Read The Dragon's Appraiser: Part One Online
Authors: Viola Rivard
The Dragon’s Appraiser
By Viola Rivard
Copyright © 2014 by Viola Rivard
All rights reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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By the time she’d managed to free herself from the shackles, Madja was certain that there was no dragon.
She’d never been one to believe in gods—least of all the gods that seemed to always favor the rich and privileged—but a small, fanciful part of her had always held out hope for Sevrrn’s existence.
In ancient times, beggars and kings alike had come from far and wide to pay tribute to the dragon god. Like most children, Madja had often fantasized about infiltrating Sevrrn’s lair, if only to get a glimpse of the treasures it held. Apparently, she had never outgrown this fantasy, because even as the Kavesh guards spirited her away the night, she’d entertained one, hysterical thought:
At least I’ll see the golden cavern before I die.
But to her disappointment and relief, there was no treasure—at least, not where the guards had left her chained up as the sacrificial offering that she was. The small cavern was empty, save for the caged chickens, the half-empty oil lamp, and the cart of goods that she’d been left with.
Standing for the first time in hours, Madja’s legs trembled as she made her way over to the cart. A thin beam of light filtered down from a fissure in the ceiling, highlighting the cart’s contents. Junk—not that she’d expected anything else.
No longer worried about disturbing the dragon, Madja threw the items over her shoulder as she rifled through the cart. Sterling-silver rings bounced off the stone walls and rolled onto the floor. Cheap, ceramic dishes shattered into pieces, startling the chickens into a frenzy. Beneath a burlap sack of gilded pyrite, she found what she was looking for.
Madja held the spoon up to examine it in the light. It wasn’t just the only genuine gold in the cart, but also the only genuine
For thousands of years, Sevrrn had protected Erda, the island nation Madja hailed from. Under the dragon god’s watchful eye, the island flourished. The few who tried to attack Erda were said to have died by Sevrrn’s inferno.
But over the years, the attacks stopped coming and the people of Erda became complacent. The tributes became poorer and poorer as the wealthy denizens of Erda hoarded their valuables, unwilling to part with them for a dragon no one had seen for centuries.
Grabbing the oil lamp from the cart, Madja inspected the shadowed areas of the room. On one side, a wide passageway led deeper into the mountainside. Humid air swept up from the tunnel, sticking to her face. On the other side of the room was a smaller passageway, the one she’d been brought down through by the guards.
She had no doubt that they were still up there, waiting from a safe distance to ensure that she didn’t escape. If she went up now, they would catch her and bring her back, perhaps even binding her more thoroughly. It was a risk she couldn’t afford to take, and so she decided to wait until nightfall. No man would be brave enough to stand by a dragon’s lair in the darkness, especially after making such a poor offering.
Madja paced for a while, mumbling her plan over and over to make sure that she had it straight. One of the large cargo ships currently docked in the cove was captained by a good friend of her late father. It was setting sail tomorrow, bound for a small Vrynesh trading port. Maybe she would make a home for herself there, or perhaps she would stay on the ship and see the world.
Either way, she was going to need money—and a lot of it. She wasn’t so naïve as to rely solely on charity. Fortunately, there was a simple solution to her problems.
For thousands of years, idiots had been throwing gold and valuables into Sevrrn’s lair. There was no telling what treasures awaited her if she could summon the courage to descend into the belly of the mountain.
With the oil burning quickly, Madja didn’t have the luxury of time. She paced for a few more moments before stepping down into the warm passageway.
Madja walked until every muscle in her body ached in protest. It had been a long time since she’d had a drink and even longer since she’d eaten. Her energy was nearly depleted.
She was just about to turn back when she heard the unmistakable sound of water in the distance. The promise of a cool drink reinvigorated her tired limbs and she was soon bounding down the passageway.
The walls were grey, and in some areas, black. When the lamplight hit the black rock, it revealed a sleek sheen—obsidian. It was volcanic glass, formed when lava cooled. As there were several volcanoes to the north, it was commonly seen in Allonan artwork and Dvorian weaponry, but she’d never heard that Sevrrn’s mountain had once been a volcano. Perhaps it had been volcanic explosions that had led the ancient settlers to believe a dragon lurked in the depths of the mountain.
As she moved toward the sound of water, Madja noticed the soft glow of sunlight. Her eyebrows furrowed and she slowed to a more cautious pace. Gradually, a room came into view.
Light flooded the expansive cavern, pouring in from a massive hole in the ceiling. Madja recognized the oblong hole as the crater featured on many paintings and tapestries. It was where only the bravest of men were said to have ventured to pay their tribute. They would stand on the edge and throw their coins into the darkness, begging for Sevrrn’s favor.
Madja had always considered it to be a ridiculous practice, but as she stood in the mouth of the passageway, staring across the cavern, it was clear that her ancestors didn’t share her convictions. There was gold as far as her eyes could see.
She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and then blinked again.
Sunlight reflected off what could only be
of gold coins. They completely covered the floor, with scattered piles forming a golden landscape of hills and valleys. At the edge of the light, Madja could make out what looked like an underground lake. The surface of the water had a strange iridescence and seemed to glitter like diamonds.
Madja had been expecting to find some gold, maybe even some artifacts, but this was staggering. For a moment, she stood frozen in place as she oscillated between a range of emotions—amazement at her discovery, euphoria at the riches that were hers for the taking, and then…bitterness.
For centuries—no, millennia—humans had been throwing their gold into a hole in hopes that a dragon would grant their wishes. They could have used their gold to better their lives or the lives of those around them. Countless people had been born, lived, and died in poverty while a vast, untouched fortune lay strewn about in a mountain, presided over by nothing but an absurd superstition.
Madja closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and allowed her indignation to pass. She couldn’t solve all the injustices of the world, but she could solve one—her own. The chancellor had left her down here to die. She could hardly wait until she made her way back to town. She would bring back a whole sack full of gold and shower it over lowtown. Every impoverished man, woman, and child in the district would all know about the ‘dragon’s lair’.
Galvanized by anticipation, she began to make her way down to the gold. The passageway she’d come from emptied onto a steep cliff that overlooked the cavern. A narrow outcropping in the wall formed a natural, albeit perilous, walkway. She crept down, one foot in front of the other as her hands gripped the wall for purchase.
When she made it to the ground, Madja jumped a little too eagerly. The floor gave way and she fell on her rear before sliding down a slope of gold. She found out the hard way that the piles weren’t merely comprised of coins. As she came to a stop at the foot of the slope, something hard bit into her back. Wincing, she reached behind her to find a large, clunky band of gold.
She was prepared to toss it aside purely out of spite, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d seen it somewhere before. It was a headband that somehow managed to look both simplistic and gaudy. It was so unfortunate-looking that to the untrained eye, it may have appeared to be little more than an elderly noblewoman’s costume jewelry.
Madja knew better.
The reed design that wrapped around the band was indicative of ancient Basheti craftsmanship. The once-great nation had built most of its wealth on the unassuming plant, which had many uses, ranging from food, textiles, and most notably—paper.
But the small pearls that were interspersed among the reeds were a trademark of ancient Mandurian jewelry. Because the Basheti Empire had fallen within a century of the rise of the Mandurian Republic, it was very easy to pinpoint the timeframe in which the headband was crafted.
However, it wasn’t the artwork that gave away its identity. It was the Lathian word that had been painstakingly carved into the inside of the band:
With muted reverence, she placed it onto her head. No celestial winds blew and no trumpets sounded, but Madja didn’t need any fanfare to recognize the significance of the moment. She was wearing the lost crown of Empress Arda. It really was as heavy as Arda had claimed.
Madja wrapped her hands around her torso as she stood, fending off a chill. She could see now that there were countless objects littered on and within the piles of coins. In the pile she’d fallen down were sword hilts, jeweled rings, embroidered silks, and even what looked to be a golden flask—and that was just on the surface of a single gold pile, out of what appeared to be hundreds of piles. If she had found one of history’s most celebrated artifacts within the very first pile, how many more ancient treasures awaited her?
She had hardly made it through one coin pile when afternoon finally gave way to evening. Moonlight afforded very little light so deep within the cavern and Madja had to rely on the fickle lamp for vision.
The lamp wouldn’t last the night, and she knew that if she wanted to make it out of the mountain before the oil ran out, she would have to leave soon. Part of her wanted to wait out the night and keep exploring in the morning, but hunger dashed that idea. While it had an abundance of treasure, the cavern lacked the materials to maintain a proper fire, so cooking up one of the chickens was also not an option.
Madja gathered up her favorite findings in a makeshift bag and flung it over her shoulder. Getting back up to the cliff took at least twenty minutes and she nearly lost her lamp twice in the process. When she reached the mouth of the passageway, her body slumped in relief and—if she were being honest with herself—disappointment.
She looked out over the vast expanse of gold and treasures, knowing it wasn’t hers but also feeling somewhat entitled to it. Her thoughts quickly turned calculating. The journey out of the mountain took approximately two hours. She could leave, forage for food and firewood in the forest, and return to build a camp for herself within the lair. Humans would continue to come and go, leaving their meager offerings inside the tunnels while she lived out her life within the golden cavern, appraising and cataloguing innumerous wonders.
Madja hated that she would even entertain such selfish thoughts, but as she turned to leave the cavern behind, her future remained uncertain. Once she made it out of the mountain, would she keep going and return to the city, or would she turn back and forsake her people, just like they had forsaken her?
Her ethical dilemma was short-lived. As she faltered at the mouth of the passageway, something hard coiled around her waist. Madja screamed as she was lifted airborne, her bag and the lamp clattering to the ground—a ground that quickly drew farther and farther away.
Everything happened in the span of a few seconds, yet somehow, Madja fully expected what she saw next. As she came to a stop, suspended in mid-air, something shifted within the shadows. Air vacated her lungs as a figure stepped out of her nightmares and into the moonlight.
The dragon god, Sevrrn.