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How to Win a Dragon's Heart

Acin Fals is a queer author of speculative fiction. Their work has been published in Medium.com and under the byline of A.M. Fals in Strange Horizons. They live in the USA, where they like to talk to their winged neighbors.

"See you next visit," Rtl'en called to his customer.
Rtl'en is a dragon, which, yeah, of course. No one but a dragon has a name like Rtl'en in Mineskeep, and no one but a shapeshifting dragon has the scaly pattern of dusky purple on their human-shaped cheeks, forehead, and around the back of the neck along the edges of thick black hair. While watching Rtl'en work (the only way I could see him regularly), I liked to imagine where else his hair grows. And do his human clothes hide more of that pattern?
My own name is boring--Corb--and the most interesting variance of my skin are a few scars from careless accidents. My pale hair matches my skin well enough to disappear. I'm only human, not even a potential sorcerer. No special skills with invisibility or shapeshifting for me. I had to make up for that somehow.
When Rtl'en turned his moonless night eyes to me, I smiled by reflex. My lopsided grin was less a charming smile and more a presentation of my nervousness.
I held out a bouquet of white starfall blooms. "For you--or the shop." The last words jumped onto the first, smashing their meaning. A gift to the place is not a gift to a person.
He accepted the flowers in silence. His emotions rarely show in his face, but even his shoulders and hands told me nothing as he pulled out a wooden vase and slid the flower stems inside. He didn't move quickly as if irritated or slowly as if cherishing the gift; his movements were only the speed needed to complete the task. His vague reaction concerned me.
I chattered on about how the new bridge out of Mineskeep was developing. He already knew that unlike how he hauls heavy goods onto wagons for the town's main shop through the day, I stand at a cliff to give directions from a chart every morning. Not exactly impressive. Rtl'en can calculate numbers and letters just as well.
Cut starfalls can last a few days. After giving some to Rtl'en, I didn't want to see if the bouquet would last or if it would be dumped in the midden before anyone could pressure Rtl'en to answer questions about their purpose. I avoided the shop until the lower petals in the cascade of blooms should have been falling. Peeking through the windows, I could see the silvery bouquet in a wooden vase on an unfurnished chair beside the bridge design that was posted for all the townsfolk.
I waved at someone who saw me peeking, hugged a warm bundle of my next gift in my arms, and waited with smells of dinner drifting around me for the end of Rtl'en's shift.
He stepped out of the shop through my daydreams. I had to chase after him, calling his name. He turned with a surprised tilt of his head and shoulder. His nostrils flared at the bundle I shoved into his arms.
"Coal-cooked. For you." Then I ran off. I don't know why. Cooking had taken two days inside the fire pit. My plan had been for us to sit and eat together. Who knows if he ate the meal or dumped it?
A few days later, my courage caught up to my longing. A tumbled and polished gemstone felt hot in my palm as I asked if we could talk out back. He agreed, his body tense as if I had asked him outside to duel.
When I held out my hand and said it was for him, he stared with cold black eyes at the gem. "For me? Is this a joke?"
Of course, it wasn't a joke! I said, "I want to show you what being near you means to me."
"As a friend?" Rtl'en asked.
My throat made unhelpful noises until sounding out an explanation. "Giving gifts to someone who doesn't already know he's a friend has a different meaning, doesn't it?"
His head tilted to the side in confusion.
I tried to be clear. "What would say that I like... thinking you could like me... as a romantic partner?"
"In dragon?" Rtl'en said, "I guess for a gift, that would have to be gold. Gemstones are for friends and infants." He moved the milky rainbow stone out of my hand to the windowsill.
"Gold?" My hopes sank as I thought about the low chances of finding the metal so high up the river.
Rtl'en closed in so close I remembered he was taller and broader than I am. His heady musk-and-goods scents gathered from his work filled my mouth.
He reached for a thin braid at my temple. His fingers slid along my yellow hair. My breath caught in my chest.
"Corb, will you give me gold?" he asked.
My mind took a moment to understand what was happening, but then my knife was out of my pocket and in my hand. I sliced the requested braid from my crown.
He smiled in a quiet and accepting way at the golden token that unfurled in his palm.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 8th, 2021

Author Comments

The online group Codex Writers holds a story contest in which members may rummage through lists of unused story titles for use as prompts. The title I chose was "How Not to Win a Dragon's Heart." (Both the title and the story it inspired went through minor edits.) I enjoy writing romance while exploring less visible areas of speculative fiction. For this story, I played with dragon tropes, inverting one or two, to emphasize my favorite magic: acceptance.

- Acin Fals
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