The Dragon Star: Episode 1 – Chapter 1
NIGHT SKY. Stars blazing in coal-black emptiness. Celestial magnificence.
The heavenly firmament dimmed by an unexpected light. Brilliance and beauty. A new star. Brighter than all others.
Sunrise and footsteps. Boots and bare feet treading the dust of a winding road. Thousands of eyes cast toward the horizon, following a beacon of boundless radiance.
Saltwater waves lapping against barnacled hulls.
Sand and forest and ice-clear skies melting in rain. Rainbows rising over weathered stone, splintered with time, yet retaining shape and form and function.
Clouds painting the sky in a sinuous spiral.
A woman standing atop a temple dais. Below, thousands kneeling.
A voice resounding with otherworldly power — speaking in every attendant ear.
“I am the new goddess come to release you.”
Lee-Nin woke from the dream, heart thundering within her chest. She clasped her free hand to her mouth to silence her quickening breath.
The dream. The dream had filled her sleep. Moments of unconsciousness she could ill afford.
She glanced around, eyes straining in the cloud-covered blackness of the night. She listened intently — tree branches clattered in the mild breeze, crickets sang their simple song, and somewhere nearby, the gurgle of moving water echoed through the forest.
Bark biting into her back, she sighed as she relaxed against the trunk of the sheltering tree. Her arm still clutched the slumbering girl to her chest, the child’s gentle exhalations wafting against the back of her wrist.
Sao-Tauna slept, momentarily oblivious to the danger enveloping her life. Does she dream? Lee-Nin wondered. Did the sleeping girl also behold visions of the new god? She brushed a stray hair from the girl’s face as she pondered the dream.
Why had it come to her now? Now, after so long without any dreams. A dream that came unbidden to many others for months. The palace staff had whispered recitations of the dream even under threat of punishment. From all accounts, carried through the iron gates by tradesmen and traders and local townsfolk, the visions came nightly to thousands throughout the dominion. Rumors circulated that the dream also haunted the sleep of those in neighboring dominions.
Forbidding discussion of the dream only ensured more spoke of it — in secret. The zhan of the Tanshen Dominion held considerable power over the lives of his subjects, but his will could not extend to their dormant minds. People feared what they could not understand, and no royal explanation accounted for the phenomenon of a single dream inhabiting thousands and thousands of people’s sleep simultaneously each night. How could people not speak of a dream they shared with others? How could they not wonder at its source? How could they not dread its import? How could they not suspect that the god who spoke to them in the dream might be real?
Even the threat, and the occasional example, of beheading could not still their tongues. The zhan and the priests might have declared the dream a blasphemy, but too many dreamers walked the land to make enforcing a ban on discussion a possibility. And despite protestations to the contrary, no one believed the palace councilors and the temple hierarchy to be immune from a dream that afflicted peasants and farmers and tanners and brew-wives in equal measure.
Not equivalent in the sense that the dream came to all people, but that it came to persons of all stations. Not everyone’s nights beheld visions of a sacrilegious new god. Only three in ten saw the dream when they closed their eyes for the night. But that number had grown from one in a hundred, and all expected it to climb with each passing evening. Lee-Nin should have suspected the dream would come, but as her god, the true god of her heart, seemed so far from her, she had not anticipated any other god to attempt a lodging there.
Might the dream be a sign? What could it mean? Why did it come now when she faced such danger, when the child in her arms depended upon her for protection? The wardens had said they would kill her — murder a child thought too threatening to allow to live. How might a seven-year-old girl threaten the Tanshen Dominion?
Lee-Nin stroked Sao-Tauna’s cheek. The girl wrinkled her nose and shifted in her sleep. Lee-Nin took a deep breath, emotion welling up to choke her throat and involuntarily clench the fingers of her free hand.
It didn’t matter why the tahn wanted Sao-Tauna dead. It didn’t matter how far they had to go to outrun the wardens sent to slay the girl. Lee-Nin would protect Sao-Tauna regardless of the requirements or the costs. It seemed improbable, but she had accomplished other impossible tasks. She would realize this responsibility, irrespective of the risks.
Lee-Nin turned her head to the sound of a snapping twig, carried on the wind. The dull ring of muffled metal followed, the familiar slap of leathered steel against men’s thighs. The soft snuffling of dogs with their noses close to the ground reached her ears as well.
She shook the girl gently, placing her fingers across the child’s lips to stifle any possible utterance of alarm. Sao-Tauna opened her eyes, wide and instantly awake, so unlike the normal groggy rousing of a child. Sao-Tauna rarely behaved like other children. Lee-Nin never concerned herself with the reasons — she only cared for the girl.
“The wardens are coming again.” Lee-Nin held up Sao-Tauna to whisper in her ear, and the girl threw her slender arms around Lee-Nin’s neck.
Sao-Tauna said nothing, nodding her head in mute acceptance. She seldom spoke, but it did not escape Lee-Nin’s notice that in the days since their flight began, the girl had not uttered a single word. Lee-Nin stood silently and held the girl in one arm as she clutched the folds of her dress with her free hand, holding them up to avoid dragging the ground and leaving even more of a trail for her adversaries to follow.
She turned away from the sounds of the approaching men, stealthily picking a path through low-hanging branches toward another noise, one she hoped might provide the means of eluding their pursuers, if only temporarily. She ducked the knotted arm of a tree and followed the sound of flowing water.