Making Dragon Stew

“So you’re the one who beat up my cook?”

“Yes, Majesty,” Huey said, keeping back ‘and I was happy to do it’ only with great effort. Even he was not stupid enough to smart off to the King.

Annoyance was plain on the round King’s face. “You sound not the slightest bit sorry. I suppose I should expect that from an ungrateful little peasant.”

Huey barely kept back a snort of derision. He was many things, but little was not one of them. If he wasn’t the tallest person in the room, he was very close to it. His mother had promised he would fill out one day, that he would not always be simply arms and legs, that he would become a truly impressive sight.

Unfortunately, he was still tall and skinny and awkward. Perhaps fortunately, his mother hadn’t lived long enough to know that.

“So, peasant, what do you plan to do to compensate me for my cook?”

Huey frowned. He’d been fairly certain this was the part where he got tossed in the dungeons until someone felt like cutting his head off. Everyone knew the King’s passion for food.

He’d known before he swung the first punch that he likely wouldn’t live to gloat about it very long. But the bastard cook was such a bastard, taunting the women and children like that, rubbing it in their faces that they were not good enough, and that on top of—

So what if he was going to get beheaded. If he saw the bastard again before he died, he’d beat him soundly enough to earn three beheadings.

A soft chuckle of amusement broke into his thoughts, and Huey shot a look at the source of it.

The King’s Advisor. Everyone recognized him – he went riding in the fields and hills every morning and evening, white-blonde hair whipping out behind him in a long braid, cloak snapping and rippling. His eyes were pale blue, bright with mirth as he regarded Huey.

“Let him fix the stew, if that’s what you’re upset about,” the Advisor said.

“No one can fix the stew but my cook,” the King replied peevishly.

The Advisor clucked. “Let him try; certainly so many days in the kitchens would prove more gruesome a punishment than simply throwing him in the stocks. Why did you beat the cook anyway, lad?”

It took Huey a moment to realize that smooth, almost lyrical-sounding voice was directed at him, startling him into speaking before he thought his words out. “He deserved it.”

That earned him an angry glare from the King. “We take great care to feed the commoners, peasant. My cook sees the excess is taken down every single day and given to those in need. Why would such a hardworking and generous person require such a brutal beating?”

Huey bit back angry words, knowing they were useless. It would always be his word against the cook’s, and as he’d beaten the bastard up – who would believe him? “I guess I just felt like it.”

“Fine, peasant,” the King snapped. “Twenty lashes for the injuries you did my cook, and then you will make the dragon stew I require for my birthday celebration. Should you fail to make it as well as my cook you will be put to death.”

Well that wasn’t fair. Then again, if his mother was here, Huey didn’t doubt she’d come up with a punishment worse than death.

Suddenly he really missed her, more than ever. The pain was sharp, making it hard to draw breath. He hadn’t felt this lonely since the day he’d buried her, the weeks after…two years now, and she may as well have died yesterday.

Biting back a curse, he forced himself to remain still and calm.

“Well, peasant, what say you?”

“As you command, Majesty. Your word is law, and I shall obey.”

The King snorted. “If you were one to obey, you would not have beaten my cook half to death.”

If they hadn’t stopped him, Huey thought sourly, he could have beaten the bastard three quarters to death.

“Guards!” the King roared. “Take him out back for his lashings.”

Barely repressing a shudder as it suddenly struck him just what he was in for, Huey restrained an urge to flee and let the guards drag him away.

*~*~*

Every movement was an agony. His backside burned from shoulders to ass, and he really wanted nothing more than to go to bed and not move for a week. Ideally a month, but he didn’t want to be too greedy.

The kitchen fell silent as he entered, dozens of pairs of eyes staring at him.

Huey barely kept back a cringe. He wanted his little bakery down in the village, tucked in the corner where it was in no one’s way but welcome to any who wanted fresh bread or to drop off their pies for cooking.

This…he didn’t belong here. Not a bit.

Then the laughter started – quietly at first, a faint giggle from one of the scullery maids…then it just grew worse, until Huey realized he’d hunched his shoulders in a futile effort to hide himself.

Straightening them, biting back a cry of pain, he strode into the kitchen and approached the woman who seemed to be in charge – they always had a look about them. “Sorry to intrude,” he said.

The woman, with a large build that spoke of hard work rather than laziness, quirked a brow, looking him up and down. “Fine mess you’re in, boy. What nonsense were you pulling?”

“Private nonsense,” Huey snapped. “What am I supposed to do?”

Shrugging, the woman went back to work on the bread she’d been kneading. “Don’t ask me, lad. We can show you where he made the stuff, where he keeps the ingredients, but damned if any of us knew how he made it.”

Huey sighed. “Then could I trouble you to show me?”

“Aye,” the woman replied, and jerked her head at one of the boys by the spits. “Get on, then. Show him where to go.” She fumbled in her apron for a moment and pulled out a key, slapping it into Huey’s hand. “That’ll get you inside. See you give the key to no one else, lad.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Huey muttered, then followed as the boy motioned to him before bolting from the main kitchen.

Huey was led down a short path to what proved to be a small kitchen, completely separate from the rest of the castle, butting right up against the wall.

“This is where he made the dragon stew,” the boy said in a confidential tone. “Said no one else could see, because that would scare the dragon off.”

The dragon. Right. As if a dragon would come anywhere near a castle, let alone to help cook. He’d never heard of anything more stupid.

Yet the cook had been making the dragon stew for the past two decades.

Mouth tight with anger and pain, Huey unlocked the door and stepped inside.

The smell of dried herbs and spices washed over him, sharp and pungent. Mingled with it was the lingering scent of smoke, of stewed meat and vegetables. The entire room was saturated with the smell of dragon stew.

It was the herbs which made his chest ache, so vivid a reminder of his mother. He reached out delicately to touch them, breathing in the familiar scents. When mother had passed away, he’d closed up their bakery, unable to stay there without her. Instead, he’d packed up, closed up, and left the only place he’d ever called home to start fresh somewhere else.

His own little bakery wasn’t much, but it was more than enough, and he wished he were there now, making treats for the summer festival, instead of being stuck here because he’d been unable to resist beating the shit out of the arrogant, selfish bastard who’d—

Snarling, Huey cut the thought off and strode to the massive table in the middle of the room.

Lying in the center was a worn, scratched and faded box. Once, Huey knew, it had been decorated with white and blue flowers, done with painstaking care. All but gone now, only chips of paint here and there.

He took off the lid and looked at the litter of papers inside. That he knew how to read and write was something for which he’d always been grateful. They’d never had much, him and his mother, but she’d given him all she possibly could.

Gingerly he rifled through the cards, smiling sadly, eyes stinging maybe just a little bit, as he read the recipes for so many things his mother had made, all the different things she’d taught him to make.

His hand froze as he pulled out the recipe that had become the bane of his existence.

Hells, who was he kidding – it had always been the bane of his existence.

Pulling up an old stool, distantly amazed the dumb ass cook had been willing to work in such humble surroundings, Huey read over the notorious recipe.

The ingredients alone made it damn near impossible. Goblin, wyrm, pixie, magic toad…such ingredients would cost a small fortune. That wasn’t including the seasonings, though most of those were currently hanging in bundles over his head. So the bastard wasn’t completely stupid, if he knew many of these herbs would have to dry for an extended length of time to gain the right potency for dragon stew.

His mother had never made it when he was old enough to remember. He knew she’d made it when he was still a baby…but shortly after that…

Unfortunately, that meant he had no idea what the secret to it was. Only two people knew, and of those two one was dead and the other he’d beaten half to death. He looked down at the recipe again, hoping for some clue, but there was only the same nonsensical phrase written in his great-great-great grandmother’s faded handwriting.

Cook with dragon fire

Where in the hells was he supposed to find a dragon? Forget it, that wasn’t even possible. Obviously it was a code, something to keep people from stealing the recipe – but unfortunately his mother, in her heartbreak, had not told the secret to her son.

So now here he was, not really sorry he’d committed atrocious violence, but not in a real hurry to die either.

Really, it wasn’t fair. The bastard cook was still alive; the King would live if he didn’t get his soup just once – so why was he going to be executed?

Oh, right. Peasant. Expendable and all that.

Disgusted, thwarted, Huey dropped the recipe on the table.

He could improvise a great deal, his mother had taught him how to get around a kitchen…but he could not improvise when he did not know what was missing. Whatever was really meant by ‘cook with dragon fire’ he doubted it was something he could just skip or fake.

Which meant by the end of the week he’d be dead and that stupid bastard cook would be well and truly free of his dirty little secret.

The thieving, backstabbing bastard.

Huey wasn’t generally inclined to violence, but to see that smug bastard bragging about his talent like that…after all the pain his mother had endured…

It was too much to take.

Now he was going to wind up very dead unless he figured out how to ‘cook with dragon fire’ real damned fast.

Hopeless.

Sliding off the stool, he strode out of the tiny kitchen and back toward the castle.

Inside, the noise once again died down as he entered.

“Give up already, eh?” asked a scullery maid, though her smile was friendly rather than taunting. “No one knows how he does it, just that the King raves and raves about it – and that it can only be made once a year, though the King protests that.”

Huey smiled faintly. “Can’t be helped, the preparation time for most of the ingredients is months, and they’re not all available at the same time. The herbs especially can be tricky, never mind curing the goblin meat, smoking the pixies…extremely time consuming.”

Several people paused in their work, gawking at him. “How…how do you know so much?”

“I…read the recipe,” Huey said. “I’ve also worked with some of the ingredients before, though not often. I prefer bread and all, really. Soup and stew was more my mother’s thing.”

One of the women kneading bread paused and wiped her hands. “Know a bit about baking, do you?”

Huey shrugged. “My mother’s family has always been cooks and bakers. I own a little bakery in the village…I doubt I’ll see it again, but I own it.”

A few of the cooks looked at him with a bit more respect.

“Well…” said one of the women, giving him a considering look, “come and help with dinner, then. At least you can do something while you figure out that dratted stew. Idle hands never did a body good, eh?”

Huey smiled, agreeing whole-heartedly. “If I’d been busy working at the time, maybe I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

The woman smiled approvingly, a few others clucking in agreement, before they dragged him to work on breads and pies and all manner of other things.

By the end of the night, messy and sweaty and exhausted, Huey had almost managed to forget he was going to be dead in a few days.

He finished cleaning off a table, throwing the rag toward the buckets being hauled in and out by a few of the spit-turning boys.

From the doorway, the Steward gave a deep, attention-getting cough.

The kitchen fell suddenly silent.

“His Lordship would like to speak with whoever made the peach dumplings this evening.”

Huey felt sick as several heads swiveled his way. He winced. “That would be me.”

The Steward regarded him with faint amusement. “Can’t help but cause upheaval, can you lad?”

“I don’t usually cause this much trouble,” Huey muttered, then quickly cleaned himself up as best he could before following the Steward out of the kitchen, through the castle to the banquet hall.

He looked at the floor as whispers and exclamations immediately rose up.

A familiar chuckle, soft and rippling, cut through all the noise. “Well, well. Our new cook is already making a place for himself, even without the dragon stew.”

Huey dared to look up, blinking at the King’s Advisor.

Before, he’d been some distance from the man, and more worried about the lashes that even now throbbed and burned on his back. Now he was much closer, and realized suddenly that the King’s Advisor was younger than he’d first thought. Still some years older than himself, but not as many as he would have imagined.

He was also handsome, so very elegant looking, skin unfashionably tan for a noble, hair loose rather than braided…and the color of it, somewhere between new fallen snow and fine-spun gold.

“Just acquainting myself with the kitchens,” Huey finally managed, not quite able to meet those pale blue eyes all of a sudden. “The stew can’t be made for a couple more days yet; the goblin isn’t quite ready, nor are the pickled wyrm eggs.”

Not that he’d checked, but he assumed if the stupid bastard cook had been doing this for as long as he had, then he more or less knew what he was doing. Which meant those ingredients wouldn’t be ready until the day after tomorrow, if the stew was to be presented four days hence. That was day one and two, leaving three for the preparing, four to cook it.

Assuming he could figure out what dragon fire meant. Perhaps some sort of wood? A combination of woods? Specially treated woods?

Hells, he was really in trouble.

“You certainly seem to have acquainted yourself well,” said the King’s Advisor. “The peach dumplings were the best I’ve ever had. I suspect you also had a hand in several other improvements I noticed this evening. Do tell me what you helped make. I suspect I already know.”

Nodding, feeling suddenly nervous, Huey rattled off what he’d done.

“Impressive,” the King muttered begrudgingly. “It would be a shame to kill you, so let us hope you do not mess up my dragon stew.”

Huey refrained from pointing out that the King could simply choose not to kill him – barely.

Another soft chuckle, the amused twist to well-shaped lips, made Huey suspect that his thoughts were not as private as he would prefer they’d be. “You obviously are a fine cook…ah, and here I realize we never learned your name. Do by all means give it.”

“Huey.”

“Then, Master Huey, you obviously are a fine cook. I do not doubt you will make a fine dragon stew. For now, I can see you are quite tired. Go find your bed, and good luck with your cooking.”

“Thank you,” Huey said, ignoring the buzz of conversation that sprang up as he departed.

Back in the kitchen, he was attacked by what seemed to be every last servant in the castle, smothered by the baking women and scullery maids. He answered the clamor of questions as best he could, trying to figure out exactly why anyone cared and seemed relieved it had gone well.

“I guess you’ll be needing a bed, at that,” said the woman who ruled the kitchen – Huey had wondered where she’d been most of the night, but on the few occasions he’d seen her pop in, she’d scarcely paid him a look.

Odd, to say the least. Why did no one seem mad he was here? That he’d beaten up the stupid cook in charge of all this?

Eventually, they were all hustled back to work, scrubbing, cleaning, preparing for the next day.

The kitchen had emptied of all but the most senior staff and Huey when the Steward appeared again. He was smiling faintly, clutching what Huey realized was a book, as he sat down at the table where they were all gathered and helped himself to the tea someone had brewed.

“For you,” he said, handing the book to Huey. “I don’t know what you did to impress Lord Cassarah so much, but he seems bound and determined to help you.” He chuckled, all his sternness fading away as he pulled off his fancy layers and relaxed over tea. “Not that any of us would mind, really. You’ve done more work today than that oaf you trounced does in a single year, outside his stupid stew.”

Huey blinked. “Umm…” He sipped his tea.

The servants all laughed, and began to discuss where he could sleep.

He let the debate wash over him, finally allowing his misery and exhaustion to catch hold. Four days left to live, unless he could figure out what in the hells ‘cook with dragon fire’ meant.

Sick of his thoughts, he glanced down at the book given to him by Lord Cassarah…the King’s Advisor, he supposed. He blinked at the title, forgetting he was holding a hot cup of tea ’til it splashed over the rim onto his hand.

On Dragons

What…

Setting down his tea, terrified at the idea of spilling anything on the book, Huey made certain his hands were clean and then opened it.

A scrap of vellum slipped out, and he nearly fell off his stool stooping to catch it.

Should you need assistance in catching a dragon. Somehow I doubt it, but one never knows. ~C

Suddenly, Huey wished that he had not decided to administer a sound beating to the bastard cook.

Why…why was the King’s Advisor doing this?

Snapping the book shut, he hastily stood up, chugging down the last of his tea. “I think I’ll go read a bit more, see if I can learn anything more about the recipe. I can just sleep there, save everyone the trouble of shuffling. Thank you for everything. Goodnight.”

Bolting as fast as his burning back would permit, he fled to the small kitchen that was the key to his life or death.

Shivering in the cool night air, he quickly set to work building up a healthy fire in the hearth, then brewed up a fresh pot of tea.

He was tired. So very, very tired. His back screamed in pain, and he wanted nothing more than to crawl into the small cot he could see in the corner and not wake for a very long time.

Instead, he poured tea into a chipped cup and settled at his work table, flipping the book open randomly.

It is common knowledge that dragons are strangely fascinated by those objects which shine or sparkle, most often precious metals and jewels, though they have been known to favor other objects and materials. In the days when dragon hunting was common, knights often wore shining armor to coax dragons out of hiding.

Even in present day, when dragons are so scarce, if it is suspected one is about the surest way to capture it is to lay something bright and colorful where the dragon might spy it. No dragon can resist the lure.

If jewels and precious metals are not available, colorful glass or highly polished metal will suffice, though they do not work quite as well. Occasionally bright colored fabrics or even polished river stones have been known to work. Anything bright or shining, something out of the ordinary for a wild beast, will almost always work.

Should such objects not be readily available, there is some slight possibility of drawing it out with food, but this tends not to work as well as simply setting out something that shines or sparkles.

That was not in the slightest bit helpful.

He seriously doubted any dragons were hanging around the castle, especially if they’d been used all these years for cooking. Ha!

Why did everyone think the only answer to this was a dragon? Goblin Ale wasn’t made with goblin, fairy cake wasn’t made with fairies, why was everyone so bloody certain dragon stew required a dragon?

He shut the book with a snap, wondering suddenly if the King’s Advisor was just having a laugh at his expense. Certainly he seemed to chuckle whenever Huey was in the room.

Sipping his tea, Huey pondered simply scaling the wall and having done with it. Bakers were always in demand, he’d never lack for a job if he went somewhere else…

Except if he was going to run, then he was taking his mother’s recipes with him – and he didn’t doubt for a second that while the King might not care about him, he would be livid that his precious cook’s marvelous recipes had been taken.

Heaving another sigh, Huey picked up his tea and strode back outside, suddenly in need of the brisk night air.

I want to eat you up.

Huey jumped, giving a startled cry, dropping his tea as he searched in vain for a voice that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. “Who’s there?”

Soft laughter, rich and deep, echoed through his mind.

He heard the scrape of something on the stone wall, the roof of his kitchen, and jerked his head up. Gasped.

“You—it can’t—” He stumbled back as the dragon leapt neatly down from the wall and stalked toward him. His foot caught on something and he crashed to the ground, gulping for breath, wishing his feet would work so he could run because that was a dragon and obviously he’d lost his mind because there was no way a dragon had just been speaking to him.

More of that rich laughter echoed in his head. You are not crazy, my pretty little human.

Huey scowled. Yes, he was. Because a dragon was not talking and it most definitely had not just called him pretty.

He crashed abruptly into something hard, looking up to realize he’d somehow twisted enough to back up against the wall.

The dragon drew closer, and Huey waited in misery, knowing there was no escape. He drew a breath as it got close enough for him to smell it – sort of like smoke, but with a sharper edge that could only belong to a predator. It was so close that even in the dark he could see its eyes were some pale color, almost like silver.

It moved ever so slightly closer – then licked him.

Yes came a decisive tone. You are good.

“G-good?” Huey repeated, reaching up a trembling hand to wipe his face off. “Why in the hells am I talking to a dragon?”

Because when someone speaks to you, it is polite to respond, the dragon said matter-of-factly.

“Or someone put something in my tea,” Huey retorted.

The dragon settled down in the grass, tongue flicking as he yawned. Nonsense.

Huey refused to believe this was happening.

He’d seen pictures of dragons before, the stuffed red dragon in the port city the one time he’d visited.

This dragon was nothing like the pictures or that sad looking hunting trophy.

It’s scales…there was no other way to say it; they looked like moonlight, almost seemed to glisten and glow beneath the half-moon high above them. Its eyes were just as fine, pale as he’d noted before. In form it was like what he knew of dragons, about the length of three horses, thin and sinuous, narrow jaws filled with sharp teeth, long, wicked-looking claws jutting from the short legs. Like a serpent with legs, but large enough, clever enough, to be a thousand times more dangerous than a mere snake.

“What do you want?” Huey asked. “Why can you talk?”

Practice makes perfect, the dragon said, and there was no missing the smugness in its voice. All creatures can talk, in their own way. The trick was learning the human way. Not so hard.

The dragon was arrogant. Somehow, that didn’t surprise him in the slightest. “So what do you want with me?”

I want you, the dragon said.

Huey blinked. “Me? What?” Someone had definitely slipped something into his tea.

You need my help, do you not, little cook? The dragon drew close enough to lick him again, quick and sly, and settled back down on the grass almost before Huey realized he was once again covered in dragon drool.

“The stew? How could you know about that? What in the hells is going on here!”

If he’d known beating up that bastard cook would cause this much trouble…

Well, he still would likely have done it, but he might have made an effort at running away.

I know a great deal, the dragon replied. Do you want to make a bargain?

“A bargain?” Huey asked.

Yes. You do know what a bargain is, don’t you?

“Oh, shut up,” Huey snapped. “I know what a bargain is, you damned dragon!”

The dragon’s laughter rippled through his mind, and it rose up to slink towards him again, nudging and pushing until it curled around him. A bargain then, my pretty cook. I will spend one day helping you make your stew. In return, you must spend one night with me. Have we a deal?

“Like I have a choice?” Huey asked.

His back was killing him. He would like very much to pass out. He was being mauled by a dragon, and if he didn’t agree to spend one night with it in four days he would be dead.

Who would have thought ‘cook with dragon fire’ actually meant cook with dragon fire.

There is always a choice, the dragon said, tongue flicking out to briefly lick one cheek.

“No, there isn’t,” Huey said with a sigh. “Fine, dragon. A day for a night. You have a bargain.”

Excellent the dragon said, and with a last swipe of his cheek, seemed to glide over the grass and up the wall. It was gone as suddenly as it had come.

Huey wondered if the kitchen had anything stronger than tea.

*~*~*~*

He spent most of the next day going between preparing the dragon stew ingredients and helping the kitchen staff. Why they actually seemed to need his help, he couldn’t begin to understand, but every last person expressed nothing but gratitude with every little thing he did.

It was fun being in the midst of so much noise and chatter and bustle. His favorite days at the bakery were always when he had to rush about getting things done; he and his mother had never been very good at idleness in the end.

Bread, pies, porridge, pudding, tea, chocolate, coffee, tarts – all made with finer ingredients than he could ever afford. The spices alone made him turn positively green. He did the very best he could, but his best fell pathetically short of all that he was finding here.

On the bright side, being around so many fellow bakers and cooks he was fast picking up new tricks and recipes. If he could manage to keep his head, his bakery would thrive more than ever.

Except—

No point in thinking about it. Life was what it was, and all you could do was make the best of it. His mother had said that over and over again.

He hummed softly as he put the finishing touches on a tray of cream tarts, beckoning for one of the footmen to take it away. Wiping his hands, he looked around for anything of pressing urgency. Seeing nothing, he set his rag aside and strode from the kitchen and out to his small one.

Briskly he checked through everything, ensuring all ingredients were as they should be at this stage.

Unfortunately, everything was perfectly on schedule. The stupid cook was all too good at the recipe he’d stolen. Bastard. Huey balled his hands into fists to still the angry trembling. There was nothing he could do; look at what his actions had gotten him so far.

Still, if he saw the bastard again right now he would finish beating him to death. Or close enough he could never again break the hearts of a woman and child for the sake of stupid recipes.

Desperate for a distraction, he shoved away the recipe and his notes and pulled forward the book on dragons, once more flipping it open at random.

Dragons are fiercely possessive creatures. Once they claim something, it joins their collection of ‘treasure’ and they do not part with treasure. A dragon’s hoard is its life, and it will fight to the death to protect it.

Do not steal lightly from a dragon, as it will never give up attempting to reclaim its stolen possession.

The author highly advises against ever proceeding with the following. If a dragon is a menace, best to kill it. Enslaving a dragon is a fool’s ambition.

Enslaving a Dragon:

To enslave a dragon, one must steal from its hoard an object of especially precious value and hide it away where the dragon cannot in any way sense its location. Often this requires various components (Appendix F) and close observation as the dragon will never give up searching.

Having obtained and properly hidden the item, one can order the dragon to do his bidding in exchange for the return of the item. The dragon, in this situation, has no choice but to obey as killing the thief would lose the object forever and that the dragon could not endure.

Be aware this is an extremely dangerous endeavor, however. Should the dragon be pushed too far or too long, he will resort to violence upon others until his stolen treasure is returned. Dragons are, by nature, peaceful creatures. They are dangerous only in matters of their territorial, possessive natures. Killing them is oft times easier than attempting to cope with their thieving and brutally possessive natures.

It is the author’s highly advised opinion that should a dragon appear in the area, it is best to kill it or drive it out. Do not attempt to enslave it. This cannot be reiterated enough.

Now that was interesting. Was it actually possible to enslave a dragon?

Huey grimaced at the thought, calling up the poor stuffed creatures he’d seen – and the strange, impertinent dragon who could talk since when could dragons talk with the over eager tongue with whom he’d struck a bargain.

Ignoring the fact he had no idea where the dragon kept his hoard, it hadn’t even been necessary to do such a thing. The dragon had bargained with him. Possibly it had—

Hey, did the stupid cook enslave the dragon? But then why would the dragon be helping Huey? Surely that stupid cook would have told the dragon not to… except several maids had quite cheerfully reported to him the man could still barely leave his bed. Less cheerfully and more tartly they had stated likely the lazy oaf would stay there as long as possible.

And why hadn’t anyone ever told him dragons could talk? Learn to talk. Whatever.

Frowning, Huey flipped the book back to the beginning, running his finger down the table of contents, looking for anything that might involve dragons and talking – and licking. He really didn’t want to be licked anymore.

Nothing seemed to provide answers, and reading a passage in the introduction that described dragons as large, dumb beasts only annoyed him further. He wasn’t crazy; he’d unfortunately made certain of that.

He could always ask the bastard cook, he supposed, but he’d much rather nail his tongue to the ceiling.

Snapping the book shut, he set it aside and stood to make tea. He wished he could go help make dinner, but while everyone else was cooking and eating, he would need to begin laying the foundations of the dragon stew. Tomorrow the hard stuff started; tonight he had only to cut, slice, smoke, and otherwise prepare everything.

Cook with dragon fire…did that mean all of it, or only at the end? Because many of the ingredients had to simmer for long periods of time, well before the main ingredients were all added. It would probably suffice to have only the one night…

And that was the bargain, after all, so the point was moot. Likely he could use simple wood fire for the bulk of the early simmering.

Nodding to himself, Huey set to work gathering up what he would need to begin. Selecting a knife from the rack against the far wall, he opened a barrel and pulled out several pickled elf-roots. Pale green, slender, faintly sweet, they reached their full potential in flavor when pickled.

Humming softly, he swiftly cut them into tiny pieces and dumped the lot into a large bowl. Next he reached over his head and selected several cuttings from the various herb bundles, roughly chopping them before tossing them in with the elf-root.

Leaving it all to sit, he grabbed a bucket to fetch water from the well, laboriously going back and forth, sloshing water over his pants and shirt, swearing softly, until the massive cauldron in which everything would cook was half full. It was set outside, just in front of the little kitchen, as moving it from the inside to out later would be impossible.

It was a wonder to him the King could eat the entire thing – dragon stew was meant to feed many. His opinion of the King was not much higher than that of the bastard cook.

Sighing, he retrieved the bowl and dumped in the elf-root and herbs, fetching a long wooden spoon to stir it in. That done, he fetched several jars of powdered herbs and spices, tasting each before adding them to the cauldron, stirring each one thoroughly in before adding the next.

That done, he let it be and moved to begin chopping other things, his humming sliding seamlessly from one song to the next, a habit picked up from his mother. Thinking of her brought a sharp pang, but he was here in a castle cooking with her long lost recipes and that had to count for something didn’t it?

When he stopped for a break, he realized night had fallen. Yawning, he tidied up a bit and set a kettle to boiling for tea, setting out the chipped cup he was beginning to think of as his own.

Now that he’d stopped, every ache and pain was presenting itself – especially his back. It had been killing him every second of the day, but he did not have the time to give in to it. The lashing at least had only broken skin in a few places, and those were only shallow wounds.

Still, life wasn’t very fun at the moment.

He moved to the door to let in some fresh air – and yelped at the giant white figure standing in front of it. “You!”

Me, the dragon said cheerfully, and before Huey could blink he found himself thoroughly licked.

“I really wish you would stop covering me in slobber.”

You are tasty. Having fun, pretty cook?

“No,” Huey said.

You are lying, the dragon said, still sounding cheerful.

Huey ignored him. “What are you doing here? Our bargain is for the day after tomorrow.

I decided I would be willing to help you today and tomorrow as well, so long as you are willing to bargain.

“Three days for three nights?” Huey asked warily.

The dragon rumbled, the sound low and deep, and Huey wondered for a moment if he was talking to a dragon or a giant, scaly cat. Lovely as that sounds, the work I will be doing two days hence is not nearly so difficult as what I will do tonight and tomorrow. So, no, the trade would not be fair. If you talk to me and answer my questions while I heat your first night’s work, I will consider the trade fair.

“What would you do if it wasn’t fair?” Huey, curious.

He was more curious about the reasons he was so willing to do what a dragon told him, but as obeying might help save his head, perhaps that wasn’t so much a mystery.

The dragon growled briefly. I would extract full payment, one way or another.

“That doesn’t sound reassuring.”

The dragon said nothing.

Huey went inside to fetch his tea and a bit of bread for the dinner he realized now he’d never eaten, standing uncertainly once back outside.

Sit. Eat. Drink. Talk to me. The dragon settled down and opened it’s mouth, and Huey almost jumped out of his skin at the flames that poured so easily from its mouth – deep orange gold, similar but not quite like the cooking fires he saw every single day.

Shrugging, Huey obeyed, wolfing down his bread before settling down with a groan of pain against the small building and sipping his tea. “What do you want me to talk about?”

Tell me about your family, perhaps?

Huey smiled sadly and stared into his tea. “My family, huh? My mother comes from a long line of cooks and bakers. She used to tell me that once upon a time our ancestors were the greatest cooks to the greatest king in the greatest kingdom in the world. Certainly she made the best soups and pies and bread I’ve ever tasted in my life. I try to be as good as her, but I’ve got a long way to go. My mother was pretty, hard-working, loyal…” And broken-hearted. So broken-hearted that even as a little boy he had understood there would never be a way to repair the damage.

What of your father? the dragon prodded, gentle curiosity filling his voice.

“My father?” Huey echoed. He laughed bitterly and took a deep swallow of tea. “My father can rot, for all I care.”

You do not care for your father?

“Care?” Even to his own ears, his angry laughter sounded far too close to hysterical. “Care?” he repeated. “I care more about rotted vegetables than my father.” Shut up, he told himself, shut up right now.

But the words wouldn’t stop coming, somehow encouraged by the dragon’s silence. “What is there to care about? You want a story?” His hand trembled, tea spilling, and he swallowed it down before it went to waste. “Once upon a time there was a handsome traveler who stopped in a small village at the edge of the kingdom. This handsome traveler claimed to be a cook looking to improve his skills. He met the village baker, a beautiful young miss, and the two fell quickly in love. A year after meeting, they were married, and little less than a year later they gave birth to a son.”

His eyes stung but Huey ignored it. “For six years the little family lived together in their humble cottage behind their bakery, spending the days cooking and laughing and in great happiness.

“Until one day the little boy, now six, woke up early because of a strange sound. Crawling from bed he found his mother sobbing at the kitchen table. When he could not make her stop crying, the scared boy ran for his father – but could not find him anywhere. Nor could he find any of his father’s belongings. Neither his old brown cloak nor his heavy black boots, not a stitch of his clothing or his old pipe. His father was gone and his mother was crying. Later that day the boy learned his father had run off in the night with his mother’s treasured box of recipes.”

Huey looked up at the stars, wondering absently why they were so blurry. “So the boy and his mother managed the bakery alone and tried not to think about his traitorous father, who had only wanted the secret recipes so carefully guarded by his mother. The boy grew up, and when his mother died he finally left the village he’d always called home and moved closer to the royal city.

“There he opened a bakery of his own, working in peace and relative happiness until one day he saw the royal baker, who in addition to being cruel and cold to the villagers, looked hauntingly familiar to the boy who had never forgotten his father’s face. It was fatter, meaner, no longer handsome…but it was his father.

“Yet though the boy recognized his father, the royal cook did not recognize the son he had abandoned. Though they had the same green eyes and the same brown hair, the same nose and smile. Even when the boy was beating him, calling him a thief and traitor, the bastard cook did not know his own son.”

It was the dragon’s low growl that finally broke the spell of misery which he’d woven about himself, and Huey flushed with humiliation to realize how much he’d given away, all that he’d said. How stupid—”Sorry,” he muttered.

The dragon abandoned the cauldron and Huey abruptly found himself wrapped up in moonlight scales, a surprising amount of heat, and rather than a tongue, only the dragon’s muzzle nudged gently at his cheek. He rather thought his back should be screaming in pain, but he felt little more than a twinge. Pretty cook, all mine. He’ll not hurt you anymore.

“I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth,” Huey muttered. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

Another growl. It matters. It always matters. One such as he does not deserve a son like you and so he will never have you. He took one treasure from me, but you I will not let him have.

Huey nodded – then the words struck him. “Took one treasure? Do you mean you’re enslaved? Like it said to do in my book? You really have to listen to him just because he took something?”

Not something.. The dragon’s voice was thin, unhappy. Without even thinking about it, Huey reached up to touch – not really sure what to do, but the dragon seemed to…settle…when he touched its face, gently stroking the eye ridges and long snout. Treasure. He took a treasure. I have had it a very long time and it was a gift, and that means it’s mine and not his and I want it back. If I do not do what he says, he will make certain it is lost forever.

“What did he take?” Huey asked, and wondered that even in the midst of his own unhappiness, the dragon’s, and the sheer bizarreness of the situation – he could find it cute how childish the dragon sounded about this ‘treasure’ of his.

Still, it obviously was a great source of pain and gods knew most would consider his mother’s old recipe box to be nothing but junk.

The dragon nuzzled him, making a low rumbling sound. It is a ring. Large, made from silver, set with a beautiful blue diamond. It used to belong to a Queen; she gave it to me when I saved her from some bandits. From her I started learning how to speak the human language.

“He’s very good at stealing,” Huey said in disgust. “How did he know where to find you?”

That…is complicated. Slowly the dragon unwound itself from around him. I will tell you later, but perhaps not right now. Let us work on your neglected stew, and you can tell me about your life in the village while I cook.

Huey nodded, feeling bemused. “All right.”

*~*~*~*

Day three passed mostly in a quiet blur, his time in the main kitchens fading away as he focused exclusively on the dragon stew – and he was beginning to suspect that doing it only once a year had more to do with the laborious process of making it rather than the exotic ingredients.

Day four he woke well before dawn and began to haul out all the final ingredients, chopping, slicing, dumping everything in the large cauldron just outside his kitchen. He always expected to see people dropping by out of curiosity or to harass him, but no one came even within view. He was just far enough away from the castle proper to feel somewhat cut off.

The dragon had yet to make an appearance, and probably wouldn’t for some time yet – the stew had to cook most of the day, but not quite all of it.

All in all, it was rather lonely work. He wondered how the stupid cook dealt with it; always slightly cut off from everyone else because of this special recipe – for it truly would be a year long process, between gathering, preparing, and constantly checking on the multitude of ingredients.

Never mind how hard it must be to keep a dragon enslaved. Too careless or too cruel and it was all over. Then again, what was enslaving a dragon to a man who would make a home and family for six years for the sole purpose of stealing recipes?

Glowering, he tossed in the last of the griffon meat and gave the stew several brisk stirs. It smelled wonderful; it would smell a thousand times better once the different flavors were allowed to blend together and the heat of the fire brought out their full potential.

He wondered if that was the trick to it all – nothing was hotter than dragon fire, and it did not require constant monitoring to ensure the heat stayed up and even.

The sound of feet in grass brought his head up, and Huey started to greet the dragon – except it wasn’t.

Disappointment was drowned by utter confusion and no small amount of fluster. “Uh – good morning. You’re, um, up early?”

Lord Cassarah smiled. In the dim, gray light of early morning, beneath the thinnest hints of sunlight and the fading moonlight, his white hair almost seemed to glow, along with the silver embroidery on his dove-gray robes.

Beautiful, Huey thought, then scowled at himself.

“I came to see how you fared,” Lord Cassarah said. “The King has put entirely too much pressure upon you – though on that note, I do believe I have convinced him that killing you is a bit of an extreme.”

Huey frowned. “Thank you,” he said slowly. “I should also thank you for the book.” Not that it had helped him much, but it was interesting to read snatches of it here and there when he could find a moment.

Lord Cassarah smiled. “My pleasure.”

“Why are you helping me?” Huey asked suddenly, unable to stand not knowing why this handsome, powerful man would deign to pay him any mind. Oh, his mind had tried to provide him with ideas when it stopped thinking about dragon stew, but he had stubbornly ignored the tantalizing images. A man like that would never think such thoughts about a plain, ordinary, humble baker stupid enough to get so thoroughly in over his head.

All he got in reply was a smile that looked decidedly mischievous. “All goes well with the stew?”

“Yes,” Huey said irritably, looking away to pick up the small bowl full of finely chopped pixie wings – not actual pixie wing, but a flower called after them. They had a light sweetness, and would help cut the bitterness of other herbs, adding a final perfect layer to the myriad flavors of the stew.

Lord Cassarah drew closer, peering over the edge of the cauldron at the mass that, hopefully, would be a perfect dragon stew by sunset. “I wonder what the king will do if yours turns out better the royal cook’s.”

Huey snorted. The stupid cook might be a bastard, but he could cook – it took no small amount of skill to make something like this, as much as he hated to admit it. There was no way that he would make it better on his first attempt than someone who had been doing it for years. His only desire was to live through this – and, if at all possible, to get back that ring from the cook so the dragon could be free too. There was no way he’d leave anyone enslaved to that bastard.

Which reminded him when this was all over, he had to spend one night with the dragon. Now, however, wasn’t the time to think about it.

“Mine will not better,” he said. “This is my first attempt; there’s no way it could surpass many years of practice. I only want to keep my head.”

Lord Cassarah smiled. “You will. Good luck with your cooking.” He turned away and walked gracefully back toward the castle.

Sighing, Huey bent back to his work. Did life ever stop being confusing? He couldn’t understand his father, he didn’t understand why the King was so violent about not getting his stew, he didn’t understand Lord Cassarah, he certainly didn’t understand the weird dragon – and he didn’t even understand himself.

Cooking made sense, but given it was more or less what had gotten him in trouble…

Well, sulking wasn’t going to do anything except get him in more trouble. Huey returned to his work with renewed fervor, barely noticing that gradually he no longer had to rely on torchlight to see what he was doing. He noticed the sun only because he looked up at the sound of movement.

“Dragon,” he greeted.

Good morning. I see you are ready for me.

Huey nodded. “Thank you again for helping me.”

You will repay me in full, of that I have no doubt, so it is a pleasure. Much nicer than being made to help the one who has taken my ring.

“I would never act like him,” Huey said quietly, but fervently. He would sooner turn himself into a stew than act like his father in any way.

He watched in silence as the dragon settled down, curling around the cauldron and almost lazily opening his mouth, flames pouring out.

“Will you really be able to do that all day?” Huey asked. He couldn’t fathom it.

Oh, easily. It was hard the first year, but I’ve gotten very good at it. You also took more care than he did in preparing everything, and used wood for much of it. That means I am not as tired as usual. He might have sired you, pretty cook, but I can see you take after only your mother.”

Huey swallowed, nodding at the compliment but not daring to speak. Instead, he fetched his long wooden spoon and stood near enough to the cauldron to tend the stew without getting caught in the flames himself.

They worked throughout the day, mostly silent as the dragon focused on his fire and Huey focused on adding the final touches. No one came by; they might have been the only two people in the castle. Huey found he liked it as much as he’d liked being in the chaos of the busy kitchen.

He liked being busy, having work to do…but there was something about this which appealed, too. It reminded him of the way he and his mother had always woken early to begin the day’s work. In those few hours before sunrise, only the distant clanging of the blacksmith on the opposite side of the village had broken the spell that they were all alone, and even that had seemed part of it, the music that accompanied those secret hours of the morning inhabited by a precious few.

Scowling at his thoughts, Huey sought for a distraction. “If you were to get your ring back, what would you do?”

Get rid of that nasty cook. I have brothers who would simply eat him, but I have found that the only tasty humans are the ones I do not want to kill, and the annoying ones always taste foul. After that, I would be able to enjoy all my treasure again – including my new one. The dragon tilted his head ever so slightly; his flames remained steady and even upon the cauldron, but just over the rim of it Huey could see a strange, almost mischievous light to the pale blue eyes. You are a very pretty treasure. I will take very good care of you.

Huey ducked his head, face hot. “I am not pretty and humans can’t be treasure. That book said dragons only like shiny or bright things.

You shine. You are very bright. You smell good and taste good and are very, very pretty.

What was he supposed to say to that? This was the oddest conversation he’d ever had. Huey glared at his stew, ordering it to provide answers on dragons, sighing when it only bubbled. He threw in the last of the devil powder and resumed stirring. His arms were killing him, his legs weren’t too pleased either, and his back he was not thinking about; he was hot, sticky, and wanted a nap. “So are you going to lock me up with the rest of your treasure? Where do you keep it, a cave or something?” He snorted at the idea of the stupid cook trekking through a cave to steal treasure.

That couldn’t be it; the fat oaf would have killed himself just walking to the cave.

Amusement rippled through his mind, and Huey wondered at how quickly he’d gotten used to the way the dragon ‘spoke’ in his head. My treasure is kept in perhaps three dozen trunks, locked and sealed in one of the rooms of the treasury. None but I can open them. You will not be put there, of course. That is silly. You will stay with me. Besides, the King will be most cross if after he hires you to be his new royal cook, I tell him I am putting you in a trunk.

“Ha!” Huey said. “New royal cook. I think you’re cooking your own brain along with the stew, dragon. When this is over, I’ll be lucky if I’m permitted to go back to my own little bakery to live in peace.” Very likely he’d have to move, since he had no doubt the stupid cook would use every means to make his life miserable.

Or end it, except he thought the bastard too much a coward for that – after all, he hadn’t murdered his wife or child, simply broken them and ran.

He realized he’d slowed in his stirring and resumed the proper pace. The stew smelled wonderful, and the few samples he’d taken here and there assured him it was coming out well – probably not as good as all the years previous, but perhaps good enough he at least would live.

You will be.

Huey said nothing, simply continued to stir.

“Good evening, baker,” the King greeted. “Did you succeed in making my dragon stew?”

Huey wondered if he was supposed to be bowing, but couldn’t bring himself to actually care. If he didn’t remain standing upright, he would fall over and sleep the rest of the day. Between finishing the stew and having to get ready to present it he had managed to catch a short nap, but that was all. “I certainly did my best, Majesty, but you are the only one who can say whether or not I succeeded.”

The King grunted in approval of his words. “Then serve it up.”

“Yes, Majesty.” Huey motioned to the footman waiting by the entrance, who darted obediently off. Huey waited, forcing himself to hold still and not fidget with the stupid, fancy tunic he’d found waiting for him – all the girls in the kitchen had clucked and cooed and fussed over him with it, giggling that Lord Cassarah had sent him yet another gift.

He could feel the Advisor watching him, could just see Lord Cassarah from the corner of his eye. Huey wondered just what was so interesting about him that such a powerful man would pay him any attention at all. Never mind he was supposed to be spending the night with a dragon. He really wished it was morning already.

Finally the great doors were pushed open, and several footmen pushed and pulled the slapdash cart put together to transfer the massive stew from the small kitchen to the great hall. Huey had been thoroughly annoyed to find no such device already available. When he’d asked how the stupid royal cook had managed in years past, everyone had just shaken their heads.

All around him the great hall fell silent, and Huey frowned at the looks of shock on all their faces.

“Baker,” the King said, speaking slowly, a confused frown on his face. “What is this?”

Huey returned the frown. “Your dragon stew. What else could is possibly be?”

“That is not dragon stew,” the King replied, voice growing cold. “When the royal cook brings it to me, there is only one small pot, barely enough for me to truly enjoy it.”

Ah. Now all the pieces fell into place. Huey sneered. “That is because your royal cook is a selfish, arrogant bastard who deserved a great deal worse than the beating I gave him. Dragon stew is meant to feed a great many people; given the costs in ingredients, labor, and especially the difficulty in actually locating a dragon – it would be stupid to make enough only for one person. The recipe I followed made enough to feed every person in this room. I followed the same recipe that stupid cook has always used.”

“Summon the royal cook!” the King roared.

Huey tensed, and stood in unhappy silence until he heard the doors open again. He carefully did not look up, knowing he’d only want to beat the bastard again.

“My dear cook,” the King said, “explain to me why this boy makes so much stew when you make only a single pot’s worth, and he claims to follow the same recipe.”

The cook sneered. “He’s a liar, of course.”

Huey balled his hands into fists, but managed to keep his place. If nothing else, he had made a promise – one night for one day. Until that debt was paid, he did not belong entirely to himself and so could not do as he pleased. “I am no liar,” he said, voice rough with anger.

The King and cook both started to speak – but a smooth, lyrical voice cut through them both. “Taste the stew, Majesty. That will settle the truth of the matter far better than this squabbling.”

“You are right, of course, Cassarah,” the King said after a moment. “Baker, bring me a bowl of your supposed dragon stew.”

Thinking nasty thoughts about what he’d like to do to the bastard cook, Huey dished out a bowl and slowly carried it to the King. He stood in silence as it was fussed over, smelled – and finally tasted.

He noticed briefly that everyone else in the room seemed to have stopped breathing as well, and it might have been funny if there wasn’t so much at stake.

The King slowly set down his spoon, pressed a napkin to his lips, then looked up. His eyes were intent, dark; not even the day he’d told Huey to cook or else had they looked so. “Cook,” he finally said, focusing that oddly intense gaze on the royal cook. “It gives me no pleasure to say it, for I have stood by you all these years, but this stew far surpasses any that you have made and so I am forced to concede that perhaps it is the boy who speaks the truth.”

“Majesty,” Lord Cassarah said, the words almost idle, almost careless, except his pale eyes held a hard glitter. “I have noticed something interesting.”

The King did not look away from the now pale and panicked-looking royal cook, but he gave a slight nod. “What is that, Cassarah?”

“Take a look for yourself, Majesty. If your cook were to lose most of his girth…if he were, say, tall and lean…and his hair held no gray, and his eyes were still vibrant rather than dulled with laziness and selfishness…” Cassarah leaned forward, motioning to Huey. “How, do you suppose, would he look?”

Huey froze and nearly bolted – but pale blue eyes locked with his and suddenly he felt as though he could not move though his life likely depended upon it.

The silence which had reigned suddenly exploded into a fury of whispers and hushed exclamations.

“Cook,” the King said with a softness Huey didn’t think was too terribly reassuring, “I believe you told me upon applying for the post that you had no family…yet here plain as day I see you have a son.” He slammed his hand down on the table, commanding silence.

Once again the great hall was quiet; even the royal cook gave up on the protest he’d been about to give.

“Baker,” the King said. “I will ask you again what you were asked four days ago, and I would like you to answer me honestly. Why did you beat my cook?”

Huey tore his gaze away from the Advisor’s confusing blue eyes. He considered the merits of answering honestly. What did he have to lose though, at this point? A dragon to repay, but he was beginning to suspect he might not lose his head tonight. “As I said four days ago, Majesty, he deserved it.”

Taking a deep breath, he continued before the King could demand he say more. “Twenty six years ago he seduced and married my mother, who was a famous baker in my home village. For six years he played the role of adoring husband, even raising a son – me. Keeping the recipes that have been handed down in my family secret is a very serious matter; it was only after those six years that my mother finally showed them to my father. The very next day he was gone; no evidence of him remained except for my mother’s broken heart and my own boyish memories. After she died, I moved to the village not far from here – and discovered my father was now the royal cook, and cruel to the villagers besides.” Tersely he explained in full detail all the awful things the bastard cook did.

“Seize him,” the King said calmly when he had finished, motioning for the guards to take the royal cook away.

Huey bowed his head and stood in silence, not certain now what he should do – then suddenly knew. “Wait!” he cried out. “There’s something I need from him.”

The King motioned for the guards to halt. “What?” he asked.

“Um – ” He supposed he should have thought this out a little more. Oh, well. “A dragon helped me make the stew. I made a bargain with him. The cook stole a ring which belonged to the dragon; it once belonged to a Queen. I said I would get it back, and I would like to keep my promise.”

“Liar!” the royal cook bellowed. “The ring is mine; none can prove it is not.”

“Show me this ring,” Lord Cassarah said, gentle voice cutting through everything once more, and Huey wondered how he did that. “Majesty—”

“Yes, Cassarah,” the King replied. “Of course I would trust your judgment on such things. Cook, have you this ring?”

Red-faced with anger, the cook nevertheless reached beneath his tunic and pulled out a small pouch hung from his neck by a strip of leather. Ripping it off, he tossed it upon the table. “It is my ring,” he said petulantly.

Huey watched in silence as the pouch was opened and Lord Cassarah dumped the ring into his hand. It really was as beautiful as the dragon had said; even the quiet Advisor seemed completely taken with it. “Yes,” Lord Cassarah said. “This ring once belonged to Queen Shanna. You can see her mark here, see? The blue diamond is beyond what a cook could ever afford; even your Majesty does not possess a ring such as this.”

The King grunted. “I wish I did. Do you honestly think it belongs to a dragon?”

“Queen Shanna was considered eccentric for adoring dragons,” Lord Cassarah replied.

Giving another grunt, the King took the ring from Lord Cassarah and tossed it to Huey. “Then here is your bargain fulfilled, baker.” He motioned for the guards to finally take the royal cook away.

Huey once more stood in silent confusion.

“I apologize,” the King said, making him look up in surprise. “I was unfair to you the day of your arrival, though in my own meager defense you were not doing anything to improve your standing.”

“I wasn’t much interested, Majesty,” Huey replied with a shrug. “No one cares what becomes of a humble baker, especially one who lets his temper get the best of him.”

The King nodded. “Well, you’re a humble baker no more. From this day forward you are my royal cook – now someone pass this stew around that all might appreciate your efforts. I’m inclined to keep it to myself, of course,” he smiled, and Huey thought suddenly he did not seem quite so severe or annoying, “but I suppose I’ll be generous this once. Off to your kitchens, my cook, I’m certain you’ve had more excitement here than you wanted.”

“Yes, Majesty,” Huey said, and fled. The words ran through his head like a madness, making him feel almost feverish. Royal cook. What was he supposed to do?

He was given no time to think, however, as every last person in the kitchens attacked him with hugs and screams and congratulations. Huey thought briefly that he was going to suffocate – but as suddenly as they’d attacked him, the people stopped and pulled away, more than a few going wide-eyed.

Already knowing who would be there, Huey spun around and stared. “Lord Cassarah.”

“If you will come with me, please?” Lord Cassarah asked, voice soft and pretty.

Huey nodded and followed, wondering what this was all about and if he could break away to go and somehow find the dragon to whom he owed all this. They walked through surprisingly empty halls in silence, wending through the palace until they reached rooms so richly appointed they could only be Lord Cassarah’s private chambers. “My lord?” he asked.

Lord Cassarah motioned him to the fireplace, sitting down in a wide, high-backed chair. His hair was loose, spilling everywhere, pale and almost shimmering and so beautiful. He’d never known a man could be so beautiful. He didn’t understand what Lord Cassarah wanted with him.

“The night is half gone,” Lord Cassarah said, “so I think perhaps I will claim my half of the bargain tomorrow. However, I thought you might not mind getting away from everything going on downstairs.”

Huey stared. “What?” He blinked. “How did you know—what do you mean—” His eyes widened as Lord Cassarah seemed to ripple and suddenly those pale blue eyes were more silver, the hair more shimmering than ever and even his skin for a second seemed to hold a shine of which human skin was incapable. “You can’t be,” he breathed. “The book didn’t say anything about this.”

Lord Cassarah stood and approached, laughing softly. “It’s really not a very good book, hmm? But I thought it might make being approached by a dragon a little less shocking for you.”

“You look human,” Huey said, swallowing again the rock that suddenly seemed to be lodged in his throat. “You can’t be the dragon.”

Suddenly he found his space crowded, all that white hair everywhere, a hand on his upper arm, another against his cheek – and then Lord Casarah licked him, one smooth swipe across his other cheek – and Huey was convinced.

“How?” he asked. “No one said dragons could look human.”

Lord Cassarah smirked, looking like a little boy who had gotten away with a fine piece of mischief indeed. “That is because dragons old enough to use such complicated magic are also smart enough not to go bragging about it. I have lived here a long time and used the castle treasury to keep my treasure safe. It worked very well until that damned cook managed to steal my ring.”

“Oh!” Huey said suddenly, and fumbled for a moment, finally pulling the ring out and thrusting it at Lord Cassarah. “Here. For you.”

“Thank you,” Lord Cassarah said softly, slipping the ring onto the middle finger of his right hand. “I have missed it. You did not have to get it back.”

“I didn’t want that bastard to enslave you anymore,” Huey said, daring to look at him, but almost immediately looking away again, feeling suddenly, painfully shy.

Arms wrapped around his shoulders, tugged him close. It was strange. Often when he was this close to another, it was because the room was crowded and he’d been shoved, or it was dark and there were quick, greedy fumblings for a satisfaction never really found.

Lord Cassarah smelled like honey drizzled over fresh, warm bread, so stark a contrast with his cool appearance. Huey wanted to press closer, wanted so badly to know what was going on but he dreaded the answer more, though he didn’t know why.

“Pretty, pretty cook,” Lord Cassarah said softly in his ear. “All mine, because I am not letting you go. You are a treasure now, and brought back my treasure besides. That is a debt that will take some time to repay.”

Huey shivered, feeling lost, the only real and solid thing in his world the man – dragon – against whom he was pressed. “What do you want with me?” he asked.

“To keep you,” Lord Cassarah replied, and licked him again, grinning boyishly when Huey sputtered a protest and pulled slightly away. “I saw and appreciated you before anyone else, and so that means I keep you.”

“Stop licking me,” Huey said. “I’m not a necklace or something. You can’t just keep me.”

Lord Cassarah laughed and licked his lips, the motion slow and evil and Huey had no time to figure it out because suddenly licking became kissing and oh no one had ever really kissed him, not like this.

Hot, so very, very hot. He wondered fuzzily if this was what it was like to be dragon stew, to be surrounded by all this heat with so many things inside him suddenly too hot and mixing together until he didn’t what was what.

He broke away with a gasp and stared into eyes that were very much dragon and not a bit human, as bright and silver as the moon. “Dragon…you really are…”

“Cass,” the dragon replied. “You should call me Cass, and I can keep you because you are my treasure.”

“You don’t even know me. All I know about you is that you’re a dragon who is way too fond of licking.”

“You smell good and taste good and are very pretty and that is enough to make you one of my treasures. You are hard working and honor your bargains and care and are sweet and that makes you a very important treasure indeed. The finest of all my treasures. I am keeping you.”

Huey started to protest again, because he really wasn’t an object…but being held was nice, and being kissed like that was more than nice, and what was really so wrong with someone wanting to keep him?

He offered Lord Cassarah – Cass – a hesitant smile, and took a chance. “I gave you back your ring, dragon…Cass.” His smile grew more confident at the way Cass almost seemed to growl when Huey said his name. “What do I get in return?”

Cass growled again, hands moving with startling forwardness over Huey. “What do you want?”

“I’m not sure,” Huey said, grinning now, still not certain this was actually happening but more than willing to go along with it. He slowly reached up to touch that beautiful white hair, loving the way it shimmered, how soft and delicate it felt, like flour sifted over and over. “What would a dragon consider a fair exchange?” he asked softly.

Cass returned the smile and tiled Huey’s head just so, lowering his own to lap at Huey’s lips as though they were a rich cream. “It’s a very fine ring, it might take some time to repay its return.”

“That’s fine,” Huey whispered, the words nearly lost as Cass kissed him.

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