Dragon Fancy by Leigh Wallace

There are dragons everywhere!

I’ve never been to a dragon fanciers show before. I get my badge and table assignment and push my contestant, in her covered baby carriage, down the center aisle. I try to see everything at once. Did you know pygmy squiggles, with their curly fringe, come in hot pink? Me neither! And I’ve never seen a wyrmicorn before. There’s one with a glowing horn! I love dragons. I love every kind of dragon.

I’m such a loser. I know. But for once I’m the same kind of loser as everybody else here.

Everyone’s so excited to see each other and catch up on each other’s dragon news. I wish I knew some of them. I’m too shy to go right up to their dragons and check out their hoards.

My little copper mutt, Dirigible, is very garden variety (AKA cheap), but I’ll bet you anything that nobody’s got a hoard quite like hers. I was thrilled when she didn’t turn out to be a common sparkle hoarder like so many other dragons. You can’t show them. Sparkles just get everywhere and it makes sense that the convention centers won’t allow it anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; Dirge’s hoard is a total pain. But at least she’s not disqualified. And maybe she even has a shot at the Unique Hoard award. Well, we’ll see during judging.

As I make my way toward the center of the big convention room there’s a bit of a kerfuffle near a dragon on a tiny hoard of opals. My my, actual gemstones. What a lush. A lady is upset that her table assignment is next to theirs because her dragon hoards seashells, which look enough like opals to risk the dragons getting competitive and violent. Everyone within earshot is nodding. I nod, too, to nobody in particular. It’s a legitimate concern; there’s no safer place for valuables than in a dragon hoard, but if a dragon decides another one is a rival, one of them will die. Hey, if you want a sweet, easygoing pet, get a dog. Or a chupacabra.

A show volunteer hurries over to shuffle the table assignments around. A low hiss emits from my baby carriage. Ok ok. Someone’s getting restless. I hurry on toward my aisle. We’re up against a wall and the table next to us is still empty so Dirge will have some time to settle in. I don’t want her to get uptight around the other dragons; they don’t tend to like each other and they have absolutely no chill.

I quickly pull the water dish, food bowl and litter box from my bag. Next to me, the baby carriage jiggles a bit and a white claw sticks out through the cover. I hear a high-pitched growl from inside. Someone is ready to be let out.

Now comes the tricky part.

I gently unstick the claw and pull back the cover. Four pairs of shiny yellow eyes peer back at me, vertical pupils contracting and adjusting to the overhead lights. I reach in slowly and unthreateningly, then spread my hands carefully under the cushion laid out in the bed of the carriage. If you want to move a dragon, you have to move its hoard. And if you want to move a dragon hoard, well, do it carefully. In as smooth a motion as possible, I swoop the cushion, with Dirge and her hoard still on top of it, onto the table. Then I freeze and wait.

For a moment, all is stillness. Dirge’s muscles are all tightly wired under her coppery scales, her eyelids pulled as far back as they’ll go. She lets out a pent-up breath, and just when I think everything’s going to be fine, a cat zips from between her front legs toward the table’s edge. With whiplike speed Dirge clamps a forepaw down on a puffed up orange tail and huffs indignantly.

“Well, don’t look at me,” I say to her. “You’re the one who picked cats, of all things.”

Dirge eyes me sideways and drags the orange tabby, who I call Shitstain, back to plop him on top of the other two. She stretches her forelegs around them all and doesn’t look at me. Dragons are not interested in uninformed opinions; they are the experts in hoards and if she wants cats, she gets cats. Dirge stretches out and curves her neck in a perfect, regal S. Well, she seems to be settled in. That’s all that matters.

I reach over to give her snout a scratch and she tilts it just out of reach. The cats squirm around each other and Dirge gives them a rough poke with her nose. She and I don’t much care whether they’re comfortable, as long as they’re properly hoarded. I honestly don’t get the appeal of cats but whatever.

The one good thing about the cats is that I think we have a shot at winning the hoard award. You rarely see dragons with hoarded pets. There was one with goldfish that got big on YouTube until the overstocked aquarium poisoned all the fish, but that’s the closest I’ve ever heard of.

Dirge and the cats are settled in, or as settled as Shitstain ever gets. Dirge has her hoard and her bit of territory and I can be confident that she’ll stay put. The judges have started their rounds but they’re still in the first aisle. I decide it’s safe for me to have a quick stroll and check out the merchandise tables.

In ten minutes I’m back, in a full dragon onesie (with wings!), a glowing plastic necklace shaped like flames, and with a cartoon dragon painted on my cheek. Yes, I’m a loser, but today I’m a happy loser.

Dirge is scraping her talons into the surface of the table in a circle around two of the cats. Shitstain is now squashed under Dirge’s hind leg and seems to be temporarily tamed. Also, someone is now setting up her dragon at the next table. We nod to each other, friendly but not too friendly. I don’t interrupt her since the judges are turning down our aisle and she’s not ready. I busy myself fluffing Dirge’s cushion, but Shitstain lunges out and sinks a claw into my finger.

“Ow, you little shitstain!”

My neighbor chuckles. “Fucking cats, right?”

“I so know.”

“Cool hoard, though.”

I shiver a little inside. I knew they were a cool hoard! I knew it!

She’s got her dragon and hoard laid out now. “Whoa,” I breathe. It’s an honest-to-goodness firebreather. Its fringe wavers and glows at the tips, ever so slightly. As if it sees me staring, it lets a lazy curl of smoke wisp out of its left nostril, its smug eyes half closed. I can’t say I blame it. It’s magnificent. Then I notice that it’s perched atop a little tower of books.

“Whoooa,” I say to the other woman. I can’t think of anything more specific to say. I’m just standing and pointing at her dragon. I force my hand down. God I’m a loser.

She just nods. I mean, she knows how awesome her dragon is. No sense having fake modesty. But she’s not a dick about it. I like that. Dragon people are the coolest people.

I go on. “But, like, I’m sure you always get asked this, so sorry, but a firebreather who hoards books? As in paper?”

She shrugs. “I know. But she’s careful. So far.” The dragon, as if to demonstrate her lack of concern, dismounts from the tower, opens the top book and props it up against the others before settling down to read.

I nod. Ok then.

I can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t sound stupid and anyway, the judges are here to check out the firebreather. They are duly impressed and the firebreather is the picture of nonchalance.

Just as the judges move on to Dirge, Shitstain makes a break for it. Of course. He makes it right to the edge of the table before a taloned forepaw claps down on his neck.

It’s not Dirge’s forepaw. It’s the firebreather’s.

The two dragons are utterly motionless, their eyes piercing into one another’s. The cats are still and wary. Even Shitstain hasn’t struggled to get free.

That’s when I notice the book the firebreather was reading. It’s a cat book. A fucking cat book.

“Uh…” I say.

“Yeah…” the other woman says.

The firebreather’s slim tongue slides out from between its front teeth, a lick of flame flickering off the forked tip. One of these dragons is going to die. No, let’s be real. Dirge is going to die. Because of Shitstain.

Fucking. Cats.” I hiss.

It takes me awhile to realize that Dirge is moving, almost too slowly to see. Her yellow eyes are still locked on the other dragon, but she’s extending her own foreleg toward Shitstain. Oh just let him go! He’s useless! I can get another damn cat! A better cat! An upgrade! But that’s not how this works; he’s hers, shitstain or no. She will fight for him. She will fight a firebreather, and she will lose.

Dirge’s paw hovers over the cat’s orange hindquarters but she doesn’t touch him yet. Her talons pass over where the firebreather’s paw clutches Shitstain by the neck. She slowly but firmly lays her paw on the cat book. The firebreather’s eyes flick from the book to Shitstain to Dirge’s intent gaze.

The other two cats, now bored, start kicking each other in the face. Because cats are idiots.

The firebreather now pulls Shitstain toward her a little bit, maybe just an inch. Dirge curls her claws around the book. Then, as if it was choreographed, the book and the cat slide past each other, over the small gap between the two tables.

The two dragons turn their backs on each other, for all the world as if neither could care less about the other. They tend to their hoards—Dirge’s now consisting of two cats and one cat book, and the firebreather’s of a small library with one cat for good measure. Dirge starts flipping through the pages, and Shitstain leaps to the top of the book pile while the firebreather watches with a doting glint in its eye.

Excited cheers and chatter erupt all around us. I had no idea the whole room was watching. I had no idea the judges had been right there. I had no idea I’d been crushing the firebreather’s owner’s hand in mine. She doesn’t let go. There are phones pointed at us; this will be on YouTube in ten minutes. Before I get home, Wikipedia will be updated with the announcement of the first evidence of dragon barter.

Oh, and Dirge tied with the firebreather for best hoard. I guess cats are good for something. I think I can live with being this kind of loser.