Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

Elyra paced the dragon’s treasure room the next morning, wringing her hands. Streamers of sunlight shone into the grand hall through broken windows set near the vaunted ceiling. Dust motes danced in the golden beams cascading between white pillars carved with vines. More light spilled into the room through the towering, rune-carved archway where the front gates once stood. Coins clinked underfoot as Elyra strode back and forth across the pathway through the middle of the dragon’s assorted treasure.
Elyra kicked aside a few coins and sent a shiny stone tumbling with them. At least some of the dragon’s treasure was valuable. Hell, there was more wealth in this room than she’d ever imagined. How much of it had the dragon stolen before his truce? For that matter, how long had the villages been sending him wooden plates and unwilling girls?
Elyra suspected it was Varm’s doing. Greedy bastard was probably keeping the valuable tributes for himself and substituting something worthless. He’d pay for that soon enough. Elyra would ensure it was Varm and his noble cohorts rather than the villagers who coughed up the coin for Galvarys. Assuming Galvarys didn’t just incinerate Varm on the spot when he learned of his treachery.
Elyra would have to explain things carefully to Galvarys. That would be the tricky part. Elyra had spent much of the night contemplating how best to break the news to the dragon. She needed to emphasize that it wasn’t the fault of the villagers, and that Varm would be more useful left alive. Not that she had any love lost for Varm, but she didn’t want Galvarys to break his own truce in anger.
She put together her explanation while Galvarys was out hunting his breakfast. As she organized her thoughts, she straightened up Galvarys’ treasure room as well. She cleaned up scattered coins and jewels, arranged crates of treasure by their contents, and stacked together the boxes she’d brought back from the village.
After a quick bath, Elyra put on a dress she’d selected to match Galvarys’ colors. It was layered in shades of blue, palest across her shoulders and darkening to indigo around the frilly hem of her skirt. The sleeves shared the same graduated color scheme. Even the threading matched Galvarys’ colors with spirals of silver and black. She also wore a new pair of simple brown leather shoes. They fit better than the boots, and today seemed as good a day to break them in as any.
By the time Elyra heard wing beats outside, she was ready to make her point to the dragon. She’d dug out a few crates from his sleeping chamber that would help illustrate her explanation. When a heavy thump announced the dragon’s arrival, she fetched a green washcloth. She soaked it in the fountain, then stood near the doorway to await Galvarys.
Galvarys soon padded into his home, bits of dried blood caked his snout. He glanced around, silver eyes shining as they caught the light. His spines lifted when he spotted the girl, and a smile split his muzzle. He padded over to her, pressing his muzzle against her body.
“Hello, Elyra.” The dragon’s nostrils flexed as he sniffed her chest, throat, and hair.
“Hello, Galvarys,” Elyra said, laughing. She still wasn’t totally adjusted to the fact that sniffing her seemed to be part of the dragon’s regular greeting. She rubbed his muzzle with the wet cloth. “Sleep well?”
“Soundly, thank you.” The dragon’s silver eyes crossed as he focused on the emerald cloth. “What are you doing?”
“Washing your breakfast off your face.”
“I already did that.”
“Your tongue doesn’t count as a bath.” Elyra smiled. When the dragon’s snout was clean, she set the cloth aside. “Much better.”
Galvarys swiveled an ear to the side of his head. “Thank you, Minion.” He looked her over. “Excellent choice of colors.”
“Thank you!” Elyra twirled around to show off her dress. The loose skirt swirled around her as she spun. Her red hair flew in all directions before settling across her face. “I’m glad you like it.” She pulled her hair back behind her head. “Which do you like me in better? A dress or trousers? Or a blouse with a skirt?”
Galvarys flicked his ears and licked his nose. “I have not yet developed a preference.”
“That’s fine.” Elyra held her skirt out and did another twirl. “Trousers are best for riding you, I think, but skirts are comfortable for lounging around your home. I got as many outfits as I could that were in your colors so I can sport them like a soldier’s tabard.”
The dragon gave her a blank look.
“Like a badge of honor,” Elyra said, tugging at the dress.
Galvarys rumbled his approval. He gazed around his treasure room, spined tail flicking. “You are honored to serve me?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?” Elyra set a hand on the dragon’s scaly shoulder. “I’d rather serve a creature like you than any of those filthy nobles. Even the best of them haven’t got half your honor or kindness.”
Galvarys growled in laughter. “Honor and kindness are not often words associated with dragons.”
“Perhaps they should be.” Elyra’s voice softened. She rubbed his shoulder. Most of the scales there were blue with a few black scales speckled in. “You can’t be the only honorable, kind dragon out there.”
Galvarys snorted, flaring out his spines. “I am neither honorable nor kind. I simply do what is best for me. As should any wise creature.”
“So you said.”
“Did you not choose to serve me because you felt it would better your life?” The dragon turned his pale moonlight gaze upon her, his spines extended around his head.
“I did.” Elyra patted his shoulder.
“Then you understand. I made this truce to better my life, to ensure that I will be remembered.” Galvarys growled low in his throat. “Not because I share their misguided notion of honor.”
Elyra grinned, touching one of the dragon’s flared spines. It wavered under her fingers. “Your sense of honor is better than theirs. There’s more kindness in you than you care to admit. You did return Amell…”
“That was a calculated decision to earn more loyalty from the village.” The dragon waved his paw, hissing. “Besides, she was too stringy to eat. She’d have given me the runs.”
“Alright, alright.” Elyra giggled, then waggled her fingers and made a face. “You’re a wicked monster with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.”
“I’ve a redeeming quality,” the dragon said. He flared his wing for emphasis. “I’ve an immense set of valuables.”

“Is that what you call those things? They aren’t that big, Galvarys.” Elyra smirked at the dragon, folding her arms. “And I don’t think they redeem you.”
“Clever.” Galvarys grinned and swept his wing around the room. “I was referring to my excellent collection of treasure gained in conquest of the very lands that once sought my death. Now, they’re held in sway under my influence. As my influence grows, so shall my legend.” The dragon’s smile faded, and he glanced away. His voice settled to a whisper that drifted from his tongue. “In legend, shall we ever be remembered, and in memory, shall we never fade.”
Elyra chewed on her tongue. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, struggling to find the right words. “Actually, about that treasure…”
“Yes?” Galvarys shook himself, scales rustling. “I’m going to go relax on my sleeping things.”
“Wait.” Elyra grit her teeth. Now or never. “I need to show you something.” Elyra walked over to the crates and chests she’d set aside.
The dragon gave a long, exaggerated sigh, lifting his frills. “If you’ve found something valuable you wish for yourself, I may be talked into parting with it.”
“It’s about your tributes.” Elyra swallowed. Her mouth went dry and she fetched her waterskin. She took a long drink and wiped her mouth. “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?” Galvarys settled on his haunches, tail curled around his paws. Curiosity buoyed his voice.
“They’re not…” Elyra scowled. She took another drink, wishing she had rum instead of water. “They’re not all as valuable as they could be.”
“What do you mean?” Suspicion crept into Galvarys’ voice. He lowered his eye ridges, ears twisted back.
Elyra urged herself to be cautious. If she put this the wrong way, very bad things might happen. “I’ve been looking through some of your treasures, and I think the villages may be a little…misinformed.” Galvarys growled and Elyra held up her hand. “No doubt because the mayor and the nobles behind him are telling them what sort of tribute is best for you.”
Galvarys turned his head, gazing over the assorted tributes she’d separated from the rest. “Go on.”
“These plates, for starters.” Elyra reached into the crate and pulled out one of the wooden plates. It was smooth and sanded to a shine. A runic inlay of darker wood marked the center. “See this one?”
“Yes.” The dragon nosed the plate, lifting his ears. “It is not gold, but it is of great historical value.”
“Only it’s not.” Nervousness shook Elyra’s voice. She worked the plate around in her clammy hands, glancing up at the dragon. “None of them are. They’re just wooden plates. They’re not old, Galvarys. They’re brand new, and they’re not even half as nice as the plates the nobles ate on back in the Hall.”
Galvarys growled again, unfurling his wings. “What else.” The flatness of his voice set Elyra on edge even more than his growl.
Elyra set the plate down, pursing her lips. She moved to another crate, and retrieved a simple green tunic. “These clothes, for one.”
“I take it they are not spun from the finest of exotic fabrics.” Galvarys shifted his weight back and forth. Anger rose in his silver eyes, darkened his frills and inner ears. His spines flared out.
Elyra rubbed the material between her hands. “Just wool, I think.” She shook her head, red tresses swishing in front of her gray eyes. “Not even good wool. It’s coarse. The sort of thing a peasant would wear if he couldn’t afford anything better.” She set the tunic back down atop the crate she’d pulled it from. “This whole box is full of clothing you could buy on a street corner. And this one?” She went to a wooden chest with iron banding and opened it. Silvery goblets and plates lay within. She pulled out a goblet, and held it towards the dragon. “These are worth more than the plates, but not by much.”
“They are not silver, then.” The dragon uncurled his tail, flicking his spines against the floor. They clattered and scratched the stone.
“Pewter. We used them a lot back in the Hall. They’re more than the average commoner can afford for daily use but they’re not near as valuable as silver.” She dropped the goblet back into the chest where it clanged against other pewter vessels. “I could go on and on. You’ve much of great value here, but half these crates are filled with common items. Now, there is a distinction to make because I’ve found that some--”
“So they think they can deceive me?” Galvarys lifted his head, snarling. “Buy me off with common trinkets and lies?” Galvarys rose and lashed out at the crate filled with wooden plates. Half the box exploded into splinters and plates flew in all directions, clattering off the walls and floor. “I shall hurl their lies in their face and burn their--”
“Galvarys!” Elyra backed away from the shattered box, her heart thundering. The dragon swung his head around to glare at her. She leveled her gray gaze with his own angry silver eyes. Elyra willed herself to stay calm. She was ready for this. “It’s not the villagers’ fault. They aren’t deceiving you on purpose.”
“No?” Galvarys tossed his head. He dragged unsheathed claws against the stone floor. The grating sound made Elyra wince. “So they deceived me by accident?”
“I doubt the villagers know you’ve been deceived.” Elyra stood her ground, fighting to keep her voice level even as she feared the hammering of her heart would reduce her sternum to splinters. “And they’re not rich villages to begin with, Galvarys. If they only gave you real treasure they’d have nothing left to give before long.”
“I understand this,” the dragon said, his voice a gravelly knife-edge. “I allow them to give me food, drink, things they can afford. That is acceptable. What is not acceptable is deception!”
“I know, Galvarys.” Elyra reached out. When Galvarys did not pull away, she rubbed his nose. “And it’s not right, but you can’t punish the village for it.”
“Why not?” The dragon glared at her as she stroked his nose, his spined tail flicking back and forth. “It will teach them not to do it again.”
“It isn’t the villagers’ doing,” Elyra said. “If you attack them, people will die, and you’ll break the truce.”
“And they will learn--”
“That you can’t be trusted!” Elyra’s voice sharpened. “Right now the villagers trust you. They fear you, yes, but they also see you as their protector. If you come at them with fire and claw now, they’re going to think they have to slay you to protect themselves. Then you’ll get no tributes, you’ll have no legend, and sooner or later something sharp is going to stick too deeply in you.” Elyra’s eyes fell. “And I don’t want that.”
Galvarys growled and stared into her eyes. He offered no argument, and soon pulled his head away. His spines settled back against his skull, and he gave a defeated sigh. “You have a better idea?”
“Yes, I do.” Elyra softened her tone. “First, I need to know you understand the average villager has no way to know you’re being deceived. Your tributes are probably packed up somewhere out of sight and shipped out to your hill.”
Galvarys flicked his ears back. He turned his head towards the entryway, his wings drooping. Elyra thought he looked like a stubborn child being denied a chance to play his favorite game of Burn The Village. “Then who is responsible?”
“The nobles.” Elyra stroked the dragon’s neck. “Galvarys, trust me. I spent enough years serving and spying on nobles to know how this works. They think they’re smarter than everyone else. They think they can just trick you into accepting trinkets and worthless junk and you’ll protect their villages for them. Varm’s a noble. I’d bet my ass the value of your tributes has decreased drastically since he’s been in charge.”
“You should not bet your ass.” The dragon flashed her a small grin. “You would look funny without it.”
Elyra laughed, a little of her fear abating as the dragon’s anger eased. “Luckily it’s a wager I’m certain I’d win. Varm’s probably taxing people to pay for your tributes, keeping the coin and sending you junk.”
“So you think I should just kill Varm.” Galvarys flicked his spined tail in contemplation. He rustled his wings. “I would be happy to incinerate that hairy-faced pustule.”
Elyra giggled, but shook her finger at the dragon. “No, I don’t think you should kill Varm.”
“I disagree.” The dragon snorted, and tossed his head. “The man has stolen from me, and deceived me in front of my village. He deserves to be slain.”
“You can’t just go around killing people, Galvarys.” Elyra folded her arms.
“Why not?” The dragon cocked his head, rustling his wings.
“You just can’t.”
“Yes I can.” The dragon lifted his head. “I’m a dragon. I can burn them, or…”
Elyra ran a hand over her face, gritting her teeth. “You know that’s not what I meant. You can’t go around killing people for no reason.”
“There is a reason. He has broken the terms of our agreement.” Galvarys flared his wings out. “You cannot expect to get away with wronging a dragon. You were just a servant. I would not expect you to understand.”
“Just a servant?” Elyra took a step towards the dragon, narrowing her eyes. She balled up her fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I meant no offense.” The dragon scratched his neck with a wing-talon. “You are not in a position to understand what it takes a dragon to maintain a truce.”
“It takes understanding and trust!” Elyra jabbed a finger against the dragon’s indigo chest plates. “Two things you’ll lose if you kill Varm. You’re just too stubborn to think of anything besides avenging your injured pride.”
Galvarys peered down at her as she prodded him. “Did Varm not wrong you in the past? I would expect you to desire revenge as well.”
“Maybe I do!” Elyra set her jaw. Frustration heated her cheeks. “But not like that! I might want to knock his nose into his skull but I wouldn’t kill the man.”
“Why not?”
God, it was like arguing with a child. “Because death is…” Only a lifetime spent holding back her emotions kept Elyra’s fury in check. “You’re awfully stubborn, you know.” She held her hand up to prevent the dragon from replying. “If you were captured by humans, and they were going to slay you for some sin you’d committed, wouldn’t you rather they gave you a chance to make things right?”
“It is a trick question.” Galvarys snorted at her. “Humans would not capture me alive.”
Elyra wanted to scream. Instead, she took a deep breath, glaring at the dragon. “I just believe killing someone is wrong, alright?”
“Even if they have earned their death?” The dragon cocked his head. “Even if it prevents them from harming you in the future?”
Elyra refused to be baited so easily. “Isn’t that what people say about dragons? Didn’t they used to try to kill you just so you couldn’t burn their village later?”
Galvarys murmured something incomprehensible. He kneaded at the stone floor with ebony claws.
“Isn’t that why humans killed dragons in the past? Just to ensure the dragons can’t attack them in the future?” Elyra jabbed her finger against his plates again. “It isn’t right, Galvarys. Life is important. I think somewhere under all that armor, your heart knows I’m right.”
“Do you?” The dragon pulled his head back, his neck curling into an S. He shifted on his haunches, growling.
“Yes.” Elyra sighed. Maybe a change in tactics was needed. She forced a grin. “Besides, it’s very poor leadership to kill someone when you could use them for so much more.”
“Now I should take leadership advice from you?” The dragon rumbled in amusement, stretching his left wing. “Clearly your time spent serving the nobles has taught you much about how to bend a village to your will.”
Elyra ground her teeth. She was starting to wish she hadn’t brought his tributes up. “You need not insult me, Galvarys. I’ve spent an awful lot of time learning what poor leadership is. Murdering for revenge is exactly what the nobles would do. You want to be a legend, right? The wretched men I served will never be legends. They’ll only be remembered through the tale of the rebellion that drags them to the gallows someday. Is that what you want?” Elyra scowled, waving her hand. “To give the nobles reason to foment rebellion against you?”
“I have slain everyone who--”
“Yes, yes,” Elyra said, walking around the dragon. She gestured at him, calling out legendary titles off the top of her head. “Galvarys, with wings that shroud the stars! Galvarys, with claws that shatter steel! Galvarys, who forged peace with men!” Elyra jabbed a finger into his throat, just behind his jaw. “Galvarys, who was slain by a lucky shot from a peasant with a hunting bow, out to avenge his mayor. That peasant would be a legend, Galvarys, and you would be just another wicked dragon slain for his malice.”
Galvarys pulled his head away, hissing. “Stop that!” He flexed his jaws, spines flaring.
“Beloved leaders and triumphant heroes are legends, Galvarys.” Elyra placed a hand on the dragon’s chest. “Let me help the village see you as their leader. They already know Varm sent poor Amell to be your whore.”
“So they will support me when I slay him.” The dragon cocked his head.
“No! That will make you a monster in their eyes.” Elyra threw her hands up in frustration. “I’m trying to help you, Galvarys! I’m trying to make things better for you. They’re ripping you off, and I’m trying to tell you how to make it right without anyone getting killed. Including you! Why won’t you just listen to me?”
“I don’t have to listen to you.” Galvarys tossed his horned head. He perked his ears and smirked. “I’m a dragon. Clearly I know how best to deal with villages, tributes, and deceptive mayors.”
“Yes, you’re a dragon,” Elyra said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You’re very wise, Galvarys.”
Galvarys lifted his head, smiling. “Of course I am.”
“You’re very regal.” Elyra swept her hand over him in a grand gesture.
The dragon arched his neck, flared his wings. “Quite regal indeed.”
“You’ve got entire villages doing whatever you tell them!”
The dragon gave a snarl, spreading his frills and puffing out his chest.
“And you got your head stuck in a damn pastry box!”
Galvarys deflated like a flower withering in winter.
“So maybe you should admit you can use a little help now and then.” Elyra softened her tone again. “It’s alright to admit you don’t always know what to do.”
The dragon stared down at his paws a moment, flexing them. He tapped half-unsheathed claws against the floor. “I shall be sure to ask your advice in all future pastry-related matters. Until then, I don’t think I need to be told what to do by some wen--”
Galvarys snapped his jaws shut.
Elyra sucked in a breath, balling up her fists. She narrowed her eyes. Heat rose in her ears and reddened her cheeks. “What was that?”
“I said I don’t need to be told what to do by some…”
“Don’t you say it.”
Galvarys growled, baring his fangs.
Elyra glared knives right back at him. “Don’t you say it, Dragon! I warned you before what would happen.”
The dragon flared out his wings, lifting his spines in open threat. He lowered his head till his muzzle brushed Elyra’s face. “You wouldn’t dare do that to a dragon.”
Elyra spat her words through grit teeth. “Say it and find out, you stubborn lizard!” Elyra jammed her finger against the soft spot of his nose, pushing his head back. “I’ve been trying to help you!”
“I don’t need help from--”
“Don’t you dare! Don’t. You. Dare!” With every word, Elyra jabbed the dragon’s nose harder. Each time he pulled his head back, and each time she advanced on him again. Unwilling to concede ground, the dragon ended up sitting upright against his tail, his fore paws off the ground. “Say it.” Elyra jabbed his chest, glancing down. “I. Dare. You.”
Galvarys glared down at her. “Wench!” Elyra stared back at him. Galvarys snorted, and slowly lifted his head. “That’s what I--”
Elyra kicked the blue dragon in the testicles as hard as she could.
“GRWWAAARRRHHH!” Galvarys’ silver eyes bugged out so much they nearly shot from their sockets and bounced off the far wall. His spines all jumped out, his tongue hung from his open muzzle and for a moment he simply sat that way, silent. Then his spines drooped, his ears twisted back and he moved his forepaws to cradle his battered pride with a low, bestial groan. “Aaarrrrrhhnnnnn!”
Before any fear or guilt could creep into Elyra’s heart, she saw the look on the dragon’s face. Elyra erupted into laughter, her shoulders quaking. She didn’t know what to expect when kicking a dragon in the balls, but it certainly seemed to work. In fact, it worked too well. In her laughter, Elyra failed to notice which direction the cross-eyed dragon was slumping as he cupped himself in his forepaws.
By the time Elyra realized the dragon was toppling forward, it was too late. The dragon’s chest crashed into her and knocked her to the floor, landing atop the lower half of her body. Elyra coughed in pain, the air knocked from her lungs. Thankfully not too much of the beast’s weight came to bear against her, but she knew she’d earned some bruises. Still, nothing like the bruising she imagined she’d given the dragon’s ego.
Elyra struggled for breath, trying to wriggle her way out from under the dragon. She shoved at his scaly shoulder. “Get…off me!”
Galvarys’ blue neck stretched, his head rested against the floor at an awkward angle, propped up by a horn. “Uurrrrrrhhhhhhh!”
The dragon squirmed against her. Apparently her reward for vanquishing a dragon with one kick was to end up half-squished beneath him. Elyra wriggled beneath the writhing dragon, gaining a few inches of freedom at a time. Finally, she was able to slip free from beneath his body. Elyra scrambled away and got back to her feet.
“I suppose that makes us even.” Elyra folded her arms, watching Galvarys.
The blue dragon curled up on the floor, wings half draped over his head. Elyra thought the dragon looked so humiliated to be felled in such a way he had to hide his face beneath his wing. Perhaps he just didn’t want her to see the expressions he was making. His spined tail coiled on itself, straightened, and coiled again. One of his hind legs stretched a few times, black claws unsheathed and digging into the stone before he pulled the limb back in. Then he rolled halfway over towards his wings before rolling back to his belly.
Elyra bit her lip, struggling to keep from laughing again. That look on the dragon’s face was priceless. It seemed that particular blow worked just as well on a dragon as it did on a man. Still, she’d warned him.
“I’m sorry, Galvarys.” Elyra got no reply other than another guttural groan so she went on. “I didn’t mean hurt you quite that badly, but I did warn you. I told you exactly what I’d do if you ever called me a wench again. I gave you plenty of chances not to say it.”
Elyra walked around the dragon as he lay on the floor. He rubbed his hind legs together around his forepaws. “What’s the matter with you, anyway? You know how I hate that word! I warned you and warned you and you said it anyway. I’m sorry you’re hurt, Galvarys, but you wouldn’t stop pressing me!” She paused, peering down at the creature’s crumpled form. “Are you even listening? I’m trying to apologize.”
“I shall take that to mean you’re listening and you accept my apology.” She giggled. “You’re not going to bite my leg off, are you?” When the dragon didn’t reply, Elyra crouched down next to him. Galvarys’ head was still hidden under a wing, so she stroked his curled neck instead. “I’m sorry, Galvarys. I really am. I don’t know why you had to push me like that.” Then she laughed, shaking her head. “I can’t believe I just kicked a dragon in the balls. I wasn’t sure it would work that well! I suppose that doesn’t make you feel any better, though.”
Elyra rubbed his neck. “There, there. The pain will fade, Dragon. And you’ll know not to call me that again.” She smiled down at him, then put her other hand upon his neck to try and soothe him. She worked her hands against his blue scales, fingers gliding back and forth. “You know, that was the first time I’ve ever done that to someone. Quite satisfying, given what you did to earn it. Not something I’d make a habit of, but when deserved I’d do it again. Was that the first time someone’s ever done that to you?”
“Oh. I’m prattling again, aren’t I?”
“I’ll be quiet, then.” She smiled at the dragon’s hidden head, then stretched her arms to stroke the scales of his side and foreleg. “There, there. You’ll be alright.”
“Arrrrrg!” The dragon thumped his spiked tail in a mixture of pain and frustration.
“Oh. Right. I promised to be quiet while you recover.” Elyra smiled and patted the dragon’s body. She rubbed his neck and pushed herself to her feet. “You probably don’t want me watching you while you’re all curled and squirmy. It’s sort of cute, though. Don’t worry, I’d never breathe a word of this to anyone. I’ll go wait in your sleeping chamber for you. Take your time.”
Elyra strolled through the treasure room, smiling. She fetched her waterskin and went into the dragon’s bedroom. While she waited on him, Elyra kept busy going through some of his various crates and possessions. She separated the treasure from the junk and tried not to laugh at what just happened. She had no idea a dragon could make a face like that. Elyra held in her giggles until she saw the dragon slink in with his tail tucked and far less pride in his strut than usual. Then that bug-eyed, tongue-lolling expression popped into her mind, and laughter bubbled from her all over again.
Galvarys pinned his ears back, glancing away.
“I’m sorry,” Elyra said through her laughter. “But the look on your face!”
The dragon found an especially soft looking blanket, and gingerly eased himself onto his haunches atop it. “Yes, yes. Laugh it up.”
Elyra did just that till she’d gotten it all out of her system. She wiped a tear from her eye, then gave the dragon a more cautious look. “You don’t seem as angry as I feared you might be. You’re not going to bite my limbs off, are you?”
Galvarys snorted. “It would be a shame to maim something so courageous.”
Elyra leaned up against the stone wall behind her, smiling. “That’s good to know. I am sorry, though. Are they alright? Perhaps you should go soak in the cool water for a while.”
“I am fine.” Galvarys snapped his jaws. “Your prattling was a far worse punishment than your kick.”
“Nice to see your attitude is unharmed.” Elyra set aside the treasure she was sorting.
The dragon muttered something, pinning his ears back. He curled his tail around himself, sighing. His scrunched his muzzle. “If you are done savoring your victory, I am ready to listen to your advice now.”
“Oh, are you?” Elyra leaned forward, her voice lilting and full of mock amazement. A long, sarcastic diatribe cued upon her tongue, ready to tell the dragon how much easier for him it would have been if only he’d listened in the first place. But she bit it back. He’d had enough humiliation for one day. “Good. It’s quite simple, really.”
The dragon’s whole face relaxed. His spines lifted a little, his ears perked, and the scrunched areas of his pebbly scales eased. He must have expected her to light into him a while. “Please go on, then.”
“Certainly.” Elyra waved him over. “Come here, I want to show you something.” When Galvarys hesitated to rise and walk, Elyra bit back a laugh, smiling. “Never mind. You stay put, I’ll come to you.”
Much as Galvarys hated to admit it, he was impressed with the girl’s courage and self-respect. He never thought she’d dare do that to a dragon. She stood up for herself and damn the consequences. Those were qualities Galvarys appreciated. He’d appreciate them even more if they didn’t involve him being kicked in the testicles, though.
Not that he hadn’t earned that kick. Elyra had been fair and well within her rights to deliver it. Galvarys was not angry with her, just irritated with himself for giving in to his foolish pride. She’d challenged him to say that word again and so he could not let that go unanswered.
Thankfully she did not seem to want to press the issue. When he finally slunk in, Galvarys was prepared to let her rant and belittle him until she decided the matter was closed. If she wanted to remind him of her many warnings for the rest of the day, such was her right as victor in their little confrontation. The fact she was eager to move on and consider it a lesson already learned was further reason to respect her.
Galvarys wondered if Elyra would ever tell him why that word bothered her so. It clearly held a deeper meaning for her than its normal use in her tongue conveyed. That also meant it was probably not the sort of story she wanted to discuss. Which was a shame as the more time he spent with Elyra, the more he wanted to know about her.
Elyra was a fascinating creature, and that was something he rarely thought about a human. Most humans either attempted to pacify him through whimpering pleas and gifts, or flashed their courage when they attempted to end his life. Elyra pacified him without gifts, without pleading. Elyra showed courage without bloodletting. She showed him great respect even as she stood up to his bullying and treated him like a friend.
It had been a long time since Galvarys had a friend. He did not seek friendship, though sometimes he missed the companionship of others. Talking and sharing touch with another dragon was a simple pleasure he’d long gone without. Elyra was no dragon, but she spoke to him and touched him as though they were one and the same. If she didn’t smell so damn human he’d half think she had a dragon’s soul stuffed in that soft, pale skin.
Even the way she’d touched him in the tub. Bathing him was one thing, any servant could do that. Yet Elyra’s touch, the gentle way she explored where wing met body and scale met flesh? He’d never have expected a human woman to bring about that sort of reaction. Galvarys knew Elyra had not done it to embarrass him despite admitting to doing it on purpose. She was not some servant looking for a chance to humiliate her master, she was…
She was just a friend, sharing a spontaneous moment of fun and intimacy. Galvarys was not sure how to feel about that. Dragons didn’t exactly have a pleasant history with humans, let alone his personal history with them. Yet, he’d made his peace, hadn’t he? Why couldn’t he be friends with a human? Did it really matter if a human woman gave him…?
“Galvarys?” Elyra’s voice rose. “Galvarys, are you alright?”
“Hmm?” Galvarys licked his nose, glancing down at Elyra. He’d drifted into his thoughts while she’d dragged some boxes across his sleeping chamber and settled in front of them.
“Are you alright?” Elyra put a hand upon the black-striped scutes of his foreleg. Her touch was warm, soft, and oddly comforting. “Are you still in pain?”
Galvarys scrunched his muzzle, pinning his ears back. He did not want to worry the girl. Aside from her laughter, she seemed regretful enough to have hurt him. He glanced down at himself, inspecting them, then shook his head. “They’re fine. Dragons are sturdy creatures.”
Elyra laughed, her hand slipped down his scutes to rest atop his forepaw. “That’s good. I was worried you were still hurting. You sort of hunched up and drifted off for a moment.”
“You need not worry.” What was he going to tell her, that he was busy thinking about his erection in the tub? “I was not even that hurt to begin with. I was simply exaggerating for your benefit.”
“Uh huh.” Elyra grinned, stroking his fingers. He did not mind at all. “Do you want to go soak in the cold water a while? I can tell you this later.”
“No, I’m fine,” Galvarys said. Strange. Her concern alone seemed to improve his mood. “I’ve had worse.”
“You have?” Elyra’s eyes widened, her shoulders shook as she fought back a giggle.
The dragon smirked, his spines flat in embarrassment. “I took a pine tree there once, when I was flying too low.”
Elyra couldn’t hold back now, laughing so hard she toppled over onto her side. Words sputtered past her lips between bursts of laughing. “You took…a pine tree…in the balls?”
“Just the top of it.” Galvarys grinned, sharing a little of her laugher. He rubbed his wings against the sides of his body. “Put me on the ground in a hurry, though.”
“I’m sure it did!” Elyra propped herself up on her elbow atop his blanket, grinning. “So my kick didn’t hurt that bad?”
“Certainly not. Scarcely even felt it.” The dragon arched his neck, flexing his wings. “Didn’t want you feel ineffective, though.”
“That’s good,” Elyra said. She smirked at Galvarys, then made a show of glancing down at her shoes. She stretched her leg and brushed her boot against his haunch. Her touch was both nerve-wracking and exciting. “I guess I can use that move more often then, if it doesn’t hurt you.”
Galvarys gulped audibly. “It may have been a little painful.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“So.” Galvarys smiled down at her, then waved his forepaw at the boxes allayed before him. “What did you want to show me?”
Elyra eased back up to a seated position across from the dragon. “I’ve been going through some of your tributes in here, and I’ve realized we can tell which village every box, crate, and chest you’ve got has come from.” She turned an empty box over, and tapped a finger against a black sigil painted on the wood. “See this? It’s a city sigil. It basically says which city this box originated in. There are marks like that on all of them, probably so they can keep track of which village is sending you which tributes.”
Galvarys lowered his head, peering at the emblem. He’d never even bothered to look at the bottom of the boxes. “So this is…useful information?”
“It is!” Elyra beamed up at him. She set the empty box aside, and pulled up another one. “It shows us which villages are giving you a proper tribute and which aren’t. I took a closer look at some of this stuff.” She reached into the crate, retrieving a wooden platter that she waved front of the dragon’s nose. “Like this.”
“Another worthless plate.” Galvarys tried to snap his jaws around it, but Elyra pulled it back just in time.
“No! This one is different.” Elyra turned the plate over. “This whole crate is different. You said you allow them to give you other kinds of tributes besides gold and treasure, right?”
Galvarys cocked his head, then nodded. “Yes, so long as it is not junk.”
“That’s exactly what this village did.” Elyra pointed towards the archway with the plate. “Those plates out there are street corner rubbish. But this?” She held it up to the dragon again. “Someone carved this for your tribute.” She turned the plate over. The back side of it was carefully cut into a textured scale pattern resembling Galvarys’ hide. Elyra set it down and picked up a mug. The whole vessel was carved to resemble a dragon’s head, making it look as though any drink poured into it was poured into a dragon’s maw. It was heavily detailed right down to the scales and the dragon’s eyes. “Someone made this just for you, Galvarys.”
“Ooooh…” Galvarys rumbled, unfurling his wings. The fact someone carved a tribute in his likeness was a wonderful balm for the injury Elyra’s foot had inflicted upon his ego. “Magnificent. I thought you said this junk was worthless?”
Elyra set the mug back in the crate. “Not all of it. Some of it they’ve poured a lot of thought and time into making for you. The marks on the boxes will show us which villages are holding up their end of the bargain, and which aren’t. We’ll start with the Village of Rings.”
“Yes, because we already know Varm is stealing my tributes.” Galvarys growled. Fire bile dripped down his throat. How he wanted to incinerate that man. But he wouldn’t. For now. He lifted his paw and held his gray pads to Elyra in acquiescence. “I will not kill him.”
“Thank you, Galvarys.” Elyra put her hands around his paw. She seemed to have misinterpreted the gesture. When she rubbed his sensitive pads with her own soft skin, he did not mind her mistake. “Would you like to hear my proposal?”
“Certainly.” Galvarys closed his paw around her smaller hand, holding it.
Elyra set her other hand atop his paw, stroking the fine blue scales across his fingers. Galvarys enjoyed her touch, and the way her own pale hands looked against his indigo paws. “We go to the Village of Rings, and meet with Varm in the plaza as before. You’ll be angry, of course, and hurl a crate of plates across the plaza or something. Maybe make him wet his trousers. Tell him you’re furious he’s deceived the good people of the village by stealing their kind tributes.”
“But I am the one being deceived.” Galvarys flared his spines.
Elyra caressed his paw with her hand, grinning. “It’s all in how the people see you. Heroes are legends, Galvarys. Heroes are remembered. Be a hero.”
“I do not wish to be a hero,” Galvarys said, sullen. “I do not like good deeds. They make me feel very un-dragon-like.”
Something mischievous glinted in Elyra’s gray eyes. She smirked at Galvarys, running her finger along a single digit. “You’ll still get your tributes. The key is to convince the people you’re angry with Varm not for deceiving you…” Elyra tapped her finger against his. “But for deceiving the villagers, for stealing the tributes they scrape together. You want them to think you’re on their side. Let them see you as a benevolent king, not a tyrant. Tell the whole village how you cannot abide someone so callously stealing from your subjects. Tell them Varm will pay them back. And that for as long as Varm is mayor, it will be his coin that funds your tributes, and thus, their protection.”
“You’ve thought this through, haven’t you.” Galvarys pulled his head back, contemplating it.
Elyra smiled at him, patting his paw. “You get more gold, and the whole village thinks you’re doing it to punish Varm for stealing from your loyal subjects.” Elyra pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, wobbling. “The shame of it.”
Galvarys cocked his head. “What are you doing?”
“Feigning a swoon.” Elyra pulled her hand back, laughing. “Never mind. You’ll get your tributes, Varm will be humiliated and out of coin, and the village will love you. Word will spread of your kind deeds, and before long the villagers will build your legend for you. All while we roll in your gold and laugh at our little trick.”
Galvarys was as impressed by her cunning as he was by her courage. “You’re quite devious when you want to be.”
Elyra laughed, a lilting, musical sound that sent a tiny shiver through Galvarys’ scales. “You make it sound like I’m plotting some kingdom’s downfall.”
“Plotting a mayor’s downfall.” He smirked, flicking his tail. “I rather like this side of you. Dragons appreciate devious plots that lead them to riches.”
Elyra smiled up at him. “Thank you.” She tilted her head. Red tresses framed her face. In the ghostly blue light, her pale skin looked strangely beautiful. “May I sit against you?”
Galvarys blinked at her request. He licked his nose, and then nodded. “You may.”
Elyra pushed the crates aside and moved to sit up against the dragon’s haunch. She leaned her head back against his side, and Galvarys looked down at her. Elyra’s hair framed her face with fire. She reached for the dragon’s front leg. Galvarys lifted it. Elyra moved into position to drape his foreleg around her, hugging it against her body. Galvarys savored the warmth of her form against his own, relished the feel of her fingers as she stroked the black-striped scutes protecting the front of his foreleg.
“We shall build you a suitable legend yet, Galvarys.” Elyra smiled at him, rubbing his leg. “You will be remembered as something great, I promise you that.”
Galvarys found himself smiling. Warmth blossomed in the dragon’s chest, swelling his chest plates. “You know, Elyra, I fear I am starting to like you.” The dragon was still unsure how he felt about that, but he saw no reason to hide the feeling from her.
Galvarys felt her fingers roaming his foreleg till they found his paw. She pushed her fingers between his own, curling them to find his pads. For a moment, her voice sounded soft and warm, like some unguarded emotion she had not meant to share. “I like you too, Galvarys.”
The silence that settled between them was pleasant, but Galvarys did not wish it to grow awkward. He flicked his tail spines and sent a cushion flying. “You make an excellent minion.”
Elyra laughed, patting his forepaw with her own hand. “And you make an excellent dragon.” She smirked at him. “When you haven’t got your head stuck in a pastry box.”

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