“It’s not the done thing,” Beaufort said severely. “What on earth were you thinking of?”
Mortimer sighed, sending a wisp of white smoke spiralling towards the roof of the cavern. “Look, this is treasure by any definition.”
The old dragon folded his front paws together, feeling the creak of seizing joints. “You seem to have misunderstood the definition.”
“No, look -” Mortimer hesitated as Beaufort’s eyebrow ridges rose rather threateningly. “Sir. How many treasure troves have you come across recently? Any piles of precious gems or the like?”
“I admit, it has become more difficult -”
“More difficult! They don’t exist! Sir.” Mortimer shifted uncomfortably.
Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, regarded the artefact with age-crackled eyes. He’d been old long before Mortimer had even chipped his eggshell, and, to be honest, rather wished he didn’t have to be High Lord any more. He’d have preferred a nice fireproof rug by the hearth in a little cottage somewhere, a rabbit or two to nibble on, and an easy retirement. But High Lords (male or female) lived and died in office, and with the dire lack of dragon slayers these days, it seemed he could look forward to another century or so of dealing with the free-thinking tendencies of younger dragons. He sighed.
“It’s not treasure.”
“Humans treasure it.”
“Humans treasure all manner of strange things. Favourite mugs, and shoes, and old teddy bears. It doesn’t make them treasure.” A fact he’d had to explain rather forcefully to Cedric when he’d brought that teddy bear in. A sorry sight it had been too, since the young dragon had managed to sneeze on it and set it alight, then put it out by dunking it in the nearest cattle trough. Beaufort had been forced to send the soggy, singed thing back with an anonymous apology note and a couple of trinkets that they couldn’t really spare. Gods help them if the Watch ever got wind of that one. He turned his attention back to Mortimer reluctantly.
“So what makes something treasure?” the smaller dragon was asking.
Beaufort opened his mouth, shut it again, and scratched his ear more enthusiastically than was really required, dislodging a little cascade of scales. “Well,” he said finally, “Value. Value makes it treasure.”
Mortimer patted the artefact on one of its spindly legs. “This is bloody expensive.”
“Yes, but only in human terms. There’s no gold in it, no jewels. No beauty.”
“If we’re not talking in human terms, whose terms are we talking in? Dwarf?”
Bloody young dragons and their idiotic questions. Whose terms indeed. When he was young, no one even thought of such things. You went out, you got some precious stuff, that you knew was precious, and you came back. Job done. “Dragon terms. You do understand your heritage, don’t you? Our proud and great lineage, that can be traced all the way back to -”
“To the days of chivalry and stealing maidens and razing villages and St George, etc etc. I know.” Mortimer shook his head. “Good old St George, valiantly slaughtering a Cloverly dragon and making out it was the size of a Greater Hebrides, rather than smaller than his dog. What a hero.”
Beaufort snorted laughter, and tried to turn it into a cough. He’d always felt rather the same way – and also privately thought that High Lord Catherine should have remembered that discretion was the better part of valour and just walked away from that one. He composed himself as the young dragon continued.
“I understand our history, I do. I get it. But the fact remains – there’s just not the treasure around anymore. Humans are tricky territory, what with their bank vaults and security teams, and we’ve treaties with the dwarfs – even if they weren’t working mostly iron these days because it’s about all they can get. And most of it’s scrounged rather than mined. All the rest – well, it’s the same, isn’t it? Treaties and such. And we don’t want a repeat of the 1912 massacre.”
“The Dragon-Dwarf Conflict of 1912,” Beaufort corrected him.
Mortimer rolled his eyes. “Dragon-Dwarf conflict, then. Although there were more than dwarfs on their side, and it was hardly a fair fight.”
Youth. So full of the injustices of the past. Not that he was wrong, but peace was kept as much in speech as it was in action. “All of that was before your time. Every side tells their own story, particularly when it comes to glorifying their heroes.” Beaufort sounded tired. He was tired. His old bones didn’t rest so easy on the iron throne of the High Lord these days. He thought again of cottages and rugs, and sighed.
Mortimer looked at him curiously. He was a cantankerous old beast, but his heart hardly seemed to be in it today. “Anyway – dwarf hoards, such as they are, are off limits, humans haven’t got anything we can get to, pirates are all about kidnapping and Swiss bank accounts, smugglers are all dealing in drugs and booze, and as for new sources – well, did you hear about Harriet? She thought she’d sniffed out some gold cores in the new power lines. That did not end well.”
Beaufort managed not to laugh this time, but he felt the ripple of it in his belly. Dragons are pretty impervious to electricity, but the smell of burnt toast had followed Harriet around for about a week. He hunched his shoulders and tried to look stern. What was wrong with him? He should be furious, not sniggering like a yearling. “So this is your solution? This – this thing?”
Mortimer took a deep breath before he answered. It wasn’t that they – they being the dragons of his generation, born well after the days of glittering hoards and beds of gems, born into the age of technology and CCTV and privation – it wasn’t that they didn’t respect the old dragon, the rings of his tail counting off centuries they couldn’t even imagine. He wore battle scars from wars that were nothing but legend to Mortimer, and even compacted by age he was bigger than Rockford, who was huge by the standards of the new generations. No, they respected him, but he was out of touch, holding to old ways even as their hoard was reduced to nothing more than a few gold-plated necklaces and a handful of semi-precious stones that no one would trade for. Not that they needed much, but there was no honour in being a clan of faded fortunes and forgotten glory. They had to change. They had to re-imagine themselves, to re-define what treasure meant and move forward into a new sort of wealth. All of which sounded great, until he ended up being the idiot that had to convince the old boy of it.
“Well,” he said, keeping a wary eye on the old dragon’s big paws (he had a fearsome right hook), “Treasure is stuff we like, right? It’s shiny -”
“Yes, that too. But that’s the real treasure, right – things we like, that are valuable to us?”
“Well, yes. I guess that’s a fair definition.”
“Alright. So, look.” Mortimer had to stand on his hindquarters to pat the rounded back of the artefact. It shivered on spindly legs, and made a clanging noise under his paw. “The humans pay loads of money for these things. Loads.”
“They pay loads for lots of stuff, “ Beaufort pointed out. “Cars, and fridges, and TVs. Improvements to body parts. Are you going to tell me they’re treasure, too?”
“No, because they have no value to us.”
“Kid, my patience is rapidly running out. Explain to me the value of that thing.” From his perch on the metal throne Beaufort flicked the artefact with his tail, making it rock alarmingly.
Mortimer steadied it. “Okay. First, it is beautiful. Look at it.” He ran an admiring paw along its front. “Those curves. Perfectly symmetrical. So smooth.Right up there with dwarf workmanship. Flawless.”
The old dragon examined it sceptically. “Even so. It’s sort of ungainly.”
“That’s because it’s up, so you can see it bet- more closely. The legs come down.”
“They come down?”
“They do.” Mortimer fiddled with some knobs, claws sliding on the hard plastic, then slid the telescoping legs down, taking it halfway to the ground. “And then, if you still don’t like the height -” he broke off, fumbling again as Beaufort peered down at him, then managed to fold the legs flat. “There we go. Floor level.”
Beaufort nodded reluctantly, his chin resting on a rust-pitted sword hilt. “That’s better. I like it better like that.” He slid to the floor and stalked stiff-jointed around the artefact. “It is rather good workmanship.”
“There are, of course, different kinds,” Mortimer said. “But this one is very prestigious. Very good quality. Very – glossy.” That sounded better than shiny, at least, but the old dragon shot him a glance that was still plenty sharp behind those crackled eyes.
“Well, lad, it’s very nice, I’ll give you that. But I’m still not sure that elevates it to treasure.”
“Ah. Yes. I haven’t shown you the best bit yet. Hang on.” Mortimer scuttled towards the mouth of the cavern, while Beaufort regarded the artefact morosely and wondered if any of his predecessors had ever had to deal with young dragons telling them to hang on, and pitching human rubbish as treasure. He huffed steam and petted the artefact. It really was very glossy.
He snatched his paw away as Mortimer hurried back into the chamber, rolling a grey cylinder ahead of him. “What’s that?” he demanded. “I’m not sure I like the look of that.”
“Just see what it does first.” The young dragon did some fancy clipping sort of thing, then the cylinder was attached with a hose to the artefact. “Now this – this is what makes it dragon treasure.” He fumbled at a valve on the cylinder, then at some knobs – they were rather utilitarian and not at all attractive, Beaufort noted – then opened the top of the artefact to expose a couple of shiny racks. Mortimer spat fire into the interior, and with a soft whoomph flames caught blue and orange, circling in the base.
“Fire? That’s it? We’ve got all the fire we want.”
“I know,” Mortimer said, and closed the lid. “But feel how nice it is.” He patted the top.
Beaufort rested his paws on the glossy surface, ready to be disappointed. “Oh,” he said after a moment. “That is rather nice.”
“No more cold, hard, rocky – or spiky – beds. You could even put a blanket on top.”
“I suppose you could, at that.” Beaufort pressed his nose to the hot metal, so smooth after the rough throne. “May I?”
“Please.” Mortimer watched the big dragon crawl onto the domed lid and curl his tail neatly around him, belly pressed down, as compact and balanced as a cat. There was silence for a moment, and he could hear Beaufort rumbling in the back of his throat. He hoped the gas didn’t run out.
Beaufort’s legs were so warm the stiffness had been baked away entirely – it was better than lying in embers. The heat was so even – and imagine for hatching eggs! They could even go under the cover. It was wonderful. Wonderful! He closed his eyes for a moment, basking in the heat, then said, “Alright. I accept this – this – what is it?”
“This Barby-Q as treasure. In fact, every dragon must hunt for and procure one. And lots of little cylinders. Lots of them.” He shifted his weight and looked at Mortimer. “You’re in charge of educating everyone about these Barby-Qs. Gold and silver be damned – this is treasure.”
“Yes, sir,” Mortimer said, his tail quivering with delight.
“And any other ideas you have, let me know,” Beaufort added. “We’ll be the most modern of all dragon clans!”
Mortimer figured now wasn’t the time to mention the McFeedles, who hoarded generators and electric heaters. This was a good enough start, and, besides, he personally thought the future was in solar and wind power, and under-cavern heating. Aloud, he said, “It’ll be my pleasure.”
“Off you go, then,” Beaufort said, then hesitated. Dragon clans might have High Lords, but a dragon’s treasure was their own. “Do you have one of these already?”
“No, that’s the first one ever.”
“Oh.” The old dragon’s wings drooped a little. “Right, well. Can you show me where to find one?”
Mortimer shook his head, feeling a wave of reluctant affection. “That one’s for you. It’s only fair.”
Beaufort cocked his head. “And here I thought you young wyrms had no respect for your elders.”
“No, not at all. You old folk have just got to earn it.” Mortimer ambled towards the entrance. “I’ll bring you some more canisters.”
Beaufort watched him go, unsure whether he deserved a clip around the ear or a pat on the back. As the young dragon reached the entrance he called out, “Get someone to bring me a blanket, would you? And maybe a couple of rabbits?”
“Will do,” Mortimer called without looking back, and Beaufort thought he probably needed both a clip and a pat. He let his legs slip ungracefully to either side of the barbecue and sprawled across its baking top. Maybe there really was something to this modern day nonsense after all. Maybe old Lords really could change their scales. Maybe old Lords could even change a few laws, if the fancy took them. He placed his chin on the hot metal, closed his eyes and purred softly, ancient and scaled and fearsomely warm, dreaming of hearths and rugs and rabbits.
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