He was born in the heat of summer, in the middle of January, with brown skin and amber eyes. His mother told him he never cried as a child. The heat never bothered him, she said – and swimming came like a second nature.
He grew up as Dane Myron to a single mother and an absent father, on the beachside of Euboea in Greece. He went to school every day on his own and if no one spoke to him he could go a day without uttering a single word. Dane didn’t like talking. His teachers would prod at him to speak, constantly – and sent letters home to his mother expressing their concern, because he sat alone on the hot concrete when he ate lunch.
‘Oh, don’t pressure him.’ she would tell them, cradling the phone to her ear. ‘That’s just my Dane.’
His mother gave him the pendant on his seventh birthday. ‘Nicked it from your dad.’ she had said, tying it about his neck on a coarse string. ‘Used to wear it all the time, his little dragon guardian, he’d tell me. He was born in the year of the dragon, you know. Just like you.’ she tied it off, and his little hand came up to toy with it, prodding at the edges with curiosity. A dragon’s head, with its jaws parted and its long teeth bared, carved entirely from deep mahogany.
Dane never took it off.
Summer was Dane’s favourite time of year, and not just because it was his birthday. He loved the way the summer sun glinted off the rippling ocean. He loved feeling sand burn at the soles of his feet. He loved watching the fire jugglers perform on the beach at night. He loved listening to the music they played, the beat of the low drums, the constant thrum of life that would carry on even long after his mother took his hand and led him back to their cabin to sleep. Nine at night was his bedtime.
Dane first saw it when he was sixteen.
There were three of them. A blonde woman, her husband and another girl. They performed just like the fire jugglers, and that’s what Dane thought they were. He saw one of them bring a bottle to her lips with a flaming torch in her right hand. She tossed the bottle away, lifted the torch and let out a mighty breath. The fire plumed and rocketed from her parted lips, as if her very breath was made from it. It was extending out in front of her, carried by the wind. Death in a rough breeze.
From then on he was captivated.
The next morning Dane caught them as they were leaving. He asked the male of their troupe how their magic worked. The male in turn handed Dane a small bottle of kerosene for his enthusiasm.
Dane never saw them again.
‘Are you ready, Little Dragon?’
He glanced over his shoulder, nodding at the showrunner as he vanished back behind his curtain, leaving Little Dragon standing there staring at his reflection in the dressing room mirror. Tattoos riddled his flesh from his arms to his chest like scales – hiding the endless stream of his burns from view. He remembered feeling the sting of each one as it was burned into his skin like it belonged there.
‘Does it hurt?’ his tattoo artist had asked him as she glanced warily up from her place on his chest, inking over a deep burn. He had said nothing but gave his head a slow shake. It didn’t hurt him. It felt like nothing compared to the fire’s greedy burn. She fell silent after that, tugging her headphones back into her ears, working without stopping until his chest was a fresh array of black scales, flushed and red and beading with blood.
It took five days, and five different sessions over three years and too much money in total before his skin was entirely covered. Before the worst of his burns were hidden from view. Before his armour finally took form, and it seemed like that accident had never happened. His hands, feet and his face were all left bare, leaving the grizzly burn over his right cheek and chin on plain display.
His eyes were rimmed with golden liner; his brows were filled in with it. His head was shaved bare and he wore nothing but a pair of loose hemp pants drawn up to his knees. His feet were bare and he flexed his toes against the cold sand underfoot. He was broad-shouldered, roped with muscle, brushing well over six feet in height. He was not small. He was not little.
The low boom of the crowd beyond the frail curtains of his tent were still audible from behind them, permeating the frozen Norwegian air. He was a long way from home, but he stopped being Dane Myron such a long time ago that home became wherever this tent would go.
Drawing a slow breath he reached out to take hold of his torch. It was a lavishly decorated thing with faux jewels inlaid into the shaft and thick enough for him to wind his fingers around until they just barely meet. A small basin sat at the very top of the wood, blackened and burnished from the amount of times he’d lit it on fire. Every inch of it smelled like smoke, every inch of him smelled like smoke.
A low brasier burned away by his exit. He lowered his torch to it, watching as it caught flame. A simple flask sat at his hip. It blended in to his uniform, with a small string of beads hanging from the stopper and a chain for him to loop around his neck.
He settled the base of his torch against the sand at his side, the flames licking away – level to his jawline. The curtains drew back, and the show runner was there again.
‘We’re ready.’ he said and, nodding, he followed him out, ducking under the curtain after his torch, following it and not his guide. It illuminated the dark, transient halls of the tent. He stopped by another curtain. From underneath it he could see the lights of the previous act shining against the black floor.
It happened before every show. A low jitter to his stomach. A fluttering of nerves that drifted through his abdomen and pulled at his chest until his heart skipped every second beat and he began bouncing on the balls of his feet. He had been prepared, painted gold and black – like a dragon, he thought – and he was ready. He raised a hand to the carved charm around his neck and lifted it to his lips, kissing its horns before releasing it.
He heard the music shift and saw the lights shift under the curtain. He heard the scuffle of the acrobats hurrying off stage and the audience applauding them as they went. A touch to the sway of his back signaled him to move – and he did. One step forwards, and he was on the platform. He closed his eyes and set the torch at his side. His fingers wrapped loosely around the torch’s shaft as the ground rolled to life under him, as he was driven out from the darkness.
Dim light bathed him much like under moonlight. He heard the audience fall silent. He couldn’t see them from here. The lights on him were far too bright.
The lights shifted. He stepped off his platform taking two steps forwards. Off his raised dais, he paused at the single dot of chalk on the front of the stage. The music shifted again. His hand drifted to his side. He unhooked his flask and brought it to his lips. He poured a small amount of the kerosene into his mouth and held it by his teeth. As the bitter taste filled his mouth his tongue lifted, out of habit, to stop the liquid from slipping towards the back of his throat. He plugged the flask and let it hang around his neck. He shifts his torch until it was in front of him. Through his nose he drew in a careful breath.
He pressed his full lips into a moue and opened his gold-lidded eyes. His jaw set, he spat the kerosene towards the flame, and he blew. Flames erupted from his lips as he moved the torch from in front of him. He took three steps forward, hearing the crowd gasp. He felt his audience lean back from the row closest to him, like they were afraid his fire would catch them. It didn’t. It was his. He was a dragon after all. The fire was hot against his skin, burning and blistering against the icy air.
He turned away, staining his skin with golden makeup as he dragged his free hand over his lips. He lifted the flask to his lips again to take in another mouthful of kerosene. He dipped to his knees, taking the torch with him. He spits, he blew, and he stood, bringing the torch back up with him. The flames rose. He felt their heat beat down against his skin, against his scales. He felt it all around him, burning, burning. Fire caught behind him on the stage. It was controlled, set to life over the coals left behind by the previous act. The fire framed him, but he wasn’t afraid. He didn’t have any reason to be. His scales protected him. His scales kept him safe. Dragon.
The music carried and lifted along with him until he heard the audience applauding. He tapped the butt of his torch against the stage three times. It’s echoes carried over the crowd. He brought the torch back to his lips and spat out his kerosene. He breathed out his fire and he watched it plume and spread. He watched it lick greedily against the empty air, desperately seeking something to purchase on. He wanted it to find its purchase upon them, the crowd, for they should have known how it felt to be touched by fire, to be touched like he was.
There had been a time when his mother had come to these shows. Where she had sat herself in the front row and watched him with clear pride. Pride that had faded with each new scale. Pride that had disintegrated along with the ashes of his scarred flesh, still as sickly as it had been when he was a boy. She stopped coming when he stopped answering to ‘Dane’. She stopped travelling with him when she started seeing a stranger in him instead of her son. She never minded how quiet he was. She never minded that he didn’t like talking (for why would he need to talk when he could do this?). But she didn’t like watching her son risk setting himself aflame every other night.
She couldn’t watch that happen for the sake of entertainment, after what was once an accident.
‘When did you adopt this persona? How did you learn how to breathe fire? How old were you when you did this for the first time?’
A camera flashed at him but he stopped himself from flinching.
‘Why a ‘dragon’?’
He didn’t answer the brunette woman. She didn’t get an answer just because she had a microphone as large as her arm. He thought she must have been struggling to hold it upright. Her cheeks were pink with effort, but he just stared at her, his amber eyes burning with apprehension. What more did she want from him? She’d seen all he had to give. There was nothing left. His heart leaped into his throat. They had told him he wouldn’t have to talk to press.
‘What’s your real name?’
‘No questions now.’ A hand landed on his bare shoulder and he looked around at his salvation. It was his manager, Rudy, wearing his signature black tuxedo, smiling past his chubby cheeks at the swarm of people blocking the entrance to his dragon’s tent.
‘If you wanna know more about my Little Dragon you can come talk to me at my tent. C’mon now, it’s bedtime. Reptiles can’t function without recharging. You know that.’
The brunette woman and her photographer hurried off to Rudy’s tent, but not before snapping a few last moment shots of Little Dragon, with flashes too bright for his eyes to handle. He flinched away, rubbing at his eyelids until more of his golden makeup smudged onto his hand.
‘You did great today.’
He looked up. Rudy was smiling at him, beaming with his greedy, beady eyes. His eyes scanned over his dragon’s face, looking for some trace of emotion. Anything.
‘What, not even a smile?’
A frown twitched between Dragon’s brows. What was Rudy looking for? The emptiness in him?
‘Alright, whatever, man. Bright and early tomorrow, you know the drill. It’s gonna be a busy, busy weekend!’ Rudy clapped his meaty hands together, wiggling his fingers in his signature way as he turned away and hurried off back towards his tent. His perfectly gelled hair shone in the moonlight.
Once alone, Rudy’s Little Dragon let out a small breath of relief. He peeled back the flap of his tent before stepping inside with his torch held carefully in his hand. The fire was long since extinguished though the basin still smoked lightly with heat.
His reflection looked back at him from the moment he set foot in his tent. A full-length mirror had been pressed against the far wall of his temporary home. His belongings fretfully far and few between, rolled up in hemp duffle bags as fragrant as tea leaves, decorated with fake crystals. Incense burned by the door, and he tipped his head as he looked at himself, leaning his torch against the tent stand by the doorway.
There was a time when he would look in the mirror and fear what he saw. He wasn’t used to seeing his reflection and not recognizing the man who stared back at him, with his flesh twisted and gnarled from his burns. Eyes as amber as the sun. Skin as brown as ground coffee beans. Every inch of him had been bathed in sunlight.
Then the scales came. He lifted a hand to run his fingers over his arms. The tattoos had been a part of him for so long that he barely remembered how he looked without them. They covered his entire body, from his neck to the tops of his feet. His fingers had been emblazoned to look alight, twisting and licking with black flames, and the makeup…
It was smudged over his eyes and over his lips. But that was what they wanted of him. They wanted him to mess it during his act. They wanted him to look savage and untamed. Dragon. He looked at himself, and a smile crept over his lips. It was easier to keep your true self buried under several layers of untrue selves, to protect yourself. That was what the scars were for, he thought. They protected him, from them-… from everything that was out there.
Like this, Dane Myron was untouchable. Dane Myron was a dragon.