The Economist and the Dragon
by Cameron Johnston
A fantasy short story. Looking to create a more rational less violent world is not a bad idea. Would you engage a fire breathing dragon in a discussion of economics? WWSD, what would Smaug do when faced with a SWOT of an economist that thinks his proposal will tame the dragon and most of all keep him off the dinner menu.
The dragon Vermikalathyxak sighed in relief as her claw finally dislodged the splintered femur that had been embedded between two of her teeth. She spat the bone out, and it clattered down the congealed mound of bone and gristle by her side.
A huge belch expanded up her gullet, erupting in a puff of gas from her maw. She ignited it, flames brighter than the torches scattered around the cavern, reflecting shards of light from the gemstones embedded in the walls.
She glared down at the torn woollen robes scattered across the floor. Clerics always gave her gas. It was all that rich food and wine the gluttons consumed—it made them terribly fatty when compared to the lean peasant meat she was used to. Not only had they given her gas, but now she had a headache due to all that shrill praying she’d had to endure while dragoning them down, one by one.
She couldn’t help herself. She was forever vowing to eat healthier, but clerics were tasty, slow food, requiring little to no effort. Not like knights in full metal plate; those took forever to peel without ruining all that expensive shiny armour.
The armour, weapons, and possessions of the company of would-be dragon slayers had been carefully stripped from the corpses and sorted out into neat piles on the floor. She had to tear her eyes away from the small but mesmerising pile of jewellery off to one side, where it glittered enticingly.
Scratch, scritch, scratch.
She lifted her head and bared her fangs, tail lashing as she scanned the cavern looking for the source of the strange noise. Nothing moved. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary: rock formations, piles of glistening bones, stacks of loot, and a half dozen uneaten dead humans. After a while she settled down onto her haunches. Perhaps it was just an especially unwise rat.
Scratchscritchscritchscritchscratchscritch—there it was again, but quicker this time. A scuff on stone, then a single gold coin clinked and rolled across the floor. She looked again, looked harder … and found her eyes sliding away from something. A deep rumble within her chest echoed around the cavern. She tried again, and again her eyes seemed to slide over something, refusing to see it.
She drew her head back and hissed, the flame sacs at the back of her throat swelling with venom. Her head shot forward, maw gaping. Rapid muscle contractions in the roof of her mouth sparked her fulmenforge into life, igniting the jet of liquid, and one corner of the cavern turned into a roaring inferno. Liquid flame dripped down into pools of dragonfire. Acrid black smoke churned up amongst the stalactites.
A human voice yelped in shock, accompanied by a clatter of wood on rock. Charred and smouldering scroll cases rolled across the floor. The dragon glared over in the direction of the sound, where smoke outlined a human shape.
“Come out or I shall roast you, little thief,” she said, concentrating on the shape. There was a pause, and then a balding, bespectacled man of medium height and forgettable aspect was suddenly standing there. Her eyes threatened to slide away again, but as long as she focused on him intently, he remained visible. His chin was clean-shaven, and he wore a plain grey tunic and breeches rather than a robe woven with potent arcane wards. A belt of pouches circled his waist with quills, scrolls, and, bizarrely, a small abacus. In one hand, instead of a magic staff, he clutched a sheaf of what appeared to be vellum pages. In his other hand he held a stick of charcoal between thumb and forefinger, still scribbling away frantically across the vellum—scritch, scratch, scritch.
“What are you doing, thief? I see you now.”
He blinked, seeming startled as her eyes followed him, then he glanced at all her loot. “I’m conducting a SWOT analysis—the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threat of your, ah, business enterprise. I’m calculating your net worth and expenses, cataloguing your material assets, and putting the finishing touches on a ten-year growth plan.”
“What kind of wizard are you?” she demanded, opening her maw to reveal fangs larger than the man’s head. Then she tilted her head and studied him. She couldn’t see so much as a hint of magic sparkling around his body. He seemed entirely mundane. How very dull, she thought.
He swallowed. “I am, ah … an economist, actually,” he said.
There was a long moment of stunned silence.
He cleared his throat. “My apologies. I was assured that the invisibility potion would allow me to hide and leave you undisturbed until I was fully prepared to present my proposal.”
A barking laugh dripped flame down her chin. “Invisible, yes, but I am not deaf, human.”
“Ahhh, I see!” he said, looking down at his now entirely visible body. He frowned and began absently tapping his lip with the charcoal stick, smudging black all over his mouth and chin. Then he looked up into her eyes, and she watched as realization dawned. He was entirely visible. “Oh,” he said, sweat beading on his forehead. He stayed very, very still.
She settled down onto her belly, staring at him, unblinking, giving him the old “should I eat you or not” look. “What is an economist doing here, of all places?”
He swallowed and wiped the gathering sweat from his forehead. “I’m currently writing a paper on dragonomics. And I’ve come here to put a mutually beneficial business proposal to you.” He waved at her the pages clutched in his hand, all lines, numbers, and tiny, cramped writing.
She was intrigued. Her sire had always warned her not to play with her food, but then, she was at that sort of age—in the mid-teen centuries—where a dragon gets rebellious. A purr of pleasure rumbled in her chest. “Dragonomics? What do you mean by that, little human? I give you three minutes to convince me of your proposal before I eat you up.” She shifted to get comfy, folding her wings to her flanks.
He loosed a sigh and relaxed, taking that as a sign he was not in imminent danger of digestion. Suddenly he was all business. He might almost have looked dangerous, if it hadn’t been like a very serious mouse standing before a giant and incredibly bored feline. The charcoal smudged all over his face didn’t help matters. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth to begin—
“Are you not disgusted at my devouring your kind?” she interrupted. “Are you not angry?”
He was flustered by the question, trying hard not to shake. “Uh, well, they were trying to kill you in your own home, so I guess it was a valid case of self-defence.”
She blinked slowly, letting him sweat while she mulled over his answer. “A surprisingly fair opinion, for a man-thing,” she said, finally.
“My name is Geoffrey,” he said.
She blinked slowly in amusement, flicked her tail from side to side.
“And you are of course, Verma … Vermikatha … uh, Ver—”
“Vermikalathyxak,” she rumbled, tail lashing violently. She lowered her head down to his height. “In your kind’s old tongue”—she snorted—“it would translate most accurately as Annmarie. Better you call me that than for me to suffer yet more of your kind’s butchering of my true name.”
“Annemarie it is then,” he said. “Right, well, dragonomics is the study of the socioeconomic impact of a draconic variable on an area, and—”
“Socioeconomic is a very arrogant term to use,” she said. “Should it not be homoeconomic, to take account of your human-centric viewpoint, which undoubtedly excludes any other race from your societal research?”
“Well … yes, perhaps you are correct,” he said, pondering it. “We economists generally do use it to refer to human-only societal economics.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Besides, we tend to use homoeconomic to, ah, refer to a particular subset of humans.”
She worried at a rogue splinter of bone in her gum with the sensitive forks of her tongue. “Humans! You think you did everything first. There were gay dragons before your race even existed. In my sixteen centuries I have come across myriad wondrous dragons, each different from the last. I assure you, dragons have tried more than your entire race’s petty imagination can conceive of. There are even some distasteful young dragons who choose to”—she let a lick of flame rise from her maw—“dally with humans. Can you conceive of anything more horrid than that? Never mind the sheer physics involved in such a thing.”
“Fascinating,” he said.
She looked at him sharply, but as far as she could tell, he seemed to find it genuinely interesting. “One minute up,” she said, dropping her jaw in a grin.
He jumped and started sweating again, licking suddenly dry lips. “Right, to get back to the point,” he said. “In this case, I am studying the economic impact of your presence on the surrounding villages in this Black Hills region of Astelon.”
“I see,” she said, her voice flat and hard. “You are preparing yet another reason why dragons need to be exterminated.” She closed one great eye in a wink.
His eyes bulged. “Heavens no!” he said, hands flapping wildly. “Your presence actually has a remarkably positive effect on the local economy.”
“It does, does it?”
He pointed down to the uneaten corpses, most of which had twinned tattoos on their wrists—the mark of successful dragon slayers.
“For a long time now, we economists have been aware of the short-term economic benefits of tattooed two-wrists in any given area. On average, an organized dragon hunt spends ten days narrowing down the location of a dragon’s lair, another five to prepare for the assault, and then perhaps fifteen on rest and recovery afterwards. A full month’s boost to the local economy. Anyway, back to my business plan. As I was saying—”
“A boost to the local economy? How so?”
“Oh, well, simple really.” He held up his hands and began ticking off fingers. “That covers food, grog, and board for the men, general supplies, blacksmith work, horse feed, prostitutes, local guides, and labour.” He looked distracted, his eyes glazed. “And then there is the brief influx of gold after a successful hunt. Of course most of the valuable body parts—scale, bone, blood, and venom—all leave Astelon, and the profits go back … to … er, their homelands …” His voice died off as her hissing grew louder, and her tail slammed the wall of the cavern, crushing stone and gem to powder.
He swallowed. His face went pale and a bead of sweat wound down his forehead and across his cheek. “I assure you, Annemarie, short-term profit goes against my plans for this area. My proposal will end this waste. A renewable resource, so to speak.”
“Speak,” she said. “Be quick, lest I decide to swallow you whole right now.”
He nodded energetically. “While researching this group of dragon slayers, three things became apparent.”
“Firstly, none of the villages in the Black Hills show any sign of dragon attack. Not even an old rumour of such from the elders. Their standard of living actually exceeds that of similar areas. Secondly, there seems to be a thriving second-hand goods market hereabouts.” He looked pointedly at the piles of armour and weapons.
Vermikalathyxak shifted on her haunches.
“Thirdly, the local villagers’ livestock herds seem unusually large and remarkably healthy, considering the dietary requirements of a fifty-ton drag—”
“Forty-two ton,” she corrected, letting flame drip from her maw. “Do I look like some fattened, waddling beast to you?”
“Ah, I apologize unreservedly,” Geoffrey said. “No offence was intended. I stand corrected. You are just so magnificent that you seem all the larger to me.”
Before she could reply to his shameless yet pleasing flattery, he continued his speech.
“All of this indicates the likelihood that you either have your own herds in some secret valley in the hills, or that you import food via the villages. The relative wealth of local villages and the steady trade in second-hand armour and weapons would seem to indicate the latter. Perhaps both.”
He looked her in the eye. “Am I correct?”
She growled at him. “Yes. But how exactly will you being an annoying know-it-all stop me eating you right here and now? Two minutes have now expired.”
He squeaked, and then looked around at her shed scales and at the piles of loot. “Yes, well, it’s very simple—I propose we form our own corporation, which will benefit everybody in Astelon. With my ingenious business plan, I am positive that you will see the benefits of partnership.”
He looked down at the remains of the dragon slayers. “Well, maybe not everybody benefits. But then, Astelon has never been known for its dragon slayers.”
“And just what do you think about these slayers,” she said, toying with him by blowing smoke and flame towards him. “Sympathy for your fellow man?”
“No, no, not at all,” he blustered. “I was most impressed with the way you dealt with those hunters from Estadol. I’d always imagined that their magical protections and wards against dragonfire would result in an epic battle of spear and sword against claw. As I was saying, I estimate that with my plans here, I can treble your profit marg—”
“Impressed, you say?”
He coughed. “Ah, well, I hadn’t actually considered the benefits to a dragon living in a cave system where the limited space and restricted ventilation could result in an entire company of hunters choking to death from smoke and fumes.” He eyed the clerics’ torn robes on the ground and looked like he wanted to throw up. “Well, most of a company dying from smoke. Clerics do tend to bring up the rear.”
Her rumbling laughter echoed through the cavern.
Geoffrey smiled, shook his head. “Genius. There are no wards against smoke and fumes. I had wondered why you hadn’t built your lair atop inaccessible mountains. I mean, how exactly could a fully armoured knight get up there, never mind try to slay you? Dragons can fly, after all, so it would make sense to me. But in any case, as I was saying, my ten-year business plan will show you increased productivity by—”
“Perhaps you felt that a bloated”—she let smoke and flame burst from her maw—“fifty-ton dragon such as myself could not possibly fly so high and had to crawl into a cave?” She chomped down on one of the human corpses, crunching noisily. Flame dripped from her maw amidst a rain of blood.
He swallowed, wiped his forehead with a sleeve. “I … I am sorry, I did not mean to say that—”
She spat out bones at his feet, and then she stared at him until he flinched and looked away. “Fifty tons,” she hissed, voice low and dripping with malice. The malice was entirely spurious—not that a human could ever tell the difference on a dragon’s face or tongue; they were such crude, blunt creatures. She found it amusing to toy with him. “I would strongly suggest you refrain from any more insults, little mouse.”
His head jerked up and down so quickly that she thought his brittle little neck might snap. A purr of amusement rumbled in her throat. Her eyes narrowed with malicious glee. “So, are you done with your proposal yet?”
He jumped, suddenly realized how much of his precious time had just been wasted. “Sorry. I was just … I meant …” He took a deep, calming breath and then cleared his throat. “To get back to business, I am not sure if you are aware, but Astelon has never had good relations with the larger kingdoms of Estadol and Brandell. Border skirmishes and raids into Astelon are all too common, and our army is woefully underequipped and overstretched.”
A twinkle appeared in his eye. “Which is where we economists come in. We cannot win militarily, so we must seek to dominate economically. I feel that dragonomics is the answer to both of our problems.” He looked around at the bones and piles of equipment. “I’m sure that Astelon’s king would not take it amiss if these foreign dragon-slaying companies were to come back empty-handed, or even better, not at all. Each dragon they slay boosts their economies. And of course, they kill your kind to make their gold.”
Dragonfire dripped, sizzling to the stone from bared fangs. “I am listening. But best be quick.”
“I know that you must have some sort of agreement in place with the peasants hereabouts, but with my help this can become big business—maximized profits and minimized expenses. Think of it—advanced warning for yourself, disinformation, perhaps even some subtle assistance. It can’t be too hard to serve the dragon hunters tainted food, so that they get the squats. The services of Astelon wizards could also be arranged if you would like; I know of several wizards who specialize in dispelling and protection wards who would be agreeable to the opportunity to earn some extra gold. I’m sure you would find them most helpful.”
She winced, remembering the times when lightning bolts had shrieked through her body.
“And for what?” Geoffrey continued. “Merely a fifty per cent share of all profits from thwarting your killers and the sale of recovered materials. In return, you would allow me to arrange the distribution and sale of anything you would be willing to spare: any scales you shed, any fire-resistant spit or dragonfire you feel like selling. There is also a market for dragon urine in the Bright Isles. I understand that they use it as an aphrodisiac. The gold will flow in! We will be rich.”
She hissed at him.
“No, no. It will be a good thing for you,” he said, holding his hands up. “I promise. It could eventually mean the end of humans hating and hunting your kind. Dragons would become a valuable and sustainable resource.” He gave her a sly look, “Assuming, of course, that we keep dragons well fed and supplied with anything and everything that you need.”
He frowned, as if something had just occurred to him. “Of course, you would all have to swear off eating people who are not trying to kill you. Or ravaging herds without paying the farmers. With my genius at the helm, we could even expand this out on a lucrative franchise basis.”
He set down his business plan and held out his hand to her. “I know what you are going to say, Annemarie. It is true! You will be richer and more successful than in your wildest dreams!” His eyes almost glowed with avarice.
“Your three minutes are up,” she said. There was a crunch of cartilage as her jaws snapped shut on his bare arm, then she drew her head back, stripping the flesh from his arm, much like a cleric eating a shish kebab.
“Bland,” she mumbled, swallowing. Her sire would have lectured her about talking with her mouth full, but then he was far from here, and she was not amongst polite company. The economist stared in dumb horror as the bloody bones of his arm flopped to his side, hanging by shreds of flesh and tendon. He drew breath to scream, mouth gaping.
Her paw slammed down, crushing him to the stone. With one claw she cut the clothes from his flesh, and then she swallowed the rest of him whole.
“Keep me as fattened, dumb cattle, would you?” she said, licking blood from her maw. “You forgot one thing—nobody likes a smug banker. Besides, I did say you had three minutes before I ate you up. Should have listened to the small details more closely.”
She stretched dainty claws out and carefully picked up the pages of vellum, holding them up to her eyes. Such tiny writing. She looked over his business plan and found it well thought out. She burped, tasted economist again. “Consider me intrigued.” She settled down to read it all again, more thoroughly.
Some time later, the clatter of cart wheels outside the caves announced the arrival of the human village elder, Gunther. He shuffled in and knelt on the stone, head bowed. “Oh mighty and beautiful Annmarie. Would now be a good time to clean up and take the goods to market?”
That economist, whatever his name had been—she’d forgotten already—had actually stumbled upon something interesting. Of course, he’d had entirely the wrong idea of who would be in charge. He really should have studied dragons more thoroughly; if he had, then he might have realized that almost all dragons had both great pride and a burning need for independence.
Now that the middleman was out of the way …
“Gunther,” she said. “It is time we had a long talk about economics. With my genius, I have come up with a few new ideas to increase profit margins.” The business plan called for a motivated and loyal workforce, however. “With great generosity, I am offering the villagers five per cent of all profits.”
His eyes brimmed over with tears of joy.
by Cameron Johnston