“What happened to this place?”
“A swamp plague, I think.” The dragon scratched his neck with a wing-tip talon.
“A plague?!” Ailsa jerked away from a puddle filled with tiny swimming insects.
“Yes, you know how it is. A few people drop dead, the rest flee.” The dragon folded his wing. Something dark crept into his voice. “Maybe the swamp just didn’t want them here.”
Or maybe he killed them all. Ailsa reached for her sword, cursing when she remembered it wasn’t there. She wrung her muddy dress in her hands, gazing around. No signs of damage beyond age and rot. Maybe it was a plague. Ailsa wasn’t sure which was more frightening, being stuck with a dragon who’d slaughtered a town, or wandering a place ruined by plague.
“I wouldn’t worry about it.” The dragon tossed his head. “It’s nothing I can catch.”
The dragon led her towards the large manor that stood at the end of the old road. Unlike everything else, it looked in excellent condition. Alternating black and white marble columns spanned the front of the rectangular limestone building. The columns culminated in elegant arches supporting the overhanging roof. Several pillars bore twisting vines with heart-shaped leaves and bright blue flowers.
Between the ruined town and the well-kept manor lay a weed-choked plaza. Statues wrapped in bramble and missing their heads dotted the area. The plaza’s center held a sunken, white marble pool. At one end of the pool, water bubbled up and cascaded down crystalline mounds and ledges, a mineral spring flowing from its own time-built monument. The water splashed down into the marble pond, draining at the other end through a channel that lead to the swamp. Just like the manor, the pond seemed clean and cared for.
As they neared the plaza, the dragon whirled on Ailsa. His spined tail fins went rigid, whistling through the air. He snarled, baring his fangs. “Tell me why you’re here before I incinerate you.”
Ailsa froze, choking on her heart. “Wh-what?”
“You’re not from my town.” The dragon narrowed his bronze eyes at her, hissing. “Tell me why you’re here.”
“I…well…” Damn, he knew? “It’s just…”
“Spit it out, Girl, or I’ll spread your pieces around my swamp.” The dragon’s voice cut her as easily as his talons.
“Jail!” Fear fueled her answer. Cramps knotted her belly. “To get out of jail!”
“Jail?” The dragon pulled his head back, growling.
“Yes!” Ailsa’s heart pounded so hard it made her voice quake. “That’s where I was. When I heard. You! About you.” She took a deep breath, willing herself to calm enough to put her story together. “I was in jail, in your town. The guards were talking about a dragon, and the next thing I knew I’d volunteered.”
The dragon cocked his head.
Ailsa ran trembling hands over her face. “It’s just…twenty years! I didn’t know what else to do, so I offered to solve their problem and be your companion.”
“Why were you in jail?” The dragon stepped towards her, silken menace in every motion. “I despise thieves.”
“I’m no thief!” With all the emotion in her voice, even Ailsa nearly believed it. She was a good liar, but an angry dragon rattled her more than any guard. “Just a mercenary looking for work. I got drunk, and someone put his hands where they didn’t belong, and I beat the shit out of him. Turns out he’s a city official.” A grain of truth made a lie easier to speak.
“Mercenary?” The fire smoldering in the dragon’s bronze eyes faded. “Better than a thief, as long as you don’t slay dragons.”
“I prefer jobs where the odds are in my favor.” Ailsa smiled, relaxing her posture even as her heart pounded.
“Wise.” The dragon arched his neck. “It is unfortunate you were punished.”
Ailsa shifted her weight. Was he sympathetic or picking apart her lies? “How did you know I wasn’t from the town, anyway?” Her dry throat begged for water while her lying heart begged for whiskey.
“No one in my town has black hair and bronze skin or smells of sweet rain. Nor eyes that shade of blue-green, like water beneath a stormy sky.”
Ailsa looked at her hands. “Olive, I think, not bronze.”
The dragon waved his paw. “Doesn’t matter. Remove your clothes, show me you’ve no hidden weapons.”
“Paranoid, are we?” Ailsa eased her pack off. At least he’d believed her.
“Paranoia keeps dragons alive.” The beast glanced away.
Ailsa’s skin prickled. Had many come to slay him under guise of friendship? She scowled and tugged off her muddy boots. He’d bought her lie, now to act as if she trusted him and put his fears to rest. Ailsa hiked up her blue dress, then pulled it off in one smooth motion. Standing naked before the dragon, Ailsa folded her dress a few times, and then laid it across her pack.
Ailsa had always been comfortable with her body. She wasn’t as voluptuous as a barmaid or as toned as a real mercenary. But a life of thievery and fleeing had given her a lithe sort of agility long since softened by the curves of adulthood. Hardly perfect, but who was? She turned to show him her backside. As her assassin friend said, let the man think he’s in charge, and he’ll never see the knife till it’s wedged between his ribs.
“No. Your sex has no hair.” The dragon tilted his head. “Want manner of pervert do you take me for? I wish a mature female.”
“Wh-what?” Okay, now she felt self-conscious. “I’m more than adult! Just didn’t think dragons would appreciate hair!” Ailsa flushed, ears aflame. “Or even know we had that. So I, you know…” The things she did for treasure. The dragon just stared, so she moved on. “Convinced I’m not hiding anything dangerous?”
The dragon inclined his horned head the other way. “What is in your pack?”
“Some tarts and little cakes.” Ailsa picked up the leather pack and opened it. “Village told me brambleberry was your favorite.
“It is.” The dragon gazed into the pack, then pushed his snout in. His muffled voice filtered through the leather. “Oh, those smell heavenly.”
“Good!” Ailsa pulled the pack away and closed it. “I had them baked fresh for you this morning, before I left town. They’re for tonight. I thought they might help our friendship.”
“You expect friendship?” The dragon flared his gold-tipped spines, neck curling into an S.
“Isn’t companionship what you wanted?” Ailsa set the pack down. “Or just a woman to polish your spear?”
“Polish my spear?” The dragon shook his wings, laughing. “I want both those things.” The dragon stretched a green-splotched wing. “Pleasure, yes. But also someone to lie with and talk to when I feel…”
“Lonely?” That almost made Ailsa feel bad about robbing King Ugly. Almost.
“Bored.” The dragon snorted. He turned his head to gaze at his wing’s green markings. “I am not lonely.”
“Liar.” Ailsa smirked. The dragon was unwilling to admit his own loneliness. How very male of him. “You should find a female dragon.”
The dragon snapped his wing against his body, hissing. “Have you seen any female dragons lately?” Something dark and hurt drifted behind his bronze eyes. A cold flicker, an empty ghost, an old wound opened and closed again in an instant. “I sure as hell haven’t.” The dragon blinked and the pain was gone, hidden away behind layers of bronze indifference as he gazed at a bird circling in the sky.
That explained a few things. A twinge of cold sympathy squeezed Ailsa’s heart. She swallowed, muttering an apology. The dragon grunted, still watching the bird, his spines all pinned back. Now that she’d not only stuck her foot in her mouth but swallowed it whole, how best to go about removing it?
“At least…you’ve got me, now.” Great. Real nicely done, Ailsa. “That’s something, right?”
The dragon snorted, lips twitching around his muzzle. “That remains to be seen.” The dragon tilted his head, grinning. “You may try and rob me, and force me to drown you in my swamp.”
Ailsa’s every fiber tensed. He couldn’t know, could he? She forced a smile. “Fitting end, I’d think.” Act casual, Ailsa. “Hey, can I touch you? Your face, I mean. I’d like to feel your scales.”
The dragon lowered his head. “You may.”
Ailsa shrouded her relief in genuine curiosity. She set her hands on either side of the dragon’s muzzle. The scales there were soft and warm, pebbly in texture. She stroked them, smiling. “You actually feel quite nice.”
“Thank you.” The dragon’s breath washed over her skin. “Am I the first dragon you’ve seen?”
“Up close, yes.” Ailsa ran her hands back to the dragon’s spiny frills. The membranes were smooth, the spines rose against her touch. “I saw one flying, and I saw…” A dead one. “Another one down in a valley, but that was it.”
The dragon turned his head, nuzzling at her arm. Ailsa bit her lip when the dragon flicked his tongue, tasting the inside of her arm. His tongue was hot, wet velvet. He pulled his head back, scrunching his muzzle. “Your perfume stings my nose.” He gestured a wing towards the marble pool. “Wash it off.”
Ailsa scowled and sniffed at her arm. “Don’t like flowers, huh?”
Much as Ailsa enjoyed the rare chance to wear perfume, she was also eager to wash the mud and sweat from her body. She walked over to the edge of the pool, and knelt down on the marble tiles edging it. The water was clear and fresh, the white tiles marred by scratch marks but mostly free of moss and slime.
“How does it stay so clean?”
The dragon shook himself, rattling his spines. “I scrub it. Why should I bathe in dirty water?”
Ailsa glanced back at him. “I thought you’d bathe in the swamp.”
The dragon snorted, tossing his head. “I shit in the swamp.”
There was another mystery solved. “Guess it’s big enough to shit in one place and hunt in another.”
“My swamp could swallow a kingdom.”
I hope you enjoyed the third episode of The Devil’s Deal by D. Wilder. Stay tuned for more episodes all week. You can catch up on episodes you may have missed and see the full schedule along with contact information for D. Wilder here.