The Tavern

Someone was fondling her ass. Again.

For the briefest of moments, Manta closed her eyes, reminding herself that she needed this job, and she needed the tips and, dammit all, she could not, under any circumstances, cut off the offending appendages of any of her customers. Opening her eyes, she forced a vivid smile to sweeten her features, though her blue eyes sparked with pent-up anger.

Gods, sometimes she hated her job. But when the options were serving-wench or whore…. Well, at least she could be assured that her ass was all they would be touching in this line of work; the other was not so limiting. But, still, she could do without the drunken advances she received on an almost nightly basis. And the way her tight-fitting uniform boosted her cleavage didn't help at all. Though, on the bright side, she did receive better tips.

And large tips meant more money. And more money meant that she could actually buy a book every few years or so.

That thought made the vivid anger fade from her eyes as she twisted through the tavern, setting a tankard and a plate in front of one of the customers. She didn't even get angry when she caught him very noticeably staring at her chest. Hell, he could look all he wanted--more like 'ravish with his eyes'--, as long as he was planning on leaving a decent sized tip….

Humming lightly, Manta gathered a few of the travelers' empty plates from some of the other tables, wondering how much money she would need before she could afford the one book that she had had her eye on for the past year and a half. It was, in fact, the book of poetry that that asshole-dragon had stolen from her the other day at the library. But Manta refused to think about him. Her mother, before dying, had always told her that to think of evil was to summon it. So, she was most decidedly not thinking about his silver eyes. She wasn't picturing the strange pattern of scales that surrounded his left eye. She wasn't imagining that irritating way he would quirk one eyebrow. She wasn't-

Oh, gods. "Get the fuck out of here!" she cried, pushing at the silver-haired dragon that seemed to have suddenly materialized in the tavern kitchens.

He raised an eyebrow--gods, it was even more annoying than she remembered--and protested, "But I just arrived."

She glanced around, wondering who the hell had let him in in the first place, but no one was in sight. The other waitresses were busy doing their actual jobs--not conversing with what was quite possibly the most irritating dragon in all the world. "I don't care--get out!" She pushed at him again, but heard the tavern-keeper call to her from the front room:

"Manta, what the hell are you doing in there? Get the soup and let's go!"

Shooting one final glare at the dragon, she ungently dumped the dishes into the sink before grabbing another tray and ladling soup into the bowls balanced carefully on the tray. When she turned around--having almost succeeded in deluding herself in believing that he had actually gone--, she narrowed her eyes again, seeing that the dragon hadn't moved an inch. Rather, he was regarding her with those rich silver eyes of his, head cocked slightly to the side in interest.

Setting her jaw, she hissed, "Get out!" before rushing past him and continuing into the dining room to serve the waiting men.

But now she was thoroughly distracted. Soup spilled down the sides of the bowl; in moments her hands were coated in a greasy layer, and several new stains decorated her tight-fitting top. None of the men seemed to notice her unease--though they did take advantage of her distracted state, running their hands quickly over her backside and thighs and pulling away before she could even identify who had touched her.

She suddenly froze, though, when one of the other wenches turned toward the swinging kitchen door. She could have sworn that for a few precious seconds, her heart stopped beating. "Wait!"

And now everyone was staring at her.

Swallowing nervously, she picked her way across the tavern--had it always been this big?--and took the empty tray from her coworker. "I'll get the soup for you, Tamara," she said, hoping that no one else could hear her voice shaking, "You just take my tray and then…yeah…."

Tamara gave her a look. On a normal day, she and the other serving-wench didn't get along very well. Manta didn't blame her for her suspicion, but still she offered a smile and pushed her tray into the other girl's hands, shoving herself through the door before she even knew if Tamara had actually decided to take the tray or just let it fall. Thankfully, she didn't hear the clatter of falling dishes, though she wasn't all that fond of the dreadful silence from the other room. The tavern was always noisy, always busy, always bustling; she must have really made a scene to keep that group of men quiet.

And for what? Manta's eyes widened as she looked around the room, shocked when she realized that it was actually empty of any and all magical creatures--aside from the brownies that kept house, of course. She breathed out a sigh of relief--maybe she had just imagined the stupid dragon's appearance?--and filled her tray and left the room.

It was near midnight by the time her boss--a crusty old barkeep that smelled of stale beer--tossed her the keys to the small shop and announced that it was her turn to close up. 'Closing up', incidentally, meant cleaning the many stacks of wooden dished stacked in the kitchen, banking the fire, sweeping up, and a myriad of other duties equally tedious. It would probably be morning by the time she was allowed to return home.

Bastard.

With a sigh, Manta accepted the responsibility and took a semi-clean rag from its place in the kitchen. After dunking it in water, she turned to leave the room, only to run into a rather solid mass. Blinking, she took a step back and ran into the counter, which dug uncomfortably into her lower back. She looked up, and let out a string of curses when she saw who had decided to pay her a visit.

Damn bastard, asshole-dragon….

He cocked his head to the side, studying her. "You don't seem happy to see me, little one."

"No shit," she spat, before adding, "And don't call me that!"

"Little one? Why? Do you find it offensive?"

Why the hell was he standing so close? She pressed herself into the counter, feeling the edge bite into her lower back. "Yes," she said simply, holding the rag in front of her like a shield, "Now, go away so I can finish cleaning."

Either he was unaware of her discomfort, or he was deliberately making use of it. Manta was willing to put money on the latter. One of his clawed hands snaked out, landing easily on the counter--not quite caging her in, but making her very, very uncomfortable. "There are brownies here," he said.

She blinked. Though he had proven himself to be an annoying ass, she hadn't thought him stupid. "Of course there are brownies here!" Moron.

"Why don't you make use of them, then?"

Her mouth opened before her brain had fully processed his words--ready to refute him. But then, with a click, she closed it and turned to the side. She whistled a familiar tune, and soon a whole family of brownies stood on the counter to her left, their huge eyes staring up at her. They were all colored in various mellow earth-tones, dressed identically in sackcloth. The tallest was as long as Manta's arm; the smallest was probably as big as her thumb. They were all extremely thin, though, giving them a stretched-out look.

Like most magical creatures, they gave her the creeps; they always had. It was probably why she had never thought to use them before the damn dragon's 'helpful' suggestion. But if they could ensure that she could finish before sunrise, then she was willing to work with them. "Will you, uh, help me clean up?" she asked them, "You know, clean the tables? Wash the dishes?"

They just stared at her blankly, their eyes--gigantic on their small, thin faces--unblinking.

Ookay…that's kinda creepy…. She was starting to squirm uncomfortably. "Plea-"

Suddenly, a clawed hand was slapped over her mouth; sleek scales brushed over her lips. "Are you ignorant?" the dragon demanded angrily, "Or just stupid?" To her surprise, she could see blue and silver scales flickering rapidly over his face and arms.

Narrowing her eyes, she pushed his hand away and glared up at him. "I'm not the one who suggested using them!"

He rolled his silver eyes. "I assure you, I wouldn't have suggested it if I had ever dreamed that you might not know how to use a brownie!"

She pursed her lips. "Well, smart guy, why don't you take care of it?"

For some reason, that seemed to calm him. His flickering scales actually seemed to calm and sank back beneath his human skin. Brushing some imaginary dust from his shoulders, he looked to the brownies. "For a bowl of milk and a spoon of honey, you will wash the dining room tables."

A tan brownie of medium height stepped forward, grey eyes trained on the dragon. "Work, yes, for honey and milk."

They all nodded to that agreement, dropping down from the counter and moving silently into the dining room. It was rather eerie, actually, to see the door open and close seemingly by itself--from her particular vantage, Manta wasn't able to see the small brownies slip through the door.

When she turned her attention from the door to the dragon, though, she tried to lean away, but was trapped by the counter; his silver eyes that were far too close to her own. "Never say 'please' in the presence of a brownie. Or any kind of fey creature, for that matter."

She swallowed tightly. His mouth was so close to hers that she could actually feel his words moving over her lips. Deciding that this was an unacceptable position, Manta used her inferior height to her advantage and ducked beneath his chin, slipping past him and freeing herself from the cage of his body. He made no move to stop her.

"Thanks for the lesson on brownies," she said, hoping that he couldn't hear the discomfort in her voice, "and now, you can go. I've got everything under control."

Unsurprisingly, he ignored her. Instead of leaving, the damn creature turned so that he occupied her former position and was now facing her. He crossed his pale arms over his chest--which, she now noticed, was clothed in a beautifully made tunic of a dark forest green material; silver embroidery formed a beautiful pattern over the green. It contrasted nicely with his scales. His silver hair, unlike the last time she had seen him, was pulled back in a low ponytail. An onyx signet ring was apparent on the little finger of his right hand.

The bastard was a fucking noble!

She glowered at the signet ring for a moment. Well, at least that explains why he acts like an entitled ass; he is one! Either choosing to ignore the glare or simply unaware, the dragon said, "Human or not, most people of this land learn very quickly how to deal with fey and other magical creatures. Were you not properly taught when you were a child?"

She pursed her lips, turning to the sink. She slipped her hands beneath the water and began washing the filthy wooden bowls and plates. It was the patrons' responsibility to bring their own utensils.

"I was from up North originally. The kingdom there is much…stricter in its policy regarding magical creatures."

'Strict' did not even begin to describe the policy of deliberately seeking out and destroying whatever magic users the king's men could find. Even human midwives and village healers.

Beneath the waters, Manta's hands gripped the wooden bowl too tightly, the knuckles turning a vivid white.

Kings and noblemen; they thought they could just kill anyone and get away with it. The sad thing was, more often than not, they did.

That stupid fucker; I hope a mage eventually does overthrow him. He deserves it.

"I understand," was all the dragon said, and Manta turned to stare at him. Her olive-toned cheeks flared with angry color. Had she been a dragon of the fire element, smoke would have been pouring from her nose and mouth.

"No," she bit out, her voice shaking, "you don't."

For the next fifteen minutes, the damned dragon was blessedly silent. The only sound apparent, in fact, was the dull thunking of wooden dishware at Manta's not-so-gentle handling.

Finally, the dragon said, "That book of poetry you wanted…"

"You mean the one you stole?" she snapped.

He had the audacity to agree. "Yes, that one. Why do you like it?" Looking at him out of the corner of her eye, she opened her mouth, but he interrupted, his words in reply to her unspoken thoughts. "I know you've read it before, little one. Your scent was on it--more than that little touch could have imparted. It was between the pages, in the binding."

She blinked, taken aback by his answer. When she had recovered, though, she turned her eyes back to the dishwater. "I like it because it relaxes me. It has a kind of beauty that I don't…."

A kind of beauty that she didn't find in the world around her, in the tavern or the murky streets of the city she lived in. Within the pages of the book, she didn't have to look into the eyes of orphaned children stranded on the dirty cobblestone streets, spattered in mud and emaciated. She didn't have to deal with the unwanted touches she received. Most importantly, she didn't have to think about the home she had left behind.

But she wasn't going to tell him that. She cut herself off and spat, "I just like it, okay?" Knowing full well he could hear her, she muttered under her breath, "Bastard…."

The dragon just nodded. "Alright. I'll be going now. Don't forget to give the brownies their milk and honey."

"Finally!" she hissed, but he was already gone. And Manta found herself…disappointed. It was nice to have some company while she worked.

She paused. What was she thinking? The damn bastard was nothing but a nuisance and an arrogant ass! She was more than happy that he had finally gone. Now she could finish up and get home!

She set her mind to working, humming to herself--almost angrily--to fill the silence around her.