Lone Star Stories
Speculative Fiction and Poetry
A Treatise on Fewmets
by Sarah Prineas
Shortly after 7:30 in the morning, the phone rang, waking Assistant Professor Esme Quirk from a very uncomfortable nap. She peeled her face from the surface of her desk and looked blearily around the lab. Ring. On the desk sat her quantum thaum computer, a stack of photocopied journal articles, a mug of cold tea, a pile of Elemental Studies 101 midterms waiting to be graded, and the phone. Ring.
Too much to do. The tenure track was going to kill her; she just knew it. She bent over and rested her forehead on her desk. The phone stopped ringing. She gave it a look. Good. One less thing to worry about.
The phone began again to ring. Esme groaned and fumbled it off the hook.
"What," she mumbled. Her neck was stiff, and her mouth tasted like stale tea.
"I must speak with a professor," began a hurried voice on the other end of the wire. "Somebody who knows something about elemental magic.”
Esme picked up the cup of cold tea, decided it looked all right. “I’m a professor in the Elemental Studies Department.” Taking a sip of the tea, she grimaced but began to feel more lively. “Can I help you with anything?"
"Well, you might." He continued hesitantly, "You see, there's something very strange going on, and we thought--" Somebody on his end of the line interrupted the caller, and he paused. "Yes, yes, Aunt Maude, it is a woman professor, just as you wanted. All right, I'll tell her that, too," he said. "Sorry," he addressed Esme again. "My aunt. She thinks, well . . . ." He took a deep breath. "What's your name, by the way?"
"Esme. Professor Esme Quirk." Perhaps the ‘Professor’ would calm him down.
"I'm Ned Slithers. Here's the thing, Professor Quirk. There are monsters lurking in my aunt’s back garden." Before she could comment, he continued quickly, "I know what you're going to say: she's old; she's batty; there are no monsters running about in Hertfordshire; but I-I-I’m fairly sure she knows what she’s talking about."
As he spoke, Esme sat up straight in her chair, the crick in her neck and the nasty taste in her mouth forgotten. Monsters? In a Hertfordshire garden? "Oh, no, I believe you," she said hastily, interrupting Slithers's protestations.
Ha! One of her looming deadlines was to finish a presentation on nexuses for the upcoming Elemental Research Conference. Her colleagues had laughed at the idea, but all her calculations indicated that one of the world’s last undiscovered nexuses might exist in Hertfordshire.
Trouble was, she had no empirical evidence to support her calculations. The magical element was elusive; it didn’t seem to like getting involved in experimental observations. This time, though, just maybe . . . .
She glanced at the papers on her desk, at the cinder-block walls of the lab, at the fluorelemental lights buzzing overhead. Then she nodded briskly. "All right, Mr. Slithers. I'll be on the morning train out of London."
* * *
Ned Slithers, when she met him, was about what she had expected: English twit. Nervous. Tweedy. Spectacles. She sighed, adjusted her black cape, and shook Slithers's hand when he offered it to her.
"Thank you so much for coming to Briar Hall, Miss Quirk," he was saying. He took her bag and gestured to a Volkswagen beetle that seemed about to fall apart under the weight of its own rust.
She shot him a glare. "Doctor Quirk."
He blinked. "Oh. Sorry. It's just, you know, well, you don't really look much like a doctor. Er, a professor, I mean." She continued to stare stonily at him. To her surprise, he blushed, then continued. "You're too young. I mean, you look young and, you know, too--"
"Just call me Esme, all right?" She sighed and shook her head, climbing into the car. Evidently not much going on upstairs at Ned Slithers' house. "You said on the phone that your aunt’s been seeing monsters?"
"Er, yes," Slithers replied.
"Have you seen them as well?"
"Not exactly." He slammed his door and started the engine.
Esme narrowed her eyes. "Then how do you know they're there?"
"Oh, you know. Crushed branches. The occasional footprint. Droppings. Fewmets, that is."
Fewmets? Esme shook her head. What the hell was a fewmet?
* * *
As they pulled into the gravel drive, Esme realized that there was more 'Briar' than 'Hall' to Aunt Maude's home. An ancient castle had melted away, leaving behind chunks of stone and crumbling walls, all covered with heavy curtains of brambly bushes. Only a single turret remained of the original structure, and though its age was apparent in the mossy stone walls, flowered curtains fluttered in the arrow slits and pots of geraniums stood by the arched front door.
Esme climbed out of the car, prepared to meet the great aunt.
Maude Slithers was very tall, broad shouldered, spoke in the loud monotone of the partly deaf, and was accompanied by two enormous, leaping, grey-furred dogs with lolling red tongues. And she was, quite clearly, a witch.
"Welcome to Briar Hall," Maude bellowed, slamming the front door behind her and wiping her hands on an apron which she wore over a ragged pair of denim overalls. She turned to Esme, who was fending off one of the dogs, and stuck out her hand. "Down, Prancer! Professor Quirk, I presume?" She gave Esme a disturbingly thorough look over. “A little pale, Neddy, but she’ll serve the purpose very nicely. Well done!”
Esme pushed a wet doggy nose away from her crotch, shook hands, and mumbled a greeting--"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Slithers"--and then tried to rub the tingling shock from her hand. Yes, the woman was sparking with magical element, which meant there had to be a nexus around here somewhere . . . .
“Now come on in for tea! And call me Maude; everybody does. Prancer, down! Watch your step here, the stone's a bit crumbly!"
Esme followed Ned and his aunt into the turret, turning left into a hemispherical room outfitted as a formal parlor. The dogs went immediately to lie down on a rug before the hearth, though no fire was lit.
Esme accepted a cup of tea. "Mrs. Slithers," she began, "Can you--"
"Maude!" shouted her hostess. "Have a scone!"
"Thanks, er, Maude," Esme said gruffly. She shot a sideways look at Ned Slithers, who had perched on a chair and was gnawing at a biscuit. Esme froze with her mouth open, about to bite into a scone. She blinked. Ned Slithers was, she realized with a shiver, rather wonderful. Quite the Greek god, in fact: tall, blond, brown eyed, strong chinned. And that was a very fine set of muscles he was hiding away under a worn tweed jacket. Esme gave herself a brisk mental shake. Why was she drooling over this unexpectedly lovely man? He would never be attracted to a frump like her, with her dumpy figure, mousy brown hair, thick glasses. She took a sip of lukewarm, watery tea and addressed Ned's aunt. "Can you tell me about your back garden?"
"It's more of a jungle than a garden," Ned interjected in a murmur.
Maude did not appear to hear. "There's lizards in the back garden," she announced. She plunked an iced cake into her mouth. "A couple of 'em, right, Neddy?"
At that, Esme's ears pricked. Odd things abounded in nexuses, which were imbued with elemental magic. "I'd like to have a look, if it's all right," she said.
"What's that?" Maude shouted. The dogs lifted their heads from their rug, alert. "Speak up, girl!"
"She said she'd have a look at the back garden, Aunt Maude!" Ned explained.
Esme forced out a smile. Just as well, she thought, that he didn't know she hadn't come all the way to Hertfordshire to help his dear old witchy aunt, but to unearth some evidence to prove her hypothesis about the nexus.
"Or worms!" Maude shouted.
Esme and Ned turned to stare at her. "I beg your pardon, Aunt Maude?"
The older woman beamed. "The lizards in the garden, Neddy. They might be worms!"
* * *
Ned was right, Esme realized. The back garden was actually a jungle. It had once, perhaps, been an orchard, but the abnormally tall apple trees were covered with jubilant swags of ivy. Between the trees, thick clumps of weeds and grass grew up higher than Esme's head. Overgrown bushes with enormous, suspiciously shiny leaves crowded close to a narrow trail, and leggy rosebushes sprawled amongst the undergrowth. There was a feeling of closeness and of sweltering green life. Esme shivered.
After walking for a quarter of an hour, they reached a rickety-looking shed surrounded by a relatively clear area. Ned leaned into the shed and pulled out a sharp-edged gardening implement.
"What's that for?" Esme asked.
Ned looked off into the trees. "It’s a scythe. In case we, you know, meet any dangerous, er, plants. I'll go first, if you don't mind."
"Go right ahead." Esme wrapped her cape about her and prepared to follow. She knew next to nothing about flora and fauna, but even she could tell that the plants here were not normal and might possibly be, as Ned had said, dangerous. The air felt unnaturally thick, and she heard none of the sounds she might have expected: no birdsong; no scuttling in the bushes; no breeze rustling the branches overhead. Ned paused to hack at a clump of tangled vines that hung across the path.
They made their way slowly down the path, Ned hacking away as they went, across a sluggish stream, and deeper into a grove of bramble bushes overshadowed by stands of bamboo mixed with apple trees. Ned paused to pick a clot of weeds from the blade of his scythe. He had removed his coat and rolled up his sleeves; with his tousled blond hair and smoothly-muscled forearms he looked, Esme thought, quite distracting. Mmmm. She caught her breath--he’d never be interested in her, they never were--and turned away to admire a patch of sun-dappled greenery. How nice, she thought. Real wildlife. It glows just like emeralds and gold in the sunlight.
Then the patch shifted. Esme's gaze was drawn up--and up--until she realized she was staring not at a pretty patch of leaves and vines but at the massively muscled haunch of a--
"Dragon," she whispered.
It blended almost indistinguishably with the trees and sunlight, its body winged and serpentine and covered with smooth gold-and-emerald scales and a crest that flowed like a silken banner from its horned and bewhiskered head to the tip of its spiked tail. Its eyes were turned away as if it was surveying, above the treetops, the domain over which it lorded. It would, Esme realized, certainly see them when it turned back.
"Ned," she croaked.
"Yes?" he answered in a normal tone of voice, stepping up beside her. "What is it?"
She didn't have to answer, for at that moment the dragon's head swiveled around. Ned dropped his scythe and stood staring upward, transfixed by the dragon's regard.
The dragon's eyes were blue, Esme noted, mesmerized, but oddly opaque, like smudged windows looking out at a crystalline sky. They were the color of the magical element. She gave herself a mental shake. Think like a scientist, she told herself. Obviously the dragon was an elemental creature. Aunt Maude had been correct; she had simply meant wyrms, not worms.
"Do something," Ned squeaked.
The dragon shifted and cocked its head as if to see them better. Its long neck snaked down, and down, until they smelled the hot, thunder-and-lightning smell radiating from its scales and felt the rush of its intaken breath as it snuffed the air.
"Esme, please do something!" Ned whispered. The dragon's attention twitched toward the sound, and he froze.
"I think we'd better run." Esme grabbed Ned's limp hand and jerked him away. At the same moment the dragon reared back on its haunches, raised its snout into the air, and trumpeted a call that shook the tree branches and sent leaves whirling about their heads. Esme didn't look back to see what the dragon did next; she held on as Ned took the lead, dragging her back through the jungle.
"The tool shed!" he shouted. They burst from the overgrown path, shedding leaves and trailing scarves of vines, and raced for the rickety building. Ned pulled her inside and slammed the door. Safe!
For the moment. Inside the shed was very dark after the sunlight of midday; they stood gripping each others' hands in the close, velvety darkness, trying not to breath too loudly, listening to the not-so-distant crashing of a very large creature making its ponderous way through a riot of trees and bushes.
The crashing came closer, and still closer. Finally it stopped. Slowly their eyes adjusted to the dimness; light crept in through cracks in the board walls and filtered through a dirty window overhung with ivy.
Esme blinked and looked down at her fingers, which were getting a cramp. She was clinging to the front of Ned's shirt, and he, in turn, was clutching her as if she were the only think keeping him on his feet. His chest panted for breath beneath her fingers. She looked up to find him looking down at her, eyes wide with surprise.
With a gulp, she straightened and reached up to pull at a clump of burrs that had gotten tangled in her hair. In the dim light she saw that Ned wore a crown of vine-strangled leaves. He looked lovely, like a greeny-gold elven prince.
"I thought you could protect us." he whispered. "We could have been killed. Why didn't you do anything?"
"You mean magic?" When he nodded she gave an exasperated sigh. Why did so many people assume that every member of the faculty of the College of Magic was a practitioner of magic? Grrr. "I'm an experimentalist, Ned, but I don't actually do magic, I only study it." He stared at her. "I'm not a witch, all right?"
"Then what are we going to do?" He gestured at the door. "The dragon's out there, waiting for us. And--" even in the dim light, she could see his face turn pale. "And Aunt Maude said lizards. More than one."
"Well then, we'll just have to figure out another way to deal with it. Them." She looked around the shed: rubbish bins, rakes, hoes, other sharp-looking tools, a bucket, all of it covered with dust and with cobwebs that twitched ominously, as if unnaturally large spiders were waiting in the dark corners to see what might stray into their parlors. Esme shivered. She hated spiders.
Better spiders than dragons, though. As Ned had pointed out, more than one of the creatures might be out there waiting. But the shed wasn't much protection, rickety as it was; they couldn't stay here. They'd have to do their best to sneak past the dragon, arming themselves in case of confrontation. She thought again of the dragon's smudged blue eyes and recalled how it had bent down to smell them.
"Hmmm." Ned turned toward her, expectant. "You know, I think it might be short sighted."
No, Ned, the field mouse. Lovely but dim, as she'd thought. "Yes, the dragon. If we're quiet we might be able to creep right under its nose to your aunt's tower."
Ned nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. There are porphyric metal spikes on the tower's battlements. We'd be safe from anything elemental. But what if it isn't myopic?"
Esme shrugged. "Then it'll catch us, fry us up, and eat us for afternoon tea, like kippers."
"How can you make jokes at a time like this!"
She hadn't been joking. She glanced around at the dusty contents of the shed and picked up a hay fork. "This might do." She seized a plastic rubbish bin lid and held it up. "And this, for a shield."
"That will do you no good at all, Esme." Ned shook his head soberly. He tapped the bin lid's plastic surface. "It's made from high density polyethylene. Hmmm." He sat down on an overturned bucket and put his chin in his hand. "I assume the dragon will be burning a gas to create its flame. Methane, possibly, which burns at around 1200 celsius. Natural gas burns at about 1600 celsius. Oxygen and acetylene, like a welder's torch, give a flame temperature of 3200 degrees celsius."
"What?" Esme said. Where was this stuff coming from?
Ned gave a sympathetic nod. "Yes, I agree that acetylene is unlikely. Let's assume a dragon flame temperature of between 1200 and 1600 degrees C. Now, HDPE melts at 130 C. You can see for yourself, Esme. The plastic bin lid has no chance. Under dragon flame it would melt immediately and turn to pure carbon ash, allowing the flame to pass on to you. Kippers in short order, I'm afraid."
Esme looked at the plastic bin lid, then tossed it into the corner. "What do you suggest instead?"
Ned stood up and looked around. "This." He plucked a metal lid from another rubbish container. "Steel melts at closer to 1600 C. Betters your odds." He cocked his head and gave her a quirky smile. "Unless, of course, we could come up with an anti-dragon-fire blessing, like the one the Faerie Queen put on St. George's shield."
Esme stared up at Ned. God, he was lovely. Never mind dragon flame; she was melting already. "I take it you're a hobbyist?" Oh please, Esme thought. Not one of those weirdos who dresses up like a medieval knight, bashes at other knights with a replica sword, and then quaffs ale from a pewter tankard made in Taiwan.
"A physicist, actually."
"Oh." What a relief. They stood in awkward silence for a moment. Esme cleared her throat. "Steel bin lids it is, then."
"Unless the dragon burns magical element," Ned said thoughtfully. "In that case, I couldn't begin to predict the outcome. It could transform us into anything, really."
"Well, I don't fancy becoming anything else."
"I wouldn't like that either," Ned said.
Esme took a deep breath, grasped her steel bin lid and her hay fork and made what she hoped looked like a fearless move toward the door. "No sense waiting, then. Let's go."
Ned took up his bin lid and another scythe and waited while she cracked open the door and peered out. All she saw were overgrown apple trees, tall weeds, and blue sky. "All right," she whispered. "Go quietly. You watch our rear."
"Watch behind us, I mean," she added quickly, with a glance over her shoulder. She almost smiled: he was blushing again. She had never had this effect on a man before. Maybe it was the nexus; maybe, in Ned’s vision, her pale, ordinary face and dumpy figure had been transformed in some way by the magical element. She shrugged, setting her speculations aside for later. First she had dragons to deal with.
* * *
They had covered half the distance between the shed and Maude's tower when the dragon spotted them. Its horned, crested head popped out above the trees off to their right and slightly ahead, then disappeared. A moment later Esme saw its scaly back crest over the treeline, like a sea monster swimming on the surface of the ocean.
"Faster!" she screamed.
They flew down the path, hearing the crash and rumble as the dragon approached. There was a pause in the noise and then a trumpeting call rang out; it was answered a moment later, then a second crashing approach was heard.
They crossed the stream and fled on, vines and branches lashing their faces, roots reaching up to trip their feet. They felt the ground shaking and heard, once again, one dragon's bellowing call and the other dragon's answer, this time from right behind. Aunt Maude's tower lay just across a grassy field, less than two hundred yards away. Ned and Esme burst from the jungle and raced toward it.
Esme felt a shadow pass over them and heard a rush of wind; she looked up to see the dragon's pale green belly and the vast sweep of its leaf-green wings overhead. It landed with a violent thud on the path before them.
Ned skidded to a halt. Esme crashed into his back and they clung together to avoid falling over, out of breath, still clutching their weapons and shields. One dragon crouched ahead of them, blocking their route to the tower; the other reared up at their backs--they were trapped.
"E-Esme," Ned whispered. The dragons cocked their heads, as if measuring the firing distance to their prey.
They were beautiful creatures, Esme found herself thinking, like glorious sailing ships with banners and flags flying. The second dragon was green and gold, like the first, its eyes the same opaque blue, but its crest blushed a lovely rosy pink and it seemed slightly more delicate in form. It looked like an illumination from an ancient manuscript, come alive. Beautiful.
"Esme!" Ned repeated, more urgent than before.
She tore her gaze away from the dragon crouched between them and Aunt Maude's tower. Drat. Just one hundred yards more and they would have made it. But now it was kippers, for sure.
Ned grasped her shoulders. "It’s me they want. I'll draw their attention so you can get away, all right?"
"What?" Surely chivalry is dead, Esme thought. He couldn't be doing what she thought he was.
"I distract, you run." Ned bent down, kissed her soundly on the lips, then shoved her away.
She stumbled, head spinning, then whirled and broke into a run. Behind her, she heard Ned shout a challenge.
For a moment she thought it would work, that the dragons would leap on Ned--poor, lovely, brave, elven-prince Ned--and leave her to find safety in the tower.
But her flight was short.
Both dragons twitched toward the sound of Ned's yelling; then, as one, they abandoned him to pursue Esme, catching up to her in one earth-shaking leap. Esme darted one way and a bejeweled claw slammed down like a portcullis. She darted the other way and a graceful, spiked tail slithered across the path, blocking her escape. Two massive, snakelike bodies circled her once, twice, then thumped to the ground, where they ringed her with an impenetrable wall of emerald and gold scales.
Esme clutched her hay fork and bin lid, ready to defend herself. As if from far away, she heard Ned shouting. What was it he had said about flame temperature? 1600 celsius? And the melting point of steel was--oh, god. Even her bin lid shield wouldn't be much protection. Esme closed her eyes, prepared for the worst. Good-bye, lovely Ned, smart-physicist Ned. Sprinkle my ashes over England's pastures green.
Nothing happened. Esme cracked open her eyes. The dragons' heads were poised above her, but they did not attack. The larger dragon snaked its head down slowly; its more delicate, pink-crested companion did the same, until both enormous heads hung before her, close enough to touch, if she wanted to. Two sets of finely-etched nostrils twitched. Esme felt the rush of wind as the dragons snuffed. The dragons breathed out again, ruffling her hair and cape, then inhaled again, then again, and yet again. Their breath smelled of ozone and thunder, the tang of magical storms, and it moved over her body like a caress, soft and tingling. Esme found herself relaxing, having to cling to her hay fork to stay upright. The dragons took one, last snuffling sniff. Languidly, langorously, their blue eyes half lidded, they drew away and lay their heads down along each others' scaly sides. They each took a few shuddering breaths and fell asleep.
Esme stood still, staring at the sleeping dragons that encircled her. Tentative, she reached out with the butt of her hay fork and prodded one dragon's scaly tail. Not even a twitch. Then she heard Ned shouting and the barking of Aunt Maude's dogs. A moment later, Ned's blond head appeared above the rosy-crested dragon's haunch.
"Esme, quick!" He reached down toward her; without hesitating, she climbed atop one clawed foot and grasped Ned's hand. As he pulled her up, she slid against the dragon's scales, which were slippery and glowing with a heat she could feel even through her clothes. Ned heaved her onto the dragon's back. For a moment they sat holding hands. Ned smiled and Esme sighed, overcome with the languorous warmth of the scales, feeling also surprisingly tingly, as if every inch of her skin had suddenly awoken from a long sleep.
A shout interrupted her thoughts. Ned, predictably, blushed and Esme looked away. As they turned to climb down the dragon’s other side, Esme saw Maude Slithers standing wide eyed and open mouthed before the tower, holding the gray-furred dogs' collars while the dogs barked in a frenzy.
"Come on, Esme.” Ned turned onto his stomach and climbed to the ground, then held up his arms, as if to catch her. Esme slid down the dragon's smooth flank, enjoying the hot, silken feel of its scales against the palms of her hands and the skin on the back of her legs. Ned staggered as she landed in his arms.
"Come on," she said, pulling down her skirt, which had ridden up during her slide down the dragon's side. "Before they wake up."
Ned--blushing yet again, she noticed--took her hand and they ran together away from the entwined and sleeping dragons to the tower. Aunt Maude hustled them inside--"Down, Prancer!"--and slammed the door.
* * *
The dragons slept for most of the afternoon. After a call to the authorities was attempted--"phone's on the blink!" said Maude--they settled down in the hemispherical sitting room to decide what to do.
Maude Slithers settled herself in an armchair; Ned and Esme sat together on the sofa. Esme had to keep herself from edging closer to him. And, she noticed, he’d forgotten to release her hand once they’d come inside.
“Well now,” Maude said loudly. "It seems to me we've got a variable nexus here.”
Esme sat bolt upright and pulled her hand from Ned’s grasp. Of course! A variable nexus. No wonder her calculations had never been supported by observation. What a scholarly paper it would make. And elemental dragons! She sat up straighter. Maybe Ned would co-author it with her. Something this big could come out in Elemental Studies Review B or even UnNature. She might be offered tenure after all.
Ned looked confused. Esme explained. “The elemental unpredictability factor increases tremendously in a variable nexus, Ned, so that exceptionally rare transformations are manifested. Such as the dragons.” She smiled, thinking of the dragons’ delightful, tingly warmth. “The dragons are a wonderful example of their kind. Almost unique, I should say.”
Ned nodded. “What I want to know is, why did the dragons go after you, instead of me? And what did they do, while they had you in there with them?”
"They, um..." To her chagrin, Esme found herself blushing. "They sniffed at me."
"Ah!" said Maude, her eyebrows raised.
"And then they went to sleep."
"I see." Maude Slithers nodded, beaming again.
The dragons chose that moment to awaken.
The dogs noticed first, rising from their hearth rug with stiff legs and rumbling growls. Everyone turned toward the windows. Esme saw the dragons approaching, then darkness fell abruptly over the room.
"I'll get the lights!" Maude shouted. Esme heard the sound of a switch being flipped, but no lights came on. "Electric's on the blink! I'll get the lamp." There was a sound of fumbling at the mantle above the fireplace, the flare of a match, then the soft glow of lantern light filled the room.
They sat staring at each other in silence. Maude was the first to speak. For the first time her voice sounded strained. "Neddy, please go and see if all of the windows are covered."
Ned got up and left the room. In a few minutes, he returned. "They are."
"What's going on?" Esme asked. The dogs had lain down again, this time on Maude's feet, as if both protecting and seeking protection.
"The dragons have coiled themselves around the tower, Professor Quirk," Maude answered. "As it happens, I know a few things about elemental magic. We witches are not as ignorant as you academics would like to think! The dragons smelled you and then went to sleep, is that right?"
Esme nodded, wary.
A note of amusement crept into the witch’s voice. "There's something about elemental dragons that is not very widely known. And that is that they are particularly fond of the smell of . . . well, of a virgin. They'll take males if they can get them, but there's nothing they like better than the smell of a female human virgin."
Oh, god, Esme thought. If you're going to take me, take me now. She stared down at her hands, face burning, afraid to look up and see Maude’s amusement or Ned's--whatever. Surprise, disappointment, disgust . . . .
"Is that the way it is, Professor?" Maude’s voice sounded kind, but Esme didn't want kindness. Death by dragon flame would be better. "Are you a virgin?"
Without looking up, Esme nodded.
Ned made a choking sound.
Maude went on to explain. "The smell of a virgin is absolutely compelling to them, you see, which is why--"
Esme shut her ears to the rest of Maude Slithers’s lecture on the long history of dragons and virgins. At some point, Ned put a glass of some very strong alcoholic beverage into her hands, which she drank. Then she had another, but it still didn't make her feel better, so she had another.
“The question is,” Maude concluded at last, with a keen look at Esme and Ned, “what are we going to do about these dragons? Hmmm?”
* * *
By midnight, the dragons still lay in tangled coils around the tower, Maude Slithers sat snoring in her armchair, the dogs were asleep on their rug, and Ned lay on the sofa, an empty glass resting on his chest. An almost-empty bottle of whiskey stood on the side table. Esme sat on a hard chair, a drink in her hand, watching the room orbit around her. Now and then the tower walls shook, as if caught up in some kind of spasm.
Esme watched as Ned shifted on the couch. He sat up and cocked his head, listening to the low grunts and growling purrs coming from outside.
"You know what they're doing out there, don't you?" Ned asked, as the dragons shifted and the tower shivered.
"Mmhmmm," Esme answered. And apparently they were going to keep doing it all night long. Because of her. How mortifying.
Ned stretched. "What are we going to do about it?"
"No idea,” Esme said. Well, she had one idea, but she wasn’t going to mention it. Especially since she had the feeling that Maude Slithers, snoring away innocently in her chair, had just that solution in mind.
Ned shot Esme a nervous glance, then looked down at the floor. “I wondered, um, if you had wondered, Esme, why the dragons came here in the first place.”
Esme blinked. Now that she thought about it . . . .
“Right.” He was blushing again, she noticed. “I’m one, too. A--you know.”
Esme stared. How could it be that someone as lovely as Ned had never . . . ?
“I think,” he said, still not looking at Esme, “well, I mean, I think I’m going upstairs. To bed.” He stood up, a bit unsteady from the drink, and carefully set his empty whiskey glass on the side table.
Oh, Esme thought, and swallowed another mouthful of her whiskey. He’s off to bed. No lovely blond Ned for me. Just Aunt Maude and her snoring dogs. Alas.
He hesitated in the doorway. In the lantern light he looked like a hero prince from a troubadour’s ballad.
Ah, she thought, and shivered with longing. The warmth from the dragons tingled under her skin. Think about tenure, she told herself. That’ll cool you down, right quick.
"Esme," Ned said.
He gave her a shy smile and held out his hand. "Aren't you coming?"
The tingling blossomed into expectant heat. They could do more than publish a treatise on fewmets together. Esme went.
By morning, the dragons were gone.
About the Author:
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