In the first hours of morning–almost the first minutes of morning, for the darkness that had been king of the night was only just abdicating its throne–the dragon set down on solid ground once more. Folding flight-weary wings, he plodded towards the opening of a cave. His claws combed the ground as he walked, stirring up the spicy-green scents of tarhoon and reyhan*, mixing them indelibly with the mist-smells of early morning. Low-hanging branches trickled their fingers pleasantly across the scales of his back. Then, with a small step down and a duck of the head, he let the cave-walls close in cool kindness around him.
The dragon sighed, happy to be home. It had been a long night of hunting, and he looked forward to a day spent in sleep.
Something crunched unpleasantly under his feet–a small pile of tiny sapphires, glittering in the half-light. Snorting at them, he shook his offended claws, sending a few loose jewels that had embedded themselves under his scales skittering across the stone floor.
The jewels were not the only riches the cave held. The dragon stalked past stacks of silver mixing bowls, piles of golden goblets, arm-bands studded with opal and emeralds. The cave ceiling was specked with tiny dots of reflected light.
When he reached the belly of the cave, the dragon stopped short. For there, sifting his fingers through a massive pile of coins, was a man.
“Well, well,” he rumbled, “A thief.”
Surprised, the man spun around. He stared a the dragon for second–and then his face broke into a joyful grin.
“Lloyd!” he shouted, leaping a small stack of gold-embroidered prayer rugs to clap Lloyd (for that was the dragon’s name) on the shoulder. Lloyd snorted at this friendly assault and reached to tousle the man’s hair. Ducking away from the disastrously sharp claws, the man skipped across the floor with unbridled energy.
“I gather you’ve stolen something exciting?” Lloyd yawned, making his way through the piles of treasure towards his bed.
“Better!” the man exclaimed. He rifled in his bag and tugged a piece of paper out, sending a costly looking pair of earrings skittering across the floor in the process. “Just look at this.”
Lloyd squinted at the paper, failing for a moment to find words in the curling, scything script.
It read, ‘Wanted for theft–Gahzi. Last seen exiting the house of Justice Farouk, from whom was stolen a string of pearls and a golden memorial for the Justice’s hunting hound. Reward for capture: your weight in gold.’
Lloyd glanced at the picture the words accompanied–a strikingly good resemblance of the man in front of him.
“I’m a wanted man now! Gahzi said, a great deal more joyously than Lloyd thought such a statement merited. “And just look at the reward.” Leaving the paper in Lloyd’s able claws, he laid back on his pile of coins like a king on a treasured, if rather uncomfortable, throne. “It’s every thief’s dream to reach that level of fame and fortune.”
“I had always assumed it was every thief’s dream not to get caught,” Lloyd rejoined, attempting to set the paper down. His claws had punctured the thin government stock, and he had to shake it free. It finally came loose, drifting towards the floor. Gahzi snatched it out of the air, securing it in some hidden pocket of his ragged vest with an air of solemn dignity.
“Not getting caught,” he stated, “is the dream of second-rate thieves–the kind who steal to earn their bread, or some other maudlin reason. For those who wish to turn thievery into an art–”
Gahzi had once been one of those ‘second-rate’ thieves, Lloyd remembered; but he kept his thoughts to himself, interrupting Gahzi’s oncoming speech with a different line of conversation instead.
“I see you are once again misplacing your loot.” Reaching past Gahzi, he plucked a bejeweled parade helmet off of the pile of coins and placed on top of a well-curated stack of bejeweled parade helmets. A pearl necklace was slung over the crest of one of the helmets; Lloyd frowned, picked it up, and began searching for the rack of pearl necklaces. Gahzi didn’t steal them often, and Lloyd was forever forgetting where he’d put them…
Gahzi watched him lazily.
“I told you, we should just keep it all in a giant pile in the middle of the floor,” he remonstrated, as Lloyd carefully returned the necklace to its rightful place next to the emerald earrings. “To look like a proper treasure-trove. You could even sleep on top of it!”
“Sleep on it?” Lloyd was incredulous. “I’d like to see you try that. Have you any idea what it’s like to have coins and earrings wedged beneath your scales? Besides, if it’s not organized you’ll never be able to find anything. Suppose you wanted to give a lovely pair of earrings to some special girl, and you could only find one of them?”
“That’ll never be a problem. Why would I give any of this away? I swear to you, Lloyd, no girl is worth even half a set of any of these earrings. However special she is, she’ll be mortal, and fickle, and…” trailing off, he shrugged his shoulders against his throne of coins in an attempt to convince himself it was comfortable. “Treasure lasts forever.” He finished.
Too sleepy to argue, Lloyd shrugged as well, his wings brushing the stone ceiling.
“Unless, of course,” he said, pulling a pile of blankets into a comfortable nest, “Someone steals it.” He curled up on the softness, happily letting his eyelids close.
“I’d just steal it back.”
But his half-hearted retort fell on deaf ears; for the dragon was already snoring.
Voices, echoing from somewhere near the mouth of the cave, woke him. Lloyd knew that they were strange voices, just as he knew that it was not yet nighttime–with a strange certainty that had nothing to do with thought.
As sleep drifted from his mind, he began to recognize words.
“…not as if he’d have been living here,” a voice was saying. “It’s…a cave. And it’s probably full of snakes.”
“Exactly. What better place for a thief to hide his treasure?” a second voice said. Lloyd rose, silently as possible, to his feet. “And besides, where else could he have hidden it? There’s nothing else for miles.”
Lloyd edged towards the mouth of the cave, placing his feet carefully to keep from rattling against the myriad piles of treasure. The first voice was talking again, and he halted in time to hear,
“…and…snakes.” stated rather reluctantly.
“Don’t be a coward,” the second voice interrupted. A step sounded on the stone, and Lloyd tensed, ready to defend against the intruders. But the first voice, which very obviously belonged to someone who considered walking into a dark and mysterious cave a horrible idea, spoke again.
“Caro will be collecting our reward soon, won’t he?”
“Well, he is the heaviest–more gold for all of us, eh?”
“And…of course he’ll wait around to share.”
There was a pause. Then the second voice swore.
“Come on. If we hurry, we’ll be able to rejoin him before he can get out of the palace.”
With that, the footsteps padded away. Lloyd, bleary-eyed and alone, blinked at the walls of his cave. He thought over their words, wondering if there was any possibility that the strangers had seized a completely different wanted thief.
There was none.
With a cry of helplessness, Lloyd spun back into the cave, his tail sending a shower of gems skittering across the stone. A few lodged under his scales, but he paid them no mind, his thoughts racing a different course: how to help his friend.
A plan–a rather ridiculous plan, not to mention dangerous and quite possibly doomed to failure–began to settle uncomfortably in his brain, as an ever-increasing sense of hurry twisted in his guts.
A ridiculous plan would have to do. Gathering all his strength of will and sinews, Lloyd sped out of the cave and took flight, wings beating a determined path for the Sultan’s palace.
Doing chores, Gahzi thought dully, was vastly overrated. His only intention in walking out of that cave had been a charitable one–fetching water to make Lloyd’s favorite tea. He’d been in a happy, giving mood; and thinking of the dragon’s prospective delight at waking up to find fresh-made tea, he hadn’t seen the miserable pack of bounty-hunting half-wits until it had been too late.
And now he was bruised, shackled, and kneeling before the throne of a justice-hungry sultan, occupying himself with watching the blood from a split lip make scarlet drops on the pristine marble floor.
So much for tea.
“…all by yourself? An impressive feat,” the Sultan was saying. Sultan Arash was young for his position, just entering on his thirties, and he was leaning forward in his chair with a rather unprofessional level of interest. If Gahzi had been a politically minded man, he might have taken the Sultan’s eagerness and general tendency to look like a very young boy in an outrageously official uniform as signs of weakness. As it was, Gahzi found himself liking the man–as much as you could like anyone who planned to have you impaled on a stake, that is.
“I had two men assist me in taking the rogue,” Gahzi’s giant of a captor replied. Taking Gahzi by the collar and lifting him off the ground, the big man gave him a slight shake, in order to make it very clear who ‘the rogue’ meant. “I gave them both orders to search the surrounding premises, looking for his thief’s hoard. It was sure to be nearby.”
He dropped his prize, and ‘the rogue’ fell to the floor in a rather dizzy heap of jarred bones.
“How resourceful!” the Sultan flicked a finger at the man beside him. “Vizier, make a note of that.”
“The bounty hunter is resourceful,” the Grand Vizier, a tall, lean man with a bland face, replied in perfect monotone. “Duly noted.”
“You’ve ended a great menace,” Arash said, sitting back on his throne. “The thief Gahzi has plagued our city with his incessant–ah–thieving, for far–”
“We thank you for your service,” the Grand Vizier interrupted smoothly, giving Gahzi’s captor a small smile. “And invite you to collect your pay.” He summoned servants to bring the bounty hunter to the treasury.
Gahzi, who had been interested in hearing the Sultan’s opinion of his exploits, frowned at him. If he was a politically minded man, he would guess that the Vizier gave the Sultan’s opinion about as much weight as a kitten’s.
Arash, apparently not a politically minded man, didn’t seem to notice that he’d been interrupted. He turned to address Gahzi with unhindered gusto.
“You’re the cleverest thief I’ve ever heard of.” He said, as if addressing an equal at a dinner table and not a bound and beaten criminal kneeling at his feet. “However did you manage to steal Justice Farouk’s hound memorial? I’ve seen it, in person–it must have weighed the same as a horse.”
Gahzi risked a grin. It hurt his lip, but the devil-may-care attitude it conveyed was more than worth the pain.
“Didn’t steal it,” he managed. “Hid it behind a curtain because it was so ugly. Everyone assumed it’d been stolen.”
The Sultan burst out laughing.
“That’s wonderful!” he cried. “Serves him right, too, that thing was atrocio–”
The Grand Vizier cleared his throat.
“The criminal must be sentenced,” he announced. His voice cleared all the laughter from the Sultan’s face, leaving it blank and a little lost.
“You’re right,” Arash said, after a second. “You’re right.You do it, Mirza; you’re better with–all that.”
Idiot coward! Gahzi thought as his faint hope slid away. Stand up for yourself! And me, while you’re at it.
But Arash, apparently in no mood to stand up for anyone, only looked blandly at the floor.
Lloyd hadn’t intended to terrify anyone. Of course, one can’t exactly be a dragon of any size, breaking through the roof of an occupied building, without terrifying a few innocent civilians; but as Lloyd had envisioned his plan proceeding, he hadn’t imagined quite so many screaming, fleeing humans. The palace was in utter uproar.
It didn’t help that Lloyd had landed right in the midst of the women’s quarters in the middle of storytelling hour, on the day that the First Wife had concocted a particularly gruesome tale about an evil, bloodthirsty dragon.
The screams really were earsplitting.
“Deepest apologies. Very sorry.” Lloyd said, addressing the general crowd of fleeing humanity. Most of the people had already fled out of his reach–though one had fainted. She wouldn’t do; she looked dead.
He didn’t see her until, springing out of nowhere, she crashed a seven-stringed lyre over his head.
“Back, devil-beast!” the girl shouted, dancing towards him for another attack-by-household-instrument. He flinched, grabbing at her, and she dodged, slipping around behind him and out of sight. This was a mistake; she screeched as he caught and held her in the coils of his tail.
Just in time, too, for the guards were already pouring out from the top of a stairwell, readying swords and crossbows. A misfired bolt glanced off of Lloyd’s scales.
With a mighty beat of his wings, Lloyd rose into the air, revealing his full majesty–and his captive.
“I have kidnapped–hold on.” Lloyd bent his head to address the girl. “What’s your name, lass?”
She replied to this question by somewhat unhelpfully attempting to bite through his scales.
“He has the Sultan’s sister!” one of the guards supplied.
“AH. Yes. I have kidnapped the Sultan’s sister, and tonight I will devour her whole unless some hero comes to do me battle! A hero who is… Ah, recently condemned for thievery! And wearing a blue shirt. And his name must begin with ‘G’! Inform the Sultan immediately if you wish to avert her doom.”
And with that, and a wild prayer that there would be no one but Ghazi fitting those descriptors, Lloyd uttered a final, blood-curdling roar at the somewhat perplexed guards and turned to fly home.
All this drama was upsetting his stomach.
The Grand Vizier had barely gotten through his officious recital of exactly how Gahzi was going to be dismembered when an explosion rocked the palace, startling everyone into silence. In some far wing of the palace, there was shouting, and screaming, and a powerful, booming voice roaring words no one was able to decipher.
Gahzi, in an ecstasy of unexpected hope, recognized the voice. Lloyd had come to rescue him.
A palace guard ran, panting, into the room.
“Sire!” he said, dropping on one knee before the Sultan’s throne. “A dragon has taken your sister–and he has sworn to devour her, if a hero is not–”
But Arash had already leapt to his feet.
“A what has done what?”
Before the guard could answer, the Sultan had already turned to one of the attending servants and was shouting orders at him.
“Kalar! My sword.”
Lloyd, what in Undraland are you doing? Gahzi wondered. How was this going to help?
“He gave specifications about what kind of hero,” the guard said, as attendants scattered in all directions to find Sultan Arash’s sword and armor.
“What kind of specifications?” the Sultan demanded. The guard listed them off–condemned thief. Blue shirt. Name beginning with ‘G’.
Perhaps Lloyd could have been slightly less obvious and simply given them one of Gahzi’s Wanted posters.
“This makes no sense.” the Grand Vizier, the only person in the room not openly staring at Gahzi by the time the guard was through with his list, said. “Why would the dragon want to be stopped? And why by anyone in particular? This sounds very like a trick of some kind, Your Eminence. I would suggest–”
But the Sultan, for once, was not listening.
“Cut this man free,” he ordered, and Gahzi flexed his wrists as the blood began flowing freely again. Five minutes later, Gahzi left the palace a free man, weighed down by several layers of extremely impractical armor.
Compared to the earlier burden of his own imminent death, it might was well have weighed nothing at all.
Admittedly, Lloyd’s plan had not been excellently thought out. Beyond the girl’s capture and Gahzi being set free in the guise of a hero, he hadn’t provided for any of the particulars.
But he held that no possible amount of foresight could have anticipated that his captive would find a rusty old scimitar in one of Gahzi’s stores and attempt to murder him with it.
“Devil-Beast! How dare you attack a princess of the realm!”
Lloyd dodged her lunge, catching a particularly nasty stroke aimed at his wings on the hardier scales of his neck.
“I’m trying to save my friend!” he shouted, leaping out of her path and knocking over a pile of parade helmets. “He’s a thief, and–”
“A thief! Noble company for a bloodthirsty maiden-eater.”
“I’m not bloodthirsty!”
This protestation was met only with a wild war-cry as she slashed at him again. Backed up against the wall of the cave, Lloyd flinched and shut his eyes.
But the next sound that filled the cave was not the dull crack of steel of scales, but the ring of steel against steel.
Lloyd opened an eye. A vaguely humanoid pile of gold-and-silver armor stood between him and the princess, blocking her stroke with a remarkably rich-looking sword. The armor removed its helmet, revealing a somewhat battered but still recognizable face.
“Gahzi!” Lloyd cried happily.
Gahzi blinked, the helmet’s sudden removal making him dizzy. Clearing his head with a sharp shake, he realized that the Princess Yesfira was staring at him.
“Do I look that horrible?” he attempted a smile, flinching when it reopened the split on his lip.
“You are the glorious hero?” Yesfira had lowered her blade, but didn’t drop it.
“I, madam, am the glorious escapee. Or rescuee, if you will.” Gahzi sat down, half-burying himself in the Sultan’s battle armor; and when he spoke, his voice sounded tinny through the suit.
“Did you have to kidnap a princess?”
Lloyd snorted, drawing himself up with some dignity.
“It was the only plan that didn’t involve one of us dying,” he said. “And you’re the one who got himself captured in the first place, anyway.”
“I was trying to make tea! Forgive me for not expecting to be ambushed by bounty hunters in the middle of making tea.”
The conversation might have gone on indefinitely, but Yesfira began to laugh. Lloyd halted in the middle of a quip about tea.
“All this for the life of a thief?” she said, incredulous. Gahzi bristled; but it was the dragon she spoke to. “You would capture me, threaten my brother–destroy half the palace! To save your friend?”
“Hem. Incredibly sorry about all that, but–”
“Don’t be,” she said, sudden-thoughtful. “It is good to know such loyalty exists. And as for kidnapping me–” she grinned. “I consider it an adventure. The palace is rather short on those.”
“Actually, it may not be.” Gahzi said through the metal of his breastplate. “I can’t be certain, but–if your brother’s Grand Vizier was planning to overthrow your brother, I’d expect him to act about the way he’s acting now. Sultan Arash is going to need all the strong allies he can get.”
The princess raised her eyebrows at him.
“I shall keep that in mind.” she stood, brushing her hands off on her finely embroidered and now somewhat bedraggled clothes.
“Oh. You’ll want to be heading back now, I suppose. I can fly you home, if–”
“Perhaps it would be better if you did not.”
Lloyd nodded, looking hurt; but the princess hadn’t finished.
“I’ll tell my brother that his hero slew the mighty dragon, but only after being mortally wounded himself. A heroic sacrifice, a menace slain–and no reason for anyone else to climb this mountain or search for this cave.”
She smiled, proud of the plan–it was a good one, Gahzi had to admit. Sly and simple.
“Excellent!” Lloyd exclaimed.
Gahzi scanned his scattered riches. They glittered and glinted, as they always had; but beyond the glittering and the glinting, what could they do? They were useless. Eternal, perhaps; but–useless. He knelt, fingering a pair of fine pearl earrings; and when he looked up, he realized that Yesfira was already leaving.
Almost to the cave’s mouth now, she turned with an air of annoyance as Gahzi plucked a gift from his hoard of riches.
“Something you may need–for the dragons of the palace,” he said, offering it. It was a dagger. Long and elegantly curved, it was sheathed in fine silver and embedded with tiny rubies; she accepted it with a sharp intake of breath, turning it over in her fingers and feeling the patterns of the etching.
Then she frowned.
“Didn’t this belong to Lord Reyhar?”
“Oh. Well, yes, I believe it did.” Gahzi said, shrugging in his armor. “but he may have forgotten it by now…perhaps it would be best to keep it out of his sight, just in case?”
“Are you sure we should have let her go alone?” Lloyd asked, after Yesfira was gone.
“Seeing as she’s going to tell the Sultan that we’re both dead, I thought it unwise to offer an escort.” Gahzi had shed his heavy armor and was distractedly walking around the cave, trying to find where Lloyd kept the gold-encrusted breastplates.
He could feel the dragon grinning at him.
“What is it?” he asked finally, spinning to face Lloyd.
“You gave her something.” The dragon said, lounging sleepily on his pile of blankets.
“Just a dagger–and I never liked that dagger, anyway.”
“I thought that people were fickle, and treasure lasted forever?”
Gahzi scowled, trying to formulate an adequate reply. A minute or so later, he had one. He spun around to deliver it with heroic gusto–
But the dragon was asleep.
*tarhoon and reyhan: tarragon and sweet basil.
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