Ah, Shi-Dan, the king-emperor to whom Rada Ni Drako swore blood and talon oaths, the only King-Emperor referred to as “The Great,” and now a deity, one of the guardians of the Gates of Hell. When he marched into my view, I had loosely based him on a friend (with permission). As so often happens, he took on a life of his own, and a back-story that caught me by surprise. You see, Shi-Dan was what all the genetic tinkering described in Hubris was focused on creating. He is the über-Azdhag, the super-dragon, the ideal of the Azdhag species. And he and Rada never knew.
The first give away, but only after I was well into writing Hubris, was his coloring. He should not have survived to his first growth phase, let alone to adulthood. There’s a reason no other pure-black Azdhagi are ever mentioned in the books: Rada has never seen another thus far, not in 400+ years. By Shi-Dan’s time, deathtouch had eliminated all the carriers of the gene’s dominant form. Through some twist of the DNA Shi-Dan had the all-black coloring but not the lethal metabolic syndrome that went with it. Instead he over-developed, growing faster and larger than 99.9% of the species. He was almost the size of a True-dragon, but bulkier. It is no wonder he broke Rada’s ribs when he leaned on her chest. He’d probably have killed a human female Rada’s size, given the difference in bone density and cartilage flexibility between Rada and humans.
Shi-Dan also possessed telepathy, something no Azdhagi has. They have Healing but not the ability to communicate mind-to-mind, and most are so head blind that Rada and Zabet can go without shielding. Rada had not gotten into that bad habit yet or she would have discovered Shi-Dan’s ability and vice versa. He shielded naturally, out of self-defense, like many untrained telepaths. The little information that leaked in he attributed to his own mastery of reading body language and his skill at anticipating other people’s motives and desires. Well, it was, but not exactly as he understood it. One reason, especially in his later years, that he gravitated to Rada was that she did shield and her mental buzz did not bother him because she kept it to herself. Zabet as well, although he did not deign to stoop to poaching Lord Ni Drako’s concubine. He had his talons full as it was.
So he was smarter, larger, faster, stronger, telepathic, almost endothermic, and pretty much the absolute pinnacle of Azdhag development. But. Shi-Dan still carried the lethal gene, which is why only one of his male offspring lived to adulthood, and well, that one did not survive to inherit. Because of the other inherited trait: the insanity that passed down through the Imperial male line. Shi-Dan had it himself, but everything else masked the paranoia, and he managed to turn it into a benefit when it did surface. Rada wondered about him a few times, but after so long working for Shi-Dan she did not really give it much thought, and she’s not a mind healer. Rada also has a strong sense of self preservation, and as readers of A Cat Among Dragons know, asking Shi-Dan if he felt especially nervous or concerned about something was not healthy.
In the end, the metabolic syndrome did kill him, although only after age had weakened his immune system already. Shi-Dan’s offspring through the female line (mostly bastards) tend to be larger than average, even the females, and to have a small dark spot on them. One distant descendant gave Rada the scare of her life until she saw the lighter colored patch on his hip.
And who is to say? Rada is still not entirely certain that Shi-Dan is truly gone from her life. She doesn’t worship ancestors, but neither does she discount the power of Azdhagi faith. And every so often, well, things have happened. And that little statue in the corner of her office? The one she occasionally lights a stick of incense in front of “just to freshen the air?” Rada swears it has winked at her. Although giving her the Azdhag version of the middle talon would be more in character.