Sean Hardy is a dragon slayer.
It was a small dragon, only about the size of a barn, but still. He killed it. They mounted its head on a flatbed truck and drove it around the country. Annie and I paid five bucks each to slip into a dark tent smelling of mold and musty seashells – it had been a saltwater dragon – for three minutes. They flashed the lights on and off, and shot trails of fog at your ankles like they needed to make it scarier. The head just sat there, maw half open and greenish teeth filed down so nobody accidentally cut themselves and sued the carnival. Annie cowered back, hands clutching at her purse strap, but I reached out and touched its nose, just over the left nostril. The scales were rubbery there, and surprisingly soft. It reminded me of my dog’s belly.
Turned out, Sean Hardy came from a long line of dragon slayers, but he hadn’t known it. They weren’t Sigurd’s line, or from any of the well-known Giant Killer clans. It was only this branch of a long-forgotten family who back in Eastern Eurland in the fifteenth century made a name for themselves going up into the mountains and returning with a horse-load of dragon eggs and hearts. One of their youngest daughters married a skald who moved to Eirelann and went native. They immigrated to the United States about three generations back, and lost all the stories from back in Eurland. But Sean Hardy’s father did have a dragon tooth with one serrated edge a bunch of archaeologists said had to be from one of the Baltic saw-mouths that died out four hundred years ago. I guess that was proof.
He was hailed as the heir to Sigurd despite his somewhat questionable pedigree. Three war colleges gave him honorary degrees despite the fact that he was only eighteen, and he got a half-ten commercial deals. Everybody knew his face. I have to admit it was one you’d want to know, too. Eyes as gray as smoke, that ruddy look of the Eirish, but with shockingly bright yellow hair.
We never heard him talk, except to say carefully scripted things like “Frosted Puffs: better than dragon tears” and “Only you can prevent troll attacks.” At school the prevailing theory was that he hadn’t actually killed a dragon, and if he was interviewed live he’d be dumb enough to say so. Annie, of course, defended him as if her own life depended on it. She said he was brave and had the heart of Thor. I said Thor was brave, for sure, but not very smart, and who’d want a guy with a great heart but lacking in the brain department?
But whatever the case, when a reports of a dragon rumbling the rocks in the Adirondacks came in, not only did they send in Sean Hardy, the Vice-Jarl of State declared a country-wide competition for a moral-boosting public date. Because apparently Sean’s only request before risking his life for the country was a simple dinner with a pretty girl.
Confirmed my opinion of him right then and there. But didn’t stop me from putting my name in.
Come on. Don’t judge. There was a scholarship attached.
My family’s been dedicated Children of Loki since as long as we can remember. I’d say that gave me an edge in the luck department, except that there were probably thirty thousand other girls whose families were Lokiskin with their names in the pot, too.
My mom said it was destiny. The hand of Wyrd reaching out to pluck me from the teaming masses and set me on my true path, blah blah blah. I didn’t argue, because what was the point? I’d get a gorgeous new dress, a free trip to New York, a fine meal with a guy who was at least easy to look at, and then get to attend any college I wanted, no matter what the price. And I could get into pretty much any of them.
No sweat. I wasn’t nervous at all throughout the week of television interviews, through the very public shopping spree along 5th avenue with mom, Annie, and a half-ten fashionistas who’d plaster me and my dubious fashion sense across the blogosphere. I wasn’t even nervous after they convinced me to pick a teal dress with thin straps I wasn’t sure I could wear with a bra.
I didn’t get nervous until I knocked on the door of Sean Hardy’s penthouse suite, two cameras with their white-hot lights making sweat tingle on the back of my neck.
And there he was. They’d put a tie on him that complimented y dress. Little salmon-silver-and-teal swirls were the only color on him, though. Gray jacket and pants. Gray eyes. I did notice a small trefoil tattoo on his earlobe. I stared at it. Through all the interviews and photos I’d seen, I’d never noticed it. They must Photoshop it out. Or use some great cover-all makeup.
He cleared his throat, offered his arm, and we were off.
Sweet Sigyn’s teeth, was dinner awful. They put us in the middle of a huge dining room where all the rest of the tables had been cleared away. Instead, there were cameras and reporters and a couple of priests, even. I guess they couldn’t stop laying magic to protect Sean in the morning when he went out to face the dragon.
I barely tasted the whatever-it-was some celebrity chef had spent hours or days fixing up. Sean ate basically nothing, too, and kept trying to talk to me about TV shows he liked, books he’d read. Polite stuff, when all I wanted to ask him about was how he’d killed the dragon, and if he’d touched that soft spot on its nose.
We walked back up to his suite, which was only a floor above mine, holding hands. His fingers weren’t smooth, and I changed my mind about him being a fighter. It was possible he knew his way around a spear. His family was healthy middle-class these days, so it was unlikely he’d roughed up his hands with manual labor.
I was so busy thinking maybe he wasn’t so full of shit that I didn’t notice at first when he leaned in and kissed my cheek. “Can I come inside?” I asked.
Sean Hardy blinked and made a real expression for the first time all evening. He frowned.
I just waited, slowly raising my eyebrows and putting on a tiny, polite smile.
He pushed open his door, pulled me quickly in by the wrist, and slammed it shut in the faces of all those reporters.
While Sean stripped off his coat, snaked free his tie, and went for the minibar, I leaned back against the door and thought about what in Hel I was doing.
“Soda?” he asked.
“Yes, god yes.” I didn’t move though. The suite was shockingly sterile, given that I was pretty sure he’d been living in it for a few weeks. Vacuum tracks pressed into the carpet, the TV remote lay next to hotel brochures, the bed I could see through an arch was perfectly made. No suitcases, no half-full cups. Nothing but his discarded tie, curled on the carpet, suggested life. And that hadn’t been there half a minute before.
Through the door I could hear frantic conversation, and I turned the bolt. Sure they could find a manager, but would they? If this was Sean Hardy’s final request?
Sean poured a can of Coke into two glasses. Then he just stood there with one in each hand. The carbonation popped and fizzed. I walked to him, took one, and then sunk down onto the floor. The carpet was dark blue and thick, so I kicked off my heels and sat cross legged. The skirt of my teal dress was full enough to fall into my lap and protect my modesty.
I tilted my head up at Sean. He stared at me for a moment, then joined me on the floor. Whereas I sat with my back against the back of the plush sofa, Sean stretched out completely. He set his Coke next to my knee, then lifted his legs so he could untie the shiny dress shoes. His socks were striped green and red.
Then Sean Hardy slid me a grin so unlike anything I’d seen from him before I felt like not only had we known each other for years, but we’d planned this whole thing start to finish. Every step of the dance had gone exactly as we’d wished, every moment was a triumph.
It was a nice fantasy, so I said, “Couldn’t have gone better if we’d planned it.”
“Right,” he drawled, half his face scrunched, the other half skeptical. “I’ve wanted an awkward date with a girl clearly using me for my money at a closed restaurant the night before I’m basically guaranteed to die for so long.”
That killed my smile.
Sean winced. “Sorry. I’ll try to be less melancholy.”
“Naw, no worries.” I shrugged, and had to adjust the extremely thin shoulder strap so it iddn’t fall off. “Melancholy is in. Totally sexy.”
“Good. Be sure to tell… somebody. My mother. The newspapers.” Sean spread his hands out over him, as if displaying a front page headline. “SEAN HARDY: WENT OUT SEXY.”
“You really don’t think you can do it again?” I leaned down so my elbows were on my knees, then took a drink so I didn’t have to look at his face. It suddenly mattered.
I heard him shift against the carpet. After a pause he said, “Well. Maybe. I don’t know. Last time…” He trailed off and I glanced up. He was watching me. When I caught him his eyes flickered to the ceiling. “Last time, Vera, I didn’t have weeks to think about it. I just saw the dragon, ran at it, killed it. There wasn’t all this brooding and stuff. When you don’t have time to be afraid, I guess it’s easy to be brave.”
Pushing aside his untouched glass of soda, I stretched out next to him. From my side I studied his profile. He had nice lips, but probably by the time he was forty his nose would be too big. If he lived that long. My stomach tightened. I was hugely glad I’d barely eaten anything. “You didn’t actually make this your final request, did you?”
He sighed. “Don’t tell.”
“What did you really want?”
“Tickets to Australia?” He turned his head.
I smiled a little. It wasn’t really funny, hearing the edge of fear in his voice. I reached for his hand and took it again. This time I asked, “You know how to use the weapons you need?”
“I can use a sword. And spear. And pistol.” He used both of his hands to flatten mine, to splay it between his fingers. “But I think what I need is a bazooka. Or a tank. They won’t give me one of those.”
“Not so epic,” I whispered, “if you kill a dragon with a tank.”
“And that’s what’s important.”
Not me, was clear behind his words. Not my life.
The moment I’d hit send, entering this stupid contest, I’d been thinking of taking some pork out of the freezer to make for dinner. By the time I got home from school and Dad was back from work, it would be thawed. It was just a little, inconsequential thought to pair with pushing a button. I hadn’t cared about Sean Hardy, or the dragon, or the contest. I hadn’t expected anything from it, but I had expected to be alive to eat a pork loin dinner my Dad and I grilled on the front patio.
I rolled against him then, and kissed his earlobe where the trefoil tattoo darkened his skin. He didn’t move. I pulled it between my teeth and bit down, hard enough he grabbed my wrist. Hard enough that when I leaned back a small white line cut the tattoo in half. I watched it flood with color. Pink and then red. Like his tattoo was bleeding.
Sean raised his hand and touched it. His mouth pulled into a frown. “That hurt.”
“Good.” I said. I sat up. “Don’t die, Sean Hardy.”
He sat, too. I was close enough to him I could see the flecks of blue sprinkled into the gray.
“If you die,” I continued, “I won’t be able to used this damn scholarship. And I really want to go to Cornell.”
“I’m pretty sure they won’t retract the funds,” he said. His eyebrows pinched in just slightly, though he was trying to school his expression. I could tell because it was exactly like it had been at dinner.
I didn’t respond. Just crossed my arms under my breasts. One of my shoulder straps fell, but I ignored it.
Sean Hardy slipped it back into place, his finger skimming my skin ever-so-gently. “Alright, Vera Joansdottir. I won’t die.” He smiled. “Just for you.”
I don’t know what people said that night, as I sat on the balcony with Sean Hardy, waiting for the sun to rise. Waiting until they came for him.
At the knock, we both stood up. Sean gripped the railing and I touched his ear. I pinched it softly, and he whispered, “Ow.”
“Want me to tell them you’re passed out? That I was too much for you?” I stared out at the indigo lighting the eastern sky between the silhouettes of black skyscrapers.
He kissed my jaw, just beside my ear. “No.”
I stood there alone as the sun crept up. As traffic and grease and daylight reached ugly fingers toward the balcony. I thought of the soft left nostril of the dragon, and of my mark cutting in half the trefoil tattoo. At the last possible moment, I went into the suite, turned on the television, and watched Sean Hardy walk up the mountain.
photo by jenny downing