Authors: Robert Asprin
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Dragons, #Fantasy fiction, #Domestic fiction, #Brothers and sisters, #Swindlers and swindling, #Vieux Carré (New Orleans; La.), #Vieux Carre (New Orleans; La.)
A low-stakes con artist and killer poker player, Griffen “Grifter” McCandles graduated college fully expecting his wealthy family to have a job waiting for him. Instead, his mysterious uncle reveals a strange family secret: Griffen and his sister, Valerie, are actually dragons.
Unwilling to let Uncle Mal take him under his wing, so to speak, Griffen heads to New Orleans with Valerie to make a living the only way he knows how. And even the criminal underworld of the French Quarter will heat up when Griffen lands in town.
It was early June, which in Michigan meant one could almost count on summer being here to stay. The state was notorious for its “Indian winters,” which lingered forever. When the snows melted, it was all mud. When the mud finally dried, it was summer…maybe. One could never be sure when the warmth would come for good, if ever. Something about that thought resonated deeply with a young man whose life should be just beginning, but who had no idea where it would, or should, go.
Griffen McCandles, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan—by the skin of his teeth—was about to attempt something unthinkable, unimaginable, frightening. That is to say, he was out to get a job in the real world.
He was sitting in his uncle’s office in what was still referred to as Downtown Detroit. The office was impressive, as it was designed to be. As large as a hotel suite, it was plushly furnished for both business and relaxation. Light poured through one glass wall, which provided a view looking out over the tops of lesser buildings to the river beyond. It was a view that testified to and gloried in success, but Malcolm McCandles, the man who dominated the room and the company, ignored it, choosing instead to study his young visitor.
There might have been some similarity between the two in their tall height, light brown shade of their hair, or the strong lines underlying their faces. That was where the similarity ended. Griffen had boy-next-door features and a disarming smile. Where Malcolm seemed to dominate the scene, his nephew barely made a ripple in it. He sat in the pants and shirt from his one suit, tie but no coat. Choosing to look casual with family but coming off as slightly rumpled.
“So, Griffen,” Malcolm said at last, breaking the long silence, “what did you think of college?”
“To be honest with you, Uncle Mal,” the young man said, leaning forward to speak earnestly, “I wasn’t that impressed with it. I mean, the theories and grand concepts were interesting and informative, but now that I’ve graduated I’m looking forward to learning the hard lessons you can only get from working in real life with real people and situations.”
Malcolm cocked his head.
“Cute,” he said. “Did you write that and memorize it in advance, or did you crib it from somewhere?”
“Excuse me?” Griffen said, blinking.
“Let’s cut the crap, shall we?” Malcolm said flatly. “I’m fully aware of your college career. I should be, since I paid for it.
“It is only by charm and quick wits you’ve managed to graduate at all. Not seeming to really care about your chosen major, you rarely attended your classes, but seemed to have a knack for writing essays and papers that were exactly what your teachers were looking for. If you’ve earned anything it’s your nickname, ‘Grifter.’ A name derived from the time you spent playing poker, at further expense of your studies. You seem to have an utter lack of ambition in any terms but the extreme immediate. Now that you’ve graduated, you’re suddenly faced with the horrifying possibility of having to actually work, and you’re hoping to land a cushy job with me to maintain your lifestyle with as little personal exertion as can be managed. Correct me if I’m wrong.”
The youth held his gaze for several long moments before shrugging and leaning back in his chair.
“As you said, Uncle Mal,” he said, “let’s cut the crap. You seem to know me pretty well. I guess the next question is, if you have such a low opinion of me, then what am I doing here?”
Malcolm raised an eyebrow at Griffen’s directness. He had expected him to evade for a time yet. He considered for a moment and shook his head, sadly.
“You should learn to listen to what is said without injecting emotion or judgment into it,” he said. “I never said I disapproved of your actions, simply listed the facts as I see them.
“As to what you’re doing here, that gets into why I originally stepped forward to provide for you and your sister after your parents died. You see, I felt a bit guilty, since I was responsible for those deaths.”
He paused, waiting for a reaction, but Griffen simply looked at him, levelly. The young man had suspected as much, since this uncle that he barely knew had paid his way through college. Mostly he was worried about what to do with his life. His one interview at Microsoft for a sales position had been a disaster lasting less time than it took for the interviewer to look at his transcript from the University of Michigan School of Business. He was just changing mental gears to react to the part about Uncle Mal causing his parents’ deaths when the well-dressed executive spoke again.
“I didn’t actually cause them,” Malcolm clarified, “but I did nothing to prevent them either. Since my noninterference resulted in the two of you becoming orphans, I felt it was only right that I oversee your survival to your majorities. Unfortunately, I’m a busy man, so that assistance was mainly in the form of financial support, and without direct supervision, both you and your sister have been free to run wild and do things pretty much the way you wanted. Now that you’re finally coming of age, however, there are some things you should know.”
He paused to organize his thoughts. Reaching into a humidor on his desk, he produced a cigar and unwrapped it, but didn’t light it.
“Tell me, Griffen,” he said, “what do you know about dragons?”
The youth blinked in surprise at the sudden change of subject.
“Um…I don’t know,” he said finally. “Mythical beasts…big lizards that fly and breathe fire. Why do you ask?”
Malcolm smiled at him.
“Wrong on every count…except one,” he said, ignoring Griffen’s question. “Not surprising, really.”
“Okay.” Griffen shrugged. “We’ll just leave it that they’re mythical beasts. What does that have to do with anything?”
Malcolm pursed his lips as if to whistle, then exhaled a small jet of flame to light his cigar. Griffen’s eyes widened even more as his mind whirled.
“That wasn’t the point you were right on,” he said.
Like most people when seeing something utterly beyond the depth of their experience, Griffen was trying to rationalize what he had just seen. He wracked his memory for some other time he had seen his uncle do prestidigitation or even card tricks. Nothing came to him. Could this be some vague hint that he was going to get a chance at heading up a magic store division?
“Nice trick,” he said nervously, trying to maintain some foothold. Malcolm merely rolled his eyes, but Griffen did his best to maintain a smile. His uncle’s expression then faded, becoming distant, as if he was no longer seeing Griffen, but something far beyond the walls of the office.
Whatever minimal control Griffen had felt coming into this meeting had been completely lost. He felt like he was falling, and couldn’t even see the ground beneath his feet.
“Dragons have been around a long time. Longer than humans. Their ability to shape-shift gave them a great advantage in the competition for survival, to a point where they had few real enemies. An old race, ancient really. If one believes the oldest legends, no asteroid was needed to take out the dinosaurs. The early dragons just didn’t like competition. But without massive and cunning predators, dragons really had no challenges. In hindsight, they became smug and complacent.”
The jobless recent graduate could see Malcolm was choosing his words carefully. Malcolm noticed him schooling his features, trying to look attentive. Despite his comments, true though they were, about his nephew’s shortcomings, there was a fine mind there if the boy had incentive to use it. Malcolm was about to give him a big push. It had been a while since he had been called on to explain the real world to anyone.
“They disregarded the humans when they first appeared as being too weak and slow to be of importance. But the humans had intelligence, and they bred like rabbits. The dragons bred slow, and arrogantly didn’t see this tribe of apes as truly any more special than any other. They busied themselves with what activities they deemed important, and barely noticed the humans spreading over the globe. By the time the dragons recognized them as a threat, it was too late to stop them.”
Why was his uncle making him listen to such a fantasy, and where was it leading? Was this all some kind of odd ruse, a test? Griffen thought himself a fair hand at reading people, but Malcolm McCandles revealed nothing, though Malcolm did show a brief smile as Griffen started to fidget. Catching the smile, Griffen made himself stop.
“Many dragons could adjust and change, many actually living near or with humans. Many cultures have very positive legends about the guidance and protection of dragons. Though not always using that term, of course; it came later. However, some of the European dragons, stubbornly refusing to see the handwriting on the wall, decided to try to fight the humans. They used their shape-shifting to take on fearsome appearances, which gave rise to the lurid images that people today identify as the true form of dragons. The fact that they are now relegated to the status of myth and legend is mute testimony to the effectiveness of their antihuman campaign.”
“So what did they look like outside of the frightening guises?” Griffen asked.
“Different, big, depends on who you…Don’t interrupt.” Malcolm snapped, eyes flashing back into focus. Griffen noticed that his manner was now angry, and slightly embarrassed.
He didn’t know what to make of it, though. Griffen flushed slightly, but didn’t press the question. After all, what was he asking? How dragons are supposed to look? He couldn’t believe he was getting sucked into this bizarre narrative so easily. A worried thought flashed through his mind. Did one inherit madness?
Malcolm nodded and continued. “There was another group, however, who went to their Eastern brethren, seeking the secret of size shifting to augment their own shape-shifting ability. You may not know it, Griffen, but Eastern dragons never had wings. When they needed to fly, they would size shift down to tiny dimensions and ride the wind.”
Griffen leaned back more in his chair, looking nonchalant. He was aware of his uncle watching each reaction, and decided some input was expected. He hesitated, again worried about letting himself slip into his uncle’s delusions, but decided he had little choice but to go along with the flow of the bizarre conversation.
“I don’t pretend to know much about the East, and nothing much at all beyond China and Japan,” Griffen said, trying to keep things sounding normal and make one more attempt at getting the conversation back on the track of why he came here in the first place. After all, he had attended international business classes…once in a while. “But it’s been my impression that they are deadly negotiators. At the very least, it’s not a crowd I would want to deal with when they knew in advance they had something I wanted or needed.”
Griffen stopped again, unsure whether the comment had broken any ice with his uncle. Again Malcolm McCandles’s face showed nothing to give the younger man any relief.
“It was brutal,” Malcolm said. “It is unknown today what promises and powers the European dragons had to surrender, but they achieved their objective and gained the ability to size shift. They used that new skill along with their shape-shifting to infiltrate and blend in with the humans, even to interbreed with them in some instances. Their descendants survive to this day, dwelling unsuspected among the humans.”
“I see,” Griffen said carefully. “And now you’re going to tell me that you’re one of those dragons?”
“That’s right,” Malcolm said. “More importantly, so are you…and your sister.”
“That’s interesting,” Griffen said. “I have to admit, Uncle Mal, I don’t particularly feel like a dragon.”
“That’s because you’re only just coming into your physical maturity,” Malcolm said. “Your secondary powers haven’t put on their appearance yet, but they should shortly.”
“Secondary powers,” Griffen said, interested despite himself. “Should I ask what my primary powers might be?”
“You’ve had them all along,” Malcolm said, “but you haven’t seen them as being extraordinary. First of all, you rarely if ever get sick. What’s more, in the few times you’ve suffered an injury, you heal remarkably swiftly.”
Griffen started to speak, then held his silence. He had always been blessed with good health, but he had always assumed it was just good fortune. It hardly made him some sort of inhuman lizard.
“You also have a certain affinity with animals. You can exert your will over theirs to control their actions.”
“Animal control,” Griffen said, and a smirk twisted slightly at the corners of his mouth. Polite attentiveness wasn’t seeming to help him anyway, and he just couldn’t help himself. “You mean like Obi-Wan in
“You could say that,” Malcolm said. “In a small way. You can draw animals to you, or send them away. You can even calm them if they’re excited. Exactly how much control depends on how much of the talent you were born with, and how much you’ve developed and exercised it. There are some nondragons who have similar powers. Circus animal trainers and some shamans, for example.”
Griffen nodded, trying to keep the skepticism from his expression.
“Uncle Malcolm, granted you said dragons were never big scaly beasts, still, I’ve never looked anything but human when I checked in a mirror.”
“Ah, and you are wondering how a disguise, for all intents and purposes, is passed on from father to son?”
“Dragons are not fools Griffen. Quite the opposite. What good would trading for a disguise be, if every baby born put its parents in immediate danger? Let’s just say that geneticists barely understand their own DNA, and aren’t likely to get a dragon sample.”
Again Griffen held his silence, but it was more difficult. There was something that disturbed him in that last comment. A hardness in his uncle’s voice that was surprisingly intimidating.
“As I was saying,” Malcolm continued, “your senses are notably keener than those of humans, particularly your powers of observation. I suspect that would account for your success at cards. Whether it’s gambling or business, dragons have always been able to ‘read’ their opponents, which gives them a sizable edge in conflicts.”
“I’ll admit I’ve always been lucky,” Griffen said with a smile. “Then, too, I’ve always been fond of money. Isn’t that another trait of dragons?”
“Actually,” Malcolm said, “dragons are fond of power. Money or gold is simply one way of gaining it. Some turn to politics or warfare to achieve the same thing. There are several who have gone the route of becoming entertainers. If you look around our modern society, not to mention history, it isn’t that hard to spot the dragons lurking there. Usually around power, always at or near the top.”
Malcolm’s expression darkened. The look he suddenly shot Griffen was filled with greed such as he had never seen. Griffen could hear his pulse beating away wildly as he watched the executive force himself to stay relaxed. Griffen wasn’t sure what set him off more, the expression, or the obvious show of iron-willed control.
“Check me on this, Uncle Mal,” Griffen said, keeping up with Malcolm’s thought. “I’ll be the first to admit that I’m operating with limited knowledge, but I’ve always thought that your basic power broker wasn’t wild about sharing that power with anyone else.”
Malcolm raised his eyebrows in pleased surprise. His expression slipped back into his more neutral mask.
“Exactly right,” he said, nodding at the youth. “Dragons are as solitary as they are greedy. Oh, they may put on a show of being friendly, and many are quite charismatic, some to a point of using another form of mind control called glamour, but underneath it all they’re pretty self-serving. While temporary alliances are occasionally formed, they usually only last until the objective is achieved. There are some ongoing power blocs, mostly to keep track of and counter the doings of other power blocs, but even those are tenuous and prone to realignment.
“That brings us to your situation.”
“Me?” Griffen said, suddenly sitting up straighter.
His expression was attentive, but inside all he could think of were the dangers and pitfalls in the current situation. A part of him was curious, but most of him would have been very glad to be anywhere but this room. Thoughts of a job were long past. He was more interested in making sure he got out of the building with his skin intact.
“That’s right. You see, your parents were both near purebloods. That’s an expression we use to recognize those with minimal human blood in their line. Alone they were each quite powerful, and united they were strong enough to worry some of the power blocs. When they produced not just one, but two offspring, that worry grew to open fear…enough to inspire some factions to engineer their deaths.”
Griffen’s head cocked, body stiffening. He rarely let himself think of his parents, and didn’t care for Malcolm’s comments about them so far, nor for the dark implications whirling in his mind. He began to suspect that this was the key to this whole puzzle. Malcolm didn’t seem to notice the change in his posture, or just didn’t care.
“Now that you’re coming of age, however, things are heating up again. You see, with two near purebloods for parents, the other dragons are assuming that you’ll have rare strength, particularly once your secondary powers develop. Many fear that, despite your youth, you’re potentially more powerful than they are. Can you see what that means?”
“I’ve got an idea,” Griffen said, “but tell me anyway.”
“You’ve become a focal point of the dragon hierarchy. Some will be content to wait and see what powers you develop and what use you decide to make of them. Others will make every effort to recruit you as an ally. I fear, however, that there will be others who will simply try to kill you or have you killed just to be sure those powers aren’t used against them.”
“I see,” Griffen said. “Tell me, you keep saying that all this is coming down the road at me. What about Valerie?”
If other dragons might be out to kill him, where did that leave his situation with the “dragon” in the room? If Malcolm was so deranged by guilt over losing his brother that his mind has slipped into this dementia, what would be the next logical step? If logic could apply. Would he wish to kill a rival dragon, even his own nephew? Would the executive have a gun in his desk? Or would he try to rip Griffen’s throat out like an animal?
He swallowed, and tried his best to keep his breathing regular. Malcolm had not once taken his keen eyes off of Griffen, and the younger man realized he didn’t want his uncle to know just how fast his heartbeat was going at the thoughts of his possible death.
“I’m sure others have kept an eye on her, but your sister has a ways to grow yet before she’s a factor,” Malcolm said. “Besides, as wild and undisciplined as she is, I believe there are other plans in store for her. Using her for breeding stock without her being aware of it comes to mind. For the moment, however, it would be best to focus on your problems.”
Griffen practically ground his teeth at that. He had kept control all through the talk of threats to him, but the callous tone about his sister…Again he kept his reactions to himself, still waiting to see how this would unfold. In any other situation, though, he would have left, or bloodied Malcolm’s nose.
“All right.” Griffen nodded. “So how many of the individuals or blocs are there, and which ones do I have to look out for?”
“Not so fast.” Malcolm said, taking a long draw on his cigar. “Filling you in on the general situation falls under my duties as your guardian. Giving you specific information is a whole different ball game. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m one of the players you have to deal with. Like your father, I’m a near pureblood. Unlike him, however, I’ve gone to great lengths to keep a low profile in the interdragon power struggles. If I give you too much help, take you under my wing so to speak, all that could change.”
In other words, Griffen thought, Malcolm protected his own ass (or was that tail?) when he could have helped save his brother. Griffen wondered why he would do anything else for his nephew…unless it gained him something.