Published on 2012/04/15

The Tea-Maker's Bargain

Lisa Marie Jones

“I have done nothing to merit a wizard’s visitation.”

No response from the figure standing in the river. Canyons of fire, it was a puny thing. Like a little silver piece of tinsel, no bigger than one of the dragon’s scales. It had not spoken yet, wetting itself with fright no doubt, as it clutched at a battered wizard staff that it had festooned with knotted plants. There was nothing to draw the dragon’s attention to it, besides the nostril-flaring tinge of an unfamiliar scent standing in his riverbed. Still, the little warlock said nothing, just quivered and braced his trembling weight on his staff. The dragon hadn’t often had to think of humans’ words, but this conversation would clearly go nowhere if left to the intruder. He stepped forward.

“What have you come for then? I can clean my own scales, which is a very thin tack for getting close to my weak spot. I have marauded little on your paltry kind, and have no current plans to reproduce. Hunt those in the eastern quadrant. Of course, I will feed on you if you do.”

The tidbit stood there, reached its little head forward tremblingly.

“No. I wish… to be your apprentice.”

The dragon settled back on its haunches: this set everything in a new light. Perhaps this was a deformed creature, without sight, sent here to be fed upon. It was hardly worth setting him right, but humans were too bestial to their own sometimes. The prey of prey was a sorry thing.

“I am a monolith. You are a leaf. A fish might as well breathe in the changing air current, thousands of feet over the ocean.”

“No, not an apprentice to become a dragon, I’m-I’m not a total—no, I want to be like you in manner. The stories about you, they say you are the most unassuming dragon, yet everyone lives in fear of you. You take no interest in slaughter, but you are dangerous.”

“You want a mentor.” The dragon felt it necessary to clarify, because this was by far the strangest request ever uttered or asked and it knew many in the back of its mind, from dragon legends and human myths. None so silly as this. “You believe I am a character. To be studied.”

“No. No, no, not as such, I—there is a town, over the ridge, outside the ravine.”

The dragon lifted his head to look over the canyon edge, though it had no need. “I know it.”

“Then you know that we live in your shadow. Most in our town fear your name. The days you come flying overhead and feed on our cattle. We fear you. But no one fears us, and those far enough away do not even fear you. Those—the unfrightened ones—are coming here, soon, to speak with us. They will take over. They’ve laughed when we took arms and set patrols to prevent them from pushing back the borders of out town, they’ve mocked us. After this negotiation, they will take our mountains and our mines. Our mines are our lifeblood, our main export, and this river flows from the mountains. It too will be theirs. So we—us in the town—thought for a long time. We tried many things and even experimented with magic–”

“I can smell it on you. A dark stench of inexperience.” The dragon sniffed. “And chamomile.”

“My own blend. I’m no sorcerer,” the silver tidbit said. “I make tea. But they call me the smartest in the village, because of what I can do with plants no one minds, making them into something people will come in off the street to taste. And—and they say I talk like I make tea. I make contrary things trary, uncooperative things cooperative. And they believed since I can speak so well, and I lack only intimidation—”

“They sent you to me. A babbler.”

“They did send me,” the tidbit admitted. “I didn’t want to come.”

“Yet you have a staff, like a wizard.”

The tidbit shook the staff a little. “I tie plants around the staff when I find them and take them home and make tea. I found some, on the way here, and thought the trip could prove useful if you were… otherwise occupied.”

“Tea is a human drink. Made of weeds.” Dragons did not care for horticulture. Everything smaller than a talon was a weed.

“Would you like some?” the tidbit asked, straightening though his tone was still unsure. “In two days’ time I could have—do your kind drink tea?“

The dragon looked over the arching canyon of his domain, the water churning and rippling over the crags at his disposal, thought of the stickiness of herbs and honey and sweet-smelling air, rather than the scent of his own charcoal and metal, tinged with golden sunlight and dust in the early morning.

“No. You would have to change my oceans to sate me.”

“Then, since I cannot assist you—”

“I did not say that."

“Oh?” The tidbit leaned forward. An earnest face came out of that silvery hood. “I can?”

“Reach the rest of my hoard.”

“H-hoard? You don’t have it… here?” He looked over at the gleaming piles that surrounded the nearby caves, spilling out, wealth beyond compare. The dragon had kept it that way, ostentatious and visible, to invite lunch to come wandering. Three times a week, he gathered it all back into the large caves when he took exercise, then nosed it all out again when he returned. All but the lost hoard.

“When I was a young dragon, I sealed some of it in a cave, never knowing what I would become or how I would swell in size, the broadness of my heart and wings.” He reveled in his own glory a minute. “But I am too great to enter that cave now, or bring out its wonders. Even the thinnest of my claws cannot reach.”

He had tried, with his long rear claws, unexercised from disuse and the lack of tearing prey limb from limb. Inside him, there was a cavern that wanted the feel of the gold; knowing it was there and so inaccessible ate at him. It made him wane in a way that did not take the sustenance from his bones or the joy of flight from his wings, but that stretched the cavern inside, touching every inch of him. An incomplete hoard was a failure.

The silver tidbit was nodding vigorously. “I can do it. I can do that.”

“Then I will assist you.”

He released the pent-up smoke and air in a brief burst as he turned away. It was so difficult not to kill humans that came wandering. This one had the good sense to stand in the water the whole time – most didn’t and if the dragon breathed wrong, he risked incinerating them.

The cave was not far from the rest of his hoard – it was a tether to this place and the ruined mountain castle that housed it was a bastion of memory. He had claimed the ruins as his first home, buried his treasure in what had been a rich human’s idea of a fortress. That had been back when no one dared approach him, before this kingdom and the one before. The once-proud arches and staircases were rutted slopes now – he had used them as whetstones for his talons when he was growing. The ruins had no roof and few walls; there was no impression of being ‘indoors’ as he strode to the cave mouth, which barely reached his ankle. He had sealed it with a stone soon after realizing he could not move the treasure. If he broke open the cave with his bulk, he would never find the treasure in the ensuing rubble and the tumbling mountain. The tea merchant joined him at the end of the castle several minutes later, clambering over rocks and coughing on the dust infiltrating his tiny lungs.

“Your-your hoard?” he asked, between coughs.

“Wait.”

And the dragon took his name in mind and casually blew a stream of hot fire against the sealing stone. The wall melted now, his breath hotter than magma – that umber gooey fire humans so feared. When he turned back, the tea merchant was pressed against the wall, cowering, mewling.

“It is opened,” the dragon said.

“Through there?”

“Through there.”

The tidbit inched forward, eyeing the dripping rock of the cave. “Is it heavy?”

There was a comfortable assortment of rocks that the dragon had used before as a watch-point. He settled onto them now, eyes dimming as he kept watch on the rest of his hoard, outside the castle. The tidbit was not interesting now that he was helping.

“It will keep you busy for several hours. Then I will teach you all you need to know.”

The tidbit went in trembling. Perhaps twenty minutes passed and he came back out, juggling a golden goblet from hand to hand. Another minute and he came out with a gold chest. He had pulled off his silver cloak and was dragging the trunk with the clothing wrapped around the handle. Several more trips passed. A little pile collected at the cave mouth.

And suddenly, the tea merchant stood at his side. “That’s all of it.”

The dragon lifted his head. “No, it isn’t. There is far more.”

“There isn’t.”

“There is.” The dragon got to its feet, serpentine tail spiraling and flipping over itself. “I was a champion hoarder.”

“You were young… perhaps you misremembered?”

“I do not misremember!” The dragon thundered and nosed the tidbit roughly towards the cave mouth, getting a nose-full of chamomile and ragweed for his courtesy. “Get the rest. And do not attempt to deceive me about its whereabouts; I know it is in there.”

“It melted into the floor!” the tidbit shouted.

The dragon looked at him.

“When you melted the rock, the blast was so hot that it melted the gold – the floor in there is liquid gold, I can barely get around it. And I can’t gather it in buckets. Look.” The tea merchant into the cave, out of sight, and called: “Can you reach your claw this far?”

“Come back out.”

The merchant came back out and the dragon reached in, felt about. The floor of the room was damp, gooey, hot. He let his claw rest there a moment, scalding in the bubbling muck, before withdrawing.

“I-I’m sorry about your gold. I didn’t know how to tell—”

The dragon gazed at his talon, glittering gold and wet in the light. Prey could not see him confused like this.

“You have made me destroy my gold.”

“I couldn’t have known—”

“You swore you could achieve this. I will eat you.”

“Wait, just—just wait a minute! Do you have a-a shovel?”

The word meant nothing.

“Something for digging, no, you collect gold, there wouldn’t be—” The tidbit caught his breath. “The mining trowel of Grind. It was stolen, lost hundreds of years ago. Do you have a gold… I mean, it would look like this?”

The drawing he made in the dirt was infinitesimal – the dragon would have had to lean low to see it clearly and he would not degrade himself to that. As it was, the object looked like nothing in his hoard.

“You waste time, of which you have little. I have seen no such thing.”

The tidbit turned to head back to the exposed hoard. “Let me look for it then, and—”

“Touch my hoard and die.”

The tidbit froze in his tracks, dithering about how this was the ‘only way.’ Then, an epiphany:

“Can you – would you, be willing to flame at the ground? Just for a moment, just to make a crater.”

“Why would you want this?”

“I’ll show you where the crater would go, and I’ll dig a ditch, and then you would flame into the cave again and—“

“The liquid gold would run out.”

“Exactly!”

“… show me the location of this crater you want.”

The tidbit scampered over to the opening of the cave and patted the ground nearest it. “I can find something to dig with and it would run right into here.”

The dragon thought about this a moment. “Leave.”

“But… this would…”

Smoke began to curl from his nostrils and the tidbit fled the cave. The dragon relaxed and thought of his own name, as every dragon did to summon their fire. Orieflamme. He repeated it, then, thinking of the depth and the heat, spat a fireball wrapped around a cow carcass from earlier that day at the ground, where it exploded with the impact. The crater was wide enough that he could place a foot in it. He scraped out several loads of earth for good measure. Deep enough now to hold the liquid gold. The tidbit crept back in.

“Dig,” the dragon told him. The tidbit disrobed, marched into the cave, and did not reappear for the better part of three hours. The dragon waited at the mouth, not chancing that the tea-maker might run off with a piece of the hoard. When he finally dug his way out standing in a ditch that barely reached his ankles, he smelled of blood and burnt skin; dust coated his skin. He was still digging, slowly, making the whole ditch smell like his blood, and the dragon let loose a chuff of air.

“Leave.”

The tidbit got out of the way and the dragon dug a talon into the ditch, dragging it to the crater. Dirt furrowed to the side like water behind a shark fin. Without waiting for the tidbit, he flamed directly into the cave mouth, his name a triumph in his mind. For a full minute, he flamed, without thought of anything else and the gold came running out, as enchanted coins to a master, rippling through the ditch until they pooled in the crater. The tidbit was awestruck.

“You wished lessons on my mannerisms,” the dragon said.

“I… I did.”

“I do not give lessons.”

“Wait, we… we had an arrangement! I need to have your mystique, your power, your… eminence. People don’t take me seriously as I am… who would listen to me, aside from in a pub? I’m a tea merchant.”

“Then you should have been born a dragon. As it is, you must make a tea merchant someone to be listened to.”

“How?”

“Plot a course of action and follow it, as you have here. If it ends badly, plan another. Behave a dragon and no one in your tiny world will know the difference. They are easily deceived by confidence in their own.”

The tidbit appeared to be thinking furiously, staring at his blood-coated hands. He knew better than to argue with a dragon.

“I will do that. And, since it concerns you, the negotiations are four days from today. The embassy will be at our city. We can see you from there, from the edge of the canyon. It’s how I knew where to come. If they succeed, they will dam up this river. No cows will come grazing. This in addition to taking our mines. If you could be… really upset about that on that day: flaming, flying, swooping over the city, without causing damage…”

“You do not find my advice satisfactory payment for a job you bungled.”

“I find my life satisfactory payment from an arrangement with you, sir. But, if you could remember, four days from today, around noon, we would appreciate your assistance—”

“I am a dragon, not a philanthropist. You have made me destroy my gold. Go home before I eat you.”

The tidbit finally left and the dust settled around the dragon as he settled next to the pool of liquid gold and waited for it to cool. Solicitors never ended. The scent of tidbit’s blood drenched the ditch that led to the crater, that thin wisp of pitiful magic, mixed with spices, and drenched in blood. Why hadn’t the tidbit begged for a rest, or to go home for a tool? Most humans would.

The dragon realized then. It was a blood arrangement. Made with a human, in the relics of a human dwelling. Unbreakable by dragon code. The maker had not tramped out here on a whim. If they were desperate enough to try puny human magics to stave off war, they would have studied all the books their kind wrote on dragon contracts and how to compel him to their bidding.

Four days later, he sighed and rose, the sun shining directly down on his scales, dust rising from the canyon like a fog. He should have known better than to let a politician dig the ditch.


Lisa Marie Jones is a Bachelor-of-Arts-toting graduate who doesn’t know what she’s doing with life yet, but suspects writing novels will be part of it. Short stories are a bit trickier, as she always wants more time with her characters. Her publishing credits include the poem “I have ignored” in the West Wind (Spring 2009) and the short story “Dependence” in Scribes’ Digest.