A trio of the king’s men raided the kitchen of my alehouse and hustled my dragon out the back because he didn’t have a work permit or proof of legal residency. One of the king’s men looped a chain around Hector’s neck and led him down the middle of the muddy street still wearing his heavy leather apron while the other two well-armored men flanked him. Hector bellowed in anguish, drawing villagers to their doors and windows.
I ran after them, protesting that I would be forced to close my business without Hector in the kitchen. One of the king’s men turned. “Illegal dragons take work away from our dragons.”
“They take the jobs our dragons don’t want,” I protested as I grabbed his forearm, his armor surprisingly warm to the touch. “Hector spends all day barbecuing mutton for the likes of you. Do our dragons want to do that? No! They want the high-paying jobs, smelting steel and heating the king’s castle.”
The king’s man shoved me aside and I fell backward, landing on my broad side in the mud. That’s when I saw Redbone standing in the doorway of our village’s other alehouse, his arms folded across his broad chest, a gap-toothed grin evident even through his bushy black beard.
Redbone’s dragon had crept from the kitchen, and she peered over Redbone’s shoulder, her glowing yellow eyes the only part of her visible in the darkness of Slither Inn.
“You’re the cause of this!” I shouted as I pointed at Redbone.
He laughed and turned away, disappearing into his alehouse as he berated his dragon. “Get back to work, you!”
I pushed myself to my feet and shook mud from my skirt. I couldn’t fight the king’s men, not without risking my business license and eliminating any chance Hector had to avoid deportation.
“I’ll come for you!” I shouted after my dragon. “I’ll pay the fine!”
Hector snorted as if he didn’t believe me, a dark puff of smoke rising from his nostrils and dissipating in the afternoon breeze.
I stood in the middle of the street until I was nearly run down by a cart with an elderly farmer at the reins. By then the King’s men had led Hector past the village limits and into the woods, following the narrow road that led to Dragonhold and the king’s castle beyond.
When I finally returned to Mutton King, the alehouse franchise I had opened two years earlier, I found that most of my customers had disappeared, either frightened away by the unexpected appearance of the king’s men or frustrated because no cook remained to prepare the meals they had ordered.
One-Eyed Ethel stood behind the counter, but there was little for her to do. She stared at me without blinking until I crossed the room and stood in front of her.
“The king’s cracking down on illegals,” she said. “Surprised they didn’t come for Hector before now.”
“It was Redbone,” I told her. “He reported us. Who else would have a reason? Why else would the king’s men travel all this way?”
“He’s been trying to close you down for two years.”
“This just might do it,” I muttered.
I checked the warming ovens. They were near empty and no one could prepare mutton the way a dragon could. I sent One-Eyed Ethel home and worked the counter myself until I ran out of food.
I lived above the alehouse and woke well before dawn the next morning when I heard unfamiliar sounds in the alley. I climbed from bed, threw on a thick robe, and descended the rear staircase. When I opened the back door, I found Redbone’s dragon standing in the alley. She was a northern dragon, larger than Hector by half and her scales were a darker green. Even with only the light of a full moon penetrating the darkness of the alley I could see the scars decorating that portion of her torso not covered by her heavy leather apron, the result of battles won and battles lost. I asked, “What do you want?”
She pushed past me, into the kitchen. After a quick look around, she fired up the oven, then sat back on her haunches, barbecued all the mutton I had on hand, and stacked it in the warming oven.
When she finished, Redbone’s dragon handed me a heavy leather pouch the size of my fist and an iron dirk with a six-inch blade.
“What do I need these for?”
I tried to return the pouch and the dirk but Redbone’s dragon refused to take them. She pushed aside her leather apron and showed me the abdominal bugle well hidden behind it. Then she slipped out the back door and disappeared down the alley as silently as a legless serpent.
By then the blood red sun had sent its first tendrils of light over the eastern horizon. After Redbone’s dragon turned the corner and disappeared from sight, I opened the leather pouch. A dozen gold crowns gleamed in the early morning light. Dragons hoard their valuables and protect them to the death, a lesson too many knights had learned the hard way before we all learned to live together, so having Redbone’s dragon trust me with what may well have been her life’s savings surprised me.
One-Eyed Ethel arrived later that morning and we opened Mutton King as usual. Business was slow until word spread through the village that we were offering half-priced drinks with every mutton meal. Late that afternoon, after seeing much of the lunch trade stream through my doors, Redbone hung a hand-lettered sign in front of Slither Inn announcing that he was offering unlimited refills. By then our supply of mutton had dwindled to scraps and wool and I was happy to see Redbone steal the dinner trade.
The mutton man who serviced all of the Mutton King franchises in the kingdom refilled my larder that evening, and Redbone’s dragon returned before dawn the next morning to prepare the day’s food. I left instructions for One-Eyed Ethel and then, as the morning sun climbed the horizon, my purse full with the gold crowns from Redbone’s dragon and another dozen gold crowns from the previous day’s take, and with the iron dirk hidden in my sleeve, I left for Dragonhold.
Half the day disappeared before I reached the city and for the first time in my life dragons—large dark-skinned dragons from the north, small light-skinned dragons from the south, and even some mottle-skinned dragons of mixed parentage—nearly outnumbered the rest of us. My village only had three dragons—Hector, Redbone’s dragon, and a geriatric silverback that worked for the blacksmith—and I was nervous in the presence of so many of them. I clutched my purse to my chest and gripped the dirk even tighter.
I stopped one of the king’s men and asked for directions, then followed the route he outlined until I finally reached the dragon internment camp. The dragons I could see through the iron bars were all light-skinned, and many of them appeared beaten—emotionally if not physically—because they milled about on all fours, their heads hanging low and their tails dragging through the dirt. I knew they couldn’t be eating properly because tendrils of smoke drifted from their nostrils, revealing an inability to spark a proper flame.
I entered a squat stone building, approached the corpulent bureaucrat behind the oaken desk, and said, “I’m here for my dragon.”
He didn’t look up. “Name?”
He opened a large, leather-bound volume and quickly skimmed the pages with his forefinger. Finally he looked up. “He’s not here.”
I protested. “He has to be.”
With a smirk on his porcine face, the bureaucrat spun the book around for me to check myself. All the detainee names were listed in the dragons’ own language, and I realized I didn’t know Hector’s birth name.
I left the building and walked along the fence, peering through the iron bars and calling Hector’s name. I finally spotted him, still wearing his leather apron and laying in the dirt against the stone wall of what must have been the sleeping cells.
My shouting finally roused my dragon and he lumbered toward me until only the iron bars separated us.
“I need to know your name,” I said. When he didn’t seem to understand, I explained. “I don’t know your birth name.”
Hector told me his birth name and I immediately knew there was no way I could repeat the sound. I called him Hector because I had never bothered to learn Dragon and I didn’t have time for a crash course.
When my dragon realized that I couldn’t pronounce his name, Hector used a chipped claw to scratch his name in the dirt. I had nothing with which to write, so I returned to the squat building, harangued the bureaucrat until he gave me a scrap of parchment and the stub end of a piece of charcoal. Then I returned to Hector and copied his name from where he had scratched it in the dirt.
Back in the squat building, I waited while the corpulent bureaucrat compared Hector’s birth name to the list of detainees, and then learned that Hector would be called before the judge that afternoon.
The courthouse was a squat building on the other side of the internment camp, and I was waiting in the courtroom, seated between two northern dragons in serious need of lessons in personal hygiene, when Hector’s case was called before the judge by a dragon bailiff who used Hector’s birth name.
After Hector stepped before the bench, the king’s judge looked down at him and said, “You lack a work permit and have no proof of legal residency. How do you plead?”
Hector said something in his native tongue. The bailiff translated. “Not guilty.”
“That’s what they all say,” the judge said to no one in particular. Then he pronounced, “Guilty!”
I jumped off the hard wooden bench where I’d been sitting, startling the dragons on either side of me. “Wait a minute!”
The judge glared. “Who are you?”
“Hector works for me.”
The judge glanced at the paper before him. “This says your dragon’s indigent.”
“That paper is a lie,” I explained. “Hector has worked for me for two years.”
“Did you know he was here illegally?”
“I never thought to ask,” I said. “I needed a cook and he wanted the job, so I hired him. He’d never missed a day of work until the king’s men hauled him out of my alehouse two days ago.”
“So why was he reported as indigent?”
I told the judge about Redbone and the things he had done to try to put my franchise out of business.
He listened and then asked, “Do you vouch for this dragon?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“A dozen crowns for working without a permit.” The judge glared at Hector. “The next time you’re caught working without a permit, you’ll be deported. Do you understand?”
Hector nodded, his wedge-shaped head bobbing up and down on his long neck.
“Pay the clerk.”
I gave the clerk a dozen crowns. Half an hour later, in yet another squat government building, I paid another ten crowns for a work permit. Then I used one of the two remaining crowns to feed us before we began the long walk back to our village.
Midnight had come and gone before we arrived home. Hector accompanied me to the kitchen door of the alehouse and waited until I was inside before he continued on to his cavernous dwelling several blocks away. I was so tired I practically fell into bed, and I was asleep before drawing a second breath.
I woke in the moments before dawn when I felt a hand on my throat and someone straddling my torso. I opened my eyes and found myself staring up into Redbone’s face.
“I thought you would finally close for good when I had your dragon arrested,” he said.
“What do you have against me?”
“You’re a cheap franchiser,” Redbone growled, “a cheap franchiser who hires illegals. We let people like you do business here and the next thing you know a discounter will build a big shop on the outskirts of the village, taking customers away from downtown and putting us all out of business.”
“You can’t fight progress,” I said.
“But I can fight you and people like you.” He tightened his grip on my throat.
I slid my hand under my pillow and it came out gripping the dirk his dragon had given me. I pressed the point against the underside of Redbone’s chin hard enough to break the skin and a thin trickle of blood ran down the blade to the hilt. We stared at one another, caught in a temporary impasse.
As a thin shaft of dawn’s light pierced the gap in my shutters, a noise downstairs—the back door opening as Hector arrived for work—startled Redbone. I twisted beneath him and screamed.
Hector tromped up the steps and pulled my assailant from atop me. Redbone spit in Hector’s face and Hector responded with a snort of black smoke, reminding Redbone how easily he could be barbecued.
The blacksmith doubled as the village’s constabulary and we locked Redbone in one of the blacksmith’s stone outbuildings until a pair of the king’s men passed through the village later that day and took him on to jail in Dragonhold.
Without Redbone to oversee things, Slither Inn immediately closed, putting his dragon and his wench out of work. Anticipating an increase in business because I now operated the only alehouse in the village, I immediately hired them both.
The next morning I returned the remaining gold crown, the leather pouch it had come in, and the dirk to Redbone’s dragon, and realized I needed to stop calling her that. Redbone wasn’t the only one who had resisted change. So had I, though in a different way. The time had come for me to learn the Dragon language so I could properly address Hector, Redbone’s dragon, and their soon-to-arrive child by their birth names.
Until then, though, we had a Mutton King franchise to operate.
“Hector,” I said. “Let’s barbecue.”
originally published in Big Pulp Spring 2013: A Question of Storage
Michael Bracken is the author of 11 books—including the private eye novel All White Girls—but is better known as the author of almost 1,000 short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Espionage, Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin, Hardboiled, Hot Blood: Strange Bedfellows, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. Additionally, he has edited five crime fiction anthologies, including the three-volume Fedora series. Learn more at CrimeFictionWriter.com.