The knotted tassel and last night’s full moon agreed: it was time for him to go. Eblick counted the shells one more time and tucked the faded tangle of leather back in the pocket of his vest, smoothing the worn pinstripes over the pale green scales of his chest.
“What’s that, then? A lizard, playing Cat’s Cradle?”
The traveling circus’s tightrope walker stopped by his table, quick and bright as a bird, her chirping laugh just as maddening.
“It’s a calendar, Emerlie.”
“A calendar? Made of yarn? Show me.” She slid into the booth across from him.
Eblick’s forked tongue flapped out in annoyance. “Sealskin. And bits of shells. To count the moons.”
He drew the strings out straight to show her, separating the strips with his claws and arranging them by year over the dull gray scales of his palm. The strongman appeared with his breakfast tray, gazing down at Eblick’s hand in puzzlement.
“You never speak of home, Eblick. This calendar, it is of your people?”
Eblick’s green lips pulled back, accidentally revealing a fang. “Just a plaything. An old scrap.”
Torno’s mustache twitched, his eyes narrowed under his top hat. “As you say.”
“It’s right pretty.” The tightrope walker’s clever fingers crept closer, her blue eyes going bright. “Might make for earbobs. All exotic-like.”
Eblick stuffed it in his pocket and stood quickly.
“I must go. Beg pardon.”
As he shuffled past Torno’s bulk and toward the door, Emerlie blew a raspberry.
“He’s wound up tighter than a clam’s arse. Lazy bugger barely says a word. Don’t even know what he is, and there can’t be a lick of human in ‘im. A daimon, or a magic spell gone wrong, d’you think?”
“He is a mystery. But a good man, if a quiet one.”
Eblick’s pebbled lips turned up at Torno’s defense; the strongman was the closest thing he had to a friend in the gypsy caravan. Even among the oddities of the Freak Show, he was the most peculiar. They probably didn’t think he could hear them talking across the dining wagon, seeing as how Sangland’s only lizard boy didn’t have visible ears, just smooth, grayish-green scales.
A daimon, a bum spell, a man; interesting, how they were both wrong.
No point in petitioning the ringmaster; Eblick always trembled in the magician’s presence. He simply left a note on Criminy Stain’s door: Taking overdue vacation time. Back shortly. Eblick.
Maybe it was a lie; maybe it wasn’t. If he didn’t return, Criminy could yell at his corpse.
The caravan had stopped near the coast, at least. The walk wasn’t too far, and the salt called to him on a chill breeze. The closer he came to the sea, the straighter he stood. By the time he ran and leaped off a limestone cliff, slicing through the mist and into the ocean like an arrow, the caravan’s residents wouldn’t have recognized him. Among their silly fripperies and noisy chatter, trapped between stone-gray clouds and dusty earth, he was flimsy as rubber, quiet and awkward and shy. Swimming in the ocean, cutting through the sea with strong strokes of his tail, he became an elegant machine, graceful and powerful and sure. By the time he climbed the lone beach of the island of his birth, his skin was going cloudy, almost ready to be shed.
His people spotted him as soon as he emerged from the mist. Sprawled lazily over the rocks, eyes sharp and bellies full, they digested both food and his reappearance with eyes half-lidded against the steaming afternoon sun.
“Ebbie? Is it really you?”
He had dreamed of that voice for years, prayed she’d be the first to seek him when he finally returned. When he nodded once, the graceful lass emerging from the ocean quickened her pace, threw herself into his arms. He held her like a flower he didn’t wish to snap or crush, although his instinct was to press her so deeply into his chest that her scales would leave permanent impressions in his.
“It’s me, Cenni.”
“You’re back. Thank goodness. I was waiting. I waited so long.”
“Told you I’d come back. When it was time.”
He set her gently on the blazing white sand of the secluded inlet. The air hovered hot and wet over the lost island of Ys, hidden from Sangland and the world by perilous stones, high dark cliffs, and a ring of heavy, permanent mist that stunk of magic and day-old fish. No one remembered how Ys had come to be that way, and no one but Eblick had ever chafed at their seclusion.
The others crowded around, but he only had eyes for Cenni. Compared to the putty-colored humans and Bludmen he’d become accustomed to, she was a vision of green and gray. Her eyes were the golden yellow of fine Scotch he’d once tasted and politely spit out in the caravan, the curves of her brows a delicate pale blue that made him sigh every time twilight descended. He was instantly aware of the contrast of his dull scales, milky and starting to shed, and the vest he still wore but no longer needed. The males of Ys wore kilts made of sealskin or glimmering fish scales, and yet here he was in the machine-made suiting of the mainland.
“You’ve missed so much.” Cenni looked around the island. “Well, perhaps not that much.”
“Who’s the king?”
Cenni glanced nervously as the other females took a step back. “It’s Corbal. He’s—”
“He’s here,” Eblick said quietly.
The figure stalking toward them from the water was all too familiar, although the coral crown and cape of woven seaweed were new.
Eblick held back a hiss, kept his lips carefully down over his fangs. Four more males rose from the sea to flank Corbal, slightly smaller and darker than he was, their posture menacing. Any hopes Eblick had held of honoring his parents, visiting Cenni, and leaving without trouble were dashed. And yet there was something comforting about creatures who showed their intentions with a dribble of venom and the flexing of a fighting spur. The humans were so silly, letting their words speak for them, their fake kindnesses and winking eyes defying what they really meant.
Not so on Ys. The people of the Lizard King knew better.
“Welcome home, Eblick. We thought you were dead.”
“That’s King Corbal.”
“Not to me.”
“Did you touch one of the cows of my harem?”
Eblick couldn’t hide his smirk. He crossed his arms, letting the spurs stick out from his wrists. He’d taken up lifting kettlebells with Torno, and his arms were bigger than Corbal’s. It was a small victory, but a sweet one.
“On the mainland, they let the females make their own decisions. And they don’t call them cows.”
“There’s no such thing as the mainland. And if there was, they would still need cows to keep the eggs warm.” Corbal’s forked tongue flicked out in disgust. “Cenni! Back to the nursery. Turn the eggs.”
One step after the other, as if she had no control over her body, Cenni backed away from Eblick and up the path toward the island’s interior. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed as the shadows of the palms devoured her.
“Whose eggs?” Eblick asked.
“Whose do you think?”
Eblick raised one brow, a trick he’d picked up from the caravan’s ringmaster but had never dared test out in the magician’s range.
“Considering she can carry genetic material for up to five years before laying her eggs, I figure I’ve got at least a fifty percent chance of being the father.” His smile went colder, a major feat for a reptile. “Depending on who forced her, after I left.”
In less than a blink, Corbal was in his face, snout to snout, claws sunk into Eblick’s shoulders. But he’d expected that and didn’t flinch. That was another trick he’d learned among the humans: indifference cut deeper than malice, sometimes.
“The king’s harem isn’t forced. It’s an honor to be chosen.”
Eblick tossed the king’s hands off his shoulders and readjusted his vest. “What a charming law. And who does the choosing? Hmm. Let’s see.” He licked his lips, showing a fang. “The king.”
Corbal hissed and let his dewlap fall out, shaking his head in a gesture that demanded respect. Or should have. With years outside of his culture’s influence, Eblick no longer felt compelled to kneel and in fact, struggled to hold in a chuckle.
“Nice neck flap, arsewipe,” was all he said.
The king was all animal now, his tongue darting out to scent the air for a fight. Eblick leaned back and whistled a little, just to unnerve him. Corbal had always been a bully, big and easily riled. He’d once pushed Eblick off the highest cliff for no good reason at all. And now he had reason, muscle, and thousands of years’ worth of Yssian tradition on his side.
Still, Eblick didn’t care, and that was half the battle.
“I challenge you,” Corbal hissed. “To Itznam Ka!”
The four men behind Corbal pointed their snouts at the sky and made a deep grunt that expanded their dewlaps and, to Eblick, made them look like children’s rubber toys. The females of the crowd chattered excitedly.
“A fight to the death? Just because I complimented your dewlap? Honestly, Corbal. Are we men, or are we animals?”
Corbal shook his head in disgust and turned back toward the sea.
“We’re neither, fool, and you’ll do well to remember it before I toss you off the cliff.”
He found Cenni in the nursery, stretched out upon her mound and cheeping sweetly to the eggs buried deep beneath moldering greenstuff. There should have been a dozen females here tending their broods, yet she was the only one. When she saw him, she smiled, and he found he could breathe again.
“I already heard. Not even back five minutes, and it’s Itznam Ka? Some father you’ll be.”
“I think that’s why the males are left out of child-rearing until they’re big enough to kick us in the knees.” He grinned lopsidedly. “We’re sure to muck it up.”
Cenni’s hands curled possessively over the eggs.
“That’s no excuse.”
Eblick stepped closer, as close as he dared, and she bit back a hiss.
“If you won’t let me near now, why let me near later? What am I to do—carry them in my fangs and fret as they swim away? I should have waited two more years.”
Her smile softened. “I knew you’d come back to honor your parents. I knew you wouldn’t let the ten-year mark pass. I planned it this way, you know. So you’d see them when they hatch.”
Something peculiar stuck in his throat. “How many?”
Cenni ran a hand over the mound. “Seven.”
“Seven? Really?” He rubbed his dewlap. “Auspicious.”
She looked down, adjusted her sealskin tunic. “They’re yours, Ebbie. I can’t tell the king. But a mother knows.”
The strangest sensation bloomed in Eblick’s chest, and he held out his arms, knowing he couldn’t step closer to the eggs she guarded. Cenni walked shyly to him, rubbed her face against his throat.
“I must visit my parents,” he whispered, and she nodded.
“Glad you haven’t forgotten all the old ways.”
She slipped something into his hand, and he knew instantly what it was. After rubbing his chin over her forehead, he turned away and plunged into the jungle, tracing the smooth, wave-beaten stone with his thumb. She had always been good at anticipating his needs, his Cenni.
The path was worn, and Eblick smelled the boneyard before he saw it—there must have been a recent addition.
“How do you know where to go when you’re dying?” he’d asked his mother once.
“It’s like anything,” she had answered. “You go where you’re called. But this time, you stay there.”
For thousands of years, the people of Ys had come here to draw their last breaths, their bones crumbling to sand. As Eblick made his way to the familiar spot, ribs and tailbones crunched and rolled under his feet. His parents had lain side by side for exactly a decade, the speckled bones of their fingers still entwined. A pile of smooth rocks showed that Cenni had kept their deathday on his behalf, and as he added the tenth and final stone to their cairn, his heart wrenched. It was rare for his people to mate for life, rarer still for the king to allow it. But such was Eblick’s legacy: ever the freak.
A mockingbird called, and he flinched on instinct. It was said that hawks never came to the boneyard, but still he looked up, hunting a shadow in the sky. A slight click brought his eyes again to the cairn; his mother’s foot bone had fallen, knocking his stone to the sand. He shivered as if a cloud had covered the sun, a chill seeping into his own bones as if his time was near.
“Not my time. Not my place.”
His words echoed over the ossuary as he resettled the stone and stood to leave. If he truly hoped to win this fight, he needed food, sun, and rest. Perhaps Eblick was bad at being a mate, a father, a son, and, yes, a man of Ys. But he was good at eating and sleeping in the sun.
Nothing felt as good as lying flat on a sun-hot rock, digesting seaweed and fish. Well, one thing did, but there was no way to steal away with Cenni for an afternoon under the waves. Eblick sneezed, salt flying from his nostrils and into the air like Criminy’s magic dust back at the caravan. No wonder Lady Letitia was forever urging him to eat better and use her ointments; bludbunny stew kept his scales patchy and wan, and he scratched at the shedding skin, anxious for his bright new scales to be revealed.
More than anxious. Positively itchy.
After a few moments of sneezing and squirming, he rubbed an elbow against the pockmarked rock, feeling the papery-thin skin catch and pull off. But instead of removing his clothes and using the rock like an animal, like his people, he used his fingers to pry it gently away. He ate it, of course. Nothing fortified the Yssian constitution like old skin. If Corbal defeated him, the king would pull live skin from Eblick’s body and slurp it down in pebbled strips; that was one tradition he could do without.
The last chunk started on top of his head, and the moment it pulled free of his eyes, it was like the world suddenly became clear. As he smacked the skin down and swallowed, he tossed back his head and inflated his dewlap for the first time, somewhat startled to find that he had finally reached maturation. The new fighting spines on his head and neck confirmed it.
Well, well. After all his time on the mainland, learning what he could of weapons, diplomacy, and culture from the humans and Bludmen his people couldn’t even imagine, it turned out he had the natural defenses he’d always lacked. One glance at his new skin of mottled black and red confirmed that if he hadn’t come for a fight originally, he would now be forced to finish one.
He dove into the sea and swam to the island. Corbal might call himself king, but it wasn’t much of a kingdom. In contrast to the mainland, there wasn’t much business to be done here. If you were hungry, you went swimming with an open mouth. If you needed clothes, you went hunting for seal or fish and wore the skin instead of eating it. A few carts displayed wee, hard-to-make things, needles and thimbles and cunning bone carvings. But without money, everything was done by barter. He still remembered how strange he had felt, feeling a copper in the palm of his hand for the first time at the caravan, unsure whether to eat it or fashion it into some sort of jewelry.
Eyes went wide as he walked by. Maybe because he’d been gone for years and returned, which was unheard of on Ys. Or maybe because he was the only male besides the king who’d shed out to reveal the bright, angry colors reserved for fighting and breeding. He smiled Criminy’s cocky grin as the Yssians gaped at him, staring at his vest and the bright red dewlap that fit him like the ringmaster’s cravat.
“Peaceful day, friend.”
Heads bowed, just a little. A young girl ran out from under a shady palm to shyly give him a cricket in a tiny cage made of twigs. He tipped it into his mouth and swallowed the treat before smiling and returning the cage with a copper from his vest hidden inside.
“What is it, m’lord?” she asked.
“Just a plaything. Make a necklace, maybe.”
She bobbed her head and smiled, forked tongue poking comically from her toothless lips.
It was strange, to love a place but hate it so. In Sangland, he’d seen museums, concerts, parties, libraries, and newspapers. Lady Letitia had taught him to read and write, and he’d goggled at how very big the world was. On this entire island, there wasn’t a single book. There wasn’t even a letter scrawled in the sand. There were singers and storytellers, but no musical instruments, save old bones on a turtle shell. They were, in a word, aboriginal.
As good as it felt to hold Cenni close or lie on a rock digesting his dinner, he far preferred walking among the caravan as a freak to walking down the street here as a stranger who had seen beyond.
Eblick stared at the stars, sleepless. Tomorrow, when the sun was highest, the fight he’d begun with Corbal as a youngling would end, and only one of them would walk away.
Far below, on the beach, a fire flickered, sending a long, white column of smoke into the air. Corbal and his lackeys danced around, whacking their tails against the sand and using their filled dewlaps to send booms across the water. The women huddled in a circle, watchful. The last king had been kind and free, allowing love matches and shared egg nests. But Corbal was a bully, and the women feared him. Without their natural response to a leader’s charms, they most likely never came up fertile, which would explain the lack of little ones playing in the sand and the number of empty nests in the nursery.
The day he’d plunged into the sea and started swimming toward the mainland, he’d not only been running toward adventure; he’d also been running away from responsibility. And now here it was, smacking him in the face. If he left tonight to return to the caravan, he’d leave a coward. And if he fought Corbal tomorrow and won, he’d be the king.
Dying was actually the most attractive option.
Cenni woke him as the sun began to beat down. He’d slept too late, and they didn’t have long.
“So much red,” she remarked, running a claw over his shoulder. “So handsome. And the spikes are new.”
“It’s all new. And unexpected.”
“Only by you, Ebbie.”
She’d brought a sealskin for him, and it felt strange and heavy as she tied it around his hips. When Cenni tried to unbutton his vest, he shrugged away from her fingers.
“Why do you tell me no? What if he kills you? Nearly four years, and I can’t even touch you. You’re so changed, Ebbie. Like you’ve seen things.”
He turned away, sick of the plaintive tone in her voice.
“I am changed. The mainland—it’s another world. There’s so much more than this, so much more than they tell us about. The world changes, and Ys stays the same. Our people dwindle and become stupid and weak. What’s the point?”
“Who said there was a point?”
“I can’t stay here, Cenni.”
“You can’t go. And you can’t die.”
He snorted salt out his nostrils. “So what are my choices, then?”
“Kill Corbal and be king. We need you.”
But that wasn’t the answer he wanted from her. He sighed deeply and took a small tube out of his pocket and set to rubbing oil into his scales, making them gleam.
“What’s that? It makes you shine like Itznam himself. Like an angry god risen from the sea, come to take his revenge.”
Eblick rolled his eyes. “It’s ointment. Fortune teller once told me it would help me reach my potential. Makes the sheds easier, at least. Got to be a habit, I suppose.” Her eyes were so wide and reverent that he could hardly stand it. “Look, love. I’m just a lizard boy from a freak show, about to get into a fight to the death with a venomous prat that hates me. There are no gods. There is no Itznam.”
Cenni quickly knelt and put her forehead to the earth. “Don’t blaspheme. Not before the Itznam Ka. You need the gods, Ebbie. We all do.”
In that moment, he’d never loved her more, and he’d never despised her more. Beautiful, hopelessly ignorant, Yssian to the core. The mainland would eat her alive. And staying here would devour him, bite by bite.
A conch shell rang out, and Cenni took his face in her hands and rubbed her lips against his.
“I love you, Ebbie. No matter what.”
“I love you, too, Cenni.”
Without another word, they walked up the path to the highest cliff of Ys. The sealskin flapped oddly around his waist, and his tail whipped back and forth in his wake. His movements grew twitchy and primal, and as they crested the hill to the cliffs, his dewlap inflated of its own volition and he canted his head back and forth, back and forth, ending with a loud, instinctual call that surprised him and Cenni both and left the gathering of Yssians silent.
Hundreds of them had gathered at the cliff’s edge, holding smoky torches as they stood in a wide semicircle around Corbal. It had been so long since the last Itznam Ka that no one alive had actually witnessed a fight for kingship, and no one wanted to miss it.
“Can’t believe you actually showed,” Corbal called.
“Why not?” Eblick replied as the circle closed behind him. “It’s not every day I get to kill a king.”
That was all it took to send Corbal barreling into Eblick’s chest, his arms hooking around Eblick’s back as his coral crown dug into Eblick’s neck. Eblick grunted and twisted out of the bigger man’s grip, scales sliding on scales thanks to Lady Letitia’s oily ointment. Undaunted, Corbal went for Eblick’s waist, trying to jab a venom spur into his soft belly. But Eblick was ready for it, dodging and returning the clinch. Digging his heels into the sand, he used a well-placed leg to clip Corbal’s ankle and drive him to the ground on his back, mere inches away from a fatal fall to the sharp rocks below. The females gasped, and the king’s guards pointed their spears, uncertain about the protocol for a king getting his arse handed to him.
A strange sort of calm descended as Eblick remembered Torno’s lessons. He snaked one arm around Corbal’s neck and grabbed his own bicep, while his other arm curled over the king’s head, his fighting spur inches from Corbal’s eye. It might have looked like a hug after that, but it was a choke designed to cut off the flow of blood to the brain, used by Torno’s people in their ancient contests of strength.
“This is… not our way…” Corbal sputtered, his face going black.
“This is my way,” Eblick whispered into the king’s ear, just before Corbal went limp, his crown tumbling to the sand.
The cliffs were silent but for the crackle of the torches and the crash of the ocean below. Eblick stood, dusting the sand from his oil-slicked scales. With a deep breath, he puffed out his dewlap and unleashed a loud call, daring any challengers to continue the fight. Unsurprisingly, no one did.
“M’lord? What of the old king?” one of the guards ventured.
“Not my monkey. Not my circus.” The guards waited, confused, until Eblick added. “Deal with it.”
Cenni fell into his arms just then, her face wet with salt.
“Oh, Ebbie. He tried to slash you. I can’t even…”
Eblick held her close as the guards plucked the king’s limp body from the sand and carried it, one to each limb, to the edge of the cliff.
“It’s over now,” he said.
But he didn’t look at Cenni, and he didn’t hunt for Corbal’s body among the rocks. His eyes were drawn to the mist, to the invisible horizon beyond.
The water went from warm and clear blue to chilly and gray as Eblick swam under the mist. For the first time in his life, he welcomed the cold. As the miles brought him closer to his destination, one hand reached constantly for the sealskin bag tied tightly around his waist.
He crawled up on the sand of Sangland and stood, from lizard to man in one motion. A few feet away, an old man pointed a trembling crossbow at him.
“Please don’t shoot, m’lord.” Eblick said.
“What the bloody hell are you?”
Eblick grinned, showing fangs. “I’m a freak. Come to Criminy’s Clockwork Caravan tonight if you wish to see my fellow wonders and horrors from the farthest reaches of Sang.”
The old man hooked his crossbow on his belt and picked his fishing rod back up.
“A talking iguana,” he muttered to himself. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
The journey went quickly, and Eblick drank in the lonely moors and heavy, gray skies. Judging by his arms, his bright breeding colors were swiftly draining away to match the dull shades of the land around him, pale greens and grays. His dewlap folded back in, although the spikes along his head and neck stubbornly persisted. Ah, well. Criminy would probably consider that a boon.
Happily, the caravan was exactly where he’d left it, the wagons circled and smoke dribbling upwards in white columns that reminded him of Corbal’s bonfire. He found the note he’d left on the ringmaster’s door pinned to his own trailer with elegant script underneath saying only, “Fair enough. Hurry back or I’ll kill you. ~CS.” He smiled as he went inside his wagon, glad to be back home.
The first thing Eblick did was remove the packed grass and seaweed from the pouch on his waist and build a nest in an old hatbox. He placed Cenni’s seventh egg in the middle and packed moor grass over and around it, then put a blanket on top to hold in the warmth. After hesitating for only a moment, he pulled back the blanket and gently laid the crown of coral around the egg, just so. He had to experiment with his voice a little before his eep was answered with a soft eep from within the rubbery white shell. It wouldn’t be long now until Sangland had its second lizard boy. Or girl. He slid the hatbox into the darkness under his bed and walked to the dining car for the last meal before the night’s show.
“Was your trip pleasant, my friend?” Torno called, and Eblick slid into the booth with his cabbage soup and kippers.
“It was fine, m’lord,” he said.
“Where’d you go?” the tightrope walker asked, creeping close, and Veruca the Abyssinian sword swallower waved the question away, saying, “Let the poor boy keep his secrets, harpy.”
“Maybe he went to see his family,” the bearded lady said shyly. “Are you… I mean, do you have…”
“I have family,” Eblick said quietly.
He had left Cenni in charge as the first queen of Ys, with Corbal’s guards pledged to protect her. Eblick was still king in name, but his first act had been to journey to the mainland on a diplomatic mission.
“Don’t you want to stay, Ebbie? You could do so much good here,” Cenni had begged.
“You’ll do it for me, love,” he had answered. “I don’t belong here anymore. But you do. And you know what needs to happen, how to help the people flourish.”
“But we’ve never had a queen.”
“Then you can’t muck it up, can you?”
She’d cried when he’d left. And it had pained him. But not as bad as staying behind would have.
The other freaks of the caravan went quiet as the ringmaster himself appeared.
“Found your way back, did you?” Criminy asked with a smirk.
“Have any fantastic adventures?”
“Only a small one, m’lord.”
“Just don’t get any grand ideas, you lazy bugger. We need you in the circus.”
The tightrope walker snorted. “Need him? What for? He’s not so special.”
“Emerlie, pet, I could find a far less annoying girl and train her up to do your job in a week. But Eblick’s the only lizard boy in the entire world.” The ringmaster winked as if he could see straight down into Eblick’s soul and found the whole thing tremendously funny. For once, Eblick didn’t tremble or look down. Instead, he showed Criminy his fangs in a lopsided smile.