The young dragon Aeeilrv charged out of his parents’ cave, tripped over a mammoth skull, and plunged nose-first over the edge of the cliff. “Eeaagh!” he screeched. Fire burst from his nostrils, hit the upward moving air, and spewed straight back into his eyeballs. He twisted and tumbled, not remembering to open his wings until seconds before he slammed into the ground.
Aeeilrv clawed his way out of the crater, smoke fuming from his nostrils. Then he stopped short and hissed. An old man blocked his way. He had one hand on his hip, the other clutched at his cane. His breath wheezed out of him, tears streamed down his cheeks, and he kept bending over double as though gripped by a sudden fit. Aeeilrv bared his teeth.
“Ahaha ha ha,” coughed the old man, clutching at his heart.
“Oh give it up,” Aeeilrv snapped. “I wish you would plop over dead.”
Green eyes gleamed beneath an outcropping of tarnished silver bristles. Then the old man straightened and cracked the dragon across the nose. “Impudent wretch!” he cried. “I’ve had it with you and your temper tantrums and clumsiness. It’s too much work. I resign!”
“Finally,” said Aeeilrv. “How soon can you leave?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said the old man, fist curling around his cane. He pointed it between Aeeilrv’s eyes, lips curling into a half-rotted grin. “I haven’t resigned from your parents. But if you aren’t out of here by nightfall, I’ll cook your tongue in asparagus.”
“Liar,” cried Aeeilrv. Sparks crackled from his throat. Angry tears sizzled from his eyes and burst into puffs of steam.
“Find your own,” said the old man.
“See if I don’t?” Aeeilrv ground his teeth and dug his claws into the ground. “A better one than you! You’ve never cared about my reputation anyway.” His wings rustled and popped as he threw them wide and pumped them up and down. Gusts buffeted the old man, but he seemed not to notice. He grinned and cackled and jabbed his cane into the air.
Aeeilrv hauled his wings up and down, gasping a bit. His breastbone hurt from his fall. It took him longer than normal to reach the ledge on the cliff. He settled down on the edge, sparing an angry glare for the mammoth skull, then snaked his neck into the cave opening. “Mom!” he called. “I’ve had it with that old man. I’m leaving!”
Flames rushed down the passageway and licked Aeeilrv’s face, tingling with warmth. His mother poked her snout from the cave mouth. “Choose carefully,” she said. “Get a good one.”
“I’ll try.” Aeeilrv ducked his head and scratched his feet across the stones. He felt a bit forlorn, but he couldn’t change his mind now. He turned, tail dragging, and launched off the cliff.
Updrafts from the valley aided his flight, and soon he winged above the countryside, higher and further than he’d flown in his life. Puffs of white cloud dotted the blue sky, and Aeeilrv shot from one cloud to another. Water vapor condensed on his scales and cooled his eyes, then rained off in sheets as he zigzagged back into sunshine.
Night fell, but Aeeilrv kept flying. He flew for two weeks, stopping here and there in the woods for a nap or a snack, then going on again. Once or twice he tried to chat with a human, but they ran away screaming before he so much as cracked his lips.
At last, rather discouraged, he landed at the top of a dormant volcano and huddled in the old caldera, comforted by the sulfur and warmth of steam vents.
A sharp inhale woke him. Aeeilrv lifted his head and blinked. A boy swam into focus. He was pudgy, with tiny brown eyes and an open-flopping mouth.
“Hello,” said Aeeilrv. His wings pricked up and his chest throbbed.
“Hnng,” said the boy without moving his lips.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Hnng,” said the boy.
At least he hadn’t run away yet. “Lovely morning, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been flying for two weeks and you’re the first liar to talk to me,” said Aeeilrv.
“Wha—?” The boy’s forehead wrinkled. He cleared his throat a bit, then seemed to find his voice. “What’d you call me?”
“Liar,” said Aeeilrv.
“Aren’t you?” asked Aeeilrv, crestfallen.
The boy shifted on his feet and glanced over his shoulder. He ducked his head, scuffed his toe. “Sure, I’ve lied once or twice. That doesn’t make me a liar, does it?”
“Oh, you’re well on your way,” Aeeilrv grinned. “You just need a bit more practice. It’d be great if you were. I’ve been looking for one for ages.”
“What for?” The boy’s eyes went smaller as he stared at Aeeilrv’s nostrils. “To burn him up?”
“Course not. My other one resigned. Never liked me much. Whacked me with his cane and complained all the time.”
“Sounds like my uncle.” The boy grimaced and glanced over his shoulder again.
“Come and be my liar and you’ll never need to see your uncle again.”
“Oh, I don’t know if it’s as bad as all that.” The boy grinned and scratched his head. “What if you burned me up or ate me? What if I’m not a good enough liar. What do you need one for anyway?”
“Every dragon needs a liar to keep up its reputation,” said Aeeilrv. “Why, if we burned and plundered and pillaged all the time, there’d be nothing left to eat! But if we don’t, we end up with the opposite problem. No respect! That’s why we started getting liars, see? All you have to do is tell everyone how fierce and scary I am, and how I’ve burned things and eaten things, even when I haven’t. And of course, if I lose my temper, you have to make up a ferocious dragony reason why, not tell everyone it was because I didn’t get to the last leg of lamb. Or if I make a crater in the valley by tripping over a mammoth skull, it’s your job to tell everyone it happened when I crushed a sand serpent to death.”
“Huh,” said the boy.
Aeeilrv saw his opening and pressed his advantage. “In exchange, you get a private cave, lots of fresh rabbits to eat, and a night-time flight or two.”
“You’d take me flying?” The boy’s eyes lit up, then narrowed. “Sounds good. But how do I know you aren’t lying to me, trying to get me back to your cave for a treat?”
Aeeilrv laughed and ruffled his wings. “You’re great at this already! Is that what we should say happened to you? It’d make me seem scarier, don’t you think? That old man never had such great ideas. You will come, won’t you?”
The boy considered. He stuffed his hands in his pocket and peered around. He glanced over his shoulder. He looked Aeeilrv up and down. Aeeilrv held his breath.
“What if I don’t like it?”
“Then I’ll let you go, but you have to promise to lie about why. Otherwise, my reputation will be smoked.”
“I suppose I could give it a try.”
Aeeilrv hooted in delight, remembering to turn his face well away from the boy as sparks and fireballs whooshed from his nostrils.
The boy went white. He wiped sweat off his face. “Better pick me up in your claws and fly me that way, over the village, see? I’ll kick and scream, and you roar and spout some fire.” He squinted up at the dragon, trembling. “You won’t burn me by accident, will you?”
“Are you kidding? It took me two weeks to find you!”
“Alight,” said the boy. “Let’s do it before I lose my nerve.”
“Good one,” chuckled Aeeilrv, wrapping the pudgy boy in his claws. Then he took off, his brand new liar shrieking and squirming and putting on an excellent show.