I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but nearly all my stories seem to start in bars. A lot of people say a girl like me shouldn’t spend so much time in bars. But those people are generally assholes, they don’t know me, they don’t get to judge. I like bars, there just seems to be something special about them, you know? Obviously not every bar is special but I’m sure you’ve been to one that is. They’re the sort of places where things really happen. Almost like they were built over the ruins of primeval stone circles and now sit atop ancient ley lines. You can feel something in the air in the places, it always feels like something’s just about to happen. These seedy dives, swanky wine joints and crumbling taverns seem to become nexuses for people, strange and inexplicable convergence point of humanity; places were people are really people. It’s as if the alcohol abrades all those extraneous layers people tends to have, leaving folk all hard edges or soft and fuzzy; it makes them who they really are and loosens the shackles on the prisons we lock ourselves away in. In bars like these you get to see the day release from reality.
There’s one story I don’t tell very often, but it’s my favourite. It’s about the time I met a dragon.
It must’ve been about five, or maybe six years ago. I was in Phnom Canesta’s old city, in one of the quaint but still grimy areas that hadn’t quite been swallowed by the homogenising sprawl of the tourist zone. There was a bar there that I’d taken a particular liking to. Getting to it involved traversing a maze of alleyways and courtyards until you found your way to the fjord wall, up a couple of crumbling switch backed stairways, and across a series of rope bridges slung beneath the bellies of the stripped out high-riser nav-masts until finally you reached it. The bar was sandwiched between two of the old city’s smaller tower blocks, halfway up their yellowing stone sidewalls; supported on ancient I-girders it almost hung in the air. Considering how hard it was to get to I’ve got no idea who it was supposed to serve, we always seemed to be the only ones there, save the wizened barkeep and the fat, black cat who hissed and spat whenever any of us went near it.
All the furniture was made out of that streaky yellow mangrove wood they used to export of Hydra’s Eye before the whole place got swallowed by a nova. That must have been what? Three, maybe four hundred years ago? So this place had to be old. And everything seemed to be held together with nails. Big fat iron ones with square heads, not a single drop of glue or solitary screw in sight.
The air thrummed with the lingering smell of burning charcoal, wild cloves, and some kind of musk the nose couldn’t quiet place. . There wasn’t the slightest hint of the sweat or stale beer you find in most bars. And the view? Oh the view made the laborious journey worthwhile. The whole seaward side was one big veranda that looked out across the harbour and the haze of the methane sea. The dockside a chain of white fire, moving and undulating like a writhing snake as transports danced in the loading yards and landing lights rotated and blinked out. You could see the incoming high-liners on final approach, drifting lazily through the frozen air, the discs under-slung grav-motors sparking and they wound down, the gossamer ripple of the bow-shock as the hull breached the diaphanous cloak of the city’s rim-field. It was breathtaking.
There’d been a whole gaggle of us at the start of the night, but as the evening wore on people started to drift away: People going to bed, or down to the beachfront to watch the edges of the methane sea begin to ice. The last to leave was one of the people I’d bunking with for the last couple of weeks, a guy called Al, he was off someplace in the undercity. For obvious reasons I declined his invitation to join him. I’m not completely crazy. So I was left alone with nothing more than a bronze quaffer of inky black quince sangria, and a cat which looked like it was spending a great deal of energy trying to kill me with its mind. Not even the barkeeper was about, I think he must have snuck off for a crafty cigarillo. It was into that sea of content and wistful loneliness that she walked, the dragon.
She stood for a while in the darkness on the edge of the veranda, just a black shape standing stark against the white lights in the distant.
“You are sitting at my table.” she said. Her every word dripped, hot and liquid and glowing like fresh, molten steel. The tone she used sat somewhere between command and rebuke and it prickled the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Your more than welcome the join me.” I replied. “Heaven knows I could use the company.” It might sound ridiculous, but I swear I heard her smile.
“Only one other person has ever been so bold in my presence. And she was far more worldly than you.”
“Oh? Why’s that?” I asked her.
“Because I am a dragon.”
She stepped out of the shadows and made her way to the table with a slow, steady strut that oozed both confidence and a casual disdain. She was wreathed in a long winding strip of orange fabric that at once seemed as ephemeral and transparent as a dragonfly’s wing, yet as opaque and impenetrable as stone. Each of her arms were circled with golden bangles from wrist to shoulder and jingled softly as she walked; a gentle counter-point to the staccato click of her boots. It almost stung to look at her, like it stings to look at a fire up close, a relentless buffeting of searing light and air. There was no other way to put it, she burned. Burned with self-assurance; burned with purpose; burned with burned with life; burned with a barely contain fury, a primal and instinctive capacity for destruction. She was death in kitten heels.
“I’ll admit you’re intimidating,” I said to her, swallowing my rising fear “but you don’t really look like a dragon.”
The dragon slipped into the chair opposite me. She lounged in it, all loose, languid and vaguely serpentine. The fat, black cat strutted across the floor towards her, leapt into her lap and with a contented purr, promptly fell asleep.
“What we you expecting?” She said, stroking the back of the cat’s neck. “Scales? Maybe some wings?” Her eyes never left the cat cradled in her lap.
“Kind of.” I replied.
“Oh my, your naivete is such a rare and sweet thing to encounter these days. It’s not a matter of biology. Dragons are made, they are not born. Being a dragon is somewhere between an occupation and a state of mind. Part of it revolves around a certain attitude towards the standard rules of possession; We take what we want.” Then she looked at me.
Just an askant movement of her eyes in my direction, but it was enough, enough to know that she wasn’t joking. Those eyes held such weight. So much so, that to be beheld by them was oppressive, like you were being made to carry something so heavy that it bore you to your knees or battered by a storm-wind. Her eyes were the only part of her face I could see, poking out through a slight in her orange shroud. They were ochre rimmed and green, but not the green you would normally expect from eyes. The colour was sharp and vibrant, almost lurid; part harlequin, with hints of chartreuse and twinklings of neon X11. Everything seemed to shift and swat around them, the orange fabric that cover her face danced with lions rampant, pards passant and sphinxes couchant. But just as the eyes tried to pin them down, they would fade back into the weave. The eyes of a dragon are hungry and being locked in their gaze made me feel small and incompetent. I almost wanted to give myself over to her, to put myself in her power and do whatever she asked of me. She glanced away and whatever spell her gaze held was broken.
“So what is a dragon doing in a place like this?” I asked warily.
She folded her arms across her chest, rocking back in her chair she sighed one of those sighs which are equal parts weariness and thought.
“I am a dragon, and like all dragons I am hunted by fools and by the greedy. And this place? It is, and always has been, an island of calm in a sea of frantic noise. It is a place that massages away your cares.”
The dragon reached beneath the orange coils of her clothes and produced a length of knotted brown string, at the bottom of which swung a yellow plastic star.
“They hound me for this.” She said.
“What is it?” I replied, my voice breathless with wonder.
“That’s just it.” She said with a resigned sigh. “It isn’t anything. It is nothing more than a trinket; a piece of market stall junk which you could find in any of a thousand cities on a hundred worlds. And yet hundreds have died trying to possess it. The logic being that if I have it, then it must be special.”
“You could always throw it away.” I told her.
“Ah, but therein lies the problem. Were I to cast it away people would still fight to claim it. While I still carry it I can control the nature and location of the violence. It would be irresponsible of me to put that power into the hands of another.” She coiled up the trinket and slid it back into the folds of her strange, layered dress. “Admittedly, I could destroy it. It would save me a great deal of inconvenience. But it’s the principle of the matter.”
“I take it that dragons aren’t big fans of being forced into doing thing.”
“That is an understatement of truly galactic proportions” she laughed.
She glanced over her shoulder and out towards the midnight blackness of the methane sea.
“I must go now.” She said, gently lifting the cat onto the battered tabletop and rising to her feet. “You have proved to be a pleasant distraction, even dragons have the occasional need to unburden their woes.” She stretched out a hand towards me. “In the tongue of dragons my name is That Which Precedes, but you may call me Autena. Lady Autena Wagstaff.”
“Usha.” I replied, shaking her hand. “Just Usha.”
Autena, she who claimed to be a dragon, turned away from me and paced out of the bar. At the edge of the veranda, in the chill shadows of the lingering night, she paused for a moment. She raised her hands towards her mouth and blew on them to drive away the cold, then she stepped into the darkness and was gone.
Even now, in that moment before she stepped out of the bar, I swear I saw the flare of fire.