"Your little guest is gone?" Stanos asked, frowning. He stood framed in her doorway, the daylight bright behind him, and he looked remarkably like a hero come to save a captured princess. Well, save for the frown on his face, like said princess had been caught in the middle of a naughty act.

"Yes. He left this morning." Alexandra seemed a little wistful that afternoon, fixing dinner for one. But now that Stanos was here, well. . . she began to peel some more potatoes. Perhaps Stanos would stay for dinner. He seemed to like her cooking.

"Alone?" Stanos still seemed suspicious, peering into the shadowed corners of the cabin as if expecting monsters to leap out at him. His hand might have itched for a sword at his side, though he didn't need one. There is something comforting about the solid weight of a weapon in your hand.

"No. With a companion." Alexandra leaned over and stirred the stew a bit.

"You let some poor fool travel with a demon?" Stanos burst out.

"No, no, his companion was a demon. Or is." Alexandra smiled sweetly at him. "Do come in and close the door behind you. Will you be staying for dinner?"

Stanos automatically took the one step inside that would allow him to shut the door behind him, then took a seat at the table. He looked furious, jaw clenched, teeth gritted. "So not only do you not allow me to destroy this demon as I was ordered, you let him leave with another demon?"

"Yes," Alexandra replied, unruffled. "And Kaligo's a nice demon. Do you like onion?"

The dragon-man didn't answer. Instead, he beat the table with a fist. It cracked ominously. "Alexandra!"

"Yes? And please don't break my table."

Stanos did not apologize. "Look. Let me tell you a story. A human story, so you ought to like it well enough." He paused, waiting for some kind of response from Alexandra. There was none. He took that as assent and went on.

"There once was a little girl. She was very pretty and her mother was very fond of her and made her a--a whatsit. A cloak. A red cloak and hood. And they called her Little Red Riding Hood."

Alexandra still said nothing. Stanos wondered if she knew the story. Dragons are not exactly up-to-date on the popular folklore of the humans. But he went on.

"One day, the girl's mother told her to take some food to her grandmother who was lying ill at home. So the girl put on her red cloak and hood, took the basket, and left for her grandmother's house. But," and Stanos's voice and eyes grew dark at this point, "she did not go long before she met a Wolf. The Wolf would have eaten her up right then and there, but he didn't because he feared the woodsman in the trees nearby. So instead, he used trickery.

"'Where are you going?' asked the Wolf.

"And the girl, who didn't know any better, answered, 'I am going to visit my grandmother.'"

Stanos stopped again, watching Alexandra for any kind of reaction. Her back was to him. He could hear the slice-chuck of the knife as she chopped vegetables. "Are you listening at all?" he asked, annoyed.

"Yes, of course," Alexandra replied. "Go on."

Stanos went on. "'Does your grandmother live far?' asked the Wolf.

"'Yes,' said the girl. 'She lives over there, past the mill, the last house on the left." And she pointed.'

"'Then I'll visit her, too,' said the Wolf. 'I'll go this way, you'll go that way, and we'll see who gets there first.'

"So the Wolf took off, taking the shortest way while the girl stopped to pick flowers, gather nuts, and chase butterflies.'"

Alexandra was tipping vegetables into the pot and stirring them in. She paused a moment, watching the surface of the stew bubble slightly, then drew just a bit to taste. Whatever it was did not seem to satisfy her, for she reached for a little container of something on the counter and sprinkled a bit of it in, like fairy dust. Then she tasted it again.

"The Wolf knocked on the grandmother's door.

'Who's there?' called the grandmother.

"The Wolf imitated the girl's voice. 'It's me, your dear little granddaughter!'

"'Come on in, then.'

As soon as the Wolf got inside, he ate the grandmother right up. Then he hid in her bed, expecting Little Red Riding Hood at any moment.'"

Alexandra, tasting the stew again, noticed that Stanos had paused and gave him a questioning look. "Go on," she said. "I'm listening."

Stanos frowned, but went on. "Sure enough, she came. The Wolf imitated the grandmother's voice. 'Who's there?'

"'It's I, your granddaughter,' said the girl. 'I've brought some food for you.'

"'Oh, come on in, then.'

"The girl did so.

"'Put the food on the table over there and come into bed for me,' said the wolf, 'for I'm cold.'

"The girl undressed herself and got into bed with the Wolf, where she found a surprise. 'Why, grandmother, what big arms you have!'

'The better to embrace you with, my child,' said the Wolf.

'And grandmother, what big eyes you have!'

'The better to see you with, my child.'

'And grandmother, what big teeth you have!'

'The better to eat you with, my child.' And the wolf ate her all up.'"

Here Stanos fell silent, regarding Alexandra intently. There was something pleading in his eyes, begging her to understand, no, demanding her to understand. She couldn't possibly miss it. But the silence stretched on, until finally Alexandra said, "Well, that was an interesting tale."

Stanos gave a noncommittal grunt and looked off to the side, studying the wooden planks of the wall. Why did a dragon live in a wooden house? Dragons are most comfortable around stone, which does not burn. A cave is best, of course, but could she not at least live in a house made of something safe and sturdy, mortar or brick or stone? "A foolish tale," he said. "Or so I thought when I first heard it. The girl was a fool to trust the wolf. The grandmother was a fool to let him in. They were all fools." He snorted. "It tells you something about the ones who wrote the story in the first place." His eyes flicked back to Alexandra, who was now prodding the fire, apparently contemplating whether or not to leave it be. "But did you understand it, Alexandra? There are wolves everywhere. You can't trust them simply because they seem nice."

"I suppose," Alexandra said, playing with a lock of her hair. She was smiling faintly, as if at some secret joke. It troubled Stanos; she had never smiled like that before, and now it seemed that she did all the time. Presently, she turned that smile on Stanos, something liquid and smug in her eyes. The fire painted her skin red and gold, like blood-brilliant scales in the light of the setting sun. "But in the version I heard, there was a handsome woodsman who came along and saved her."

Stanos found himself speechless.



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