7. The Scales of Justice

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The tavern had come through the dragon's rampage mostly unscathed. Flames from the neighboring smithy threatened it early on, but the townspeople rallied around it with buckets and shovels to douse and pound out the embers. Somewhere in the confusion, several casks of fine summer ale had disappeared from the storeroom.

The tavern was ideally suited for holding town meetings. It was centrally located and second in size only to the chapel. The tavern owner was also the democratically elected mayor, having edged out his chief rival, the priest, in a hotly contested race. The outcome had never been in doubt. While the priest commanded the ears of the town for a few hours every holy day, the tavern owner had a receptive audience every night of the week. Had votes been cast, it would only have confirmed that the dissipated and morally derelict greatly outnumbered the devout and pious in Manfred's Mill, for such was the case throughout Alvaria with the exception of Alvaron perhaps, where a pious man could not be found at all. But a vote hadn't been necessary. When the tavern owner threatened to withhold the supply of the sacramental wine, the priest threw in the holy stole. This worked to the advantage of both parties. The tavern owner graciously assumed the mantle of governance while the priest theatrically assumed the role of martyr, which was more admirable than losing the election on the up and up.

Despite the common room's size, there was hardly space enough for the throng of bodies that packed into it that night. A lucky few managed to secure a barstool or a table seat while the rest were crammed elbow to armpit in the spaces between. The first to arrive was Bert, if he could be said to arrive at all, being as much a fixture in the tavern as the finely polished bar of black oak that ran its length. The last to arrive were the Bursacks, who no one was glad to see.

* * * * *

Kadav Ersley retreated to the kitchen to adorn himself in a manner befitting his office. "Shrug, fetch me my mayoral vestments," he commanded the white-haired scullery made. His eyes followed her hungrily as she set to the task. An albino, Shrug had a complexion so pallid as to be nearly transparent. In the dim, smoky haze of the kitchen, she glowed like some kind of angel. A fluffy white cat followed in her wake like an attendant spirit.

No one knew where Shrug had come from. She had simply wandered into the tavern one afternoon with her white cat, which appeared better fed than she, and conveyed through much shrugging and hand waving that she was alone and in need of succor. The mayor was quick to point her down the road to the chapel, charity being more in the priest's line of work, but when he found her in the kitchen an hour later next to a marvelous array of clean dishes, he had a sudden change of heart.

Shrug had not disappointed. In comparison to the pair of serving wenches whose incompetence was only rivaled by their ribald behavior, she was the picture of efficiency. Best of all, being mute, she never gossiped or griped. She demonstrated some of that efficiency now as she returned with a gravy funnel and a mostly unspotted apron.

"Where's my gavel?" Kadav demanded.

Shrug shrugged ambiguously.

"Don't just stand there like a lump. Check in the common room." He slipped on the white apron of mayorship. The apron had measuring scales stitched prominently on the front; the scales were tilted, generally in favor of the one wearing the apron. "My gavel, Shrug," he repeated when she still hadn't moved from her spot. "I said it's probably in the common room."

Shrug glanced nervously at the door to the packed room, a wild look in her pink-violet eyes.

"Go on!" He raised an arm in threat, but Shrug just shook her head and refused to budge. The cat at her heels underscored the point with a menacing hiss. Kadav took a calming breath. This was no time to get rattled. He needed a clear mind for what lie ahead. "I'll deal with you later." Shout-cone in hand, he turned and strode from the kitchen.

He located his potato-masher-cum-gavel on a shelf behind the bar where it served as a bludgeon for when he caught the wenches slacking; it had seen more than its share of use that day. Gavel in hand, Kadav needled his way through the crowd to the great fireplace that dominated the south wall and stepped up onto the raised hearth. The fire had been prematurely banked owing to the press of bodies.

As Kadav looked out on the crowd of anxious faces, he thought it was a fortunate thing indeed that he had been elected mayor at this critical hour. Holding prayer vigils was all well and good for ending drought or curing livestock infertility, but an attack by a dragon called for bold, decisive action. With inspired vision and a strong hand, everything could still turn out for the better. Yes, things could turn out very handsomely indeed.

After its reappearance two nights ago, the mayor had made some discreet inquiries into the dragon's profit generating potential. It turned out a dragon was a virtual gold mine on wings. Its ivory fang-teeth could be carved into figurines, combs, dagger handles and table croquet balls. Its wing membranes, being stronger and more supple than leather, were ideal for exotic boots, saddles, purses and privy garments. Its scales were worth their weight in silver, and if the word of a money-grubbing ale merchant could be believed, many a nobleman would give his firstborn son in exchange for a dragon claw.

Then there was the treasure. It was common knowledge that dragons hoarded away vast fortunes in their mountain lairs. If even half the rumors were true, there would be more than enough riches to transform Manfred's Mill from a backwoods settlement into a bustling city with stone foundations, an Alvaron of the west. When that day came, Kadav Ersley would trade in his apron and potato masher for a royal crown and scepter.

Kadav struck the potato masher against the back of a skillet hanging from the mantle and raised the gravy funnel to his mouth. "I hereby call this town meeting to order!"

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