HAPPILY EVER AFTER • by Robert J. Santa

Bartok strode into the tavern. Green wood smoldered in the hearth, filling the main room with a cloud of smoke that crawled along the ceiling. All the windows were shuttered, despite the summer heat, so that the smoke had little escape.

Much of the town’s citizenry occupied the tavern. They filled the tables to overflowing, so that most of them sat on the floor. Some had tankards of ale. Fewer still had plates of light fare. Almost all of them just sat there, suppressing smoke-induced coughing.

Bartok approached the barman, who busied himself with another customer. In the corner, a small girl leaned into her mother.

“Is that the one who killed the dragon?” she asked, her face glowing with awe.

“Yes, dear,” the mother whispered.

The little girl stared at Bartok. He felt her eyes roam his massive frame, from the boots well-worn with adventure to the leather tunic studded with metal rings and the sword as long as a man’s leg strapped to his powerful back. When she took in more air to speak, he tensed his shoulders and gritted his teeth.

“I hate you!” the little girl shouted. Her mother pulled her close and hushed her.

Bartok felt the crowd bristle, but they too saw the massive frame and the sword as long as a man’s leg. As one they thought better of speaking. Still, their collective silence roared in Bartok’s ears, and he left the tavern.

The air slapped him in the face as soon as he stepped into the street. His mouth turned to a frown. He opened it to breathe, concerned that the filthy air was going unfiltered into his body. Even for one who was used to the battlefield, Bartok could not summon the strength to inhale through his nose.

At the top of the shallow hill that dominated the valley, the dragon’s corpse bloated with rot. It seemed to be waiting for Bartok to look, for the moment he did, the pressure inside the dead beast reached the point of no resistance. The scaled belly, stretched to six times its normal size, exploded. Slime fell in gobbets down the gentle slope, only barely failing to reach the closest buildings. A new cloud of putrefaction swallowed Bartok, and he retched inside his mouth. Had he eaten at all in the last two days he would have thrown it up. Instead, he spat out a mouthful of bile and continued down the empty main street to the mayor’s house.

His rap on the door induced a snapping response.

“Come in and be quick about it!”

Bartok opened the door and found heavy curtains had been draped over the entrance. He pushed past the cloth and into a room reeking of incense and smoking herbs. Acrid and unpleasant, the air was a welcome relief.

“What can I do…?” the mayor said as he entered from the back room. He stopped full in his tracks, a cloth in his hands to wipe off sawdust. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Do you have it yet?” Bartok asked.

The mayor turned and opened a box on the shelf. He took out a small bag that jingled with coins. He tossed it across the room, and Bartok deftly caught it.

“It was almost not worth it,” said the mayor. “Some have said they preferred the dragon’s occasional raids.”

“I doubt they really would,” Bartok said. “It is only in hindsight they believe it.”

“Take your gold and go.”

“I have been eager to do so for days. When you said you would pay me to slay that beast, I did not know it would take you two weeks to raise the funds.”

“We are a town of lumbermen and millers. Do you think we always keep gold on hand?”

“It is what you offered. You should have known someone would come to collect it.”

“We didn’t know it would be so soon. We didn’t know a great deal about dragonslaying. That corpse will fester for months.”

Bartok ended the conversation by leaving the house. Back in the open air that reeked of putrescence, he couldn’t help but agree with the mayor. They knew so very little about dragons, especially dead ones. For example, they didn’t know the body should be burned. It takes a great deal of wood, and to these lumbermen who look at each log like it was made of silver, the concept of simply burning it all was impossible to fathom. Still, it was the only way to keep the smell from attracting a rival male into the territory.

If they had paid him last week, he would have told them to burn the body. As he saddled his horse, Bartok wondered if the people who told the mayor they preferred a live dragon to a dead one imagined their wish would come true in the next few days.

He would give them a month then return and ask for twice his fee. And if they didn’t have it ready sooner, he would keep his mouth shut again and ask triple for the next one.

Robert J. Santa has been writing speculative fiction for more than twenty-five years. He lives in Rhode Island, USA with his beautiful wife and two, equally beautiful daughters. When not writing, Robert is the editor-in-chief of Ricasso Press. Technically, he is also the editor-in-chief of Ricasso Press when he is writing.

This story is sponsored by
Jenny Schwartz — Australian contemporary romance author in love with steampunk.

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