["trobairitz": a female troubadour who wrote lyrics that followed the courtly love tradition of the troubadours; these lyrics included themes of adulterous love, the elevation of the lady over the man who loves her, and the torturous nature of romantic love]
"Ten gold coins."
"Five plus the carcass."
"Seven." The poacher's eyes were tense. Shayreen remained unfazed. For what she was offering, he should be paying her, no doubt about that.
"I don't deal with scum like you," said the trobairitz, looking him up and down and pushing the fourth mug of frothy beer toward him to finish. Better not think too much about what she was asking.
Rothar gave up. "Agreed. Five gold coins. Paid in advance."
"So you can keep the money and the dragon? You will have the money when you bring me the heart."
Rothar looked at her uneasily. "Agreed," he said, taking the bag Shayreen held out to him. "It's light. You're sure this is all that's needed to kill Gretthen?"
"A silver knife and net," replied the trobaritz. "You need nothing else."
These weapons were purchased on the black market, illegal goods since the Lands of Noon had decreed that the remaining dragons were legally protected.
"All right," said Rothar, glancing around.
Shayreen knew he was uncomfortable. She didn't care. "I'll see you here tomorrow at noon. I swear that if you don't keep up your end of the agreement, I'll tear off your balls and feed them to Gretthen."
The poacher finished his bad beer with a sigh and shook his head. His red beard was covered in foam. "There's something I don't understand. You have the silver knife and net. Why not kill him yourself?"
Shayreen stared at him until he lowered his eyes. "I'm paying you. Just do this one."
He stood up, leaving some copper coins on the tavern table. Rothar had eaten everything that the innkeeper had put in front of him. She, however, hadn't touched the beer or the food. She didn't want to end up with a stomach full of rat and rancid beer.
The customers silently turned to look at her, almost fearful of being noticed. She knew the effect that she had on those who met her. Everyone in there had heard about her: a woman, no longer young, but with a spectral beauty, with long blond hair streaked with gray and a long scar that ran the length of her face. She traveled from midday to midnight, carrying with her a harp of dragon strings and a copper rod, the symbol of her order- a rod she no longer had a right to possess.
Nobody knew where she came from or how old she was, but everyone knew that Shayreen, at the right price, was willing to sell any secret.
The trobairitz left the inn. The humid and reddish haze of the fumes coming over the horizon was preferable to the miasma of sweaty, packed bodies in that room with a floor covered in straw to collect vomit. That tavern was the main source of distraction for the miners of Aleyas.
One last night. One last night of stories, tales, secrets.
She walked decisively toward a crumbling building on which remained a single tower where ivy had settled and whose stones had been overtaken by moss and mildew. It had once been a tall castle that had dominated the village, which had changed over the centuries into a dirty and noisy city, inhabited only by miners and the destitute.
Heedless of the heap of glass and bone fragments that obstructed the main entrance, the trobairitz entered through a broken window and went down the stairs into the tower's basement. The ceiling had collapsed. The dragons didn't mind the humidity or the drafts, so long as they were free to fly. But this place doesn't like me. When this is all over, I'll go to a decent city where there's no risk of dying of dysentery every time I eat something.
A rich city in the Lands of Midnight, where her services would be rewarded and where she wouldn't have to perform in front of a few peasants in order to receive stale bread and black cabbage soup. A city where the priests would pay the right price to know the mysteries of her order.
"Shayreen, is that you?" The tower trembled with the voice coming from the basement- a deep voice, but at the same time, a voice as bright as a diamond.
"It's me," the trobairitz replied. She took a breath in order to quell her nausea. "I'm here so you can tell me another story."
I'm truly sorry, Gretthen. But I have no choice.
Rothar stopped for a moment in front of the dragon. The light of the dawn illuminated its scales, surrounding the creature with a weird halo. Its whole body vibrated, as if it would blend with the sunlight.
What are you waiting for?
One didn't have to look long at a dragon to risk forgetting what one was going to do. But a poacher is still a poacher and won't let himself be charmed. The trobairitz could sense his thoughts. Rothar looked at Gretthen's teeth, reflecting on their worth. The ladies were willing to pay any sum for a pair of dragon-leather boots, and with the bowels of these creatures, they could make harp strings that would stay tuned all winter.
He stopped brooding. The silver knife easily penetrated the scales and met the flesh.
The net. You idiot, you forgot the net.
The tower trembled and a violent noise shook the ancient stone walls. The dragon had risen up and started swaying back and forth with the unbearable pain dealt by the bite of silver. Rothar, panicking, plunged the knife in wherever he could.
"Fuck, I'm ruining the skin," he had time to say before Gretthen turned on him with his mouth wide open. One of Rothar's arms rolled across the floor, followed by a stream of blood. Incredulous, the poacher could not even scream and fell to the ground, holding the stump with his remaining hand. The dusty floor was soaked in that green mucus that dragons had instead of blood.
Gretthen writhed in pain. The trobairitz sighed. The dragon was vanquished, even if that idiot had managed to complicate a simple operation. It could have just been one precise blow to the eye. She was now forced to intervene. She needed that heart.
First, I have an account to settle with the poacher.
"Piece of shit," she said, hitting him with the copper rod.
Rothar lifted his face toward her. The green liquid and the blood on his face prevented him from opening his eyes. "What are you doing?" he murmured in a thin voice.
"Go fuck yourself in Hell, poacher," Shayreen hissed. She continued to strike him until his head was reduced to a bloody pulp. "Scum."
"There's no argument that he's scum," Gretthen interjected with his usual ironic tone, in which, however, the trobairitz could detect his weakness.
"It seems like everyone wants to skin me. It's the third time, since the last moon."
"Perhaps," Shayreen retorted. Her voice didn't tremble, but she worried that the dragon could sense the accelerated beating of her heart.
"I just want you to explain why you want me dead."
The trobairitz turned to look at him, simulating indignation. But she soon realized that Gretthen wouldn't let himself be fooled. He knew. She wondered how much.
"Do you really need the money? Or is there another reason?" His voice was getting weaker.
"No reason," Shayreen said through her teeth.
"I know you, trobairitz; I know you don't do something for nothing. I'm dying. You can tell me."
"It's complicated." The woman recovered the silver net from Rothar's bag. Although the dragon was weakened from its "blood" loss, she didn't dare approach it before paralyzing it.
"Who are you trying to defend yourself against?"
The trobairitz stood for a moment staring at the net in her hand before throwing it over him. "What are you talking about?"
Gretthen laughted but was interrupted by a death rattle that shook his whole body. "Do you not see that I'm dying? You can tell me the truth, I can't pass it on to anyone. I knew from the first day. Someone wants you dead. It can't be a man- you wouldn't be so scared. Is it a god?"
"A goddess." Shayreen approached the dragon with the knife in her hand. She had to extract the heart before all of the "blood" drained out, otherwise the heart would become a piece of rock indistinguishable from those that made up the castle, and, thus, completely unusable.
"Laas. The most vindictive among the goddesses."
"You know her?" For some reason, the trobairitz continued to hesitate.
"I've seen two thousand winters, girl. There are few gods I've never met. Tell me, which of her trinkets did you steal? The cauldron of abundance? The key to eternity?"
"The horn of the beginning and the end."
A laugh of pure amusement echoed in the tower. "Trobairitz Shayreen, thief of mysteries and mercenary enchanter, you're completely out of your mind." For a moment, a spiral of smoke escaped from his mouth, then all of the heat dissipated. "You didn't try to play it, did you?"
"Actually, yes." Shayreen was becoming increasingly annoyed with the turn the conversation was taking. If Gretthen knew all of these things about her, why hadn't he tried to stop her? Something was missing.
"The sound of that horn can destroy the world and then recreate it, as if nothing had happened."
"In that case, better in my hands than in Laas's," the woman replied, shrugging.
"Depends on your point of view. But tell me, what did you intend to do? Sell it to the highest bidder in the event of war?"
"All right, Gretthen, I'm tired of this. I made a mistake and I have to survive. Try to understand me."
"A mistake that made you pay a poacher to tear out my heart. You couldn't do it yourself?"
The trobairitz looked away, uncomfortable. I did as much as possible to make sure you wouldn't find out it was me. "I can't do anything now," she said aloud, "and anyway, you are dying now. I really need your heart."
For a few moments, silence fell in the tower. Shayreen approached. The silver net had paralyzed the dragon, making it possible for him only to move his mouth. She had to finish this quickly. The whole situation had become grotesque.
"Believe me, trobairitz, eating my heart would give you the power of a god, but in a way you would not expect. I'm dying now. Kill me if you want, but don't touch my heart. Put my body on the black market, possess my treasure..."
"Treasure- this mound of junk?" Gretthen was crazy. There was no other explanation.
"For being a trobairitz, you're quite ignorant when it comes to dragons. In the dark, you only see junk, but in the daylight, you will see my secret. My real secret."
Shayreen didn't reply. Only the heart of a dragon can transform a mortal into a god, and the heart of a two-thousand-year-old dragon can turn her into a powerful god. Very powerful. "I'm sorry," she said, sinking the knife into his right eye.
Gretthen leaned forward once more, then emitted a puff of smoke that smeared the trobairitz's face with soot. There was a crash and the dragon lay motionless. The scales' glow was extinguished. Shayreen looked at him for a moment, shook her head, and began to skin him. It was useless to waste the carcass. She took the large jute bags she had hidden in the tower and grabbed a knife to extract the heart and divide the most precious pieces of the dragon.
After removing the scales and carefully laying out the skin, she cut the meat and threw large pieces into a sack. She would season and salt it for resale in the Lands of Noon. It would be difficult to convince the buyers that it was authentic dragon's flesh, but in any case, the meat was scarce and would bring a good price. When she was finished, she wiped her hands, which were dirty with green mucus, on her dress and grabbed the heart. She bit into it, and then washed it down with water from a waterskin. She tasted tears and honey.
She stopped herself from vomiting. It was an unexpected taste, like the sensation that ran through her blood and bones. Her hands started tingling. Feeling her heartbeat accelerate, she looked at her hands. They were covered in scales that shone in the golden morning light.