By Sarah Monette, illustration by Mack Sztaba
7 August 2006
The Museum owns eighty-nine specimens of the genus Draco. It is unlikely that there will be any additions to the collection, for the adit to the array of arcs in which dragons are found has become increasingly unstable in the last two centuries. For that same reason, very little work has been done with the specimens since the last of the great dragon hunters willed his collection to the Museum one hundred thirty-two years ago. They were once a prized exhibit, with their own salle, the Salle des Dragons, but after the great taxonomic scandal under the previous Director, they became an embarrassment rather than a glory, banished to a cavernous hall in the sublevels of the Museum where they stood, shrouded in layers of yellowing plastic, their great eye sockets full of darkness deeper than shadows, unvisited, unwept, unheeded.
But not unremembered.
The Lady Archangel was no longer in favor with the Empress.
That much was certain, and the Museum buzzed and rustled with the rumors that strove to create the story around that fact. The visitors chattered of it while the tour guides looked remote and superior and squirreled away every tidbit to be shared later over tea. The curators speculated, in slow, disjointed conversations; the visiting academics asked nervously if there was any danger of an uprising, for the Lady Archangel was popular, and the papers reported unrest in those parts of the Centre where her charity had been most needed and most freely given.
No, said the curators, the tour guides, even the custodians. There had been no uprising in the Centre since the short and bloody reign of the long-ago Emperor Carolus, and there would not be one now. But when the academics inquired as to the probable fate of the lady herself, they were met with grim headshakes and the sad, gentle advice to concentrate on their research. Whether it was sin or treason the Lady Archangel stood accused of, if she could not prove her innocence, she would be beheaded at the culmination of Aquarius. Such was the penalty for falling when one climbed as high as the Lady Archangel had climbed, and though the Empress was just, she was not merciful. She could not be, and still hope to maintain her rule.
It was not for mere poetry that her throne was called the Seat of Dragons.
The Director has a dream. So she says, and no one in the Museum would dare to say otherwise, no matter how much they may doubt her ability to dream. Everyone knows she does not sleep.
Perhaps it is only a metaphorical dream, but even so, her shining coils are restless with it, her great yellow eyes (which only blink when she remembers that they ought to) hypnotizing. There are rumors that they were the eyes of a basilisk, and somehow that seems more likely than the idea that the Director can dream. Her metal claws score gouges in the vat-grown teak of her desk, and when she leaves her office, the tithe-children come creeping to sand and polish, as they have been doing for years, so that no unwary visitor may catch a splinter in the soft pads of his or her fingers.
She has a dream, a glorious dream; she dreams of making the Museum ever more magnificent, ever more an empire unto itself. She dreams of making the Museum worthy of the Empress.
Her dream begins with the dragons.
Visitors come to the Museum from all arcs of the Circumference. It is the second most popular tourist attraction of the Centre, after the Empress's palace (and that only in the summer months, for in the winter the Gardens of the Moon are closed to the public), and far ahead of such delights as the Tunguska Robotics Works and the People's Memorial of War. Visitors come on two legs, on four, on the sweeping sinuosity of scaled, legless bodies. There are perches in front of every exhibit for those who come by wing, whether feathered or membranous, and the Museum does its best to accommodate those whose habitual method of locomotion is aquatic. Parties of schoolchildren are allowed, although they are expected to be clean and quiet and capable of obeying the Museum's rules.
The most popular exhibit in the Museum is the mechanical orchestra of the Emperor Horatio XVI, bequeathed by him to the Museum on his deathbed. His deathbed is also an exhibit, though few visitors penetrate far enough into the Domestic Arts wing to find it.
Horatio XVI's mechanical orchestra is kept in perfect working condition by the curators, although it has not been played in over a hundred years. The sixteen rolls of its perforated paper repertoire—imported, like the orchestra itself, from arc ρ29—stand in a glass cabinet along one side of the orchestra's specially built hall. Each is five feet long and, mounted on its steel spindle, heavy enough to kill a man.
Nearly as popular as the mechanical orchestra is the Salle des Joyaux, where the Museum keeps—along with a number of stunning examples of the jeweler's art—the Skystone, sacred to the aborigines of arc ν12; the black Blood of Tortuga from arc κ23; the cursed Hope Diamond from arc σ16; and the great Fireball Opal, donated to the Museum by the Mikado of Hekaiji in arc φ05.
Many visitors spend hours enthralled by the illuminated manuscripts of the Pradine Cenobites, brought out of arc τ19 mere days before the eruption of Mount Ephramis closed that arc permanently. Others marvel over the treasures of the Arms and Armor Wing: the armor of the spacefarers from arc θ07; the porpentine gloves characteristic of the corsairs of Wraith (ξ22); the claymore of Glamis (σ03); the set of beautifully inlaid courtesan's stilettos from the Palace of Flowers (α08).
It is considered advisable to purchase a map at the ticket window. Assuredly, the stories of visitors becoming lost in the Museum, their desiccated corpses found years—or decades—later, are merely that: stories. But all the same . . . it is considered advisable to purchase a map at the ticket window.
He was the greatest taxonomist of twenty arcs. His enemies said bitterly that formaldehyde ran in his veins instead of blood. Unlike the stories whispered about the Director, this was a mere calumny, not the truth.
He was pleased and proud to be part of the Director's dream (he said at the Welcome Dinner organized by the Curators' Union), and if there was any irony in him, the curators did not hear it.
All that season, the taxonomist, impeccable in suit and crisply knotted tie, assisted by a series of tithe-children, none of whom he could distinguish from any of the others, clambered among the bones of the eighty-nine dragons, scrutinizing skulls and teeth and vertebrae, recovering from the mists of misidentified obscurity Draco vulcanis, D. campestris, D. sylvius, D. nubis; separating a creative tangle of bones into two distinct specimens, one D. maris, the other D. pelagus; cleaning and rewiring and clarifying; entirely discrediting the identification of one specimen as the extinct D. minimis. It was merely a species of large lizard, said the taxonomist—any fool could see that from its teeth—and should be removed from the collection forthwith.
Meanwhile, the Director ordered the Salle des Dragons opened and cleaned. The tithe-children worked industriously, washing and polishing, commenting excitedly among themselves in the sign language that no outsider has ever learned. They found the armatures where they had been carefully stored away, found the informational placards, beautifully written but entirely wrong. They found the tapestries, artists' reconstructions worked in jewel-colored yarns by the ladies-in-waiting of the current Empress's great-grandmother. These, they cleaned and rehung, and the Director gave them words of praise that made their pale eyes shine with happiness.
Swept and garnished, the Salle was ready for its brides, and as the summer waxed and ripened, the taxonomist and the tithe-children brought them in, one by one, bearing them as tenderly across the threshold as if they came virgin to this marriage.
The dragon lies piled like treasure on the sweep of the West Staircase, cold and pale and transparent as moonlight, its milky eyes watchful, unblinking. It is visible only on rainy days, but even in full sunlight, the staff prefer the East Staircase.
The tithe-children, though, sit around the ghost dragon during thunderstorms, reaching out as if they could touch it, if only they dared.
Once, as the taxonomist was making comparative measurements of two D. anthropophagi skulls, a tithe-child asked, "Are there any dragons still alive, mynheer?"
The taxonomist was surprised, for it was not customary for the tithe-children to speak; he had not even been certain that they could. "Perhaps, although I have never seen one."
"I would like to see a living dragon."
The taxonomist looked at the tithe-child, its twisted body, its pale, blinking eyes. He said nothing, and the tithe-child turned away from his cold pity. It would never see a living dragon, would never see anything that was not catalogued, labeled, given a taxonomy and a number and a place in the Museum's long halls. But it had dreamed, as every living creature must.
The taxonomist returned to his measurements; the tithe-children, watching, wondered what he dreamed.
One does not wander in the Museum after dark. Even the tithe-children stay in their rookeries; the security guards keep to their narrowly prescribed paths, traveling in pairs, never any further from each other than the length of a flashlight's beam. And of all the Museum's staff, it is the security guards who are hardest to keep. For they, who see the Museum's night-veiled face, know more clearly than any of the daytime staff the Museum's truth, its cold, entrapping, sterile darkness. They know what its tall, warped, and shining doors shut in, as well as what they shut out.
In the reign of the Empress Heliodora, a security guard committed suicide by slitting his wrists in the main floor men's bathroom. No one ever knew why; the only suicide note he left, written in his own blood across the mirrors, was: All things are dead here.
Later, the mirrors had to be replaced, for although the tithe-children cleaned and polished them conscientiously, the reflection of those smeared letters never entirely came out.
It was a sultry afternoon in mid-August when the taxonomist descended the ladder propped against D. campestris's horned skull, turned, and found the lady watching him.
She was a tall lady, fair and haggard, dressed with elegant simplicity in gray. The taxonomist stared at her; for a moment, recognition and memory and pain were clear on his face, and it seemed as if he would speak, but the lady tilted her head infinitesimally, and he looked over her shoulder, seeing the two broad-shouldered men in nondescript suits who stood at the door of the Salle, as if waiting for someone or something.
His gaze met hers again, and in that glance was exchanged much that could not be spoken, then or ever, and he bowed, a formal, fussy gesture, and said stiffly, stiltedly, the pedantic mantle of his profession settling over him, "May I help you, mevrouw?"
The lady smiled at him. Even though she was haggard and no longer young, her smile was enchanting, as much rueful as charming, and heart-breakingly tired. "We loved this room as children," she said, lifting her eyes to gaze at the long, narrow wedge of D. campestris's skull. "I remember coming here with my brother. We believed they were alive, you know." She waved a hand at the surrounding skeletons.
"We thought they watched us—remembered us. We imagined them, after the Museum had closed, gathering in a circle to whisper about the people they'd seen that day and make up stories about us, the same way we made up stories about them." Her face had lost some of its haggardness in remembering, and he watched her, almost unbreathing.
"Tell me about them. Tell me about this one." She pointed at D. campestris.
"What do you wish to know?" he said, his gaze not following the graceful sweep of her arm, but remaining, anxiously, on her face.
"I don't know. We never read the placards, you see. It was so much more interesting to make up stories in our heads."
Their eyes met again, as brief as a blow, and then the taxonomist nodded and spoke: "This is Draco campestris, the common field dragon. This specimen is an adult male—you can tell because his wings are fully developed. He is thirty feet long from snout to tail-tip and would probably have weighed well in excess of three tons. The wings are merely decorative, you understand, primarily used for display in mating rituals. The only dragon which can fly is Draco nubis, the cloud dragon, which is hollow boned—and much smaller than campestris in any event. Contrary to popular belief, campestris does not breathe fire. That would be vulcanis"—he pointed at the magnificent specimen which dominated the Salle—"which must breathe fire because it cannot physically move its bulk fast enough to catch its prey."
"Yes," the lady murmured. "It is very large."
"Campestris, like the other dragons, is warm-blooded. They are egg-layers, but when the kits hatch, the mother nurses them. It is very rare for there to be more than two kits in a campestris clutch, and the sows are only fertile once every seven years. Even before that arc was lost, sightings of them were very rare."
"Yes," the lady said sadly. "Thank you."
He took a step, almost as if he were being dragged forward by some greater force. "Was there something else you wanted to know?"
"No. No, thank you. You have been very kind." She glanced over her shoulder at the doors of the Salle, where the men in suits still waited. She sighed, with a tiny grimace, then straightened her shoulders and defiantly extended her hand.
The taxonomist's startle was overt, but the lady neither flinched nor wavered. Slowly, gingerly, he took her hand. He would have bent to kiss it, if she would have allowed him, but her grip was uncompromising, and they shook hands like colleagues, or strangers meeting for the first time.
Then she released him, gave him a smile that did not reach the fear and desolation in her eyes, and turned away, walking down the Salle toward the men who waited for her.
The taxonomist stood and watched her go, as unmoving as the long-dead creatures around him.
At the door she paused, looking back, not at him, but at the great skeleton towering over him. Then one of the men in suits touched her arm and said something in a low voice. She nodded and was gone.
Even the Museum cannot preserve everything, though it is not for want of trying. The Director is vexed by this, perceiving it as a failing; tithe-children and curators are allied in an unspoken conspiracy, tidying the riddles and fragments out of her way on her stately progresses through the departments and salles of the Museum.
But always, when she has gone, the riddles come out again, for scholars love nothing more than a puzzle, and the tithe-children have the gentle persistent curiosity of Felis silvestris catus, as that species is classified in those arcs to which it is native, or to which it has been imported. It is as close as they come, curators and tithe-children, to having conversations, these attempts to solve the mysteries left by the receding tides of history and cataclysm:
A fragment of a ballad from arc ψ19: The Dragon Tintantophel, the engine of Malice chosen . . . But arc ψ19 has been lost for centuries, and no one from that array has ever heard of Tintantophel.
A pair of embroidery scissors, sent to the Museum by one of its accredited buyers in arc ρ29 with a note saying provenance to follow. But the buyer was killed in the crash of the great airship Helen d'Annunzio, and the provenance was never discovered.
Two phalanges from the hand of a child, bound into a reliquary of gold wire. This object was found in one of the Museum's sublevels, with no tag, no number, no reference to be found anywhere in the vast catalogues.
And others and others. For entropy is insidious, and even the Museum's doors cannot bar it.
The tithe-child said in its soft, respectful voice, "I saw in the papers today that the Lady Archangel was beheaded last week."
The taxonomist's face did not change, but his hands flinched; he nearly dropped the tiny D. nubis wing bone that he was wiring into place.
"They say she came to the Museum last week. Did you see her, mynheer?" There might have been malice in the great pale eyes of the watching tithe-children; the taxonomist did not look.
"Yes," he said, the words grating and harsh, like the cry of a wounded animal. "I saw her."
Then the taxonomist did dream, the tithe-children saw, and they did not speak to him of the Lady Archangel again.
You who visit the Museum, you will not see them. They are not the tour guides or the experts who give informative talks or the pretty girls in the gift shops who wrap your packages and wish you safe journey. They are the tithe-children. Their eyes are large, pale and blinking, the color of dust. Their skin is dark, dark as the shadows in which they live. The scholars who study at the Museum quickly learn not to meet their eyes.
They might have been human once, but they are no longer.
They belong to the Museum, just as the dragons do.