They toiled up the hillside for a long time. There was a path. Zultan must come here. And presumably the Queen-in-Chains goes out sometimes too. She did…whatever it was…to the Tower of Dogs.
Whatever she is.
It had occurred to Summer on some level that there was an excellent chance that the Queen was in fact a giant wasp queen. She couldn’t remember if wasps had queens like bees.
The things they teach you in school are so useless! All that time on phonics and presidents and what I really need to know is whether or not wasps have queens!
Even if they didn’t in her world, of course, there was no reason that wasps in Orcus had to behave the same way.
She kept following the wasp puppet. She was feeling some emotion that she could not put a name on, something powerful but strange. It was as if she had become so numb with terror that none of her regular emotions were any use, and only this new one was able to get through.
It allowed her to look up the path to the nest and see that the side was covered in a jagged tear that had been patched up, like a paper scar. And she could see, beside it, a perfectly ordinary little wooden door, and it was so normal and so out of place that she wanted to laugh hysterically or cry or sink down to her heels in the dust.
She did none of these things. She walked and the weasel rode with her, and the wasp puppet flew ahead of them like a stormcloud.
There was a second wasp puppet at the door of the hive.
She could look at it more easily now. The trick was to look at the eyes and pretend that they were eyes, not the striped bellies of insects.
And don’t look at the mouth. The mouth is bad.
“Zzzzaaaarree youuu aaa hhhhherrroooo….”
“I’m sorry,” said Summer. Her voice was shaking less than she expected. “Can you please say that again?”
“Zzzzarre youu aa hhhero…?”
“Ah. No,” said Summer, thinking of the Forester. You might become one, I suppose, but I would not wish it on you. “No, I’m not a hero.”
It broke apart.
She took a step back, knowing that if they came for her, there was no point in running. Her throat and her heart and the nerves along the backs of her arms said we will try to run anyway, and Summer, still in the grip of her strange new emotion, said I know. She found that she loved her heart and her nerves for their willingness to try to save her, even in the face of futility.
A thousand wasps landed on the door and pushed against it, their wings buzzing in unison.
“Zzzzen zzzeee Queen-inn-Chhhainzzz will zzzeee youu…”
Summer did not look at the wasps. She did not look at the door. She lifted her chin resolutely and stepped inside.
The Queen-in-Chains lived in a cathedral made of wax.
The floor crunched strangely underfoot. Summer looked down and saw that she was walking on…honey?
It was thin and red and had gone to crystals. Dust lay thickly over it. It felt like coarse sand beneath her feet.
In places, it had dripped from the ceiling and formed lumpy pillars and piles across the floor. One side of the floor rose up to meet the roof, giving the entire nest a tilted look. Summer felt as if she were standing at a slant.
Is…is the Queen even in here? Is anyone here?
Despite the constant hum of wings, the cathedral felt very still. It was a deliberate stillness, like a library, and it seemed to swallow up the sound. As if the idea of stillness was stronger than the motion of the wasps.
Summer looked around, then up. The ceiling was a fantastic construction of wax and paper and honey. Could the Queen be up there?
The floor moved.
There was a vast crackling sound as wax and crystalized honey broke apart, and the Queen-in-Chains turned her head.
She was a dragon.
Her body was a mass of lines and lumps and at first Summer could not make sense of it, and then she realized that under the wax lay chains: dozens, hundreds, chains as thick around as Summer’s chest, chains as narrow as a strand of hair.
Summer stood rooted to the spot with dragonfear. Her tongue pressed against the roof of her mouth. In the back of her mind, in the chambers of her heart, she was a tiny animal in the undergrowth, and a predator moved overhead.
The dragon could move her head only a few inches. Metal wrapped her muzzle and wax and honey had sealed her eyes shut.
She opened her mouth an inch or two, setting the chains rattling, and said, “I cannot see you.”
Summer drew in a deep, gagging breath, and then another. The dust was thick and she was not sure if she would choke on it first, or on the fear.
The dragon’s voice was quiet and surprisingly high pitched, with a hiss of breath under it.
Wasps began to land on the dragon’s closed eye. They picked at the crystalized honey and chewed away at the wax. Summer stood and breathed and her racing heart slowed while the wasps cleared the film from around the Queen’s eyelids.
She can’t get me. She’s chained down. Someone’s chained her down. Of course. She’s the Queen-in-Chains. It must have been Zultan, he must keep her chained up here, but why would he, she’s a dragon, she could burn everything, not just set little fires, he was afraid of a wolf and he’s got a dragon—
“Why are you chained up?” croaked Summer.
“Ahhhhhh…” The Queen shivered. There were more crackles of wax and rattling chains. The wasps rose up for an instant in a buzzing cloud, then settled back down to their task of cleaning.
“Did…did Zultan do this?”
“Yesssss…” breathed the Queen and the hiss was louder now. Summer could smell the dragon’s breath. It smelled of honey and sulfur and wax.
She had read all the fairy tales in the library. She knew how the stories went. It was utterly mad and she knew it was mad—positively dicked in the nob, Reginald would say—and she said it anyway.
“If I set you free, will you stop sending wasps to sting the wondrous things?”
The dragon screamed.
It was a shrill, childlike scream, backed by a dragon’s lungs. Summer took a step back, horrified, and the sound struck the paper walls and wax and died away without echoes.
“No!” sobbed the dragon, thrashing as well as it could in the confines of the chain. “No, no, you can’t! Don’t touch them! Don’t unlock them! Don’t touch me!”
“I won’t!” said Summer. “I won’t if you don’t want me to!”
This had not been in any fairy tale she had ever read.
“Odds and eggs,” whispered the weasel in her pocket, “it’s scared!”
The dragon is frightened.
The dragon is frightened of…me?
It made no sense. It was like being told that a skyscraper feared a snail. The dragon was vast, impossible, ancient, built on the scale of whales and mountains. It would take a hero to slay one.
I would not wish that on you, the Forester had said, and Summer understood why at last. How monstrous a thing it must be, to be that hero. Like being the wasp that stung the Frog Tree to death. To be so small and to singlehandedly unmake a great and wondrous thing.
Summer was an eleven-year-old girl with her hair in tangles and her shoelaces untied. She felt tiny and fragile and…young.
“I’m not a hero,” she said. She said it to reassure herself as much as the dragon, but the dragon quieted.
The wasps pulled away from the Queen’s eye and she blinked.
The eye underneath was gigantic. It was easily as big as Glorious when he curled himself up.
It was hazel-brown with flecks of green and it looked human and that was impossibly wrong in that great draconic head, which should have had eyes like a lizard, eyes like—
Memories crowded back. A story told around a fiery hedgehog. A woman with dragon’s eyes in a human body. How did I forget? How did I ever forget?
“You’re the one,” said Summer. “You’re the girl that took the dragon’s body. You’re a human, like me.”
The eye rolled, and Summer learned what very few humans of her world would ever know, that the whites of a dragon’s eyes are nearly gold and they glow like foxfire in the dark.
“How did you know?” cried the dragon, and this the wasps took it up—hhhhow hhhoww hhhhhow—in a terrible sibilance from all directions, reflecting the terror of the Queen-in-Chains.
Wasps began to land on Summer’s shoulders, their stingers poised above her skin. The weasel in her shirt pocket became utterly still, but she could feel his heart racing through the thin fabric.
“I met the dragon,” said Summer. She didn’t dare swat at the wasps, for fear that they would sting. She looked in the dragon’s frightened human eye and determinedly did not look at the wasps.
If I don’t look at them, I won’t panic. If I don’t panic, I’ll be okay. She could feel the panic coiled in her chest, waiting to spring, but she jammed it down into the hidden room and wrote I WILL STAY CALM across the walls.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I mean, she’s all right. She isn’t mad.”
The dragon shuddered again. “Mad,” she said hoarsely. “Mad! She should thank me. This body…this horrible body…you don’t know. Oh god! Why did you wake me? I want to sleep. Why won’t they let me sleep?”
And suddenly, like a bone snapping back into the socket, Summer understood.
She did not know why the Queen did not want to be unchained. She did not know how Zultan had gotten the chains on her in the first place. She did not know why the Queen couldn’t sleep.
But she understood at last why, out of all the girls in the world, Baba Yaga had come to her back gate and sent her in search of her heart’s desire.
She was not a hero. She could not snap a man’s throat out like a wolf, nor soar through the air like a bird. But there was one thing that she could do well.
She sat down cross-legged on the floor of the cathedral, very carefully, so as not to startle the wasps on her shoulders.
“It will be all right,” she said to the Queen-in-Chains. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s the dragon,” said the Queen in Chains. “This terrible dragon. I was so small before. I lived in the city, in the temple city…I think it must have been far from here, I don’t know. I was young. The things they did—no, I won’t tell you!”
“It’s all right,” said Summer. “You don’t have to.” Her voice only shook a little when she said it, as she tried not to think of what the dragon might mean.
“A woman needed to get into the temple. I knew the side door. It was by the trash-heaps. I hid there most days. I could get her in. She offered me a gift. She wore a headdress but she had horns like a demon. She meant to kill the ones inside. What did I care? I took the gift. It was a wish tied up in cord and alligator skin. I wished to be a dragon.”
Summer nodded. It would not have occurred to her to ask why someone would make a wish like that. Such wishes were entirely sensible, if you did not know what they would lead to.
“Then I was here,” said the Queen-in-Chains. She made a hissing, keening noise, and Summer bit her lip, because she had not known until that moment that dragons could not cry. “In this body. Oh god! It was terrible. It wanted to kill and fight and burn and I was so small, I couldn’t stop it. I burned everything around me. I burned the city. I smashed stones until I had ground half a mountain away and even a dragon would be exhausted. And I fell down and slept and when I woke up again I was hungry and I ate…I ate everything…cows…people…” She opened her mouth as far as the chains would let her and keened again.
“It’s all right,” said Summer, even though it wasn’t and perhaps never would be again. Her part in this play wasn’t to tell the truth, it was only to be soothing.
“If the dragon is very tired, I’m almost big enough to control it,” said the Queen. “It doesn’t think. It just kills and is hungry. I made it go fishing.” She gave a hiccuping laugh. “If you dive very deep, it’s easy to get tired. I crawled out on the beach. I slept. Sleep is good. But then you wake up. I don’t want to wake up and burn the world. I just want to sleep for a thousand years. Forever if I can.”
“That’s why you’re chained up,” said Summer slowly, understanding. “So you don’t get out and burn things.”
The Queen nodded until the chains clanked together like bells. “I asked,” she said. “I was exhausted and I wanted to sleep and the dogs found me. They didn’t kill me. They thought I was a real dragon and I told them…you have to tell the dogs when they ask you…it’s their eyes. And then they asked what they could do, and I said chain me up, don’t let me do this again. And I slept and when I woke, I was chained down and the dragon couldn’t break free.”
She closed her eye and shuddered with remembered joy. “It was…wonderful…”
The cathedral was silent for a long time. The wasps on Summer’s shoulders lifted off and settled along the dragon’s spine. Summer felt her stomach unknot just a little.
“What happened next?” she asked finally.
“Zultan,” said the Queen mournfully. “Zultan came. He unchained me. I begged him not to. He knew what would happen. But he said that if I took down the Tower, he would chain me up again and let me sleep. He fed me first. The body ate them. It wasn’t me. I didn’t want to!”
“I know,” said Summer, as the Queen’s voice rose to a wail. “I know you didn’t.”
“Once it wasn’t hungry, I could follow him,” said the Queen dully. “It wasn’t far away. The Tower of Dogs. I tried not to. They’d helped me. The ones that ran, I didn’t chase. I could do that much. I kept beating the body against the stones. I thought it might get tired. The Tower fell down instead. And then I was tired and I flew back to my chains. When I woke up, Zultan had chained me up again. He said I could stay chained until he needed me again.”
“Why not kill him instead?” asked Summer. She was amazed at how calm her voice was, suggesting someone’s death.
“Then there would be no one left to chain me,” said the dragon. She shuddered again. “I have to stay chained. It’s the only way. The body doesn’t really wake up, you know. It’s mostly asleep now. But if they come off, it flies—it burns—I burn—“
She has trapped herself in a prison that will never grow old, the Forester had said.
“Where did the wasps come from?” asked Summer.
“They found me,” said the Queen. “My friends. They needed a queen. They swarmed from another place…somewhere else…a narrow place between worlds. Oh, I don’t understand it all! But they came and they built on top of the remains of my prison.”
“They’re poisoning things,” said Summer, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Out in the world. Great things. Wondrous things.”
The dragon shifted. Dust and wasps moved through spots of light on the floor.
“I know. I asked them to do it,” said the Queen-in-Chains.