The Dragon's Appraiser: Part One (2 page)

BOOK: The Dragon's Appraiser: Part One
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Expecting what you’re about to see and being prepared to see it are two different things entirely. When his long, scaly tail had wrapped around her midsection and shot her up into the air, Madja had realized with sickening clarity that she had been wrong about the dragon.

But knowing that he actually existed and that she would undoubtedly be dead soon was nothing compared to seeing him. Nothing could have prepared her for that.

He sat on a high ledge that overlooked the cavern. The light of the moon was brighter on his perch and it illuminated his ethereal form. In the pale light, his brilliant scales shone like panels of silver, but Madja knew from the legends that, much like his favorite metal, his scales were a radiant shade of gold. If the gleaming teeth he’d bared at her were any indication, Madja would never live to see him in the light of day.

Terrified beyond measure and seconds from certain doom, Madja did the only reasonable thing there was to do. She greeted him.

“Hello. You must be Sevrrn.” For good measure, she added, “The great and powerful dragon god. I am humbled to make your acquaintance.”

The dragon stared impassively.

Madja kept talking.

“Funny story. I didn’t really believe that you were real. I thought this stuff was all just laying down here and—”

The words died in her throat as he extended a hand. Just one of his claws was longer than her arm. She tried not to cry out as one came perilously close to removing her head. Instead, he carefully hooked it under the golden crown that Madja had forgotten she was wearing. He pulled his claw back just far enough to hold the crown in front of her, his garnet eyes demanding an explanation.

Madja laughed nervously. “Oh, I forgot that was there. I apologize. It was wrong of me to put it on. It was just hard to resist wearing such an amazing piece of history.”

The dragon inclined his head and then, ever so slightly, tilted it. On any creature besides an ancient dragon god, Madja might have found the curious expression rather endearing.

She swallowed hard, before nodding at the crown and asking, “Do you…not know what that is?”

Sevrrn didn’t so much as blink.

There were a few ways she could interpret his lack of response. Either he didn’t understand a word that she was saying, he found her assumption to be astoundingly insulting, or—and she was really hoping she was right about this one—he was too proud to admit to not knowing something.

“It’s the imperial crown of Arda, the first empress of Mandurin.” He seemed to be listening, so Madja kept talking. “Arda was actually the only empress of Mandurin. It took her twenty-three years to stabilize the empire, but once she did, she established the first republic in history. Ever since her death, Mandurin has elected all of its government officials. They’re more or less the only nation to ever implement a successful, long-term republic—but I digress.”

Madja backtracked from her tangent and went on to tell the story of Arda, a Basheti slave who had grown up tilling reeds along the riverbeds. She told the dragon how Arda had learned to write and had used this knowledge to spearhead the largest slave rebellion in history. Convinced that the story was the only thing keeping her alive, she told him every last detail she could think of.

Just as she was about to begin making things up, Sevrrn surprised her by dropping the crown back onto her head. She watched in silence as he reached down to the cliff below, where her bag had fallen. As his clawed fingers sorted through the contents with impressive dexterity, Madja remained suspended in the air by his tail.

When he found what he was looking for, he climbed back up the higher perch and held the item out in front of her, much the same way he had held out the crown. The white, feathered cloak had reached the floor when Madja had tried it on earlier that day. In Sevrrn’s hand, it looked like little more than a handkerchief.

“I can’t say for sure, because I’ve only seen it in pictures, but I think that’s the Cloak of Kinera, the Dvorian land goddess.” Madja wasted no time in plunging into another story. “Kinera was a swan who was caught bathing by a prince. He took her captive by stealing her cloak. You see, without it, she couldn’t return to her true form.

“The prince—I forget his name, but it’s not important—he hid her cloak away and forced her to marry him. For years, she’d beg him to give her back her power, promising that if he’d just return her cloak, she’d stay by his side. The prince—actually, I think he was a king by then—would always deny her, saying that if she truly loved him, she wouldn’t need anything but him.

“Then, one day, after they’d been married for a really, really long time, Kinera came to her husband and presented him with the cloak—that very one that you’re holding right now. She told him that one of her servants had brought it to her and as soon as she’d held it, she had realized that she no longer wanted to return to her true form. She wanted to stay by her husband’s side and live a mortal life.”

Madja grinned, momentarily forgetting her dire circumstances as she reached her favorite part of the story.

“The king was overjoyed to hear that Kinera truly loved him. He apologized for not trusting her and promised that he would never deny her anything again, so long as they both lived. That night, as they lay in bed, his wife confessed that the servant had refused to disclose the location of the cloak. Kinera told the king that she was a little curious. Where had he kept her cloak hidden all those years?

“There are a lot of versions to the story, but where he’d hid it isn’t important. What is important is that he told her the truth and the next morning, he woke to find his wife was gone.

“You see, the cloak—that cloak—was a fake. Kinera had it made so that she could trick her husband into revealing the location of her
cloak. As soon as the king had fallen asleep, she had left, found her cloak, shifted back into her true form, and flew away, never to return.”

The dragon, who had been listening intently, gave her an expectant look.

“That’s the end of the story,” she told him, cringing as she did so.

Believe me
, she thought,
we both wish there was more

The dragon inclined his head until his long snout was uncomfortably close to Madja’s head. Not that there was a comfortable distance to be from the mouth of a dragon.

He inhaled and exhaled, his powerful breath blowing her curly hair back and forth. When he pulled back, he stared at her for a long moment, seeming to consider her. Then, without warning, he jumped.

There was only so much dignity a person could maintain while being both at the mercy of a dragon and falling toward the ground. Madja screamed the entire way down and continued to whimper after Sevrrn landed with preternatural grace.

The dragon ignored her cries. On all fours, he bounded across piles of treasure in a manner not unlike an excited dog. As if to compound the analogy, when he arrived at the pile he wanted, he began to dig, his powerful hands flinging gold coins in every direction. Madja had to hold her hands in front of her face to keep from getting buffeted.

When the flinging stopped, she lowered her hands to find that a sword had been thrust at her face. She knew what he wanted her to do, she just didn’t understand why. Why was a dragon so interested in the history of artifacts?

Sevrrn dropped the sword into her hands. Despite the ornate design of its hilt, it was rather light and she was able to hold it with one hand as she traced the designs with the other.

Through the artwork and materials, she was able to trace the sword to a certain time period, but could ascertain little else about it. Fortunately, Sevrrn seemed content to listen to her hypothesize over which battles it may have been in and to whom it could have belonged. When she ran out of things to say, he gave her another object to appraise. This went on for several hours, until early-morning light began to creep into the cavern.

There was a certain comfort in their routine that made Madja slowly let her guard down. It was long after sunrise that she began to nod off. As her stories became increasingly disjointed and inconsistent, Sevrrn grew bored.

He let out a pronounced yawn. Madja flinched, unsure if the sound was heralding her doom. Still holding her with his tail, he went on the move again. The piles of gold, which had towered over her earlier, now looked like anthills when compared to the massive dragon. She wondered if he’d been watching her for long, and if so, how had she not noticed him sooner?

Sevrrn rifled through a few piles, pulling out what looked to be fabrics. He stopped for several moments, his tail swaying back and forth. Madja tried to see what he was doing, but each time she got a glimpse, she would be swaying in another direction.

By the time his tail swung around to the front, she was thoroughly dizzy. She closed her eyes to stave off the vertigo, and when she opened them again, she was on the ground. As Sevrrn’s tail uncoiled from around her waist, she surveyed her surroundings.

The dragon had dropped her on a pallet of opulent silks, feathered pillows, and luxurious furs. He sat down beside the pallet, watching her as she inspected the bedding.

“Is this for me to sleep on?” she asked, feeling hopeful.

When Sevrrn didn’t respond, she pulled one of the silks over herself and laid her head down onto a pillow. Trying not to show how nervous she was, Madja closed her eyes.

The soft clinking of displaced coins had her cracking open one eye. Sevrrn was gone. She sat up and looked around, but he was nowhere to be found. Her gaze ventured up to the passageway and the cliff above it. Still no dragon.

Madja had no idea how something so big could simply disappear, but she wouldn’t dare assume that he was gone. There was no doubt in her mind that he was somewhere within the lair, watching her, waiting to see what she would do next. There was no way she could escape—at least, not yet.



Sevrrn was unsure how long he should permit the human to sleep. He had never observed a human throughout its normal sleep cycle. He had also never been in his own human form long enough to feel the need to succumb to sleep. In his dragon form, he rarely slept outside of wintertime. That was when prey was scarce and the land grew too cold for his liking.

After a while of watching her prone form, Sevrrn grew restless. A golden light enveloped his body as he shifted into his human form. For seconds he hovered above the ground, his long, muscular body embraced by the warmth of his power. Then, his power consolidated into thousands of shimmering flecks of light. The light wrapped around him, taking the shape of a resplendent robe of scales.

His bare feet landed on the cool floor. The coins beneath his feet barely stirred as he approached the human on graceful steps. He kneeled beside her, taking in her appearance for the thousandth time that night.

The human had appeared very small when she had been in his clutches hours ago. That was nothing unusual, as there were very few creatures larger than a dragon. However, Sevrrn had found that on the rare occasions that he took human form, normal creatures seemed more in proportion.

This human still seemed quite small. In fact, she was nearly half his size.

He would have taken her for a child, but up close, he could make out her wide hips and the curves of breasts beneath her gown. He lowered his fingers, lightly brushing them across the fabric. Almost immediately, he pulled back, disliking the coarse, unfamiliar texture.

As if possessed, his fingers moved to her hair. Its dark coloring and lustrous sheen reminded him of obsidian. While it wasn’t as soft as his own golden locks, it was pleasant to touch and smelled like an ocean breeze.

He was about to touch her fallow skin, but was distracted by a glint of gold. There was something in her pocket—another one of the trinkets she had attempted to steal from him?

Deftly, he extracted the object without disturbing her. It was one of the long, golden sticks with a curved tip. He had exactly four hundred and fifty two of them, at last count. This one, however, he did not recognize. The pattern on the stick part was unfamiliar to him.

Well, now he had no choice but to wake her.

“Wake up,” he ordered.

She stirred, murmuring something about breakfast. He was not yet accustomed to her strange accent and found it difficult to discern what she was saying with her words muffled by a pillow.

“Wake up,” he ordered, this time in a voice that commanded obedience.

She sat up on one elbow, rubbing at her face. When she finally looked up at him, she froze, her brown eyes locking onto his face. In that moment, everything about her reminded him of a startled animal reacting to a threat.

It incited the predator within him.

Vivid images flashed through his mind. She would run. He would give chase. Catch her. Bite into her flesh. Release her. Let her run. Catch her again. Close his mouth over her neck.

What then?

As his fantasy ended in a haze of ambiguity, he noticed that she hadn’t run. In fact, she no longer appeared alarmed. Her eyes roamed over his body with rapt fascination. In a wholly unsettling turn of events, Sevrrn felt as though
were the prey.

When he realized how ridiculous that was, he reevaluated the situation. He assessed her body again, this time taking in her dilated pupils and the rosy tint to her cheeks. There was also a faint change to her scent—a huskiness that intrigued him on a very primitive level.

“Hey, give that back.”

Frowning, Sevrrn moved his hand as she tried to take his golden stick.

“It is mine,” he said.

For whatever reason, her cheeks colored further. He watched as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. When she spoke again, her tone had softened.

“It’s definitely my spoon. It must have fallen out of my pocket. I’m Madja, by the way. Madja O’aer. Pleasure to meet you.”

. Was that what it was called?

She held out her hand. He glanced down at it, and then back at her face.

“It did not fall from your pocket,” he informed her. “I took it from your pocket while you slept.”

Her brows drew together. “Wait, you…stole it from me?”

“I do not steal,” he said, annoyed that she accuse him of such a thing. “I accepted it as tribute for entering my lair.”

Sevrrn picked up the acrid scent of her fear. He knew then that she had not recognized him before that moment.

Her fear subsided quickly, and when it did, she folded her hands neatly in her lap.

“I didn’t enter your lair,” she told him. “I was taken here against my will and left as tribute.”


It was not the first time he had been left a human sacrifice. On the whole, he found them to be most undesirable. In the beginning, he would eat them, but even on the plump ones, good meat was few and far between and he hated the way their bones stuck in his teeth.

After trying three humans, he had given up and began ignoring them. Usually they would try to escape and that was fine by him, so long as they did not attempt to abscond with his gold. In fact, he preferred it when they left without incident, as otherwise they would inevitably die. Once, Sevrrn had spent a full day digging through his lair, searching for the source of an offensive smell only to find the rotting remains of a human who had been buried under a pile of trinkets.

This human was different than the ones who had been left before her. Rather than cry, soil herself, or beg for mercy when he had first encountered her, she had spoken to him. The things she had said were actually quite intriguing. She seemed to possess great knowledge of his possession, making her the first useful human tribute he had yet received.

“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “Well, that means you are mine, ergo, your possessions are now mine as well. Now that that is settled, tell me, what is the purpose of this

There were four hundred and seventy-two golden spoons within his hoard, but he had never before considered what purpose they might serve.

“You eat food with it,” she said, sounding impatient. “But that’s not why I want it. It’s all I have left of my father.”

Curious, Sevrrn brought the spoon closer for inspection. It appeared to be solid gold and he could not conceive of how any part of it could have come from a man.

“He’s not smelted into the gold,” she said, as though reading his mind. “The spoon belonged to him. He was an appraiser. He had a lot of nice things before the nobles took it all away from him.”

“Appraiser?” He was not familiar with that word.

“It’s a job, one that requires a lot of expertise,” she explained, reaching for the spoon. He evaded her again. “Appraisers work in trade cities. When goods come in, by land or sea, they inspect them and inform prospective buyers of their value. Some of them also work for the government to make sure that foreign merchants aren’t peddling fraudulent goods.”

“And you are an appraiser as well?”

She frowned and shook her head. “Women can’t be appraisers. It’s a man’s profession.”

That was odd to Sevrrn. In his centuries of observing humans, he had noticed that females of their kind were often subservient to males, even those whom appeared weaker than them. 

“Why?” he asked.

She sighed. “Believe me, I’ve been trying to figure that out for a long time. Look, can I please have the spoon?”

It would not hurt to let her hold it, he decided. After all, both she and the spoon now belonged to him. After looking it over once more, he placed it in the palm of her hand.

“You may hold on to it for me,” he informed her as he stood. “Now, get up. We have things to inspect.”

Appearing relieved, she pocketed the spoon. When she joined him in standing, he was struck again by how small she was. The top of her head hardly reached his shoulders and she had to arch her neck up to meet his gaze.

“Inspect what?” she asked him.

Sevrrn pointed to the pile of golden trinkets he had gathered while she’d slept. They were all objects he’d had for quite some time and had often puzzled over their purpose. Perhaps his new human would be able to enlighten him.

Breathless, she asked, “You want me to appraise all of that?”

Why else would he have bother talking to her?

“I took this form so that we may discuss each item, its history, and its value,” he said.

Scrutinizing the pile, she began to rub her chin. “Well, I’ll do my best, but I can’t tell you the value of everything. I’d imagine that most of this stuff is nearly invaluable.”

Invaluable? He thought with disdain. Since when had gold lost its value?

“So it is all worthless?” he asked, now unsure if he could trust anything this strange female said.

She shook her head. “No, no, just the opposite. To some people, these things would be worth—well, everything.”

BOOK: The Dragon's Appraiser: Part One
10.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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