Fire Organ, Fire Blood

The white lady of Irrigan is so named because one of her experiments bleached a lock of her hair. Her maids, affectionately, claim she is more badger than woman. It makes her smile, but they won’t say a word about the scar that runs down her chest.

Irrigan now keeps the windows in her lab open to test her most recent work. She holds a vial to her face, purses her lips, and blows over the top. The air ignites into a stream of blue flame.

She laughs, each new breath fueling the fire.

She sees, in the sparks that float outside and die in the puddles below, what she is about to sacrifice—her beloved maids, the prestige of her approaching marriage, the fractious love of a mother who can’t recognize the musteline creature wearing her daughter like a suit—and thinks she may never return here once she has gone.

After three years, Irrigan has synthesized this combustible serum. She has practiced its use endlessly because today a flock of dragons will fly over their little keep.

By no fault of her own, today is also the day of her wedding.

Both events were summoned by capricious stars. With the constellations, her mother divined the wedding. With her own calculations, Irrigan divined their centennial migration when they will emerge from their torpor.

Dragons are like insects, Irrigan knows. They name each other with scents, sense the poles like lodestones, and give directions with their swishing tails. She can’t travel without a compass, yet the flock travels with only the magnetic tug in their chests. They speak the language of the earth—so did she, to predict their flight.

This she learned from scholars, from the tomes of esoteric merchants, and from the dead dragon killed by her father’s knight, its corpse fresh enough that its fire organ held three drops of serum.

The morning is still bruise dark. She stows the serum in a pouch, crawls into bed, and waits.

With the first light of morning, her maids burst inside. These women, in their gilded wigs, look so strange beside her glassware and astrolabe. They sit her down, twirl her fluffy curls into well-oiled twists, and try to hide her white strands with walnut dye. They can never hide it completely.

Her maids step away so she can admire herself in the mirror. She spins.

“My loves!” she exclaims. She worries at the neckline, pleated silk over dark skin, until she uncovers her scar. “You have outdone yourselves.”

While they are preening beneath her praise, she slips the serum into her bodice and asks for a moment to herself.

She listens until their footsteps disappear, before she tears her skirts off and clambers out the window. From the sill, the garden is one jump away. Ivies cushion her fall; thorns steal thread off her ragged clothes.

South of the keep, the forest ends in a cliff. This outcropping, her destination, is the highest point she’s discovered thus far.

At first dogged by the cries of her father’s stable hands, she takes her horse through the trees until she hears the dragons: their chirps, their wingbeats humming—and she dismounts.

From a sea of greenery, the sky emerges. She curls her toes over the cliff.

The morning sun tells her: her mother has already discovered her absence, the ceremony begins in an hour, and she is glad to be gone. Above her, the dragons weave through the clouds like thread through linen. From horizon to horizon, they do not begin or end. Surely, everyone at the keep sees the spectacle as they see the springtime finches, and like Irrigan, they must marvel.

Irrigan has met the dragons before. Always in her dreams, but first as an infant cradled in her mother’s arms. A black dragon, her slumber disturbed, descended crow-like and split Irrigan’s chest in twain. It fled only when a guard ran his sword through its wing.

Her mother tells this story to scare pregnant maids: They are vultures! They will steal your daughters and drink their blood! But if Irrigan has loved anything, it is this one who found her, opened her up, and drooled inside of her.

She wedges the serum pouch between her cheek and her teeth. She exhales. Her fire sails upwards; its fingertips become plumes of white smoke.

As the flock dips below the clouds, they linger. A handful prance to the ground, a spectrum of colors weaving through the grass as their tongues whip-like taste the air, so she spits fire again to say, “Yes! It is me! The one you forgot!”

Stopping just short of touching her, the dragons sniff her lips for the serum-smell of their nestmates. Beneath their scrutiny, Irrigan holds her breath until they brush their heads against her. They perch on her shoulder, feather light, and lick her cheeks and nip at her chemise until they are skin-to-skin with her. Laughing, she falls to her knees and cradles more dragons than she can possibly hold. Even the big ones, as long as she is tall, curl up like burned velum until they fit between her arms and her breast.

A shadow overcomes them. Irrigan looks. Here looms a black serpent, touched faintly by the sun’s backlight. Parting the swarm, this gravid she-dragon places her claws on either side of Irrigan’s neck.

The other dragons scatter; Irrigan resists the urge to flee from the she-dragon’s needle-sharp gaze.

But Irrigan realizes, as her eyes slide down the dragon’s swan-dip neck, that she isn’t black at all, but the same pearled gray of an oyster. Cobwebbed scars decorate one of her wings.

The dragon’s mouth gapes as she smells and thinks. When she prods Irrigan’s lips, Irrigan opens wide.

Where the fire organ should be, the dragon sniffs the serum pouch. Perhaps Irrigan’s sweat and blood have soaked into the serum and made a scent that is entirely new.

“I think,” Irrigan says, “that we have met before.”


FFO: What other work of yours would fans of this story most enjoy?

LP: My short story “I Returned in the Night” published in The Depths of Love anthology is another piece that explores my fascination with dragons, albeit in a much sadder light than “Fire Organ, Fire Blood.” In this story, a grieving knight slays the dragon, but rather than becoming a hero, he seeks to atone for his crimes against nature.

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