by Erik Bundy
A dragon named Fume lived in the mountainous dukedom of Etbourg. He was over three hundred years old, the size of an overweight pony, often bit his front claws – nerves — and had leathery wings that squeaked when he flew. His price for not raiding the countryside was that a virgin live with him. Her term of residence was one year, and she assisted him with his alchemical studies. To show his sociability, Fume also volunteered when necessary at the local crematorium.
One spring morning as Fume creaked around inside his lair, he heard a shrill whistle. He found a young woman in a lilac business suit – knee-length skirt – at the main entrance of his cavern, four fingers in her mouth as she was about to whistle again. From a linen pocket, she whipped out an electronic notepad with her photo identification on the screen. Fume peered at it with rheumy eyes and pretended he could read.
“Lady Adir, Department of Safety and Health,” she said. “My father is the Duke.” She glanced back at the sloping, stony path. “It’s a long climb up here.”
If Fume hadn’t burnt off his eyebrows long ago, he would have raised one now. “I do live on a mountain.”
Her lips tightened, and he knew sarcasm had made him yet another enemy.
“You will need to repair those stone stairs,” she said. “I stumbled twice. And a handrail must be installed immediately.”
Fume blew out a smoke ring and watched it waver upwards and disappear in the soft morning light.
“Until the repairs are completed, I am sorry to say, I will have to close the footpath to all pedestrian traffic,” Lady Adir added, not at all sorry.
“Really,” answered Fume. “Maintaining roads and public paths, I believe, are dukedom responsibilities. Your father won’t thank you for reminding him of this.”
“The Duke is exempt from public safety rules.”
“How nice for him,” Fume said.
“I have come to inspect your lair,” she announced.
Fume hissed vapor through soot-lined nostrils. “Do you have a warrant?”
“You are not a suspect in a crime.” Lady Adir’s expression became uncertain. “Are you?”
Fume chuckled smoke. “No, no. It’s just that you seem, uh, what is the word? Predisposed! Yes, predisposed to finding a crime in my home. I cannot allow this inspection, Lady Adir. It will set an irritating precedent.”
“Well now, let’s see.” She brought up a document on her electronic notebook. “My father is sending another young maiden next week. Her name is Belena. No inspection, no Belena.”
Fume scratched his limestone threshold with three yellow claws. He grimaced as a twinge of arthritis passed up his green leg. “I don’t wish to seem discourteous, but–”
“Good.” She darted past him into the twilit cavern.
Fume growled, but having not yet basked in the sun, he felt too cold and decrepit to chase her around his lair.
She waved a delicate hand in front of her nose. “What is that smell? Oh-h, sorry,” she said, looking with repugnance at Fume’s moldering body. “You might try incense. The last maiden did complain.”
“She complained. If Gussalin was a virgin, then I’m a duck.” Fume ticked a claw on the stone floor in rhythm with his words. “The Duke must send me a virgin this time.”
“That,” she huffed, “is no longer a job requirement.”
“It’s part of our contract.”
“Anyway, that’s not my department. You can contact Human Services. Recruitment Division.”
“I turn . . . what is the word? Salvaged? Yes, salvaged iron into gold. A female virgin is required to perform the rite correctly. Otherwise, I end up with scrap iron, which is what Gussalin left me with.”
Lady Adir sniffed. “Her job description calls for her to polish your gold, not make it.”
“Other duties as assigned,” Fume argued.
Fume didn’t mention, because he didn’t want to give Lady Adir more power over him, that he must perform the rite of rejuvenation soon. He was rotting away like a mushroom browning at the edges because Gussalin had lied about her purity. He needed a virgin before senility made him forget the youth-renewing rite all together.
Lady Adir’s expression became officious. “You have only one window. Facing north, I see. You’ll need to add another for ventilation. Facing south, I think. Yes, south. Oh, you do have a lot of treasure lying around, don’t you? You sleep on it, I guess. Ah-ha, we were wondering where our monogrammed silver plate had gone to. In fact, one of the servants was executed for losing it. Father will want it all back.”
Fume inserted his putrid bulk between his treasure and Lady Adir. “Perhaps we could split the plate between us.”
“Are you trying to bribe me?”
“Sorry, I must have been thinking with the reptilian part of my brain. I hope this new maiden . . . did you say her name was Belena? I can’t seem to remember names anymore. Well, I hope she doesn’t have an ardent young man, someone who wishes to be a hero and rescue her. These petal-cheeked maidens you send me begrudge the attitude of winner dines after their bothersome boyfriends attack.”
“Yes-s. Improved her figure no end. I should call it the Dragon’s Heavenly Body Diet.”
“This is not a hardship tour. Starvation is not allowed.”
Fume aimed his red eyes at her. “I provided Gussalin with fire and healthy food. She wouldn’t crack open an egg shell.”
“Then you need a cook.”
“She claimed to have allergies. Could eat only what appealed to her, mainly sweets. She considered sugar a food group. She thought warming food was cooking it. She only had to ask, and I would have charbroiled anything she wanted. You young women must–”
Lady Adir held up a hand. “Cooking is beyond the scope of her position description. Now show me what chemicals Belena will use to polish your gold and silver?”
“We use dragon urine. Do you require a fresh sample?”
Lady Adir’s nostrils dilated. “Be sure you provide gloves. Now regarding your metallurgy, it is my understanding you do not have a permit.”
Lady Adir considered this a moment, then said brusquely, “So in conclusion, before Belena comes, you will need to show proof that you added a south-facing window and hired a servant.” She tapped on her note pad. “I will send you a copy of my findings.” Lady Adir then strode out of the cavern.
Fume lay hissing on his threshold. Lady Adair expected him to hire a servant to serve a servant? Only a dukedom official could think up such nonsense. She also demanded a second window. That meant calling in the mercenary dwarfs. They would dig a hole in his treasure hoard as payment for chiseling a hole through his cavern wall. Perhaps . . . yes, he would pay them with the monogrammed silver plate. Let the Lady Adir try to reclaim it from them while they were eating off it.
Fume scratched his side and two scales fell off. An unblemished maiden must come to him without delay. Lady Adir, though, would insist on her findings being resolved before allowing Belena to enter his lair.
Must he rouse the countryside again? That always stirred up a swarm of muscular heroes. Had he even the strength to fly now? His might pull a wing muscle.
Ah-h well, tomorrow he would crawl down to the nearest ripe wheat field and sneeze. Accidents happen. The duplicitous Duke would not blame him for the resulting fire, not officially anyway, but he would understand the threat. This was all so tiresome and–
Fume flicked out his tongue to test the air . . . furtive movement, a hero or thief no doubt, and something else, something deliciously gamy. The intruder had sneaked up the mountain while Lady Adir distracted him. So much excitement in one day might bring on his liver fluctuations.
He slithered as fast as his aging body allowed to a back entrance covered by spider webs. Hidden, he watched a stout, curly haired youth crawl unheroically through a pink rhododendron. The second-rate armor was buffed to a dull shine but dinged . . . probably inherited from a grandfather who had fought as a common foot soldier in some ducal war.
Uncoiling, Fume crept down-slope behind the would-be hero. The young man became alert, sniffing the air. He glanced over his shoulder, jumped to his feet, and pulled a notched sword from a scabbard someone had used to stoke a hearth fire. The hero lifted his left leg, knee bent, and stood on his right foot with his rusty sword held point up in front of him.
Fume gurgled a chesty, smoker’s laugh. “I’m so glad to see you studied the manual.”
“Manual? You know about the secret fighting stances?”
“I have seen the pose before.” Fume didn’t mention that he had authored the manual to prevent heroes from becoming overly creative or that he received ten percent of the profits on all copies sold. Telling the young the truth, depriving them of their illusions, always depressed them so.
“If I might offer a constructive criticism,” Fume said, “I believe your raised knee is an inch or three too high. Balance, you know.”
The would-be hero’s eyes flared a second before he screamed a pagan war cry and charged.
Fume knocked the sword from the young man’s grasp with a claw swipe not found in the manual. He reminded himself to include a heroic stance for becoming barbecue in the next edition.
The lean young face inside the helmet, visor up, twisted with fear. The hero licked his lips and shucked a belly knife out of its raveling leather sheath.
“A novel idea, tickling a dragon to death with a knife.” Fume sighed a sulfurous breath. “Your timing is off, young man. The perfumed virgin in need of rescuing won’t be here for at least a week. What is your name?”
“Rulf,” the hero answered, his voice quavering.
Flapping to stop itself in mid-glide, an anticipatory raven settled on a limb of a nearby oak. Fume snorted. The fastidious Lady Adir would, no doubt, approve of ravens tidying up after he breakfasted.
Rulf swallowed and asked, “You have a shovel, right? The Duke says all bodies must be given proper burial.”
Fume did enjoy these pre-prandial discussions. “Ah-h, I think instant cremation is the exception. Heroes are the only humans the Duke allows me to eat. Tradition, you know.”
“Do I g-get a last meal?” Rulf choked out.
What was this dukedom coming to? Servants required a servant to cook for them and meals required a last meal. “Sorry, but I don’t have a cook in residence at the moment.”
“I-I-I can make my own meal.”
Fume’s tail twitched, a sign of sudden interest. “Heroes normally skewer monsters, not kabobs. You cook?”
Fume sniffed. A real hero would have lied and said yes. “Why take up this quest of saving maidens who aren’t in need of rescuing?”
Rulf stared down at square toenails outlined with farm dirt. “I thought maybe the Duke would let me marry his daughter or something.”
Fume shuddered. “I take it you have not yet met Lady Adir. Is your life worth a year of cooking?”
“My . . . my life? Cook for a dragon? You mean barbecue people for–”
Fume silenced him with a raised yellow claw. “I do my own roasting. Which reminds me, what did you ride here?”
Fume’s hollow stomach rumbled. He had known it was not a horse. “Mule à la francaise will show appropriate gratitude for my sparing your life. You will cook for the new girl, Belena, if she ever arrives. Agreed?”
Rulf blushed with relief. “It’s a deal.” He put out his right hand, looked embarrassed, and pulled it back. “Do you have tarragon and savory? My mum uses them a lot.”
Fume chuckled. “This does sound promising. I doubt Belena will lose weight this year. Remember now, no stealing from me and no trying to assassinate an old dragon.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. What are my duties?”
“Oh, nothing right now except to acquaint me with your delicious mule. Then you will carry a message to the dwarfs. I have work for them.” Fume looked up at the sun, smirking, anticipating a good year. “After Belena arrives, she will no doubt supervise you. They always do. I’m certain the first chore assigned you will be to hang linen curtains over a new window I’m having put in. Oh yes, you will also need to buy a chef’s hat. Lady Adir, no doubt, will require one. Health regulations, you know.”
Fume chuckled, thinking of his coming skirmishes with Lady Adair. Enemies were so much more amusing than friends.
Erik Bundy is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and grand prize winner of the Sidney Lanier Poetry Competition. His fantasy novel, Magic and Murder Among the Dwarves, will be published by Untold Press in the spring of 2014.