I once heard someone refer to the lottery as sensible. That it made sense to select the children randomly and let their parents watch as they are taken away. It always struck me as odd that it would be a child that was taken away to be eaten. Did the dragon not have a large appetite? Would the fully grown adults not satisfy its taste buds more? I, therefore, began to think of the lottery as punishment. And I know others saw it that way too – only they saw it as a punishment to the parents of these children. I saw it as a punishment to the children for their parent’s mistakes. Maybe it was their parent’s own stupidity of letting the sheep die out, maybe it went further back than that. Maybe I’d never know, but the stupid, scared adults fed seventeen children to the dragon by the end of that summer and the river kept running red.
My father told me that he’d seen the dragon once. And once was enough.
It was when the first child had to walk over the dusty paths to the lake. The dragon lived on the edge of the black sea where the water fed into a large and unknowable lake. I’ve never been, mainly because any time I’ve ventured out of the gates I’ve been stopped by one of father’s guards. They have to protect their little Princess but seriously – who are they really fooling? If there’s a dragon out there, he’s not going to stop at a lake. It’s funny, when you come to think of it, the fact they think the dragon is a he. I assume it’s because my father and his men believed only something with a cock can devour the innocent.
There was once a brother that volunteered in the place of his sister. It was on the day of the tenth lottery when the sun was angrily hot. I remember the silence that came after the brother shouted through the crowds. Everyone looked at my father who looked at his advisor who gave a sort of half committed nod before Father nodded firmly and the brother was taken away. I sometimes think about the boy’s sister. It should have been her. I bet she tells herself that every night. I know I would.
Before dinner, Rania, my maid, came to dress me.
“Evening, Rania,” I said.
“Nesara, sorry,” Rania said.
My mother and father believed it was the right of a Princess to not dress herself. I called bullshit. So Rania would come to my room, sit and talk to me as I got ready. Sometimes, she’d smoke a cigarette on the balcony with me and I’d ask her what she was grateful for and she’d say, “for the peace of the dragon” and I’d take another drag of the cigarette.
On the day of the eighteenth lottery the crows congregated on the castle rooftops. As was custom, my mother, sister, brother and I stood on the grand steps. My mother looked so radiant and beautiful but I didn’t hate her. She was Queen Aida of Silene and had united the people herself, not my father as the histories would say. King Bashir’s men would scribble the ballads and legends and tell their version of a tale that never happened. I decided, on the steps, as I looked at my mother, that I would write her history correctly after this child was eaten.
The lottery was a large dome full of small golden spheres, each with different symbols for the children of Silene. The lottery was brought toward my father, standing with a bold smile on his face, the kind of smile someone who was immune could make. The people stared back as they stood on the withered splays of grass.
I noticed my sister’s hair flying in the wind.
“What pissed off the dragon?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s a dragon.”
My father reached into the lottery dome and produced a golden sphere. I felt the town shudder. I could see them quivering. I noticed certain parent’s holding their children, some of them with vacant expressions, as if they’d already detached. My father looked down at the sphere and for a moment his eyes flickered, they seemed like they might be bleeding, and then he said, “Princess Nesara.”
Silent Silene. Not even the wind made a sound. And all eyes were on me. Yet, the only one I looked at was Tareq who, upon noticing my gaze, turned away. Of course, my brother wouldn’t be that kind of brother.
“I volunteer!” my sister shouted.
“What?” my mother yelled.
“I volunteer in her place! I’ll go to the dragon!”
“No, you will not,” my father said. “You are the elder, you cannot be fed to the dragon.”
“I am the elder,” my sister said through bared, angry teeth, with a defiance I’d never seen in her before. “I volunteer in place of my sister.”
“No,” I said. “My name was pulled out of the lottery. I will go the dragon.”
“You will not,” my mother said. “Neither of you will.” She pushed us aside and shouted to the people. “I beg you to spare your Princesses. One day, they will be your Queens and they will rule this place with the care and compassion that we have always given you. I remind you – it was not the King that brought this terror upon us, it was our ancestors. But please, I beg you all, spare my daughter. My youngest daughter. She cannot be fed to the dragon.”
There wasn’t any more silence. Nor any more grace.
The people charged forward and started chanting “take her to the dragon!” – the sounds of which kept booming around the city.
My father learnt a long time ago that it’s not force that stops a violent mob but gold. He offered to give each family fifty gold pieces if they gave him and his family the night to consider alternate plans. They agreed because of the money and the majority of them ate greedily for the night, feeling like Kings and Queens themselves. I wanted to say to my father, if it were so easy to make them all happy – why didn’t you do that more often?
I was alone in my tower with only cigarettes, rum and loud music for company. But I didn’t care, the next day I was to be eaten by a dragon. I knew none of the people were going to accept my father’s bribe and give up their own child. I wasn’t as naive as my father. I knew they would wake with ugly hangovers and be angrier than before, they’d demand the dragon be brought his dinner, demand their Princess come down from her castle, stinking of cigarettes and booze, all dolled up and ready to go. On the bright side – the hangover wouldn’t last long.
The thing was, after my name was read out and I stood there, part of me wanted them to come and grab me. I wanted them to rip me off the grand steps and take me straight to the dragon right there. I wanted them to do it so they would surprise my father, they’d have rattled the golden cage he surrounded himself in for adding one of his own children to the lottery of the dead, something he’d never considered.
The next morning the people demanded their Princess. It’s only fair, we took their kids. The only annoying thing was they made me wear this white bridal dress but I refused to do it with anyone watching, only Rania, who sat with me and cried.
“Please don’t cry,” I said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
But everyone cried. My mother cried and wouldn’t let me go. She literally collapsed on the stairs and I think was taken off to the doctors. My sister cried beside my brother who cried and hugged himself. My father did what men do which was to stand there, sort of weeping, sort of not and watched as his men and his people took me away.
I just waved to my sister and mouthed, “This is shit.”
One thing they don’t tell you about the black lake is that it’s cold. Not that they made me go in straight away. I felt the cold as I stood on the pebbles staring at its grandness and the vast jagged rocks that stood above, watching. Plus all they allowed me to wear was that white bridal dress. Were they marrying me to the dragon before it devoured me? Or is that just what all weddings result in? As I stood beside the lake I turned to stare at the men that had brought me there. If the dragon were to take me, I wanted them to see what they’d caused. I growled at them because they hadn’t considered behaving like the big strong men they pretended to be, none of them had considered slaying the dragon.
There once was a brother that volunteered in the place of his sister. But how many silent sisters did the same?
The dragon didn’t come in the night nor in the morning and as the moon moved so did the men. They trickled out like dissatisfied children, each being told the sweet shop was closed. By the time noon came along, there was only me and I didn’t exactly know what to do with myself. If the men had gone, did I go back? Is that it? Or, upon my return, would they just send me back and chuck me in the water? Did they normally chuck the children in? Did princesses get special privileges when it came to the feeding of the dragon?
When the birds were singing a mangled song, a man on a horse came riding toward the pebbles. The horse rode more earnestly than the man who, upon approaching me, pushed back his helmet and revealed himself to be in his thirties, with a boisterous smile and a head of curled brown hair. When the horse stopped before me, he just smiled and said nothing.
“And you are?” I said.
“I’m George. We’ve met before Princess Nesara.”
“At my father’s ball?” I asked.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m here to slay the dragon and take your hand in marriage.”
“Good luck,” I said. “There doesn’t seem to be any dragon. I’m beginning to think the whole thing was a hoax.”
“Then what happened to all the children?” George asked.
“My thoughts exactly,” I replied. “By the way, who gave you this idea?”
“Riding in and killing this dragon. I assume you’ve heard the stories somewhere so who gave you the idea to come and do it?”
“My friend David.”
“Did he give you the idea to propose marriage also?”
“Yes, my lady,” George replied.
“And if I were to refuse your proposal, would you still slay the dragon?”
George looked sheepish at this, like the sheep they threw in the lake before the children.
“Or did David not give you an answer to that question?”
“I will defend you no matter what,” George replied.
“You are a noble one then.”
And with that, there came an explosion of water, so enormous that it took George off his horse and me off my feet. The black sea had erupted like a volcano and a great roar rippled across the mountains. When I looked up, a dragon the colour of black ash and the size of a barnyard with purple eyes, was looking right at me.
My first impression of the dragon was ruined by George who came running forward, brandishing his sword like a new toy.
When the dragon noticed George I simply noticed the dragon’s cock. And I thought: maybe the people don’t think of the dragon as having a cock because it devours the innocent, maybe it’s because those with cocks always needs to measure whose is bigger?
I suppose I could write about the great fight between George and the black dragon of the black sea surrounded by the black mountains as the Princess in white watched. I could tell you about George’s bad fighting and how he got lucky with the sword and caught the dragon in the belly. I could tell you how the dragon hit George and almost tore his face off. I could tell you about the way George screamed and hid behind a rock when the dragon blew out a flurry of fire. I could tell you that it was a complete accident that the dragon ended up beaten and bloodied because George had climbed part of the mountain and slipped, taking a gallant of rocks with him which crashed down on top of the dragon’s head, as well as George’s sword in its neck. I could write a whole boring ballad about George and the dragon fighting but we all know what it results in.
George dead and the dragon dying. Because that’s what did happen and that’s what I was left with. After all those stories of the fierce dragon and the mighty warrior I had two quivering, near carcasses on my hands. I didn’t give George another look, I’d only known him for ten minutes. The dragon, however, was a thing of beauty, even with its scales torn and bleeding. It looked like it had been painted. And behind the purple of its eyes I saw yellow, glaring up at me, almost like it was pleading. The dragon wheezed and its wing tried to flap. It was torn, the other crushed under an enormous piece of marble. The only thing left exposed from the rocks were the dragon’s belly and face. The dragon opened its mouth and I thought maybe it was really trying to fulfil its role. To eat the Princess even when all was lost. But I didn’t give it my hand or my leg, instead I took off the white bridal dress and placed it inside the dragon’s mouth. Then I walked into the black sea, naked, and began to swim, only turning back once to see the dragon munching away and smiling. Swimming naked was odd, yet the cold water felt intimate and honest upon my skin, I thought the dragon needed the dress more than me, it needed a little bit of innocence after all that blood.
About the author
Thomas Stewart is a freelance writer and editor living in Edinburgh. His work has been featured (or is forthcoming) by And Other Poems, Litro Magazine, Cadaverine Magazine, Rockland, Ink, Sweat & Tears and The Stockholm Review, among others. He's scared of the dark. He can be found on Twitter @ThomasStewart08.