Note: This is a chapter excerpt from Cinder: Book One of the Dragon Alliance. Alex is an apprentice to a wizard. Darla is a store-clerk who is sweet on Alex. They are out at sea. Alex is recovering from wounds fighting a griffin, and is in a fevered delirium. Mank is a chesh cat. The mad poet? Nobody knows till the end.
I was young, my love
I thought I was strong though I never was
I trusted in words
I swept, I cooked, I changed bedclothes
With castles built of fancies to make me strong
But I am broken, my love
And I am yours
—The Book of the Mad Poet
The griffins kept coming. There were too many of them. Alex moved his stave to cross and thrust, cross and parry. Next to him a dragon was fighting griffins, too. It wasn’t Cinder. This dragon was blue and gray. Thrust, parry, cross, cross, sweep. The dragon picked up a stave like Alex’s, only bigger to fit his body size. The griffins were gone.
“Show me how to use this,” the dragon said.
Darla was above him. The sky was replaced by a low wood ceiling. Darla laid a cloth on his forehead. It was so cold that he shivered. How did Darla get the cloth so cold?
“Show me how to use this, Hero!”
The dragon was back. Where was Tig? The dragon must be talking to Tig.
“Hero, come and show me!”
Behind the dragon stood a girl, black as midnight, with white fire in her eyes and irises of soft brown.
Alex was beside the dragon: thrust, parry, cross, cross.
“Yes,” said the dragon. “I see! Show me more, Hero! You needn’t worry. I will leave plenty of griffins for you to fight.”
Why would he want more griffins?
“Do not die for me, Hero,” said the midnight girl. “Save the dragons! Do not die for me.”
“Hello, Alex,” said Mank. “It’s time to stop fighting now.”
“There are so many griffins, Mank!”
“I will make them go away.”
“But the dragon, the midnight girl.”
“They will be here when you return, Alex. Breathe deeply. Touch my fur.”
And it was all gone: the griffins, the dragon, the midnight girl. Alex couldn’t see anything but the chesh cat.
“We’ll spend a little time here,” said the cat.
Alex thought they were in a field, but as he looked around, the only thing that made it resemble a field was that it didn’t resemble anything else.
“What do we do here?” asked Alex.
Mank surveyed the blank horizon. “I don’t see that there’s a lot of doing to be done.”
It was true. Alex saw no enemies to fight, no dinner to cook, no hut to take care of. “What is there to do if you are not doing?”
“We chesh are not so intent on doing, but if you wish, you may start doing by being, and of course, don’t forget to breathe as well.”
“That doesn’t sound so complicated.”
“Perhaps because you haven’t given it much thought.”
It was hard for Alex to argue that. Who had ever given thought to breathing or just being? Why should it be more complicated when you think about it? The puzzle bothered him.
“Let’s take that thought away,” said Mank. “I’ll give it back to you when you need it.”
Alex still didn’t understand, but he stopped thinking about it. “So where are we?”
“Where we are,” said Mank, smiling, “is where we are not, for this place no longer exists, and by the time we came to be, it was gone, so we couldn’t be there.”
Alex didn’t understand the cat’s answer, but he wasn’t worried about it. “Is there a reason to be here?”
“That,” said Mank, “is a much better question, but there are too many answers to go into now. This is a place we chesh remember. Remembering is doing, but so little doing that we thought it a reasonable pastime. It’s a painful way to live, but we saw no harm in it—until recently.”
“So this is the beginning?”
“A good guess!” said the cat. “It’s not the beginning, but much closer to the beginning than you have ever known.”
Alex decided to be silent.
“Your best response yet,” said Mank. “Here we were, and that is all.”
“Were so much that we didn’t even need to remember to breathe. We were the same so much we didn’t even know we were different. Chesh cats and owls, dogs and griffins, we were indistinguishable. Even the humans and dragons didn’t know they were as different as they were.”
“Humans and dragons are very different.”
“Not at all, Alex. Humans and chesh are different, but humans and dragons are only a stone’s throw away. I think I’ll let you keep that thought.”
The cat touched Alex’s forehead with a single claw, and Alex heard a voice in his head saying humans and dragons are only a stone’s throw away.
“What was that?”
“Just a joke,” said the cat.
“Was it funny?”
“Chesh smile a lot. We don’t need to be funny.”
Alex didn’t completely understand what the cat was saying. He also wasn’t worried about it, and so it made sense to him. “So,” he asked, “why isn’t here a place that exists anymore except in the memory of a chesh?”
“A well-crafted question,” said Mank. “I’ll tell you a possible answer. Doing became more than being.”
Alex couldn’t think of anything to say, so he waited. The cat smiled and nodded. “You’re really much more intelligent when you stop worrying so much.”
“It started innocently enough,” the cat explained. “We breathed. It was quite the sensation. Some thought it would go out of fashion, but once we got started it was hard to quit. Now, in those days came the first connoisseurs: high air, valley air, dry, wet, hot, cold, air suspended in water. There was such a variety, and people had their favorites, of course.”
“Of course,” said Alex, though he’d never thought about it before.
“We didn’t know it. How could we know it? Knowing was a doing long after breathing. By the time we had the knowing, we couldn’t go back to the being, so we started the killing.”
“Killing?” asked Alex, thinking he’d missed something.
“Of course, killing. Doing is always killing once the breathing begins.”
“Would you tell me why?”
Mank’s lips didn’t move, but Alex heard a voice. It didn’t sound like the cat. “Alex! Nobody tells me anything. Are you awake, Alex?”
“Darla?” asked Alex, though he couldn’t remember what a Darla was.
“No time for that now.” The cat touched his forehead.
“You were saying?” asked Alex.
“I was telling you,” said Mank, “why breathing is killing. We burn. All of us burn. We need to burn in order to do, and when we burn, things die. A cow eats grass. Is grass not alive? A griffin eats waterlogged dragon if it can get it. Kill, eat, burn, do, we’re all in the process.”
“But not the chesh?”
“Most certainly the chesh,” said the cat, “though we note and remember each death. It’s what we do most and why we are so sad. We smile in our sadness and remember all, even though we know that because we know and remember and smile, more will have to die.”
Did that make sense? Alex didn’t worry about it.
“It all started,” said the cat, “with the breathing. We chesh are addicted to doing, and so we kill, though we try to kill as little as possible.”
“You look fat enough to me,” said Alex.
“Why thank you!”
The cat continued. “We eat to feed our doing addiction, but chesh take away as much as we can before we kill, so we kill very little, even if it’s a good sized animal.”
“You take away,” said Alex, “like you took the fight and my worries and the Darla I can’t remember.”
“But you took these things from me. Will you then eat me?” Alex didn’t know if he worried about the cat eating him. Did the cat take that away, too, or was he too tired to care?
The cat smiled. “Alex, I told you that I’d give those back when you needed them. We are killers and doers, but lying is rarely part of our doing.”
Alex wanted to scratch his forehead, but he couldn’t find his forehead or his hand. The cat seemed to know where they were, but he wasn’t telling.
“Among the reasons I won’t eat you is, first, my promise, second, that you don’t taste good, third, you’re too big to eat in one sitting, and also, I like you.”
“You like me?” asked Alex
“You gave me a wonderful nap, most refreshing. Thank you.”
“So some kill more graphically and some more cruelly, but all breathers kill, and so we’re all the same, except two.”
“Dragons and humans.”
There was that voice again. Humans and dragons are only a stone’s throw away. “Why are dragons and humans different?” asked Alex.
“Now,” said Mank, “I know what you’re going to say. Ants and termites and birds build nests. Beavers build dams. On the surface it looks like everyone builds, but it’s different with humans and dragons.”
Alex wasn’t about to bring up ants and beavers. He might have thought of it in a day or two. The chesh must have thought him smarter than he was.
The cat was staring at him. Was it his turn to talk?
“Why?” he asked.
“You wouldn’t understand,” said Mank. “There is still some argument about the beavers. They hide their secrets well. That’s one of the reasons we don’t eat them, but remember this: if you see a dragon, touch the stone, and you get a human.”
“Is it funny?” asked Alex.
The cat sighed, then he went glassy-eyed.
“What is it?”
“Someone’s calling me,” said Mank. “How delightful! I need to leave you here awhile.”
“Will you come back?”
“I come here often. If you’re still here when I return, I’ll bring you back.”
“So, what do I do while you’re gone?”
The cat smirked. “That again!” he said. “I told you to be, and to breathe. That’s enough doing for now. Here, let me take that away.”
The chesh pointed at Alex’s forehead. The cat took something away, but Alex couldn’t remember what it was.
Mank gave him a big smile, and then he was gone.
Alex was there.
There was no point in looking around, because there was nothing to see. There wasn’t even anything not to see. He would have been bored, only he had no idea what that was.
Be. Breathe. Now be and breathe. It took everything he had just to do those two things. The being wasn’t so hard, but the chesh was right; the breathing part did complicate matters.
Humans and dragons are only a stone’s throw away. If you see a dragon, touch the stone and you get a human.
He would have wondered why he remembered those things, but the wondering seemed to be gone too.
It was complicated, but Alex stayed with it.