Living in a dragon's cave and spending a lot of time climbing steep mountain slopes meant that Cimorene was always in need of pain-killing and wound-binding salve. She'd used up her last after an incident with a lion last week, so it was time to boil up another pot.
Morwen and Kazul were both extremely firm that she needed to make certain she had sufficient quantity of every ingredient before beginning any magic work, and she was glad for it when she took out the yarrow jar and found it empty.
Well, fresh would do just as well, if she used a little more, so she rolled up her sleeves and made for the mountain-side.
Halfway there, she remembered the mute princess who had come by last week. After managing to establish which plant the princess needed to spin in order to save her seven swan brothers, Cimorene had been happy to help her gather up yarrow – the brothers had made a huge mess of the region.
She walked up to one of the stripped bushes and looked at it impatiently. A week was hardly enough time for the local yarrow population to recover. And with the mute princess gathering every plant she could find for her weaving, Cimorene wouldn't be likely to find yarrow anywhere in the vicinity.
Stomping back to the cave, she consulted Argister's Book of Magical Substitutions.
Yarrow, dried. In potions, substitute 1 for 1 with dried marigold, fleabane or starwort. In salves, substitute 5 to 1 with fresh starwort or marigold.
Marigold was a loss, but she knew she had seen several starwort patches further up the mountain, near one of the springs.
Well, there was no time like the present. She quickly scribbled a note for Kazul, explaining where she was going and why, then headed up the mountain.
Starwort preferred damp, shady spots, which meant she had to venture away from the well-travelled paths on the mountain-side. Cimorene knew better than to take a nap under a shady tree, or to drink from a pond without checking first, but there was enough potential for danger to keep her on her guard.
Here, for example, she could see that somebody had dug a pit trap. She toed at the clumsy leaf covering and elected to walk around it. There was a promising patch of shade on the other side.
She'd barely taken two steps before something ran into her, hard, and she fell directly onto the suspicious pile of leaves. As she'd suspected, it gave way under her weight and she tumbled down in a shower of leaves and sticks.
Winded, she took a moment to catch her breath. Once she felt like her legs would hold her weight again, she brushed herself down and stood to give her assailant a piece of her mind.
She was at the bottom of a roughly-made pit, and she was alone.
Cimorene put her hands on her hips and evaluated the situation. The walls of the pit were cut from the earth with what looked like large claws. It was deep enough that she could only just reach the top with her fingertips, but she thought she could climb out easily enough.
Something cleared its throat. Cimorene looked at the top of the pit to see a large, winged figure standing in silhouette.
"Fair lady," said the figure. "You seem to be in some trouble. I can offer you assistance."
"Thank you," said Cimorene. The figure's shoulders rose hopefully. "But I don't require assistance."
The figure's shoulders slumped. "I can offer you gold," said the figure hopefully. "A princess – I mean, a prince's hand in marriage?"
Cimorene made a face. That was the last thing she needed! "I'm really fine." She dug her fingers into the earth on the side opposite the figure and began to climb. "I don't need anything from you," she clarified.
"There's only one condition. When you get home, you must give me the first thing that you see."
"It's really very kind of you," Cimorene lied. "But I do not accept." She was almost out of the pit now.
The figure resolved itself into some kind of chimaeric monster, with bat wings, goat's hooves and the head of a bull. It trotted over to her as she pulled herself onto the soft grass.
"I can give you anything you want!"
"I doubt that," said Cimorene. She stood and brushed herself down. "Farewell."
The creature trotted in front of her again. "Fair lady—"
Cimorene reached into her pocket and threw a handful of the powder she kept there into the creature's face. It sneezed once, twice, then repeatedly.
"Ah-choo! This is – ah-choo! – extremely unorthodox."
She took it by the nostrils and looked deep into its eyes. "Please leave me alone," said Cimorene, very firmly.
She left the creature sneezing behind her. The shady spot she had seen did not contain any starwort, but the banks of the mountain stream she found nearby did. She took enough for her salve, a little more just in case, and a bit more again in case it was suitable for drying for future use.
Cimorene got back to Kazul's cave with a minimum of trouble (one bear, one lost prince). Alianora ran out to meet her as she approached. "Cimorene! I was just about to give up. I have a question about—"
There was a loud explosion and a plume of smoke filled the area. Alianora immediately started coughing.
"I have come to collect what is owed!" a voice boomed.
Cimorene grabbed Alianora's hand and waited for the smoke to clear, holding her sleeve over her mouth and nose with her eyes watering.
The creature from earlier stood in the middle of the garden, wings spread proudly. "I promised my aid in return for the first thing you saw when you returned home," it reminded her. "I have come to collect on my bargain. This woman belongs to me!"
Alianora squeaked in alarm.
Cimorene pulled herself up to her full height. "You promised your aid in return for the first thing that I saw. This lady is not a thing, she is a person. If you'd wanted a person, you would have said 'who'."
The creature hesitated.
"By my determination, this means that you laid claim to that sign." She pointed at the latest iteration of her prince-deterrent sign.
The creature looked at the sign dubiously.
"However, since I refused your offer of aid three times, you do not even have a claim to that," Cimorene finished triumphantly.
Beside her, Cimorene felt Alianora shifting uneasily. Cimorene squeezed her hand. "Don't worry," she murmured. "I can handle this."
"But nobody refuses a demon's offers," the demon protested.
"I did. I do a lot of things 'nobody' does." She gave the demon a sympathetic look. "Is this your first time?"
"I can tell, you know. Your pit was very poorly constructed. You had to push me before I even fell into it, and then I was able to climb out on my own."
"I was the best in my class at pit-building!" said the demon, affronted. "But I couldn't get very deep on the mountain-side before I hit rock," it admitted.
"Besides, I think it's cheating to offer to rescue people from your own trap. You should be offering to help poor wood-cutters, or rich merchants, not digging pits and hoping to catch random passers-by." She folded her arms. "You need to choose your mark more carefully. I don't even have the authority to bargain another person's life away - you need a parent or a spouse for that."
The demon's shoulders slumped. "The other demons will laugh at me—"
Cimorene sighed. Were all magical creatures so self-conscious? "You should care less about what others think. They'll laugh at you more if they find out you tried to cheat, and then they'll never respect you. If you do things properly, you'll get better at it."
"But that'll take forever!"
"It'll take longer than forever if you don't do the job properly from the beginning," she said sternly.
"But I don't know what else to do," the demon moaned. "None of my classmates ever had this problem. The minute they step outside, they find a wanderer, offer them a wish and immediately make a successful bargain. But as soon as anybody sees me, they run away! And none of them will even consider making a bargain with me."
Cimorene thought for a moment. The creature was very imposing, even for a demon. If she didn't spend all her time around dragons she might have been a little frightened. "Have you considered another line of work?"
"A-another line of work?"
She nodded. "I can think of lots of roles for a big, fierce-looking demon like yourself. Magicians are always looking for hard-working creatures to staff their labyrinths and magic caves. Or you could guard treasure for a dwarf, or... lots of things."
The demon's expression brightened. "Do you really think so?"
"I really do." She gave it an encouraging smile. "I think if you look on in the next country over, you'll find at least three magicians that will give you an interview without a reference."
It considered this for a moment, then nodded firmly. "I'll try that. Thanks!"
"You're welcome," said Cimorene.
The demon disappeared in another eye-smarting puff of smoke, setting Alianora off in another coughing fit. Cimorene waved her hand in front of her face impatiently.
"That was amazing," said Alianora, once she could speak again.
"Not really," said Cimorene. "When you're driving a bargain, you always need to think about what you're promising. Contracts require very careful language. A self-respecting demon should think of that."
"Well, I'm glad it was you and not me." Alianora shuddered. "I wouldn't be able to talk down an evil demon."
"I don't think it was really evil," said Cimorene thoughtfully. "It just had a role to fill, like that jinn, or the dragons, or even the princes. They're not evil, just annoying."
"Still, I'm glad I didn't have to go away with it," said Alianora. She sighed. "Although I suppose my family will just consider this another lost opportunity. Marrying a monster is a perfectly respectable way for a Princess to find her happiness."
"I think we can do better than that." Cimorene made a face. "Come on, what did you want to ask me?"