Authors: Annie Nicholas
Her sister was sick. Dying. Fear was a luxury Sandra couldn’t afford. Too much depended on her facing a creature that legend said hoarded treasure of all sorts. She needed to keep this thought in the forefront of her mind to battle the dread building in her soul. Love had given her the nerves to travel halfway around the world to a country where she didn’t speak the language. If she clutched her devotion like a shield, it would help her face the dragon.
After Beth’s diagnosis, Sandra had phoned her best friend to cry on her shoulder. She’d never even heard of Baker Morris Inc., which her friend claimed to work for, but Sandra was willing to grasp at any straws if it would save Beth. Until tonight, Ishi and the gates to Outremer had all been a strange fantasy, an odd quest to hide from reality.
Lightheaded, she slowed her breathing and glared at the night sky, searching for another glimpse of red scales. This might work. She could really save Beth.
What price would the dragon ask for in exchange for the saji? She didn’t have much money. She’d used her life savings buying any information on Ishi that she could find. The most expensive thing was a list of items within the dragon’s hoard. This treasure hunter claimed he’d entered the room and barely escaped with his life, but listed the things he’d seen before they faded from his memory.
From what Sandra could find out, a saji was one of the few magical items that could work on Earth. Unfortunately, the list didn’t contain any pictures, so she didn’t know what a saji looked like.
Tomorrow, she would have to question the locals about the dragon. Someone on the island must know the location of his lair. How could a creature that big hide on an island this small without someone knowing his location? Maybe some knowledge of his history would help figure out what he’d like in trade. Her heart soared with fresh determination and she grinned at the storm that only a few moments ago had frightened her. Gathering her courage wasn’t a choice but a necessity.
Her grin faded. Damn, how was she going to question anyone? She couldn’t even ask for the location of a hotel without screwing it up. Chewing on her bottom lip, she searched the dark clouds for an answer. Lightning flashed once more and she spotted a red tail slipping into the storm.
That was it. She opened her pack and yanked out a note pad. By the dim light of the storm, she sketched a rough drawing of the dragon. How could anyone misunderstand what she wanted with a picture?
* * * *
Koishi rolled his right shoulder to ease the knot. He had pulled a muscle while flying in the storm last night. After a dinner of dwarves, the flight had helped him digest.
The bleating of sheep grew louder as he approached the pen on his small farm on the side of the volcano. He opened the gate and watched as they gathered in the far corner. The handlers had done a good job settling the animals and taking care of his stock. He was the one who choose what animals to set free on his mountain. Technically, he could just swoop by and snatch a snack at will from the pen, but where was the sport in that? He always gave his prey a fighting chance.
Mud sucked at his boots as he made his way toward them, searching the flock for the fattest ewes. Using his dragon reflexes, he darted in and tucked one under his arm. It squirmed and bleated as he carried it back to his truck. It was more cumbersome than heavy. Closing the pen gate behind him using his foot, he recognized a familiar pretty brunette hiking up the hill toward his truck.
She’d made good time. He hadn’t expected to see her at least until tomorrow. “Good morning, Sandra. Did you sleep well?” He opened the large crate door in the bed of the truck and settled the ewe inside. Patting its head, he watched as Sandra came around the back to confront him.
“You!” She set her hands on her hips. “You knew I was here to see the dragon. Did it ever occur to you to mention that you work for him?”
He shrugged. “I’m not his secretary. I don’t schedule his meetings.” Everyone knew Koishi as the dragon’s human servant. If contact or messages needed to be relayed, they sought him out. Imagine if they ever found out they were speaking with the dragon directly… He chuckled.
“This isn’t funny. I’m on important business.”
Raising an eyebrow, he assessed this lovely, furious female. He still wasn’t a hundred percent sure what he planned to do with Sandra; he already had a pet. But she was much more attractive than a goblin. He leaned forward and inhaled. She smelled better, too.
A dark flush covered her cheeks. “But you could instruct me on how to make an appointment, right?”
“Maybe I can.” His gaze wandered to the shiny gold necklace warmed by her skin. A vision of her bare on his bed, except for that piece of jewelry, occupied his thoughts.
“I’m not trading it.” She set her hand over the well-crafted piece.
He grimaced. “You made that perfectly clear yesterday.” How best to enjoy his new toy? Allowing his gaze to wander over her curves, he had a few salacious ideas. “Have you eaten yet?”
“I bought some kind of rice ball thing on my walk here.”
Nodding, he closed the crate door, trapping the ewe. “How did you find me so quickly?” She spoke terrible Japanese. It was a miracle they hadn’t sent her to the other side of the island on a wild goose chase. Or it could be fate.
She unfolded a piece of paper with a drawing of him in flight.
With a dawning appreciation for her cleverness, he leaned forward to take the picture. “You watched me–him in flight last night?” Laughing, he handed it back to her. “Very ingenious to use a drawing.” So she was smart as well as pretty. If she had a crafty streak, he might just keep her.
“I could use some coffee.” She leaned against the side of his old beige truck and only then did he notice the dark circles under her eyes. They hadn’t faded since she’d gotten off the boat.
“You look like you can use some.”
“Thanks.” She gave him a weary smile, the first one not carrying an edge of anger to it.
He pointed to the small house by the pens. “I’ll make you some. Come inside.”
Hesitating, she glanced at the surrounding empty land and didn’t follow.
“If I were a serial killer and wanted to add you to my collection of frozen body parts, I would have done it last night when you were trapped in my truck. Don’t you think?” He entered the house, leaving the door open for her, and opened the cupboards in the kitchen. Most were empty–he didn’t actually stay here, but it was a good pretense for his game warden persona to have a home. He glanced over his shoulder as she stuck her head through the doorway. “You can leave the door open, if it makes you feel better.” Not like she’d make it out if he really wanted to have human for breakfast.
He hadn’t eaten human flesh since becoming a gatekeeper. It would be a conflict of interest, given that his job was to protect them from supernatural creatures like him. “What do you want to know?” The coffee maker appeared dusty. He plugged it in and all the lights came on. Must be fine.
“Have you ever been in his lair?”
“Sure.” Coffee grounds. Where did he leave those? It had been ages since he’d made any for himself. The coffee shop a few miles away always seemed more convenient. He opened the tin canisters on the counter and located the grounds, but a stale smell came from inside. Mold. He scraped it off and discarded those in the sink.
“Does he collect treasure like the legends say dragons do?” She came far enough into the kitchen to lean on the counter.
He couldn’t locate any filters, so he found a roll of paper towels. Lining the coffee maker’s basket with a layer, he poured the clumps of grounds inside. He filled it with water and turned it on with a grin. “There!” Twisting, he found her staring at him. “What did you say?”
“Treasure, does the dragon keep treasure?” She crossed her arms over her chest with a glare.
Tilting his head, he hesitated before responding. “Why do you want to know about his treasure? He guards it day and night.” She wouldn’t be the first to try robbing him, but it would be such a shame. He didn’t want to destroy her. She gave him pleasure.
“Shouldn’t he be guarding the gate?”
“Well…” He blinked. Maybe intelligence wasn’t such a good quality in a toy. Then again, he grinned. “He keeps a goblin as a pet that guards it for him when he’s not around.” Let her think about that. “It’s stupid and dangerous to try stealing from a dragon.”
“Who says I want to steal anything? I want to make a deal.”
His eyebrows shot up before he could school his expression. “Like what?” He managed to keep the eagerness out of his voice. Barely. The scent of stale coffee filled the kitchen and he pulled two mugs out of his cupboard. When was the last time anyone had the courage to barter with him? He restrained a grin. How much would she be willing to do for what she wanted?
“That’s not any of your business. How can I meet the dragon? You know, without him eating me.” She chewed on her bottom lip and her gaze dropped to the floor.
“Tell me what you want from the dragon and I’ll see what I can do.” He busied his hands by pouring the coffee into mugs. What could she want from his hoardings? Maybe she had something really good to trade, like old gold, the kind that wasn’t processed by modern chemistry and didn’t have the stink of machines. Pirate gold was the best, especially if it had been sitting in the ocean, because it had a nice salty scent to it.
He turned to offer her the coffee, but stopped mid-twist.
A tear was sliding down her cheek. “It’s between me and the dragon, Koishi. It’s personal.” She wiped her face and gave him a watery smile. “I’m not an idiot. If I could avoid meeting him, I would. I don’t care to meet something that could swallow me whole.” Her voice shook.
“Then why do it?” His greed faded, replaced with something he hadn’t experienced in decades. Curiosity. He took a sip of coffee. The putrid flavor coated his tongue and stung his delicate sense of taste. He spat it out in the sink. “Foul.” He wiped his chin. “Maybe we should walk down to the coffee shop.” He poured the poisonous stuff down the sink.
She gave a soft laugh and shook her head. “I’ll skip the coffee for now. I need to find someone who’ll help me.” She stepped toward the door as he gripped her elbow gently.
The touch sent an electric pulse through him. “I’ll help.” He didn’t often act without thinking, but knew he didn’t want her to leave. He scratched his chin. How would a mortal expect to meet a dragon? There was only one path leading to his lair, and he didn’t want others to know about it. He couldn’t stroll down to the city in his dragon form without causing riots.
In Outremer, when a human wanted to speak with a dragon, they made a sacrifice. He gazed out the window. “Uh, you’ll have to hike up halfway to the top of the volcano.” What next? Make her chant some silly spell or–or bring a present?
“I have to go on foot?”
He shook his head. “There’s a road you can drive part way.” He flipped the picture of the dragon she had drawn, and he sketched a map. “At the end, there is a trail. Follow it until you reach a large, flat stone. Sit there and–and sing until he finds you.”
“Well, how else will he know you’re there? Doesn’t have to be a fancy song.”
“I’m a terrible singer. Couldn’t I just ring a bell or something?”
“You’re summoning a dragon, not a bellhop.” He shoved the paper into her hand and guided her from the house. Maybe a gong, but never a bell. “Wear something pretty.” He smirked at his brilliant idea. May as well enjoy himself fully.
“Hike up a mountain in something pretty?”
“I didn’t say it would be easy. I tried to warn you away. If you go through with it, that’s up to you.”
She sighed. “Anything else?”
“Bring him a present.”
She stomped her foot, but didn’t say anything else and left.
Koishi watched Sandra storm back to town from his doorway. He took pleasure in the way her ass swayed in her tight jeans. Where was he going to find a large, flat rock? He’d better set some of his sheep free on the pastures quickly, then start searching.
A present for a dragon, indeed. Sandra picked her way along the stone and dirt path leading up the volcano. Look pretty? She tried to kick a rock in her sling-back heels and missed.
But she’d done it. Anything to get her hands on the saji. Whatever it was. She had the name of the item; however, no one knew what it looked like. For all she knew it was a syringe full of magic fairy dust.
She had listened to Koishi, against her best judgment, and wore a blue dress she’d purchased in town. Heck, she’d even had her hair done. If this turned into a joke, she’d find his tight Asian ass and–and give it a good hard pinch.
He had the oddest sense of humor. Even when he was telling her about this meeting stone, he’d seemed on the edge of laughing. She’d probably end up on
sitting on the stone, singing her little heart out. Sighing, she rubbed her arms. She came from the flat part of the Midwest. It hadn’t occurred to her it would get cooler at higher altitude.
The wind tore at the sketchpad tucked under her arm. She’d spent the afternoon shopping for a present, but either couldn’t afford what she’d found or thought the trinkets were too cheap. This was her sister’s life she was bargaining for, so what she brought had to be worth something special. Dragons hoarded treasure, according to her friend. What would another piece of gold be to someone who probably owned mounds of it?