The key card let Chloe onto the skybridge that led from the parking garage directly to the floor that held her office. She and her sister had been working at Garza Inc. for five years, and had always done everything their boss asked, but now Chloe had reached her limit. She'd barely slept, and she still ached from her flight and felt dragged out from the airport crowds. She stormed past the legal and financial teams to the elevator, where she used her key card again to go up to the studio. Betty Garza would be there. She hardly ever left.
Garza's secretary got up to block Chloe's way. "Afternoon, Ms. Webster," he said, "if you'll take a seat—"
"I'm here to see Betty."
"Ms. Garza's busy at the moment, but—"
Chloe slammed her hand on the desktop. "I'm seeing her now." Without waiting for him to do anything else, Chloe threw open the door to the studio. "Betty!"
Betty Garza was seated at her drawing table, surrounded by sketches and photos of the jewelry and clothing she'd designed, and upon which she'd built a fashion empire. Some of these outfits hung on a rack in the corner of the studio. Garza was working on a new necklace made of dragon scales, and wearing a blouse made of dragon skin. She glanced over her shoulder, her thick 80's-grandma glasses resting on the tip of her nose. "You're back sooner than I expected."
"It's an emergency," Chloe said. "You got my message, right?"
"I did, but it was rather incoherent. You made it sound like you got kidnapped by spies or something."
"This isn't funny. It's Arthur. He's taken Olivia hostage."
"Hostage?" Garza turned her chair toward Chloe. "I thought he was your friend. That you knew him since you were children."
"He was. But don't forget, this isn't a rational person we're talking about. He's a literal fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragon. And he doesn't like what we're doing with his scales anymore."
"Why wouldn't he?" Garza said. "We're helping people look good, and we're doing it without plundering the Global South, and we're taking centuries of old skin flakes off his hands. Surely he can see the benefits of that."
"Well, he's not only a fire-breathing dragon, he's a moralistic dragon. He seems to think we're succumbing to vanity and greed or something. I've never seen him this upset. He wouldn't give us any scales, and he wouldn't let Olivia go."
Garza tapped her pencil on the table. "But why take her hostage?"
"He used his tail and a pile of scales to block her way out. I couldn't do anything."
"But why?" Garza said. "What does he want?"
"Right. Well, you know how Olivia and I usually have to bargain a little to get him to turn the scales over?" It was easy when they were girls—they'd give him some flowers, he'd turn over some scales from his hoard, and the girls would take them home to turn into necklaces or earrings. "He never just gives us the scales. He exchanges for them. And… I dunno, maybe he's decided we aren't giving him enough."
"Then what does he want?"
"That's just it—I don't know. He didn't say. I don't think he's going to hurt her, but she's never going to leave that cave unless we give Arthur something in return. And even that still isn't going to get us any more scales."
Garza twirled the pencil between her fingers. "I'm guessing money is out of the question."
"He lives in it. No, usually it's something intangible." Since they started working for Garza, Arthur would often ask them to perform some boon, usually a test of courage or moral character. They'd volunteered at soup kitchens; they'd planted trees; they'd even flown to Japan, and brought back a single pebble from a shrine in Kyoto. "It's just, he's always told us before. I've never had to guess. But what do I give him that's just as valuable as my sister?"
"A very interesting question." Garza hopped out of her chair and began to pace around the room. "What do you give the dragon who has everything? Did he give us a timeframe?"
"No," Chloe said. "He'll hold Olivia indefinitely if he has to."
Garza stopped and gazed out her window, looking out at the skyline, the river, the harbor. From up here, it was easy to feel like a goddess raised up on high.
"This dragon…" Garza did not turn away from the window. "Are you the only human beings he is willing to see?"
"I don't know. Why do you ask?"
"I think I'd like to meet him myself."
"Are you… You can't be serious."
"You and Olivia have always been valued employees. At times, I even think of you as friends. And this 'Arthur,' as you say, is—or was—your friend as well. I'd like to at least see if he's taking good care of Olivia. Do you think you can set up a meeting?"
"I don't know about setting one up. Usually I just go to his cave and say hi."
"All right. I'll clear my schedule for tomorrow. We'll fly back first thing. You'll meet me at the airport?"
Chloe dropped into Garza's chair and sighed. She hated airports. Hated, hated, hated them. But if this could in any way help Olivia, then there was no question. "Sure. Just let me know what time."
Olivia lay on a bed made of layers of old dragon skin, staring at the stalactites above her. Outside the alcove, in the larger grotto, the dragon she and her sister had named "Arthur" slept. His true name was an ancient one, and only pronounceable by other dragons. When Olivia and Chloe first met him, back when they were only seven years old, they simply gave him the first name that popped in their heads. Their parents' old farmhouse was only a ten-minute walk away, but of course Olivia couldn't go there. If she so much as took one step near the exit, Arthur would slap his tail down in front, shaking the whole cavern, blocking her path.
Arthur's silver skin reflected the light from the braziers scattered throughout the cave. Every year his skin turned gold, and he shed it, and added it to the hoard. Olivia wished she'd never found it, that she and Chloe had never come back here after Arthur first scared them off. Some friend he'd turned out to be.
Arthur stirred, and opened his eyes, and lifted his head. "Olivia," he said, his voice booming, "are you hungry?"
"No, I'm fine," Olivia said. She had last eaten about four hours ago. She wasn't sure how, but Arthur was able to provide her with freshly-cooked meals, as if they'd been prepared in a professional kitchen. "Don't think I'm ready to forgive you."
"I do not ask your forgiveness," Arthur said. "Rather, it is you who should be seeking mine."
"What? Look, Arthur, Chloe and I have done everything you've ever asked. We've never complained. You're going back on a deal we've had for almost twenty years! For what, to teach us a lesson?"
"Hmph. I think you may have misunderstood the nature of our relationship." Arthur lowered his head to ground level and drew it toward Olivia's alcove. "For these twenty years, you and your twin sister have been my guests. Nothing more. I permitted it because of your willingness to conquer your fear."
Olivia remembered. The first time she and Chloe had stumbled into this cave, they'd run off screaming as soon as they saw Arthur. But they were so fascinated they had to come back. When the dragon demanded to know why they weren't afraid, seven-year-old Olivia explained that they were: but he was just so cool. The two would never give up his secret for anything. Before Betty Garza, they'd only ever told their parents, but Olivia never knew if they believed her. "Is it because we told Ms. Garza?"
"It is not that you told her," Arthur said. "But that you plunder me for her. You use my gold—my gold—to line the pockets of capitalists who don't know the first thing about beauty."
"So you're a socialist now?" Olivia said. "I mean, what good is this gold doing sitting around in here?"
Arthur shook his head. "You still don't understand. When I first shared my gold with you, it was as a gift to two children unconsumed by greed. Back then, you saw gold as more of a toy, not as a tool to gain and wield power. Yet when you returned to collect materials for your employer, it was exactly that lust for power that I saw in your eyes. And no matter what tests I gave you, no matter what lessons I meant to impart on you, nothing was enough. You're now slaves to supply-and-demand."
"But that's not fair! We learned a lot from those tests! I still volunteer at that soup kitchen every few months! Chloe helped start a community garden! What do you want us to do, quit our jobs?"
Smoke issued from Arthur's nostrils. "I don't know that it will come to that," he said. "Chloe is already bringing me what I want as I speak."
"How do you—"
"I have ways of knowing what I want to know, Olivia." Arthur looked toward the entrance of the grotto. "Chloe will be back tomorrow."
"What is she bringing?"
Arthur didn't answer.
Olivia sat against the wall and picked up a handful of dragon scales, each the size of a quarter or a state dollar. From a distance they'd always looked like coins themselves. She let them fall between her fingers and jingle on the floor. As a kid she'd always found this place so beautiful, like something out of a storybook brought to life. Now, the scales might as well have been hunks of lead, for all the good they did her. Arthur could keep them. Olivia just wanted to leave and see her sister again.
But if Chloe did complete her task, what then? What would their relationship with Arthur become, and where would it go? Were she and her twin both going to get out of this alive?
"It's right here." Chloe laid aside the tangled branches, revealing the crack in the rocks that opened the way into the cave. "We'll only need flashlights for a little bit."
"And you discovered this when you were children?" Ms. Garza said.
"Oh yeah, Olivia and I would run all over these woods. We knew every inch like the back of our hands. And nobody knew the cave was here, so we decided, why not take a look?
"And you found a dragon. It's just like a fairy tale."
"I suppose so. You sure about this? Last chance to back out."
"I'm eager to meet the source of my inventory." Garza turned on her flashlight. "Lead the way."
So Chloe ducked into the cave, and remained stooped for several feet before the ceiling lifted up enough to let her stand up a little. The first time she and Olivia explored here, they barely had to bend over at all. It was as if it was made for children, and not a twenty-something assistant to a renowned fashion designer.
The flashlight beams flittered over the rocks. Chloe had been here so many times she mostly just needed the light to remind herself where the landmarks were. Walk over that rock, weave around that stalagmite, squeeze into that passage. At every step, Chloe had to guide Garza over, under, and around every obstacle, and she felt a tiny thrill each time she did. "You know," she said, "I've always wanted to show somebody through this place."
"Someone other than your sister?"
"Olivia already knows the way. She even drew a map once, from memory. No idea where it's gone now, but neither of us really need it anymore. It's just… nice to be able to show somebody through. To let somebody else in on our secret." It helped her forget that they were essentially heading for a hostage negotiation.
Garza pointed up ahead. "That way. I see a light."
"Yup. We're almost there." A warm glow lit up the opening in the rocks ahead. As they crept closer, Chloe turned off her flashlight. Garza did as well.
After dipping down through the opening, they came to the ledge overlooking Arthur's grotto. Gold scales lay in massive piles on the ground, forming mounds and dunes all over, with more shoved into the holes and cul-de-sacs. Braziers blazed throughout the chamber, but the light seemed to come from everywhere, even the walls.
And in the middle of the pile was Arthur, lounging like a bored house cat. Olivia was pacing around him, still in the dress-suit she'd been wearing yesterday. She looked up at the ledge. "Chloe! You're back!"
"Remarkable," Garza said. "Utterly remarkable. If I'd found this place when I was little, I'd never keep it secret."
Arthur raised his head. "You've returned sooner than I thought. And you brought a guest."
Olivia cried, "You brought Ms. Garza?!"
"She insisted!" Chloe said. "You try saying no to her!"
Arthur rose onto all fours. "Very good. I've been interested in meeting you, Elizabeth Garza. You must have come a long way. How was your trip?"
Garza reached for Chloe. "C-C-Chloe, he's talking to me. What do I do?"
"Answer him," Chloe said. "He's perfectly easy to talk to. He's just, you know, a dragon. Here." Chloe took Garza's hand and led her down the ramp that Arthur had carved by the ledge. When they reached the bottom, they were directly opposite from Arthur. "Probably easier if you're down here."
Garza stayed behind Chloe. Arthur's body was the size of an SUV, and when he stretched out his neck, his head reached as high as a telephone pole.
"M-My trip was just fine," Garza said. "I just had no idea what to expect."
"And what do you think? Does the refuse of my skin impress you?"
"I… Honestly, it does. I've never seen so much gold in one place."
"I suspect you never will again. Do you know why I guard this hoard so zealously? It's not that I hold it to be valuable. After all, what would I want with gold? I, who command earth and sky!" Arthur spread his wings, sending a gust through the cavern. "No. I'm not protecting the gold from you. I'm protecting you from the gold."
Garza tapped her chin. "Let me guess. You think that us acquiring this gold can only promote greed, conflict, and oppression?"
"I'm quite aware of what your species does when it gets what it thinks it wants."
"All right then. And you think my jewelry line will encourage this?"
"That depends on you, doesn't it? What is your goal? With the twins, I sense great ambition. It's made them restless. They come here out of fear that their ambition will not be rewarded. That they will lose the wealth and success my gold has given them. I do not reward fear."
Chloe remembered the first time she and Olivia returned here, how boldly Olivia had spoken to him, all the while trembling as if wearing shorts in winter. There had always been a slight twinge of fear every time they saw him, but he had never harmed them in any way. They had learned to trust him, and he them.
"Well, then I suppose I'm here because of fear myself," Garza said. "I have shareholders, lawyers, and customers constantly demanding new designs. I have a loyal employee being held hostage by a reptile. And I'm worried that a literal dragon is going to take offense to something I say."
Arthur chuckled. "I'm not what you would call thin-skinned. But tell me, wouldn't another source of gold be just as good?"
"Of course not. This is so easily accessible it helps us save money, which means our jewelry's more affordable. And then there's the quality of your gold. It sparkles like nothing I've ever seen."
"So then you have no intention to cease looting my hoard?"
"Well…" Garza took a step back. "I don't like to think of it as looting. Look, all I want to do is design jewelry and clothing, and your scales have been the best inspiration I've ever had. Obviously the rest of the world agrees, because I'm so rich I don't even have to handle my own money anymore. Just being here is so overwhelming… I wish I could keep all this gold for inspiration. I wish…"
Arthur furled his wings. "Yes?"
"I wish I lived here," Garza said. "That I could set up my studio right here. I would just need the twins to take everything back to New York. I suppose I'd have to worry about food, but I sometimes get so busy I forget to eat dinner anyway."
"She really does," Chloe said.
"You don't have to worry about food while you're here," Arthur said.
"You really don't," Olivia said. She stepped closer to Chloe. "But Ms. Garza, you can't be serious."
"Actually, I think I am," Garza said. "Arthur, could I exchange myself for Olivia?"
Arthur lowered his head. "An interesting exchange. You'd give up all your comfort, all your social connections, all to stay here?"
"In a heartbeat!"
"Ms, Garza, you're not making any sense!" Chloe said. "You've got Fashion Week coming up, and the photo shoot with Ms. Knowles in a few days!"
"Just tell them I've gone on a pilgrimage or some crap. This is where I need to be."
"Arthur," Olivia said, "you can't keep her prisoner here!"
"I have no intention to," Arthur said. "Ms. Garza will be here of her own free will. She can come and go as she pleases. If she has any obligations, I won't keep her away. I have to admit, Ms. Garza, I was not expecting you to make such a decision so quickly. It's been a long time since I've had a houseguest."
"It's Betty," Garza said, "and I wasn't expecting this place to be so beautiful. Can I set up an art table in here?"
"As long as it isn't in my way."
"Ms. Garza…" Chloe reached for Ms. Garza's shoulder, but never touched. "You're sure about this?"
"Positive, Chloe," Garza said. "You two should both have the corporate card. Go to your hotel, get Olivia a change of clothes, and have a nice dinner. I want to get to know Arthur a little better."
"Go," Arthur said. "I'll see you again. So shall Betty Garza."
With considerable trepidation, Chloe and Olivia headed up to the ledge, and navigated their way back out to the surface, with no scales, and now not even a boss to show for it.
"Are you okay?" Chloe said.
"I'm fine, just worn out. How about you?"
"Well, at least you didn't have to fly two days in a row. But what do we do now?"
"I guess we just do what Ms. Garza said. I definitely smell like I've been stuck in a cave for a day and a half."
"No, I mean what do we do with Ms. Garza in there? What are we supposed to give Arthur to get her back?"
"I don't think this is a ransom, Chloe. You heard Ms. Garza. She wants to be there. And what Ms. Garza wants, she gets, fashion industry be damned."
"So what, we just leave her?"
"I think at the very least," Olivia said, "we should trust Arthur on this one. He knows how to treat a guest."
Chloe and Olivia headed downhill, toward the country road where Chloe's rental car was parked, using the same path through the woods that the two of them had followed since they were seven. The woods seemed a lot smaller than they had in the past. From this angle, the trees didn't seem quite as mighty, and they didn't seem shrouded quite as much mystery.
But it wasn't the forest that changed. It wasn't just the twins' height, either.
One person had seen everything the way Chloe and Olivia had when they were kids, and that was Ms. Garza.