First draft. (The whole thing is up to 58k words so far.)
Chapter 2: In Which Maayan learns the true extent of Risha’s love for air-mail
The next morning, the address led them to a post-office owned barn on the edge of town. Actually, it resembled a huge sheep pen covered with a dome of tarp. There was a fastened flap opening to one side, which Risha unfastened. Walking into it was an act of pure will: a scent emanated from inside the enclosure that sapped one’s will to live.
The barn was unseasonably hot inside, and the thick putrid air made one’s eyes water. Maayan pulled off her scarf and tied it around the lower half of her face; her companions looked at her with envy and raised their sleeves to their mouths.
Risha pulled a rope by the door, and a skylight slid open in the dome. Some cheery rays of morning sunshine made their way through shafts and clouds of whirling particles and illuminated what appeared to be a gigantic dirty laundry hill with several peaks. Then the mound moved and Maayan discerned a long tail twitching in the hay on the ground.
“A dragon?” she asked, voicing the obvious.
The decrepit reptile did not react – it was either asleep or unconscious, although given its apparent age and state of health, Maayan wouldn’t have put it past him to be dead. Lore had it that when allowed to die of old age, dragons essentially died piecemeal: the head went first, and the rest of the body would go on doing its thing, farting and scratching itself and even reflexively and uselessly catching mice in its talons, until it starved.
“We are riding a dragon to the Monasteries?” asked Kori with sleeve-muffled excitement.
“We are riding this dragon to the Monasteries?” asked Maayan, with slightly more emphasis. “Can he even get up without breaking something?”
“He’s very spry,” soothed Risha, coming up to the dragon and patting him eagerly on the neck like someone who was well-familiar with dragons in general and with this dragon in particular.
“Wait a second,” said Maayan. “I remember this. The air mail retired a dragon from the fleet a couple of years ago. What was his name..?”
“His name is Nonius,” helpfully chimed in Risha. “And yes, he’s from the national air-mail fleet, and he’s been retired for only two years. He’s still perfectly good to fly. He flies on his own, you know!”
Meaning, he probably mostly sleeps and occasionally flies to avoid bedsores, when he can be arsed, thought Maayan. And the only reason he flies is because he, like all of them, can’t really walk too well, even on all fours.
“He’s awfully thin,” remarked Kori, picking up the end of the dragon’s rope-like tail and patting the thinned fur on the end.
“That’s a good thing!” Risha’s optimism was relentless. “Means he can carry more weight!”
“That’s not quite how they work,” remarked the old fellow – the first thing he’s said since he made his introduction to Maayan. “They need muscle to lift. It’s not all hot air and reactive power. It’s a combination.”
“It will be fine,” said Risha with the kind of emphasis that carried in it an implicit ‘or else’. “He can carry up to forty stone of combined cargo and passenger weight. The three of you with all your equipment will hardly make thirty-five.”
“Forty stone is what they carry in the fleet,” countered Maayan. “And everyone knows they ride them way past their prime. This guy must be a massive wreck for them to retire him before his replacement has grown up. They hate shrinking the fleet.”
“Look, it works out, all right? I sat down to calculate it myself. He can carry you all, plus the ikonograph and backpacks. He won’t even take any mail up. It’ll be just you three. You can’t tell me this isn’t better than spending a week climbing up the mountain trails?”
He had a point, the skeezy bastard.
“So why the wet underpants all of a sudden? People fly on these every day!”
“Qualified people,” said Maayan. “On qualified dragons.”
Risha made a grandiose gesture that spanned the known Universe and ended with a several dramatically arced fingers pointing at the old fellow.
“Aren’t you lucky I selected someone with flying credentials when hiring? Lem here used to be a post flyer in his younger days!”
“I want thirty percent of the royalties if I'm doing this.”
“Have them. Hell, have thirty-five percent. I want you invested in this.”
Maayan gave in.
“All right. Let’s pull back the roof.”