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The Dragons of Winter

(Part of Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, The)
By James A. Owen

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CHAPTER ONE
The Mission


“It’s amazing how productive dead writers can be,” John commented to Jack as he scanned the shelves in the great library at Tamerlane House. “Some of our colleagues have been more productive after their natural lives than they were beforehand.”

“I would chance a guess that having died brings a lot of focus and clarity to one’s goals,” Jack ventured. “Not that I’m planning on testing that myself any time soon.”

“Take a look at this,” John said, removing a fat volume bound in bright red leather and handing it to his friend. “It’s Hawthorne’s book Septimius Felton. I never realized he’d finished it.”

“Finished it, and written a sequel,” a familiar voice answered. The two men turned to see their friend Charles at the door, nodding enthusiastically as he strode into the room, arms outstretched. “He’s having a bit of trouble with the third one, though. Twain and I are helping him work through it.”

John’s self-control was such that he managed to bite his tongue before blurting out what he wanted to say, but Jack was startled enough by Charles’s appearance that he actually dropped the book he was holding.

“Charles!” Jack sputtered. “Your hair . . . it’s—it’s—”

“Purple,” said John.

“Burgundy, actually,” Charles said, preening slightly. “Rose helped me color it. Isn’t it striking?”

“It’s purple,” Jack said, still staring openmouthed as he bent to pick up the book. “Whatever possessed you, Charles? That’s hardly a becoming color for an editor.”

“Possibly,” said Charles, “but it’s also the exact shade of burgundy as Queen Victoria’s throne. I have it on good authority. And besides, I’m not really just an editor anymore, am I? More of a soldier of fortune.”

Jack and John traded disbelieving glances, and the latter asked, “So, ah, who told you that was the color of Victoria’s throne?”

“Geoffrey Chaucer.”

“Mmm,” John hummed. “I see.”

It was traditional, in the old-fraternal-order sort of way, for the Caretakers Emeriti to prank the newer members of their secret society. The problem was that every time John, Jack, and Charles had been present at Tamerlane House, it had been in a crisis situation, and there was no time or inclination for tomfoolery. But now that Charles was a full-time resident, John suspected that the Elder Caretakers—specifically Chaucer—were having a bit of fun.

“Rose helped me do it,” Charles said again as he ran a hand through his full head of hair. “She changes hers on a weekly basis.”

“I’d noticed,” said John, “but she’s still a teenager, and you’re . . .”

“Dead,” Charles said. “But still optimistic about the future.”

Jack laughed, and both he and John shook Charles’s hands. “Fair enough,” John said. “We’re always happy to see you, old fellow.”

The friends had gotten accustomed to having easy access to Tamerlane House through the use of Shakespeare’s Bridge in the garden at the Kilns. Despite the pain they all still felt over the loss of the Archipelago, it was a comfort to be able to simply cross over and be in the company of the other Caretakers, and thus remind themselves of the value of the work they had done—and the work they still had to do.

Jack was busying himself with preparations for the eventual establishment of a reborn Imperial Cartological Society, including Apprentice and Associate Caretaker programs. It would have to remain an underground project until the Caretakers were truly ready to make it more public, but he and John had already begun actively recruiting the next generations of Caretakers, and were deliberately making it more of a global endeavor than it had been under Verne.

“I see you’ve found Nathaniel’s book,” a voice whined from the doorway. It was Lord Byron, a disgraced Caretaker who was tolerated only reluctantly by the rest of them because of Poe’s insistence that he be included. “It isn’t as good as he thinks it is, you know. It was better when it was unfinished.”

“Say, George,” Jack said, turning to address Byron, whose real name was George Gordon. “I noticed that there’s nothing new in your section of the library. Has inspiration finally failed you?”

“Hardly,” Byron sniffed. “I have more inspiration in my little toe than you have in your whole body. I don’t need to write to demonstrate that—my life is my art.”

“You’re dead, you idiot,” said Sir James Barrie as he entered the room, accompanied by Charles’s apprentice Caretaker, the badger Fred.

“Death is but a new adventure . . . ,” Byron began before the others’ laughter cut him off. “What?” he said, a blush rising in his cheeks. “What’s funny about that?”

“I’m sorry, George,” Jack said, giving the poet’s shoulder an appreciative squeeze. “All I meant was that I’ve often wondered why someone of your talent never applied it to some grand epic, or an ongoing work of proportions worthy of your ability. That’s all.”

“Oh,” said Byron, who wasn’t certain whether that was actually an apology. “I simply never found the right tale for that kind of treatment.”

“I thought Bert might be with you,” John said, shaking Barrie’s hand. “Does he know we’re here?”

“I couldn’t say,” Barrie answered. “He’s been keeping to himself lately, but I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. The war council was his idea.”

As the Caretakers talked, Fred maintained a respectful distance and kept his opinions to himself. Technically speaking, an apprentice Caretaker had all the standing of a full Caretaker, especially among those at Tamerlane House. But Fred was still a little uncertain about his own position, considering his predecessor was technically deceased. Charles was himself still considered a Caretaker, but a Caretaker Emeritus. He was, like Verne and Kipling, a tulpa—a near-immortal, youthful, new body housing an old soul. And unlike the majority of the other Caretakers, who were portraits in Tamerlane, and who could leave the frames for only one week, he could go almost anywhere—as long as it wasn’t somewhere he’d been known when he was alive.

To the animals, dead was dead, and while they tolerated the portraits, none of them—especially the badgers—could quite accept the tulpas. It was something about their smell, Fred once said to Jack—there was none. Tulpas gave off no odor at all. And to an animal, who determines friend or enemy, truth or lies, based on smell—that made the whole idea completely suspect.

Still, he was sworn to serve the Caretakers, as were his father and grandfather before him, and of them all, Charles had the strongest bond to the badgers. So Fred was cheerfully stoic. Mostly.

“You could do as John is doing,” Jack continued, “and base a great work on stories of the Archipelago.”

“I learned my lesson about that ages ago,” Byron grumbled. “They set fire to me, remember? And that was just on general principles. I’d hate to see what the others would do to me if I broke one of the cardinal rules of the Archipelago.”

“Others have done it before me,” said John. “Most of them, actually. And as long as the stories or characters are disguised or altered, and no secrets of the Archipelago are revealed, it isn’t really a problem.”

“Technically speaking,” said Charles, “you aren’t revealing any secrets about the Archipelago, because there’s nothing left to keep any secrets about.”

“Believing is seeing,” Fred murmured in a low voice. “Believing is seeing, Scowler . . . Charles.” He twitched his whiskers as if he were about to say something more, then turned abruptly and scurried out of the room, closing the door behind him.

“Ah, me,” Charles said, sighing. “I’ve put my foot in it again, haven’t I?”

“No argument there,” said Jack.

“You’d think finding his father was really alive, and not lost with the rest of the Archipelago, would have cheered him somewhat,” said Barrie, “but he can’t push past the loss of everything else, I fear.”

“It was his world,” said John. “And it’s gone. You can’t fault the little fellow for feeling as he does.”

Charles sighed heavily. “No,” he said. “No, we can’t. But I wish it were at least easier for him to accept that I’m, well, me. Myself.”

“Remember, Charles,” said Barrie. “All good things happen . . .

“. . . in time.”

There was a knock at the door. Percy Shelley opened it and stepped into the room. He scowled at Byron, then regained his composure and faced the other Caretakers. “Gentlemen,” he said, gesturing back down the hall. “Summon the others to the meeting room, if you please. The war council will begin within the hour.”

Charles led his companions to the inner courtyard of the house, where Sir Richard Burton and the Valkyrie called Laura Glue were instructing Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Rose Dyson in the ancient art of the samurai sword.

Each held a katana about three feet long and was in a stance of readiness. The girls faced each other, while Burton faced both of the other men. He barked a command, and all of them erupted in a flurry of shouts and clashing metal.

“I never caught the knack of it,” Charles said over the din. “I’d land a good blow with one of the wooden practice swords, then pause to apologize to my opponent and allow him to regain his footing. It’s an honorable discipline, but it really doesn’t mesh well with gentlemanly chivalry.”

The girls were evenly matched, and fought to a draw—but after handily disarming Hawthorne, Burton found himself driven to his knees by Twain, who finally relented when he realized they had an audience.

The combatants turned to face their visitors, and John was struck by how Rose seemed to have changed since his last visit. There, in battle gear, with newly colored blue hair and holding a sword, she seemed to have grown older overnight, and for a moment he felt a wistfulness for the child she had been when they first met. But then again, he reminded himself, she had never truly been a child—something for which he felt honest regret.

“Uncle John! Uncle Jack! Uncle Charles!” Rose exclaimed as she tossed away her sword and jumped across the lawn to hug and kiss the three companions. “I didn’t know you were here!”

Laura Glue also went to greet the Caretakers, but only after retrieving Rose’s sword. “I told you,” she said, glaring at the other girl as she hugged Jack, “never drop your sword. It must be a part of you.”

“Something Samuel here has learned too well,” Burton said as he dusted off his trousers and rose to his feet. He glowered at Twain as they greeted the others.

“He may look older than the rest of you,” Burton said to John, “but he’s really full of—”

“Spirit,” Twain said, winking at John. “I’m full of so much spirit it just spills out of me.”

“Percy asked us to fetch you,” said Charles. “It’s almost time for the council.”

“All right,” Burton said, handing his katana to Hawthorne. “We’ll just pick up the lesson another time. Maybe next time you can fight Laura Glue, Caretaker.”

“Thank you, no,” said Hawthorne. “She’s better than you are.”

John pulled Twain aside as the others gathered their weapons together. “Where is Bert?” he asked, concerned. “He’s usually first to greet us, and we were expecting to have seen him well before now.”

A look of concern mixed with worry crossed the older Caretaker’s features as he gestured at the three of them. “Come with me,” he said, turning down one of the corridors. “There’s something you need to see.”

As the others went to the room where the war council was to be held, Twain led John, Jack, Charles, and Rose to a large screening room. It was darkened, save for the light coming from the projector in the center of the room.

“Is that . . . ?” John asked, staring at the projection in astonishment.

“Yes,” Twain answered. “That’s the film you brought back from the Archipelago.”

The reel had been created by Bert’s daughter, Aven, and left in the ruined palace on Paralon for the Caretakers to find—but neither they nor she had expected it would be two thousand years of Archipelago time before that would happen. Two millennia, during which Aven had lain in a deathless sleep. Most of those centuries were spent in a rarely interrupted hibernation inside a bed of crystal; but before that, she had ensured that there would be a way for her friends to find out what had happened, as well as a means to try to make things right, via the film Bert was now watching.

They’d been able to speak to the projected image when they found it, but now it was simply a recorded memory of the friend who never lost hope that they would come—and who paid the ultimate price to do so.

“It’s a rare day that goes by,” Twain said, his voice low, “that he hasn’t watched it through at least once. More commonly, he watches it several times at a sitting. Then he goes back to his work as if he hadn’t a trouble in the world.”

Bert’s daughter had been a reluctant queen of the Silver Throne of Paralon. She much preferred her life as a dashing buccaneer and captain of the Indigo Dragon, and after her marriage to King Artus, did her level best to maintain that life, even as she kept an eye to her responsibilities on Paralon. But then Artus was killed in the conflict with the Shadow King, and suddenly the entire Archipelago was looking toward Aven to lead. And lead she did, right up to the moment the Keep of Time fell—and then for two thousand years after.

The companions were at a loss as to what they could say to console the old Caretaker. Of all that they had lost in their many conflicts, John thought, it was their mentor who had paid the dearest price. And it was a loss that could not be mended.

Bert finally noticed the group at the door and quickly reached out to shut off the projector. The image of Aven vanished abruptly from the screen, and the room darkened to twilight. “Ah, I’m sorry,” he said, wiping at the tears on his face. “I didn’t realize you were there. Just, ah . . .”

“We know,” John said gently. “It’s all right, Bert.”

“How far can I go?” Rose asked abruptly. She was looking at Bert as she spoke. “With Edmund’s help, how far in time can I travel?”

The others looked confused, but Twain realized what she was asking, if not entirely why.

“It would be my wager,” Twain said, puffing on his cigar, “that young Rose here, with assistance from our new Cartographer, could go anywhere—anywhen—she chose. Isn’t that correct, Bert?”

“Yes,” Bert replied, looking back at Rose. “At least, that is our hope. That’s what we’ve been working toward, after all,” he continued, “finding a way to go far enough back to rebuild the Keep of Time. That will be your mission, and the reason I’ve called the war council. It’s time. And you’re ready, I think.”

“That may be the primary mission, but it doesn’t have to be the only one,” Rose said. “Before we can attempt to go back into Deep Time, we’ll have to go forward into the future anyway, right?”

“Farther than almost anyone has ever been,” Twain agreed, nodding as he ushered the others out of the room, “to one of the only zero points we have recorded that distantly in the future. About eight thousand centuries, wasn’t it, Bert?”

The old man didn’t answer, but his bottom lip quivered, and his eyes started to well with tears. “Rose,” he began, “I’ve never asked you to—”

She stepped closer to him, taking his hands in hers, and shook her head. “You don’t need to ask,” she said, smiling. “Of course we’re going to try—as I said, we have to go there anyway.”

“You’ve lost me,” said Charles, scratching his head. “Where are you going?”

“Weena,” Rose answered. “We’re going to go find Weena.”

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