He had to hurry.
Giuseppe Piccoli, San Marino's attorney, took the two hundred silver soldi collected from the San Marino citizens and poured them from the collection box into his rucksack. His fingers shook, and a sweat broke out on his brow even as his stomach roiled. But what was he to do? His debt grew larger the longer he could not pay. And now they threatened the life of his children.
This would solve all his problems, and the city lost nothing.
For more than three hundred years the city threw away the coins collected for sacrifice offered during the Founder's Day festivities. Today, these garbage coins would help him and his family survive. The custom angered him, tossing good money down a well when it could be used for so much more.
Outside the Consiglio Grande e Generale Municipio he could hear the revelers in the street.
Merda. He had to hurry.
The sun barely crested the horizon of Monte Titano, and some were drunk already.
Where were the balesrieri, the crossbowmen?
Preparing for the annual contest of course. They would be of almost no use to the republic today while they preened for the crowds and vied for the honor of best bowman. None would be standing guard this day.
Perhaps he could use their preoccupations to his advantage. So busy with their own importance and today's contest, it's possible his early visit to the municipal building would go unnoticed. He could only hope, for his daughters' sake.
From his rucksack, he pulled a bulging cloth parcel: his winter scarf, the four corners tied together to hold the content. Two flicks of his thumbs and the knot unraveled, revealing a cache of small stones. None was bigger than his thumbnail, the size of a silver soldi. He lifted the edge of a red silk bag and thrust the stones in by the handful.
When enough stones filled the bag, Giuseppe tied it off with a cloth-of-gold ribbon and put the bag in the safe. The Capitani Reggenti would sacrifice it to San Marino's dragon later in the day.
The silk bag tumbled end over end down the dry well, once or twice hitting the natural stone sides of the chute until it landed with a clink on top of a large pile of gold and silver coins, then rolled down the heaped mound to bump into the grey-green scales of a dragon's thigh.
"At last," the dragon breathed, two tendrils of smoke rising out of his nostrils as gently as the first curls of steam from a teapot set to boil. He lifted his large head from slumber and blinked away the sleep.
Salga di Alato stretched his neck, craning it back almost far enough to touch his raised wings.
He extended one foot to hook the bag with a claw and drew it close. He held the heavy bag with his front feet, massaging it, then with a jerk of one hooked nail, undid the ribbon and upturned the sack with the other. Two hundred stones clanked against the metal and precious gems which made up his hoard.
"This can't be," he said, riffling through the pile, turning up stone after stone in his precious pile of coins. "Surely the people of San Marino are not trying to cheat me?"
He sat down on his haunches, puffing great clouds of steam, as he surveyed the pile. "With whom do they think they are dealing?"
He thrust the silk bag away from him. With an uncontrollable bellow, he tipped his head back and sucked in a convulsive breath. He bent his head forward and roared in fury, spitting forth a stream of fire.
The cave lit up, revealing the humble abode of a dragon. The mound of gold and silver coins, priceless gemstones and objects d'art towered almost as high as the municipal building of San Marino. Even with a dragon sitting atop it, the large cave could have held two or even three times more.
"How dare they!" he said, white steam still roiling.
He decided he would give the Sanmariners an opportunity to make amends. They've fulfilled their part of the bargain for more than three hundred years, after all. This had to be a mistake. If not....well, he could set them right.
Salga nodded his head thoughtfully, his anger cooling. Only the barest wisps of steam tickled his nose. Taking a calming breath, he relaxed, calling on the air elements to help him formulate his shift to human shape.
He unfurled his wings for balance and stood on hind legs, the length of his long, scaled tail holding the brunt of his weight, keeping the ponderous body upright. Once balanced, he said the words of change.
He felt the magic first at the crown of his head, tiny pinpoints of light dancing on the ridge of his skull. It tingled, sending pleasant little shocks across his neck and along the length of his spine. Downward the magic sang through his veins, light gamboling across his scales, until it reached his clawed feet and the tip of his tail. The large dragon shimmered, refulgent in the glow of the flickering light. The light swelled and blinked out, soap-bubble like, and the dragon disappeared.
In his place, standing at the edge of a mound of gold stood a handsome man wearing a gray-green tunic and trousers. He bent to the pile and retrieved a ruby ring and a heavy, gold necklace with links as thick as fingers. The pendant, half the size of his human fist, depicted a flying dragon. Fashioned by some Greek artisan centuries ago, it meant nothing to him, but it usually impressed those he met when he masqueraded as a human. He donned the necklace and the ring, the latter on the third finger of his right hand. Salga smiled as the metal warmed to his touch, as if it became a part of him.
He climbed the pile, as tall as three men, and retrieved the stones, human fingers sorting the fraudulent from the authentic with the speed of a dragon's innate skill. He needed neither sight nor tactile sense to pluck the dross from gold but sensed the stones as his hands passed near. In moments, he filled the silk bag and tied it closed with the cloth-of-gold ribbon.
With a sigh, he made his way to the front of the cave and the winding road that led up the Appenines and its highest peak, Monte Titano.
Salga di Alato arrived at the Grand and General Council Municipal building shortly before terce. Perfect, he thought, he could meet with the city representatives before they broke for their midday meal.
"I've come to speak with the Capitani Reggenti," he told the segretario. "Either one, or both. It matters not."
The lighting was dim inside the municipio, but Salga could make out the historical paintings on the far wall. Too bad one did not depict himself, he thought. There would be far less misunderstanding here if they included him within their history.
Two armored men stood equidistant from the secretary's desk, close enough to help if there were need but far enough away to stay out of council business.
"Have you an appointment?" the secretary asked, looking down at his calendar then back at Salga.
Un idiota could see the segretario thought he had no appointment, Salga thought.
"I have a standing appointment with the Capitani Reggenti. It concerns our contract business."
The secretary's eyes widened, then he cracked a smile. "You jest. The only standing appointment permitted on the books is with–"
"The agent of San Marino's dragon." It was Salga's turn to smile. He held up the necklace. "I am he."
A brief moment of silence passed before the secretary erupted in a full belly laugh. "I will share this with the Consiglio," he said, wiping his eyes. "They will have a good laugh, too." He smiled again at Salga. "Do you have a petition to drop off or need information? Perhaps there is something else I can help you with?"
"You can help me with facilitating the terce appointment," Salga said. "By the dragon's contract with San Marino, I have the right to request the next meeting time on the calendar. I am requesting it."
The secretary looked down at his books.
"There is a full council meeting at terce," the secretary said. "And then they break for lunch. I cannot–"
Salga felt himself losing patience. Perhaps he should have exercised this right more often over the years. "Were you not apprised of your duties when you were sworn in?" Salga asked.
"Three-hundred-year-old fairy tales do not a duty make," said the secretary. He turned to the guard at his right. "If you please."
The guard lifted his glaive and took a step toward the desk.
The council chamber door opened and two men stepped out, the Capitani Reggenti: Pietro Della Baldi and Vincenzo Refi.
Pietro said, "What is going on here?"
"This man says he's an agent for San Marino's dragon," replied the secretary.
Silence greeted his announcement. Then in unison, the Captains Regent looked at each other and laughed, then looked back at the secretary and Salga as if expecting them to join in.
Pietro Della Baldi sobered first. He looked at the secretary, then faced Salga, who remained earnest in his expression.
A moment passed.
Pietro Della Baldi ran a hand through his graying hair and shrugged, looking at Refi. "The dragon's agent desires a meeting. So meet we must." He pulled the door of the council chamber open wide. "Come in, sir, and let us spend a few moments talking about the dragon's desires."
Salga couldn't tell if Capitani Della Baldi humored him or believed him. It mattered not. He was getting his audience.
Della Baldi turned to Refi. "Do you mind if we adjourn to my office?"
Refi shook his head. "We'll be more comfortable."
"Let the council know we're adjourned until after lunch," Refi told the secretary.
They walked through the council hall and through another door at the rear. Not much had changed in the two hundred or so years since he had been here last, Salga thought. The rooms were still dim, still furnished with dark woods, waxed and polished to a sheen. The white paint on the walls didn't do enough to brighten the style of the ancient building.
Della Baldi's office told another story. A large window dominated one side of the room, sending in a bright shower of light. Here, too, the room was painted white, but the light intensified it. A diary lay open on his desk, a quill and ink jar to the left of it. The day's outgoing correspondence lay stacked to the right, the red wax seal of the Capitani Reggenti declaring them official notices of the court. Evidently, Della Baldi didn't entrust the segretario with such tasks. So who did he and Refi trust to make sure the dragon's tribute was paid?
Della Baldi gestured to two chairs in front of his desk and waited for both Salga and Refi to sit before seating himself. "So you are the dragon's emissary," he said, eyebrows raised. "It's been quite some time since he's sent his agent to the people of San Marino."
Refi scooted his chair around to face Salga. Allying himself with Della Baldi, Salga thought. Unusual that he would do so, since they wore badges belonging to opposing political parties.
Refi thrust out his chin, accusing. "Do you have proof you come from the dragon?" he asked.
"I knew it would come to that," Salga said. "I have already shown you my seal, but you will also be interested in this." He reached into his tunic and brought out the red silk bag, laying it on Della Baldi's desk.
Refi stood, pushing his chair back with such force that it tumbled over. "Where did you get that?" he hissed.
Salga turned his head toward Refi, "From the dragon, of course... capasci?"
"No, I don't understand," Della Baldi said. "Is the dragon rejecting our tribute this year?"
"Si, in a way," Salga said. He pushed the bag forward on the desk. "Open it."
Della Baldi looked at Refi, who shrugged. It was slight, but Salga had had six hundred years to learn to read humans. He did not mistake the gesture. Clearly, the two had united against him. It was a shame, because he had hoped to use their opposing political viewpoints to his advantage. He knew the missing money would make things worse between him and the city...and Della Baldi and Refi were the city.
Della Baldi untied the ribbon and dumped the contents of the bag on his desk.
"Dio!" he said. "Where has the money gone? San Marino gave two hundred soldi to the dragon this year."
"No, Reggente, they did not. They gave him two hundred sasso. And someone went through a great deal of trouble to make sure each stone was similar in shape and size. This smacks of fraud, and the dragon is very unhappy." He offered the two of them a grim smile.
"You are the fraud," Refi said, pointing a finger at Salga. "San Marino has paid tribute and you have come here to steal from us again."
"Again?" Salga asked.
"Yes, again," Refi said. "You obviously took the first two hundred soldi, and now you expect us to give you another two hundred by telling us you are the dragon's agent. Be gone." He turned to Della Baldi, who nodded. "Leave, before we throw you in jail for the imposter you are."
"You grandfathers' grandfathers' grandfathers and the dragon created a binding contract," Salga said. "If you fail to act on it, San Marino will fall."
"San Marino will never fall," said Refi.
"You place a great deal of faith in your balesrieri, Reggente Refi. They may be able to hold the walls against an invading army from below, but can they seal this city from the air? I guarantee you San Marino's legendary crossbowmen cannot keep a dragon from your ramparts."
Della Baldi stood. "Please leave, sir. It is better for you to go now, then for us to take you away."
Salga nodded. Della Baldi looked sad, as though he regretted asking him to leave. It was Refi who thought him insane, or worse, truly believed him to be a thief. Della Baldi put on a united front. Salga turned to him.
"There are a great many visitors still in San Marino for the festival," he said. "Are you certain you want to risk their lives?"