14. The Gowned Hero

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As Kadav Ersley waited outside the tavern in a yellow striped bonnet and a violet dress, he knew that this was either the most brilliant idea he had ever conceived, or it was the most preposterous, self-denigrating, half-baked abomination of a notion to have ever entered his head. After five days with no sign of the dragon, he was leaning toward the latter.

It was maddening. The dragon-trap was ready, and the bait was set. But where was the dragon? Over a month had passed since its last attack, and all around him the town was bustling its way back to normalcy. Those shops left standing opened their doors for business while the less fortunate worked out of makeshift stalls or tents. Mothers chased their children out of doors with little more than an admonition not to wander out of sight.

A couple children that failed to heed that parental advice claimed to have spotted a lone figure in the woods riding some kind of devil beast. Kadav found the rumor amusing and harmless. So long as it wasn't a regiment of knights from Alvaron come to claim the dragon for themselves, it could have been the Dread Horseman for all he cared. Whether by good luck or bad wayfinding, there had as yet been no word from the capital.

There had been other lengthy reprieves between attacks. Still, it was hard to sustain a dire outlook as every day dawned sunny and scourge-free. The longer the peace stretched on, the more ridiculous his scheme began to appear. Were it not for the increasing number of skeptics expecting him to fail, Kadav might have scuttled the whole business.

His chief skeptic, the priest, pulled up a chair across the road and spread out a piece of parchment in his lap. Producing a lump of charcoal, he stared at the mayor in artistic concentration and began to make feathery strokes on the parchment.

"I didn't realize you were such a connoisseur of the female form," Kadav remarked as he rearranged the gourd-halves that supplied his bosom. The pressure of the corset had a way of pushing them up around his collarbones.

"You do cut quite the striking figure," replied the priest. "Were all women so rare of feature and homely of face, I rather think more men would be inclined to join the priesthood."

"I daresay they would be a welcome addition to the eunuchs and jolly boys that mostly make up the clergy now."

The holy man pressed down hard with the charcoal, producing a scritching noise that grated on the ears. "One might do well to remember who is wearing the dress here."

"Someone has to be the bait. A true leader thinks nothing of himself, only how he may be of service to the people."

"A noble act indeed, and one that deserves to be duly commemorated. When the chapel gets rebuilt, I'm going to have a stained-glass window mural put in. And you, dear mayoress, will make the perfect subject. Such courage and—how would you put it..." He patted down his halo of hair. "Poise. It calls out for a place in posterity. You know how memories fade. But as long as there is breath left in my body, you can count on me to spread the story of this noble, sacrificial act."

The priest's message was not lost on Kadav. Having thrown his weight behind the mayor's plan, the holy man could not openly be seen to oppose it. However, should the plan fail, he would personally see to it that Kadav was made a public laughingstock.

"Say, you wouldn't mind sitting astride your horse, would you?" suggested the priest. "That would make for a handsome spectacle indeed."

"How about you just draw it in beneath me." Kadav plopped down in the dirt, exposing his pale, skinny calves. The breeze riffled the tiny hairs, setting them pleasantly a-tingle. All things considered, a skirt was not such an uncomfortable thing. When it came to making water or scratching mosquito bites, it had the advantage over breeches. The corset, on the other hand, was another matter. With its stiff ridges and pinching curves, it was like being stuffed into a large seed pod.

Using himself as bait was risky, not to mention humiliating, but what choice did he have? Who else could be trusted to do the job? Not an actual woman, certainly.

The legends all spoke of the strange affinity dragons bore toward fair virgins, a fact corroborated by the dragon's choice of victims. Fat Berla's abduction had clearly been by happenstance; the dragon had set its sights on Krystal, the town belle. But what specific qualities had drawn it to the seamstress's daughter? Her long hair and smooth skin? Her rounded hips and plump bosom? These features could be faked with a good shave and a few pillows stuffed beneath the shirt. If it was the colorful attire, a mummer's costume would do as well as a dress. If it was the screams—well, he was out of luck there. His voice was too deep and gruff for that sort of thing.

The dragon had seen right through the poisoned cow ruse; Kadav would not underestimate it a second time. There was only one way to guarantee the success of his disguise; he had to make his costume so convincing that even a man might be deceived by it, albeit a man of dubious tastes and poor vision. So here he was, the mayor of Manfred's Mill, decked out like a belle for the Bader Day Festival.

Humiliation was not Kadav's greatest concern. There were a thousand ways the plan could go wrong. Given the lengthy wait, he had ample time to contemplate every one of them. Assuming the dragon took the bait, could he really manage to lead it on a merry chase all the way to the god trees without being overtaken or thrown from his horse? Achieving that, there was no guarantee the trap would even work. It could only be sprung once, and of course there had been no way of testing it beforehand. The trigger mechanism could fail or get tripped too soon. The beam could snag. It could fall too slowly or too fast. Any broken link in the long chain of contingent events would doom the mission and probably himself as well. He pulled the dress up over his knees to conceal the fact that they were shaking. He would be damned if he was going to let the priest see how terrified he was.

The priest was sketching away when the smith emerged from the candlemaker's and turned up the road. Kadav quickly hid himself behind the tethered stallion. No matter how many times he explained his plan, Argon forgot it the moment he walked away. The next time he came around, he would be just as scandalized as the time before.

"Good day," the priest greeted the smith.

"Good day, your, uh..."

"Reverence."

"Reverence, that's it," Argon said. "I always remember it because it sounds a lot like, uh..."

"Temperance," the priest filled in. "Say, you haven't seen the mayor around here, have you?"

"No, your, uh, reverence," Argon said with a note of triumph.

"We were just having ourselves a friendly little chat. Say, is that him over there crouching behind that horse?"

Kadav swore under his breath. The priest, at his best, could be a pure spawn of the devil.

"Mayor?" The smith peered around the stallion. "Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am, I was just looking for the—mayor? Is that you? But what are you doing in that—"

"I'm posing for the new chapel windows," Kadav hastened to explain, casting a frosty look at the priest. "The priest is going to commission a mural for when the new chapel is built, and he needed someone to pose as the Lady of Aramelle."

"Oh." The smith's face screwed up in concentration. "But why—"

"Because it's too dangerous for the womenfolk to be out in the street."

"Right," agreed Argon, scratching his head. "Why's that?"

Kadav dropped his voice to a whisper. "Don't tell anyone, but there's a fire-breathing dragon on the loose."

The smith's eyes went wide in surprise. Dragon? he mouthed soundlessly.

"You remember, the dragon that burned down your smithy?"

"The smithy burnt down?" Argon wrung his hands together in agitation. "Oh, Tumbock's not going to like that."

A strong breeze ran between the shops, pressing Kadav's dress against his legs. The stallion stamped nervously and pricked its ears. Kadav took the bridle and patted its neck reassuringly. "Easy there, boy. What's got into you all of a sudden?"

"Wind changed," said Argon. "Was coming from—" He turned to the north. "Or maybe it was from..."

An even stronger gustsnatched the parchment out of the priest's lap and swept it away down thestreet. This time it was accompanied by a soundless, percussive thud that couldbe felt in the bones. The dragon had come at last.

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