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For a Maiden Fair

The dragon plunged and swooped across a flat grey sky. In the beginning they had watched him eagerly, some in fear and some in wonder, but neither fear nor wonder lasts. For all his speed and majesty he was only a shadow on the subway wall, a shadow cast by a few tattered rags manipulated by an old man as ragged as his puppet.

As the year died his show became longer, the story more thrilling. There were mountains, a castle, a maiden in distress … but the crowd only huddled deeper in their coats, embarrassed for him with his tawdry show, and the few coins that accumulated in his hat were thrown in pity. It might have ended that way, with a whimper, if not for the girl.

On the first day after the end of term her mother had to tug her past the show, and on the second day too, but by the third day she followed obediently, only her eyes lingering.

On the fifth day, the dragon belched fire.

The crowd shrugged. A trick. Clever, but a trick.

On one face there was rapture. That was enough.

He was rolling up his puppet in the empty tunnel when suddenly it wasn’t empty anymore. He huddled back against the wall helplessly as the younger man plucked the dragon from his shaking hands. He fumbled a moment with the wires, remembering the knack of it, and the dragon took flight once more.

“You old fool. Why use fire magic? You could have hidden forever.”

As the dragon swooped, remembering the girl’s radiant smile he said

“You couldn’t understand.”

Even so, his nerve failed him at the end. There was a thin scream, and then nothing but a few scraps of cloth and wire on the subway floor, and a young man striding away.

Something I wrote for Microcosms last week (really, go and see), only a little longer than the official version. What can I say? Brevity was never my strongest suit.

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