Tilting at Windmills
Ina peeks at Jared through a messy fringe of long, dark bangs. One of her eyes is a deep brown, nearly black, but the other is a startling and icy shade of blue. Bright. Almost transparent.
The contrast is magnetic and Jared tries not to stay fixed on it. Instead he busies himself setting up his small voice recorder, checks the memory to make sure there’s plenty to spare, then sets it off to the side of the tiny round table, trying to make it as unobtrusive as possible. He motions toward the steady red light of the thing apologetically.
“Necessary evil,” he says. “I’d rather just take notes, but most of the time I can’t even read my own handwriting.”
With an understanding nod, Ina admits, “I know. I’ve seen it.” Her voice is rich, deep and accented, slightly clipped in a way that tells Jared she’s at least partially the product of an English education. In response to Jared’s curious frown, she continues, “I snuck into your intro class a few times, just to see what all the talk is about. You’ve quite a reputation.”
“I wouldn’t believe half of it, if I were you,” Jared says.
“I have to say that I expected more of the absent-minded professor type,” Ina tells him. “You’re a good lecturer.”
“A few years of doing this and you learn to fake it well enough.”
They’re tucked into a corner table outside of the café attached to the university’s main library. The school is in the bottom dregs of final exams week, and the surrounding tables are crowded with students, their noses buried in books, note cards and laptops as they go through their various rituals of last minute cramming. Ina’s a little older than most of their neighbors at the coffee shop; she’d traveled to the States as an au pair and has bought a couple more years here on a student visa.
Summer has arrived a month too early and it’s hot today, the sky is hazy and pale, like the sun has bleached away all its color. Jared had offered Ina the seat shaded by the small awning on the side of the building, and now he’s too warm, feels the prickle of sweat between his shoulders. His shirt sticks to the small of his back. He loosens his tie and shrugs out of his sports jacket, then leans back in his chair and props his writing pad on his knee.
Ina stirs her coffee, the specs of cinnamon melting into a swirl that reminds Jared of the Milky Way. She takes a small sip, then levels him a serious look before she speaks. “You want to know about the dragon.”
Jared has to smile. She’s direct, doesn’t mince words, and right away he decides he likes her. “Actually, I was going to thank you for agreeing to talk with me, maybe ask you to pass my regards over to Professor Lyndon for setting this up. But hell, this works too.”
“Back home we call it a zmey, but you probably already knew that.”
With a nod, Jared says, “Try not to think about what I might know. I want to hear what you think.”
“I think it’s like the boogeyman. What do you anthropologists say? It’s a projection or something.” Ina gestures vaguely, searching for the word.
“Archetypes,” Jared fills in the blank for her. “A representation of archetypal personalities.”
“Exactly. Our myths are us, yes? They’re how we see the world, and how we explain it. Some farmer’s crops are blighted, they say the zmey did it. The next year the crops are the best they’ve ever been. That’s the dragon as well. It’s all harmless, mostly.”
“Mostly?” Jared asks.
“They say a human can turn into one, become one, and that some of the older families in the area might have dragon blood in them. It can stay dormant until it doesn’t. Mine is one of the oldest families in the town. I spent the first ten years of my life checking in the mirror every night to see if I was growing wings under my arms.”
Jared scribbles a few words onto his notepad: social stratification---fear? Evil internalized? , and a quick reminder to check any connections between the historical Order of the Dragon and Ina’s family. It’s a long shot, but the region is right, and certainly worth a couple of hours spent in the databases.
Ina points to her coffee cup after taking another sip. “Oh, and the wormwood tea. My grandmother used to make me drink it by the bucketful. Dreadful, no matter how much honey you put in it.”
“Is that to stop the effects of the dragon blood?” Jared asks. He’s familiar with the use of wormwood in folk medicine. It’s said to help with stomach ailments and cure people of certain parasites, and he wonders how it managed to make the leap into dragon folklore.
“It’s a deterrent,” Ina explains, “like garlic is to vampires, supposed to keep the thing away.”
“Does it work? Has anyone ever seen it?”
“Of course they have. A zmey might be able to make itself invisible, but it can’t hide its shadow. Ask anyone over the age of fifty in the village and they’re more than happy to tell you. Flashes of something in the woods, unidentifiable tracks, a strange light shining through their windows at night. It glows when it flies.”
Jared can’t help but ask the next question. “Have you? Have you ever seen it?”
With a shrug, Ina says, “When you grow up believing in something, your eyes can play tricks on you.”
“So you believe in it.” It’s not a question.
“You must think we’re so backward. Quaint. Superstitious.”
Superstition is Jared’s bread and butter. Figuring out what lies behind it, putting it into a cultural context has turned into his life’s work. “Not in the least,” he assures her. “Quite the opposite, actually.”
“Sitting here, right now, I’m tempted to tell you that I don’t, but then again, I haven’t been home for a very long time. Years. Get me back there and…” Ina trails off, starts thoughtfully tapping a long, polished fingernail on the table. “All those old stories. There’s something to them, you know? Storms hardly ever cross into our valley, and the fog that rolls down from the foothills had a curious feel to it.”
“How so?” Jared asks.
“Thick,” she says. “Warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It clings. Wraps around you. Sometimes it smells like burning candles.” Ina shivers. “Did you know that the town elders still leave offerings to it on their doorsteps before the first planting?” She picks up her spoon, rubs a smudge off of the handle with her thumb as she thinks, and then lets it fall back to the saucer with a small clink. “I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have wormwood tea in my cupboard right now.” She shakes her head. “It’s ridiculous. Who believes in magic anymore?”
“It takes a miracle to know that miracles do exist,” Jared states. “Dragons are real if you believe in them.”
“Is that a joke?”
“No,” Jared says simply.
“Does that mean that you believe in them?” Ina asks.
Jared could circle the subject, cite ethnographies, the archaeology of it along with reams of folklore, several anthologies and a copy of his very own dissertation, then go on to tell her that belief in something far outweighs the facts and figures. But she’s been truthful with him, so she deserves the same.
“Yes,” he says, “absolutely.”
“I don’t wanna be a hard ass about this, but you had all semester to get it done.” Jared winces and wonders if he should have chosen his words a little more carefully. The kid sitting in the chair at the corner of his desk wrings his baseball cap between his hands, curls the brim of it until it forms a perfect circle then bends it back the other way.
Jared just wants out of here. He’d come to his office after his interview with Ina thinking that he had an hour’s worth of loose ends to tie up, maybe two tops, long enough to get through the last of the make-up exams and zip the final grades off to the powers that be. Instead, he’d found a half a dozen students from his Intro to Anthropology class standing against the wall outside of his door, lined up like petitioners awaiting absolution. They’d filed in, one by one claiming illness and unforeseen circumstance, busted computers lost research.
It all boils down to good old-fashioned procrastination, his students know it and Jared knows it too, but there’s a form that has to be followed with these types of things. A tradition of sorts, Jared supposes, and he’s a sucker for tradition. That pretty much goes without saying.
The student launches into a sputtering speech, and Jared loses the thread of it about thirty seconds in. It’s the same dance, different song and Jared’s already made up his mind that he’ll make good on his reputation for being a pushover. He’ll up the ante and offer the kid an incomplete rather than a failing grade, so long as he turns in his term paper before the summer runs out. He stays quiet, chin propped on his knuckles. A thoughtful frown creases his forehead as he wonders if he can lug the small assortment of books and papers that he’s collected to his car in one trip or two.
They strike a bargain, shake on it, and Jared follows him to the doorway, nipping at the guy’s heels and peeking out into the hallway. It’s nearly deserted, only closed doors lining both sides of the hall that open into empty classrooms. Low, murmuring voices can be heard coming from the archaeology lab situated past the bend in the hallway. Behind a set of glass doors in the other direction sits a bored looking temp, hired on to answer phones during the interim between spring and summer semesters. Jared feels the muscles in his neck relax a fraction, a small kickback to the old shock of relief that comes with summer vacation, something that he hasn’t felt since he was a kid. He heads back to his desk, palm skipping across the back of the worn, slouching overstuffed chair that is the centerpiece of the small room and has been his go-to nap spot for the last few years.
Jared feels an ill-defined sort of nostalgia creeping in around the edges and he shrugs it away, marks one final ‘incomplete’ on the student ledger and holds it up. This is his final official act before his research sabbatical begins. Honestly, it’s a little anti-climactic. Not that Jared expects some kind of fanfare, twenty-one-gun salute, a parade or anything, although a little confetti might be a nice touch. Flicking the paper with his index finger, he mutters a quiet, “Finally,” to the empty room.
He tucks a few remaining odds and ends into his boxes—a carefully folded topographical map of eastern Europe, some woodcuts that he’d taken a shine to, a small carved figurine of a wyrm given to him by an ex that he’d been too begrudgingly sentimental to get rid of—then spins in a slow circle, scanning the room. Sure, there’s an empty bookshelf where a fraction of his research used to reside, a note in his handwriting on the front of the tiny refrigerator inviting all comers to his stash of frozen candy bars, and the chair behind the desk is set up high to compensate for the length of his legs. Other than that, it’s as if he was never there.
Campus has turned into a veritable ghost town by the time Jared dashes across the abandoned quad, squinting against the bright, early afternoon sunlight and awkwardly balancing two boxes. He veers from his path and heads into the physics building, nose wrinkling at the switch from the smell of fresh cut grass to the strong scent of cleaning supplies. He tries the main physics office but it’s locked up tight, and instead sneaks in through the lower entrance to the large lecture hall, dropping his boxes inside the door with a thud that echoes off of the tall ceiling.
The huge whiteboard behind the vacant podium is filled with formulas and equations, scribbled in red, black, green and blue in some sort of color-coding that Jared can’t figure out. In his defense, most of it is written in Greek. Literally.
Misha occupies a chair in the front row of the auditorium, sitting dead center and surrounded by a hundred or so empty seats. Hunched over, elbows on his knees and his fingers tented in front of his face, he doesn’t spare Jared so much as a glance when Jared settles into the seat beside him.
“Dr. Padalecki,” he intones.
“Mr. Collins,” Jared replies.
“Aw,” Jared teases, and jabs his ribs with an elbow. “You say the nicest things.”
“Speaking of which, I read your book last night.”
Jared’s not too sure how Misha got from one point to the next, but he rolls along with it. “One night,” Jared says, speaking to the empty room. “The thing sucked four years of my life outta me and he reads it in one night.”
“I was waiting for the computer to finish running a mock-up.” Misha’s distracted, still scanning the whiteboard and poking his finger into thin air as if he’s working some sort of abacus that only he can see. To anyone else it might be off-putting, but Jared takes it in stride. Generally speaking, that’s the only viable way to take Misha: in stride. Misha continues, “The thing was riveting, and before you ask, I’m not being sarcastic.”
It’s quite possibly the nicest thing the guy’s ever said to him, and Jared slouches down in his seat, equal parts fear and anticipation tangling into a knot in his stomach. Peer reviews and editors be damned, he values Misha’s opinion above the rest of them; the guy’s smart in a way that borders on scary. “On a scale of one to ten?” Jared asks.
“A solid eight. Even with the cheat that you built into it.”
Jared’s smile is a rueful thing. “Figured you’d be the one to pick up on that.”
“Yeah, the footnote on page seventy-eight.”
Before Jared can ask him how the hell he can pull that kind of trick out of his hat, Misha goes on. “You’re not supposed to do that, you know. Build a loophole to fall into smack in the middle of your hypothesis.”
“That’s why it’s a footnote. The print is tiny. I was hoping no one would read it. Besides, what else could I do?”
Misha rises, crosses to the whiteboard, erases a few black lines of an equation then replaces it with some green writing. “I don’t know. Keep your opinion out of it?”
“In the interest of complete transparency I kinda had to include it. Hard science can’t explain everything. Not the kooky weather patterns. Not the fact that dragon myths have multiple points of origin. There are outliers in the data and—“
Misha interrupts him. “It’s meteorology and mythology. Barely hard sciences. They’re too unpredictable. Besides, just because the god Sobek had the head of a crocodile doesn’t mean that the ancient Egyptians ever saw a dragon. It only means that they believed in crocodiles.”
It’s an old argument, one that they both know neither will ever win. Academically, the two of them are like oil and water, but the fact is something that Jared can appreciate. It keeps him on his toes.
Jared scrubs his hand through his hair and crosses the room to lean against the podium. “A very smart man once told me that the atomic world is nothing like the world we live in.”
Misha spins and considers Jared, his chin notched upward and a cautious expression on his face, as if he’s waiting for Jared to pull out the ace he’s got shoved up his sleeve. “I remember,” he says slowly.
“Now apply that to a belief system.”
“Any will do.”
“You can’t,” Misha says.
“Because it’ll mean that I’ve lost this round.”
Jared grins at him. “Then be thankful that we’ll always have another.”
“Something that I await with bated breath and beating heart. How did your interview go, anyhow?” Misha says.
“It might have caused a change in plans.” Jared’s not expected at Cambridge until the end of the month, at which point he’ll start his research fellowship. He’s been thinking about going back to his folks’ place for a much overdue visit, to eat his fill of his mother’s home cooking and try to con his sister into doing his laundry for a couple of weeks before heading overseas.
“You wanna see it for yourself,” Misha says.
“Occupational hazard,” Jared tells him. He’s cut from the same cloth as Malinowski and Whyte, believes that the only way to truly understand a thing is to be buried up to his neck in it. “The NEH isn’t paying me to piggyback a trip to Eastern Europe onto this.” He’d been given a grant to research artistic interpretations of St. George’s battle against the dragon, and can’t quite shake the feeling that what he’s planning lands smack in the middle of bait and switch territory.
Misha shrugs. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
“Gotta say you have a point.”
“It’s been known to happen. How’s your Bulgarian?” Misha asks.
“Slightly less shaky.”
“Then you’ll be fine,” Misha assures him. "Listen. You're smart and you're stubborn and we both know how this one’s gonna play out." Misha pats his cheek in a way that manages to skip right past condescending and head straight for endearing. He turns his back to Jared, and cocks his head at the sprawl of formulas written across the board. "Now, quit wasting my time and get packing."
Jared stretches, bumps his elbow against the large trunk beside the bed, and his heels bang on the metal rungs of the footboard. A stripe of hazy sunlight sneaks through the split in the heavy draperies.
For a handful of seconds, Jared’s disoriented, knuckling the last dregs of sleep out of his eyes to the white-static noise of traffic and snatches of cut-off conversation. The last few days catch up with him and he remembers: Sofia.
He jolts out of bed and has to plant a palm on the wall to steady himself, then stomps his feet on the floor to get blood moving in that direction. Sleeping a full twelve hours folded into a bed about foot too short for him has left him achy and stiff.
Jared dresses quickly. He's still working the tangles out of his hair with his fingers when he reaches the street corner across from the library. Traffic zips down the bright yellow cobblestone street: miniscule smart cars alongside huge tour busses, women in business attire and high heels on mopeds swerving between lanes.
There's a small park in front of the library in full springtime bloom, bright flowerbeds nestled between sidewalks, and short, spindly trees with pale pink blossoms. Jared dodges a group of school-aged kids as they pose and take photos in front of the statue of Cyril and Methodius.
The doors to the building open up into a circular foyer, and Jared comes to a stop. Old libraries have a particular quality to them; a distinct, hollow sort of hush paired with the smell of old paper. Nothing else quite matches up, and despite all the renovations and technological upgrades, this one has it.
A reception desk sits to one side, it's curve mirroring that of the room. Jared introduces himself, and tries not to roll his eyes as the man makes a show of checking his watch against a schedule pinned to a clipboard.
One short phone call and a few minutes later, a woman emerges from the glass doors that lead to the library proper, her blocky heels clacking against the marble floor. "Katrin Yosev," she says, hand already extended in Jared's direction. "It's an honor, Dr. Padalecki."
"Jared, please," he urges. "And the honor is all mine." Katrin is the senior curator here, and has granted him access to the special collections on very short notice.
“I hope you’re enjoying our city.”
“I hope to,” Jared tells her. “I landed last night.” He’s shoehorning this trip in, loose ends back home whittling down his time here. Besides, this is just a layover: he’s got a train ticket tucked into his passport that will take him to a small village to the northwest of here. He leaves tomorrow.
She leads him into the main room of the library, leaning in close and giving him an abridged history of the institution in whispered tones. This area has been designed in clean modern angles, stainless steel shelving and bright skylights overhead. A bank of at least a couple dozen computers line up in the center and three people sit there, buried behind monitors.
"This wing was rebuilt after it was destroyed during the Allied bombing. Not to worry. We don't hold it against you," she jokes.
A stern-looking guard stands at the next door they come to, and gives Katrin a small nod as he opens it for them. This section is older, a better match for the collections it houses. The hallway is narrower, more dimly lit, and dotted here and there with documents housed safely behind glass displays. Jared is thankful for the noticeable drop in temperature.
They pass a preservation lab, archivists bent over a long counter visible beyond a large plate glass window, then come to another room, the door secured with lock that Katrin triggers with a key card that hangs around her neck.
Jared whistles low. One step across the threshold makes him feel like he’s just traveled backward a couple hundred years. He’s not sure what he’d been expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t this. The room is large, with numerous shelves built into the walls, leaving space for a few windows and a skinny stairway that leads up to a second level balcony.
Walking a slow circuit around the space, Jared takes in row upon row of leather bound spines, lined up like soldiers, the entire section of tightly furled scrolls tucked into square cubbyholes on the second floor and the antiquated map that takes up a huge portion of one wall, enclosed behind a sheet of archival glass. He could spend a year in this room alone and not even scratch the surface.
“You’ll want to start here,” Katrin tells him, running a fingertip along a set of thick books, their titles lettered in gold leaf. “Marko. He’s the Bulgarian take on the Brothers Grimm.” She pulls down two of the five books and sets them on a table in the center of the room, then offers Jared a tiny smile. “At least you’re not looking for vampires. Everyone comes here looking for vampires. This is refreshing.”
A few hours into research, Jared has more questions than answers jotted down in his notebook. He’d given up on the Marko in favor of some more obscure texts, but the translation is slow. Jared needs to put together a sort of roadmap and he has today to do it. Myths, legends, superstitions—they all come from somewhere and Jared needs to know he’s on the right track.
The electronic buzz of the lock breaks Jared’s concentration. He leans back in his chair, spine cracking and his vision blurred.
He’s expecting Katrin, but when the door opens a fraction a man slips through instead, closing it carefully behind him. He’s tall, broad in the shoulders, and as he turns to offer Jared a view of his profile, looks like one of those guys who should be modeling ridiculously expensive underwear or cologne in some ad on the back cover of Vanity Fair magazine. His hair is clipped short and stands up in messy spikes, light brown but sun streaked a paler color at the tips. He turns and notices Jared, his full mouth opening in surprise and his green eyes going wide. A dusty old backpack dangles from his shoulder, made of worn, scarred leather that looks to have seen its fair share of miles.
Jared stutters for a second, then manages to choke out a pathetic, “Hi?”
“Hello?” the guy says, voice lilting upward with the same kind of inflection as Jared’s greeting. “You speak English?” he asks, his own accent neutral, middle-American through and through.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jared says, and the newcomer grins at him with a small laugh. It’s a million dollar smile if Jared’s ever seen one. Open, friendly and infectious.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt.” There’s a book in his hand and he holds it out toward Jared. “The late fees in this place are terrible,” he deadpans.
“There’s nothing to interrupt,” Jared tells him, and it’s the truth. His last hour has been spent weeding through less dragon lore and more merchant accounts, tales of trades gone sour and one particularly fascinating but rather off-topic tale of a scandalous affair involving one of the Romani and some prominent family’s sixteen year old son. Remembering his manners, Jared rises partially from his chair with an extended hand. “Sorry,” he says. “Jared.”
After a beat, the guy crosses the room and takes his hand, his grip strong and warm, and his gaze direct. “Jensen. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Do you work here?” Jared asks, settling back into his chair.
With a shake of his head, Jensen says, “Vacation. A sort of sabbatical.”
His answer is vague and Jared pushes it. “Who spends their vacation in a library?” He’s thinking of the streets beyond these walls, the architecture and the people, bright sunshine and fresh air.
“You do,” Jensen points out.
“Not exactly. This is research.”
Jensen leans back on his heels, mouth curving in a small twist. In the light from the window set up high in the wall, his eyes seem very, very bright. He takes in the spread of books, papers and crumbling scrolls on the desk in front of Jared, Jared's worn out drab green army jacket and the ancient t-shirt underneath. "So you're a dragon hunter?" Jensen asks, his curiosity genuine.
With a small chuckle, Jared says, "I'm a folklorist. Anthropologist, actually. Kinda like Indiana Jones, minus the whip."
Jensen nods, but his expression glazes over a little, like he isn’t quite getting the reference. Jared doesn’t mind. That sorta thing happens around him a lot.
Jared catches himself staring and clears his throat. Looking for something to do with his hands, he plucks a book off of his stack at random. Without a title and slim, it appears to be a diary, with an intricate knotted design branded into the soft leather cover. The first page reveals a name: Teodor Penko, and a date: 1439. Jared pushes away the other texts on the table, clearing a space. His heart skips a beat three pages in. The script is small and faded and the text is Slavic, or at least appears to be at first glance. The dialect is one that Jared doesn’t know, but he’s able to pick up on some cognates and finds a few key words: travel, village, and most importantly, dragon.
His heart skips another beat when a folded map slides out from between some pages near the end. With shaking fingers, he unfolds it, holding his breath as the old paper splits slightly along the creases where it’s been folded for hundreds of years.
It’s hand drawn, and whoever drew this knew what they were doing. Jared compares it to the somewhat more modern equivalent on the wall. A few of the proportions are off, and the bright red houses marking villages have faded some with age, turning to the color of old blood. The snaking blue path of the river is true, however, where it stretches down from the mountain range and along the eastern borders of the towns scattered along its bank. There are marks on the map, made by someone other than it’s creator, Jared guesses, dotted lines that cross over the names of towns and clear through the carefully lettered ‘Thraciae’ bisecting the map. The thing is riddled with dates and hash marks, small stars in a code Jared can’t yet cipher.
“Holy,” Jared whispers.
He looks up to see Jensen peering carefully at him. Jensen tips his head backward, pointing with his chin. “Find something interesting?”
“A jackpot,” Jared says.
Jensen circles the table, stopping at Jared’s back and leaning over. He places a hand on Jared’s shoulder, the motion more familiar and intimate than Jared would typically prefer from a stranger. “They got most of it right,” Jensen says, eyebrows raised and his mouth set in an impressed frown.
Jared places the journal on top of the map and points to a particularly unintelligible passage. It appears as if the author was in a rush, the writing in a tumbling scrawl, lines crossed out and words written over top of others. “Don’t suppose there’s a chance you can read archaic Turkish?”
Jensen bends even lower, his chest coming in contact with Jared’s shoulder, so close that Jared feels the rise and fall of it. It has to be the thrill of discovery, the adrenaline rush that always hits him when he suspects he’s on the right trail. His head feels light when Jensen’s fingers inadvertently brush against his, and his thoughts suddenly fragment at the touch of Jensen’s warm breath against the side of his neck.
“It’s not Turkish,” Jensen says absently, reaching across Jared to flip to a new page. “There are a lot of abbreviations as well. It’s idiomatic. A good chunk of it is regional slang.”
It’s Jared’s turn to be impressed. Rearing back in order to get a good look at Jensen, he says, “Yeah?”
Still distracted, Jensen explains. “I’ve studied a few languages.”
“You’re a linguist?”
“Not particularly. More like an enthusiast.” Jensen pulls his bottom lip between his teeth, chewing on it as he reads. “This man studied folklore. Like you.” He ticks down a few lines, then says, “Here. ‘Hired a guide and set out the morning of the 24th, following the trail laid out by…’ something I don’t understand. Then there’s a detailed retelling of the weather. Everyone was an amateur meteorologist back then.”
Jared really ought to move, make way for Jensen or perhaps offer the guy his chair, but he admits to himself that he likes the proximity and the smell of Jensen, clean, with a hint of something like incense. Sandalwood.
Jensen continues, “Interesting. He’s traveling to Varna, where a woman claims to be carrying the child of a dragon.”
“A popular myth in these parts,” Jared explains. “The child of a dragon is always male, said to have extraordinary strength and beauty, and the ability to vanquish evil.”
“Let me guess,” Jensen says, “a hero who later slays the dragon.”
“You guessed right.” Jared nods.
“Nasty bit of luck there,” Jensen says.
“It depends on whose side you’re on.”
“I’m inclined to take the side of the mythological creature who is huge and magical and could quite potentially eat you,” Jensen notes.
Jared shrugs. “Eh. I’m a sucker for the underdog.”
Jensen picks the book up and carefully cradles it in his palm. “Do you mind?” he asks.
“Be my guest, please.”
Jensen continues to skim. “It was a bust,” he says. “It turned out that the woman was just covering for the fact that she’d had…uh…relations with someone who was not her husband.” He flips through a few more pages and shakes his head. “Why do women always pull the short straw?”
“Because most mythology was written down by men,” Jared says.
Jensen reads from the text. “A male dragon is benevolent to humanity. A protector of agriculture. He can manifest as a serpent or a man. He’s locked in eternal battle with his sister, who is known to bring hardship and bad luck. She can appear as a whirlwind or a thunderstorm, and if she falls in love with a human, the man will succumb to a kind of wasting illness, grow pale and thin and eventually die.”
“Must make family holidays a little awkward,” Jared jokes.
Jensen nods in agreement. “They’re elemental. It goes on to say that the female dragon is aligned with fire and the male with water. Interesting.” He closes the journal. “If you give me a few days, I could probably translate this for you. Most of it, anyway.”
Jared winces and leans heavily on his elbows. “Thank you. So much. I don’t have a few days, though.” He checks his watch. “I hardly have a few hours. My train leaves first thing in the morning.”
It might be Jared’s imagination, some sort of perverse wishful thinking on his part, but it seems like Jensen’s face falls marginally, his lips pursing for a split second. “Going home?” Jensen asks.
“Going to Gladsko, actually. Their planting festival starts tomorrow, and I have an appointment to meet with a local archaeologist.”
Jensen hums, thoughtful. “When do you leave?”
“Seven in the morning,” Jared tells him, wondering which direction Jensen’s going with this.
“That might give me enough time,” Jensen muses. “Pack up. See the city. Go to Pri Miro for dinner and order the skara.” He pauses and holds up one finger. “Take my word for it, it’s the best in the world. Then go see the St. George Rotunda. It’s right in line with your interests, I believe, and quite a sight, the way they light it up at night. Shame they built that hotel around it. I’ll meet you at the station in the morning.”
Jensen turns away from him, tucking Penko’s journal under his arm. He’s got a hand on the doorknob before Jared’s thoughts catch up. “Wait. You can’t just take that.”
“I’ll return it, Jared. I always return my books.”
“But it’s almost six hundred years old.”
“Then I’ll be sure not to spill anything on it.”
“But…you…huh…” Jared’s left open mouthed, blinking at the spot where Jensen just stood. “What the fuck is skara?”
The sun has scarcely made an appearance when Jared climbs out of the taxi. The driver grunts as he struggles with Jared’s trunk, and Jared tips him what is probably an overly generous amount, holding out a handful of crumpled banknotes and coins.
Jared’s not sure whether to be surprised or apprehensive when he spots Jensen sitting on a bench near the large main entrance, a suitcase between his feet. He’s dressed for travel: loose fitting jeans and a soft, dark red t-shirt and a sweatshirt tied around his waist. His breakfast is in a brown paper bag at his hip, small pastries covered in powdered sugar that he licks off of his fingers. It makes Jared think about doing it for him.
“You showed,” Jared says by way of greeting.
Jensen regards him seriously. He looks exhausted, pale, and the skin under his eyes thin and darkened. His shoulders slump in a way that they didn’t yesterday, and when he blinks it’s slow.
“I always keep my promises. Speaking of which.” He stifles a jaw-cracking yawn with his fist and passes a sheaf of papers over to Jared. “Sorry for the gaps, but I think I got most of it.”
“Thanks,” Jared says, swinging his backpack over his chest and depositing the papers safe and sound in the front pocket. “This should keep me company on the ride.”
“So will I.” Jensen rises and reaches above his head in a huge stretch, his back arching and his shirt rucking up to display a polished brass belt buckle and an inch worth of skin above that, then the jut of Jensen’s hipbone as he twists a little. It looks soft and warm, and grabs a hold of Jared’s attention for the duration.
It has to be the jetlag that’s made him mud-brained and wrong-footed. A beat or two too late, Jared says, “You’re coming?”
Jensen nods. “You’re looking for dragons and I’m looking for something to do. Besides,” he continues, waggling the journal in Jared’s direction, “from what I’ve read in here, dragon hunting is definitely a two-man job, and not to be taken lightly.”
Jared glares at him, suspicious. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Not in the least.”
“I can’t pay you.” This is a bad idea. It’s harebrained to the core, almost as impulsive as traveling halfway around the world on whim and a hunch. It’s the jetlag. It’s gotta be the jetlag.
“Who said anything about money?” Jensen skirts the edges of a smile, trying to hold it back, and is very much aware that he’s on the verge of winning. “Come on,” he says, picking up his suitcase and taking Jared’s trunk by the handle. “We need to trade in your ticket.”
“Whoa. Wait a minute,” Jared says, stubbornly planted in his spot on the walkway. “What?”
Jensen throws a glance at him over his shoulder and keeps walking. “I did some research last night. You’re going to the wrong place.”
“How do you figure?”
“Gladsko has turned into a tourist trap. The festival is…diluted. Commercialized. We have to go to the source, and the source is in Madara, at least according to our friend Teodor. Every year they hold a celebration for their zmey, inviting him down from the mountain to bless their crops. I wonder if he’ll show up this time.”
The name of the town tickles something in Jared’s memory, indistinct and half formed. “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Jared says. Then he remembers. Ina had mentioned the place in passing. It’s where her grandmother was born.
“I just did,” Jensen replies, holding the door open for him. “Are you ready? I think we’re ready.”
Jensen’s dozing by the time the train makes its lurching departure from the station. The railcar is mostly empty and they have a group of four seats all to themselves. Jensen slouches, shoes kicked off, ankles crossed and feet propped on the opposite seat, bumping into Jared’s thigh as the train jostles them as it picks up speed. His head lolls against the window, using his sweatshirt as a pillow and his hands rest on his stomach, fingers netted together.
Beyond the plate glass, the business district slides by, high rise office buildings casting shadows on ancient churches. Closer to the edge of the city stand several towering apartment buildings, the color of old concrete. Each one is standardized, just like its neighbor, built at a time when communism was still big. They’re checkerboarded with windows, most of the glass busted out.
It starts gradually. Two girls in bright red dresses, the hems of them torn and tattered, stand on the graveled strip of land next to the tracks. Both of them hold their hands up in a motionless wave, twin serious expressions on their rounded faces. A few yards further there’s another, a young boy in a shirt too big for him, his longish hair tucked behind ears. He raises his hand, palm forward and tiny fingers curled slightly as the train moves past him.
The hair on the back of Jared’s neck spikes up. He counts thirty children just like the first, and more coming, standing in clusters of three or four now, every one of them with black hair and dark eyes.
Jensen rouses from his light sleep when Jared whispers, “Who are they?”
He doesn’t answer, but rather slides to the edge of his seat, so close to the window that his nose almost touches it. There’s something soft, almost gentle in the tilt of his head and curve of his mouth. Jensen lays his palm flat on the glass, his fingers spread wide.
Jared suddenly feels chilly, his skin oversensitive and he rubs at his upper arms to warm them.
“It’s fine, Jared.” His breath puffs small clouds on the glass as he speaks. “They’re just saying goodbye.”