A Dash of Dragon
Lailu flipped a large chef’s knife end over end, scowling at the row of onions pinned to the far wall. She could have taken on another kraken or even a hydra right then—anything but this endless waiting. She almost didn’t blame Master Slipshod for taking off and leaving her alone on opening day.
“Don’t worry,” she told her remaining batch of onions. “It will only hurt for a second.” Definitely less than being chopped up, at any rate. As she selected a sweet yellow one, the bell above the front door chimed.
Lailu whipped around, the onion toppling onto the floor. Customers? She ducked past the curtain separating the kitchen from the dining room, straightening her fluffy white chef’s hat as she went. “Welcome to Mystic Cooking. Our special today is . . .” Her eyes flicked to the man looming in her doorway, his maroon coat
and black silk cravat practically blending in with the warm cherrywood of the walls next to him. “Mr. Boss?” What was he doing here?
While she was barely over five feet tall, Mr. Boss (“Call me Victor”) was not much taller, but his back was straight and his cane seemed more like a threatening prop than a tool. He looked like he might be in his sixties or seventies, his gray hair oiled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. She’d heard the rumors, of course, that he was actually 206 and that he bathed in the blood of young dragons every month to slow his aging. Lailu wasn’t sure she bought that; she knew how hard it was to kill a dragon.
Mr. Boss turned slowly, taking in the spotless and very empty dining room. “Busy, I see.”
Lailu flushed but refused to look away. It was only her first day, after all. Customers would come. They had to come. “Master Slipshod isn’t here right now,” she said, her voice shaking.
“So it would appear. Frankly, I’m surprised he left you here all alone, and you just a child.”
“I’m old enough.” Lailu stood up straighter, trying to look older than her thirteen years. “What do you want?”
Mr. Boss’s smile widened as he studied the menu behind her. “Hmm. ‘Kraken calamari in a creamy white wine sauce served over fettuccine, with a kraken seafood medley appetizer.’ ” He tapped his cane on the floor. “Well, now, that does sound fancy. I’ll take it. On the house, of course.”
“On . . . on the house?”
“Of course. Why should I pay? I mean, it would be almost like paying myself.” He gave a dry chuckle.
“What does that mean?”
“Just that your mentor and I have a little . . . arrangement. I don’t pay here.”
Lailu gaped. “Do you have any idea what we went through to get that kraken?” Old Salty was a tough beast, and getting one of his delicious tentacles had cost Lailu two days and three bruised ribs, not to mention a brief glimpse of her own mortality. No way was she giving it away for free.
“I can’t imagine why I’d care.” Mr. Boss sat at one of her tables. “Well, girlie?” he demanded, tapping his cane again. “Get to it. I’m not getting any younger.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Lailu muttered. Still, Mr. Boss was Master Slipshod’s business associate, whatever that meant. She might not like him, but she had to be polite. And maybe her mentor had promised him free food, though she’d be sure to check as soon as he decided to show up. After a moment’s hesitation she turned and stomped toward the kitchen, saying a silent prayer to Chushi, the God of Cookery, as she passed the small wooden shrine perched in the corner. Her father had carved it for her the day she’d been accepted into the academy.
Lailu had always looked up to her father. Much like the woods he carved, he could be firm and unyielding, but Lailu admired the way he worked hard in all aspects of his life. Before returning to their village, he’d told her how proud he was of her dedication to cooking and her determination to start this restaurant. He claimed the gods had granted her a gift that could change their world. If he believed that strongly in her abilities, then she could handle anything, including Mr. Boss.
In ten minutes she had a bowlful of her famous kraken seafood medley (well, one day it would be famous) with large slices of exotic fish fillet and kraken tentacles in a saffron broth. She carried it out, ducking carefully around the heavy blue curtain that hung from the kitchen doorway, then froze at the scene unfolding in her once-empty dining room.
“I hope you don’t mind, Lailu my dear, but I invited a few friends to join me.” Mr. Boss smiled wide enough to show off his gold molars.
“A few friends?” At least a dozen people were grouped around Mr. Boss, all watching her with unfriendly eyes. She only recognized one of them: the tall, gaunt man sitting to the left of Mr. Boss was Havoc McHackney, infamously known as “the Butcher,” who slit the throats of those unfortunate enough to get in Mr. Boss’s way.
As Lailu reluctantly moved forward, the Butcher eyed her up and down. “So you’re training with Slipshod, are you?” His upper lip curled. “That wasted old fool.”
Lailu stiffened, her ears burning. “Master Slipshod is a great chef. He literally wrote the book on dragon cuisine, and trained Head Chef Master Sanford, and he cooked for the king himself—”
Havoc made a rude sound, and the men around him laughed.
Lailu took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. This certainly wasn’t the first time she’d heard insults against her mentor, but anyone could see Master Slipshod was one of the greats. True, he’d done all those things she’d mentioned years ago, but Lailu knew he still had it in him. She didn’t need to waste her time explaining it to these fools.
“Here is your appetizer.” Lailu placed the steaming bowl in front of Mr. Boss. “And the kraken calamari fettuccine will be out shortly.”
As she turned to leave, one of the men in the back of the group caught her eye. Much younger than the rest, he was dark-haired and slender with laughing gray eyes. He winked mischievously.
Lailu flushed and took a step back, stopping when Mr. Boss hooked his cane through her arm. “I believe we still have business to discuss—”
The bell above the front door chimed.
Lailu’s heart leaped. Master Slipshod, finally. He would set Mr. Boss straight. But when she glanced at the door, all hope of seeing her mentor disappeared as four figures strolled inside. Four tall, slender figures with high cheekbones and sharply pointed ears. Elves. Elves in her restaurant. “No . . . way . . . ,” she whispered, her whole body frozen in place like the orc meat stashed in the cellar.
The elf in front bared his teeth in a feral smile. A green bandanna held hundreds of tiny blond braids back from his face, and his hand rested casually on the hilt of a wickedly curved dagger tucked into his belt. “Search it,” he said, and the three elves behind him fanned out, heading straight for her kitchen.
“Hey!” Lailu stepped forward, the tip of Mr. Boss’s cane slipping away from her and slapping against the floor. “Stay out of our kitchen!” She was stopped midstep by a dagger edge pointed at her chest. The elf had moved so fast she hadn’t seen him draw his knife.
Lailu went very still, hardly daring to breathe as she stared at the blade aimed directly at her heart. Knowing the elves’ reputation, she
had no doubt this elf would use it on her if he thought it necessary, or even if he just felt like it. Almost twenty years ago, this ruthless gang of elves had systematically wiped out their goblin rivals in the city, destroying a whole block of buildings with them. The elves may have been driven to the outskirts of Twin Rivers now, but once they had owned all of this land, and they never forgot it. Anything in their way became just another obstacle to eliminate.
“It will just be a minute, little girl.” He sheathed his dagger in one fluid motion, then glanced over at Mr. Boss. “Hello, Victor.”
Mr. Boss tightened his lips into one thin line. The Butcher deliberately put his hand on the large meat cleaver at his hip, while the rest of the lackeys shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“You have found nothing in any of my businesses, Eirad.” Mr. Boss glared at the elf in front of Lailu. “This is harassment.”
The elf inclined his head. “It’s meant to be.”
A loud crash came from the kitchen. Lailu jumped and stared at the blue curtain pulled across the kitchen entrance, her stomach filling with dread. What could they be doing in there? What was taking them so long? She took a deep breath, preparing to sprint over and defend her kitchen when the curtain flew open and the three elves moved back into the dining room. “Not here,” one of the female elves muttered, chewing on something. Lailu eyed her suspiciously, certain she had been into the kraken.
“No?” Sadness tinged Eirad’s voice.
“I told you, I have nothing of yours,” Mr. Boss snapped.
“And I told you we don’t believe you.”
The Butcher stood abruptly, and Lailu cringed as his chair
scraped across their newly sanded, polished wood floor. “Are you calling him a liar?” He drew his meat cleaver.
Eirad smiled in anticipation. “Obviously. I can sense his lies, feel them clinging to him like maggots on meat.”
“Havoc. Sit down.” Mr. Boss’s voice was like a whip. “As my backers, the elves have every right to inspect my establishments.”
Havoc sat, his gaunt face impassive as he tucked the cleaver back into his belt.
Eirad looked disappointed. “You’re not going to fight us on this?”
“No. Search all you like. You won’t find anything.”
Eirad’s face grew still. “We could make a wager. If we find—”
“I am not so big a fool as to make a wager with the likes of you,” Mr. Boss said quickly. “No, search my businesses and be done with it.”
“Fine. Enjoy your meal, Victor. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you again . . . soon.” And just like that, the elves were gone.
“What was that all about?” Lailu demanded, rounding on Mr. Boss. She was still shaking all over.
Mr. Boss regarded her coolly. “It doesn’t concern you.”
“They searched my restaurant!”
“No, they searched my restaurant,” he corrected, his knuckles whitening over the top of his cane.
“It is not your restaurant. Mystic Cooking belongs to me and Master Slipshod.”
“Oh, does it now? And who do you and Master Slipshod belong to?” Mr. Boss’s pale eyes narrowed.
“Ourselves,” she said without hesitation.
“Really? So he hasn’t told you yet?”
The first tiny pinpricks of fear raced up and down Lailu’s spine. “T-told me what?”
“About our little deal?” Mr. Boss leaned forward. “You know, the deal that got you this fine establishment?”
Lailu swallowed. “Master Slipshod . . . He had connections. He said . . .”
Mr. Boss smiled. “I’m his connections, my dear girl. I loaned him the money. And in exchange . . .” He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a roll of parchment, stretching it wide and reading, “I, Master Chef Sullivan Slipshod, do hereby promise to repay my loan in full within one year’s time, or my apprentice, Lailu Loganberry, and I will work for Mr. Victor Boss in perpetuity.” Mr. Boss paused, his eyes meeting Lailu’s. “That means ‘forever.’ ”