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Chapter 12: The Proposal

 

Aeris stared at the bowl of hot stew in front of her. Thin wisps of steam flowed up from the meal to the ceiling, a heavenly scent of beef, peppers, carrots, unidentified herbs filling her nose with every inhale. But her stomach remained silent.

 

She was out with Windor, yet for the first time since meeting the drake, she wasn't enjoying his company. Maggie hadn't spoken to her since the incident involving those men in the woods two weeks ago. Any attempts at conversation were answered with silence or a very brusque, "too busy to talk right now." So far, no one else had asked why the two of them hadn't been spending time together, and Aeris was in no rush to explain. Since no one questioned her or treated her differently, Aeris could only assume Maggie made up a story explaining their separation.

 

But Aeris knew the truth. Maggie was afraid of her, disgusted by her. Aeris felt so lonely most days. Part of her sometimes wondered if she should be angry at Maggie for cutting contact so abruptly or if she should confront her. Pin Maggie down the next time she came to bring breakfast and demand an explanation. But Aeris could never bring herself to even joke about such a thing.

 

Windor’s voice pulled her back into reality. “Hey, is everything okay? You’ve been quiet all day.”

 

Aeris slowly faced the Ravager sitting next to her. “I’m fine. Sorry, I was just preoccupied. What were you saying?”

 

“I was asking if everything was okay. I can barely get you to say anything. And you haven’t touched your food.”

 

Aeris didn’t have the heart to tell him it was because he chose to eat his steak rare, and the smell of blood reminded her of those men she killed, ruining her appetite. Sometimes, she tasted the blood, and no matter how much water she drank, it wouldn’t go away. I can’t tell him, she thought. There was no telling how he would react to learn she had killed humans. No matter how unlikely it seemed, she couldn’t risk anyone else looking at her the way Maggie did.

 

“Everything’s fine. I just had a really big breakfast, so I’m not really hungry,” she said, her thoughts chastising her. Another lie. Over the last few weeks, I’d become quite proficient at this. It seemed it was the only way to have a conversation. Sometimes it felt like she was living two lives and forced to lie about them. She wanted to be done with it all. The lies, the sneaking about, the stress from the constant threat of being caught looming overhead. The problem was choosing one. Her life with Master Aaron had been a good one, and he took care of her for so many years. But it was also clear that living with him meant living closed off from the rest of the world. Going out into the world meant there were so many things to see, experiences to be made, and people to meet. But she was no fool. The world was full of dangers and there was no shortage of people who wished her harm. It wouldn’t hurt to stay with her master where she was safe from harm.

 

She decided she could figure things out later. For now, she would try to have the best of both worlds. “Hey, what do you say we get out of here? I could use some air.”

 

If Windor suspected something, he chose not to mention it. He paid for their meals and they went outside. Aeris tried to focus on something, anything, else, but her mind kept drifting back to her dilemma. Freedom and danger, or safety and isolation? The question made her stomach tighten even further to the point of nausea. She was glad to have not eaten anything. Windor spoke as they walked, but she wasn’t listening. Whether he was discussing his favorite things to do, asking about her well-being, or warning her about some upcoming danger, she didn’t know.

 

As they walked past one of the shops, something caught her eye. She stopped and peered through the glass. Inside the store, there was a human who resembled Master Aaron. The man had his back to the window, so it was hard to know for certain, but he bore a strong resemblance to her master.

 

Aeris immediately ducked into the nearest alley she saw, panic overtaking her. It could have been someone else, but the risk was too high. Of all the things going on, her master seeing her was the last thing she needed. Windor didn’t call out or follow her, so she assumed he didn’t notice her leave. More guilt piled onto what she already felt, but she had no choice.

 

A little further down the alley, a red door opened and a human walked out. The human ignored her and exited the alley. From their posture and hurried pace, they didn’t want to be seen. Aeris blessed her luck and ducked inside. She didn’t know nor cared where the door led so long as it hid her from her master’s view.

 

She seemed to have wandered into some kind of lobby. The air was thick in the dimly lit building. The whole place reeked of alcohol, tobacco, and another scent Aeris couldn’t identify, but it was the loudest of all the smells. The scent reminded her of the smell that filled the room whenever she “showed her appreciation” to Master Aaron. It made her wrinkle her muzzle in disgust and her tail flatten protectively over her rear. No one seemed to take notice of Aeris’s intrusion or how she was staring at everyone. All the women were dressed in their underwear or wearing tight clothing Aeris had never seen before. There were also female dragons wearing lace bands around their hindlegs or tails while others wore short dresses. The only males Aeris saw were human, and they were fully clothed. Most of the men were drunk out of their minds and they had a hungry look in their eyes as they pawed over every female within reach.

 

“Where the fuck have you been?” a voice hissed into Aeris’s ear.

 

Aeris squealed and backed away from the voice. She tripped over her tail in her escape and fell on her back, legs still flailing in the air. It took a moment to realize the voice belonged to a female which meant it couldn’t possibly be her master. She righted herself and stared at the carpet in embarrassment. She didn’t need to look at everyone to know the misunderstanding had earned her stares from everyone in the room.

 

A hand grabbed her chin and forced it upward. She stared into the face of a human woman. The woman was dressed slightly different from the others, she wore a long dress that squeezed her small breasts together and hugged close to her waist. The woman's expression softened a little when she saw Aeris. "Oh, excuse me. I thought you were someone else. I haven't seen you around here before. What d'ya want?"

 

Aeris thought hard for an answer, but couldn't find one. She doubted the woman would believe she stumbled inside by accident, but she also couldn't make something up since she had no idea where "here" was. She noticed the woman was beginning to lose her patience, and the others in the room were beginning to notice. Some had angry looks on their faces, others were intrigued in a way that made Aeris uncomfortable. It was as if she were a slab of meat left in the middle of a room full of hungry people.

 

“Snowflake, is that you?” a voice asked from across the room. It was Cutter’s voice, Aeris was sure of it. She was never happier to hear a familiar voice in her life. She spun to see Cutter weaving through the rapidly thinning crowd, smiling broadly.

 

“From what I gathered about you when we first met, I never woulda guessed you’d come here.” Cutter turned to the woman and said, “Don’t worry about it. I got this one.”

 

The woman nodded and left the two of them alone. Cutter steered Aeris down the hall. The hall didn’t smell much different from the lobby. If anything, the smells were stronger, making Aeris feel a little queasy. It was a long hall with the same plush carpet as the lobby. The walls were lined with nothing but doors but all of them were closed. Moaning and other strange noises came from some of the rooms, but Aeris chose to ignore it.

 

“Honestly, I thought I was seeing a new side of you, but seeing how Giselle scared the shit outta ya, I’m guessing you came here by accident?” Cutter asked.

 

Aeris dropped her head. “Yes. I saw my master outside and I ducked in here hoping to avoid him.”

 

“Worried about pissing off your master, huh? Well, don’t worry, Snowflake. This is the one place you can go if you want privacy. Trust me, no one will say a damn word about who—or what, they see here. Even if that weren’t the case, I own the place, so I can make sure no one is gonna mention seeing you here.”

 

“Um, where is ‘here’ exactly?”

 

Cutter chuckled, a wide mischievous grin appearing on her face. “This is a brothel, Snowflake. One of the finest around if I do say so myself.”

 

“What?!” Aeris had read about brothels in her books, but none of her books went into much detail as to what went on there. She remembered asking Master Aaron about it once, and he got very upset. It was the last time she asked her master about something she read. When she asked Maggie she was told to avoid such places and not to mention it to other people. “I don’t understand. How do you know no one will say anything?”

 

A dragoness exited the closest room and passed by holding the end of a leather leash in her mouth and wearing a black vest that stood out against her blood-red scales. A human male crawled behind her on his hands and knees, the other end of the leash tied around his neck. The human was blindfolded, but Aeris didn’t detect the slightest ounce of fear coming from him. She stared at the odd pair as questions of what they were doing and why occupied her thoughts. The dragoness noticed Aeris staring at them and stopped.

 

Aeris flinched as something rapped her on the head only to realize it was Cutter’s tail. “First rule if you’re gonna be here, Snowflake: Don’t stare,” Cutter said. “That shit makes people nervous.”

 

“Oh, sorry,” Aeris mumbled to the dragoness.

 

The dragoness shrugged and yanked the leash, urging the human to continue following her down the hall. Aeris turned away from the bizarre scene and jogged up to Cutter who had started walking down the hall without her.

 

"Second rule if you're gonna be here: Don't ask," Cutter said when Aeris opened her mouth to speak. "People come here for one thing: To live out their strangest fuck fantasies. We don't ask why or how just so long as you don't try to hurt anyone and pay upfront. And in case you were wondering, what we just saw is why no one will say they saw you here." She chuckled to herself as she added, "Humans make a big deal out of shit like that, but they still won't stop doing it."

 

Aeris nodded in understanding. She had been to enough human parties to know that even the smallest scandal could ruin someone’s reputation. If anyone found out what that human was doing here, he could never again show his face in public.

 

Cutter led Aeris to the last door at the end of the hall and ushered her inside. The room was an office similar to Master Aaron’s but a lot less organized. Loose papers were scattered over the floor and the office’s three tables. The office had a shelf lining one of the walls, but it was filled with all kinds of junk instead of papers or books. A single open window covered with red curtains flowing in the breeze gave the room an eerie isolated feel. There was only one chair, but several cushions lined against the far wall. Aeris breathed a small relieved sigh. The air wasn’t as thick in this room and she could breathe easier.

 

“Keep your ass here, Snowflake,” Cutter said. “If you’re caught by yourself, the humans might think you work here and try to fuck you, and the females might think you’re here to steal their customers and try to fuck you up. I’ll come get you when I’ve made sure your master isn’t around.”

 

“Wait, how do you know what he—” Aeris didn’t finish her question before Cutter closed the door, leaving her alone in the office.

 

Aeris used her tail to sweep some of the papers away so she could pull up a cushion to sit on. Almost immediately, her tail began tapping the floor in irritation. She was used to waiting around, so it didn’t bother her waiting for Cutter. What did bother her was the mess the room was in. Aeris was never allowed to keep her room messy, and she was scolded something fierce if she did. Just looking at all the scattered papers and empty inkwells brought back memories of the harsh reprimands she received when she didn’t pick up her things.

 

Aeris decided since she had nothing else better to do, she might as well tidy up. Strangely, the papers scattered around were neatly written and clearly labeled, so Aeris had no difficulty organizing the papers in a system she felt would be easiest for whoever came after. A few papers were torn or filthy beyond recognition and were placed in a separate pile on one of the tables for Cutter to decide their fate later. The empty inkwells she piled up next to the illegible papers. The items on the shelf she left alone. It looked like junk at first glance, but so did some of the things she kept in her room. These things were probably precious to whichever dragon left them there. Aeris didn’t find anything important, just a few random rocks, warped pieces of metal, shards of glass, and broken statuettes she didn’t recognize. One thing that did catch her attention was an old dragon claw. She made a mental note to ask Cutter about that later.

 

When Aeris finished cleaning, she took a moment to inspect her work. She could see the wooden floor, and it almost seemed to brighten the room a bit. Cutter still hadn't come back yet, so Aeris occupied herself by reading the papers she organized. She assumed the documents were complete records of all the things happening in the brothel, but it was hard to tell. The papers were written in code. Something about the code seemed familiar, however.

 

Staring at the documents, it occurred to her why the code looked so familiar; she had seen something like it before in one of the books in her master’s study. A thought crossed Aeris’s mind. Would it be possible to decipher the documents? She had never done it before and doubted it would work, but the idea excited her. It was like solving a puzzle, something she enjoyed greatly. She set about her task like someone possessed. The fears of Master Aaron discovering her becoming like the fleeting feelings of a bad dream.

 

The code wasn’t nearly as complicated as Aeris first believed. The hardest part was writing down her results. Using a blank sheet of parchment and one of the inkwells, she had to awkwardly hold the pen in her jaws to write. She had never written anything before, so it came out horribly sloppy and just barely legible. The documents she deciphered turned out to be records of the brothel’s regular customers. Most of the names she recognized as wealthy business owners she had met at human parties. There was even a document on Rek’s master, Zachery Bachmann.

 

She was in the middle of working out the final document when a voice behind her said, “Whatcha doing there, Snowflake?”

 

Aeris jumped and fell into the table with a loud cry. She spun around to see Cutter standing behind her. “C-Cutter! I didn’t hear you come in.”

 

Cutter looked surprised by Aeris’s shock but not angry. “Snowflake, I called you several times, but I guess you were too busy wrapped up in cleaning this shithole to notice.” She looked around at the now organized room and nodded. “I like what you’ve done with the place. Gisselle has been all over my ass to get this place cleaned up. I can’t get someone else to do it for obvious reasons, so it falls to me.”

 

“Oh, thank you. I even organized the papers for you. I read about a filing system that should make it much easier to find what you’re looking for. Here, I’ll show you how it works—”

 

Cutter walked past Aeris without showing any kind of interest in the filing system. Cutter’s attention was focused on the papers that Aeris had been working on. “Snowflake, what is this?”

 

Aeris swallowed before answering. It just dawned on her that by reading those documents, she had invaded Cutter’s privacy. “I-I was just t-trying something I read about?”

 

"And what were you trying?" Cutter asked. Her voice was calm, but Aeris knew that tone. It was like a calm sea before a rising wave rose and swallowed everything. Aeris needed to choose her words carefully if she was going to avoid angering Cutter further.

 

“W-well, I couldn’t read the document, s-so I-I was using an algorithm, to decipher it.”

 

Cutter continued to stare at the desk, her back to Aeris. Although Aeris couldn’t see Cutter’s face, she imagined the dragon was furious with her. Fearing it to be the reason why Cutter couldn’t face her, she slowly backed away.

 

“How far did you get?” Cutter asked. Her voice was still calm, but Aeris could sense the fury building to the surface. Aeris curled into a ball, images of what happened back at the restaurant over a month ago flashing in her mind. Would Cutter do to her what she did to that Ravager or something worse?

 

“I-I-I think about h-half,” Aeris managed to say.

 

Cutter turned to her and smiled. “Hmm. Not bad Snowflake. You got that far in a short time, and all from memory. You got some serious fucking potential.”

 

Aeris relaxed, but only a little. “Wait, you’re not mad?”

 

Cutter laughed which made Aeris feel more uneasy than ever. She could tell the laugh was genuine, but that could make little difference in the end. Her unease must have shown in her face because Cutter started laughing harder before nudging Aeris playfully.

 

“I’m not mad, Snowflake. In fact, you just made my world a lot more interesting. How would you like a job?”

 

“What do you mean?” Aeris asked, tilting her head in confusion. She felt an uneasy feeling creep over her like she was part of a joke she didn’t know about. It occurred to her this was the second time Cutter made her feel this way which made the feeling worse. It bothered her to feel uncomfortable around someone who had done nothing but helped her.

 

Cutter's sudden voice snatched away all of Aeris's doubts. "Snowflake, do you not know what a job is? Look, you do some work for me and in return, I'll pay you. Get it?"

 

“No, I understand what a job is,” Aeris said meekly. “I just don’t understand why you’re offering me one.”

 

“Because you’re fucking good at deciphering shit. Obviously, my current method won’t work anymore. I met whores who were more difficult. Since you’re so good at it, maybe you could come up with a better one. Now, you want the job or not?”

 

Aeris nodded vigorously. “Yes, I would love a job.” She had never had a job before. The topic never came up. Not even during the many parties she attended, had anyone ever suggested she do any kind of work for them. Even Master Aaron never offered to take her to work with him. He always said it was too dangerous and she left it at that.

 

“Great! Then for your first assignment, make me a better encryption ‘cause this shit is useless,” Cutter said. “When you figure something out, bring it to me, and you will be paid very well. Now, this won’t be like a typical job. You’ll need to keep it a secret, okay?”

 

The idea of keeping more secrets didn’t sit quite well with Aeris, but what was a few more at this point she wondered. And this was one secret she didn’t mind keeping. Stories with secret messages and mysteries to solve were always fun to read. The suspense, the drama, the mystery always kept her engrossed, not wanting to put the book down. “I can do that.”

 

“Good. Go home, Snowflake. It’s gonna be dark soon, and I don’t want you roaming the streets at night. Your master’s gone so you’ll be fine. Oh, and I ran into your friend, Windor, while I was out. I told him you were with me and sent him home.”

 

Aeris thanked Cutter for her help and started her journey home. The air outside was crisp and refreshing unlike the stale, smoke-and-musk-laden air of the brothel. Just as Cutter had said, the sun was already disappearing behind the neighboring buildings, signaling the day’s end and bringing a sense of calm to the whole city. The loud cacophony of sounds of the street had diminished, and even from the alley, Aeris could see fewer people were about. Aeris carefully situated the hood of her cloak back over her head before leaving the alley. Around this time, Master Aaron would be coming home, so she had to walk back to the estate rather than fly.

 

The sun had set by time Aeris made it home, leaving the sky dark and foreboding. She slipped into her room, her mind swimming with ideas on how to design a new encryption algorithm. She would need to re-read some of the books in Master Aaron’s study to refresh her memory, some paper, ink, and possibly writing lessons from Maggie. Or perhaps she could ask Maggie to write the documents for her.

 

All of the good feelings welling up inside her vanished like smoke in the wind when she saw Maggie and Master Aaron standing in the middle of her room. Both humans were staring daggers at each other and growing progressively redder in the face. Aeris had no idea what they were fighting about, but it seemed far from over.

 

“I appreciate your concern, Margret, but as Aeris’s owner, I decide what’s best for her. I’ve grown tired of reminding you of that,” Master Aaron said.

 

Maggie shook her head, her red curls flying wildly around her face. “I’m sorry, Lord Strauss, but as the one you charged with Aeris’s well-being, I must put my foot down.” She stamped as she said this. “She simply isn’t ready for something like this. And it’s entirely unheard of.”

 

Aeris crept into the corner and wiggled out of her cloak. She had seen Maggie and Master Aaron disagree on many topics—mostly involving her, but she had never seen them argue like this before.

 

“Unheard of or not, I see no reason why Aeris shouldn’t do it,” Master Aaron said, his voice rising with every word, but stopping short of shouting. “After all, just because it’s never been done, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t.”

 

“But what about Aeris?” Maggie cried. “You never even asked her opinion on the matter. How do you know she even wants this?”

 

my dragon. She and Reks get along so well together; why would she say no?”

 

Aeris tilted her head in confusion. There had been no incidents like their first meeting, and Reks enjoyed their reading lessons. Every time she was asked, she told everyone she got along well with Reks—one of the few times she didn’t have to lie. She didn’t understand what had Maggie so upset.

 

Maggie’s face turned a deeper shade of red. “I’m sorry, Lord Strauss, but the very idea of it is unspeakable! Aeris is already confused and feels ostracized from her kind. This will only make things worse!”

 

Master Aaron gave a short sarcastic laugh. “Her own kind? The first time she tried to converse with her ‘own kind’ the barbarian drake tried to kill her! Maybe she shouldn’t worry so much about dragon traditions. Besides, this is civilization, not some wild dragon clan.”

 

“But, Lord Strauss, marriage is such—”

 

“Marriage?!” Aeris cried. She regretted the outburst immediately. She had been taught to hold her tongue whenever her master or any human were speaking, and she not only violated that rule but exposed her eavesdropping as well.

 

Maggie and Master Aaron froze, the anger in their faces now replaced with shock. They slowly faced the corner where Aeris hid. Maggie’s hand flew to her mouth. Master Aaron’s face turned pale.

 

Aeris rushed forward, bowing low. “I’m so sorry! Please forgive me. I had no idea you were here.”

 

A pair of hands gently forced Aeris to look upward into Maggie’s eyes. “Aeris, you have done nothing to apologize for. I should be apologizing to you for failing you.”

 

“Margret, stop being so dramatic,” Master Aaron said. “Aeris is not in any danger. This is a happy moment for her.”

 

Maggie’s grip tightened, but it felt so nice having the woman acknowledge her again, Aeris didn’t care.

 

Stepping forward with a wide smile on his face, Master Aaron said, “Aeris, I was hoping to tell you this once things were underway, but I guess there’s little point in hiding it. I have arranged for you to wed Reks.”

 

Aeris didn’t know what to say, or if she should say something. She didn’t know much about marriage. In all the stories she had read, marriage was supposed to be a happy occasion, but she wondered why were they arguing if that were the case.

 

“Lord Strauss, please reconsider.” Maggie stood and led Master Aaron to the corner. Although she lowered her voice, Aeris could still clearly hear every word being said, “Aeris doesn’t know the first thing about marriage, and what do we truly know about this Reks? Dragons have different views and customs from humans; we don’t know how he’ll treat her.”

 

“I understand, Margret. But you know I would never have even considered the idea if I felt Aeris was in any sort of danger.”

 

Maggie lowered her gaze, her exhaustion clear in her face, looking as if she suddenly aged ten years. Aeris always hated seeing her that way. It always made her feel she asked too much of the woman.

 

Master Aaron smiled, clearly pleased there would be no further discussion of the matter. “Now, Aeris, I do not want you to worry about a thing. I will handle all of the planning.”

 

Maggie nodded but continued to stare at the floor. Aeris wanted to comfort the woman, but she couldn't even begin to understand why Maggie was so upset in the first place. Certainly, Master Aaron didn't intend to place her in harm's way.

 

But Aeris never got the chance as Maggie left the room without another word or waiting for a reply. Aeris walked over to her mattress, feeling more confused than ever. If she were married to Reks, what did that mean? Was he going to live here? Did she have to move out? And what about Windor? They hadn’t defined their relationship, but would it be okay to continue to go out with him once she had a husband? She decided Lilith may be able to answer those questions for her later. Right now she just wanted everything to be normal and simple.

 

So much for having the best of both worlds.

 


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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