The first thing Ailsa did when they released her from jail was to demand a hot bath, a hot meal, and a night in a comfortable inn. She used the bath to wash the cell’s stench from her body, the meal to meet with a contact who worked in the tavern, and the night alone to formulate her plan.
Meeting with her contact was a challenge, but he tended a local tavern so Ailsa just asked to have her meal there. She sat at the bar so she could hold a conversation with the bartender while she ate. The two guards she’d dubbed Pukey and Giggles kept watch, but Ailsa knew how to keep the authorities in the dark. She mixed in plenty of simple code words and phrases until she’d gleaned all she needed to know.
If not for the promise of dragon treasure, Ailsa would have ditched Pukey and Giggles in the middle of the night and never looked back at their mud hole of a town. Bad enough she had to give up the job she came here for. At least a bag full of loot would help make up for the sentimental value of what she was leaving behind. Now she just had to play her role till she got her hands on the goods.
Ailsa convinced the guards she should not meet the dragon without a gift for him. She suggested something edible so that he could fill his belly with treats rather than with his newest companion. After that, no one would shut the hell up about some damn tart the dragon always demanded. Tarts it was, then.
Early the next morning, Ailsa followed a winding cobblestone lane across grassy rises and beneath the drooping boughs of ancient willows. Cozy white-walled homes, little shops and hand-painted signs lined the path that led to the dragon’s favorite bakery. Warm morning sunlight painted the world gold, though a distant wall of roiling gray clouds promised rain as they slunk ever closer.
The bakery sat on the reed-lined banks of a lazy river. It had a domed roof and walls painted with all manner of pastries. Smoke drifted from clay-brick chimneys. A rock propped open the green front door. Delightful scents of bread and sweet cakes wafted out, overwhelming the dank smell of the swamp festering beyond the city’s walls. Ailsa savored the pleasant aromas as she strolled in.
Shelves and display cases showcased freshly-baked wares. A stocky man with dark hair placed loaves of bread. A slender woman with red hair tied behind her head stood behind the counter, arranging cookies on a silver platter. Both wore matching green aprons.
“Hello!” The woman glanced up from her tray, smiling.
“Hello!” The man remained fixated on his bread.
Damn cheerful idiots.
“Yes, hello!” Ailsa slipped into friendly traveler mode. “It smells wonderful in here.”
“Oh, thank you!” The woman flashed Ailsa another smile, then deposited cookies on a second platter. “My husband and I are just getting ready. Can we help you?”
“I certainly hope so. I’d like to buy some cakes and things, but…” Ailsa let her eyes drift as if interested in what they had stocked. “Do you take custom orders?”
“Only rarely.” The woman re-arranged the cookies, scowling at them. “Afraid we’ve already got a busy day of baking ahead.”
“What a shame.” Ailsa slipped a note of disappointment into her voice. “I heard the dragon likes your pastries best.”
The man turned around, and the woman’s eyes lit up. She grinned, quirking a brow. “Ah, so you’re that girl.”
“Yes, that’s me.” Damn guards told the whole town already. Ailsa sighed, lowering her voice. “I’ve scarcely any idea what I’m getting myself into. He’s…not going to…eat me, is he?”
Both bakers laughed, and the woman reached across the counter to touch Ailsa’s arm. “Of course not, Dear. Just treat him respectfully and you’ll be done before you know it. Might even end up wealthier than when you arrived.”
The old bag was right about that. Ailsa feigned a shy giggle. “I’m very nervous. I was told you might have something to help calm my nerves or help me sleep.”
“Ah, that sort of request.” The woman patted Ailsa’s arm, grinning. “Given your situation, yes, I could make something for you. Something with a pinch of red root, put you right out.”
Ailsa smiled in relief. She pulled a few golden coins from her purse. According to her contact, this bakery would do anything for the right price. Ailsa passed the coins to the woman, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I was also told you might be able to help the dragon stay relaxed and calm, as well. Just until I’m used to being around such a creature.”
“I see.” The woman glanced at the guards and the coins vanished in an instant. “He eats our brambleberry tarts by the dozen. I could add red root to those, as well. That’d take the edge off his attitude.”
“Oh, that would be wonderful.” Ailsa clasped her hands, beaming. “So should I offer him the whole dozen?”
The woman chuckled and shook her head. “No, just a few at a time. Otherwise that might leave even a dragon snoring for a day or two.”
“Oh, my.” Ailsa pushed a few more coins across the counter. “We wouldn’t want that. I’d be bored to tears.” She tapped a finger to her chin. “Of course, if I did end up wealthier in the end, I’d not be above sharing that wealth with those who helped me endure this trial.”
The woman chuckled, sweeping up the coins. “Wouldn’t say no to a nice tip down the line.”
“Wonderful. I’ll take a dozen brambleberry tarts, then.” Ailsa lifted her voice, smiling. “Plus one for myself, and a couple sweet cakes.”
“Of course, Ma’am.” The baker smiled and gave Ailsa a curt bow. “Why don’t you get some breakfast? By the time you’re back, they’ll be ready to go.”
“That sounds perfect.” Ailsa smiled, thanked the woman, and made her way back outside. She grinned at the guards. “Pukey, Giggles? Why don’t you buy me some breakfast?”
That treasure was as good as hers.
I hope you enjoyed the eighth 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.