Tower of Chaos

“Schnitzel!” Hazel exclaimed, sucking on her bleeding finger before finishing the last row of stitches to close the tear in her sister’s apron.

Amelda lounged on her cot across the room. One leg dangled off the side as she twirled a strand of hair Hazel was forever demanding she wash and comb around her finger. “Would it kill you to swear like a normal person?” Amelda asked.

“No.”

But it would twist her insides into knots.

“You don’t have to pretend to be so damn perfect when no one is around,” Amelda pressed. She rolled her eyes and nibbled her thumbnail when Hazel refused to reply.

“Stop that,” Hazel ordered and tossed Amelda the mended apron.

She stood from her own cot, brushed the nonexistent wrinkles from her skirt, and straightened the ties of her arpon into a neat bow at her back. Her sister was right, yet perfection was not something one simply ceased to desire from one moment to the next.

Hazel prodded Amelda into a seated position and whisked her hair into a neat braid, which she pinned in a twist at her nape, smoothing the tangled strands into submission.

“Hastefully, sister,” Hazel coaxed, tugging Amelda to her feet and pushing her from the room while giving the bow at her sister’s back a tug to reshape it.

In the palace halls, everything was abustle, the corridors abuzz with the usual morning gossip as everyone went about their duties. Hazel paid them no mind and dipped into the scullery, taking her usual shortcut across the gardens to the library where she knew she would find Princess Sophia asleep in an armchair with a book fallen closed in her lap. The sudden slap of leathery wings beating the sky made Hazel’s heart race, the sound so rare she almost believed it her imagination.

“Run,” she said, giving Amelda a shove towards the library and ensuring Amelda was on her way to the princess before whirling to face the beast.

“A brave one,” the dragon drawled, landing amidst the rose bushes much too softly for a beast his size.

“What do you want?” Hazel asked, head held high.

The dragon slunk closer, ebony scales glistening in the morning sunlight, but Hazel’s feet remained firmly planted. “A snack? A maid? A companion?” he chuckled and smoke curled from his nostrils. “I have not quite made up my mind.” His eyes were calculating as he took in Hazel before him.

Hazel was not sure what he saw, but she did not flinch as he reached out lighting fast and grabbed her, his massive claws wrapping around her like prison bars, nor when he took to the air.

“What a shame. I rather enjoy it when they scream,” the dragon said.

Hazel’s eyes burned with tears, but she refused to let them fall, and she certainly would not gratify the beast with her screams.

They flew for what felt like hours, until Hazel was stiff, sore, and chilled to her bones. Finally, the dragon landed on the crenelated wall of a tower overlooking snow capped peaks and an endless forest. He set Hazel on her feet and she stumbled to her knees, unable to stand.

Hazel looked up at the dragon defiantly, cold wind blowing loose strands of hair across her cheeks.

“You intrigue me, girl,” the dragon said. “Perhaps I will not eat you after all.” He chuckled as if at some private joke.

The creature stepped from the wall and, in a shimmer gone with a blink, landed before her on two feet, the most beautiful man Hazel had ever seen. His eyes were a rich brown, his skin like tea with a splash of milk, his thick curls tamed in the latest fashion, the stubble on his jaw cropped close to his skin. His clothes were of the finest brocade and silk, tailored to fit his lithe form like a second skin.

Without another look at Hazel, the dragon-turned-man sauntered into the tower. She struggled to her feet and followed, aching to be out of the cold. Inside, the tower was in complete disarray. Piles of books and instruments, both musical and scientific, littered the room. Intermingled were fine articles of clothing, surely unwashed, although a handful appeared recently laundered, and plates of half-eaten food, some rotting or growing enough green fuzz Hazel could not begin to guess at the contents. The disarray nearly sent Hazel to her knees, the lack of order making her insides tense. Her shoulders hitched toward her ears almost imperceptibly, and her fingers twitched with the need to correct the disorder.

“Does it make you uncomfortable?” the man asked blandly.

“How can you live like this?” Hazel asked, aghast.

“It no longer bothers me,” he answered.

Unable to hold back any longer, she turned to the nearest pile and began gathering like items into piles. The dragon left her to clean in silence, grabbing a plate of unspoiled food from an arbitrary table and a book from the center of a stack, causing the whole pile to collapse when he pulled it free, and retreated to some other area of the tower.

Hazel worked until her eyes were dry and her lids heavy with exhaustion. Near dawn, she fell asleep sorting a collection of rings by size and color. When she awoke, the dragon was nowhere to be found, but a blanket covered her and there was a fresh plate of bread, cheese, and grapes on the floor beside her.

As she ate, Hazel wondered if she would be allowed to return home. The dragon had said he wanted a maid, assuming he did not decide to make a snack of her, so perhaps if she cleaned the entire tower her job would be complete and she would be permitted to leave. After breakfast, Hazel scoured the tower for means of escape should the dragon be unwilling to release her, decidedly ignoring the fact that she would be unable to return home even if she did manage to leave the tower, for she had no idea where they were or how to navigate the wilderness.

The tower turned out to be seven stories tall, each an almost identical match. There were no windows, merely arrow slits in the walls, and each level was as messy as the last. Only the first floor was bare, save for a well. She needn’t have worried about ill-advised plans for escape, as there was also no door. She supposed the lack of a door made sense since her captor was graced with wings. Thus, her only options were to fling herself from the top of the tower or wait until the dragon saw fit to return her of his own volition.

Knowing she was wholly alone, Hazel did scream then. Afterward, she sighed, collected herself, and returned to the second floor to begin organizing anew.

Over the next few days, Hazel worked to return the tower to some semblance of order. The dragon did not comment on her cleaning and organizing, neither encouraging her efforts nor forbidding them. One evening, he watched her for a time in silence, his collected appearance at odds with his haphazard surroundings.

“Why do it?” he asked, rising from the armchair Hazel had exhumed two days prior and tossing the book he hadn’t been reading aside in no particular direction.

“Do what?” Hazel asked from where she knelt on the floor, busy polishing the silver she discovered hidden under an end table.

“This,” he said, indicating the room and the piles of things yet to be sorted. “For all you know, I could grow tired of waiting and eat you in the morning. Is this how you would spend your last hours?”

Hazel shrugged, working at a particularly tarnished spot on the urn in her hands.

The dragon was before her in an instant. He ripped the urn from her fingers, hurling it against the wall. Hazel jumped to her feet, startled.

“Why do you do it?” he demanded, turning in a sudden rage to swipe a partially-shifted hand with wicked black talons through a pile of books waiting to be categorized and replaced on their shelves.

“I don’t know!” Hazel yelled, already stooping to gather the books he upended.

“Oh, I think you do,” he mused, fire igniting his eyes.

“I don’t,” Hazel said, tears coming hot and fast at his scrutiny.

The dragon grabbed her hands, and she cringed. He looked straight into her eyes. “I will let you go when you can tell me in truth why you strive so hard for order.”

“But I don’t know,” Hazel cried.

“You do,” the dragon said. He tapped the center of her chest with one perfectly manicured finger, his claws returned to wherever they went when he was in his human form. “In here.”

Hazel shook her head, having nothing left to say.

“I was like you once,” the dragon said. “It is no way to live.”

He stormed from the tower then, leaving Hazel to clean as she pleased, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably with her sobs.

The next evening, the dragon asked simply, “Why?”

Shoulders rigid, Hazel replied, “I don’t know.”

Every day, it was the same. The dragon would return for the evening and pose the same question, “Why?”

In hopes of leaving the tower behind, Hazel began guessing. “I like perfection,” she said one night. “Disorder makes me uncomfortable,” she supplied another.

“That is the result, not the cause,” the dragon said each time, and then he left her again until the next night.

The entire tower was almost put to order, and still Hazel had no satisfactory answer for her jailor.

“I am afraid of what others might think of me,” Hazel said with desperation, for the next day, the tower would be clean and there would be nothing left for her to do.

“Yet how harshly you must judge yourself,” said the dragon. “For you persist when no one is watching.”

Hazel thought of what Amelda said the day she was taken, about pretending to be perfect. “I must,” she said.

“Why?”

Always the same question.

“It is who I am.”

“No,” said the dragon. “It is who you have allowed yourself to become.” Then he left without another word.

The next day, Hazel straightened the last painting on the wall, and her work was complete. She paced the top floor of the tower, waiting for the dragon’s return, searching for an answer that would earn her her freedom. The sun sank ever lower in the sky, and still Hazel had no better reply to the dragon’s question.

She felt powerless, and the pressure of tears built behind her eyes.

Frustrated, she ran to the nearest shelf and tore everything off, throwing books and priceless trinkets to the floor as if she had not spent painstaking hours placing them there with the utmost care. Heaving sobs wracked her body, and she collapsed to her knees amidst the wreckage.

“Do you have an answer for me?” the dragon asked, his approach silent, or at least masked by Hazel’s weeping.

“I want control,” Hazel said between gasps.

“Of what?” the dragon asked.

“The situation. What others think of me. My life!”

“So you cultivate a space in which you are comfortable to fulfil that desire,” the dragon said. “I was the same before I lost everything. I sought to control my surroundings, to mold them into that which satisfied my sensibilities. I did not realize at first the effect this had on others.”

“You do not look so old as to have lost so much,” Hazel said, sniffing and wiping at her tears.

The dragon laughed, an unpleasant sound. “Our race does not age as yours does,” he said. “Once I had a mate, children.” Hazel waited for him to continue, to explain in some way. “The funny thing about seeking perfection in oneself is that we unknowingly ask it of others, most of all those closest to us who we often see as a reflection of our own accomplishment.”

Hazel could not look the dragon in the eye as she admitted, “I have a sister.”

“My family left me long ago for my folly,” said the dragon knowingly. “I was too hard on them, asked too much. I never paused to consider that they were doing everything they could to make me happy when their love alone should have been enough.”

“So all this?” Hazel asked, sweeping her hand around the tower.

“A vow not to let my need for perfection rule me,” he explained.

Hazel nodded her understanding. “I’m not certain I could do anything so drastic,” she admitted.

“I think that era is at its end for me as well,” the dragon said with half a smile. “You saw to that.”

“I’m afraid,” Hazel admitted. Knowing what the dragon would say, she answered without prompting, “Because I am not perfect the way I am. I must do better.”

“All these years have taught me that as much as we may seek perfection, we inherently can never achieve it. At some point, this simply means that we must accept the truth: that we are good enough.”

“Good enough.” Hazel tested the words, her pinched brows showing her distaste for the concept. She smiled ruefully. “That might take some getting used to.”

The next morning, the dragon deposited Hazel amidst the roses, and it almost felt as if no time had passed since he absconded with her from that very spot.

“Thank you,” Hazel said. She knew he understood what she meant, that she was not merely thanking him for returning her to the palace.

He dipped his great onyx head before taking to the sky, the morning sun glinting off his obsidian scales as he shrank to a small black dot on the horizon.

“Hazel!” Amelda called, running from the library where she had been about to collect the princess.

Her hair was washed and pulled into a neat bun, not one of the fancier styles Hazel normally crafted for her, and her dress and apron were freshly laundered and pressed.

“You look lovely,” Hazel said, embracing her sister so tightly her arms hurt.

“Truely?” Amelda asked.

Hazel took Amelda’s shoulders, pressing her sister away from her so she could look her in the eye. “I am sorry I ever made you feel less-than,” she said. “I am sorry I ever felt you were lazy when it was me who never let you do anything at all because I was so damn focused on ensuring everything was perfect, I never even let you try.”

Amelda laughed.

“I am in earnest,” Hazel said.

“You swore,” said Amelda with a grin.

“I wouldn’t want to do anything too drastic,” Hazel said, thinking of the dragon’s chaotic tower. “I figured this would be a good place to begin.” Then she straightened her features and added, “You are enough as you are.”

“So are you, Hazel,” Amelda replied. “So are you.”

Recent

Archive

Follow Me