“When the red planet transits the constellation of Gemini,” the white-bearded old wizard blathered, “there is an increased probability of windstorms. But when the red planet crosses through Leo, you may expect at least a ten-day of warm, dry air. In particularly dry years, such a transit may signal a lasting drought.”
My jaws ached with the effort of keeping the yawn clenched behind my teeth. Finally, I surrendered, trying to crack open my mouth as narrowly as possible. Maybe he wouldn’t notice, I thought hopefully. Even if the lesson had been during the daytime, it still would have been almost unbearably tedious. But, in order to see some conjunction of four planets, my master had dragged me to the top of this cracked old tower in the middle of a chilly, early spring night.
Maybe I should try to take more of an interest in astrology, I thought to myself in a moment of honesty. After all, my parents were paying dozens of silvers for magic lessons. Yet most lessons ranged from mildly tiresome to, as with this lesson, unbearably tedious. Perhaps I didn’t truly have a future as a wizard, despite my ability to fire-start. But, as much as I dreamed of traveling the land as a bard, wizardry was certainly a more stable and lucrative career. Besides, my singing voice was still developing. It was perfectly normal for a boy’s voice to still be cracking at seventeen years! I told myself firmly. It would settle soon enough.
Guiltily, trying to will myself into enthusiasm, I gazed through the telescope again. I still only saw random pinpricks of lights, indistinguishable from each other. What madman decided that the constellation of Cassiopeia looked like a woman, much less a queen? I thought to myself in confusion.
“Now that we’ve considered the meteorological implications of a transit of the red planet through each of the primary constellations, let’s move on to the influence of the giant planet on weather,” my master continued.
I tried not to sigh. How many planets were left again? My mind wandered. For a moment, I entertained myself with the mental image of a giant scorpion chasing a stately-looking woman wearing a crown, skirts raised to her shapely knees for haste, through the sky.
Suddenly, a bright light appeared in the telescope’s field of vision. It was too large and luminous to be a shooting star.
“Um, Master,” I started tentatively. It appeared that the moving object was heading in the general direction of the tower. Abruptly, it seemed to double in size.
The old man continued to drone: “Now, while the Alexandrians have fallaciously concluded that the motion of the giant planet through Scorpius can foretell an earth-shake….”
“Master,” I said more loudly. Perhaps his hearing was truly starting to fail. The flying object grew closer. I realized that it wasn’t actually glowing; instead, moonlight was reflecting off silver scales.
“No one has ever confirmed a correlation between the movements of the stars and planets and earth-shakes to date...”
“Master Davos!” I yelped. “There’s a dragon flying towards us!”
Then I yelped again, louder, as the old man rapped me on the head with his staff. “Haven’t you been listening at all, boy? Scorpius isn’t a dragon; it’s a scorpion! Are you blind or are you confused? We’re still reviewing the twelve primary constellations; we haven’t begun the secondary constellations like Draco yet.”
Jerking away from the telescope and rubbing my skull, I looked towards the sky. Even as I stared in horror, the brilliantly shining being, now visible to my eyes, resolved itself into a streamlined shape with two long wings. It was still flying straight towards the tower upon which we stood.
The tower, the remnants of what had once been a much larger building, suddenly seemed far more precarious and vulnerable than it had when we’d initially climbed the narrow stairway. In fact, now that I thought on it, there was nowhere to run or hide from the flames of an angry dragon on the bare, flat stone of the roof of the tower. Gasping, I wished desperately that my master had taught me the feather-light spell this ten-day rather than a crop-enhancement spell.
With a thud that rattled the stones of the tower and shook ominous puffs of dust loose, the dragon landed on all four legs right next to the building. When it rose to its hindquarters like a sitting cat, its head was level with the tower.
I whimpered and dove to the roof, trying futilely to hide all six feet of me behind the low parapet. Yet again I cursed the wretched luck that had brought me height before a settled voice. Clenching myself into a ball, I expected any moment to feel a blast of searing heat. Closing my eyes tightly, I thought regretfully of my family and, then, of all the beautiful tavern-wenches that would ever be bereft of a bard’s lyrical (and non-musical) attentions.
“Breathe, boy!” my master barked, giving me a sharp jab in the backside with his staff. “The dragon clearly wants something from us or it would have attempted to eat us already. Showing fear leaves you in a weak negotiating position when dealing with magical creatures! If you cower, they inevitably expect that they can offer less consideration for whatever service they’re requesting from you...”
“Silence, magos! While I generally value the essential task of instructing youth, I lack patience with those who squander my time!” The vast voice sent vibrations rippling through the stones beneath me.
My master sighed, as if the dragon hadn’t spoken. “I suppose, lad, that I was too hard on you. Now that I think on it, you and I haven’t covered negotiation tactics with unnatural beings yet. I generally don’t address that subject until the fifth year of study. No apprentice has any business interacting with unnatural beings until at least then, anyway.”
He poked me again, slightly less hard. “But stand up. You’re embarrassing me.”
Reluctantly, I scrambled to my feet. I would have preferred not to call attention to myself. The dragon might have overlooked a harmless, slightly over-sized apprentice who knew all of eight spells, one being a crop-enhancement spell.
The wizard’s gaze met mine for a moment and, unexpectedly, he gave me a bracing wink. I blinked in surprise myself. The old man hadn’t ever shown a hint of a sense of humor before during the year I’d been studying with him. Then he turned to face the dragon fully.
“How may I help you, sir dragon?” he inquired in a business-like tone, as if addressing a village headsman rather than a fire-breathing, intelligent beast with teeth as long as my thigh.
As a puff of smoke emerged from the dragon’s giant nostrils, I realized how unfortunately close we were to its head. Involuntarily, I began to cough as the faintly sulfur-scented, uncomfortably warm air washed over me. Then, as I discovered that I could still see two giant, glowing yellow orbs through the haze, I choked down a scream even while coughing. Tears oozed from my eyes as I hacked away. My respect for my master increased exponentially as he murmured a few words and, with a wave of a hand, summoned a fresh breeze.
“Help?” the dragon growled in an ominously irritated yet restrained voice.
“Ah,” Master Magos Davos said in an equally restrained, calm voice. “I misspoke. What service may I render you, oh mighty dragon?”
“Better,” the dragon rumbled begrudgingly. “Perhaps you will do after all. I understand that you are known as Master Magos Davos Pendragos.”
Master Davos sketched a silent but elegant bow in response.
“I am experiencing an…” The dragon paused dramatically. “Inconvenience.” In a jerky, almost involuntary motion, the dragon twisted to rasp the talons of its front right foot down its hind leg.
“An inconvenience?” Master Davos’s voice remained blandly respectful. “I am saddened and somewhat surprised to hear that a being as spectacular as you has been subjected to an inconvenience.”
“One of your brethren and I had a…” Again, the dragon paused. “Disagreement. As a result of the disagreement, he left me inconvenienced.”
Master Davos’s furry eyebrows raised, but he continued to speak levelly. “A disagreement? What type of disagreement?”
The dragon showed one of its massive front fangs in a sneer. “I prefer not to discuss the nature of the disagreement,” it growled. Then its tail lashed violently, shattering one of the smaller outbuildings surrounding the tower into shards. Yet I had the impression that the gesture hadn’t been intended to intimidate and wasn’t deliberate.
Soothingly, my master raised his hands, palms out. “Of course, of course. I simply ask because I wish to understand the manner in which I may be useful to you, oh most puissant dragon.”
“I want you to remove the inconvenience,” the dragon snarled.
“I am of course devastated that you are inconvenienced, oh wise dragon. But I’m sure that a being as all-knowing as you is aware that wizards have a certain code.” Truly? I’d never heard of any sort of wizarding code. I had the sinking feeling that it was a code Master Davos had invented to increase the amount of the fee he was inevitably about to attempt to charge.
“As a matter of professional courtesy, it puts one such as myself in a difficult position to be asked to remove an inconvenience inflicted by another…”
“It was Mordros,” the dragon interrupted.
My master inhaled sharply. “Mordros!” he barked in his most indignant tone, the one that usually preceded showers of sparks that ignited nearby scrolls and small plants. “That snake-faced, common charlatan!”
The dragon inclined its head. “I had heard that the two of you were unfriendly, Master Magos Davos Pendragos. That is why I sought you out personally.”
“You have heard correctly, sir!” Master Davos took a deep breath, visibly forcing himself towards serenity. “I am truly astonished, sir, that a bumbling fraud like Mordros would have the ability to inflict an inconvenience on you. But I am more than willing to discuss the terms of removing it with you, given our acrimonious relationship. Pray tell, what is the nature of the inconvenience?”
“He summoned a swarm of demonic scorpions from the underworld,” the dragon grated. Shifting positions uncomfortably, it dug the talons of its right front foot into its flank. “Their presence is...unpleasant.”
My master’s mouth fell open. “That must indeed have been a profound disagreement. Such a summoning requires a great deal of effort and magic. I would not have thought Mordros capable of it.”
Again, the dragon showed its front right fang ominously. “Are you or are you not capable of removing the inconvenience, wizard?”
“I certainly am, oh mighty dragon,” Master Davos continued. A wheedling tone crept into his voice. “I must warn you, however, that many of the components required for the preparation of a counter-spell are rare and costly….”
“How much are you demanding?” the dragon said in an unexpectedly resigned voice for so large a beast. “Spare me the tedious recital of justifications and simply name the total.”
After shooting me a warning glare, my master named an amount so enormous that I fought not to react visibly. The silvers he’d received for my tuition were a comparative pittance. “In gold,” he added.
“I warn you that it would be deeply unwise to take advantage of my current predicament, wizard,” the dragon growled, eyes narrowed. “Dragons that live for millennia have very long memories. You may be on notoriously bad terms with Mordros, but considering his disposition, I’m confident that there is at least one other wizard somewhere in the world willing to address my inconvenience.”
I doubted that the dragon was close enough to hear my master gulp, although I was. “Oh great dragon, it strikes me that I recently found a new supplier for mandrake, the most costly of the spell-components” he lied glibly. “I am of course happy to pass through to you the discount I received. On second thought, a better estimate would be one hundred gold coins.”
“Acceptable. Barely.” the dragon grumbled. With a forceful movement that made me jump, it dumped a heavy sack that it had been holding in its front left foot onto the tower next to us. “This should suffice.”
Master Davos clapped his hands together enthusiastically. “Excellent!” he exclaimed. “I’m delighted that we could reach an agreement. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be off to gather the necessary materials so that we can rid you of your inconvenience. We should return shortly.” Quickly, he reached for the sack.
“The boy will wait here while you gather your spell-components,” the dragon announced imperiously.
I let out an incoherent whimper. The moment my master turned his back, the dragon would devour me!
“Excuse me, sir dragon?” Master Davos asked carefully. “The boy is my apprentice. He is necessary for the spell.”
“While the ways of wizards are mysterious to me, I have no intention of depriving you of the boy for spell-casting purposes. Besides, he’s too bony to be tasty. However, I doubt that the boy is required to gather spell-components.”
My master’s shoulders collapsed inwards as he tried to look old and weak. “I need him to carry the components for me,” he protested in a wheezy voice.
The dragon’s eyes narrowed again. “Make multiple trips. I wish to ensure your prompt return to rid me of this inconvenience without any detours.”
Shooting me another glance, my master left. I prayed he would be efficient.
Mercifully, the dragon didn’t speak a single word to me while Master Davos fetched the components. I might have fainted if it had. My teeth were chattering so hard I never would have been able to reply anyway. Instead, the dragon spent most of the time itself almost convulsively.
After an eternity, Master Davos reappeared, all but staggering beneath the weight of a huge basket.
The dragon gave him a toothy grin. “I’m delighted to see that you were capable of retrieving the spell-components on your own in a single trip after all.”
With the dignity of a master wizard, Master Davos ignored the taunt. He upended the sack into a pile on the roof of the tunnel. “Arrange the spell-components properly and draw the containment circle, boy,” he directed, tossing me a small piece of white chalk.
As I complied, he carefully reached within the voluminous sleeve of his robe and drew out a heavy tome. I recognized it as one I had been instructed to never touch under any circumstances.
Once the circle was complete and the components had been arranged to his satisfaction, in a deeper voice than usual, Master Davos began to chant. After a few words, scarlet light began to gather around the dragon. As the pitch and tone of his chanting rose to a crescendo, and the light grew brighter, the dragon let out a single loud roar that jostled my bones.
A moment later, the glow vanished, the chanting ceased, and my master folded to his knees in exhaustion. Quickly, I carried his staff to him and offered him my right arm. As he’d said earlier, better not to fall in front of an apex predator like a dragon.
Twitching experimentally, the dragon flapped its wings and lifted each foot in turn. “I believe the vermin are actually gone,” it said in a pleased voice.
“I apologize for any discomfort, sir dragon,” Master Davos murmured in exhaustion.
“I can forgive a few moments of discomfort in the name of ridding me of this plague,” the dragon replied in what sounded like relief. “You are a true master wizard, Master Davos, and have earned your reward. And it’s ‘lady dragon.’ Farewell.”
Without another word, she opened her vast wings. Unexpectedly, I realized that they were beautiful, the moonlight glittering off each individual scale in a slightly different hue like an array of jewels. Then, with a gust of wind that nearly knocked me off my feet, she rose into the air and winged away.
My master snorted and smacked me on the back with more vigor than I expected from a man of sixty-seven years. “Now, that was worth writing a song about, wasn’t it, Alain?” I blinked. I hadn’t realized that he knew about my musical aspirations.
“But the dragon would likely hunt you down and eat you if you sang such a song publicly,” he added thoughtfully. “In this instance, I believe that we should consider secrecy a component of the services rendered, even if no extra premium was paid. When it comes to dragons, discretion is the better part of valor, after all. Gods, it does burn me that I won’t have the chance to rub it in old Mordros’s face though. That was his signature curse and I managed to dispel it!”
“You...you didn’t know if you could dispel it?” I stammered anxiously. The thought had never crossed my mind until this moment.
The old wizard harrumphed and spat on the tower roof. “Of course I knew I could,” he barked. I started to feel better.
“There isn’t a spell that petty conjurer can cast that I can’t unravel,” he continued. “Eventually. However, I had never had occasion to attempt it before.”
“Th..th..tha...that’s not exactly what you told the dragon, sir,” I squeaked. Curses on my shifting voice!
“Of course not, lad. Bad negotiating tactic. Besides, there was a chance that the dragon might incinerate us if she thought that I was unwilling to cooperate rather than unable to.”
Unexpectedly, my knees went weak and the world went dark.
Abruptly, I awoke to a splash of cold, conjured water hitting my face.
“Honestly, boy! There are days when I despair of you! You have the gift in spades, but I sometimes question whether you have the temperament to become a wizard!”