I’m upfront at our first meeting in the courtyard. If Lilist is going to reject me because of my shortened lifespan—and she has all the right to, as the others I’ve met before her—I’d rather she do it sooner. Before I begin imagining what the future could be.
“I’m not really first-mother material,” I say, looking down into my tea. Has she already noticed the starry scent of dragon feathers clinging to my robes? Does she think the tremble in my hands is due to nerves or the fatigue of harnessing fire all day?
She places her cup back into its saucer. This is it, I think, but she smiles and says, “What a relief.”
Women who are destined to be first mothers want to make families with other aristocrats. Occasionally, one will decide they want the comfortable pace of life that comes with marrying a craftswoman from the flatlands. “No one wants to make a family with a fire keeper,” I say because in my months of seeking a partner, this is the resounding impression I’ve internalized.
I have loved life in the monastery. I was born there and never wanted any other life. For most of us, the fire is all the warmth we need; the companionship with fellow fire keepers all the relationships we’d want. Among us, there is no strangeness in looking skyward and dreaming of outer worlds.
My hands are clattering the teacup against its saucer. It’s nerves now, I’m sure. I set it on the table between us. She’s not staring at the cup or my hands. Her gaze is locked on mine.
“I might want to, Olin.”
I have talked to wild dragons and seen them eclipse the moon. I have caught the fire of their breath in my hands and taken its power into myself. Yet suddenly I feel fear speeding my heart as I face this woman who could have anything else but claims she wants to have a family with a fire keeper. People in Vel do not remarry. Choosing a fire keeper as a partner means spending most of one’s marriage always knowing that time is against them; that one day very soon, they’ll be alone.
She reaches across the table and strokes the swath of scar tissue on the back of my hand. “It’s an old injury,” I tell her automatically, as if her touch was a question. “From when I was young. The first time I tried to hold a dragon’s breath. My control slipped.”
Her voice is soft when she speaks, as if anything louder could aggravate my old wound. “Is it common? Burns like this?”
“All of us have a story. Most of us, more than one.” A pause. Perhaps Lilist, a poet, is more inclined than most to listen to the stories of someone like me. “Am I the first fire keeper you’ve ever talked to?”
“There aren’t many of you compared to us. Most don’t choose your life.”
From the mouths of some, this may have been an insult. With her, it’s an observation. She keeps stroking my scar, and I watch the trace of her fingers.
“I think your work is fascinating—what I know of it, anyway,” she says next, and I’m so hypnotized by the delicate pressure of her fingertips that I almost miss what she’s said.
Two first mothers glide by our table—I can tell they’re firsts by their embroidered silk capes and measured strides, the crystals braided into their long hair. They glimpse Lilist’s hand on mine, blink, bend their heads towards each other. I have not left the monastery in weeks, not since the last rejection. I wonder what I look like to them in my muted colors, with my long but singed hair. Foolish of you to grow it out, my teacher had admonished. You can throw off your cloak if it catches fire, but long hair is an unnecessary hazard. The short hair, though—it gives us away as fire keepers when we come down from the mountain. That’s what the first woman I talked to said.
Lilist watches the two retreating first mothers, then fully grasps my hand. “Let’s walk,” she says.
I cling to her like she is living fire.
Lilist and I marry against the advice of her parents and sister, when I have, at best, five years left to live.
“What will you do when I’m gone?” I ask her when we’re secure in the dark of our room one night. Lilist’s bed is piled with beaded and embroidered cushions and wide enough to fit two more people. If not for her weight against me, I would have felt insecure in its opulence. “People say life feels colder after their fire keeper dies.” Her head is pillowed on my chest, and I know she must hear how my heart races.
I cannot see Lilist’s face. Eventually she says, “Then you will just have to show me how to tend the fires as you do.”
She finds my hand again like at that first meeting, and I offer to share the final piece of my life with her.
When I travel to the monastery for the first time after our marriage, I bring Lilist with me. She has traded her silk gown and velvet cape for wool and furs at my advice, and only a jeweled broach, hairpin, and rings betray her status. The wind in the mountains is harsh without the shelter of the monastery’s walls and the heat of dragon breath. Thankfully, though, there is a well-traveled path. When I tell her of it, Lilist insists on bringing her horses, saying that I might be fit enough to scale mountains on my own strength but that she is not used to the exertion. So we ride.
“Are you more used to riding dragons?” Lilist asks as we begin our journey, and I can’t help my laugh.
“Is that what you all think down there in the city?”
“Fire keepers do have a reputation for being...”
“Daredevil fanatics?” I suggest.
I intended it as a joke, but she says, “I’m sorry. There are so many rumors. I should know better than to put stock in any of it.”
“If any of us could tame and ride a dragon, we’d have mighty spirits indeed. What would stop any of us from going off to the stars with them, visiting other worlds?”
Lilist falls quiet in that thoughtful way she has. When she speaks again, she says, “Tell me if I am out of line for asking, if these are secrets of your order, but— Where do the dragons come from? Why are they here?”
These are the questions the highest of our order have asked since the first contact with dragons. I tell Lilist this, that we haven’t yet learned their tongue but can interpret the vague outline of their will through sharing fire. They say they have come from another star system. They say their star went out, devoured by one of their kind, and their world became intolerably cold. We cannot yet interpret from their account why the devourer did this.
“The most concrete thing we have learned from them is the star map,” I finish.
Nightfall brings a clear sky. I locate the halfway alcove and we make camp, watering and feeding the horses and ourselves. With the mundane tasks done, I withdraw the flask of fire I keep next to my heart. Lilist still marvels at how the flame dances without fuel, how its container is merely warm to the touch.
“Do you have a bit of parchment?” I ask, because of course she, a poet, would have thought to bring parchment on a trip into the mountains.
She nods and fetches a roll from her things. I spread it flat on the stone.
“The star map looks best at night,” I explain. “It’s beautiful. I want to show you.”
I have never worked fire outside of the company of the other fire keepers, much less in front of someone uninitiated into our world of heat and smoke. Most people, still wary of the dragons and the ones who associate with them, do not want to witness one of us working fire, but Lilist’s eyes are bright in the darkness as she watches me unstop the flask and inhale the flames.
I have missed the burn in my throat, my mouth, my lungs. I am careful to avoid looking too closely at Lilist as I sink into the ritual. Although I do this for her, I cannot allow myself to think of her. A trace of anxiety can ignite a flare, set off an eruption that would swallow us all in flame, and so I imagine that I am alone while I brew the fire. Despite the wind, I’m sweating. Suddenly, I need to shrug out of my cloak. It falls heavy at my feet, and I gaze past Lilist up into the stars and let the dragon’s memory become my own. I exhale the smoke, as my training has disciplined me, and let the fire inside grow. Many apprentices, at this stage, will expel the fire before it can brew its magic, but I know the point at which my body will blister and ash, and I’ve learned to banish the fear of that possibility.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that Lilist has drawn her furs tighter around her, is staring at me with something I don’t have the space to name if I’m going to control the fire. The horses are whinnying, snorting, pawing at the ground. Lilist thinks to go to them and soothe them.
Spark. That is the way we’re all taught to recognize when the fire has brewed the magic to its peak. Ironic, when you have an entire inferno coursing through you, that you’d recognize anything so nuanced as a spark, but it makes intuitive sense. I feel it as a prickle along my spine. I seize it and visualize its shape. I kneel to the paper and blow a tame lick of flame. The parchment catches, crisps, and blackens as the flames dance over its surface. I exhale smoke once more and breathe the fire back into the flask. By the time I’ve wiped my brow and gulped down the clear air, the parchment has fully ashed and the map has set. I beckon Lilist over to see.
Some of the ash has crystalized into a spattering of starry flecks burned into the stone at our feet. Through them, a gossamer trail charts a course. I point up at our stars and show Lilist where they are on the scale of this map, where the tiny galaxy spirals out to represent stars we can’t see with our own eyes. I show her the course the dragons took through the eternal night, and she sits back and looks at me and then at the map again.
“I feel so small,” she says. “Everything feels so small.”
I don’t expect her to say this. “For us, the dragons make us feel connected to the potential of all the other worlds they’ve visited on their way to us. Their fire grounds us in our bodies and to the earth in the way nothing else has ever done or could do. None of us would ever give up the pain of fire, because it brings so many gifts,” I say. I need her to see how beautiful this is, why I do not hate my scars, why the wildest among us devote ourselves to this life. Sometimes one is born with a spark to draw the terrifying unknown to themselves and confront it and at least gain contentment by knowing the depth of the mystery.
“I understand, Olin,” she says in the too-fast way of someone who doesn’t truly understand. She strokes the scar on my hand as she looks back to the star map.
Her gesture is kind, but for once, it doesn’t reassure me. Maybe that’s because of the sudden exhaustion that comes with working fire, or maybe it’s the memory of a lifetime defending our study to outsiders, but I feel an old weariness that threatens this precious moment. I grip the flask of fire with my free hand. An unconscious gesture. A comforting one.
Lilist knows it well by now. She squeezes my hand, and I have her full attention. “It’s beautiful, Olin,” she says. “Your work is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
The weariness abates, and it comforts me that, soon, Lilist will see the monastery. When she does, I know she’ll understand.
None of us in my lifetime have ever brought partners to the monastery. It is not forbidden, but it is rare; rare enough for one of us to marry, and rarer still for us to want to return in the company of an outsider. Uncertain of the etiquette, I sent a letter ahead of us, introducing Lilist and asking for my old teacher’s blessing. Her response was curt, in keeping with her usual manner, and confirmed that she wouldn’t stop someone from scaling the mountain if it was in their heart to do so.
“She didn’t say yes,” Lilist had pointed out, pacing with the letter in hand. “I wouldn’t want to be an imposition.”
“It’s a yes.”
“How do you know?”
“I know her.”
And so we’d gone. Certain that everyone would adore Lilist as much as I, I hadn’t worried—not until the familiar shape of the monastery’s buildings came into view.
Those walking the upper paths have already seen us approaching on Lilist’s great mares, and a small gathering, all drab cloaks and close-cropped hair, welcomes us. In the time I’ve been gone for the wedding, some of the youngest already have new burns or have earned their own flasks of fire strung around their necks. I embrace each person there, and if they have their own fire, it warms my chest as we touch. When I reach my old teacher, she smiles her usual tight, controlled smile and remarks that my hair is growing ever longer.
In the silence that follows, I turn back to Lilist, still sitting high on her horse. Silhouetted against the sun, she appears more imposing than I ever remember her being. I go to her to help her down, and she moves as if to hold her skirts out of the way, then remembers herself. Except for this trip, I’ve never seen Lilist in trousers.
An entirely different kind of heat, the uncomfortable kind, rises in my face as I turn to introduce my wife to the people who, in any way that matters, have been my only family. They kiss her cheeks and compliment her pretty jewels, glittering things that ceased to catch my attention the longer I spent in Vel. Suddenly, I see her again as I saw her that first day, as they must see her—a cautious aristocrat too pampered by life to see its mysteries.
My teacher does not kiss her cheeks as the others have done, only looks at me and says, “She must be cleansed with smoke before she comes any farther,” then retreats in the direction of the sanctuary, leaving me standing amid the silent stares of my peers.
The ceremonial smoke clings to Lilist’s hair and clothes, and I love the smell on her. With ash smeared across the bridge of her nose, she looks like one of us, a new initiate. I show her the monastery grounds, carefully avoiding the sanctuary and my teacher and the dragon who sleeps there during the day. Everyone is eager to tell her the history of not only our modest quarters but the entire mountain, and the youngest of us clamor after her, asking for stories of Vel. I stand back and admire how they dote on her.
The night will be clear again, and I suggest that we stay up and watch the dragon’s lunar flight. The night-lights are brightest at the top of our mountain, and on a full moon like tonight, the lunar eclipse brought on by the span of the dragon’s wings is even more stunning. So we huddle in the courtyard with the others in the too-cold night on the iced-over snow. Lilist shivers against me, and we all hush when we sense midnight. The ground shakes. I know how to brace for it but, in my familiarity, I have neglected to warn Lilist. I steady her before the next shake and whisper an apology. My teacher appears from the dark mouth of the sanctuary, striding easily towards us over the trembling ground. She acknowledges us all with a nod, and we wait.
Lilist grips my hand when the dragon’s head emerges from the cover of the sanctuary. Each step makes the mountain below us tremble, but we are staring up, lost in the dewy glisten of the dragon’s silver feathers and the opal glint of their horns. Their great head lowers to us and they turn one colorless eye to Lilist, who watches, steadily, in return. The dragon’s mouth parts, and Lilist stumbles back against me in alarm, but only a warm smoky breath washes over us, insulating against the chill for a few precious seconds. The others try to suppress giggles and fail as Lilist sags against me. My teacher smiles a real smile.
From their perch atop the rocky point of the sanctuary, the dragon summons the currents that will buoy them into the night sky. They circle above us, a low, fast shadow. As they circle higher, we can track their progress by the trail of stars disappearing and reappearing, renewed and brighter than before. When they circle low again to confront the moon’s light, I hear Lilist breathe in and keep her breath until the moon is freed from shadow of wings and the dragon’s feathers carry the faint glow of the moontouched. Now, I think, she understands.
I might have thought my living space modest before, but it appears severely austere after spending time in Lilist’s rooms in Vel. We squeeze together on my narrow bed, and I tell her stories of what we’ve gleaned from the dragons, breathing out smoke images to illustrate the strange things the dragons have told us of: that the celestial lights we call stars are far-flung suns much like ours, that planets of gas and ice and eternal storms also circle our sun, that in the cold dark of space, collapsed stars become light-eating voids.
“That’s terrifying,” says Lilist, curling closer to me. “Are you sure the dragons aren’t speaking in metaphor?”
“It’s real. I’ve witnessed it through fire.”
“The same fire that shortens your life,” she says. Not accusatory, just fact. “Our bodies were never meant to hold power as untamable as fire, and you pay dearly for it.”
She’s quiet for a moment, and though I know our relationship has passed the point where many others would have shunned us for our heretical beliefs, I still feel the prickle of worry that comes with divulging draconic wisdom to an outsider. In Vel, most tolerate our presence when we come down from the mountain to trade for goods, but when one of our order long ago tried to share what we’d learned of starfire and the properties of dragon feathers, they were violently driven from the city for daring to—in the Velians’ words—“proselytize the teachings of offworlders.” Now, we are careful what we say about our lives and the structure of the universe.
“I understand,” Lilist begins slowly, “why you would trade your time for such precious truths.”
“Just as a poet seeks truth, if I understand your craft correctly.”
This draws a smile from her.
She combs the tangles out of my hair, smooths the kinks with flower oils, and braids them into intricate swirls across my scalp. When I marvel at myself in her mirror, she says that perhaps my teacher will stop scolding me if it’s held back.
“Maybe,” I say and thank her.
“Do you think,” she starts tentatively, “I could talk to the dragon as you do?” When I am too surprised to respond, she hurries on to say, “It was just so beautiful. Tonight. And it’s not as if daughters of families like mine even have the chance to consider becoming fire keepers.”
I repeat to her the first lesson my teacher taught me. “To meet a dragon for the first time requires a gift. Take some time to consider what of value you might give.”
On the last day of her visit to the monastery, Lilist settles on a gift. It is not any of her jewels but a piece of parchment I have seen her laboring over far into the night.
Under the watchful eye of my teacher, we enter the sanctuary together, the warmth of the space immediately banishing the outside chill that had settled into us on our way. A great pyre lit by dragon’s breath burns in the center of the cavernous space, and in the shadows, the dragon looks up as if seeing the sky through the rock above us, white eyes radiant with the light of lost stars.
Lilist slips the rolled parchment from her sleeve and bows before the dragon. They blink as if the greeting has jolted them from their starward trance. With the patient slowness of one who has seen ages, they bend their head so that they no longer tower over Lilist and can meet her gaze as an equal.
“I am a poet, and I have written a song for you,” she says. The dragon shifts, settling their head upon clawed feet. They wait.
Lilist sings, and it is not a song for noble halls or ballrooms. The words are in our tongue but not organized in our way. Rather than telling a story, she weaves a suggestion among us, an emotion like longing. She sings as if breathless, and as the song unravels, I never hear her inhale. The song grows like a fire given all the fuel it has ever hungered for, and I think of wings, although she does not mention them. I feel the possibility of weightlessness, the threat of the vast dark.
Lilist is shaking when she’s done, and she offers the parchment that holds her words. The dragon considers it, then whispers its breath over one corner of it, setting it alight. Lilist doesn’t startle at the fire and waits fearlessly as the dragon opens its fanged mouth to take her words and swallow them whole. They press their nose into Lilist’s hand and close their eyes, as one does when letting a drink warm them from the inside on a winter night.
Lilist otherwise holds still but turns her head so that I can see her smile. The restrained joy of it is a precious thing, and I also fight my expression into something befitting the weight of the moment. My old teacher hums her approval, the closest she ever comes to praise. The dragon has accepted both Lilist and her offering, and she now has a new home here with my peers and I in the sky.
Because of Lilist, we begin to feed the dragon our stories. Whenever I come down from the monastery to visit her in Vel, she has a roll of parchment for me to take back to the dragon who likes her stories best. She encourages other poets to write to the dragon so that our stories might not be lost, so that Vel may travel the cosmos in the belly of a dragon. Soon, I am making my way back up the mountain with satchels overflowing with parchment, and people are making pilgrimages to visit the dragons who were once so feared.
We birth a child who is preternaturally warm. Lilist says this is because the child grew in my belly and learned to hold fire before they knew anything else. That first winter after their birth, Lilist will not let them go, holding selfishly to their warmth. There is fear in that grasp, but I do not name it aloud. I understand how looming death would make one cling to life. I make the dangerous winter climbs to the mountain alone.
My years are burning down to embers when we finally return to the courtyard where we first met. It is summer now, and despite the heat, Lilist still clings to the child. We sit among the verdant plants and guess at what names the child might take for themself when they’re old enough to choose, but Lilist quiets when the reality that I won’t see that moment with her comes drifting back. Time beyond the next moon has gradually stopped existing for us. Lilist is always so careful not to talk about years; holidays—anything that marks the passage of time—turn her somber. I can no longer clear the smoke from my lungs, and I cough with every other breath. Heat has made my tongue unable to enjoy the rich foods we used to savor together. I haven’t told her this. I eat and drink and describe, based on memory, how wonderful it is. I am sure to smile across the table at her.
“Will you show me how to make the star map?” she asks.
I look at her, and she has so much fire in her eyes for someone who has never harnessed dragon’s breath in her body. “You can’t,” I say. I do not tell her she could learn. There are things even I am still afraid of. I have loved this life, but I do not know if I want Lilist to follow me into it. I don’t want to wonder how the fire will deteriorate her body after I’m gone. “And I have shown you the star map before. You remember it?”
She sits back. Watches the baby in her arms. “I couldn’t forget,” she says.
“When our bodies are ashed, the dragons take us up into the stars,” I say, and I do not know why I’ve said it, only that it feels suddenly urgent. On their wings, we are dusted among nebulae; raw elements to be folded into the formation of new worlds.
“Won’t you ask them to leave some of you here on earth with me?”
I cough and say, “For you, the dragons would do anything.”
I take the flask of fire from around my neck and breathe without its weight against my chest for the first time since it was bestowed on me. At my death, this fire will be returned to the dragon and they will have my memories, just as I have held theirs. I have loved this life. Years ago, I wouldn’t have thought it would mean so much to me for someone outside the monastery—someone other than the dragon—to remember it too.
I study the dance of the flame and fold its flask into Lilist’s free hand. She looks at her fist as if it’s a star map, as if it’s something that needs discerning. When she returns her gaze to me, I breathe another unburdened breath and tell her, “When the time comes, I want it to be you who returns my fire to the dragon. They’ll see my life—our love—and know your wish to keep some of me here with you.”