The waiting room is quiet and cool, but I can feel the tension in the air. I might be imagining it though – a man is straightening his tie with confidence and a woman is going through her dossier – I am the only swooning damsel in the room. The radiation of sophistication seems to strip away what little qualification I had – an engineering degree, unshakeable determination and recklessness.
They never told me when the interviewer would call me, but the waiting is getting unbearable. I decide to listen to music – it is better than chewing my newly painted nails and ruining my level of decorum. My cold fingers numbed by the insensitive air-conditioning fumbles once while searching for my head-phones, and stills as the electronic voice calls my name.
Nirvana interrupted, I stand, straighten my salwar and shawl and take a deep breath.
Extending my spyglass, I survey the valley and the castle looming in the distance, a magnificent structure illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. I count five towers, extending into the clouds. My eyes caught sight of something moving among the towers, slithering around one tower like a snake. I tear my gaze away to look at the ground, at the growing daffodils at my feet and resist the urge to flee, screaming.
In no time at all, I am heading straight for the castle. With every step forward, the wooden gangplank begins to lower itself, creaking as the chains unravel their burden. The plank falls at my feet with a sudden thud that spikes my heartbeat and stops me dead. The gateway is pitch-black, an unknown void.
A man couldn’t do it, they said, so how can a woman? For a moment, I ponder.
The arena is set. The opponent is ready. The question is – am I?
I can feel his contempt and scorn while he is writing something on what is presumably my evaluation sheet. My palms always sweat when I am nervous or scared, but combined with the AC, they had become frozen blocks of ice, and I clench the fabric of my top with both hands to stop shaking with fear or cold or both.
I am still reeling from embarrassment at the Q/A Session. My nervy brain had managed to forget everything about programming for a second, that all I could manage while asked about Java was that it is an island in Indonesia. Really awkward. I did recover enough to answer the rest of the questions with more presence of mind, but my ears are still burning with shame for my fumble, and I can nearly hear the man’s brain tutting in the silence.
Now he carefully pulls a piece of paper from the pile under the paperweight which was shaped like a mini-globe. “Now, write a simple program to....”
I am breathing hard, taking every breath in as if it is my last.
I had lost my most important weapon – the element of surprise. I hide behind an old crumbling column, trying to steady my breathing and lower the volume of my hammering heart. My armour clinks with my every movement and feels abrasive on my back, but I daren’t move.
The column vibrates with the rumble of the dragon’s frustrated roar and I shake involuntarily. I realise it is one thing to proudly volunteer for the Quest which many had failed and another to not follow in the footsteps of those who did fail.
Legend says that hundreds of years ago, the Emerald was placed between the dragon’s nostrils by a mage to protect it. Nobody knows what the Emerald actually does, other than the fact that it is a powerful artefact and recovering it is one of the most important Quests for achieving Knighthood.
Biting down on my terror, I pray one final time - if I ever were to die, I would haunt the mage who put us in this mess for the rest of my paranormal existence. Then it occurs to me that the ancient hall had become eerily quiet.
Then – scraping of claws across the rough stone - the sound is much too close for comfort – I can feel its hot breath on my exposed neck...
Simple? I would have had better success figuring out the value of pi in reverse!
With a quiet rustle of paper, my interviewer pulls my response paper towards him. I could see his eyes scan the paper line by line and I also see him frown (hopefully with concentration). I had done my best but I had definitely missed certain constraints. I have just enough sense to keep breathing periodically and plaster a pleasant, tension-free expression on my face.
“I am impressed,” The man puts the paper down and clasps his palms. His expression is unreadable. Before I have time to think relief, he says, “But...”
“A semi-colon is missing at the end of line twelve...”
I run the narrow winding of the steep stony staircase, two steps at a time. It’s almost as safe as standing at the edge of the parapet of a tall tower, but nothing else can be done when I can hear the stone steps behind me crumble easily with the dragon’s tail. I could have made more speed, but the dragon’s fire had burnt the side of my right leg. I blink rapidly to clear my watering eyes and I half-cough the smoke of the dragon from my lungs.
It is high time someone got that murderous lizard some mint leaves. Or better, eucalyptus.
I can see light – and now I see the blue sky. I have reached the top of the tower. Like a good escapee, I slam the door shut and press my back against it, trying to make myself as small a target as I could.
But I find there is no time to get back on my feet or revise my strategy. A formidable head comes into my view, throwing shadows on my face, the glittering scales dazzling my eyes. If 'Beauty with Terror' had a body, I am looking right at it. Its breath was on my face that I nearly passed out and its forked tongue flicked out smoothly, tasting the air and my fear.
I can see the Emerald on its blue scaly nose, the green sheen bedazzling me like a crown jewel. Instinctively, I ready my sword to leap. Trying is everything, even though this is going to be the last blow I deliver.
All of a sudden, the dragon rears its neck back like a cobra striking its prey, and I know I am too late - its front paw is coming at me fast like a heavy boulder...
“Wait,” The creases on his forehead deepen as he frowns. “You have mentioned a URL in your resume. Are you a blogger?”
I blink back tears of frustration. A freaking semi-colon. Heartless perfectionist. Now he wants to make small talk after all that?
“Yes,” I struggle to sound light-hearted and sunny. “It’s a hobby, nothing serious,” I add quickly as if to reassure him.
He seems to barely hear me as he boots up his computer while I stare, bewildered. The tiny room seemed to become stuffy all of a sudden.
This isn’t going as planned at all....
When the dragon spoke, its deep baritone voice made me jump.
“You are female,” the voice vibrates my being like thunder.
I can't speak - I am still debating whether I ought to take my chances and try taking the emerald while I am alive.
The heavy claw scratches against my armour as it roughly pulls the long necklace from my neck, which had slipped from beneath my armour while I was running for my life. The scales rub against my stomach and make my skin crawl with wriggling caterpillars. I shiver under the bright sun and hold my breath.
“This is a pretty necklace,” The large eyes surveys the glittering ornament. “What is it made of?”
The necklace in question is my lucky pendant which kept me alive during my training. Turns out it is doing its job here as well. “Stones rubbed smooth from the bed of the river,” I say, my voice coming out in a whisper, but the dragon could hear. “Would you like me to make you one?” I ask. I have nothing to lose after all.
The dragon stays silent. The moments tick by and I wonder if I am already a pile of ashes but haven't realised yet.
“I would like that,” it says.
“That is an interesting development on AI,” The man scrolls down the screen. “You have done your research well.”
I stammer thanks as graciously as I can, trying not to look dazed as if someone had hit me over the head. I really do feel like it though, partly because of the angle of the interview and partly seeing my blog evaluated and commented in front of me. He was giving feedback that I haven’t received from any reader.
The comments and compliments make me bold enough to say, “I do restaurant reviews as well.”
Coincidentally I see my recent restaurant review when I glance at the screen.
“I haven’t been to Imperial Kitchen yet.” The thoughtfulness in his voice stuns me. “Sounds like a place I ought to try.”
“The ambience is pretty great,” I agree. “The food is quite nice for the prices. Their muffins are a real treat.”
“I love muffins.” The man say in the midst of scrolling down. I nodded, my plastered smile in place. Masked by the table, my hands gripped the folder on my lap, wondering if this is a dream as my interviewer continued to browse through my writing.
“Everyone wants to kill me,” The dragon sniffs, using a tent cloth as a handkerchief. “They don’t wish to listen to me. I don’t even know why!”
I look up from my work to nod my head sympathetically. This had been going on for the past hour as the dragon poured its heart out to me while I asked all the right questions and did all the right gestures and noises. And to think this emotional wreck was trying to kill me a couple of hours ago.
“...absolutely no appreciation for Victorian architecture.” The dragon begins to sob. Large tears pour down its snout.
I get up, with the finished necklace, and walked to the dragon’s claw. “There, there,” I pat its claw with my hand since I had removed my gloves. It is almost like using a fly swatter on a mountain. “Look what I made you.” I put the glittering chain around its nail. “What do you think?”
The tears stop abruptly as the dragon raises its claw to inspect my work. “It’s so pretty!” the dragon gushes, moving its tail too close to the pile of rocks I had it fish for me from the stream that it nearly toppled.
This dragon was far from the blood-thirsty, violent creature as described in our epics. I make a mental note to get the records corrected.
The dragon stops admiring the necklace for a second. “I really need to get you a reward for your efforts.” It says, throwing the necklace around its neck. It lands on the juncture between its shoulders, like a glittery choker.
I shake my head and smile, not trusting my tongue to speak. This is definitely not going according to plan. I actually like this dragon, almost as if we could become good friends.
We had a large lunch in the courtyard of the castle (“I never have visitors over for lunch!”). I didn’t ask how the food got there as I was thankful for just being alive. The dragon seems to have forgotten how it had wanted to kill me, chattering about glittering stones, chiffon and weaving.
We were watching the sun sink lower into the horizon. Suddenly it asks, “Could you do me a favour please?”
“Sure,” I smile, my heart nearly in my mouth.
“Could you take this stone from my snout? It’s begun to itch for the last ten years!”
“We really need someone like you,” the man had started talking more companionably to me. I smile back in a friendly fashion. “With some training, I am sure you can become at par with our development team. I also feel we can use your outrageous comparisons in our documentation team!”
I laugh along with him, not really sure if he meant it as a compliment or a joke.
He shakes hands with me before I leave. “Cold hands,” he remark when he lets go. “Still nervous?” It seems as though he is wondering why I am behaving as if it is my first interview. But he doesn't know that this is my first successful one. “Please wait outside for a few minutes.”
I only felt relief. Relief that I was finally getting out of that punishing AC.
The dragon lowers its giant head to rest on the ground near me. With both hands, I pry the giant emerald from between its nostrils. It comes off with a gentle click.
“You know what - you can keep it. I never want to see it again. It feels good to have it gone,” it says, the relief evident. "I can see over my nose again! Do you have any idea..." Speechless, I simply stare down at the legendary Emerald, lost for a hundred years and for which hundreds of people had died for.
“You have really great nails.” I finally say, suppressing a shiver looking at the giant claws that would have torn me limb to limb. “Would you like to paint them for you in the pattern of the night?”
The Dragon lets out a loud shriek, almost girly, that stood the hairs on the nape of my neck.
“Best friends forever!” it roars.
I take one final look at the building of Emerald Industries before walking back to my mother's car. The whole thing seems fantastic, especially how a certain item came into my possession after the interview. The number of people who said I couldn't do it....
“So...do you think you will receive an offer letter from here?” My mother asks as I get in the car and put on the seat belt.
“No Amma,” I try to suppress a smile.
“What is so funny about that?”
I look at her and smile properly.
“I already have it.”