10. Out of Retirement

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It was just as Kadav feared. Sending for a dragonslayer was worse than a bad idea. The moment news reached Alvaron, the entire region would be crawling with soldiers and fortune seekers. Manfred's Mill may have been outside the official boundaries of Alvaria, but boundaries had a way of shifting whenever something of value was found outside their circumference. No, news of the dragon must not be allowed to reach the capital—not yet anyway.

But the idea naturally appealed to the masses, who were always looking for the easy way out. The thunderous roar of affirmation might have discouraged a lesser man, but Kadav Ersley was not one to buckle under pressure. This town meeting wasn't over, nor would it be until he adjourned it.

"An excellent suggestion," the mayor acknowledged. "But how do you propose we pay for this dragonslayer of yours? Surely you don't expect a noble crusader to risk life and limb out of the Rhojë-fearing goodness of his heart, do you?"

"I sure wouldn't kill no dragon for free," Bert said.

"Mayor's right," came another.

"I once knew the uncle of the squire of a dragonslayer," said a third. "He said that no respectable dragonslayer would accept less than twenty-five crowns."

"Twenty-five crowns!" exclaimed the priest. "Why that's—"

"Highway robbery," Kadav said. "But how's the saying go? 'Never short the headsman when it's your neck on the chopping block.'"

The priest regained his composure. "Very well. If it's twenty-five crowns we need, then twenty-five crowns we shall get. We'll take up a collection. Rhojë will provide."

"You can use my hat," Bert offered. And before anyone could object, he had removed the grungy head covering and passed it to the person next to him, but not before producing a colorful object from a fold in his clothes and dropping it inside.

The hat slowly wended its way around the room, which was quiet aside from the chinking of coins and Dinkoll's snores. "May Rhojë multiply our bounty," the holy man pronounced as he dropped in some coins and handed it up to the mayor. The hat felt uncomfortably heavy in Kadav's hand as he deposited a handful of his own. In the dim light, it would have been difficult to make out their color and imprint.

Kadav was stepping down from the hearth to count the collection when he was greeted by a lean, dour-faced man by the name of Engle. "If you wouldn't mind, Mister Mayor," he said. "I do the counting for the chapel."

The mayor's mouth gave an agitated twitch. "Of course not."

Holding the hat reverently in both hands as if it were the sacred sacrament, Engle conducted it over to the oak bar where people squeezed aside to make room. One at a time, he lifted each coin from the hat and placed it atop one of three growing stacks, pausing occasionally to straighten them. Meanwhile, mayor and priest eyed each other with contempt from across the room.

"The counting is complete," Engle pronounced at last. "Three crowns, seventeen silva, eight coppies, and..." He held up an object for scrutiny. "Looks like a painted wooden egg."

"It was my pappy's," Bert said proudly. "He paid three silva for it."

"Looks a bit scratched."

"A cat liked to play with it."

Tak-tak came a noise at the window.

"Less than four crowns," the mayor said with feigned disappointment. "For that price, we could hardly attract a second-rate gleeman."

"Can I have my egg back then?" Bert said.

"Surely there are funds in the town treasury..." suggested the priest.

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