Summer swallowed several times. Her tongue felt dry. She wished that she had brought some water.
She thought about how thirsty she was very determinedly, so that she would not scream at the dragon. The dragon who was wretched and pitiable and who had been destroying the world.
When she thought that she could speak again without yelling, she licked her lips and said, “Why did you ask them to sting things?”
“Only big things,” said the dragon. “Only magic. Only things that Zultan might want destroyed. If they’re gone, he doesn’t need me. When they’re all gone, he’ll let me sleep.”
Summer counted to ten in her head. “They aren’t just destroying dangerous things,” she said. “They’re stinging anything big and magic. There’s a tree that makes frogs, and a giant turtle, and a cactus city.”
“If the wasps don’t do it, I will,” said the dragon simply. “He’ll make me. And my body will burn cities and eat the people, even the ones like I was, the little ones in trash-heaps and the ones who just want to get away, even the dogs who helped me. This way, some of them survive.” She closed her eye again.
“If we stopped Zultan for you—” began Summer, with no idea how she would do such a thing, or if it was even possible to do so.
“If not him, then another,” said the dragon. “Someone will come. Someone will find me and take off my chains.”
“You could tell the wasps to keep them out,” said Summer. Astonishingly, she found herself getting annoyed at the dragon’s cowardice.
I shouldn’t be. It must be terrible to have a body that goes mad and destroys things. Chaining herself up is responsible. She’s doing the best she can do.
But the best she could do had her poisoning every wondrous thing, so she’s not exactly blameless!
“It will be over soon,” said the Queen. “When all the magic’s gone, it’ll be over. No one will need a dragon then. I can sleep. Really sleep. Not like this, where I keep waiting for the sound of a key in the lock.”
Summer shifted her weight, and her jeans pulled a little, and she felt the objects in her pocket poke against her skin.
Waiting for the sound of a key in the lock…
She reached into her pocket and drew out the lock to the garden gate.
This is mad. This is stupid. It’s a little tiny lock. Zultan could probably snap it with his bare hands.
“What is that?” asked the Queen, her eye open just a slit.
“It’s a lock,” said Summer.
But it isn’t about the lock, is it? This is about the Queen. The wasps could stop Zultan easily, I bet. And if not—well, we’ll find a way to stop him. The important thing is that the Queen thinks she’s safe.
“Where is the key?” whispered the Queen, and the wasps dropped from the ceiling and repeated the question with their wings…whhhhhere isss isss isss the keyyy…
“There is no key in this world,” said Summer.
The chains shook as the Queen trembled.
“If you call back the wasps,” said Summer, “I will lock your chains.”
There was movement behind the Queen. Two great shapes formed out of the wasps, puppets nearly as large as the dragon. They looked like nothing Summer recognized. Things, perhaps, from a narrow space between worlds.
They blinked their great winged eyes and…nodded.
It had never occurred to Summer in her wildest dreams that perhaps the wasps themselves had no desire to destroy the wondrous things.
She said the wasps are her friends. Maybe they’re doing this for their friend. Can they think like that? If they’re all together like this?
Are they like the valet-flock somehow?
In her mind’s eye she saw the chasm and the swirling and heard her friend say, “A flock of starlings that big would be a god.”
The Queen-in-Chains closed her eye. “Will I be able to sleep?”
Summer opened her mouth, not sure how to answer, and the wasps spoke.
Summer closed her mouth again.
The wasp puppets leaned down and stroked the dragon with hands made of insects.
“Sssssleeeep…” they said. “Ffffriennnnnd….ssssleeep…”
Summer held up the lock.
“Will it work?” whispered the dragon.
“Baba Yaga sent me,” said Summer. And that was true, even if it did not answer the question.
She had learned, many years ago, that all you really needed was to sound comforting, when the other person wanted so very much to be comforted.
A wasp landed on her palm. It was very large, much larger than the one they had followed. It looked at her with ruby eyes. Its stinger was longer than her thumb.
Summer bowed her head to the wasp.
It reached out with two striped legs and plucked the padlock from her fingers.
The hive went quiet. The humming of wings stilled, as if they held their breath.
In the vast silence of the cathedral, Summer listened to the wasp fly almost silently over the dragon’s back. It landed on the great mass of chains.
Another wasp joined it. Her angle was too low to see what they did, but she heard the sound of metal rasping metal, and then, very quietly…
The wasps led her out of the cathedral. She stumbled once on the uneven ground and they caught her held her upright, a grip made of hundreds of legs. Summer did not recoil. She, and they, were beyond that.
Had they done it? Had she and the wasps quieted the Queen-in-Chains?
The wasps released her halfway down the slope. She looked up at the wasp-puppet and it blinked at her once, slowly.
“Will it be all right?” she asked.
The wasp-puppet fell apart into a cloud that buzzed around her, and in the cloud she heard “zzzzall rrrrightzzzz….”
Mimicry? Or promise?
The cloud of wasps flew back to the paper nest. The light from the pale sky shone on their wings and turned them into ivory and scarlet and gold.
Summer thought, I have done the best I can. I fixed it for now. I can’t fix it forever. That’s someone else’s job, maybe.
Don’t worry about things you cannot fix.
She turned away and looked down the slope to the chasm.
There was a tall shape on the bridge, and her friends were nowhere in sight.
Zultan’s scarred face had gone very red. At first Summer thought that he must be flushed with rage, and then she realized that without his mask, his fragile skin had burned. The white hairs stood out against the scarlet like snow.
He did not look angry. He looked very calm, though he was swaying a little, but perhaps that was simply the motion of the bridge.
“What did you do with my friends?” demanded Summer, standing at the edge of the bridge.
“I did nothing,” said Zultan. “They hared off chasing someone else without any help from me.”
“The antelope woman,” said Summer, almost inaudibly.
Even with his ruined ears, Zultan’s hearing was better than human. He nodded.
“She hates you, you know,” said Summer.
“Oh, I know.” Zultan smiled. “She would not have given me this wretched half-immortality if she did not hate me. But I provide so many opportunities for mischief, she can’t help herself. And it gave me a chance to catch up on my reading.”
“You’ve got to stop using the Queen like this,” said Summer savagely. “She’ll stop killing everything if you stop bothering her!”
“Is that what she told you?” Zultan shook his head. “I haven’t unchained her for years. Not since I had her melt the stones around the last enclave of dogs. Though I suppose time is fleeting to a dragon.”
“I promised her you wouldn’t bother her any more,” said Summer.
If it troubled him to be standing on a bridge in the middle of a chasm, with the wind hissing through his thinning fur, he showed no sign. “That was a rash promise,” he said. “I have been thinking that the birds are getting entirely too full of themselves. It may be time to finally unleash the queen again, and burn their foolish little roosts down around them.”
He’s trying to scare me, thought Summer, and then, and succeeding, thank you very much!
“You can’t,” said Summer. “The wasps will stop you. They didn’t understand before, but they do now.” She hoped very much that this was true.
Zultan gazed over her head at the wasp nest palace. “Hmm,” he said.
One does not confront a murderer who has chased you across the world and expect them to say “Hmm,” in quite that tone. Summer found, underneath all the terror and anger, that she was also rather nonplussed.
“Well, that’s inconvenient,” he said.
Summer didn’t know what to do. Charge at him and try to knock him off the bridge? Ask him to move out of the way? Stall and hope that her friends came back?
He lowered his milky eyes. “So apparently you are my doom after all. I should probably have killed you when I had the chance, but one hates to do anything irrevocable without considering the options.”
Summer had no idea what to say to that. “I wouldn’t have been your doom if you hadn’t chased me!”
Zultan shook his head. “It wasn’t I who led you here,” he said. “A wasp on a string! I could hardly believe it.”
He was watching us. After Grub—after Ankh—he followed us. Him and the antelope woman.
“I’ll take the blame for not killing you,” said Zultan, “but chasing wasps was all your doing.”
“They were poisoning things,” said Summer. “Because of you!”
Zultan listened while she explained, with increasing fury, about the motives of the Queen-in-Chains.
“So it was your fault that so many wonderful things died! Your fault about the Frog Tree and the Great Pipes and the giant turtle!”
The old dog looked over her head to the wasp palace again. “Fascinating,” he said. “I see now why a crone got involved. So many unintended consequences…”
Summer risked a look behind her, hoping that the wasps were still there, but they had retreated to the nest. Even the buzzing seemed muted.
Zultan shook himself. “And now here we are. My doom and I, meeting on a bridge. You without your wolf and your birds, and I without even a single guard or a mount to my name.”
Summer took a step back from the bridge. He raised a hand. “Peace, my doom. I have very little strength left, I am afraid. The trouble with wight-liquor is that when you no longer have it, it takes back all the strength that it gave you.”
Summer inhaled sharply and took another step back.
Zultan laughed softly. He took a step forward himself, and staggered. For a moment Summer thought he would fall, and she reflexively stepped forward, and then her brain got in control of her instincts and drove her back again. What are you doing!?
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I am not about to split my skin and turn on you. It does not take my people the same way. My body is riddled with wight-flukes, but they cannot grow in my flesh, so they die. Horrible, isn’t it?”
“That seems like a very bad way to stay alive,” said Summer.
“It is not the best. But I did finish a great many books, you know.” He sighed. “It’s a shame, really. If I had killed you before, I might have gotten through the last few. But then again, if I had killed you before, then I would not have known about the wasps poisoning the world. And perhaps Grub would have slipped his leash and killed me and tried to milk the last cursed drops out of my blood.” He lifted his shoulders and let them drop again wearily.
There was a speck in the air far above. Summer glanced at it out of the corner of her eye. Did it have a hoopoe’s crest?
Zultan took another few steps forward and went down to one knee against the end-post of the bridge. His breathing was ragged.
“The end is taking me quicker than I wished,” he admitted. “Will you give a little comfort to a dying dog, my doom?”
Summer stared at him.
He reached out his hand. His blunt fingers flexed inside the black gloves.
“Take my hand,” he said, “and promise that you’ll never forgive me.”
She did not want to. She knew that it was beyond foolish. She knew that it was mad.
She knew that Baba Yaga would have done it.
She took his hand.
“Never,” she whispered. It was easy to promise. Her heart was full of the rotting shreds of the Great Pipes and the polished shell of the dead turtle and the smell of a wheat field decaying in the sun.
Zultan Houndbreaker’s breath went out in a long sigh.
‘Thank you, my doom,” he said, and she believed that he truly meant it.
And then he grinned up at her with his broken teeth and his hand turned in hers and he grabbed her wrist.
“And now,” he said, “I shall rectify my last mistake,” and he yanked her toward the edge of the chasm.