Sorry I missed the last couple of Tuesdays with travel to the Caribbean and to Washington DC. Here’s a taste of something new and funny, THE DRAGON BUSINESS.
This book is being released as part of the Amazon Kindle Serials program—it’s a lot of fun, eight episodes released one per week. And, for the impatient among you, the last episode is being released TODAY, so you can get the whole novel. For those who purchase the Kindle serial during the “episodic” release, you get all the sections for $1.99 total (and that price is still valid), though now that the whole book is available, the price will soon go up to a full book price. Save yourself some bucks if you want to grab this today. Order here.
THE DRAGON BUSINESS
A hilarious fantasy satire from bestselling, award-winning author Kevin J. Anderson.
King Cullin may be known as “the Dragon Slayer,” but he fears his son’s legacy will be as “King Maurice Who Speaks with Proper Grammar.” The boy keeps his nose buried in parchments, starry-eyed at the idea of noble knights and eager to hand royal gold to any con man hawking a unicorn horn. Tonight, though, Cullin will educate the prince in the truth behind minstrels’ silly songs of glory…
Long ago, in a kingdom, well, not that far from here really, young Cullin traveled the countryside as squire to brave Sir Dalbry, along with Dalbry’s trusted sidekick Reeger, selling dragon-protection services to every kingdom with a coffer. There were no dragons, of course, but with a collection of severed alligator heads and a willingness to play dirty, the trio of con men was crushing the competition. Then along came Princess Affonyl.
Tomboyish and with a head for alchemy, Affonyl faked a dragon of her own, escaped her arranged marriage, and threw in with Cullin and company. But with her father sending a crew of do-gooder knights to find her, the dragon business just got cutthroat.
Glory days! Ah, I love to relive the daring rescues, pulse-pounding adventures, and feats of bravery against towering enemies (monsters included).
I am King Cullin, renowned slayer of dragons. You might have heard of me? I’ve been featured in the songs of many a minstrel, plays by legendary bards, even a few ingenious puppet shows (although the queen thinks the puppets are silly).
My exploits are known far and wide. I make sure of it by spending a goodly sum from the royal treasury on image building and public relations—a necessary but often overlooked part of ruling. And it’s a good economic investment: if I make myself seem intimidating enough, no foolish rival will attack my kingdom. Thus, we save the significant expense, not to mention inconvenience, of a full-scale war. Being a king isn’t all about jousting and feasting; there’s a lot of administrative work even for a famous dragon slayer.
Who would doubt my claims? There’s demonstrable proof that my kingdom has been completely dragon-free since the start of my reign.
My long-suffering queen finds my exploits endearing, but she’s heard me tell the stories so many times that they’ve lost their sparkle. Nevertheless, I earned my chops as a dragon slayer, even if by a roundabout way. . . .
Tonight, my anticipation builds as the sun sets. For the excitement that I’ve planned for myself and my son, I gather appropriate disguises for our night on the town. Since the prince is thirteen and entirely unseasoned in carousing, this should be interesting. For him, a “wild night” means that he lights an extra candle to read by. That’s about to change.
He’s a thin milky-skinned boy with blond hair that would be unruly if it weren’t coiffed so often. His name is Maurice. I wanted to give him a heroic name, something edgy and powerful from the Great Sagas—but sometimes it is the better part of valor to lose the argument with your wife.
I always hoped for a son who could raise a little hell, earn a nickname like Giant-Killer, or Ogres’ Bane—even Dragon Slayer, Junior. But Maurice it is, and I intend to raise my boy right.
A father has certain obligations. The prince has to be exposed to reality to balance out his sheltered fairy-tale life. I want him to be a good king someday: wise, skeptical (although not necessarily jaded), and not easily conned, unlike some of the rulers my friends and I duped, back in the day.
Maurice already believes too much that he shouldn’t—and I have a pathological aversion to gullibility. A year ago, I caught him reading a book of beautifully illustrated poems about fairy princes. The special limited edition was numbered and leatherbound, signed by the poet, the illustrator, and supposedly by the fairy prince himself—and my son actually believed those ridiculous stories!
The last straw, though, was last week, when a flamboyant traveler came to court wearing a purple silk shirt and the feather of some exotic bird stuck in his hat. He charmed Maurice with outrageous tales and tried to sell him a “unicorn horn with additional magical powers that were acquired when it leapt through a rainbow.” The boy was so enthralled he couldn’t open the doors of the royal treasury fast enough. I caught him just as he was about to hand over a sack of gold coins (an entire month’s worth of his allowance) to the confidence man. I ran the traveler out of the castle and all the way out of the kingdom. Maurice sulked for days afterward.
If my son doesn’t get a dose of reality soon, he’ll be eaten alive when he becomes king.
So, I’ve decided to take him down to the tavern where he can meet real people and hear real adventures. That’ll cure him of that fairy-tale nonsense before it sets in too deeply. (I’m no stranger to nonsense, having done plenty of it over the course of my own life, but at least I know the difference.)
I enter the boy’s bedchamber, sighing at the pastel window coverings, tapestries, embroidered dragons, stuffed unicorns. He looks up from a piece of parchment, and I see he is scribing the answers to one of those newly invented brainteaser crossword puzzles. Maurice enjoys the puzzles, though I find them frustrating due to the lack of standardized spelling across the land.
Smiling, I hold up the two ragged cloaks I’ve brought with me. “Time to go, son. You’ll enjoy this—I promise.” He wasn’t enthusiastic when I first made the suggestion, and he doesn’t seem enthusiastic about it now.
“Mother says it’s foolishness.”
“The queen and I come from different worlds,” I say. “I want you to learn new things, broaden your base of experience.”
“Will it make me a better king?” He seems hopeful.
I think of Reeger and the seedy crowd at the Scabby Wench, the noise, the smells, the bawdy jokes. “Getting out among real people will make you a better leader. A prince is a prince, but you need to be a person, too. Besides, we’ll have a good time, you and me.”
“You and I.”
I may be King Cullin the Dragon Slayer, but I fear my son will be known as King Maurice Who Speaks with Proper Grammar.
I hand him one of the cloaks, a startling contrast to the fine peach and mauve silks he wears. His runs fingers along the fabric—mid-grade burlap, dyed with lampblack. “What’s wrong with the clothes I have on?” he asks.
“They look like a prince’s clothes, and that defeats the purpose. We’re going incognito.”
“Couldn’t I go incognito as a traveling prince?”
I don my cloak. “You need to get into the spirit of this adventure.” Maurice struggles into the cloak. I offer him a dried apricot from a pouch I keep with me, but he says he isn’t hungry. Nervous, I think.
We leave the prince’s chambers and walk past the coats of arms of local noble families. A blank spot on the stone wall shows where we recently took down the banner of Sir Vincent—now indelibly known as Sir Vincent the Ineffective, because of his habit of falling off his horse during jousting matches even before an opponent’s lance struck him.
I told Vincent that he can hang his brown-on-brown coat of arms in the castle hall again as soon as he earns back his honor. When Vincent asked how he could do that, I gave him Prince Maurice’s signed-and-numbered limited edition of poems and dispatched him on a quest to have the fairy prince personalize the volume. This quest serves two purposes: it will keep Sir Vincent out of my hair for months or years to come, and it will keep the silly poems away from Maurice. . . .
Now as night falls, the town stirs. People close up shoppes, light lanterns, serve meals. The queen has her own dinner delivered to her private rooms: salad, cottage cheese, and dried apricots. She likes to eat healthy, and she’s watching her waistline.
When she hears us creeping past—well, I am creeping, while Maurice shuffles along—she calls out, “Don’t let any harm come to my boy, Cullin.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, dear. I’ll keep him safe.”
“And no more than two tankards of ale, you hear?”
“The boy’s only thirteen, dear. I’ll limit him to one.”
“I don’t like ale,” Maurice says. “I’d rather have cider.”
“I was talking about you, husband. And don’t go filling the boy’s head with silly tales.”
“My dear, I am trying to empty his head of silly tales. He needs to learn how the world works.”
“Oh, you and your old comrades!” the queen calls. “Tricks and confidence schemes.”
I hurry the boy down the hall. “Like I said, the way the world works.” As I think of her sitting alone in her tower room, I call back, “Stay safe—don’t let any dragons get you.”
My starry-eyed son is a prince, he lives in a castle, and he has a lot of book learning about the kingdom he will one day rule. His knowledge of the land comes from maps, however, rather than seeing the landscape firsthand. I don’t want him to be a theoretical monarch.
He’s been taught his letters, mathematics, astrology; he knows all seventeen medicinal uses for leeches; he can write all of the alchemical symbols from memory. He also adores silly tales about honorable knights and their quests. He sighs at the thought of armies going to war over a rose petal for some princess. Such nonsense! Maurice will be a man soon, and it’s time for him to learn important lessons—like the dragon business.
As we make our way through the town streets, I reach over and mess up Maurice’s golden locks, much to his dismay. I say, “We’re on a secret mission now—this is part of your disguise. What if some rogue discovers that we’re the king and the prince? He could kidnap us, whisk us off into the woods, tie us to a tree, and hold us hostage until your mother agrees to pay them a ransom. And you can just imagine what she’d say to that.”
Maurice’s eyes go wide. “Why would anyone kidnap us? We’re nice people.”
“Rogues aren’t nice people, son. And if they don’t get their ransom, they might snip off one of your fingers or toes as an inducement.”
Maurice is horrified. He flexes his pale soft hand. “Which finger?”
“They’d start with the little one just to get warmed up. After that, it depends on how close it is to the weekend.”
“What does the weekend have to do with anything?”
“For a weekend special they might cut off your whole hand.”
Maurice swallows hard and yanks his hood down over his messy hair.
Reaching the tavern, the two of us stop beneath a wooden placard that hangs on chains above the door. The crude painting shows a particularly ugly and blotchy woman. The Scabby Wench.
My old friend Reeger is the innkeeper, bartender, cook, bouncer, and best customer. His wife Wendria keeps a low profile, since she’s the only woman who works at the Scabby Wench. Across the land, local regulations require inns and taverns to fulfill the anticipated needs of travelers, and such needs often include prostitutional services. Reeger, and Wendria in particular, are not too keen on that, so they named their establishment the Scabby Wench as a disincentive to travelers looking for a roll in the hay. When the name of the tavern isn’t enough, one look at Wendria is usually sufficient.
Reeger’s wife has a pretty name, which is about the best that can be said for her. And cleavage. That’s not to say cleavage isn’t enough for some customers, especially after a few tankards of ale. Wendria has a square face, a square body, solid hips, and legs that were built for furniture—in other words, she’s a perfect match for Reeger. He’s no prize either, but he’s been my friend since the time I was Maurice’s age. Wendria makes him happy.
You don’t need to marry a princess to be happy.
I open the tavern door, and the noise knocks us backward like a storm wind. Many faces turn, give us a quick once over, and conversation starts up again. Despite our clever disguises, most of the regulars here know who I am. Because of my upbringing, I feel more at home among common people than fancy lords and ladies anyway.
The Scabby Wench is your typical tavern, with a great room, a roaring fire, a bar featuring kegs of ale from local microbreweries, and jugs of wine. A high shelf holds bottles of expensive liqueurs for those who prefer fancy drinks like appletinis. Reeger even keeps a hollowed-out coconut for the rare occasion when someone orders an expensive tropical drink, but that’s not the usual clientele of the Scabby Wench.
It’s payday for many of the local peasants and escaped slaves, so the tavern is bustling. Crowded around one creaking plank table are a dozen mercenaries passing through from some local war, eager to spend their spoils.
Maurice stares, wide-eyed and intimidated. I point to a raw plank table and two rickety benches not far from the fireplace. It’s also close to the stage, where the minstrel will perform.
The Scabby Wench is known throughout the kingdom for its live music every Saturday night. I expect the prince will be more interested in my stories, though, because they are true stories about how his father gained his reputation, earned the hand of a princess, and won his kingdom. What boy wouldn’t be fascinated?
Maurice squirms on the splintery bench (a far cry from the plush cushions of the throne and his lounging chairs), and he keeps scratching in his medium-grade burlap cloak. We both shrug down our hoods.
Reeger comes over with a grin wide enough to show that he isn’t the least bit self-conscious about his bad teeth. He carries two chipped ceramic tankards filled with foam-topped ale. Maurice turns up his nose. “I don’t like ale.”
“You’ll like this one, lad,” Reeger says. “I watered it down just for you.”
“Same price, I suppose?” I say.
Reeger lifts his stubbly chin. “Rust! Of course, Sire—I wouldn’t charge you for the extra effort of diluting the brew.”
Same old Reeger.
The tufts of black hair on Reeger’s head have had very little acquaintance with comb, brush, or shampoo. His brown eyes are unevenly set—which would be been unsettling, except that he also tilts his head at an angle, so that the eyes are in line, even if his face isn’t.
His rounded nose looks as if it’s been broken many times, but it’s actually just non-aesthetic. Whiskers cover his chin, but not enough to be called a beard even by a chronic optimist. I call it “hedgehog pattern baldness,” which Reeger thinks is witty. His laugh is the best thing about him.
He sets down the two tankards and uses his fingernail to pick at something stuck between his teeth. “About time you brought the young prince with you, Cullin.”
“That’s King Cullin, Reeger. Or ‘Sire’ will do in a pinch.”
He rolls his eyes. “Crotchrust! Anyone who’s seen you scrubbing skid marks out of your unmentionables in a stream doesn’t have to call you Sire.”
“I suppose there’s no need to be formal,” I say. “Besides, Prince Maurice and I are in disguise, invisible faces in the crowd while we watch our people.”
Reeger takes a coin from another customer who is trying to pay so he can leave before the music starts. Reeger bites down on the coin to make sure it’s real, then holds it toward me. “Cullin, how can you be in disguise when your face is on every coin in the realm?”
“It’s not a very good likeness. How many people bother to look at their coins before they spend them?”
Reeger pockets the coin. “No argument from me . . . Sire.”
Prince Maurice blows on the foam in his tankard, moving the suds around but not deigning to drink. I slurp mine, make an appreciative grimace at the sour taste. The beer at the Scabby Wench is so awful one has to drink it quickly.
I’m about to start my story for the prince when the tavern door bursts open, and a wild-eyed man stumbles in. His hair is unkempt, his mouth agape, his eyes flashing from side to side. The stranger’s clothes are tattered, and I can see singe marks along the hem and sleeves of his cloak. “I barely survived!” He coughs, heaving great breaths. “Some ale, please! A full tankard before I tell my story.”
“You got the coin to pay for it?” Reeger asks.
The man extends his trembling hands. “No time for that—this is an emergency, a disaster! There’s been an attack!”
“Rust, there’s always time to pay for your drinks.”
The people in the tavern mutter. The mercenaries hunch over their table whispering to one another, no doubt discussing prices if their services should be needed in a local crisis.
Reeger fills a tankard from a keg behind the bar and comes back to the stranger. “If it turns out to be a real emergency, then the ale’s half price. More often than not, emergencies are the result of poor planning.”
The panicked stranger is wild-eyed. “It’s a dragon, I tell you! Peasant huts burned, fields torched, footprints everywhere. No telling how many people the monster devoured. Somebody has to kill it—we need a great hero.”
Gasps go around the tavern hall. “A dragon?”
Reeger yanks back the extended tankard before the terrified stranger can seize it. “A dragon, you say?”
“Yes—on the edge of the kingdom, sure to terrorize the whole land. We must do something!”
Reeger scratches his stubbly chin and gives me a knowing look. He winks before raising his voice to the crowd. “Did you all hear that? A dragon terrorizing the kingdom!” Then he guffaws. Everyone else starts chuckling. Even the mercenaries begin laughing.
The stranger is astonished. “But . . . but we need a dragon slayer! I know a brave knight. We must hire him to slay the beast before it murders anyone else.”
“No we don’t, lad—and you’d best get out of here before you cause yourself more trouble. Last person who came in with a story like that, I sank him up to his ankles in our outhouse—head first.”
“But . . . the dragon.” Gasping, the stranger spreads his arms. “Huge. A giant wingspan. Horrible scales. Breathing fire.” He seemed to be running out of vocabulary. “It was very big.”
Reeger looks at me. I shrug, giving him my tacit permission, so he strides to a large cabinet built into the tavern wall. “I’m not impressed by dragons. Bloodrust, we’ve already got plenty of dragon heads.”
He flings open the cabinet door to reveal six monstrous reptilian trophies. Some of the teeth are yellowed and falling out; the eye sockets are empty. Suture marks show where the scaly hide was stitched back together after being stuffed. Horns stick out from improbable places.
“I know all about your business, lad,” Reeger says with a warning growl. “Now run along and find a more gullible kingdom.”
The mood is growing ugly in the Scabby Wench, and some of the peasants move toward the stranger with the singed and tattered cloak. His demeanor changes. He looks disappointed, then haughty as he tries to gather his dignity. Straight-backed, showing no further panic or sense of urgency, he stalks out of the tavern as if we are beneath contempt.
As the conversation begins to pick up again, a good-humored Reeger announces a round of ale for everyone “courtesy of King Cullin, the true dragon slayer!” I suppose the expense is a worthwhile investment from the royal treasury.
Maurice remains wide-eyed. “But, Father—if there’s a dragon, aren’t you concerned?”
I respond with a snort. “Trust me, there’s no dragon, son. If I were a different kind of monarch, I’d have his tongue cut out for trying to scam all of us, but I’m a generous man.”
I like telling myself that. Truth is, I’ve been in that desperate stranger’s shoes before, and I’m glad no other king saw fit to remove my tongue. Now, I’m paying it forward.
The young prince shakes his head with growing dismay. “But why did that man say there was a dragon? What is Reeger doing with all those dragon heads in his cabinet? This isn’t like it is in stories.”
“Because those are just stories, son. The truth is quite different. Let me tell you what really happened, how your father became known as a dragon slayer. In fact, I wasn’t much older than you. . .”
Reeger brings the boy a glass of sweet cider to replace his untouched ale. Leaning over, he says in a stage whisper, “What he’s about to tell you is true, lad. Just don’t let him exaggerate his own part at the expense of mine or Dalbry’s.”
I shoo Reeger away, glad that I finally have the prince’s attention. He’s intrigued. “Let me think of a good place to start telling our adventures.” I shift on the bench, and a splinter digs into my buttocks, but I ignore it. I clear my throat and say, “A story begins at the beginning—unless there’s a frame story.”
“What’s a frame story?” Maurice asks.
“It’s a literary device. Nothing you need to worry about now.”
I heave a wistful sigh and let my thoughts go back to the good old days. “When I was your age . . .”
You can pick up the entire Kindle version of the book for $1.99 at the Kindle Serials link, but price will go up in a couple of days. The publishing imprint 47North will release the book in trade paperback format soon (I don’t have a projected release date yet). [Note, because amazon commissioned this novel directly, they have exclusive rights to the eBook version. The print version will be widely available.]