Before the naga heard Adagio’s song, everything was the same always. She tended to her coral gardens; she danced with pearls for the amusement of the piranhas; she gossipped with the clams; she avoided jellies and anemones; and she tickled the belly of Archelon each year when he passed by.
But then she heard the song, and for the first time in her long life, she was curious.
Above the surface of the water, on a dry rock, a sky-man sat with his azure wings folded up behind him. “Hello, Lorelai,” he said, and just like that, she had a name. “I am Adagio. I have brought you a gift.” Inside his cupped hands was a bright round orange.
Lorelai pulled from her mouth the sharp-boned seahorse she’d been chewing. “Is it the sun?” asked Lorelai.
“It is an orange. You eat it.”
Lorelai sniffed at the orange; the tangy sweet scent filled her whole head. Underwater there were no sweet things, only salty and bloody.
“Bring me one of the dragon eggs buried beneath Dragon Fall,” said Adagio, pulling the orange away, “and I will give you this orange.”
So Lorelai dove down and down and down into the deep-dark, until she had to grab an anglerfish by its glowy stalk to see at all. When her hair tangled around the great collapsed ribs of the last dragons, from the time when the sea had not been a sea at all, she knew she had reached Dragon Fall. She thrust her hand deep into the seabed and touched the scaly sides of huge eggs. The anglerfish scurried away as she swam up and up and up with one of the eggs in her arms.
In the daylight, the egg was greenish-gold. Adagio praised her and handed her the orange, then laughed when she bit straight into it. He said she should discard the peel, but she loved its sunshiny bittersweetness.
Adagio flew away with the egg, Lorelai returned to the sea, and a long time passed. She danced for the piranhas, tended to the corals, pried pearls loose from aching clam mouths, and avoided the jellies. She forgot Adagio, and the song, and the taste of the orange. She tickled the belly of Archelon one thousand times, and then she heard the song again.
Again Adagio greeted her, and again she dove into the deep-dark, feeling around in the mud until she found an egg. Again she exchanged one egg, this one swirly yellow, for a bright round orange. Again she dissolved into pleasure at the crunch of its sweet seeds. And again she returned to the same-always of the sea and forgot Adagio, and the song, and the orange.
One thousand Archelon tickles later, Adagio returned and sang. Lorelai delivered a speckled dragon egg and sat on the dry rock by Adagio while she ate her orange. “Why do you need an egg every one thousand Archelon cycles?” she asked, licking the sticky juice from her fingers.
“That is how long it takes mankind to fall into ruin,” said Adagio.
“Like Dragon Fall?” she asked.
Adagio smiled and petted Lorelai’s long hair. “Somewhat. Mankind learns and adapts better than all other creatures, but then they make civilizations, and become greedy, and they fall, much like the dragons did long ago. The eggs are mankind’s salvation from itself.”
“I don’t understand,” said Lorelai.
“It’s better that you don’t,” said Adagio.
After that, Lorelai returned to the sea, and forgot Adagio and the oranges and the eggs. Nine hundred and ninety-five Archelon tickles later, Lorelai again heard the song and raced to the surface, but Adagio was not there.
“Hello, Lorelai,” said the stranger who had sung the song. She was a lady in black robes, wearing a crown that covered her eyes. Ravens circled and perched around her. The stranger held a basket full of oranges.
Lorelai had not seen so many oranges in her whole life. Curious, she swam closer. “Are you mankind?”
“I am a queen.”
“And you also want an egg?”
“I want a particular egg,” said the queen.
And so Lorelai dove down and down and down into the deep-dark, and dug in the seabed under Dragon Fall until she found the scaly round sides of an egg, and then she swam up and up and up. In the daylight it shone purple and pink. “Is this the particular egg?” she asked.
“You did well, Lorelai,” said the queen. She gave Lorelai an orange and passed the purple and pink egg to her guards. “But this is not the particular egg that I want. Bring me another, and I will give you another orange.”
Lorelai froze with the orange still in her teeth. She had never had two whole oranges in one day, or even one millennium. She dove again with the orange still in her teeth, returning with a dark blue stripey egg. She collected her second orange with a delighted squeal and devoured it while the queen inspected it. “Is that the one?” she asked, hoping it wasn’t.
“No,” said the queen, though again she kept it anyway. “But I have plenty of oranges.”
And so Lorelai dove again and brought up another egg, and another, and another, until the queen’s guards were overburdened with eggs of all colors. At last she brought up an egg so deep black that it made Lorelai uneasy just to look at it. She was glad to hand it over.
“This is the one,” whispered the queen.
“Mankind’s salvation from itself?” asked Lorelai.
The queen paused. One of the ravens hopped close to Lorelai, staring with its head to one side. “Not from itself,” she whispered. “Not this time.” Then she and her guards walked away from the sea, the conspiracy of ravens blackening the distant sky, leaving Lorelai alone with the basket half-full of oranges.
Lorelai sat on the rock for a long time, watching the sun set and eating oranges until her belly ached. She slipped back into the sea, prepared for the same-always and long years of forgetting.
But when she heard the song again, she had not yet forgotten. She had tickled the belly of Archelon only five times since the queen had sung the song, and her tongue still recalled the bittersweet orange peel tang. Curious, she swam to the surface and found Adagio there again, an orange in his cupped hands. Dropping her pearl, she dove down, down, down into the deep-dark, and returned with a brilliant ruby-red egg. But when Adagio held out the orange, she refused.
“I would like to understand instead,” she said.
Adagio’s smile was gentle and sad. “Dragons save mankind the same way that night saves the day. The way that death saves life.”
After that he left. Lorelai hugged her pearl and watched as the sun moved across the sky, turned orange and then red and then purple, then disappeared beneath the horizon. Darkness covered the world and, shivering, she understood.