. You had to train yourself to distinguish it (by spending a disagreeable amount of time with humans), but it was there.
They’d first noticed it when William’s horrible girlfriend had sat on Spira’s lap and professed her (lying) love as cover for the theft of Spira’s medicines. Underneath the acrid tang of anxiety had been something fainter. Something nameless that had given Spira a frisson of synesthesia. She’d smelled brittle, like a porcelain vase full of fine cracks.
Lord Hamish smelled that way now. They should’ve known better than to hope that anything about this voyage might turn out to be easy.
Well, two could play that game. Spira had prudently promised nothing.
In brooding silence, they gingerly descended the rest of the stairs and emerged into the glare of afternoon.