6. The Fat Lady Sings

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Morg rooted between his teeth with the tip of a talon, picking out the stringy filaments that had gotten lodged in the crevices.

Seldom had he ever felt so enraged, or so confused. He had all but broiled the breeder where it stood, and still it refused to sing. Perhaps, like the lowly maggot, it was too witless to register fear. If only he could be certain, then he could rule out other more disturbing possibilities. What if the breeder had seen through his hollow rampage? What if it was mocking him? The sheer insolence of the thing! That a mere manling, no better than a worm, would dare to look Morg, master of beasts and mighty among dragons, fearlessly in the eye!

Morg had come within a scale's breadth of slaying the breeder right there and then, but scientific curiosity stayed his claw. There must be a logical explanation for its behavior. The reasonable thing to do was watch, observe and learn.

Lest his anger get the better of him, he withdrew to the foothills where he spent the afternoon pursuing more traditional quarry. By the time he turned back to his lair, the sun was already turning to rust. The breeder would need a change of water and a fresh fire to last it through the night.

If the breeder had been acting strangely before, what he witnessed upon his return was far stranger yet. The manling leaped up from a boulder, approached him on the rim-wall, and proceeded to make a series of quick, chattery sounds. This done, it paused as if expecting some response. When none was forthcoming, it set about moving its forelegs. Stroking its abdomen with one grabber, it gesticulated at its mouth with the other. Mother of all Serpents! The breeder was sending him a message, and its meaning could not have been clearer. It was hungry.

* * * * *

Fairly certain she had gotten her meaning across, Berla listened with satisfaction as the beating of leathery wings receded into the distance. She had first tried talking to the dragon real slow and simple like she would to a dog, but she had not really expected that to work. After all, it rarely even worked with dogs. She remembered how Little Marcus hadn't spoken to her for over a month when they first met. She had assumed he couldn't speak at all, but it turned out he was just shy on account of his impediment. Perhaps the dragon too might also be shy and embarrassed about the way it talked.

So Berla devised a plan. She would act out her meaning with gestures just like she had had to do when she came down with the silent sickness. She hoped the dragon was as good at guessing as her grammy had been. If she had to go another day without food, she figured she would starve and die.

Berla prepared three different pantomimes and spent the afternoon rehearsing them in the reflection of the tortoise-shell water dish. The first one was the trickiest as it involved a hand to mouth motion accompanied by a stomach rub. Keeping both hands moving in their respective directions strained her coordination to the limit.

When the dragon returned toward sundown, Berla wasted no time setting her plan into motion. She had barely finished the first pantomime when comprehension, clear as a bell, registered in the great golden eyes. Without delay, the dragon set off to do her bidding, leaving her hopeful of a good meal and just a little disappointed that she hadn't got to perform the rest of her gestures.

When the dragon failed to return straightaway with food, anticipation gave way to hunger and melancholy. She supposed she should be grateful just to be alive. Only that morning the dragon seemed perfectly ready to make a light snack of her. But this line of thinking only served to remind her that she herself had had nothing to eat. As the minutes crawled by, images of plump loaves paraded through her mind.

The last sunlight leached from the sky, and the moon rose desolate and bright. Still there was no sign of the dragon. What if it never came back? she fretted. What would she do for food then? She tried counting stars to distract herself, but new ones kept popping out faster than she could keep up. It was getting chilly too. She hugged herself to keep warm, but that only transferred the cold of her chest to her arms. She started to shiver.

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