After much debate, I chose Dragon Library.
The woman paused at the entrance to the library. By her scruffy attire, workmanlike and worn, she was a miner. Key looked her over.
“You have come to use my library?” The dragon’s voice was cultivated, aristocratic, and entirely non-human.
The woman nodded. “I need to do a bit of research.” She didn’t say what sort, and Key didn’t ask. That wasn’t the way the Dragon Library worked.
Instead, Key asked, “You are aware of the terms?”
The visitor nodded again. “I can use the library for as long as I need, for whatever research I wish. In order to leave, I must give you a book or a piece of information you don’t already have. No one seems quite clear, however, on what you will do if a patron cannot pay.”
“It all depends.”
“On who they are, how interesting, how I feel.”
“And if you are hungry?”
The dragon laughed, carefully controlling the flame this caused. A dragon with a library of antique paper books learned fast to be careful of fire. “Few of my patrons would make for very good eating. You have a name?”
“Etta.” Etta noticed that the dragon hadn’t actually denied eating patrons. Just that they were good eating. She, Etta, had eaten plenty of things that weren’t very good eating. The life of an asteroid miner wasn’t an easy one, and cheap space rations were poor enough to have you eyeing your partner before the end of a trip. She hadn’t ever come to that. But for a dragon, it wouldn’t be cannibalism, would it?
“Well, Etta,” the dragon asked. “Do you wish to enter?” The huge multi-colored eyes were fixed on the visitor.
The dragon let out a happy sigh. “Then do come in. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Etta knew about this part, too. Key was notoriously social. “I would love a cup. Earl Grey, if you have it.” She watched as the dragon heated a pot of water with a few careful puffs of flame, brewed the tea—how did it manage to handle the delicate cups with those claws?—and gestured to a padded armchair.
“Please, sit. Enjoy your tea. The books will wait.”
As will you, Etta thought. “Has business been brisk of late?”
“Oh, you know.” Key had social chit-chat down to an art. “They come. Yes, they do come. And go. Mostly.”
Maybe not such social chit-chat. Etta was still being warned. She wondered if it were too late to change her mind and go. What if this didn’t work? The dragon shifted and chatted on about the weather on Ganymede Seven, and Etta picked up her cup.
Key watched the new visitor drink her tea. The miner had something important on her mind, and Key wondered if she would be able to pay. Key breathed a little faster at the thought. The dragon wanted company, and not so many people were coming by the library these days. It had grown difficult to find new books or even information, and that scared them off. Well, this one would provide entertainment, at least for a while. Key set down the teacup it had been holding.
“So where do you mine, these days? Any good luck?” You could always get a miner talking about their luck, though few would say anything specific about where they met that luck.
“Oh, I’ve been about,” Etta responded with the vagueness Key expected. “But I’ve found a thing or two. Yeah,” she repeated with a significance Key did not miss, “a thing or two of interest.”
Key smiled, though no one but another dragon would have known it. This one, it seemed, would be able to pay. She might not wish to, but in the end, she would. If the information led to wealth, Key could buy more books. If there were any left that were not in the library already.
Key engaged the miner in light chat about the state of the galaxy and the sad difficulty of getting good tea these days, until at last Etta set down her cup.
“I mustn’t keep you any longer. I should get started on my research.”
“May I show you to any section in particular?” Key was fishing now, and the miner knew it.
“No, thank you. I’ll learn so much more by finding my own way.” Etta flashed a meaningless smile at the dragon, and stood.
“Very well, then. There are bells scattered about. Ring if you require food or drink. Both are allowed in the lounge areas, though not in the stacks.”
With a nod, the visitor was gone, down the hall toward the miles of corridors and endless bookrooms.
She could find her own way? What kind of inside knowledge did this woman, this asteroid miner, have? Key shrugged the thought off. Few humans were as smart as they thought they were. Meanwhile, there were books to read, and tea to drink. Key preferred the smoky varieties.
Etta ranged down the halls, glancing into the lounges and book-filled rooms. At the moment, it didn’t appear that anyone else was in residence, as it were. Though somewhere there should be at least half a dozen patrons, if her information was correct. At least that many had gone in and not come out over the past year (Standard Measure year; based on the orbit of the Old Earth). At least one of those was her partner.
Etta knew that Eleanor hadn’t become a dragon snack. When they’d flipped a coin and sent Eleanor in first, they’d made sure they could stay in touch. Key could guard the entrance, and no signals could get out from the interior. But nothing could stop Eleanor from sending messages, once she’d found her way to Key’s immense computer database.
The miners’ reunion in the central computer hall was warm, but brief. They got right to business.
“There are eight others, working in the stacks. I never have seen any proof that Key eats people. But some are most ill-suited to work as catalogers, and all wish to return to their own lives. Do you have enough information?”
It wasn’t a query about Etta’s knowledge of the library or the captives.
“Enough for a full dozen. It wasn’t easy, El. Sorry it took so long.”
“Oh, I’ve been happy enough here. I never knew I had a turn for research and cataloging.” She cast a look at her partner. “Key doesn’t pay, but we are fed, and it’s safe here. I’d only wish to be able to leave at times. For vacations, and such.”
Etta grunted. She knew what Eleanor was driving at. It would require thought. Meanwhile, there were the other captives to free.
Key wasn’t as startled as one would have thought, when all the captives came to the exit in a line. Each offered a nugget of information, mostly about the asteroids or a newly-discovered planet that hadn’t yet made it into the databases. Key was delighted to gain the information.
Etta and El were last in line. El gave the dragon a book. Key did a quick search, humming a happy tune. New books had become extremely rare, and—yes, this one was new! This time the dragon’s smile was recognizable.
“I thank you. You are free to go.” Key watched as Eleanor stepped through the doorway, and stopped to wait for Etta. “And what do you have to offer?”
The human smiled, in a way Key didn’t much like. “Do you know my name?”
Key huffed, remembering only at the last second not to scorch the visitor. “Of course. You gave it on entrance. You are Etta Sant. That won’t do for your release.” Key moved to block the exit.
“Oh, that was just a test to see what I would need. Now I will lay down some terms.” The human—Key thought she now looked unendurably smug—spoke for several minutes.
“What makes you think I would agree to that?” Key said when the miner had finished.
“Your name?” Key was mystified.
“Georgetta Saint. You’ve heard of Saint George, I believe.”
Key recoiled from the miner. Saint George? The Dragonslayer? What did this woman think she was getting at?
“Oh, don’t worry.” Etta was actually laughing. “I have no desire to slay a dragon these days. Just admit I gave you information you didn’t have. Then you can hire me and El as your assistant librarians, with a regular salary and four weeks vacation a year, to start. We’ll keep the library in order and recruit help when needed. In return, you can open the library for wider use and the Galactic Federation won’t take steps against you. They are thinking about it, you know.”
Key hadn’t known. This annoying human had twice pulled out surprises. There was really only one thing to do.
“On our terms?”
“On your terms,” Key huffed. “Return next week to take up your duties.” The dragon’s natural desires forced it to add, “And can you bring some Laspang Souchong when you come?”
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015
If you want to look at some of my other stories, go here.
###And then there's the other big news: We have a release date for Death By Trombone. It should (knock wood) go live on January 8th. Preorders are available at Amazon and Smashwords.
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JJ MacGregor is ready to relax into summer vacation. She just has to get through Senior Prom, graduation, and a divorce hearing without going nuts. Then she trips over a body behind the gym and life gets messy.