A long time ago, when water cascaded off the edges of an earth as flat as coin and great monsters as big as glaciers ruled the seas, the East was a kingdom of promise and plenty. Mountain crevices would glint with the hint of diamonds as large as goose eggs, and molten gold ran through cracks in the seabed like oil; precious jewels, as ordinary as fallen leaves, lay scattered across the verdant hills like the million glittering eyes of an army of opulent insects. Within these lands, there lived a dragon princess called Tioman.
The princess was fierce and beautiful. People would gather from miles around to pay their respects, marvelling at how the Chinese sunlight glimmered across her emerald scales, enchanted by the darts of iridescence which flashed in the light like golden fish swimming up a river of jade. Her beauty and majesty had seen the dragon princess spurn the advances of thousands of suiters over the centuries with little more than a flick of her trident-like tail, a twinkle of fire pirouetting into the Eastern sky as she snorted disdainfully at their paltry attempts. It would take someone special, the very epitome of resplendent royalty, to tempt Tioman away from her kingdom, and she prized her independence and freedom of choice above all wealth or glory. But one day, temptation arrived in the form of a great dragon King who ruled over the land of Singapore. After months of courtship, Tioman agreed to marry the King if he would wait for her for a year.
The days trickled by and only once the blossom had fallen from the trees, dissolved into the ground and reappeared like delicate pink birds, their feathers fluttering in the Spring breeze, only then was it was time to make the long journey from China to Singapore to greet her betrothed. As the morning sun greeted a magenta sky, she unfurled her great leathery wings and, rising on her haunches, flapped the sleep from her joints. Catching a scent of the Southern Wind as it cartwheeled in eddies and flurries in the air around her, she turned her regal face towards her new life in Singapore and soared into the dawn. The journey was long but Tioman did not rest. The sun blazed garishly down upon her back like a preening starlet, it’s bumptious beams strutting back and forth along the vast expanse of the horizon before ducking back behind a curtain of clouds with a bow. Pinpricks of starlight began to sparkle in the sea of skies around her and the moon hummed a lullaby, a ghostly chorus of night winds whistling strange, wraithlike harmonies. And still she journeyed on.
But as moon gave way to sun and sun gave way to moon once more she felt a weariness settle into her bones. She ached from travel and longed for the respite of reaching her destination. As she gazed down at the land stretched beneath her like a neatly folded quilt, she saw a glint of green. Swirling downwards in a graceful spiral, the glint blinked invitingly, a beacon in a sea of indigo. The glinting sea seemed to dazzle Tioman and she lowered the slightest tip of a claw into the inviting waters, tearing through the surface as easily as a machete through smoke. The sensation of cool, clear cleanliness seemed to radiate up through her body like dye on litmus. Higher and higher the sensation climbed until it gripped her heart and she broke into a wide, welcome smile. Her journey driven from her travel-addled mind, she descended into the arms of the ocean and allowed the embrace to surround her. Never had she felt such calm, such peace, such bliss. As the hours passed by, Tioman tried in vain to find an excuse to leave. Promises, though solid, are no sturdier than quicksand when millennia lay both before and after you, and kings will come and go, but paradise is rare, special, unfathomably beautiful, like the clouds in an evening sky aligning to form a perfect masterpiece before parting on the winds once more. The calm, warm waters that lapped at her sides were like a tonic, healing her world weary bones. She was in nirvana and she knew that she would never know beauty like this again if she were to leave. So she settled into the azure waters, unfurling her body like a cat, and made this patch of ocean her home. And there she remained.
Over the years, people got busier and time became a dictator. The humdrum of daily life was clamped around people’s heads like a metal vice, blinkering their awareness of the wider world; people forgot that a century could pass in the wink of an eye, so fixated were they by the minutiae of their day by day existence. The princess Tioman’s story passed into legend, and legend into myth, until it became so fantastical to myopic mankind, trundling across the ancient plains of the earth like sheep on scrubland, that they shut off their ears to the rich mysteries of their past. Over time, the dragon princess watched in sadness as the people who came to visit her own personal paradise became immune to its charm. She observed cooly as they splashed about blithely in the waters that had tempted her away from her betrothed all those aeons ago; she felt how they clambered over her, paying as little regard for the dormant bedrock that lay beneath them as a truculent toddler does for the lap of a restraining adult; she heard how they chatted and flirted, oblivious to the powerful beast that lay sleeping beneath them. The years passed and her spine became little more than a walkway and her ears, ever pricked into the mountainous peaks of the island, soon struggled to understand the cartoon tones of the strange modern vernacular that reached them.
She allowed trees and vines to grow across her shoulders, and villages to spring up upon her scaly foundations. There were still a faithful few among the locals who heard the tales and paid due reverence to the heritage they had settled upon, but as more and more visitors were drawn like fireflies to the spellbinding beauty of Tioman, the possibility of magic and enchantment and dragons fell into wayside of modern life. Humans were numb.
And then, on a rainy day as the Chinese year of the dragon came to an end and Princess Tioman began to resign herself to the belief that another festivity would come and go without the spark of faith igniting in any of her guests, a tired, English girl arrived on her shores. As the sun set, she gazed around at the island that was to become her home and saw nothing but strange new words and alien faces. Exhausted from travel and drained of intrigue, she went to bed that night with her eyes shut tight against the magic of her surroundings. But when she awoke the next morning, it was as if her dreams of paradise had awoken her imagination.
That morning, the dragon felt the girl’s soles padding along across her skin towards the ocean, and watched as she plunged into the waters that were her haven. Down and down she dived, exploring the cracks and crannies of the princess’s ancient skeleton. As she weaved around the rocks that formed Tioman’s gnarled feet and peered into the ravines that were her resting joints, she saw an expression of awestruck delight ripple across the diver’s face. Dragon and girl looked into each others’ eyes. The spark was lit, and the girl knew the dragon to be real.
Magic swirled within these waters like glitter in a snow dome, history thrummed beneath the waves as loud and majestic as a cello’s swooping bass, filling her ears and beating a tattoo on her heart. Strange technicolour creatures crawled across the seabed – living jewels of the ocean – and the waves crashed against fine golden sand.
The girl swam upwards towards the shards of light that shattered the ceiling of water and, as her head broke the surface, she shook the droplets of salty sea from her hair and laughed. The dragon curled around her, sighing with ancient relief, exhaling great clouds of vapour from her nostrils. The vapour gathered together to form fine clouds of mist which, caught upon the breeze, danced across the rolling jungle, obscuring the treetops from view. Rain began to fall like tears of joy and washed away the traveller’s tired trepidation. She smiled. The legend was real.