Dalstaff, the Scourge of the Six Rivers and Destroyer of Idiots Who Woke Him Up, cracked open one eye. He was in a perfect position for his emerald eyes to glint from the light that came from the cracks in the ceiling. He practiced that look to present the delicate balance of lazy violence and sheer I Will Kill You look that broke the wills of so many so-called dragon hunters.
Even as he opened his eyes, he prepared for the brutal battle between dragon and his dinner. What he saw instead was a thin, nervous looking man without the usual pointy bits that people tried to kill him. He didn't even have the crunchy armor that baked in the juices when Dalstaff finished cooking his meal.
Disappointed, Dalstaff let his heavy eyelids close and tried to go back to sleep. If all went well, the obviously suicidal man would gather his senses and leave.
He opened his eyes as he lunged forward. His sinuous neck blurring as he shot out, mouth opening wide. His roar echoed powerfully off the walls as he clamped down on the man.
To his surprise, he didn't get the crunch of bone or even a scream of pain, only the crispy crumbling of a pie in his mouth. His eyes focused on his nose where the man stood with his hands out, inches away from the powerful teeth of the dragon.
Dalstaff lunged again, this time his eyes locked on his target. To his surprise, the man managed to barely dive away from him, stumbling on some rock and flailing for a moment before falling behind it with a thump. Dalstaff crunched down on the treat he did get, then slowed as incredible flavors of apple and caramel flooded his mouth. His eyes rolled back into his head as he chewed closer, savoring every magnificent taste until the pie disappeared down his gullet.
He spoke in his rumbling voice, powerful beyond mortal ken. Or at least this unarmed and unarmored man.
"You have thirty seconds."
The man's head popped up from behind the rock.
"Great, I was wondering if I could ask you a favor then."
A deep growl rumbled in Dalstaff's chest as he stretched out. Claws the side of great swords slid out of his paws. He held them in the air for a moment, then dug them into the rock blow him. If the man didn't get the point, Dalstaff dragged them back to him, leaving ten long gouges in the granite.
The man got it, staring at the gouges in fear. Sweat dripped down his brow as he looked back up into Dalstaff's emerald eyes.
"Um, right. Well, could you not eat my daughter?"
Dalstaff blinked and worked his mighty memory to remember this man's daughter. Not knowing who he was talking to didn't make the process any easier, so Dalstaff asked for clarification.
"Who is your daughter?"
"Sophia the Daughter, she's mine and I don't want you to eat her."
"Why would I eat her?"
The man crawled up on the rock, just out of reach of Dalstaff's bite, and sighed sadly.
"Well, she's on the Virgin Roll."
Dalstaff nodded in understanding. The Virgin Roll, the annual tribute to him from every city of the Six Rivers region. One virgin a year and their city is safe from Dalstaff destroying it.
The man sighed, "Well, I don't know if she is still a virgin, actually. I mean, I caught Stephen the Baker with his hand up her shirt and you know that was two years ago. I mean I fired the boy of course, but she still hangs around other guys. You and I know," he gave a Dalstaff a meaningful look, "everyone is crazy around that age. And then have you seen-"
The man clamped his mouth shut, looking a bit nervous.
"So, please don't eat my daughter."
Dalstaff shook his head.
"Who are you?"
The man hopped up and held out his hand, "Thomas the Baker and… I…"
He took his hand back as Dalstaff looked at it hungrily. He shoved it in his pocket for a moment. Then he pulled out a large, paper wrapped object.
Dalstaff growled and Thomas quickly set the cookie on the rock.
"I know the Virgin Roll is important and there are five other girls this year, but I'm just worried that she'll be selected and you'll eat her."
"So, make her not a virgin if that is so important."
Thomas stared at the dragon for a moment, mouth agape.
"I can't do that, I'm her father!"
Dalstaff rolled his eyes before grumbling.
"I didn't mean you, idiot."
Thomas calmed down and unwrapped the cookie. Dalstaff caught the smell of chocolate chip cookies with walnuts even from his distance. He sniffed as Thomas broke off a corner and nibbled on it.
"You see, she insists that she is a virgin, some sort of pride thing, you know, and she'll just follow through it."
"She is only one of six."
Dalstaff paused, trying to figure out why he even cared. He slammed his claws into the rock and shot forward again. His mouth opened wide as he clamped down at Thomas. The baker let out a squeaking noise and dodged behind the rock, the cookie in his hand hovering in air before Dalstaff bit it.
Oh, Torsen dark chocolate and slivered almonds. Dalstaff shuddered with the taste that swamped his senses. He let his eyes closed blissfully as he rolled the cookies around in his mouth. Swallowing them nosily, he smiled.
When he opened his eyes, Thomas had moved to another rock, peaking out from behind it nervously.
"You are fast."
"I'm a baker."
Dalstaff didn't really understand how the two went together. Instead, he curled his head back and regarded the man seriously.
"She is one of six, very good odds."
"Well, I was thinking about that. You see, both Terry the Judge's Daughter and Wendy the Mayor's Daughter will probably both get out of it. I doubt that Dorene the Slut will get past the entire virgin thing, so it means that she is more of one in three, and that makes me really nervous."
The dragon thought for a moment, rumbling deep in his chest. His thoughts worked their mighty effort against a resolution for this poor baker. Even if just to get rid of him.
"Bribe me? Say, a cow for your daughter if she's picked?"
Thomas' face lit up with the brilliant idea, then dropped.
"Can't afford it."
The dragon growled. Thomas held up his hands sharply.
"No, no, that isn't it!"
"You see Ralph the Farmer sells cattle to my town. And he charges two hundred a head and I can't afford that much."
Dalstaff sighed, "I am rapidly running out of patience."
Thomas reached down behind the rock and picked up something.
Dalstaff looked at it and sniffed. His hypersensitive senses caught the delicious flavors of orange and cranberry in the muffin. Even a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon.
"That will get you another minute."
Thomas threw it, paper and all, to Dalstaff who snatched it out of the air. The flavors were exquisite and Dalstaff heard his back leg thumping on the ground as he enjoyed it.
The baker waited until he finished before speaking.
"Ralph the Farmer was buying two dozen bagels the other day and he said the main reason he charged so much was because there wasn't enough demand."
"So?" rumbled Dalstaff.
"Between you eating his cattle from the field and people not buying cattle, he has to charge double. If he had a steady buyer, he could probably drop the price down to a hundred gold a head."
The dragon slumped for a moment before growling at Thomas, "And what do you want me to do?"
"I, um," Thomas shoved his hands in his pocket. Dalstaff waited a second before snapping at him.
"I want you to buy his cattle."
Dalstaff had the brief epiphany that Thomas the Baker was insane.
He lunged forward enough to frighten Thomas but didn't try to eat him. Thomas whimpered, dodging behind his rock before peeking back up.
"Well, if you bought one every week then you wouldn't have to eat my daughter, the virgins, or steal from him. Ralph the Farmer said he would deliver it, if you wouldn't eat him too."
"What if I want more?"
"Well, Richard the Sage says that between the virgins you take as tribute and the cattle you steal, it comes out to about one every other week. For a dragon of your, um, size, you should get one to be really healthy."
Dalstaff glared at the man and tried not to think about his ribs or the hunger in his gut. He had been thinking about the next virgin sacrifice for a couple days now and he was getting more than a little hungry. He also had another reason for not wanting to buy his cattle.
Instead of addressing his personal issues, he said, "I see no reason to stop the virgin sacrifice."
"Well, I was thinking. You would get more food and people would stop trying to kill you as often. I remember last year with the Greensville ambush. You roasted them, but that wasn't the first time they dressed up a dragon hunter as a virgin."
Somehow, the strange baker coaxed Dalstaff to be chatty. He shuffled his own feet and looked up at the ceiling.
"I also can't afford it."
"I know, I saw your treasure."
Dalstaff's eyes widened for a moment, then locked into a growl of anger. His head snapped down, launching forward as he aimed for the rock that Thomas hid behind. The baker made another squeaking noise and threw up a handful of muffins into the air as he dove behind the rock. At the last minute, the hungry dragon snatched the food and swallowed them.
"Was that cinnamon?"
"And apples," came the meek reply from behind the rock.
Dalstaff stretched out and peered behind the rock. Thomas had another half dozen bags of food with him and he looked up sheepishly.
"So, I was thinking."
"Give me the food."
Thomas gathered up cookies, muffins, and even another pie and set them on the rock. Dalstaff considered eating him anyways, but clear the rock. The flood of flavors, each one more perfect than the one before it, overpowering his senses and Dalstaff curled back into his sleeping position and his foot thumping against the ground. When he finally regained his senses, he stared at the baker who returned to his rock.
"You are a very good cook."
"And you are also very sneaky."
"I am a baker."
This time, Dalstaff had to ask a question.
"What does that have to do with it?"
"Soufflés," came the simple response.
Dalstaff wondered if soufflés were any good, then shook his head to drag his thoughts back on track.
"You know how much I have and I can't afford it."
"Well, I was thinking…"
The dragon started to hate that phrase when it came out of Thomas the Baker's mouth.
"Well, Gary the Smith, he's next to me, has been buying Marston Wood for about five years now. And with the trouble in the marsh and that war going on, the price has gotten up to about fifty gold a week. I suggested that he get a different wood, but he says it burns the hottest and it is the only way to make is really good items."
Dalstaff nodded, not really understanding but desperately wanting the baker to go away. Thomas took it as a sign of encouragement and kept on speaking.
"Saffy the Nose says that you roasted poor Sir Augustine for close to thirty minutes solid at full burn. Toasted him rightfully so, but if you could do that every day, he wouldn't need to buy the expensive wood. I asked and he will give you forty gold a week if you would heat his forge instead of him buy wood."
"Yes, I've been thinking about this for a while."
"Cattle costs two hundred, you said."
"One hundred, actually, if you bought one every week."
"Still not enough."
"Well, I was thinking… last week, Stephen the Birder said that he was having trouble with the Dask Raptors. And Gloria the Gossip said that you eat those when your stomach isn't feeling well."
The dragon grunted.
"Well, Stephen the Birder said it would be worth close to two hundred a month to get rid of them. And I know that you, dragon sir… they run away from you, more so on chili night, so that would get you another two… well, forty a week."
"Eighty is still not a hundred," rumbled the powerful dragon.
"I'm getting there. There is also Gary the Guard. He has been having trouble with one part of town. When he was moaning into his croissants last week, he said that it would be worth at least thirty a week to find someone, anyone actually, who could intimidate the gangs from robbing people."
Dalstaff growled deeply, "And you think I'm intimating?"
"Well, yes, sir, but you'd be really scary to the gangs."
"You aren't scared of me."
"Terrified, actually, but I'm a baker."
The dragon was getting a bit frustrated.
"What does that have to do with it!?"
"I make good muffins."
Dalstaff calmed down, "You do."
"Thank you. So, if you did that, you could easily make one-thirty a week which is more than enough."
"Not enough to convince me to go into town every day, like a mortal human."
"I'm a human."
Dalstaff grinned at him, showing all his teeth.
Thomas paled and got ready to dodge behind the rock.
"Well, I was thinking about that too. There are a few other people who could use your help and that would get you a bit more money."
"Well, Haley the Harlot has been writing these trashy romance stories, you know the rags on the corner."
"No, I don't."
"Sorry, well, they are about, um," Thomas started to blush before he stammered, "T-They are rather naughty, with ravished women and fierce dragons. And I know that she also occasionally do the tramp show and acts out her stories on stage."
Dalstaff razed a mighty eyebrow. Thomas shook her head sharply.
"No, no, its just a bunch of guys in an outfit. Rather raunchy, I know, but she really is into dragons. And if you were to play the part of the mighty dragon, I bet she could easily double her income and give you at least fifty a week."
Dalstaff grumbled, "Why didn't you mention that before?"
"Well," Thomas blushed, "I think she'd rather live through the process and not get eaten. And she is the Harlot."
"And Sophia the Daughter's mother. And a lot of other girls' mother. If you eat her, there would be a lot of sad people."
Dalstaff finally understood.
"There is also Tony the Sage-"
"No, Richard the Sage is into dragons, Tony the Sage is an alchemist. He is offering ten gold for a pound of dragon scales."
The baker gestured to the scales that piled underneath Dalstaff. Dalstaff ducked his head and fought the urge to explain that he wasn't balding, it was because of his poor diet.
"And Tony the Sage says that you are balding because you don't eat enough."
Dalstaff promised himself to kill Tony the Sage at the earliest moment. He sighed and closed his eyes, resting as he thought about it.
"And I was thinking…"
Dalstaff opened one eye, the look going from I Will Kill You to I Will Cook and Eat You Right Now. Thomas saw the look and got ready to dodge. To the dragon's surprise, he pulled out a pie.
"Where did you get that?"
"Behind the other rock."
"How long were you here!?"
"At least an hour, I am a baker."
Dalstaff gestured for the pie and Thomas tossed it over to him. Dalstaff caught it mid-air and let out a moan of pleasure as the banana cream pie slid down his throat.
"Oh, that's good."
Thomas quipped cheerfully, "I am a baker."
The dragon regarded the baker, "How long have you been thinking about this?"
"Since I found out I had a daughter. Um, six years ago."
"Your daughter is six? A bit young for the Virgin-"
"Oh, no. Sixteen, didn't find out until ten years after the fact."
Dalstaff felt a circuit snapping in his head. He slumped his head and groaned from the sudden headache.
"How many more people do you think will give me money?"
"Um, seven or so."
"And how do you propose that I get into town for this money? Every city in the Six Rivers areas has a bounty on me."
"Well, I was thinking-"
"If you say that one more time, I will burn you, eat your corpse, then… burn your city."
"Gloria the Guard was in my bakery about five… no six… no five years ago. You remember that fire they had down at the florist-"
"Never mind. She was in there and talking about how much she wanted a child. And its been six years and her husband, Herbert the Herbalist, he is in my weekly poker game, been a-complaining that he doesn't want to… you know… with her for the last year or so since she is convinced that she is cursed. Took the joy right out of his marriage."
"What does that have to do with it?"
"Well, he isn't really getting any because she thinks she is cursed and bedroom games are not worth it if she can't have a child. So, they haven't been really happy with each other at night-"
Dalstaff's head began to droop.
"Your point, Thomas?"
"Well, you have the fabled Shroud of Yemmador. It's a big red thing with ostrich plumes on it."
"They are strix feathers and I've been blowing my nose with it, what about it?"
Thomas made a face, "Better not mention that. Apparently, that is a rather famous fertility charm that might be what Gloria the Guard and Herbert the Herbalist need to get back into bed. If she thinks she has a chance, then she'll put out for Herbert the Herbalist. He'll be less cranky at poker and everyone will be happier when he loses after the third-"
Afraid that the explanation would hurt his head more, Dalstaff interrupted him.
"And how does this get me in the city?"
"If you say you were thinking, I'm eating you right now, right here."
Thomas shut his mouth. Dalstaff and the man stared at each for a long time before the dragon snapped.
"Out with it!"
"She said about a month ago that if the gods felt she was worth of a sign, she would worship the ground below them and quit the guards to produce children. You dropping in with the Shroud would be a pretty obvious sign, if I say so myself."
"I'm not quite sure how this gets me into the city."
"She's the head of the guards. You impress her enough, you'll get free reign on the city for at least nine months. After that, if you behave, they'll keep letting you in."
Dalstaff took a deep breath and blew out an explosive gout of flame. It seared across the room, setting fire to the rock. When the smoke cleared, Thomas stood up from behind a different rock.
"Impressive. Do you normally blow flame randomly in here?"
"A lot more since you showed up."
Thomas raised an eyebrow, "Wonder why?"
Dalstaff growled, "Let me get this straight. You want me to present my snot rag to a guard so she could have sex and let me into the city where I can help the smith, the harlot, the birder, and the guard-"
"Gary the Guard," Thomas supplied helpfully.
"Gary the Guard so I can make enough money to buy cattle from the farmer and not have to eat virgins anymore?"
Thomas nodded his head as he thought through it.
"You have three seconds to get out of my cave."
"Well, I was thinking-"
Dalstaff roared. He roared as loudly as he could never do, shaking the very foundations of his cave and sending plumes of dust down from the ceiling. He didn't even get Thomas the Baker to speak when he launched another billowing cloud of smoke and fire. It was hot enough to sear the very flesh from the baker's bones.
Dalstaff peered at the damage as the smoke cleared. To his surprised, there were no bones, but there was another set of pies. They were steaming from his fiery black, but didn't appear to be burned.
He sniffed at them. Lemon cream and coconut cream pies. Snatching them up, he curled his toes in enjoyment of the flavors and threw himself on his bed of tiny treasure. Closing his eyes, he prayed sleep would come.
He kept thinking about Thomas the Baker's words. About the money he could boost is own pathetic horde. Of having meals more than satisfying than virgins and more frequently. And finally, he thought about those pies and cookies and wondered if he was as good at croissants. Finally, he cracked open one eye and wondered out-loud.
"I bet he'll call me Dalstaff the Dragon."
Groaning, he got up with a stretch of his mighty body. Turning around, he stared digging through his treasure for the Shroud of Yemmador and the plumes that weren't from an ostrich. He also started thinking about how to explain dragon snot as an aphrodisiac.