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The Bastard Knight From Hell  (© Baxil, 12-1999)

	It started out like almost every other day at the Dragon Services
office: the red message light on the thaumiphone that only my boss had
access to was blinking.  I booted up my office's dragons from their
position of sleep on the floor and hung up my coat, then grabbed the green
Rolodex and flipped to a random page.  It read "DRAGON FOOD."

	Ash, Fennec and Flamescale stretched, yawned and irritably rubbed
their backsides where I had kicked them.  "Mornin'," they said in a
staggered chorus.  I nodded and asked them to get started on my usual
ritual of dragon monitoring system diagnostics while I returned the call.

	When the King answered the phone, his face was flushed red.  
"Where have you been!?" he screamed.  "There's been a dragon at the gates
of my castle since 10 A.M.!  You're supposed to be in your office at 9,
and it's almost noon!"

	I put on my best tone of shock.  "Since ten?  My god, that's
horrible!  If I'd have known that I wouldn't have left at 9:30 to go buy
dragon food."

	"Dragon food?" the king asked, puzzled.  "I thought they only ate

	"Usually, that's true," I extemporized while I nudged Ash and
instructed him in sign language to go shoo the rogue dragon from the
King's gate.  "But the alchemists of the duchy of, ah, Solarix created a
vegetarian mixture last week that acts on dragon taste buds just like
maiden does.  They even added pheromones to make it more appealing than
the real thing.  The demand for it's been so high that I'd have had to
wait three weeks to get it shipped.  I thought you'd appreciate my going
down there in person so we'd be among the first to receive it."

	"Now, look, that's all well and good, but I've got a dragon at my

	"Think of it as a long-term investment, majesty.  Would you rather
have one dragon outside today, or have to put up with it daily next month
when everyone else has the food upgrade and we don't?"

	"I ALREADY have dragons outside my gates every day!" he roared.  
"You told me that would stop when you installed the TinySquishy dragon

	"I specifically warned you that they wouldn't work against hungry
dragons, remember?" I lied.  "That's why this latest upgrade was so
important."  Ash returned.  "But for now, your dragon's gone.  I'll make
sure it stays away for good."

	"That's what you said to the last king," he accused.  "And he was
eaten a week ago."  (Fennec belched quietly and I gave him an evil stare.)

	"It was entirely his fault -- I *told* him not to walk outside
after dark."

	"He was found chewed to death in his throne room."

	This conversation was taking turns I didn't feel like explaining.  
I gave the "panic" hand signal to Flamescale, who nodded, sneaked out of
range of the thaumiphone's camera and took off into the air.

	"I understand that certain species prefer to stalk their prey back
to its natural habitat," I stalled while Flamescale gained altitude and
circled around to dive at my tower.  I mentally counted to three, then
glanced to my left, did a planned double-take, and wheeled to my left to
point at Flamescale's rapidly approaching figure, framed in the
thaumiphone's video pickup.  "Oh my god, what's that?  DRAGON ATTACK!  
I'll call you back, majesty, I have to defend the tower!"

	"Bu--" he protested as I slammed a hand on the "disconnect"

*	*	*	*	*
	The message light started winking on again almost immediately.  I
joggled the line a bit to send some static his way, then pulled it out
from the wall.  When I reconnect it, I thought, I'll be ready.

	"Good job, Flamescale," I said as he landed again, wings
fluttering, and got back to sifting through his earlier tasks.  "Ash, was
there anything interesting in the courier sacks today?  Fennec, I don't
suppose you pulled off that video-recording assignment I gave you?"

	Fennec nodded and handed me a tape, which I popped into the
thaumivision while Ash handed me four letters.  I watched the video for a
minute or two, fast-forwarding to where the king and a courtesan snuck
into the throne room.  I winced at a few points when they did something
that looked especially painful or unnatural.  "Yep, that's what I
thought," I said, stopping the tape, and turned to the letters.

	Nothing especially juicy, just a few people writing to their
friends with gate passwords, which I copied down and added to the red
Rolodex.  Duke Aston and Lady Chulet, however, appeared to be trying to
investigate me.  A worthy goal, but it wouldn't do for them to be so
stupid as to be communicating matters of such sensitivity by regular
courier.  After all, you never know who's reading your mail.

	"Ash, forge a letter from Chulet to Aston, would you, talking
about their plans to assassinate the king tomorrow?  Form 31-B, in the
right-hand cabinet.  Naturally, make sure it gets slipped in Bag Four; I
hear that one's due to pass through the king's spy network before reaching
its destination."  He nodded and set to work.

	With that matter taken care of, I took care of the normal-priority
correspondence for the day.  "Flamescale, do be so kind as to burn that
bag in the corner, would you?  How unfortunate that it was the only
casualty of today's vicious dragon attack."  There was a satisfying fwoosh
and crackle, and I warmed my hands on the flames.

	That left me with my usual workload to attend to.  I leaned back
in my chair and fetched a deck of cards.

*	*	*	*	*

	It was only ten minutes later that the office thaumiphone (the
general-purpose one, which I hadn't thought to disconnect) rang.  
Annoyed, I put my bridge hand face-down on the table and clicked on the
phone.  Ash, Fennec, and Flamescale, knowing the drill, laid down their
cards and hid under the table.

	"Kingdom Dragon Technical Assistance Office, how may we help you?"
I answered the phone, in case it was one of the people who paid my bills.  
But no.  It was just a citizen who'd gotten ahold of my unlisted number

	A princess, technically.  A high-pitched, panicky princess.  I
could see a dragon approaching in the background of the 'phone.  
"Aaaiieeee!" she shrieked, loud enough to make my three dragons (and the
one behind her) wince and flatten their ears.  "There's a DRAGON near me!  
What do I do?  It's BIG and SCARY!"

	I smiled pleasantly, which should have been enough to make her
drop the phone right then -- if she'd known me.  But she merely looked at
me, chest heaving in shallow, squeaky breaths, and awaited my salvation.

	"No problem at all, milady.  A fairly common problem, with a
simple solution.  Most dragons only approach civilization when they're
hungry.  And I see that you're well-equipped to deal with the problem on
your own."

	Her face blanched, but I'd already anticipated her question.  
"No, the eating maidens thing is a myth," I lied.  "They actually prefer
the same sorts of food as we do.  I notice you have a bag lunch on the
picnic table behind you?"  She nodded breathlessly.  "Well, pick up the
bag, walk up to the dragon, and announce loudly, 'I am here to ease your
hunger.' "

	She looked momentarily dubious.  "Approach a dragon?  Isn't that
DANGEROUS?" she squeaked.  Her voice was starting to get to me.

	"Not at all, ma'am.  Trust me, I'm an expert.  Tell you what -- go
ahead and do it now.  That way you can return to the phone if there are
any problems."

	She nodded, grabbed the bag lunch, and walked off into the
distance.  I clicked the 'disconnect' button before the shrill scream hit
and returned to my game.

*	*	*	*	*

	Less than two tricks later, the phone rang again.  I sighed and
repeated the drill.  Another citizen.  I made a mental note to find out if
one of the twelve reps downstairs was leaking my phone number.

	"Hello," said a quiet older man who looked like a town mayor or
administrator.  "I bought a TinySquishy dragon slayer to deal with a
7-century-old green _Dragus dromonicus_ terrorizing my village, Hampton.  
But he's not sure when he attacks whether to strike in the upper abdomen
or lower abdomen, since all the manual says is 'stomach area'.  
TinySquish said this was the number to call."

	Great.  One of the know-it-alls.  I grabbed a binder at random in
order to look professional, opened it, and stared at a log of my old
bridge games for a few moments.  "Well, sir, the internal docs specify
lower abdomen.  I'd aim for a kidney."

	He looked quizzically at me.  "But that makes no sense.  _D.
dromonicus_ kidneys are displaced by their fire-breathing apparatus to the
groinal region."

	"Hey, who's the expert here?"  I asked testily.

	"All I know is that _dromonicus_ kidneys aren't in the abdominal
area.  And why is that binder you're reading marked 'Game logs'?"

	The gauntlet had been thrown.  He was trying to out-maneuver me.  
This was no support call.

	"I think, sir, you're mistaken.  What did you say the dragon's age

	"Seven centuries, but I don't see what that has to do w--"

	"And when," I interrupted pointedly, "do _dromonicii_ first
breathe fire?"

	"150 years, which just proves my po--"

	"And when do they start mating?" I asked triumphantly.

	"Uhm," he said.

	"Three hundred and twenty five years!" I crowed, making up a
reasonable-sounding number.  "That enlarges their thyroid glands, which
*pushes the kidneys back* to the abdomen!"

	"Aren't thyroid glands in the thro--"

	"And another thing, my good sir.  How large is this village you're

	"Uhm, but the thyroid gland--"

	"How large is the village, please."

	His face flushed, but he conceded the point.  "Four hundred

	"Oh dear," I murmured.

	He looked at me suspiciously.  "What do you mean, 'Oh dear'?"

	"Oh, nothing really.  Just make sure to instruct the TinySquishy
dragon slayer to strike at the lower abdomen and your slaying should go
routinely.  Have a nice day."

	"No, no," he stopped me, blustering.  "What do you mean, 'Oh

	"Well, I wasn't going to say anything," I started in false
timidity, "since you seem to be such a knowledgeable fellow, and I'm sure
you've got your reasons.  But how did you end up with a TinySquishy dragon
slayer at a village of that size?"

	He looked at me uncomprehendingly, and I knew I had him hooked.  
From here I just had to reel him in as smoothly as possible.

	"Well, we just called the Procurement department, and ordered a
dragon slayer, and in two to six weeks ..."

	"No, no," I gently cut him off.  "What I meant was, why a dragon
slayer instead of a simple knight?  Your village is less than 500
population.  You'll only ever get menaced by one or maybe two dragons at a
time, well within the capabilities of a knight.  Dragon slayers are
designed for larger villages, from 1,000 to 5,000, and if maintained
properly can defend against up to six dragons simultaneously."

	"It's an extra level of protection," he said defensively.

	"At an extra level of cost," I said reproachfully, waving what I
hoped looked like a spec sheet.  "How much are you paying TinySquish per
month, hmmm?"

	"Well, I'm not really sure, Procurement took care of the 
details ..."

	"How much are you collecting in taxes?"

	He checked some notes.  "Thirty gold?" he said hopefully.

	"Oh dear."

	By now he'd bought it totally.  His face fell and he started
sounding panicked.  "Don't tell me our revenue doesn't cover it."

	I shook my head sadly.  "Heaven knows how you missed the Buying
Guide in the documentation.  It would never recommend a dragon slayer for
a village so small.  I suggest you downgrade immediately."

	"But what would happen if we were ever attacked by more than 
two ..."

	"Dragon food."

	He stared at me in shock.  "We'd be dragon food!?"

	"No no.  It's a new product.  Distract the extra dragons, hold
them off, the knight only has to deal with one at a time."

	"I dunno, I thought they only ate maidens ..."

	"Who's the expert here?"

	He looked down at the ground.  "Sorry, sir."

	The man looked so whipped that I almost felt sorry for him.  
"Solarix Duchy alchemy.  Pheromones.  You know.  Better than the real
thing," I explained.

	"Definitely.  I'll give Solaris a call."

	I glanced at the calendar.  "If I were you," I said helpfully,
"I'd get back to TinySquish right away.  It's the 29th -- doesn't the
Dragon Support pay period roll over at the end of the month?  You won't
want to have a dragon slayer on your payroll after tomorrow."

	"Ohmigod," he said, face white.  "I'll do that immediately.  
Thank you, sir.  You've been most helpful."

	"No problem at all," I said with a smile.  "I'm just doing my
job."  I hit disconnect and turned back to my dragons, the smile still on
my face, but genuine this time.  And more sinister.

	"I say, Fennec, could you nip on over to the local weyr?  
Wouldn't it just be a crazy coincidence if, say, four dragons rampaged
through Hampton day after tomorrow?"

	Fennec shared my smile, far more toothily.

*	*	*	*	*

	Two rubbers later (rubber is a bridge term meaning a best-of-3 set
of games, you pervert), I figured it was time to call the king back.  I
had Flamescale and Ash scorch the walls for realism, and only reconnected
the thaumiphone halfway so that the connection would have maximum static.

	"Ah, it's you," the king harrumphed when he answered.  "If I
remember correctly, we were talking about the fate of my predecessor when
you got cut off."

	"Yes, sir," I said, "and I'm eager to explain the true
circumstances of his death.  But first, we need to talk about what to do
with the shipment of dragon food I'm sending to your palace."

	"That's inconsequential," he said irritably.  "Just dump it in the
basement and I'll send a lackey down to get some when necessary.  Now,
about King Ger--"

	"No, no," I said quite concernedly.  "The basement won't do at
all.  In fact, I was thinking of putting it in the throne room."

	"THE THRONE ROOM?!" he sputtered.

	"Naturally, sir.  See, that way, the pheromones will probably
cover up the smell from that odd stain on the queen's throne."


	"I hear dragons are attracted to the scent of eja--"

	"I don't know what you're talking about," he interrupted, face

	I brought the Thaumivision behind me to life, and hit Play.  
"While I'm on the phone, Your Highness, I've been meaning to ask ... how
does one get into that position without permanent muscle damage?"

	More silence.  Then the 'phone was disconnected from the other

	I love my job.

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