William yawned and stared out the window of his office. Normally, such a fantastic view of the city would be enough to raise his spirits but not today.
The search to find someone who could decipher the ancient book had been fruitless. In the last four months, eight historians had come and gone, each one leaving in defeat with a pocket full of hush money. William had no choice but to call off the search. Not only was it getting expensive, but he wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet for much longer if this continued.
Even staring failure in the face, William couldn’t bring himself to give the book to a museum or hand it over to the dragons without learning its secrets first. So he had resigned to solving the mystery on his own. Using books from his personal library and the public one while also calling favors to borrow a few more, he set to work decoding the antediluvian tome.
That was two months ago. Since then, William had not determined the title of the book or if it even had one. It had not been written in any known language. It could be a child’s journal for all he knew, and it frustrated him to no end something as asinine as ignorance could defeat him.
There came a soft knock on the door, pulling him out of his thoughts. Slamming his hands on the desk, he leaped to his feet. “I said I do not wish to be disturbed! What part of that is difficult for you to comprehend? If such a simple task eludes you, I’m certain you can find employment elsewhere!”
The door opened and Marie poked her head inside. “Is everything all right?” she spoke in a gentle tone, but her gaze showed her unpleasantness at being yelled at.
William sighed and dropped back into his seat. Placing his elbows on the desk and resting his forehead on his fingers, he said, “Forgive me. I’m just frustrated is all.”
“Because you’re pushing yourself too hard.” She stepped inside, revealing a large tray in her arms. On the tray was a complete breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, and potatoes. William fought the urge to drool at the savory scent filling his nose. “You’ve been locked away in this room for months. You barely eat or sleep. Everyone is worried about you.”
“I know, but I’m fine. Marie, I’m so close to cracking this I can taste it.”
“Well, I would prefer if you tasted food.” She walked over and placed the tray on the desk. “You’ll be able to think straight if you eat.”
William nodded and plucked a piece of toast from the tray. Even if he wanted to argue, he hadn’t eaten in days, and he couldn’t focus on anything other than the tray of food before him. It took a great deal of willpower to not begin shoving food in his mouth.
Marie picked up the book and gave a disgusted groan. “Why are you so focused on this filthy thing?”
“That there is a book written likely before or during the Great Rebellion,” William said through a mouthful of food. Talking with food in one’s mouth was so uncouth, but in Marie’s presence, he felt he could be laxer in his mannerisms.
“The Great Rebellion? Do people still discuss that era? I thought it was rude to bring up in polite company.”
Swallowing the forkful of scrambled egg, William replied, “It is rude to bring up in front of dragons, but even they don’t truly mind. No one talks about it because no one knows what happened. Much history was destroyed during that time.”
“And this book supposedly holds the details of the horrible war?”
“That is my hope.”
Marie carefully sat the book back on the desk then looked at her hands and grimaced at the filth on her fingers. “I say why bother? It was centuries ago, and we won our freedom from the dragons. Do we truly need to worry about how we won?”
“My dearest Marie, this book could do so much more for us. We know so little about life before our freedom.”
“Which is exactly my point. Must we dwell on a time we would rather not remember? I, for one, do not need to know what it was like living under a dragon’s tutelage.” She shuddered at some unknown thought. “It must’ve been horrible.”
William only nodded in reply. While he agreed with Marie’s statement, he felt learning the past was necessary for securing the future. If they weren’t careful, they could easily find themselves under a dragon’s rule again.
There were still parts of the world where that was the case. Far to the west were the dragon lands, and he heard many humans had settled there. He had never been there himself, but he heard nasty rumors about how hard it was keeping up with the dragon’s ideologies.
He ate the remainder of his breakfast in silence. Marie stood patiently by his side until he finished then collected the tray. “That’s better. Now follow me, please.”
William followed his fiancée out of the office. She paused only long enough to pass the tray to their maid then continued walking. He quietly contemplated where she was leading him and the reason for her secrecy. It wasn’t until she led him into the bathroom and he saw the tub filled with steaming water that he understood what was happening.
“A bath? Marie, I don’t—”
“I don’t know if you realized, but you have not bathed since you came home”--her smile dropped and her voice became cold--“four months ago. None of the servants will say it, but I will: you stink.” Patting his shoulder and smiling sweetly, she added. “You and I are going out tonight, and I will not have my husband-to-be smelling and looking like a vagrant. Now wash up and shave. I already had your outfit prepared for you. Roman is cleaning your office and replacing that disgusting cot in the corner.” She walked away putting an end to the discussion.
William chuckled to himself as he entered the bathroom. No doubt if he ignored Marie’s request, her next move would be to dump a bucket of water on his head. Pulling his shirt over his head, he caught a good whiff of his malodor and reeled. He applauded Marie for putting up with him for as long as she did.
Slowly, he slid into the warm bath, letting out a sigh of contentment as the water eased the tension in his muscles. He sat there and soaked until the water became cold then washed up. He was startled by his appearance in the mirror. Four months without shaving had left him with a short beard, and his hair had grown long and wild. The items needed to shave had been left out for him as well. William preferred to shave. Since he had many enemies, he never felt comfortable having someone holding a razor blade against his throat.
After shaving and cutting his hair, he examined himself in the mirror. It was like looking at a new person. But the tome had never left his thoughts. Even when he soaked in the tub, he ran decoding simulations through his head and now was eager to try them out.
His old clothes were filthy, but Marie had left him a fresh set of clothing. He quickly dressed and left the bathroom, almost running into Marie along the way.
“Hello, William. You look so much better.” Hooking his arm in hers, she steered him down the hall. “We don’t have much time. We must be ready to leave for the dinner party soon.”
“Marie, I was in the middle of—” He became silent when Marie gave him a hard look which meant he wasn’t getting a say in the matter.
William had nothing against social gatherings; he enjoyed being around others and conversing with intelligent people. Unfortunately, his position within the Scale Guild made him a bit paranoid and after discovering the tome, that hadn’t improved.
He spent most of the night skeptical of half the guests there. Everywhere he looked, there were sideways stares and hushed whispers. He feared they plotted against him, that the food and drink had been poisoned, and the music was only to mask an assassin’s footsteps. He knew he was being silly allowing his thoughts to consume him so, but the idea any of them could know about the tome refused to leave his mind. If nothing else, he could trust Marie’s judgment. She wouldn’t knowingly put him in a compromising position.
“Refreshments, sir?” a voice asked.
William turned to the source, a drake covered in red-gold scales and bright gold belly scales. He recognized the species immediately as a Ramscale, named for their helix-shaped horns. The horns on this dragon were adorned with thin gold chains with small clear stones. He wore a black vest with a harness that affixed the serving tray to his back. He wasn’t a very large dragon, just able to look William in the eye at full height. The look on the dragon’s face said he would rather be anywhere than where he was now.
William sympathized with the poor beast. Some nobles kept dragons as pets or hired them as servants as a way to “reverse their roles” as they said since humans once worshipped dragons and served them. He always found such behavior despicable. While he didn’t want to see humans under dragon dominion again, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for this proud, powerful beast that was once feared by all reduced to such a state.
“Yes, thank you,” William replied. He took one of the finger sandwiches from the tray. “Busy night isn’t it?”
The dragon said nothing but gave a forced smile. Likely he had been ordered to have as little contact with the guests as possible.
William smiled. “That’s all right. You may not say it, but I’m thinking it. This party is boring.”
Before the dragon could react, someone called out: “Goldie! Goldie, come here!”
The Ramscale’s already forced smile became even more strained as he said through clenched teeth, “My name isn’t ‘Goldie’ you stupid bitch.” He then walked through the crowd towards two very impatient-looking nobles standing on the far side of the room.
“My condolences, my friend,” William whispered to the dragon then took a bite of his sandwich. It tasted like plastic. Using a nearby napkin, he pretended to wipe his mouth to politely spit out the disgusting confection.
Once again alone, his mind began to wander. The first thought was why Marie took him to this party. She enjoyed a good gathering as much as he did, but this didn’t seem her usual thing. Perhaps he was overthinking it or she had been roped into it by an obnoxious friend. He found an empty chair in the corner and sat in it. He would wait here patiently until Marie decided it was time to leave.
He scanned the crowd for her until he found his lovely fiancée standing near the middle of the room. She wore a long sapphire dress and her hair had been braided and hung down her back. Unfortunately, she was smiling at the woman she spoke to and not sending him the signal.
Whenever they wanted to signal the other they wanted to leave, they scratched their ear twice then folded their hands in front of them. That was the cue for the other to make up an excuse to break away from the conversation.
Maria looked in his direction and he sat perfectly still. It was clear in her face she was enjoying herself, and he wouldn’t take that from her. Besides, a few hours out of the mansion would do him good.
“Lord Delcat, what a surprise seeing you here,” a male voice said.
William was pulled back to reality by a nobleman standing before him. It was Hector Faust, a man he had business dealings with the year prior. William quickly stood and offered his hand. “Hector! You’re right, it is a surprise. I thought you had moved to Strendor.”
“I did.” He leaned in close and whispered. “Thank you for your help with that little problem with the registration papers.”
“Happy to help,” William replied. Hector was what the humans called a “dragon sympathizer” or the more derogatory term, “scab licker”. William had used his connections with the Scale Guild to help Hector set up a sort of safe refuge for exiled dragons entering the city Strendor which sat on the edge between human and dragon territories. Hector was fighting on two fronts: the humans with little love for dragons, and the dragons who had no love for exiles. As the Scale guild was meant to advocate peace between the two species, it was only right that William helped out. Even if his superiors thought it was a waste of time.
“Well, you’ll be happy to know the business is taking off quite well.”
“Glad to hear it. Tell me—"
The loud clang of a metal tray filled the room followed by a shriek of shock and outrage. Everyone turned in the same direction, the far corner of the room. William stood on top of his chair to get a better look at the cause of the disturbance.
Through the sea of nobles, he could just make out the Ramscale standing there with its head bowed, looking defeated. The serving tray that was affixed to its back was no longer there.
A noblewoman stood in front of the dragon, waving a threatening finger in the drake’s face. The woman’s furious rant carried easily through the now silent room. “What have you done?! I gave you one simple task! A child could carry that tray; I thought even a dragon could handle such a thing!”
William hopped down from his perch and headed toward the pair. From the little bit of time he knew the dragon, he knew the drake’s patience had been worn thin. Dragons already didn’t take well to insults, so this drake would only handle being yelled at for so long before the consequences no longer mattered to him.
“Well?! What do you have to say for yourself?! This dress is worth more than everything you own! How do you expect to pay for it?”
There was a slight pause which was likely caused by the drake’s reply. William didn’t hear the dragon’s response, but the woman had no problem filling in the gaps. “Sorry? You’re sorry? I don’t care if you’re sorry!”
William managed to push through the crowd to find the woman standing dangerously close to the dragon. The green dress she wore had a large tear on the side and bits of food on the front. The serving tray and the remainder of the food lay scattered and forgotten on the ground. A nobleman William assumed was the woman’s husband was trying unsuccessfully to pull her away. The drake stared at the ground but deep scratches had been left on the floor from his claws.
“I’ll be honest, I only hired you because your mother was good to me,” the woman said in an even voice. “She was a wonderful pet who knew her place. I just don’t understand where she went wrong in raising you.”
William knew immediately, she had taken it one step too far. The drake’s expression turned livid as he raised his head and snarled at the woman. The noblewoman stepped back her face pale, nearly tripping over her husband in the process.
William placed a hand on the dragon’s shoulder. The drake whirled around, snarling at him, but his expression immediately softened. “I think you’ve swallowed enough of your pride today,” William said. “If you harm this woman, you will be arrested and imprisoned, possibly even killed. I’m sure that is not what you want.”
The dragon turned back to the woman and replied, “Yeah. That bitch isn’t worth it.”
The noblewoman’s lips pressed into a thin line, but she offered no retort and didn’t leave the relative safety of her husband’s arms. Without another word, the dragon turned and left.
William quickly followed the drake. A sudden thought to hire the dragon crossed his mind. Having a dragon around his mansion would certainly bring him some peace of mind. Sooner or later, someone would come looking for that tome, but having a dragon bodyguard would give all but the most dedicated thief pause. The Scale Guild would provide ample protection should he ask for it, but then he would need to tell them why he needed it. For now, he preferred to keep them in the dark until he knew exactly what he had in his possession.
He found the dragon just outside the estate, swearing and slapping his tail against the ground. Taking a deep breath, he approached the angry drake. Dragons were notorious for their stubborn and often violent nature. If he approached too carelessly, the drake might turn on him. He stopped just out of reach of the dragon’s claws and loudly cleared his throat.
The dragon whirled around with a vicious snarl but quickly calmed upon seeing his interloper. With a derisive snort, the dragon said, “What do you want, human?”
“First, I believe a proper introduction is called for.” He bowed deeply. “I am Lord William Delcat, but you may simply call me William. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Caius,” the dragon said after an uninterested grunt.
William quickly straightened and got straight to the point. The drake was likely being polite only because of the kindness he was shown before, but his patience would be thin now and any attempt to skirt around the objective would end poorly. “Well, Caius, I wish to assist you since you are at the moment without employment.”
Caius tilted his head. “Why?”
“Because you were treated unfairly and I wish to make amends.” William maintained a level gaze with the drake. If Caius suspected that the earlier show of kindness was only a ploy to gain his favor, this conversation would not end how William would want.
“How I was treated isn’t your problem. I been around humans long enough to know you aren’t all alike. And I don’t need your pity.”
“It’s not pity. If anything, it’s annoyance,” William replied, letting a small amount of the mentioned emotion into his voice. The noblewoman’s behavior had truly disgusted him, but he needed to sell it to Caius. “That woman had no right to speak to you that way. I simply cannot let this stand.”
“You’re a strange human,” Caius replied, his tone no longer brusque. “But no. I’m done playing pet.”
“You won’t be a pet,” William said quickly. “I wish to hire you to be a bodyguard. You will come to live with me at my estate, but I promise you, in no capacity will you be considered a pet.”
Caius stopped, but William’s hopes dropped a little when the drake laughed. “So you want me to die for you? Yes, that sounds much better!”
“A simple ‘no’ would suffice. I was merely trying to help; your mockery isn’t necessary.”
“That’s funny. It seems humans can mock whoever they want. But I guess I can work for you. At least what you’re offering is better than servant.”
William maintained a neutral expression though he was smiling on the inside. “We’re all servants be it to another, a cause, or our instincts. I will expect you to follow my orders, but I promise you I will not ask you to do anything that would compromise your honor.”
Caius stared silently, narrowing his yellow eyes. William maintained eye contact. It was important not to show any weakness, not if he expected this drake to take any orders from him. No dragon would listen to a leader they felt was weak.
Before the conversation could proceed any further, Marie’s voice cut through the crisp night air. “There you are, William. I was wondering where you ran off to.”
“Apologies. I was just having a word with Caius here,” William answered, turning to his wife. “Caius, this is my fiancee Marie.”
Marie stood at her husband’s side and bowed to the drake. “Hello, Caius. It is an honor to meet you.”
“It is an honor to meet you as well,” Caius said, returning the polite gesture. “At least some humans have manners.”
“Indeed. Such an overreaction to a simple accident is disgusting. Besides, that dress was an eyesore. If anything, we should all be thanking you for ridding the world of its existence.”
Caius chuckled and William wasted no time taking advantage of the good fortune and getting the conversation back on track. “Well, Caius, in addition to a room with any furnishings you desire, you will be well compensated for your services.”
“Sounds fair, I guess,” the drake said. “It’s a better deal than anyone else has offered me. Am I allowed to kill humans?”
“Anyone who poses a threat to my or my wife’s well-being is yours to do with as you please.”
Caius smiled, showing off his fangs. “Count me in.”
“I’m sorry, what’s going on here?” Marie asked.
“I just asked Caius to be our bodyguard.”
“Oh,” Marie replied, but her eyes carried a strong, we’ll-discuss-this-later look. William already had an excuse prepared. He was merely doing a favor for a friend which wasn’t a complete lie. There was no shortage of dragons he could hire. Caius just happened to be available first.