“I . . . I have questions.”
“Ask them, human.” I could tell he was trying to whisper. His voice was like the grinding of stone on stone, and I could feel the vibration of it in my bones.
“Okay, look. First, my name is Caliban. And to start . . . who was this witch, that she could fool an entire kingdom into revering her as their adored princess? And how did she put a dragon under her spell? Aren’t dragons supposed to resist magic? And what use was it for her to make the king think he had her as a daughter, and then be awarded like a piece of meat to some knight? And what hold does the king have over you that he can just give you to me?”
The dragon just stared at me balefully, his jaw muscle twitching.
“Do I have to order it? Can I order it? Answer me.”
The dragon winced at the order – it looked like he had to obey me, but he did not have to make it easy for me.
“In order. Her name was Alina. She possessed great artifacts that enhanced her strength, stolen from me. Normally, yes. The king loved his imaginary daughter too much to marry her off, but to inherit the throne she needed a husband that she could control, an idiot knight was ideal. The king . . . holds the eggs of my clutch, and I must obey him for my children’s sake. Yes. And yes. I will not repeat myself.
He spoke quickly, and I struggled to take it all in, trying to remember which answer went with which question. “Wait. You’re a girl?”
His . . . her yellow eyes, with irises the size of dinner plates, narrowed at me. I decided not to pursue that line of inquiry.
“We’re going back to the castle. Carry me there.” Her great claw descended, waiting for me to walk into her grasp.
“Wait. I can’t ride on your back?”
“Don’t be an idiot. There’s nothing for you to hold, it’s all smooth scale. Also, I would rather die than desecrate my dignity by letting a human rub his hindquarters on me.” Without further discussion, her massive claw closed around me, and my stomach dropped as she kicked into the air. I struggled very hard not to throw up. I would have succeeded if it were not for the barrel roll.
After she had released me at the castle, I knelt on all fours, coughing, spitting out bile, then took my canteen out and washed out my mouth.
“You make a mess,” she grumbled at me, looking at her claw distastefully.
“Bring it close. No, the moat water is dirty. Let me.” She lowered that great claw, and watched me with a curiously mixed expression as I rinsed sick from her scales, polishing them clean.
Later, I rode back out of the gate with two horses, a cart full of hay and hot stones, and six eggs, each looking like they might contain a full-grown draft horse.
“My young!” She didn’t lower her voice this time. The world seemed to turn, and I realized I’d fallen off the cart. I rolled out of the way of the wheel before it crushed me. My ears sang as I picked myself up off the ground, and that whine drowned out the world, as if I heard everything from underwater. I saw her turn her bulk toward the castle, saw her body swell as she inhaled, and I knew her fire breath was next.
“Stop!” My voice sounded like it was underwater, but she heard it. She tipped her head back, releasing the flame into the sky.
“Honorless humans making demands? You can no longer threaten my eggs. You no longer own me.” Her voice was thankfully lowered once more, if you could ever call a voice that vibrated in your bones ‘low’. My hearing was coming back, though only on the right side. I touched my left ear, and it came away bloodied.
“My name is Caliban. And who do you have to thank for that? I thought dragon-kind was supposed to be noble. You act as if you are our betters. Is this how you show it? Someone saves your children, and your first act is to burn down his home? That sounds like the act of an animal. I’ve known horses nobler than that.”
My life was currently balancing on the edge of a razor. Her eyes burned with hatred. She had been forced to swallow dominance by a human for a long time. But dragon-kind had a long history as the nobility of the wild. The decline of their population in recent decades meant little, to minds that old, compared to centuries of dominance. It was said she might be a thousand years old.
Luckily for me, her arrogance won out.“Well then, make your demands, little creature. I am in your debt. You want me to remain in your service? You want gold, like all you quick little morsels do?”
“My name is Caliban.” I had been thinking about this as I waited for my audience with the king. “I want to provide you land. The land is mine to rule, and I will provide it as a home to you. It is wild land, and wild game is plentiful, so you needn’t steal from humans.”
She stared at me. She knew I had plans, and suspected a trap. But she also sensed the potential for some kind of opportunity here. “Go on.”
“You can kill anybody who trespasses if you like. Or, you can let humans settle the land with you.”
“You say you want to give me land, then ask me to permit it to be infested?”
“If you leave the humans of the land be, I will guarantee your safety. A bounty upon you will be illegal. Humans mean herds, it means real meat. Beef, lamb chops, pork.” I saw her eyes shift as the gears turned. I had suspected her stomach would be a strong motivator. Many dragons had died trying to steal from herds.
“You propose an alliance. My provision of protection over your lands. Your protection from human interference, and access to your herds.”
“Dragons as a species are being killed off, one by one. If you make yourself an ally to humans, you can guarantee yourself safety from bounties. And your children. If we demonstrate that our collaboration can be fruitful, others will be willing to kill for a similar alliance. When your children grow, it means that they might go anywhere they like, and find food and safety.
“You know dragons do not respect the honor of humans. You quick little pests haven’t the capacity for honor, and you deserve none. Why should I trust a pest and the descendants of pests? Why should they trust me?”
“My name is Caliban. I released you, and gave you back your children, and offer land deeded to you under human law, regardless of your answer. I am hoping that if you don’t see the human race worthy of honorable treatment, perhaps you will find one particular human worthy.”
“As for my descendants, believe in their self-interest. It is the same reason I trust you to live close to my people. As long as the arrangement is beneficial to us both, we can have a measure of faith that it will continue. It’s my hope that, given time, we will know each other well enough to respect one another for who we are, not the deals we make.”
She began gathering her eggs up, very careful with them, arranging them in her claw, tucking hay and hot stones from the cart into the gaps to pad them and keep them warm. Then she lowered her head nearly to the ground to look at me, examining my face. “Hmm. A pretty speech, full of pretty words, from an ugly little manling. But you have the honor to release hostages. The honor to know that enslavement is wrong. You even washed my claw. I will consider your pretty words. We may have much to talk about.”
“My name is Caliban.” I pulled a long tube out of the cart, a map case, approaching and tucking it carefully in among the eggs. “The place is marked. Whatever you decide, it will be yours. Let’s build a future for them.”
She regarded me, then nodded. “I will have an answer for you within ten days . . . Caliban.” Then with a blast of wind that knocked me off my feet, she launched herself into the air.
I picked myself up again and watched her dwindle into the sky. She hadn’t made any promises. But she had, finally, called me by name. I had a good feeling about this.