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Another Coin in the Hoard

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Ajo ducked behind a tree. He dared to part some of the lower branches of the foliage he hid behind for another glance. In the distance, high on a cliff, a dragon stretched her wings in the sun. With a few beats of her wings, she lifted herself into the air and flew away. He scrambled through the brush to his camp, flipping an hourglass. Taking up his notebook, he scribbled the approximate time of day in the log under a growing list. He gnawed at the end of his charcoal pencil, muddling over the numbers. It was coming together. A pattern was starting to emerge. The dragon left in the late morning to find food, returning two to three hours later. Far too little time for a proper heist. What Ajo was waiting for was an extended departure. Every once and a while, the dragon would leave for the better part of the day to find treasure for its collection. Her absence would give him ample time to take from her hoard before she got back to add to it. And if all went well, the incoming treasure would mask the trinkets he took. Ajo knew that he wasn’t going to be able to take much with him; after all, he had to be long gone before the dragon got back in the instance she DID notice something was amiss. But if all went well, he could come back to skim off her hoard again and again.

Ajo stretched, able to relax now that he didn’t have to wait for the dragon to emerge again. Looking around at the decrepit state of the camp, he wondered again if it wouldn’t be better to get a job. Brick making or farming was grueling work, but at least laborers got to go home to a bed at night. He’d spent a month trapping, foraging, and scrounging in the forest to case this lair. A whole month of tiny fires and a shack of bark to keep his presence hidden from the looming danger. Would it really be worth it? “No farmer ever had to worry about getting incinerated on the job…” Ajo grumbled to himself. He shook his head. Talking to himself was becoming a nasty habit. The solitude was driving him insane. What he wouldn’t give to sit down at a bar and chat with the drunkards around him over a mug of beer. Then again, there was something thrilling about all this. Every time the dragon emerged, his heart raced. Seeing the pieces of his plan come together gave him a satisfaction that couldn’t be put into words. The heist had transcended a means to wealth; it had become his obsession. Ajo knew that even if he were to abandon the plot, he would think about what could have been every day for the rest of his life. “I’ll be drinking wine when I get back,” said Ajo. “If I make it back…”

~~~~~~~~~

Ajo’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest. There it was. The dragon had reappeared at the mouth of its cave; and after she had returned with a fresh catch this morning. That could only mean one thing: payday. Ajo was already scrambling through the brush with his bags in tow by the time the dragon flew away. Cursing his nerves, he waited in the last vestige of the forest for a minute to make sure she was truly gone. Seeing no sign of the dragon, he hurried up the rocky slope, following the path he had traced with his eyes for so many days. The climb left him winded and aching. Resting his hands on his knees, he scanned the sky from the mouth of the cave. Not a dragon in sight. Unslinging his bags, he quickly ducked inside the cave.

Ajo had been curious as to what the inside of the cave would look like. He had no idea if the dragon was intelligent or not. The way she stretched seemed human enough, but humans didn’t haul half-burnt carcasses into their living rooms with their feet. To his surprise, a row of torches lined the walls. In lieu of carpet, an intricate pattern had been scratched into the ground, snaking through the cave into the darkness. Taking the lantern off his belt, Ajo lit it and held it aloft. This was a good sign. The dragon wasn’t some dumb beast; and that meant that she would have wealth befitting a sapient creature. Sound from the world outside faded into an eerie silence the farther Ajo ventured into the cave. Rooms began to appear on either side of the main hall he stood in. He shone his lantern into each of them, hoping to spy the glint of gold. A bath, a library, a room with a flat stone open to the sun, a stock room… The more Ajo saw, the more he realized that the dragon was equal in intellect to a human; perhaps even their superior. Each room was carefully carved, with the more used sections being filled with patterns clawed into the walls. Her books and materials were neatly organized. She even had a room filled with hanging cuts of meat. “To hell with steaks, where’s the gold?” muttered Ajo, slamming the lid of the crate he was looking into shut.

Ignoring the rest of the rooms, Ajo ventured into the heart of the cave. It stood to reason that the dragon would have her hoard at the epicenter of her lair. He would have to take the trek into account when considering how much loot he could haul out of here. That bitch had better not have buried her loot. Rounding a corner, Ajo stopped dead in his tracks. A mountain of gold sat on the floor on a spacious, round room, surrounded by smoldering braziers. His mouth went dry. It worked! He was going to be wealthier than any other man in the city! Stumbling over, he picked up a coin. Ajo didn’t recognize the face on the front, but a quick scrape against the ground proved it to be gold of the highest quality. His hands trembled. Throwing open his bag, he started to shovel the gold and jewels inside. As he shifted the bag over to scoop more loot inside, he realized he may have overestimated how much he could carry. The pouches were already becoming cumbersome. Ajo chuckled to himself. “A good problem to have.”

Throwing a few necklaces over his head, and adding a ring to one of his fingers, Ajo began lugging his sacks out of the cave. He looked over his shoulder. The damn bags were making trails through the dust. Turning back, he poured some of the wealth back onto the hoard. Better to be alive than greedy. Hefting the sacks to make sure he could carry them as quickly as he needed to in order to escape unburnt, Ajo shuffled out of the cave. The sun nearly blinded him when he stepped back into the light. Tilting his face to the sun, he relished in the warmth for a moment. Maybe after he sold this stuff, he could buy a house with a nice patio to lounge on. A big, spacious manor with all the trappings. Big enough to keep the in-laws happy. Ajo smiled and opened his eyes. His blood ran cold. A speck was on the horizon, barely visible. The panic quickly faded. “It must be a bird,” thought Ajo. “It wouldn’t be coming back already.” Reminded of what was at stake, Ajo hurried down the mountain.

The speck grew every time Ajo glanced back up at it. His reasoning that it must be a hawk seemed less sound by the second. Ajo’s terror mounted, until at last his worst fears were realized. The figure was carrying something in its talons. Ajo dropped one bag of gold, then two. Then the pouches he had around his waist. A trail of gold snaked down the mountain after him; a gleaming trail leading the beast to him. His scrambling turned into bounds as he made for the wood line below. Praying against all odds that the dragon would be too preoccupied with its meal to go after him, Ajo chanced another glance at the sky. The dragon was bearing down on him. It was the first time he had seen her this close. Her visage was smoldering with rage. Ajo screamed.

She slammed down into the ground in front of him, letting go of the boar. Ajo turned and began to climb the mountain, obeying his instincts to escape the beast. He knew how futile it was. A shadow flitted overhead. Before Ajo could look up, the dragon obliterated the rock he was about to scale. Flecks of rock showered down around him. Ajo fell back, rolling through the dirt until he came to rest against the body of the pig. He gasped, pulling his face away from the carcass. The same fate awaited him. A scaly foot prevented Ajo from rising to his feet. He uttered a choked cry as the dragon put more weight onto his back.

“Well, well. I thought I smelled a rat in the woods. How long have you been living here, thief?” The dragon’s voice was sonorous and commanding.

“Not long, I swear! I just arrived here!” wheezed Ajo.

“How quaint, a thief AND a liar. Your stench has been lingering at my doorstep for the better part of a month. You knew when I would leave to hunt, and when I would be back. Unfortunate for you, you didn’t see that the hind I caught this morning was too lean to sate me,” said the dragon.

“I’ll give it all back, I swear! Every coin!” pleaded Ajo.

“You’ll give me more than that!” hissed the dragon.

“Anything you ask!” said Ajo.

He felt the weight on his back ease. “Anything?” the dragon said in a curiously wistful tone. “Anything, of course. I own you now. That you still breath is a testament to my unending mercy and magnanimity.”

“Yes! Truly your grace knows no bounds!” said Ajo.

“Was that flippancy?!” demanded the dragon, prodding his back with one of her talons.

“It wasn’t!” insisted Ajo.

“Oh. I see,” said the dragon. She flipped him over with a flick of her foot. Ajo stared up at her. Her hair hung down around her face as she glared down at him. She seemed to be thinking something over. With a snort, she pulled her foot off of Ajo’s chest. “Well then, since you understand your place, you’ll be added to my hoard.”

“What?” asked Ajo.

The dragon’s brow furrowed. Ajo reminded himself not to ask anymore questions. “You are my property now, thief. Your life is now payment for the gold you sought to steal.”

Ajo nodded dumbly. “Yes… uh, dragon.”

“Address me properly, dullard!” snarled the dragon. A small ember shot out of her mouth through her bared teeth.

“W-what should I call you?” asked Ajo.

“Mistress will suffice,” puffed the dragon.

“Yes, Mistress,” said Ajo, already hating the name.

The dragon’s stoic face twitched almost imperceptibly when he said it. “Very good, thief. Now then, pick up this mess, and return it to my hoard,” commanded the dragon.

Ajo picked himself up and looked up the cliff at the trail of gleaming baubles. He turned to state that it would take hours to clean up the mess but balked when he saw the dragon’s face bearing down on him. “Yes, Mistress,” muttered Ajo.

The dragon snorted in amusement. “Make it quick. If you try to run, I’ll incinerate you.” The dragon picked up the boar carcass and flew up the cliff into the cave. Ajo looked at the gold around his feet. The price of his life. There was no way he could escape now. Bending down, he began to pick up the coins.

~~~~~~~~~

It was dusk when the dragon reemerged. Ajo was almost finished with the task at hand. It had taken the entire day, but he had almost reclaimed all the gold. Getting it back into the cave however… Ajo slumped against a rock. The heat had sapped his strength, and he hadn’t had any food or water since breakfast. Even though most of the gold had remained in the pouches, poking through the crevices to get the last of it had been a painstaking process. The bags he had carried out of the cave were far heavier without the adrenaline of a successful heist to propel him forward.

“What’s taking so long?” demanded the dragon.

“It’s heavy… I need food…” pleaded Ajo.

The dragon let out a disgusted sigh. Flapping down to him, she seized the bags of gold. She hefted the loot. “You’re missing some.”

Ajo collapsed against the rock next to him. Tears began to form in his eyes. This was it. He was going to die of exposure trying to find some coin that had rolled all the way down the mountain or get fried by this creature once he was too weak to go on.

“Feh. Typical human. You’ll be out here at first light getting the rest of it,” scoffed the dragon. “Get in the cave.”

Ajo stared up at her in bewilderment. “What?”

“Are you deaf? I said get in the cave, thief,” said the dragon. Ajo started crawling up towards the mouth of the cave as fast as his jellied limbs would carry him. The dragon’s tail flicked in annoyance at his glacial pace. She let out a contemptuous sigh. “Worthless.” Seizing his arms, the dragon flew into the air. Ajo yelped, sure that he was about to be dropped to his doom. “Stop squirming, fool! Do you want to be dropped?!” snarled the dragon. She set him down in front of the entrance to her rocky abode. Ajo collapsed to his hands and knees in exhaustion and fear. “Hmph! About time you showed me some respect. Come.” The dragon sauntered inside the cave. Ajo shuffled after her.

Unlike his previous visit, the walls of the cave were lined with torches, softly crackling as they passed by. The flames had a curious hue to them; she must use a special pitch to burn them. The dragon led him into the larder. She swiped a charred haunch of deer down with her claw. “Eat,” she said, stuffing the meat into Ajo’s arms. Ajo looked down at the food in his hands, unsure of why he was being fed. “Can’t you do anything right?! You put it in your mouth, idiot!” snapped the dragon. Ajo didn’t need to be told a third time. He began scarfing down the venison like a man possessed. It had a strange, smokey flavor that was somehow both sweet and spicy. Strength slowly returned to him as the meal disappeared into his mouth. The dragon looked on, watching him with contempt. Her lip curled in disgust when he licked his fingers clean. “I suppose you’ll need water too?” asked the dragon.

“Yes, Mistress,” said Ajo sheepishly. Did she expect him to never drink again?

The dragon walked out of the room. Ajo followed her. He was already picking up on the notion that where she went, he followed. There were sure to be more tacit understandings to come. He should learn them quickly; failing to please her would surely result in his death. The dragon entered a room with water flowing from a crack in the stone. The stream was split so that half went into a great stone basin in the floor, while the other trickled off into a smaller basin at waist height. The dragon stood next to the smaller one and crossed her arms. Ajo hurried over and began to drink. The water was cool and refreshing, with an inoffensive mineral taste to it. He had to take a few seconds to swallow more air into his lungs after drinking too fast.

“Finished?” the dragon said irritably.

“Yes, Mistress,” said Ajo, wiping the last drops of water off on his clothes.

“Good. Hmm, I suppose you’ll need a place to sleep…” The dragon tapped her chin. “Normally I would let you nest in some leaves and twigs, but I don’t want you messing up my home. I know! You can have some of the furs from my prey.” The dragon nodded to herself, clearly pleased with her ingenious solution. Ajo was just happy that he wasn’t sleeping on the bare floor. The dragon led him a small room filled with bloodstains. “Lucky for you, I hadn’t finished with these yet. Be grateful I consider your comfort more valuable than the scraps of meat that cling to these bones.” She picked up the skin of the boar she had caught this morning and inhaled. A jet of fire shot out, searing the meat. Ajo recoiled, shielding his face from the heat. The dragon repeated the process with the deer skin, dumping the freshly cleaned skins into his arms. A gob of sizzling fat dripped off the boar skin onto the floor. The dragon cocked an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Uh… Thank you, Mistress,” said Ajo.

The dragon puffed her chest out. “Serving me is its own reward, but if you continue to prove yourself to me, I may deign to give you other gifts.” Ajo nodded. He was too tired to care at this point. The dragon yawned. What had she been doing all day to warrant that fatigue? “I grow tired. Come.” Even dogs got more respect than this. Ajo dragged his ‘bed’ into the room with the treasure hoard. The dragon flapped her wings, landing on the pile of gold. Laying down, she nestled herself into a divot in the coins. “Sleep anywhere you want, so long as you don’t touch my treasure. And if you take anything while I sleep…” The dragon picked up a gold coin. Holding it between her claws, she melted it with her breath, letting the molten metal trickle down her scales. Ajo gulped. She smirked. “Good, we understand each other.”

Ajo laid out the skins as best he could. It wasn’t enough space for his body. Bunching up the deer hide, he settled with a sort of pillow and pad for his torso, using the boar skin as a blanket. A gust blew through the cave. He shivered. At least the enervation in his aching bones would help him sleep.

~~~~~~~~~

“Wake up!” Ajo jolted awake. The dragon was standing over him, glaring at him under the boar skin. “Are you going to sleep all day?! You still have to get the rest of my treasure, you lout.”

“Sorry…” mumbled Ajo, slipping out of his “bed.” His back ached from a night on the stone.

The dragon snorted. “So lazy, no wonder you turned to crime. Listen up: I’m going to get something from the forest, and you’re going to make me brefist. Understand?”

Ajo blinked, trying to shake off the stupor of sleep. “What?”

A tinge of red seeped into the dragon’s cheeks. “Brefist, you fool! Morning food!”

“Do you mean breakfast?” asked Ajo, rubbing his eyes.

“That’s what I said!” roared the dragon. Ajo pulled the pelt over himself to ward off a potential burning. The dragon pulled it away from him, tossing it aside. “Up! Move! Go! Get everything that you need ready. I’ll be back soon. And don’t try to escape!” The dragon took flight, soaring out of the cave before Ajo could ask any questions. What a strange creature.

Picking himself up, he wandered through the cave until he found the dragon’s larder. Aside from the hanging cuts of game, there were only a few crates in the corner of the room. Ajo opened one up. Salt. He opened another. More salt. Another crate, more salt. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” grumbled Ajo. He opened the last crate. Black pepper, at least he had something. But this wasn’t going to be a pretty breakfast. Closing the crate, he began looking for some sort of utensil. After a quick search of the surrounding rooms, Ajo had not so much as a fork to show for his efforts. No cutlery, no cutting boards, no plates, no bowls, no spices, no oven, no griddle. Just meat, salt, pepper, and lukewarm mineral water. Ajo’s dread only compounded when he heard the beating of the dragon’s wings at the mouth of the cave.

“Thief! I return!” The dragon wandered into the cave, dumping a fresh deer at his feet. “Is everything prepared? When will brefist be ready?”

“I can’t cook anything, there’s nothing to cook with!” said Ajo. He instantly regrated his tone. The dragon looked angry enough to cook him alive in lieu of some hash.
“Why, you indolent worm! I give you an hour to get everything ready, and you haven’t even started?!” seethed the dragon.

Ajo shrank away. “I need pots! Pans! Seasonings! A fire to cook with! What do you expect me to do with raw meat and salt?!”

“I expect a brefist!” The dragon stamped her foot. “I thought humans were supposed to know how to prepare food!”

“Knowing isn’t the issue! It’s impossible to cook human food without human cooking implements!” pleaded Ajo.

The dragon glowered at him. She looked at the deer and huffed a bit of smoke. “Fine. I will forego brefist TODAY. But I will find human cooking things, and when I do, you WILL prepare me a meal befitting my stature.”

Ajo nodded quickly. The dragon bent down and sliced open the deer. Ajo stepped back to avoid the deluge of innards. Without missing a beat, the dragon began tearing into her meal. Ajo fought back sickness as he watched her stuff chunks of raw meat into her mouth. She noticed him staring. “What are you looking at, thief?”

“Nothing, Mistress.” Ajo looked away.

“You can have the scraps when I’m done. Don’t get greedy,” scolded the dragon.

“I wouldn’t think of it, Mistress,” said Ajo.

She narrowed her eyes, sucking down another strip of meat. When she had consumed most of the deer, she smeared some of the blood on her face on the back of her paws and stifled a belch. Maybe Ajo had overestimated her intelligence after all. Dicing up what little remained of the corpse, she offered it to him. When Ajo didn’t take the ribbons of meat, she cocked her eyebrow. “You would dare refuse a gift from your Mistress?”

“Humans can’t eat raw meat. That’s one of the reasons we have to cook…” said Ajo.

“What a frail species,” lamented the dragon. She flash-fried the strips of meat, offering them to Ajo again. He gingerly took them, juggling the morsels in his hands until they cooled off. The dragon watched him intently. As soon as they cooled, he swallowed them down. They had the same strange flavor as the meat from last night. It must be her breath that gave it the taste. “Feeling better?” asked the dragon. Ajo nodded. “Good. Because you have gold to find.”

~~~~~~~~~

Another day, another armful of reclaimed treasure. The work was easier today, now that Ajo was collecting scraps instead of dragging around backs full of gold. Searching in the shade of the woods at the foot of the mountain was far easier than picking around between the stones, too. Whatever occupied the dragon’s time before, she now busied herself with watching him go about his business. Her reasoning was beyond Ajo; every time he looked up at her, she wore the same bored expression. Was she watching him to make sure he didn’t slack?

Around midday, the dragon departed from her perch. She swooped down the mountain, only a few feet above the rocks as she soared down. Ajo feverishly searched for any nearby coins, afraid that he had failed to meet some unknown quota and was about to pay the ultimate price.

“That’s enough. Give me what you have,” demanded the dragon. She snatched the bag out of Ajo’s hands. “We’re going back to the cave.”

“But I haven’t collected all the-“

“I said back to the cave!” She grabbed Ajo under the arms and carried him back up the cliff. Leading him inside, she dipped into a room piled high with boxes and random trinkets. Ajo had passed this room over when he had first tried to rob the dragon; nothing of any value here. Pulling out a metal file, the dragon led him to the sunroom. She crawled up onto the flat stone. Stretching her limbs in the sunlight from above, she flopped onto her back. “Here.” She flicked the file at Ajo. “Use that on my claws,” said the dragon, wiggling her toes at him.

“You want me to… sharpen them?” asked Ajo.

“Not sharpen, touch them up. Make them shine. Get rid of some of the blood,” huffed the dragon.

Ajo eyed the feet warily. The razor-sharp talons could shred a boar in half with a flick of her leg. He hoped she wasn’t ticklish. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Ajo gently took her foot into his hand.

“Wait!” The dragon recoiled her foot. Ajo leapt back, fumbling the file in the process.

“What?!” asked Ajo.

“Don’t touch my foot!” protested the dragon.

“I have to if you want me to care for it!” said Ajo, picking up the file.

The dragon grimaced. Her face flitted between shame, anticipation, reluctance and finally begrudging acceptance. “Fine. But don’t try anything!”

“I wasn’t planning to…” grumbled Ajo. Steadying a claw with one hand, he began to file away. The dragon hissed. Ajo stopped immediately, afraid he had harmed her.

“Keep going, idiot!” shouted the dragon.

Ajo kept filing. Layers of caked blood and hardened bone fell into the pile of dust below her foot. The more he took off, the more the dragon squirmed at his touch. She began to roll back and forth, forcing Ajo to use some of his arm to keep her from thrashing too much. He was the one dealing with a potentially lethal pedicure, and she was the one acting like her life was about to end. By the time he had finished one claw, she was a flushed mess. Ajo made for her next talon.

“Stop! That’s-“ The dragon cleared her throat, trying to cover her voice crack. “That’s enough for now. Shoddy work, but you will learn in time.”

“Thank you, Mistress,” said Ajo, doing his best to hide his contempt.

The dragon squirmed on her rock. “You’re welcome. Now then, for the rest of the day, I want you to… I don’t know, go do something.”

“Mistress?” asked Ajo.

“Go! Kick dust out of the cave! Cook food! Don’t bother me,” said the dragon. “I have some things to do.”

“But there’s still nothing to cook with,” said Ajo. She glared at him. Ajo quickly about-faced and hustled out of the room. Maybe he could make a broom out of some twigs and leaves…

~~~~~~~~~

After a long trek down the mountain to make the worst broom ever constructed, Ajo managed to sweep a bit of dust out of the cave. Pushing it around with his foot would have had about the same effect, but it was less demeaning when he could stand up to do it. He looked back into the cave. The dragon had been gone the rest of the day. He hoped she got back soon; he was getting hungry. Poking his head into various rooms, Ajo tried to find where she had wandered off to. He found her sitting in her library, surrounded by a pile of musty books. The dragon’s head jolted up, staring at him in terror. She slammed the book she was reading shut and stormed over to him.

“I thought I told you to- oh, is it this late already?” she asked, looking past him.

“It is, Mistress,” said Ajo.

The dragon nodded to herself. “Perfect. Just as I had planned. I want you to do ‘cooking’ to some meat tonight.”

“Mistress, please. I told you many times before, I can’t-“

“I know what you can and can’t do!” She stamped her foot. “I read that it was easy to cook! You are just lazy! Look,” The dragon ushered him into the meat-locker. A thin piece of shale rested between two larger stones. She must have built this while he was making his broom. “See? It’s a ‘stove,’” proclaimed the dragon.

“What am I going to use for fuel?” asked Ajo. Heating a slab of stone would take ages even if it were properly insulated. When the fire was exposed to the air like this, he’d be lucky if it got past room temperature.

“Oh, you poor, ignorant human. I’m a dragon. Fire runs in my blood,” said the dragon with a condescending smirk.

“I’m more worried it will run out of your mouth…” mumbled Ajo.

“What?” asked the dragon.

“Nothing. You just want me to grill the meat? That’s it?” he asked.

“No, fool. I could do that myself. I want you to season it,” said the dragon.

“Season it.” Ajo looked at the salt and pepper.

“Yes. It’s the process of applying salt or spices to-“

“I know how seasoning works,” said Ajo.

The dragon pouted, clearly enjoying being the one with the knowledge. “Then hurry up and get started. I’m hungry.”

“And the meat?” asked Ajo.

“Oh, right. Umm…” The dragon looked around at the scraps hanging from the ceiling. Selecting an un-burnt chunk of boar, she handed it to him.

“Thanks,” said Ajo, watching the bloody chunk slide into his hands. He put it down on the slate “stove” and retrieved a handful of salt in one hand and pepper in the other. Back to the pork, he sprinkled a little salt and pepper on one side before rolling it over to do the same on the other. The dragon watched him, mouth slightly agape in awe as if she was watching a sunrise. Ajo dusted his hands off and looked at her. “Okay. All done.”

The dragon’s brow furrowed. “Huh?”

“It’s seasoned,” said Ajo.

“But- but- but you just put some of that dusty stuff on it!” whined the dragon.

“That’s what seasoning is!” said Ajo.

The dragon leered at the meat. “I don’t know if I want to eat that…”

“Why?” said Ajo in exasperation.

“I don’t like that stuff! It tastes bad! The humans said it was worth a bunch, so I took those crates, but I think it went bad before I got it back to the cave…” said the dragon.

Ajo looked at the pork. Seemed normal to him. He went over and tasted a pinch of salt. Yep, salty. He did the same with the pepper. No problem there either. “It tastes fine to me.”

“You hardly ate any,” said the dragon.

“Excuse me?” asked Ajo.

“They said it was for food. But it tastes terrible,” explained the dragon.

“Did you… try and eat this stuff?” asked Ajo.

“Yes, human. That’s what food is for,” said the dragon with a self-assured smirk.

“You only use a pinch,” said Ajo.

The dragon’s face flushed. “I know that! I don’t have those spindly little meat protrusions you humans have! My mighty claws can’t help but grasp more than you!”

“Of course, I didn’t mean anything by it,” said Ajo. “And I still need something to cook with,” said Ajo, gesturing to the pork.

The dragon tapped her chin. She wandered out of the room and returned a few minutes later with a dagger bearing a large jewel in the hilt. “Use that.” Taking a deep breath, she began blasting flames into the space under the shale. Ajo’s eyes watered. The heat was intense. Maybe he would be able to get the meat up to temperature after all. The meat began to sizzle and hiss on the grill. Glancing up from her flames, the dragon tilted her head as if to bid him to start cooking.

“I can’t do anything when you’re blasting flames at it!” he pleaded.

The dragon cut off her jet of flames. Ajo quickly moved in to flip the pork. Ducking out of the way, he let her continue to cook it. They continued the duet, him flipping as needed and her nearly melting the rocks they used to cook on when he stepped away.

“Alright, I think it’s done,” said Ajo. He cut into the meat with the knife. A trickle of fat trickled down onto the stone. The dragon gave it a curious sniff. Pinching the meat between her claws, she took a tentative bite. Her face remained impassive as she chewed. Swallowing the bite, she frowned.

“Are you sure you did it right?” asked the dragon.

“Well I don’t have a lot to work with here, do I!” said Ajo, feeling a little hurt that the beast who’s diet consisted of raw meat and burnt scraps would impugn his cooking.

“Don’t get mouthy with me!” said the dragon, eating the rest of the pork.

“Hey! What about me?!” cried Ajo.

“Calm down. So needy! No wonder you have to steal to live,” she grabbed another chunk of meat down from the roof of the cave and scorched it for him. Ajo juggled the steaming meat in his hands. He took a bite. Hot and dry.

The dragon licked her claws and yawned. “I’m going to sleep. Be ready to travel tomorrow,”

“Travel? Where?” asked Ajo.

“I still have to figure that out,” said the dragon.

~~~~~~~~
“Ready to go?” asked the dragon. Ajo shrugged. He hadn’t been told where they were going and didn’t have anything of his own to bring. “Good. We’ll be heading to a human village today. I want to procure some spices and cookware. Perhaps a stove, but we may have to make a second trip for that,” mused the dragon.

“Should we bring a cart?” asked Ajo.

“Bah. Too slow. Dragons don’t need an animal as weak as a horse to do their work. Those are better for eating than working,” said the dragon. “Behold! The more efficient way of travel!” she said, holding up some sort of leather sling.

“Right…” said Ajo.

“You can ride in it on the way there. We’ll figure something out on the way back,” said the dragon. She walked out of the cave to the cliff. Flapping a few feet into the air, she grabbed either side of the sling, forming a pouch big enough for Ajo to ride in.

“Is that safe?” asked Ajo.

“Huh? How should I know? I’ve never carried a human before,” said the dragon.

Ajo weighed his options. Chances are a fall would be less painful than being roasted alive. Climbing into the sling, he hung on to either side for dear life.

“Relish this experience, human. Not many of your kind can boast about having flown with a dragon,” said the dragon. She flew into the air. Ajo’s stomach lurched as the ground dropped out beneath him. The sling swung back and forth, tilting forward as the dragon increased her speed. Ajo shut his eyes and prayed the trip would be over soon.

~~~~~~~~~

Villagers screamed at the dragon’s approach. Ajo dared to open his eyes. People were scattering to vacate the road as the dragon swooped in for a landing. Ajo yelped when she came to a halt, setting him down on the ground. Sweet, stable land! Ajo scrambled out. Townsfolk watched from the alleys and shadows, staring at the dragon. She cleared her throat.

“Tremble, humans! A being infinitely your greater has arrived! Fulfil my demands or be annihilated!” shouted the dragon.

“Annihilate?” gulped Ajo.

An elderly man shuffled forward, clutching his cap. “W-what do you ask of us, oh mighty dragon?”

“I demand your finest cookware!” said the dragon.

The old man blinked. He looked behind him at some of the other villagers. They shrugged. “Cookware, your scalyness?”

“Yes. And spices. Oh, and I’ll need to speak to a smith. Go on, fetch them for me,” said the dragon with a wave of her claw.

The village erupted into a frenzy. People sprinted into houses and inns to find whatever pots and pans they could find. Pantry doors were thrown open to plunder any seasonings they could find. Ajo watched the chaos in a mixture of embarrassment and terror. Somehow, this all felt like his fault.

“Um, Mistress, shouldn’t we perhaps pay for these goods?” asked Ajo. He watched an elderly woman mournfully carrying out a bag of exotic spice. The thing probably cost a month’s pay for her.

“Nonsense. These are humans. Unlike you, they recognize a superior being when they see one. It’s only right that I receive what I’m owed,” sniffed the dragon. A burly man shuffled towards them.

“Erm, you wanted to speak to me?” he asked.

The dragon sniffed at him. “Ah, you must be the smith. I have need of your services.”

The man swallowed. “What do you want?”

The dragon looked at Ajo. “I’ll tell you in private. Where is your smithy? Slave, make sure these plebeians give you everything you need. I shall return shortly. Have everything packed by then.”

The smith led the dragon away. Ajo stood mortified, surrounded by a throng of angry villagers holding pots, pans, skillets, and spices. That he had arrived in the company of the dragon was not lost on any of them. Indeed, it seemed not a single soul considered him to be a victim.

“I just need a few implements. Just the basics,” said Ajo, doing his best to reassure the crowd. A woman dumped an armful of her cookware on the cobblestone. Ajo pursed his lips. “That should do.” He scooped it up without looking at the woman and quickly dumped it back in the sling. Other villagers followed suit, dumping pouches of spice onto the ground for him to retrieve. Ajo swallowed whatever scraps of his pride remained and dutifully collected them all. One villager held out a pouch for him. Ajo gave him an apologetic grin and grabbed it. Instead of letting go, the man held the bag tight, dragging Ajo towards him.

“You’re pathetic, you know that? Stealing from us, who haven’t this much to spare. Hope this goes towards salting your bones when she cooks you,” said the man.

“I didn’t want this,” hissed Ajo.

“Neither did we. If it weren’t for that dragon, we’d have you strung up in front of the town hall, you pathetic, sniveling little runt,” seethed the man.

“You’d what?”

The dragon waded through the crowd to stand behind the man antagonizing Ajo. “Say it again. Tell me what you would do to my property.”

The man was staring through Ajo. His hand was shaking the bag of spice. All the color had drained out of his face. “I- I-“ was all he could sputter out.

“You would do NOTHING, vermin. If you ever cross me, if you ever put a bruise on my servant, if you ever steal so much as a COIN from my hoard, I will track you down, and I will make you pay tenfold. And if you have nothing left to give…” The dragon snorted a blast of smoke out of her nose. The man winced as the hot, smoggy air split on the back of his neck. “I’ll make you work until you have something worth taking.”

The man shoved the bag into Ajo’s hands and hurried into the crowd. The dragon watched him go impassively. “Is everything ready?” she asked.

“Yes, Mistress,” Ajo said weakly.

“Good.” The dragon grabbed both halves of the sling, pulling it up. The metal inside clattered against itself as she took off into the air. Ajo watched her hover, wondering where he was supposed to ride now that the pouch was full. The dragon glared at him.

“Get over here, minion,” said the dragon.

Ajo inched closer, unsure of where he was supposed to be standing. The dragon lunged forward. Opening her arms, she grabbed Ajo around the chest. Beating her wings, she flew away with him hanging like a ragdoll in her arms. The irate faces of the villagers faded away as they flew into the sky.

~~~~~~~~~~

Ajo had never seen the dragon so pleased as he began to organize their spoils in the “kitchen.” The tip of her tail wagged back and forth as she carefully inspected each bag of spice, opening them one by one to give them a sniff and taste. Ajo watched her face scrunch up as she tasted something salty, her tongue flicking out over her lips over and over again. All with that little smile. She actually looked pretty cute when she did that.

“Oh yes, tomorrow, there will be brefist!” said the dragon, putting the last of the spice away.

“I recommend getting a boar. I can make bacon if you find one,” said Ajo.

“Yes! Bacon! An important part of brefist!” said the dragon with an emphatic nod. Ajo yawned. Dealing with those villagers had taken a lot out of him. She snagged his waist with her tail. “Come, the sooner we get to bed, the sooner we can eat.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

Ajo flipped over the bacon strip he was tending to. The dragon hovered over him impatiently. She growled when he moved stir the minced ham on another skillet.
“Move over!” She muscled in and snatched the bacon out of the pan. Grease trickled down her claws as she swallowed the fistful of sizzling meat. Ajo sighed, knowing that he would never get a portion of his own. The dragon licked her claws clean and eyed the other meat hungrily. “Shouldn’t there be more to this? I read up on cooking last night, and it mentioned other ingredients besides meat,” said the dragon.

“Meat is all you have,” said Ajo.

“I have spices,” she retorted.

“But no produce,” said Ajo.

The dragon nodded pensively. “I see, produce… We’ll have to get some when we go back to that village.”

“Go back? What for? Don’t we have enough here?” asked Ajo. He wasn’t eager to make a return trip after what happened last time.

“I need to retrieve my commission from the smith. We may as well take some plants back with us,” shrugged the dragon.

Ajo gulped. He stirred the meat around the pan again. Those poor people, if only there were a way to protect them. He paused. Perhaps there was. It was a long shot, but perhaps there was a way to right the wrongs he was responsible for.

“Maybe we can bring them some gold,” said Ajo, doing his best to sound as casual as possible.

The dragon uttered a loud scoff. “Are you insane?! Me, give up my hard-earned treasure to THEM?! Some ungrateful peasants?”

“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to sound impertinent. I was just trying to salvage your reputation,” said Ajo.

“Salvage? What do you mean ‘salvage,’ slave?” hissed the dragon.

Ajo winced. Life was a hell of a thing to gamble with. “Well, some of the villagers expressed their sympathy for you when you were talking to the smith. They surmised that you must not have much wealth to your name if you were forced to steal from them. I tried to explain that you had a mountain of treasure, but they wouldn’t have any of it.”

The dragon gasped. “They WHAT?! Those mud-bathing, barn-smelling serfs dare to accuse ME of indigence? A dragon?!”

“My thoughts exactly, Mistress. However, I was in no position to prove them wrong. Hence, I thought a small token of your generosity would be a fitting means to riposte the aspersions against your character. You are, of course, the most magnanimous and fearsome beast any have known, and your hoard is so large, I thought that a few coins from such a trove would be unmissed.”

The dragon grabbed the pan Ajo was stirring. Tilting her head back, she let the meat slide into her mouth. She tossed it aside, letting it clatter against the stone floor. “Ingrates!” she said through a mouthful of food. “They should be thankful I didn’t burn their pissant little village to the ground! To think that they would pity me, ME! Did they not see my beauty? Did they not understand that they were dealing with a superior being?! I’ve been alive longer than that heap of boards and stone has existed!” She paced back and forth. Lashing out with her claws, she carved a series of long furrows into the wall. Spewing a gust of smoke out of her nose, she sighed. “A few coins, yes… I’ll show them. I could gild every facet of that dung-heap if I so chose. They don’t deserve it, not one coin. But I can’t have simpletons like that besmirching my good name. Very well, the village will have its gold.”

“I’m sure they’ll be awestruck by your generosity, Mistress,” said Ajo.

“Shut up and make me more food,” growled the dragon.

~~~~~~~~~

This time, the villagers were more composed when the dragon reappeared on the horizon. Though they still sought shelter, it was clear that they regarded her as more of a nuisance than an immediate threat. Ajo considered it fortunate that they weren’t shooting at them. The dragon landed in the center of town once again. The sling she carried rattled loudly with the gold she carried.

“Listen up, worms! I will no longer tolerate any implication that my fortune is anything less than monumental! Behold!” She loosed the sling, letting the gold spill over the cobblestones. The villagers looked on in astonishment. “This is but an infinitesimal fraction of my enormous fortune! I could lose this sum a thousand times, and still have more riches than any of you could hope to spend in your lifetime!” The dragon strode forward. Villagers retreated backwards, unsure of what she wanted. “I bequeath this sum to you out of pity. What would take you generations to accrue is now yours for the taking; revel in my generosity!”

“This is… for us?” asked a man.

“Indeed. But! Do not take my gift for granted; know that you receive charity from the mightiest, wisest, most fearsome creature in all the lands!” The dragon spread her wings and blew fire into the air. The crowd cowered away from the heat. She crossed her arms and cocked an eyebrow. “Well? What say you in the face of such altruism?”

“T-thank you, oh mighty dragon. Our village will sing your praises for years to come!” exclaimed the mayor, giving a pronounced bow. Others around him followed his lead, uttering their own quiet thanks to the dragon.

Her chest swelled with pride. She surveyed the groveling throng with obvious delight. “It is noble to know one’s lot in life, humans. Your lot is to serve a fantastic being. You should count yourselves fortunate; not many have the privilege to labor for a dragon. My servant will tell you what I demand today. Where is the smith?”
The smith shuffled forward. “Here, your excellence.”

“Is my order ready?” asked the dragon.

“It is, my Lady,” replied the smith.

“Excellent,” mused the dragon. “Slave, collect what we’re owed from these rustics. I’ll return shortly,” said the dragon with a wave of her claw.

Ajo watched her depart with the smith. The townsfolk looked at him in astonishment. “You can take this, it’s for you,” said Ajo, gesturing to the pile of gold. “Sorry for uh… yeah. Just try not to piss her off.”

“He’s a liar. It’s a trap. She’ll cook us alive if we take any!” shouted a man.

“No, she won’t. She isn’t that evil. I know she can be intimidating, but she’s actually quite kind once you get to know her,” said Ajo.

A woman in the front of the crowd gulped. “W-well I’m going to take some! It was my pot you took, it’s only right that I get something for it!” she cried.

“Go ahead,” said Ajo impassively.

The woman slunk forward. Furtively glancing over her shoulder, she bent down to pick up a few pieces of gold before scurrying back into the crowd. The others nervously cleared out the space around her, unsure if she was going to be burnt for her audacity. Avarice slowly overcame fear, and others moved in to scoop up handfuls of gold. The mayor began scolding people, instilling some order in the mob before the first people to push to the front of the pack made off with all the loot.
“And I’ll also need these,” said Ajo, handing the mayor a list of ingredients. The man squinted at the list. Shouting out to some of the people in the crowd, he ordered them to start fetching what Ajo had requested.

The dragon returned a few minutes later, looking rather pleased. She carried something wrapped in cloth in her arms, swaddling it like a child. The blacksmith looked as if a great weight had been taken off his shoulders; Ajo knew the pressure all too well. A few villagers crowded around him, giving him an armful of gold and clapping him on the back.

“Are we ready?” asked the dragon.

“Almost,” said Ajo, watching the villagers load the last of the cargo into the sling. The process went much faster now that he didn’t have to pick everything up off the ground.

“Excellent.” She gingerly deposited her bundle into the sling. A man stopped in his tracks, still holding an armful of onions. “Well? Put them in, I don’t have all day,” said the dragon.

The man quickly put the onions on top of the produce and grain already in the sling and departed into the crowd after a quick tip of his hat.

“Servant, we’re leaving. Say goodbye to the peasantry and get over here,” said the dragon.

Ajo gave a tight-lipped nod and wave to the villagers. They stared back at him in muted bewilderment. The dragon’s claws wrapped around him, carrying the two of them skyward.

~~~~~~~~~

Ajo frantically stirred the pot he was tending to. Backing away from the stove, he flipped the page of the cookbook and checked what ingredient he would need next. The dragon blew another gout of flames into the stone stove. Ajo wiped his brow. He would have to lower the cooking times on these recipes with this heat…

“Is it finished yet? I’m hungry,” griped the dragon.

“Soon,” said Ajo, ladling more juice over the meat.

“Putting all this time and effort into your food… No wonder humans are such a primitive race,” said the dragon.

Ajo lifted the lid on the pan of vegetables. Rolling them over, he deemed them firm enough to eat, and soft enough to be cooked. He scooped them out onto their plates, careful to give her the bigger portion. Sinking his knife into the roast, Ajo did the same for the meat. The dragon’s mouth watered. Her forked tongue rolled out over her lips. Ajo handed her the plate. Suppressing her urge to tilt the plate back and down the entire meal at once, the dragon sat down at the stone table she had carved while Ajo had peeled the vegetables and picked up a fork. Skewering the entire slab of meat on her fork, she bit into it. A happy squeal escaped her stuffed cheeks, along with a trickle of smoke from her nose.

“How splendid! It’s just as the characters in the books described!” said the dragon.

“What characters talk about roasted meat?” asked Ajo, taking a seat across from her.

“Hmm? Oh, you know. Those human heroes on the plays and epics your lot write,” said the dragon, swallowing her food.

“I never knew there was a play about cooking,” said Ajo.

“Not about cooking, fool. The characters merely remark on the quality of the victuals the consume. I had always wondered why authors bothered to mention eating; it was always so trivial to me. Now I understand,” said the dragon.

“I’m surprised that you would read human literature at all,” said Ajo.

“It is tripe compared to draconic prose, but it’s plentiful. Though, I admit some of it is passable. I do enjoy a few of Prehn Silton’s works,” said the dragon, sniffing a chunk of potato.

“Prehn Silton? That makes sense. He was one of the greats,” said Ajo.

“He had his moments. Personally, I’ve always been more interested in the mathematics and sciences you humans produce. So many ways to quantify things beyond your grasp,” said the dragon.

“Science is important. It’s what gives us and edge in this world,” said Ajo. His pride as a human felt a bit wounded, even if he was acting as her servant.

“Indeed. If dragons were so feeble, we would surely build all manner of contraptions to help us survive,” said the dragon.

Ajo couldn’t think of a retort. He had a sinking feeling that she wasn’t as dumb as he had come to believe her. She may be gullible and lacking in common sense, but Ajo could tell by the way she spoke so casually about the arts that it was her pride that blinded her, not stupidity.

The dragon licked her claws clean, her tongue wrapping around each digit to remove the last of her meal. “Stupendous, I can’t wait to taste what other things humans have concocted! Now then, I need you to-“ She cut herself off when she met Ajo’s gaze. Ajo waited for her to continue. The dragon blushed. Squirming in her chair, she looked at her plate. “There is something you will do for me, servant.”

“What is it?” asked Ajo.

“Follow me,” commanded the dragon. She led him back to the room with the flat stone. With the sun below the horizon, the room was no longer the warm, bright space it was during the day. The dragon lit a set of torches around the room with her breath, casting light and heat back into the corners. “Wait here,” ordered the dragon. Ajo waited. She returned a moment later with the bundle of cloth she had collected from the smith. “Here.” She thrust it into his arms and flopped down on her stone. “Use that.”

Ajo unfolded the cloth. It was a file. Compared to the file he had used before, this one was finer in grain with various coarseness on each side. A cluster of stiff metal bristles protruded from the tip of one side. Ajo grabbed the handle, turning it over. The dragon looked at him expectantly. “Mistress?” he asked.
“My claws, fool! Stop dawdling!” snapped the dragon. Ajo bit his lip. He wasn’t eager to touch her claws after what had happened last time. Flipping the file to the finest grain, he gently ran the file across one of her claws. The dragon uttered a muffled coo into the crook of her arm. Her leg spasmed, but not so much that Ajo felt endangered by the flailing limb. “Keep going,” ordered the dragon.

Ajo continued his soft, short strokes across her claws. The dragon squirmed and thrashed the entire time. Anyone standing outside the room would have thought that he was torturing her by the noises she made. This time, she managed to make it through to the last claw. Ajo blew on the talon to get rid of the last bit of dust and admired his handiwork. Her claws gleamed in the moonlight, free of the gristle of her hunts. The dragon lifted her foot and inspected it between labored breaths. She nodded. “Passable. Now, do my hands.”

“Yes, Mistress,” said Ajo.

The dragon squirmed. “Call me Certa…” she said softly.

“Huh?” Ajo asked.

“Call me Certa! Mistress Certa! Or Lady Certa. One of those two,” huffed the dragon.

“Yes, Mistress. Mistress Certa,” Ajo quickly corrected.

Certa sniffed and thrust her hand at him. She twisted away, suddenly very intent on the carvings in the wall. Ajo took her hand. She flinched. He watched her tail coil and writhe as he put the file to her claw. This time, he was even more gentle than he had been with her feet. Foregoing any semblance of sharpness, Ajo decided that it would be in his best interest to just tidy up her nails, rather than sharpen them. Certa’s fingers repeatedly tried to coil around his hand as he sawed back and forth. Ajo let them grasp at him, afraid of what she might say if he pulled his hand away. When he finished the last claw, she held her hands up to the moonlight and inspected his work.

“Adequate. Now, my h-“ Certa’s voice trailed off to a whisper.

“Your what?” asked Ajo.

“My, my hor-“ Certa’s face reddened.

“Your horns?” said Ajo.

Certa nodded.

“Alright…” said Ajo.

Certa sat up on the stone. Ajo shuffled back and forth, trying to figure out how to get to the spires of bone, (or was it scale?) protruding from her head. Certa huffed. Ajo hopped up onto the rock, resting on his knees. From this height, he could reach her horns without standing over her. Still, filing them would be a difficult task. Taking the file, he began to polish the points jutting from her head. Certa moaned. A hand shot up to cover her mouth.

“Did I hurt you?” asked Ajo.

“Keep going!” demanded Certa.

Ajo continued to file. He worked as fast as he could, desperate to end this suspense. Certa wriggled and twisted in front of him. Her shoulders would arch, and her neck would crane when he made especially long strokes of the file. She was a gibbering mess by the time he finished.

“Huh? Wha? It stopped?” said Certa, noticeably out of breath.

“Err, yes, Lady Certa,” said Ajo.

“Oh, g-good. I’m going to sleep. You- Just- Food in the morning, understand?” said Certa.

“Yes, Mistress Certa,” said Ajo.

She teetered away to her hoard. Ajo swept up the dust left behind from his work and collapsed onto his skin pile next to her soon after.

~~~~~~~~~

Polishing Certa’s claws, horns, and scales became a regular part of Ajo’s routine. She demanded it at least once a day, sometimes in the sun, sometimes at night. Ajo had to taper back his filing lest he wear her claws down to nothing. Certa didn’t seem to mind. The sensation of the file or wire-bristle scraping across her scales and claws seemed to be what she craved. No matter how distempered she was, a quick touch-up with the file would leave her a catatonic mess. Ajo learned to appreciate the inevitable breaks that these bouts of torpor granted him. He used them to read at his leisure or get started on a new recipe for dinner. Certa had surrendered any sense of control of him in the kitchen. As long as he had a spoon in his hand, Ajo’s word was law. She dutifully fulfilled the role of sous-chef, helping him create all manner of culinary concoctions.

Certa had also become more tolerant of Ajo’s existence. The orders she barked were less threatening than they had been when he had first arrived. Ajo found himself with more forgiving timeframes and more grounded expectations of the work he did. Certa expressed herself more openly to Ajo. Typically, this involved gripes about some perceived slight by an inferior creature. On rare occasions, Ajo was treated to an enlightening insight about Certa’s hopes and aspirations. It occurred to him one day, as he stirred tonight’s soup, that he had come to regard her as something of a friend. Even if she did see him as some sort of vermin, Certa had an aura of endearment about her. That being said, Ajo was slowly crafting a plan to improve his lot in this cave. All these nights sleeping on animal skins was starting to hurt his back.

“…And then the ‘hunter’ had the temerity to tell me that he was only tracking a hare. Ha! The nerve of him, thinking that I didn’t know why he was all the way out here,” said Certa confidently.

“Well done, Lady Certa. I’d hate for any other humans to find this cave,” said Ajo, setting a plate of eggs down in front of Certa.

“Yes, it would be troublesome to have to figure out what to do with another one,” said Certa. She gently clasped her teacup between her claws and took a sip. The cave had been steadily accumulating human goods ever since their trip to the town. Once Certa started bringing gold in exchange for the things she “took,” villagers began to trade for the things Certa demanded. Word traveled fast; the village was undergoing an economic boom. Traders from all over were starting to catch a whiff of the wealth that had suddenly appeared in what was once a frontier farming town. Last Ajo had heard, they were starting construction on a statue of Certa. He prayed that they never finished it; the boost to her ego would make her insufferable.

“Oh, that’s what you meant. I see,” said Ajo, taking a seat.

Certa frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing. It’s true, dealing with a second thief would be quite the hassle,” said Ajo.

Certa blew smoke out her nose. “Liar! You can’t hide anything from me, human; I know your own thoughts better than you! Tell me what you were REALLY thinking.”
Ajo feigned shame. “I really shouldn’t say, Lady Certa…”

“I command you to!” roared Certa.

“Well, it’s just the state of the cave, Mistress Certa. I would be mortified if another human saw it,” said Ajo, springing the trap.

Certa gawked at him. “What?”

“I’m afraid it’s true. Truth be told, I almost turned around and left when I first entered the cave. The dreary atmosphere, the dusty floors, the lack of furniture… Why, I thought that this was home to a feral beast! It was only because I thought I heard an animal deeper in the cave that I decided to investigate,”

“Dreary atmosphere? What does-? What do any of those things have to do with anything, huh? A human should be in AWE when they enter a dragon’s lair!” said Certa, slamming her hands onto the stone table.

“I agree, Lady Certa. But I’m afraid that this abode is quite… rustic, by human standards,” said Ajo with an apologetic shrug. “Why, if a human were to visit and found that you were too impoverished to afford even a bed for your servant, then-“

“I could afford a hundred beds! A THOUSAND beds! Any shape, any size! Beds made from gandharva down, if I so pleased!” said Certa, standing up from her seat.

“I know you could, Mistress Certa! But how would a bumbling human know? With no carpets, no paintings or tapestries, and no domestic trappings, they would think this just another hole in the mountains,” said Ajo.

Certa clenched her teeth. Her claws scraped divots into the table. “That’s it! We’re leaving at once!”

“Leaving? Wherever to, Lady Certa?” asked Ajo, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

“We’re going to that odious pile of sticks the humans call a village, and we’re taking everything we need to make sure that those oafish fools understand that I’m infinitely their better!” roared Certa.

“As you wish, Mistress,” said Ajo, trying to keep himself from grinning.

~~~~~~~~~~

Certa touched down in the space the villagers had cleared for her to land. The mayor appeared at once to greet them. Ajo noted the new feathers protruding from his decadent hat.

“Mighty dragon! You honor us with your presence. What do you require of us today?” he asked.

“I need domestic trappings that befit my stature,” huffed Certa.

The mayor wrung his hands. “Err, I see. Most of what we have in the village is considered homely by human standards. We were a poor people before your benevolence uplifted us. If you give us some time, I’m certain that we could procure the finest goods from all corners of the world for you.”

Certa rubbed her chin. “Hmm… I suppose that will have to do. My minion will give you a list. Do not disappoint me, human. My patience is a mercy that can be rescinded at any time.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, your grace,” said the mayor with a bow.

Certa cast her gaze at the in-progress statue of herself. A sculptor was hard at work chipping away at the marble. She grunted. “What is that maladroit simpleton carving?! Is that supposed to be me?! My chest is FAR larger than that!”

The mayor uttered a low groan of concern as she stormed off towards the sculptor. “What is it this time, Ajo?” he asked with a sigh.

“Just some basic furniture. I don’t know if it’s possible, but if you could make the bed dragon-proof, it would be much appreciated,” said Ajo.

“I doubt that would be possible without using chainmail for sheets,” said the mayor.

“Anything that won’t rend when she touches it will suffice. I’ll see to it that she brings payment when we come back,” said Ajo.

“Good, good. Did you see that the duke started construction of a road to our village? A real, paved road! I never thought I would see the day when there was anything more than an overgrown dirt path leading to this place,” said the mayor.

“Funny how fast things can change,” mused Ajo.

“Indeed. I only hope that it’s for the better…” said the mayor, watching as Certa began to castigate the poor sculptor.

“I wouldn’t worry too much. She cares too much about this place to harm you. The things you own, on the other hand…” said Ajo.

The mayor gave him a confused look. “Has she grown fond of us?”

Ajo scratched the back of his head. “In a material sense.”

“What does that mean?” asked the mayor.

“Er… She thinks of this place as part of her hoard. To her, you’re all property. Sort of. I don’t think I can explain it,” said Ajo.

“Oh, I see,” said the mayor, looking more distraught than ever. Ajo winced. He should have just kept his fat mouth shut.

Certa returned with a huff. “You humans and your clumsy hands. I could carve a statue twice as beautiful in half the time with my claws.”

“Of course, Mistress Certa,” said Ajo.

“Did you receive sufficient instruction as to what I require?” asked Certa.

“I think so, Highness,” said the mayor.

“Almost, Lady Certa. But there’s one more thing I need to ask,” said Ajo.

“Then speak,” said Certa.

“What’s your favorite color?”

~~~~~~~~~~

Ajo fixed the last bolt, completing the bedframe. Grabbing the mattress, he wrestled it onto the wood while Certa watched impassively from the wayside. “There. Finished.”

Certa snorted. “I confess, it is nice to have a touch of color around the cave, but this is preposterous. All that work and for what? A lumpy slab to sleep on? The pelts I provided for you would surely be warmer and more comfortable than this monstrosity.”

Ajo detected a hint of jealousy in her voice. “The pelts were wonderful, Mistress Certa. That’s why I’ll continue to sleep with them on the bed. And do not forget, you provided this for me as well. I could never have afforded such a luxury without relying on you.”

Certa’s mouth contorted into a smile despite her best efforts to appear aloof. “But of course! I must provide for my servant, after all. Obviously one of your status, and a human no less, could never afford such extravagant baubles.”

“Your benevolence never ceases to amaze, Lady Certa,” said Ajo.

“It’s true; you humans will never be able to comprehend the machinations of my superior mind,” sniffed Certa. She walked over to the bed. “What a queer contraption. Of all the things to fuss over; is it really such an issue to sleep on something a bit harder than-“ Certa trailed off as she rested a claw on the bed. Her face filled with befuddlement. She leaned over, putting more weight on the bed. Ajo bit his lip. Time to see if that carpenter had earned his pay. The wood held without so much as a groan of protest. Excellent. “O-oh… It’s… very soft…” Certa crawled up onto the bed. Flopping down onto the mattress, she began to roll around. All the while, her face was filled with wonderment at the sensation of the cool, plush slab beneath her. She sat bolt upright. “Ah! But this is nothing compared to sleeping on my mountain of wealth,” said Certa.

“I should think not, Mistress Certa. Being able to touch such monumental opulence must be supremely pleasurable,” said Ajo.

“Indeed. You put these over your body, no?” asked Certa, pulling the sheets over herself. A hearty sigh echoed out from the lump in the covers. “So smooth…” Ajo watched as a pillow was forced out of the gap between the covers and the mattress.

“That’s part of the bed, Lady Certa,” said Ajo.

“I knew that! The craftsman put it in the wrong location, that’s all!” A scaly hand quickly darted out to retrieve the pillow from the freshly placed rug. The tapestries had done a wonderful job of tying the cave together. “What is this, another heat source?”

“You rest your head on it, Mistress,” said Ajo.

Ajo heard the faint thump of a head against a pillow. More happy coos emanated from the bed. He started to wonder if his plan had backfired as she scooted around under the covers. After a few minutes, Certa reemerged.

“Hmm, well, it’s adequate. No gold pile, but I could see how a bumbling human might enjoy it…” she said, her hair sticking every which way.

“I’m glad you approve, Mistress,” said Ajo.

Certa nodded. “As you should be. Now then, for dinner, I have a special demand.”

“Anything for you, Lady Certa,” said Ajo.

Certa left momentarily and returned with one of Ajo’s cookbooks. She flipped it open to a page and tapped it with her claw. “I want this.”

Ajo took the book from her. It was a simple recipe book. “A cake?” asked Ajo.

“Yes, it’s a desert. Light and airy, with a superbly sweet taste, best garnished with fresh strawberries,” said Certa, reciting the exact words from the page as if she had come up with them herself.

“I suppose I could make this,” said Ajo, inspecting the list of ingredients. It’s a good thing that they had stocked up on eggs.

Certa licked her lips. “Excellent! I bet it will taste even better than meat!”

~~~~~~~~~

“You’re going to burn it, Mistress,” said Ajo.

Certa paused the stream of flames she was directing at the oven. “This is taking too long! You aren’t doing it correctly!”

“It’s baking, Lady Certa. It takes time,” said Ajo.

“It shouldn’t! Why can’t I just cook it for a few minutes with my fire? It would be finished in seconds!” said Certa.

“It would be a crisp. Human food requires human cooking,” said Ajo.

Certa huffed and spat another stream of flames at the oven. “This had better be worth wasting my time…”

Ajo held his tongue and continued to monitor watch the hourglass he had flipped. He prayed to every god he knew that the cake didn’t come out soupy, or worse, burnt. If it did, he would probably be sleeping on the floor tonight instead of his new bed. Opening the oven, he chanced a peak at the cake. It looked ready. Grabbing two mitts, he pulled it out and set it on the stone counter. Certa materialized next to him, already drooling.

“Is that it? It smells good, but it doesn't look right,” said Certa.

“I still have to add the frosting and strawberries, Mistress,” said Ajo, giving the bowl of sugary goodness he had prepared earlier a stir.

Certa moved from side to side as he carefully applied the frosting evenly across the cake. He started to arrange the strawberries evenly across the top but settled for dumping them onto the cake when Certa started to growl with impatience. “Alright, it’s finished,” declared Ajo.

Certa used her claw to carve herself a square of cake. Ajo grimaced at the brick-shaped hole in his precious creation. Using a knife, he carved himself a slice and sat down at the table. Ajo took a bite. A little dry; probably because his oven had doubled in heat halfway through baking the thing. Certa was beside herself with happiness. Her tail thrashed back and forth as she stuffed the slice into her mouth. Frosting smeared across her cheeks and nose. Despite the slice of cake being larger than her mouth, Certa still managed to compact it into her gullet with both scaly claws. Her stuffed mouth strained to chew the mass of confection resting within. After a strained swallow, Certa licked her claws clean. “Fantastic! Bring me the rest of it.” Ajo brought the platter over. Certa forewent any sense of decency, grabbing two more fistfuls of cake and stuffing them into her face. Ajo quickly finished his slice, knowing that he wouldn’t get the chance to have another. Within minutes, Certa was licking the last of the frosting off the plate. “Mmm… Splendid… Is there any more of that sauce left in the bowl?” Certa nabbed the empty frosting bowl off the counter. Her serpentine tongue flicked out of her mouth and began attacking the last bits of frosting clinging to the sides. Ajo was forced to turn away lest he start laughing at her messy face. Setting the bowl down, Certa nodded approvingly.

“Did you enjoy it, Mistress?” asked Ajo.

“It sufficed,” sniffed Certa.

“I’m glad I was able to meet your expectations,” said Ajo.

“As you should be,” said Certa.

Ajo looked at the mess he had made in the process of creating Certa’s ten seconds of delight. It was going to take some time to clean all this. Certa noticed his gaze. She tapped her claws on the table. After a few seconds of furtive contemplation, she cleared her throat. “Minion, in my infinite mercy and grace, I have decided to aid you in your menial cleaning duties tonight.”

Ajo smiled. “Mistress, I couldn’t possibly burden you with such-“

“I insist,” said Ajo, holding up a hand.

Ajo rolled up his sleeves. “Then I suppose we should get started.”

~~~~~~~~

Certa lasted only a few minutes into the cleanup before she announced that she had more important things to do and left to nap on her hoard. Ajo was relieved when she left. Despite her insistence to help him, Certa proved to be obstinate and surly whenever he directed her to do anything. It was faster to have her sleeping than in the kitchen helping him. Wiping off his hands, Ajo wandered into the hoard room. His precious bed sat empty (though now thoroughly disheveled), awaiting him. Certa stirred as Ajo took off his shoes and flopped down on the mattress. Resting on something other than animal skins was heavenly after all this time.
“Minion…” Ajo winced. What now? Usually, she was content to wind down and sleep after eating.

“Yes?” asked Ajo.

“Do you think my hoard is getting a little small?” asked Certa.

Ajo opened his eyes. Answering this question incorrectly could mean his doom. “It’s such an expansive hoard, Mistress. If you removed half of it, I could scarcely tell the difference between the two sums. To my feeble human comprehension, it’s more wealth than I would have ever seen in all my years combined if you had not so graciously showed it to me.”

“It is a remarkable achievement, I agree, but I’ve been giving so much of it away recently. And with all the decorating, cooking, and lording I’ve been doing, I haven’t had the time to plunder any wealthy human settlements in almost a month,” said Certa.

“I’m sure there are plenty of paltry humans to extort wealth from,” said Ajo.

“There has to be a better way! Sometimes they fight back, and it takes time to burn their ballistae and knock down enough castle walls to make them surrender. And half the time, they only have a few chests of gold. I’m done giving out gold to the humans! They should be bringing it to ME, not the other way around!” roared Certa.
Ajo gulped. If she stopped delivering gifts, things would get ugly fast. “W-what if there was a way to do just that?” asked Ajo.

“What do you mean?” asked Certa.

“A steady stream of income, all generated passively? Why not use humans to make money?” said Ajo.

“Intriguing; continue,” demanded Certa.

“You see, humans collect communal wealth by levying something called ‘taxes.’ Everyone contributes to a fund, and that fund is used to improve the community,” said Ajo.

“I don’t want to give anymore!” snarled Certa.

“And you won’t have to! If you tax the village, you can start getting your money back!” said Ajo.

“That sounds like the usual sacking I do,” scoffed Certa.

“Ah, but they give you the money WILLINGLY. You said it yourself: having to fight through all those humans can be time consuming. This way, you just arrive and collect your money. As simple as can be,” said Ajo.

Certa rolled over on her hoard and stared at the ceiling. “I suppose that would be preferable to the alternative…”

“Though, you should still keep providing some charity in exchange for the things we take from the village,” said Ajo.

“Why?!” whined Certa.

“Think of it as an investment! You dole out some of your vast wealth, and the humans use it to trade for even more expensive things! If you take all their money, they won’t be able to buy tools and goods they need to make MORE money. If you took all the fish out of a lake, you wouldn’t have any more fish to eat, right?” said Ajo, trying to phrase the concept as simply as possible.

“Money from the humans…” said Certa. “Taxes… Taxes. Taxes! Yes, that sounds like a capital concept. What fortune I thought of such an elegant solution! We’ll discuss this ‘taxes’ with the village next time we visit them~”

Ajo gulped. He hoped that he hadn’t created a monster. More of a monster, at is.

~~~~~~~~~~

“A-a tax, your grace?” asked the mayor. The villagers around him murmured their discontentment.

“That’s right! It’s long since due that you give me recompense for my mercy!” said Certa.

“Is that so…” the mayor glared at Ajo.

Ajo pursed his lips. “Mistress, may I have a word with the mayor in private?” asked Ajo.

“You may. But make it quick; the rest of the humans follow that one, so I need him to tell them to pay me,” said Certa.

“Right. Mayor, a word?” said Ajo ushering him to the side.

“What the hell is this about, Ajo?! A tax?! On our village?!” hissed the mayor.

“Oh, don’t start with me. You were all too happy to take her gold and gems when she was exchanging them for supplies; I don’t think it’s too much to ask to give a little back to her in return,” said Ajo.

The mayor adjusted his cap, running his fingers over the elegant plumage emerging from it. “I can’t deny that we took the gold. But if she stops delivering any treasure, the village will fall to ruin!”

“She’s going to keep paying- don’t ever call it paying, though- she’ll keep ‘giving’ you gold. You just have to invest a little bit to make sure that she has a little loot to carry away every now and then. Start banking. Make investments in other towns. Do whatever you can to expand business,” said Ajo.

The mayor sighed. “I suppose we don’t have a choice…”

“No choice?! Mayor, you’ve had the deal of a lifetime up until now! Protection from bandits, gold raining down from the sky, an influx of merchants from all corners of the world… And now that your benefactor asks for a little money every now and then, you gripe and moan? I’m not a cruel man, mayor. But we both know that if I told her how much the things we take from the village are REALLY worth compared to what she gives you, we both know she would-“

“Alright! Alright. You’ve made your point, Ajo,” said the mayor. He chuckled and shook his head. “To think that a creature that personifies greed would be the one to teach us a lesson in reciprocity… We’ll do all we can to provide a steady, but REASONABLE tax to the dragon.”

Ajo smiled. “Thank you, mayor. I hope you can assuage the worries of the others.”

“Bah. They’ll just have to get used to it. Taxes are a part of life, after all,” said the mayor.

The two returned to the crowd. A chorus of groans erupted from the villagers as the mayor began to explain to them the terms of the arrangement. Ajo watched their faces. As the mayor spoke, the mood changed from contempt to begrudging acceptance. Many of the townsfolk were nodding in agreement by the end of his speech, even if they weren’t keen on what was being said.

“Did you reach terms?” asked Certa.

“We did. You’ll be getting your tax,” said Ajo.

“Stupendous. Taxes, what a wonderful concept!” said Certa. Ajo laughed. Certa glared at him. “What do you find so amusing?”

“I don’t think anyone has ever said that sentence before,” said Ajo.

Certa gave him a confused look. “Truly? You humans must be more foolish than I thought. Shall we return home?”

“If you wish, Mistress,” said Ajo.

Certa wrapped her arms around his chest, flying into the sky.

~~~~~~~~~~

After filing Certa’s claws and horns and polishing her scales, Ajo was wrapped in his sheets ready for the sweet embrace of sleep. Certa shifted on her hoard. The tinkle of gold sliding down to the floor pulled Ajo back towards wakefulness.

“Minion,” hissed Certa.

Ajo ignored her. It was a risky game to play, but on rare occasions Certa would go to sleep instead of waking him to fulfil whatever menial task she had in mind in the middle of the night.

“Servant!” said Certa, louder than before.

“Mistress? What is it?” said Ajo, pretending to have just woken up.

“…I demand you move over,” Certa said softly.

Ajo sat up and looked at her. “What?”

In the dim light, he could barely see her face. She squirmed on her hoard, sending more gold to the floor. “I said move over!”

Ajo shifted in the bed. Certa flopped off her hoard and crawled into bed with him.

“Mistress?!” said Ajo.

“Silence! Give me more blanket,” said Certa, wrenching most of the sheets off his body.

Ajo laid on the bed, half uncovered, unsure of what to make of the situation.

“Get over here,” commanded Certa.

“Huh?” grunted Ajo.

“I said, come here!” Certa used her tail to yank Ajo towards her. Her arms wrapped around him, pulling him into a tight embrace. Ajo wriggled in her grasp. Touching Certa without explicit permission was taboo; sometimes it was forbidden WITH explicit permission. “Stop squirming, cretin. You should be thankful I let you touch my perfect body!” Ajo did as he was told, letting Certa manipulate his body as she pleased. One of her scaly legs hooked over his own. A wing wriggled itself underneath his body. The other folded over him, wrapping him in smooth membrane. Certa purred contentedly. She took a deep breath. “Ajo… am I a good Mistress?”

“The very best,” said Ajo without hesitation.

Certa’s chest bounced as a snort of approval sent a small amount of smoke across his head. “And… do you love your Mistress?”

Ajo was surprised by the question. Certa’s grip tightened at his hesitation. Somehow the thought of causing Certa anxiety caused him an unusual amount of duress. “Very much so, Mistress Certa.”

Certa relaxed. Ajo heard a small sigh of relief. “Good. I would hate for my minion to be unhappy.”

“How could I be with such a perfect lady to serve?” said Ajo. He felt the tip of her tail tickle waggle, tickling his feet.

“Say it again!” said Certa.

“I love my perfect Mistress,” said Ajo.

“Again!” said Certa.

“I love you, Certa,” said Ajo.

Certa’s body went rock solid. She smashed his head into her chest. Ajo instantly regretted what he had said. Had he overstepped his bounds? He had been so caught up in the moment that he had given an honest answer, even when it might have been the time to lie. Did SHE think it was a lie? Ajo knew it to be the truth; over the past few weeks, this dragon had endeared herself to him. The haughtiness and naivete that had once been annoyances to Ajo had turned into part of Certa’s charm. He loved cooking for her and seeing her child-like glee whenever he made something new. He loved the way she tried her best not to make little coos and moans when he tended to her body. And he loved the way she smiled at him when she thought he wasn’t looking.

“R-really?” asked Certa.

“Yes,” said Ajo. He became aware of a sound. A strange rhythmic hum. It dawned on him that he could hear her heart. It hammered away inside her ribs, pulsing at an incredible speed.

“W-well of course! Who wouldn’t! Everyone loves me, after all. A-and know your place! Honestly, calling me Certa… I own you; never forget that!” stuttered Certa.

“Sorry, Lady Certa,” said Ajo.

Certa huffed. “You should be! It’s getting cold at night, so I’ll have to sleep in this thing until it gets warmer. And maybe even after that, too! So you had better behave yourself, got it?”

“Yes, Mistress Certa,” said Ajo.

“Good.” Certa rested her chin against the top of Ajo’s head. “Then… goodnight, Ajo.”

Ajo listened to her heartbeat fall into a slow, steady rhythm. “Goodnight, Lady Certa.”