The Advantages of Inappropriacy
My eyes fill with ash until I can’t see a thing. Luckily, the choking fit that follows causes them to water prodigiously and clear themselves. My nose is ‘watering’ too and since I can’t move my arms to wipe my face, I have to stand there covered in tears and mucus. Damn fine piece of dragon bait right here!
When I’ve coughed enough to satisfy my irate lungs, I open my eyes and do a double take when I see an enormous sprawling dragon immediately in front of me. Actually, when I say ‘double take’, what happens is that every instinct in my body tells me to throw myself backwards, away from the humongous, shimmering beast in front of me. But since there’s currently a dead tree behind me, all I achieve is a bruise on the back of my head.
The beast ignores me at first, focusing on recovering its poise after its landing. It shakes dust off each limb then gathers them tidily under its body. After a quick flap, its wings fold themselves away on its back. Now that it’s stationary, the dragon doesn’t seem as big as I thought, yet is somehow still more impressive than I’d supposed it would be. Its scales glimmer in gorgeous swirls of green, grey and lilac. The wings look like they could power a fleet of ships. There’s enough heat emanating off it to warm a small country and its front legs end in agile claws that it uses to brush excess dust off its body.
Having achieved its desired grooming, the dragon turns its ridged head and begins inspecting me with golden, whorl-like eyes. It stares intently and there’s a strange expression on its face. I was worried that it would be salivating or something like that, but instead, it looks… Well, if I had to define the expression, I’d say it looks displeased.
A wave of resentment flows over me. “What’s wrong? Not cute enough for ya?!” I yell hoarsely. Then immediately regret it. Dumb, Willa! Why antagonise the walking flamethrower?
The dragon’s look of displeasure increases and it makes a rumbling noise, almost as if saying, “Hmmmm.”
What the hell is Fell doing? He said he’d be a few metres away, ready to blast the dragon when it arrived. I’ve bloody well done my part. Hurry up with the blasting!
The dragon opens its mouth and it’s as if someone’s opened an oven door. A wave of heat rushes over me. In a voice that sounds like a mixture of a growl and a creak, the dragon speaks. “You are not a princess, are you?”
I stare at it for a few seconds, marvelling over the fact that it can talk. I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, I suppose it makes sense with such a large and obviously intelligent creature, and I’ve heard that dragons can even do magic as well, but still, it’s kind of a shock to hear actual words come out of the mouth of a reptile.
The dragon makes a harsh noise that sounds like it’s clearing its throat. “I said, you aren’t a princess. True or false?”
“False!” I gabble. “I mean it’s true that I’m not a princess. I’m a false princess!” The dragon’s expression changes from displeasure to disgust. “Is that… a problem?” I ask.
It huffs a little and another wave of scorching wind rushes past me. “A princess would have been a more fitting offering. And I would have expected you to be properly attired and coiffured.”
“Coiffured?” I splutter. I’ll accept that my hair-do isn’t particularly good. My curls must have shrivelled to frizz in all this baking heat. But… “What’s wrong with my dress?”
The dragon shakes its head. “It seems no-one recalls the old ways. In my mother’s day, no-one would have dreamed of offering a sacrifice without first being assured of her royal heritage and endeavouring to clothe her entirely in white satin.”
“Because that’s a sensible choice for an ash-covered landscape,” I mutter.
The dragon looks sharply at me. “Also,” it continues, “the bonds should have been knotted with double-cleft sheet bends. Those look to be simple bowlines. This is all highly irregular.” It sighs again. “Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to do my part.” With a long-suffering shake of its head, it rears onto its hind legs, stretching to its full, impressively giant height and opens its mouth, unleashing another blast of warm air.
Holy hell, is this the eating part?
The dragon closes its mouth and drops onto all fours again. But now it’s clutching something in its front claws.
The dragon places the object carefully onto the ashy ground. It’s a table. A full-sized (well, make that human-sized) dining table made of polished mahogany. Next to the dragon it looks tiny, but for people of my size (my real size), it would seat 6-8 people. And the dragon hasn’t finished there. It shakes a claw in the air briskly until a scrap of fabric appears, which it proceeds to spread over the table. A tablecloth.
A tea service, complete with a tiered cake stand, appears on the tablecloth. The rope that’s holding me falls to the ground at my feet.
“Please,” says the dragon, nodding towards the table. A richly varnished, plushly upholstered dining chair has appeared next to it. “Sit and allow me to serve you a cup of tea. Or would you perhaps prefer fruit juice?”
It seems that the dragon is offering me refreshments. “This is unexpected,” I declare, in what might be the understatement of my career.
The dragon sniffs. “I suppose you imagined I would eat you on sight. You must learn not to judge by appearances, dear. It is very ill-advised and not at all polite.”
That remark strikes me as a bit rich coming from someone who was just complaining about my clothes, but I keep my mouth shut.
“Tea or juice?”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a half of whiskey,” I mutter as I approach the table. Everything on it looks strange. The cups are too small for their handles, the teapot is oddly shaped, everything is out of proportion. As if it’s all been made by someone entirely the wrong size who was trying to imagine what people of my stature might use.
“May I pour for you?” asks the dragon.
“Yes please,” I say, reassured by how normal my voice sounds. Sitting at a table while a dragon pours you a drink is surreal to say the least. I cast a look over my shoulder. Where the blazes is Fell, anyway? He should have made a move by now.
“And when were you last attacked?” The dragon’s tone is one of polite interest, as if it’s simply making teatime conversation.
It gestures towards me with the teapot pinched between two claws. “Your protection spells. I see that one of them has been activated.” It pours a stream of liquid into a cup, its brow furrowed in concentration.
I frown. “You can see magic too?” My next thought is whether it can see my true body? A shiver of excitement runs through me. Could the dragon help break the curse?
“I am able to see certain types of magic. As for the ‘too’, I confess I am not entirely sure to whom you are comparing me. You are undoubtedly human and therefore cannot be so gifted.”
I twist around to look over my shoulder again.
“Also,” continues the dragon. “It strikes me that the spells appear to have been rather sloppily placed and several are tuned to a person much older than you appear to be. I confess that human ages have a tendency to escape me, but…”
A crash comes from somewhere to my left. We both glance that way and observe Fell picking himself up from the ground.
“Willa,” he gasps. “Sorry… delay. Dragon shifted!” he staggers a few steps towards us and then leans over, wheezing.
“He means to say that my arrival here resulted in him being displaced to a location several leagues hence,” explains the dragon. “I regret the necessity for such unannounced supplanting, but it is my experience that having wizards present tends to rather lower the tone of my introductory overtures with a new sacrifice.”
“You mean he’d have ruined our tea party?” I summarise.
“Exactly.” A glint appears in the dragon’s eye. Then its expression reverts to displeasure as it turns back towards Fell. “I did not anticipate such a swift return on your part.”
By this point, Fell has mostly recovered his breath. He glares at the dragon’s shoulder. “If you had observed the scene minutely, you would have noticed that I had set a place marker and attached it to my severance node, thus enabling me to pinpoint an exact spot for my atgriešanās spell.”
The dragon clasps its claws together. “Ingenious! You are entirely correct in that I failed to notice your marker. I have, however, noticed your handiwork on this girl. Do you realise you’ve set the vecum indicators at entirely inappropriate elevations?”
Fell takes off his glasses and catches the dragon in his freaky glowing gaze. “Then I surmise that you have missed an important fact relating to this particular girl.” He holds out the glasses. “Here.”
The dragon pinches the spectacles delicately between two claws and breathes on them. They immediately shoot up in size so they’re big enough for a dragon to look through. It angles them my way and gazes at me through the lenses. “Oh dear,” it tuts. “Dear me. Yes, I see what you mean. And may I say that this was an entirely inappropriate offering.”
“But still better than some you’ve received, I’ll wager,” replies Fell. “There were rumours of a village that attempted something with sheep.”
The dragon shudders. “Do not remind me. I deplore the entire incident.”
“Besides, Willa here was merely a ploy to lure you out. I never meant her as a serious offering. The point was rather to effect your demise.”
“Really?” The dragon settles itself back on its haunches and folds its claws. “Do tell me, how were you planning to go about it?”
Another chair appears next to mine at the table and Fell seats himself in it, smoothing creases out of his robe. He accepts his glasses, which have shrunk back to their original size, and settles them back on his nose. “I prepared two different versions of a slepkavošana enchantment,” he says, “but I wasn’t foolish enough to think they would suffice, so I had several back-up sprādziens.”
The dragon shakes its head. “Very dated, those spells. Haven’t heard of a successful attempt since the reign of Garolla. And we all remember how that turned out for him.”
“Indeed,” replies Fell. “But that was merely my opening gambit. Plus, I may boast that I had made some interesting variations on the sagrozīt factors that I dare to propose would have made all the difference.”
“But what did you intend to do about my atraida?” asks the dragon. “I cannot believe you would have overlooked it as a consideration.”
“Now that’s where it gets interesting.” says Fell animatedly. “You see…”
They blather on about magic for hours. I’ve drunk all the tea and eaten all the cakes (they tasted as weird as they looked) and got bored with sitting, so I go back to the camp and potter about, polishing my knives, organising my belongings, killing a few trees with my throwing knives.
When night comes, I wander over to check on them, but they’re still jabbering away, waving their arms about like nutters. A few lamps hang in the air, adding illumination to the glow from the dragon’s eyes.
Shrugging, I go back to the camp and curl up in my bedroll. Turns out Fell is actually quite chatty when he has another magic nerd to talk to. A small part of me is wondering whether their talk will eventually turn into fighting, but mostly I don’t care. I’ve done my part and now I’m going to sleep.
I wake up early the next morning and trudge over to have a look at the scene of discussion, then scoff in disgust at what I find. This is ridiculous! The dragon is curled up, asleep. Next to it is the table, still bearing the ash-smudged tablecloth and tea party remnants. Next to that is a four-poster bed. Just sitting there in the middle of nowhere. The curtains are drawn. I imagine Fell is sleeping inside. The dragon is obviously hospitably minded and must have conjured the bed for Fell to sleep in when he got tired. I wonder if it made him a toilet…?
Anyway, they’re either going to wake up and talk some more, or else wake up and fight. Neither is a particularly pleasant prospect, and I don’t plan on sticking around to find out which one it is. Even if there’s a small chance the dragon could help me lift the curse, it isn’t worth the age of lecturing I’d have to sit through to get the chance to ask it. Stomping back to the camp, I pack up my things and sling the load over my shoulder. I’ll find some way to send Fell the bill later.
I’ve got a couple of miles down the road when Fell catches me. And when I say ‘catches’, I mean he appears with no warning in the middle of the road in front of me.
“Willa,” he says.
“Fell.” I match his brusque tone.
“You left without bidding farewell.”
“It seemed like my role in our contract was finished,” I say stiffly. “And you appeared to be otherwise occupied.”
“I was,” he gushes with more enthusiasm than I suspected him capable of. “Spindral has some truly ingenious ideas. She’s opened my eyes to unique perspectives on several aspects of magical theory. We’re discussing an alliance for the sake of mutual benefit.”
There’s a pause. “So you’re not going to collect the reward for killing her?” I ask, half in disbelief.
He blinks at me. “What? Gracious, no. Why would I wish to kill my alliance partner?”
I roll my eyes. “Never mind.” Apparently the prospect of collecting a huge reward becomes meaningless in the event of having discovered a suitable conversation partner. His loss. I wish them the joy of each other. “So when it comes to my pay…?” I trail off meaningfully. He’d better not have been relying on that reward money to reimburse me.
“Yes, yes.” He produces a bulging pouch from an inner pocket and hands it over. “You may take the wagon for the drive back, as an extra reward,” he adds. “Just leave it at the Hartven Inn in Druinberg. They’ll know to keep it for me.” With a disturbingly cheery smile and a wave, he disappears.
“Great, thanks,” I say to thin air, already scrabbling at the pouch’s cords. I pour the contents into my hands. Gold coins overflow from my palms onto the dusty forest road. Blimey, this is far more than the minimum sum we agreed on in our contract. Finding his new, magical bosom-buddy must have put Fell in a good mood. Or else I was just such a great dragon-bait that I deserved every penny. Yeah, let’s go with that version. And I’ve even got transport back to Druinberg. Brilliant job, Willa!
It isn’t until I’ve slogged back to the camp and hitched the horses up to the wagon, that I realise the double-edged nature of my ‘extra reward’. I might have a means of transport, but I also have to sit alone on the wagon seat for days on end, AND do all the camp chores and care for the horses by myself.
Three days into the journey, I add ‘wizards’ to my mental list of blacklisted employers. Right after ‘puppeteers’.