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Chapter 10: The Deal

 

Aeris flopped onto her mattress. She had just finished another exhausting day teaching Reks and Aubrey about words with different meanings but similar sounds. Neither dragon understood the concept very well and it turned into a very long debate.

 

Only a month had passed since she had begun teaching Aubrey and Reks to read, but it felt like a year. The pleasant weather was beginning to come to an end; the days becoming chillier and the first of the leaves began turning yellow. It was good and bad news. Flying in colder weather wasn’t ideal. Cold temperatures didn’t bother Aeris, but it became much windier this time of year. On the upside, it meant fewer visits to her room so sneaking out to see Aubrey was much easier.

 

Aubrey’s lessons were much easier than Aeris thought. The Ravager had spent so much time around humans, she picked up on reading quite easily. Reks on the other hand was the opposite. At first, Aeris thought he was being difficult as usual, but she quickly realized her blunder and saw the Horntail was genuinely trying though he made no effort to hide his frustration at his lack of progress.

 

It was a good thing Aubrey had suggested meeting Reks. The Horntail was brought to visit at least four times a week, so it was much easier tutoring both dragons at once. Sneaking out with Reks was much easier than Aeris thought. Their masters would send them off to be alone and wouldn’t check on them until it was time to leave. Whenever they were in Aubrey’s presence, Reks was on his best behavior. Aeris feared he would become even more unbearable in Aubrey’s presence especially during the earlier days of his learning. Instead, he was very pleasant and was even on his best behavior even when Aubrey wasn’t around.

 

Reks’ voice pulled Aeris out of her thoughts, “I still don’t get it. If the word is different, how can it sound the same? Isn’t it confusing?”

 

You get used to it,” Aeris said. “Now can we stop talking about it? What if someone hears you?”

 

Trust me, no one is trying to hear us.”

 

While there were also no problems keeping the Horntail quiet, he showed far too little caution for Aeris’ taste. Aeris worried he was doing it just to spite her, but Reks quickly squashed those speculations. “If my master found out I was sneaking out and learning to read, he’d whip the scales off my hide,” the Horntail explained.

 

It was a frightening thought. Master Aaron had never once raised his hand to Aeris nor threatened to. Talking with Reks, it became clear how good she had it. Mr. Bachmann was a terrible master and Aeris hated looking at him. Every second she was in a room with that man, it became increasingly difficult to keep her anger in check. He talked down to Reks all the time, and threatened the drake with beatings and missed meals. And that was just the things he did in her presence. Reks said when they were home it was much worse. “You’re lucky to have a master who cares so much about you,” he would whisper whenever she tried to comfort him after a nasty verbal lashing from his master.

 

But she didn’t feel lucky. It felt more like she traded one thing for another, but couldn’t explain why. Sure she was well-fed, had a safe dry place to sleep, and had people who loved her, but it all felt different. As much as she liked it, she was also alone. She knew no one and nothing about life outside her room. Like a precious doll left on a shelf only seeing life beyond its pedestal when it was being played with. She began to notice the smiles weren’t genuine and conversations would suddenly stop if she was near. Worse, she couldn’t speak on these things or it would make her look ungrateful.

 

Before Aeris could ask what made Reks so certain, the door opened and Master Aaron walked inside. Aeris stiffened. Just a few minutes later coming back and they would’ve been caught. The panic in Reks’ eyes showed he thought the same thing. That and how he came dangerously close to exposing their secret with his big muzzle.

 

Master Aaron turned to Reks and said, “Zachery was looking for you. It’s time to go.”

 

A sympathetic look from Reks told Aeris how sorry the Horntail was to leave her alone before bowing and leaving the room. Aeris wanted so badly to follow him.

 

The past month, there had been a definite change in Master Aaron. He constantly fretted over Aeris’ health and well-being. She had three visits from the vet to make sure she was healthy. Every time she received a bill of clean health, but it didn’t stop Master Aaron from questioning Aeris about her visits with Reks. After every visit came a bombardment of questions about how they were getting along. Aeris told the truth and said they were getting along fine but didn’t provide any details. Strangely, despite the constant questions, she was always left alone with Reks making her wonder what her master was so afraid of.

 

Normally, Master Aaron waited until after Reks left to ask her questions, so there was only one reason Aeris could think of why her master would want to speak to her now. But how did he find out?

 

She needed to get ahead of this. Perhaps if she explained everything to her master, how she felt isolated and stifled, he would understand and not be as severe in his punishment. “Master—”

 

Aeris, please, I would like to go first,” Master Aaron said. His tone was calm and gentle, yet she still flinched as if he yelled at her.

 

She stiffened when he sat on the mattress beside her. Since Reks’ visits, they stopped “expressing their love” for one another entirely. While she enjoyed no longer being physical, she feared she had done something wrong and Master Aaron was mad at her. Whenever she asked him about it, he only said “Of course not, Aeris. I could never stop loving you.” She wanted to believe him, but it was clear there was something he wasn’t sharing with her.

 

What if his love for her was fading? He had also stopped taking her to parties. It had to mean he was ashamed of her and just didn’t want to say it.

 

They sat in silence for the longest time. Aeris refused to open her eyes; she just sat stiffly on the mattress awaiting her master’s punishment.

 

Aeris…this is difficult for me to say…” Aaron said. “Do you remember the name of the dragon who saved you several weeks ago?”

 

Aeris snapped her eyes open and looked at her master, confused. That question meant he didn’t know about her sneaking out. She was glad to be wrong, but she couldn’t help but wonder why it would be difficult to discuss. She had to be careful in her response, lest he figured it out. Not willing to trust her mouth, she resorted to nodding.

 

Oh, good. Do you think her offer to meet with you still stands?”

 

What do you mean?”

 

Well, I mean, I think it would be best to meet with this Patel family. They are very wealthy and have business in a lot of different fields and a great many connections. What I mean to say is, I’m sorry I denied you the opportunity to speak with that Ravager. It would have been a great opportunity for me.”

 

Unable to contain her excitement and afraid speaking may give it away, Aeris resorted again to nodding. A massive smile was creeping across her muzzle, and nothing she did could stop it. If everything went well, she would be able to meet Aubrey whenever she wanted. Her head was swimming with all the ideas of all the things they would soon be able to do together without the fear of being caught.

 

Aaron spoke again, dragging Aeris out of her fantasies. “I’m glad things aren’t entirely bleak. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get things ready.”

 

Wait, what?” Aeris said, caught off-guard by her master’s words. “W-We’re going right now?”

 

Of course not. We’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”

 

Aeris’ heart sank. All hope wasn’t lost. She just needed to sneak out tonight and go see Aubrey and tell her Master Aaron wanted to meet her. That shouldn’t be too hard.

 

Master Aaron stroked Aeris’s back. “So how are things going between you and Reks?”

 

Fine, master,” Aeris replied, hiding her annoyance at the question. Reks was just there. Couldn’t her master tell if something was wrong or not?

 

Her master smiled and patted her side one last time before standing and going to the door. “Okay, Aeris, we’ll be leaving first thing tomorrow, so make sure you get plenty of sleep. We can’t have you yawning in front of our guests.”

 

Aeris nodded as she watched her master leave. After waiting a few minutes, she hurried over to the door and peeked outside. There were no signs of anyone out and about. If she hurried, she could run to Aubrey’s and back before dinner. There was no time to get the cloak on. She learned how to slip it over her head without assistance, but it could still take several minutes and every second counted.

 

She hadn’t even taken two steps outside before she heard a voice behind her. “Going somewhere?”

 

Aeris turned around to Charles leaning against the wall to her room. The old human wore an uncharacteristically grim expression that gave Aeris chills.

 

I thought I’d fly for a bit,” Aeris lied.

 

I’m afraid I can’t let you. Lord Strauss’s orders. He doesn’t want anything to happen to you before tomorrow.”

 

But I do this all the time. I know how to fly. And I know Maggie will be coming to bathe me soon which means I won’t be able to do anything or risk getting dirty again.”

 

Charles continued to stare at her, his eyes showing no pity or concern for the young dragon’s plight. “I take orders from Lord Strauss, dragon. Not you. He says no flying, so no flying. Now back in your room. Margret will be out soon, and she doesn’t want to have to look for you.”

 

Aeris grumbled under her breath and went back to her room. A quick flying session after visiting Aubrey was on the agenda, but not anymore. Worse, there was no way she could sneak off to Aubrey’s with Charles sitting outside her room. She wondered if the old man knew about her sneaking off. But if he did, why was he keeping it a secret?

 

As she walked past Charles, she could’ve sworn she heard him say, “Too damn young.” Rather than ask what he meant—knowing at best a vague answer would be the response, she ignored him and went inside.

 

She started pacing around, trying to think of a way to get a message out to Aubrey. Helen and Aubrey would recognize her instantly. It didn’t help Aubrey had little respect for Master Aaron and had no qualms voicing her objections to him treating Aeris like “his personal plaything” as Aubrey would say. The Ravager may not even attempt to hide Aeris’s disobedience just to spite him.

 

It wasn’t until Maggie came in with her dinner that Aeris stopped pacing, but the anxiety remained. Dinner was a meat pie. Lydia usually made those when there was a lot of meat that was about to spoil. Aeris loved them, but tonight, she didn’t have an appetite. She ate the meat pie anyway knowing she would wish she had later.

 

Maggie was unusually quiet as she stood there and watched Aeris eat. It did nothing to help ease the poor dragon’s anxiety.

 

When Aeris finished her meal, Maggie quickly gathered the dishes and told Aeris to follow her outside.

 

As expected, the basin for her bath was outside and waiting for her. Maggie quietly retrieved the sponge and started scrubbing Aeris’ scales. The woman’s silence was worrying. The only time Maggie was this quiet meant something was wrong.

 

Finally, Aeris couldn’t take it anymore. “Maggie is something wrong?”

 

Maggie nearly dropped the sponge. “What? N-No, of course—Aeris, have you and Reks been getting along?”

 

A terse growl escaped Aeris before she could compose herself. “Yes, we have. Why is everyone so afraid he’s going to hurt me?”

 

It’s not him hurting you I’m afraid of,” Maggie said. She squeezed the sponge in her hands, squirting soapy water all over her feet which she ignored. “It’s just…Aeris there comes a time in every young woman’s—or in your case young dragon’s, life when she goes through some…changes. I’m sure by now you’ve taken an interest in another dragon.”

 

Maggie,” Aeris said gently. “We already had this talk.” She remembered it well. Poor Maggie was a nervous wreck and it took her forever to say what she meant. But Aeris got the point or she thought she did. She understood the difference between males and females, and she knew how babies were made. It still made no sense why Maggie felt the need to bring it up now.

 

I know. But you have had so little interaction with other dragons, I feel it is necessary to discuss this with you. With you and Reks spending so much time together alone—”

 

But I don’t have feelings for Reks,” Aeris said. It was true. While the Horntail’s mood had drastically improved, Aeris still preferred Windor’s company.

 

It was the biggest downside to Reks’ visits. She didn’t get to see Windor nearly as much as she wanted to. It was hard to squeeze in extra time with him and not arouse suspicion. Once she mentioned to Aubrey if it would be okay to invite Windor to their reading lessons, but the Ravager said no. Not every dragon would be interested in reading and it wasn’t safe for too many to know. If even a rumor started that dragons were learning to read, it could cause an uproar.

 

Well, you may not have feelings for Reks, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings for you,” Maggie said.

 

Doubtful given how much Reks bullied her their first meeting, but Aeris chose to keep it to herself.

 

Maggie dipped the sponge in the basin and began scrubbing Aeris’ tail. “I just want you to be safe. We never talked about this, but some males don’t like to take ‘no’ for an answer. Admittedly, I don’t know how it works with dragons, but among humans, some delight in forcing themselves on others. If Reks ever tries getting rough with you, I want you to tell me or Lord Strauss, understand?”

 

Yes, Maggie.” It seemed unlikely Reks would try anything like that. According to Aubrey, dragons didn’t even think about touching someone they thought was beneath them and Reks made it clear how he felt about her.

 

The bath was finished in silence though Maggie’s mood had noticeably improved. After Aeris was cleaned, Maggie patted her down with a towel and told her to go to her room.

 

But I have to tell Aubrey that Master Aaron wants to meet her,” Aeris said.

 

I’m sorry, Aeris, but you can’t leave now. If Lord Strauss found out, he would be furious. I can deliver the message for you. Now off to bed.”

 

****

 

If dragons could sweat, Aeris was certain she would be soaked by the time they reached Aubrey’s mansion. Those feelings of happiness she had before meant nothing in the face of her newfound reality. Maggie had promised to deliver the message herself, but Aeris never got a chance to ask if she succeeded.

 

True to his word, Master Aaron was waiting for her at first light and he had even brought her breakfast. He picked out a vest for her to wear and they left without any chance of her getting talk to Maggie.

 

The entire trip there, Aeris wondered how she was going to signal Aubrey and Helen so that Master Aaron wouldn’t know what she had been up to for the last several weeks. Now, here they were approaching Aubrey’s doorstep, and Aeris still hadn’t come up with a plan yet.

 

She was even more surprised to see Lilith wasn’t going with them. Lilith had all but forgotten Aeris existed the last few weeks and spent just about all of her time at Master Aaron’s side and looked very cross if Aeris drew near. Thankfully Lilith kept her promise about helping to keep Aeris’ comings and goings a secret.

 

The first thing Master Aaron pointed out was the surprising lack of people. No one had received them at the front gate nor were they intercepted when they approached the front door. Master Aaron had said, “It seems as if the Patels are a very trusting family.” Aeris didn’t dare tell him that it was because Aubrey didn’t want humans taking care of her and no one in their right mind would dare vandalize a dragon’s property.

 

Master Aaron continued to grumble under his breath about the lack of hospitality and how his patience was being tested when he knocked on the front door. It took everything Aeris had to keep herself from shaking when she heard the door being opened.

 

Helen appeared in the doorway, wearing a large smile on her face. “A—”

 

Aeris immediately shook her head, and Helen feigned coughing. Aeris stole a glance at her master and noticed he was not at all pleased by Helen’s behavior, but he didn’t show any sign of noticing Helen’s mistake.

 

Helen stopped coughing and straightened up, the smile from before gone. “Please excuse me. I’m just recovering from a slight cold. Hello. How may I help you?”

 

Master Aaron smiled and stepped forward holding out his hand. “I am Lord Aaron Strauss.” He gestured to Aeris at his side. “And this is my dragon, Aeris. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but your dragon rescued mine a while ago, and I wished to express my gratitude.”

 

Helen looked back and forth between Aaron and Aeris, her face showing she was at a loss for words.

 

Aeris was quick to offer a solution. “I was attacked by a Genial in the commercial district and the dragon that lives here rescued me. She told me to seek out the Patel family if I ever wished to see her.”

 

The way Helen’s eyes widened showed Aeris she understood. “Oh! Well…the dragon you are referring to is Lady Aubrey, and she is not here right now. But she will be back soon if you wish to wait inside for her.”

 

Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Master Aaron said. He accepted Helen’s invitation and walked inside, Aeris following closely behind. “I actually wish to speak to the dragon’s master.”

 

Luckily, Master Aaron was distracted by the décor, or else he would've seen Helen stifle a laugh. She regained her composure before he turned back to her. "Aubrey has no master," she said in a very gentle tone. "She is the owner of this estate and is the one you wish to speak to.”

 

What? The dragon owns all of this?” Master Aaron’s lips pressed into a thin line which struck Aeris as odd. What did her master have to be upset about? It was an honest mistake—one she made herself. Unless he was simply upset to hear that Aubrey was a dragon. But that was silly; there was no way Master Aaron would have a problem with the dragon who saved her life.

 

Would you like a tour while we wait for Lady Aubrey to return?” Helen asked.

 

No, thank you,” Master Aaron said. There was a note of displeasure in his voice.

 

I would love a tour,” Aeris said, hoping to steer attention away from her master’s obvious attitude as well as get some alone time with Helen. Master Aaron’s meeting with Helen didn’t end in disaster, but there was still Aubrey to deal with. And until there was confirmation Aubrey was okay keeping everything a secret, there was no such thing as safe.

 

Actually, Aeris, I would prefer it if you stayed close by,” Master Aaron said.

 

Helen clenched her jaw. Aeris dropped her head. Before she could say make another attempt to ease the tension, the front door opened. Everyone turned as Aubrey entered the estate. Aeris held her breath.

 

Aubrey looked at all three of them bewildered. “Wha—”

 

Lady Aubrey,” Helen said quickly. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to greet you at the door. This is Lord Aaron Strauss and his dragon, Aeris. Lord Strauss wishes to thank you for saving Aeris’s life.”

 

The look in Aubrey’s eyes showed that she understood what Helen was getting at. “I saved her nearly three months ago,” she said coldly. “Was it that hard finding the estate?”

 

Aaron straightened and put his hands behind his back. Aeris noticed he was opening and closing his hands—something he did when he was annoyed, out of Aubrey’s sight. “I was hesitant to express my gratitude because it hurt my pride that I couldn’t protect her myself. But I have decided to put my pride aside—”

 

Because there is something you want from me,” Aubrey finished. “It is fine if you wish to talk business, but do not lie to me, Lord Strauss. And I would appreciate it if you didn’t treat your dragon as an asset.”

 

Aaron pressed his lips into a line again, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned to Helen and said, “If you don’t mind, could you give Aeris that tour while I speak with Lady Aubrey?”

 

"I would prefer it if Aeris were present," Aubrey said.

 

Well, my lady—” Aaron began.

 

Lord Strauss, I doubt you intended it that way, but I did mention you were not to treat your dragon as an asset,” Aubrey said in a tone similar to a parent scolding a child. “I will not have her paraded around to suit your whims then tossed aside now that she had served her purpose.”

 

Master Aaron’s cheeks flushed and he chuckled nervously. “Well…I-I have never done anything like that…right, Aeris?”

 

Aeris nodded in agreement, worried her fear would manifest in her voice if she spoke. There were moments where her master had introduced her to different human nobles at parties and sent her away the moment the initial shock of seeing “such a beautiful creature” had worn off. But there was no way she was going to say that out loud. Besides, Master Aaron had his reasons, and she didn’t mind because she likely would’ve found the conversation boring anyway.

 

Aubrey led them into the living room. Aaron looked around at the placement of the furniture in awe. Aeris did the same although she had set foot inside several times and nothing was new to her; it was important her master not get suspicious.

 

Please sit,” Aubrey said, sitting on a cushion. “Would either of you like something to eat or drink?”

 

No, thank you, I’m fine,” Master Aaron said, sitting on the sofa.

 

I would like some chamomile tea if that’s okay,” Aeris said, sitting on the cushion closest to her master. Helen nodded and went for the kitchen.

 

Since when did you start drinking chamomile tea, Aeris?” Master Aaron said.

 

Aeris stiffened. She had forgotten her first taste of tea was here with Aubrey. “Um…Maggie brought me some one day, and…I really liked it. I didn’t say anything because I was worried you would be upset.”

 

Aaron laughed and patted Aeris on the head. “That’s just like you, you silly dragon. Why would I be upset with you because you like tea?”

 

Aeris laughed nervously and glanced at Aubrey. The Ravager was giving her a strong disapproving stare. Aeris dropped her gaze to the table.

 

Before we begin, I just want to say that I am truly grateful to you for saving Aeris’ life that day,” Master Aaron said. “If I may ask: how did you come to own all of this?”

 

You’re very welcome, Lord Strauss,” Aubrey said, her voice was calm and polite and her posture was straight. But her eyes showed she had nothing but contempt for the man sitting across from her. “As for your question, I inherited it.”

 

"From your former master, I take it?" Master Aaron said, a slight hint of amusement in his voice.

 

There was a brief flash of anger in Aubrey’s eyes that was replaced by weariness. “The man you are referring to adopted me into the family and treated me like one of his own.” Her voice was still in the same calm tone, but there was a note of sadness in her voice. “He had no other heirs, but since he and I were so close, he left everything to me.”

 

The two of you must’ve been very close then if he was willing to leave everything to his dragon.”

 

I doubt we were any closer than you and Aeris are now,” Aubrey said with a slight smile.

 

Master Aaron’s face fell at Aubrey’s comment. He quickly cleared his throat and said, “Back to the reason I’m here, Lady Aubrey. As I’m sure you are aware, my family’s company deals in antiquities, and as a result, we do business with many companies. I have spent years trying to expand my company’s influence to other places, but I have found it difficult.

 

Now, your family has many connections to these companies, specifically an import and export business, and a private security firm that can provide the service and protection I require at a very modest cost.”

 

So you wish for me to introduce you to the owner of these companies in the hopes that you will be able to start a business venture,” Aubrey said. “Or rather, you already approached them and they turned you down. Now, you’re hoping to use me and my family’s connections to stage another attempt.”

 

Aeris noticed her master clench his jaw then he put on a large smile. “I see you are very sharp—”

 

For a dragon?” Aubrey finished, her eyes burning with anger.

 

Master Aaron’s face paled. “M-my Lady, I would n-never presume to say—”

 

Please forgive my master,” Aeris said quickly. “He’s never done business with a dragon before. He only meant to compliment you.”

 

Aubrey looked back and forth between Aeris and her master. Aeris kept her eyes fixed on the ravager across from her and didn’t dare look away. She had no idea what prompted her to speak up on her master’s behalf—she had never done anything like that before. Master Aaron always told her to remain silent during business meetings. He always worried she would say something embarrassing. After her outburst to the Everfields, she had no problems agreeing with her master’s theory.

 

To Aeris’ surprise, Aubrey’s expression softened. “Forgive my rudeness, Lord Strauss. I am just so used to humans making subtle suggestions in an attempt to insult me or undermine me in some way. It was wrong of me to assume the worst of you. No self-respecting businessman would intentionally insult someone and ask for a favor.”

 

Aeris decided to steal a look at her master. Master Aaron was staring at her, his mouth slightly open.

 

Before I respond, tell me, why are you so fixated on this company? I’m certain there are others you can work with.”

 

At that moment, Helen entered and sat a cup of tea on the table before Aeris. She mumbled a quick word of thanks and sipped her tea in silence. Helen sat on her knees on the cushion next to Aubrey’s.

 

Master Aaron cleared his throat before answering Aubrey’s question. “Lady Aubrey, your family has a great many connections, especially in the West. Also, I wish to expand my business to include some of the wild dragon clans.”

 

Aubrey’s eyes widened as her tail jerked and struck the table. Helen moved almost mechanically grabbing the cups before they fell to the floor. “You wish to do business with the dragon clans?” Aubrey asked. “You do know they have never done business with humans. My dealings with them are very limited and I’m a dragon.”

 

I am aware,” Master Aaron replied. “But times are changing. The dragons can’t possibly think their way of doing things will last much longer.”

 

They’ll say the same about humans. But that is not the issue. I’m afraid that the clans will never do business with a human who keeps a dragon as a pet.”

 

That’s a shame. But your human partners, they would still be willing to do business, yes?”

 

Aubrey narrowed her eyes, her tail straightening out behind her. “They would. If I put in a good word. But you have yet to mention why I would bother to do such a thing.”

 

Master Aaron smiled. “You are aware of the amount of influence Aeris has especially among the families who own dragons? And my business does have its connections which I’m sure you could make use of. If rumors are to be believed, you are trying to fund an expedition? I happen to know a few people who would be more than willing to lend you the equipment you need at a very modest price and even provide you with trustworthy people to use them.”

 

Aeris heard a slight tearing sound at the mention of families owning dragons. Aubrey’s face remained neutral, however. “You’re very well informed, Lord Strauss,” Aubrey said. “It is true, acquiring the tools I require for this venture has been difficult. Even my usual contacts have been struggling to gather the things I require. If I didn’t know better, I would swear someone has a grudge against me. Very well. I see no reason why we cannot partner up. However, I do have one condition: I would like Aeris to accompany me on the expedition. I’m sure she would love the chance to get out and explore the world.”

 

Even Aeris was taken aback by Aubrey’s demand. In all the conversations about the expedition, there was never a mention of Aeris going or even a desire for her to be there. She didn’t look at her master who was no doubt upset about the suggestion. If Master Aaron wouldn’t even allow her to leave the estate grounds unattended, there was no way he was going to let her go anywhere with who he considered a complete stranger.

 

Her master maintained his composure, though a vein was pulsing in his temple. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that idea. Expeditions can be quite dangerous and Aeris has never been outside city limits for obvious reasons. What if you run across a wild dragon?”

 

The site is in human-controlled land so there is no danger of running into a clan born,” Aubrey stated, her emphasis on the word not lost on Aeris, “And even then, Lord Strauss, I will be there and as a Matriarch, not even a clan-born would dare challenge me.”

 

Some of Master Aaron’s anger dissipated. Aeris watched with bated breath. Helen seemed unbothered by what was transpiring between their masters. Her mental fortitude was very impressive.

 

Master Aaron spoke first, “Very well. If you guarantee her safety, I see no reason she cannot tag along. I know dragons if nothing else would die before breaking their word, so she’ll be in good hands.”

 

It took everything Aeris had to keep her tail in place and her smile from showing. It had to be a dream. Was her master really going to let her go?

 

Aubrey smiled. “Very well, then. You have yourself a deal, Lord Strauss. On my life, no harm shall come to her.” She turned to Aeris, “And what of you? Does this suit you.”

 

Master Aaron slowly stood and bowed. “Splendid. Now I will need a few days to draft the formal documents and have them brought over. I’m sure your attendant can read them to you and ensure everything is to your liking.”

 

That will be fine,” Aubrey said. She threw a sly look Aeris’ way. The way her lessons were progressing, she could read the documents herself.

 

Thank you so much for your time. Come, Aeris.”

 

Aeris bowed and followed her master. It still felt like a dream, even after her trip home. Not even the storm clouds in the distance dampened her spirits. This couldn’t be real. She soon found she didn’t care if it was a dream or not. Why not enjoy the moment? Aubrey always talked about that expedition and Aeris wanted to come along, but she never asked because there was no way she could without her master’s permission.

 

But now she didn’t have to dream about what it would be like because she was going to be there. Better still, with this agreement, she may be able to convince her master to let her visit Aubrey when she wanted.

 

Those happy feelings faded a little when she saw Maggie waiting in her room.

Maggie,” Aeris said, worried, “What’s wrong?”

 

Maggie beamed brightly at the young dragon. “Oh, Aeris, I finally received word! The man I told you about, we’ve finally agreed on a meeting location. He wants us there today.”

 

Really?”

 

Yes, it is a bit far, so I’m afraid you’ll have to carry me or else we’ll be all day.”

 

I don’t mind carrying you, Maggie, you’re not very heavy.”

 

Maggie laughed and steered Aeris outside. “Thank you, Aeris, it makes me feel so much better to hear that.”

 

They waited until the estate was well out of view before Maggie climbed onto Aeris’ back. She ran off into the woods following Maggie’s directions. The path itself was rough and uneven. The trees didn’t sit on either side of the path like most paths. Instead, the roots twisted and stuck out in the way and branches hung low, forcing Maggie to bend forward. Aeris had to keep looking at the ground to make sure she didn’t trip. All it would take is one stumble and she and Maggie would hit the ground. As she ran, she told Maggie what happened during her visit to Aubrey’s. She hoped Maggie would be happy to hear the news but instead, the woman tightened her grip on her neck.

 

Maggie, is something wrong?” Aeris asked.

 

No, Aeris. I don’t like you being used as a pawn in some game.”

 

But I’m not a pawn. Master Aaron would never do that, and neither would Aubrey. And I really want to go. Aubrey says there’s so much about history that we don’t know, and I never saw ruins before, and—”

 

Aeris’s words were cut short when she saw someone standing in the path. She slowed to a trot until the person was clearly visible. The person standing in the way was the largest human male Aeris had ever seen; the man was easily taller than Master Aaron and twice as wide.

 

Maggie, is that the man we’re supposed to meet?” Aeris whispered. She didn’t like him. something about the way he looked at them made her uneasy.

 

Maggie’s reply didn’t help. “No. I have no idea who he is.”

 

The man’s clothes were badly worn and weathered. His boots and the edges of the cloak he wore were caked with dried mud. The man’s clean-shaven face was also covered in mud or dirt or both. He took one at Aeris from beneath his bushy eyebrows and smiled.

 

Hello, there,” the man said in a very friendly tone. He slung his rifle over his shoulder. “You ladies look like you’re lost. I can help you if you’d like.”

 

No, thank you,” Margret replied, there was a hint of fear in her voice, “We can manage just fine.” She whispered into Aeris’ ear, “Back up and let’s try to find another way around.”

 

At that moment, the sound of leaves and twigs crunching underfoot could be heard on either side of them. Aeris saw more men, each carrying a rifle, emerging from the trees.

 

The smile on the man’s face grew larger. “I’m afraid we can’t let you leave,” he said, the friendliness was gone from his voice. “Why don’t you get down and step away from the dragon, Miss.”

 

Maggie didn’t move. The wide grin on the man’s face faltered. “Look, lady, when a man with a gun tells you to do something, you get two options. One, you do as you’re told and maybe you walk away from this. At the very least, you know your death will be quick and as painless as possible.” The man pointed his rifle at the two females. ”Second, you try to play the hero like the ones you heard about in the stories read to you as a little girl. The problem with those stories is that they’re stories. In real life, all you wind up doing is pissing the man with the gun off, so he winds up putting one in your gut and leaving you to die a slow, painful death and does what he’s going to do anyway.”

 

The look in his eyes was as cold as his voice as he demanded, “So, I’m gonna ask you one last time: Get off the fucking dragon.”

 

Maggie did as the man said. Aeris felt the woman shaking as she climbed down.

 

The man smiled again. “Thank you. Now, you, dragon, lie down on the ground.”

 

Aeris stood rooted to the spot, staring at the man. No matter how many times she told her legs to bend, nothing happened. Even if she wanted to, fighting back wasn’t an option. It was as if an embargo had been placed on her body and all movement was sealed, locked away, shut down. The man’s threat rang loudly in her mind. She knew the consequences if she didn’t obey, but for some reason, her body would not do as it was told.

The man frowned again.

 

W-Wait,” Maggie pleaded, “P-Please don’t hurt her.” She turned to Aeris, took the dragon’s face in her hands, looked her in the eye, and said: “Aeris, I know you’re afraid. But I am right here with you. I will find a way to get us out of this, but right now you have to do what the man tells you, okay?”

 

The embargo on Aeris’s mind was dispelled by Maggie’s words, but her mouth still refused to produce any sound. The best she could do was nod to show Maggie her understanding. Her legs trembled something fierce, but she slowly lay down on the ground just as the man commanded.

 

Her mind began flooding with memories of stories she read where the main character found themselves in the same predicament. In some cases, an ally would appear at the last second and save them. But even then it did not always go well.

 

Aeris silently prayed that someone would come and rescue them in time.

 

What do want from us?” Maggie asked.

 

Ah, ah. No questions, please,” the man interjected. “I would like this to go as smoothly as possible. And for that to happen, I need you to just shut up, listen, and do as I say.”

 

Aeris began looking around fearfully; several more men carrying guns had begun to appear, surrounding them. Many of the men had already aimed their rifles at her. She didn’t want to think about what could happen to them.

 

The man nodded to one of the others who then pulled a large coil of rope out of their pack. Another one took out a pair of shackles. They threw the rope and the shackles at Maggie’s feet.

 

Take that and tie up the dragon,” the man said, “Use the rope to secure her muzzle and the shackles on her legs. Oh, and be sure to tie down her wings—that’s very important. Can’t have our prize flying away on us.”

 

Maggie’s hands shook so badly, it took three attempts to pick up the rope. Tears streamed down her face. “P-P-Please, don’t do this. We-we have no money, b-but her master will pay you whatever you want.”

 

The man sighed and rubbed his temple. “No matter how many times, no matter how plainly I phrase it, they never get the message,” he said more to himself than to them. “I’m sorry, Miss, but I can already see you’re not gonna make this easy. It looks like we’re gonna have to go with option B. He pointed the rifle at Aeris.

 

N-No! Wait! D-Don’t hurt her,” Maggie pleaded. “We-We’ll do as you ask, please!”

Actually, you got it all wrong, Miss,” the man said, “I’m not gonna hurt the dragon, I’m gonna hurt you.”

 

Maggie turned to run, “Oh god—”

 

A loud bang and the stench of gunpowder filled the air. Aeris turned just in time to see Maggie falling face-first to the ground. She wanted to catch her, but the embargo on her mind had returned; her body refused to do anything she told it. She watched panic-stricken as her closest friend fell lifelessly onto a pile of leaves.

 


Submitted: July 20, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Evan Drake. All rights reserved.

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Where Dragons Rule: Dissent

This is an older version of the book. Check out the revised edition with new characters and reworked plot on Amazon!

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