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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Sythyry's LiveJournal:

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    Monday, July 21st, 2014
    7:23 am
    All the Dragons (Mating Flight 167/240)

    Prelude to The Battle for Hove

    I have to write down all the new dragons, or I’m going to get confused. Actually I already got confused, so I made Chevethna help me with it.

    Dragon Sex Description Notes
    Chevethna female, married to Arthane 18’, black scales, but she’s wearing brilliant glowing blue spikes, and looks like more of a lesbian slut than Arilash or Tarcuna, which really disturbs me. (She said, quite indignantly, that she’s nothing of the sort, she just likes to match Arthane. And she does, indeed, match Arthane in her spikes. And her tailtip is usually curled up with Arthane’s. So I suppose I believe her. It’s a shame that my bad company, viz. mating flight, has made me even think of such things.) A friend of most of us, from Mhel.
    Arthane male, married to Chevethna 26’, blue and crimson and scarlet with glowing blue spikes all over. Also from Mhel; more Greshthanu’s friend than mine though. I had met him a few times, but not that often.
    Hyxy female, married to Ngassith 14’ (my size) and reddish-brown. From Hasqueth. I do not know her at all.
    Ngassith male, married to Hyxy 21’, red and green, with red-orange-yellow frills on his head and green-blue-purple spikes on his wings and tail. Somewhere between pretty and gaudy. From Hasqueth. I do not know him at all.
    Mshai female, married to Irssaan 18’, grey and brown. From Mhel, though I didn’t know her well there.
    Irssaan male, married to Mshai 23’, brick-red in front, shading to gold by the tail. His wings burn with a golden inner light, by some spell. From Mhel, but I don’t think I’d met him there. A friend of Nrararn maybe. I think his wing-light is related to Nrararn’s lightning-braiding.
    Ignissa female, married to Gwixion 18’, dull black like me. Unlike me — and I might start imitating her — she looks very sharp without looking any less feminine. She gives herself thin gleaming white stripes, just one or two, all along her body. From Mhel, and a friend of sorts, though a bit older than me. Her forewings don’t work, like Tultamaan’s forelegs, so she’s very slow in the air when she’s in the air at all, which isn’t much. She never seems very healthy at all really. Oh, and her parents gave her that very classic fire name, so of course she breathes lightning.
    Gwixion male, married to Ignissa 23’, green above, aquamarine scutes on his belly, an emerald stinger in his tail that actually works, and pointy little curved yellow horns. From Hasqueth. I do not know him.
    Psilia female, married to Boruu 20’ and tan. Big in part ‘cause she’s rather older than the rest of us. From Chiaract. She and Boruu left there under some sort of cloud, lived on Mhel for a few years, and now have moved to Hove.
    Boruu male, married to Psilia 18’, coppery-shiny mostly, coppery-patina green around horns and wings. From Chiaract; see Psilia.
    Vuuthon male, bachelor 16’, purple with black highlights, but usually wears girlish dull colors. From Mhel. He doesn’t like other dragons very much (including me), and he’s a bit vicious.
    Ressal male, bachelor 19’, gaudy red and blue stripes From Mhel. One of Arilash’s lovers, and she tells the most embarrassing stories about him, too.
    Kuro male, bachelor 18’, blue and green bands with thin orange lines between them. From Mhel — from Fohhona. Older than me by some duodecades, and completely outside my social circles. Not in a good way, from what I hear.
    Nlirei male, bachelor 18’, green and purple with lots and lots of frills. From Hasqueth. No further information.

    And the fifteenth of them was Tultamaan, about whom you and I both know far too much.

    But that’s from the end of the day, when we were being social. Let’s start in Ghemel.

    Friday, July 18th, 2014
    9:19 am
    The Liberation of Ghemel (Mating Flight 166/240)

    The Liberation of Ghemel

    Khudris and Menes Hu and Captain Branner were waiting at the adit to Xolgrohim’s bunker, with three of the fifteen Ghemelians I had freed, and a paper cup full of blue shards and writhing indigo sand. The sand made me homesick at once.

    “Well, that plan worked,” Khudris said. “The map you gave us was accurate. Xolgrohim had a dozen warriors and one of his gods guarding him.”

    “And with two gods and, from the look of it, one enhanced agent, you seem to have won?”

    Branner nodded. “I decided to help these guys out when I woke up. I still have a bone to pick with you though. Freeing Ghemel is all well and good, but I’m going to be freeing Trest soon. Whether you like it or not.”

    The Ghemelians glared at him. “Tresteans are so rude! Jyothky has played her part in winning our freedom! Berate and threaten her tomorrow, if you must, but not today!”

    “Especially not today. This whole Ghemelian adventure was just a side-quest in what is going to be a truly messy and bloody day. Chances are, Branner’s not going to have to liberate Trest from Ythac and Llredh, but from the dragons who are about to take it from them.”

    Which called for explanations all around. I told them what Ythac had told me; only Tarcuna really understood what it meant. They told me how the freed warriors weren’t as good as the enslaved ones. The enslaved ones take risks and press their bodies more intensely than self-willed hovens do (“Just like the wormridden,” said Tarcuna, shuddering.) So Xolgrohim’s guards were winning. Then Khudris announced that he was going to kill Xolgrohim if he could. Three of Xolgrohim’s guards and his god chose to defy Xolgrohim over that. So they were struck with the most terrible pain in Xolgrohim’s impressive repertoire, or at least the most terrible kind that didn’t require dancing and such. So they couldn’t fight for a few seconds. So Khudris and Branner and Menes Hu killed or crippled them. Noble sacrifice and statues in the public squares and such, all ‘round, when the Ghemelians get to it.

    Then Branner ripped a heavy steel door off its hinges, straining his enhancements to the limit. Behind it was an alcove packed with the most refractory insulation in Ghemel. Not the strongest material, since Xolgrohim was expecting to be attacked by fire from above, not by weapons from in front. The Ghemelian soldiers shot it full of bullets, and a few bullets hit Xolgrohim’s bottle. Which was just spun sapphire, not very strong. And that was that.

    “But we would like you to confirm that Xolgrohim is actually dead,” they said.

    “I don’t theocept any gods in Hove but the two of you,” I said. “Not anymore. And there’s no magic on the scraps. For more than that, I’ll have to get Osoth.”

    They weren’t happy about the necromancer getting his claws on Xolgrohim again. I promised to keep Osoth well-behaved. Besides, Xolgrohim wasn’t a very useful ghost to Osoth, now that his treasures were (a) elseworld, and (b) probably in Tultamaan’s hoard. To say nothing of Xolgrohim showing everyone just how obedient an undead god he actually was.

    Finally, I flew back to a very nervous Ythac and Llredh. And my mating flight was there too. Llredh had told them to be nearby to rescue me at need.

    I definitely need more insults to use on Llredh. He’s proud of the perversion-styled ones.

    Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
    8:07 am
    Dealing with Xolgrohim (Mating Flight 165/240)

    Dealing with Xolgrohim

    On the way up, the mechanics and native gods of Ghemel told of the other things their erstwhile master had forced them to do. Three big towers on the three tallest hills of Ghemelia now held twistor cannons, not much inferior to the Peace Everywhere Array. To try to kill my parents if they showed up and didn’t immediately dive into the Pit of Despair, of course.

    I yelled at Ythac until he stopped fretting about the intruding dragons for long enough to locate Xolgrohim’s sapphire bottle. Naturally, it was deep underground in a concrete maze, with the last of Xolgrohim’s seven big twistor guns at the bottom of it so he could kill me or a parent if we were about to kill him from close at hand. «If you or your parents try to burn it out, the three twistors get to whirl you to bits before you’re very far in,» wrote Ythac. «And right now the twistors are pointed in a triangle: if you try to destroy one, another one will hit you. Leave your dead god alone, he’s not going anywhere, and help me deal with Chevethna and all.»

    «No, no. It’s time for my revenge,» I explained.

    «If you get ripped apart while you try to pry open that dragonproofed oyster of a paingod, it won’t help your revenge, or me, or Tarcuna, or anyone but Xolgrohim.»

    «I’m not going to get ripped apart,» I said. «I am far too clueless and confused.»

    «That doesn’t make any sense,» he replied. So I told him my plan — well, 6/12 Tarcuna’s plan, 4/12 Khudris’ plan, and 2/12 my plan — and he complained that it was hopeless and stupid but he’d let me do it anyways since he couldn’t stop me.

    At the head of the stairs, in the wasteland around the Pit of Despair prison, the Ghemelians tied Tarcuna to my back — she preferred to die by my side than get controlled by Xolgrohim, if things went badly — and set off on their errand. I set off on mine. This consisted of flying in crazy circles around the city, roaring, “Xolgrohim! Xolgrohim, you coward! Come out and fight me!”

    And he did, somewhat, though as battles royale go, it wasn’t very flashy. I don’t think Xolgrohim even knew that it was a battle royale until the very end.

    “Jyothky!” he shouted. In this case, he was a strong square man of obvious Trestean ancestry, presumably one of the captured soldiers, trailing the astral tentacles of Xolgrohim’s possession. He stood on top of a flat tile rooftop, one tenement building in a slum, and spoke into a microphone amplified by some battered stereo equipment.

    I circled over his head. “Xolgrohim! I have escaped your foolish little prison!”

    “I beg your pardon, Jyothky. I had somehow gotten the misapprehension that dragons kept their word of honor.”

    “And so we do, feeble and incompetant paingod! And so we do!”

    “So how is it that you have left the Pit of Despair?”

    I flew in quick wide circles. This was important. I didn’t want to stay still for long enough for any of the great weapons to shoot at me. “Your gods, your soldiers — they are no more!” For some reason, when I wanted to seem clueless and belligerent, I tried to talk like Llredh. Probably Llredh only uses it as a distraction too, come to think of it.

    “My gods and soldiers were not the reason you were staying there!” I’m pretty sure that Xolgrohim wanted to argue me back into the Pit, back to my position as bait for his trap. Maybe he was just offended.

    “Fool of a paingod! The reason I was staying there, she is on my back!” That was a tactical mistake on my part, if he started wondering how I got her strapped there. So I started trying to describe the battle I hadn’t had, without actually lying. “Your gods — they are weak against claws and teeth and the swiftness of the tail! Your warriors — they are weak against breath and against the Lure of Dreams!”

    “Your vow, it is weak — altogether!”

    “My vow? I never break a vow! What I break, is your trap, your warriors, your power!”

    And on and on like that. I had no real idea how long the Ghemelians would take. So the discussion wandered around from topic to topic.

    “Jyothky!” boomed Xolgrohim in a voice thick with mechanical static. His stereo amplification really wasn’t in very good shape. “A thousand of my subjects, Ghemelians and Tresteans, are now standing here and there around the city, holding sharp, sharp knives!”

    “Bah! Are they too poor to afford guns and missiles? But know this, fool of a necromancer: if a thousand knifemen come at me, a thousand knifemen will die. If a grand come at me, a grand will die,” I blustered. I didn’t quite get his point, which is just as well. So he had to explain it.

    “I was not going to have them attack you directly. I respect the thickness of your hide quite devoutly! Instead, if you do not go back to your cell, I am afraid that I will cause them to turn their knives on themselves.”

    Well, misunderstanding that took a lot of effort, but I managed it. I hooted at him, “So that they bop me with the pommels of their daggers? Xolgrohim, fool of a Xolgrohim! I despise weapons, but I know weapons! You love weapons, but you do not know weapons! The pointy end of the knife is the dangerous end, not the pommel!”

    “No, they shall not use their knives on you, neither front nor back…”

    “Unless you have poisoned the knives! A thousand poisoned knives might sting me. But, squishy little paingod, know this: I am expert with the spells of healing, and I am not the least among toxicologists!” Sounding more and more like Llredh; I even borrowed his hobbies. And it’s not strictly a lie: I remember a little of what Llredh told me (plus healed poisoned Tarcuna), and presumably the least among toxicologists is the one who knows absolutely nothing.

    “Forgive me for an imprecise speech. They will kill themselves!” Paingods are not very nice when you back them into a corner.

    “And what sort of an attack upon me might that be? I am not such a glutton as to eat a thousand hovens worth of poisoned meat! Five, perhaps six, at the utmost! Seven if they are small! Eight if the poison is particularly delicious!”

    “I did not expect you to eat them, and, in fact, the knives are not poisoned.”

    So after that we argued for a while about whether the dead hovens would be better off dead, and thus outside his service. To delay things more, I went off on a tangent at the end of the argument. “Well, I challenge you to this. Command one of your hovens to kill himself. Then I shall fly the body to my fiancé the mighty Osoth — whose powers you yourself depend upon crucially! Osoth shall interrogate him posthumously, and have him explain which condition he prefers.”

    “Jyothky, your understanding of death is great, I am sure, but I have actually been dead for some centuries. I say that life, even as the slave of a painlord, is preferable to death.”

    “The life of a mhelvul god, perhaps! These are not mhelvul gods, they are hovens! Tell me, Xolgrohim, how long were you a dead hoven?” If Headmistress Inth heard me making such a specious argument, she’d rap my knuckled with a ferule, dragon or no dragon.

    “Ask your slave, if you wish. Tarcuna, is the life of a hoven sweet to you?” asked Xolgrohim. Then he roared with anger. “Jyothky! What treachery is this? Hovens are slaying my guardsmen!”

    “I can’t tell what’s going on.” But presumably my freed and hopefully protected Ghemelians were about to break into his dragonproofed crypt and smash his bottle. Time for more distractions. “Oh! What I meant to say before is, your spell on me fell off, so of course I killed all of the guards I felt like and flew out. I wanted to ask you, though — put that spell on me again, and I’d be so happy I’d do you another little favor like going back in that pit. I truly miss being able to feel, really I do.”

    “I am afraid it is an awkward time…”

    “Well! How d’you like that!” I chirped mockingly. “I offer to make myself bait for your trap, but you’re all ‘oh, it’s a bad time, maybe you could come back next Thursday and we’ll have some tea and then see about just what sort of curses we can place on you but you might have to wait ‘til Tuesday week when I think I have an opening in my schedule at 2:15 but we need to be done by 2:35 promptly.’ Well, I want to feel again. Now.

    “Jyothky, give me just ten minutes…” he said. Oh, dear, I hoped my Ghemelians weren’t that close to getting defeated.

    “Now!” I roared, and landed on the top of the tenement next to Xolgrohim’s victim. He could shoot me if he wanted. “Now, instantly! If you delay even a single second more, I shall fly home and tell my parents everything about you! What chance of revenge will you have then, Xolgrohim?” If there’s any better chain to tug on a vengeful ghost’s spirit than that, I don’t know it. And had better learn from Osoth for the next time one of his pets gets loose.

    He started dancing and chanting his borrowed body, working on the spell. “I shall endeavor to hurry, both for your convenience, and for my own…” Twenty-six steps into the dance, the sevenfold psychic cable granting Xolgrohim possession of his victim frayed and splintered, scattering darts of commanding will in all directions. The Ulthana’s Targe did an adequate job of stopping them from hurting me or Tarcuna, but I daresay some of his former subjects will be trying to dance the painspell dance for days.

    «Ythac? Where’s Xolgrohim’s bottle now, and is he in it?»

    Ythac must have cast seven spells, he waited so long to reply. «I think those heroes have pulled your tail out of the volcano,» he wrote. «Now will you please come help me with the other dragons?»

    «It’s not so big of a hurry, really, is it? I want to go check.»

    Monday, July 14th, 2014
    5:34 am
    Demands (Mating Flight 164/240)

    Branner chuckled. “You’re sure in a good mood…” And I broke the painspells on him, too. He shouted, “Yahoo! I am free!” Tresteans are not as used to concealing their feelings as Ghemelians.

    From behind him, in the weapons and servants’ area, came a dozen hoven voices, wailing, wondering. “Xolgrohim gave us no orders for this circumstance!” shouted Menes Hu in Ghemelian. “As long as the prisoners make no attempt to escape, we don’t need to do anything!”

    “It is hard not to think that it is some attempt to escape!” called another voice.

    “I’m not escaping, I’m still right here in the Pit of Despair!” I roared.

    “Anyone who wants to see that the dragon is just lying on the floor not doing anything at all, come look at a peephole!” shouted Tarcuna in Trestean. “Anyone who wants to kill everyone in here including yourself — why don’t you take a look too? I don’t want to die for not doing anything Xolgrohim said not to do.”

    “Yes, yes! Come look through the peephole! The dragon and the person prisoner, they do nothing! See for yourself! Khudris, you are the other leader, you must look first!” proclaimed Menes Hu in Ghemelian. “Branner! You may save yourself if you can, but you must not risk the captives.”

    A hoven man, stinking of infection, his fur barely visible under spikes and many dressings, looked in at the peephole. He had seven spells on him, so I whacked him with my vô, and then he didn’t have any. He looked up. “Menes Hu is correct as far as I can tell. You and you, come look. Menes Hu and I will hold the controls to the guns until you are satisfied.”

    And so forth until all fifteen hovens were free, and everyone had the Ulthana’s Targe on them. I hoped that it would be good enough to keep off a few painspells.

    Then the plans completely fell apart.

    “Well, miss, I’m much obliged to you for freeing me,” said Captain Branner. “But I have to wonder. You did a number on my home country, I hear. Wrecked the Peace Everywhere Array, then beat up the army, then tortured the archconsul into surrendering the country to you.”

    “I only did the first one of those, and that only because it killed my fiancé,” I explained. “The other dragons did the rest.”

    “You’re here, and you’re standing on a big dragon-killing gun. You want something from me. I want something from you. And I aim to get it before you get to go free. If I don’t get what I want, you get the biggest twistor ray bouquet of your life,” he said.

    “Captain Branner! Do not do this thing!” shouted Khudris. “The dragon, she will free the people, she will kill Xolgrohim!”

    “Khudris, you gotta take care of your people, I gotta take care of mine,” said Branner. “I hate it worse’n you do, but Xolgrohim’s a Ghemelian problem, and the dragons are a Trestean problem. If I kill this one, that’s some justice for what she’s done to Trest.”

    And I was, indeed, sitting on the muzzle of a gun made to kill dragons, with Branner at the trigger. “Well, what do you want?” I said, and made sure my defensive spells were in good shape. I didn’t think they’d be good enough, not that close to that many twistor cannons.

    “I want your promise to set Trest free,” he said. Khudris tried to cast a sleep spell at him, but the Ulthana’s Targe protected him.

    “It’s not mine to free,” I said. “I can try to talk Ythac and Llredh into letting it go.” I broke Branner’s the Ulthana’s Targe as I spoke.

    Captain Branner scowled. “I want more than that. I want you to fight them for it, I want you to push for freedom for Trest night and day, I, … oh …” Khudris had cast his spell again, and sent Branner to sleep. One of the gunners jumped for the trigger, and caught it in time.

    So we gently tossed the sleeping Branner into the Pit of Despair. The gunners tied the triggers — they’re dead-man triggers, set to go off if they’re released for too long. I shrank to a hovenish sort of size, and we all scrambled up the stairs to the street.

    At about which point I realized that hovens really, really treasure their freedom, and even each others’ freedom, and are willing to spend nearly anything for it. I should probably pay attention to that in the future. It sounds very important if my friends and I are thinking of ruling Hove.

    Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014
    6:54 am
    Obvious Epiphany (Mating Flight 163/240)
    [OOC: Intentional pause for a week and a half after this episode! -- BB]

    Tarcuna went to the servant’s entrance, and shouted, “Hey! Menes Hu, Khudris, Branner? Anyone want to have sex?”

    A Ghemelian woman, spiky with her apotheosis and with the first letter of “Fool” branded on her forehead, looked in at the door, and spoke poor Trestean. “In the presence of the dragon you wish to do this?”

    “Sure. I don’t mind the rest of you guys watching, do I? She’s not even a person.” Tarcuna parted her upper clothes and revealed some of her udder, more to the presumed peepholes in the walls than to Menes Hu. “C’mon, Menes Hu. You’ll enjoy it. Xolgrohim won’t let you see your husband ‘til this is all over. Even then, you look so horrible and spiky he probably won’t want you. You might as well get what you can, and I guarantee I won’t make you pregnant by mistake.”

    “No, no, it is an abomination.”

    “Which you enjoyed a lot last time!” Tarcuna laughed.

    While they were talking, I was staring. Menes Hu wore eight spells around herself. Two were obviously illusion spells, and very big ones: probably the ones that kept Ythac’s finding-spells from working. The third was probably strength, and the fourth and fifth were small ones that didn’t obviously do anything. The sixth, seventh, and eighth were jagged ones wrapped around her psyche, and they looked older than the others. So I caught them between the lobes of my vô, one at a time, and squeezed. Crunch, crunch, crunch. «I think that’s it,» I wrote to Tarcuna.

    Menes Hu gasped in elation at her new freedom. This is about where our plan started falling apart.

    Tarcuna thinks very quickly. “I know, I should be very quiet about that. You don’t want the others to find out.

    Menes Hu stared at her, and then nodded. “It will not stay secret for long.”

    Tarcuna smiled. “Well, maybe you don’t want any this time.” — she flashed her udder at the Ghemelian — “But could you tell the boys? They could get some. Of what you got that one time.”

    Menes Hu dipped her head. “I will do that thing.” She stepped away from the door and urged her companions to come forward and provide to Tarcuna’s insatiable needs.

    The next hoven at the door was tall and brawny, blocky and mighty, thick with muscle where most hovens have fat. Tarcuna smiled at him. “Captain Branner! Want another round of top-notch Dorday call girl?”

    “Dunno the boss wants us going in there with the dragon and all, and sure thing you can’t come out here,” he said.

    Tarcuna continued to be clever. “Well, I’m bored and I’m horny. How about I put on a show for you, and afterwards you put a bit of yourself through one of the peepholes and I am very nice to you that way?”

    Branner chuckled. “You’re sure in a good mood…” And I broke the painspells on him, too. He shouted, “Yahoo! I am free!” Tresteans are not as used to concealing their feelings as Ghemelians.

    Monday, June 30th, 2014
    6:39 am
    Plotting Escape Of Course (Mating Flight 162/240)

    «How did you know I had a plan?» asked Tarcuna.

    «You’ve been here for days. Of course you have a plan. I tell you now though, if it involves you getting killed for tactical purposes, I’m vetoing it,» I wrote back.

    «How about a plan where you get out first, then rescue me?»

    «I’d rather do it right the first time.»

    «And I’m a pretty worthless hoven minion,» she said. «You’re better off without me.»

    «That’s not your judgment to make. If I thought so, I’d have gotten rid of you one of the dozen or two times it was convenient and polite to do so.»

    «I betrayed you!» she wrote.

    Well, that could be a problem. «How did you do that?»

    «Xolgrohim asked me all kinds of questions about your powers and everything. I didn’t answer, and then he did something that hurt a lot, and I had to answer,» she wrote. She snuffled a bit, so I wrapped my tail around her comfortingly.

    «Well, of course. I didn’t expect that you could stand up to a god. But I am going to kill Xolgrohim for that, you know.» And on and on, comforting her, for at least twelve minutes.

    She hadn’t completely broken though. She didn’t exactly lie to Xolgrohim, but she only answered his direct questions, and pretty literally at that. «Like I sort of thought you could turn into animals, but I hadn’t seen it myself, so I didn’t tell him. I don’t think you could get out of the Pit in hoven shape, but couldn’t you turn into a hummingbird and fly out?»

    I looked at the roof. «There might be cracks up there I could get through.»

    «I was thinking more the ventilation ducts. They’re trapped with electrical cables. But Khudris said the cables are about eight inches apart.»

    I lick-groomed the last few tears off her face-fur. «Who is Khudris?» (I had forgotten about him.)

    «He’s one of the Ghemelians who kidnapped me. Xolgrohim did some very strange surgery on him, and he’s got metal coils all in his back, and spikes coming out of his face, and a sort of a glass shell over most of them so they don’t get bumped. They’re very sensitive, and not in a good way.»

    Which sounds like the devices of the gods of Mhel. And it stands to reason that Xolgrohim would know enough about mhelvul apotheosis technology to reconstruct it here. Which means that Khudris is a young god. «Oh! I’ll bet he’s got some spells too?»

    «Yes. He puts me to sleep sometimes, and carried me floating in the air, and nobody can see us,» wrote Tarcuna.

    «Convenient. But he was telling you things about the passageways while he was kidnapping you?»

    «He’s one of the guards here now. He comes in here once in a while. You don’t care if I have sex with other people and anybody and don’t tell you, do you?» Tarcuna’s mental handwriting was rather wobbly.

    «It’s your body. Put anyone in it that you like. Except another cyoziworm of course; that would upset me.»

    She sighed, and leaned against my flank. «I thought so. I was thinking and thinking you’d be upset with me for sleeping with all of our jailors.»

    «All of them?»

    «All I could get. I was bored.»

    «You must have been, if you’re sleeping with males.» Teasing her about that still feels very odd.

    «I can be professional about it! And I can weasel information out of them when I’m sleeping with them. Besides, they’re just as much prisoners here as we are, and just as unhappy about it. Maybe more. Xolgrohim has been really brutal with the pain spells on them. On all of Ghemel. They’ve seen people, ordinary hovens like grocers or something, who said ‘no’ to Xolgrohim. He put heavier spells on them. One of them sawed through his own throat with a clothes zipper to escape the pain.» Tarcuna shuddered against my leg. «And Branner is from Trest. He’s one of the enhanced agents from the Darkness Axe helicopters. He really wants to go home, but every time he thinks about it for more than thirty seconds, the pain gets so bad he nearly faints. He was in me when that happened, once. It was awful even to watch.»

    «We did Mhel a big favor when we killed all the paingods,» I said.

    «Jyothky?», she wrote, in Petty Draconic. She can’t speak my name very well, but she can write it. «You broke the pain spell on yourself. Can you break pain spells on other people?»

    «Sure, my vô works fine.»

    «Do that on the guards, and we’ll have some allies,» said Tarcuna. «Enhanced agents and coil gods, even.»

    So we made some detailed plans and told Ythac all about them. Never mind what they were, we didn’t get past about step two.

    Friday, June 27th, 2014
    6:21 am
    That Wasn't my Trick (Mating Flight 161/240)

    Finally one worked, at least a little. The forks of my tongue felt as if they had been dipped in fire.

    There’s no describing it. Not the sensation itself, you can probably understand that unless you’re one of the pawful of dragons injured the way I am. You’re probably thinking, “Ow, pain.” But you are too used to pain, too used to feeling anything.

    This was the best thing I had felt in five dozen years. (Yes, also the worst, but that didn’t matter.) It was all I could do not to roll around in happiness. Not pleasure, just happiness.

    «Remind me that I should marry Osoth, so he can raise up a tame paingod for me,» I asked Tarcuna.

    «I don’t much like paingods,» she said. «Aren’t they dangerous?»

    «Probably it’s a bad idea,» I wrote. I grinned a huge grin at Xolgrohim. “Well, that one worked, a little bit.”

    “A little bit!” he exclaimed. “I have no stronger spells!”

    “You couldn’t impose pain on a stone,” I said, “And my body’s not much more than a stone, as far as sensation goes. But my tongue is a bit less broken than the rest of me.”

    “I am sorry, then, that that spell is the only one that works! If, at some future time, you wish to ransom my non-life, I offer to try to develop a spell that provides more pleasant sensations,” he said.

    So I yelled at him about how this was the best thing I had felt in five duodecades, and all of that.

    “This is not a usual reaction for a paingod’s powers!” he said. “But if you proclaim yourself satisfied, far be it from me to argue with you.” He looked at me hopefully. “So, now I have provided my best attempt at what you have requested?”

    “You have done admirably,” I said, and I meant it. “So here is my promise. I shall not attempt to leave the Pit of Despair for so long as this spell lets me feel.” I spoke the ancient formula which binds us to our word on pain of dishonor. Though I did say ȑṳsṡ instead of ȑṳṡs, making the vow on pain of dumplings instead. If I ever get in the position of arguing about whether I were dishonored or not, that classic bit of sneakiness would count just a little in my favor. That wasn’t my real trick.

    Xolgrohim beamed. “I am delighted that we have found a basis for temporary cooperation! I was not hoping for such amity!” He is not any sort of fool though, even if he doesn’t speak Grand Draconic, and he added: “You will, I hope, understand and forgive me if the means of imprisonment that are already in place remain in place. It would be impractical to remove them at this late date.”

    Tarcuna, who maybe has picked up some Petty Draconic, looked horrified. “Jyothky! How can you make such a deal with that!”

    I grinned the vicious draconic grin to her. “It’s not quite the deal he wants. I promised not to leave the Pit of Despair: nothing more. I will go kill his gods and destroy his projectors, if I can. From inside, as long as I don’t leave.” That wasn’t my real trick either.

    Xolgrohim stared Murghal’s square eyes at me. “Oh, dear. I did not expect a great deal from a few words, but this is less than I might have hoped. I should have insisted on a vow of greater passivity.”

    “The vow was not yours to insist upon, foolish paingod!” I thundered. Where by “foolish” I mean “clever enough to catch me in quite a nasty trap” of course.

    “Well, of course. Forgive me for the suggestion that it was… and forgive me also, but I would like to remind you that the walls, weapons, and warriors of the Pit of Despair are just as deadly even though you have your vow. Indeed, the reduced flexibility of motion may make them just one bit the deadlier. So I fear that I must recommend that you stay inside of the metal prison of the Pit of Despair, even though it is not strictly required by your vows.”

    “For now, I am going to enjoy being able to feel!” I roared. I can play arrogant, short-sighted, and self-centered extremely well. It’s not very far from the truth.

    “I am pleased to have been of some small service to you, even though I have done a greater disservice.”

    I rolled on my back and enjoyed the pain in my tongue, as long as I had it. And traded a few notes with Tarcuna and Ythac, and completely ignored Xolgrohim. After an hour or two, he politely excused himself, and departed, leaving a rather worried and utterly undefended Murghal with us in the Pit of Despair.

    The next thing to do was the hardest thing I have done this whole mating flight. The last sixty years, even. I wrapped my vô around the painspell and crushed the life out of it, as if it was a baby goat in my paw. Well, breaking the spell was easy. Persuading myself to do it was hard.

    And the dull blank prison of unfeelingness was back on me again.

    «Did it work?» asked Tarcuna.

    «Yes. No pain spell anymore. No vow anymore. And no alarms either. I don’t think Xolgrohim can tell when his spells are broken.» I wrote to her. That was my real trick. «Now, tell me about how you planned to get us out of here?»

    Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
    6:34 am
    Pain (Mating Flight 160/240)

    I was still staring. “You got Tultamaan as your messenger?”, I said out loud, and summarized the matter to Ythac.

    “Regular couriers between here and Mhel are infrequent, and their rates are extravagant! There is rarely one available when you want one,” Xolgrohim explained.

    “We haven’t particularly wanted to send many messages back. Arilash told Greshthanu’s parents that he had been killed, is the only one. Plus whatever Tultamaan wanted to say,” I said.

    “Which, I believe, included a dramatization of your capture. Ah, and speaking of that regrettably brutal event, perhaps I shall return to my catalog of brutalities and menaces?” asked the lich-god. Neither of us stopped him. “Well, then, there are few other points of note. Observe the ventilation ducts there, and the servant’s entrance by which we provide food and cleaning services? They cannot, inherently, be as well-armored as the walls proper. Nonetheless they are well-defended, by means of mighty electrical currents. Behind them are no fewer than three deified hovens on guard, one of whom was once an enhanced agent of Trest. Even you might find them troublesome in battle.”

    I opened my organs of theoception, and yes, the place was crawling with minor gods. “Why are you boasting about all of them? You’re just giving me that much of an easier time defeating them,” I asked. Which was a stupid question — I should have let him explain.

    “Ah, but I hope that my precautions are never actually necessary. If they are tested, they may succeed, or they may fail; in either case it will be expensive and may well interfere with my ultimate wishes. If they are untested, they will not fail. I should prefer that you know enough not to make the attempt. Your immediate death would not serve me well.”

    “My immediate death…?”

    He smiled. “Well, one possible outcome is that Cterion and Uruunma remain too powerful for me to defeat, even with the tools currently at my disposal. I should be compelled, in that case, to inflict whatever injuries I could arrange, before they inevitably kill me again. Killing you holds no intrinsic pleasure for me, but killing you in front of their eyes would be a passable second choice. And, in case it is not clear, killing you before they arrive would be a distinctly inferior third choice, but still provide a form of revenge. So do not take my wish to preserve your life as too much of an encouragement to attempt to fight your way out of the Pit.”

    «Time for me to be a bit crafty,» I wrote to Tarcuna. Out loud, I said, “So, either I can try to escape and your traps and gods might kill me, or I can stay and you probably will kill me.”

    “I should judge the probabilities in the reverse,” he said. “My traps and gods will probably kill you. If you stay, I might kill you.”

    “You underestimate both me and my parents!”

    “Forgive me! I withdraw all measures of probability! In either case, it is possible but not certain that you will be killed.”

    I spread my ears. “Well, then. Give me some extra reason to want to say!”

    “Observe the caskets and armoires behind you,” Xolgrohim said with a wave. “The contain many treasures of Ghemelia…” He yelped as I breathed sparks at him.

    I snarled. “Treasure-hunting is for drakes. I am a dragoness. This attempt to bribe me is an insult to my future husband!”

    “I meant no offense! I am regrettably ignorant of draconic etiquette!”

    I towered over the body my captor wore. “No, I want something else. Something that you alone can provide.”

    Murghal flattened his ears in fear, but Xolgrohim, being far away, was not much impressed. “My resources are at your disposal, save for certain necessities — large of a martial nature — I wish to keep for my own purposes…”

    “I haven’t felt anything since I was six years old,” I said. “I miss it, as much as you miss life itself. And your powers concern the sense of feeling.”

    Xolgrohim dipped Murghal’s head. “With all due respect, my specialty is pain. I have a limited selection of spells for pleasure, but they are not my strongest.”

    “Start with them!” I roared.

    “Certainly,” he said, and concocted a gleaming clove-scented lump of (metaphorically) lace and crumbs on the astral plane and stretched out his hand to put it in my head. I reared my vô away to let him do it. It sat right in the chasm in my psyche where feeling ought to go.

    “Is it in?” I asked.

    “I have activated it. Do you feel anything? A sensation as of a thousand mhelvul lips kissing you everywhere, perhaps?”

    “Not a thing,” I said. “Pity. You’ll have to try harder.”

    He tried harder, indeed, did Xolgrohim. He chanted and wriggled Murghal’s fingers. He danced the most ominious jig that I could imagine a hoven dancing. He called for skull rattles and a necklace of bloodied feathers, and built a bonfire of wood and the bones of ancient kings. Astrally, he brought forth huge spiky things that stank astrally of asafoedita and terror, and I let him put them into me, too.

    Finally one worked, at least a little. The forks of my tongue felt as if they had been dipped in fire.

    There’s no describing it. Not the sensation itself, you can probably understand that unless you’re one of the pawful of dragons injured the way I am. You’re probably thinking, “Ow, pain.” But you are too used to pain, too used to feeling anything.

    This was the best thing I had felt in five dozen years. (Yes, also the worst, but that didn’t matter.) It was all I could do not to roll around in happiness. Not pleasure, just happiness.

    Monday, June 23rd, 2014
    6:35 am
    Lots More Dragons (Mating Flight 159/240)

    “So I shouldn’t grab Tarcuna and burn my way out of here,” I said, and relayed Xolgrohim’s words to Ythac.

    “Exactly! I knew you would be sensible!” he beamed. “Now, the floor.”

    “The very dangerous floor,” I said, since dangersense was rather howling about it.

    “Don’t listen to him! It’s twistor guns!” shouted Tarcuna.

    “Excuse me, Tarcuna, but I am having a conversation with Jyothky at the moment. You should not interrupt,” said Xolgrohim.

    “Actually, I am at least as interested in what Tarcuna has to say as in what you have to say,” I told him.

    Xolgrohim smiled apologetically. “Very well then! Feel free to interrupt as you wish, Tarcuna. The floor is very thin, just big enough to support you and the other contents of the room. Beneath it are three of the largest twistor projectors I could manage in the few months that I had available to me. They are not, unfortunately, up to the standards of the Peace Everywhere Array, though they do have a range of some dozens or hundreds of miles. At a word to my gunners, though, they will entirely fill the Pit of Despair with torque. I do not know for certain that even that will kill you, but I rather suspect it might. I am certain about what it will do to poor, interrupt-prone Tarcuna.”

    “I have destroyed many large twistor guns,” I said.

    “And no doubt you could destroy these as well! But they are arranged so that any destruction of the gun itself will also set off the torque battery. Again, that might not kill you, but it will be a remarkably potent occurrence, which Tarcuna may find unfavorable,” said Xolgrohim.

    I thought about the devastation that even a single battery had caused: more dangerous than my strongest breath by far. “An excellent precaution! When I destroyed the Peace Everywhere Array, I worked from a distance, but in your poison-walled pit, that approach is not available.”

    He beamed. “Exactly. Exactly! It is a pleasure working with you, Jyothky.”

    “What, precisely, do you mean by ‘working’?”

    Ythac’s wrote to me in letters jagged with alarm, «Jyothky! Dragons!» Xolgrohim said something too, but I didn’t catch it.

    «Who? Arilash and Csirnis?»

    «No, no, the sky over Khamrou Voresc is crawling with dragons. More than a dozen of them.»

    «Oh, dear. Send them my greetings, I suppose. At least can you find out who they are?» I looked back at Xolgrohim. “I’m sorry, but I was lost in thought for a moment. Could you repeat that?”

    “Well, I don’t specifically want to catch you, Jyothky. Your parents killed me, as you may recall. It is certainly a flaw in my personality — I regard it as such in any case — but I cannot refrain from trying to kill them in exchange. Or, failing that, to bring them whatever degree of sorrow and woe I can.”

    “Jyothky won’t cooperate with you!” shouted Tarcuna.

    “I certainly don’t want to make my parents unhappy, or dead,” I said. “Nor you, nor myself.”

    “If you risk your own life to save mine, I am going to kill myself!” said Tarcuna.

    “You have the oddest concept of helping me, Tarcuna,” I said. “Please, let’s let Xolgrohim tell us his plans before anyone kills herself to foil them?” She threw herself to the metal floor by my feet, stinking of anger and shame.

    “Now that you have, temporarily, subdued our loquacious and lecherous lure, may I explain your role in the upcoming festivities?” asked Xolgrohim.

    «Tultamaan’s back. Chevethna back from her mating flight, Arthane flying next to her so I bet they’re married, Ignissa back from her mating flight, Vuuthon, Ressal, … Kuro for heaven’s sake, … lots of dragons I don’t know,» wrote Ythac.

    «That’s bad,» I said. That many dragons my age, already mated, are probably here for conquering.

    “I should be fascinated to hear it,” I said. I curled my tail around Tarcuna, and cast the Library in Scales and wrote to her, «After he has finished, we will discuss our next step privately. Now please let’s listen. I’m trying to write to Ythac too, and if I’m not careful I’m going to get horribly confused.»

    «Bad, bad. I’m holding territory now. It might be me and Llredh against fifteen of our age-peers,» wrote Ythac.

    «Well. Ressal and Tultamaan barely count. And I’ll help you when I get out of here,» I said.

    “All right, all right, I’ll be quiet,” said Tarcuna. “For now. If you’re going to kill me, Xolgrohim, I at least get to tell you what I think of you first.” She cuddled into the arc of my tail.

    «Four to one is certainly an improvement over seven to one. Are you getting out soon?» asked Ythac.

    Xolgrohim spread Murghal’s hands apologetically. “For the moment, I simply request that you — both of you — remain in the Pit of Despair. My part-time messenger on Mhelvul should earn his extravagant pay soon, or so I hope, and your parents should arrive within, perhaps, a day or two? You know them better than I do: how long would you guess they would delay when their darling daughter is in deadly danger?”

    I paused, as if to consider the question, but actually to write «Not sure. I might need to do something stupid and humiliating, like promise to come right back after the fight,» Then I said, out loud, “Last time, they came in a hurry, but that was easier. They’d have to get directions here, and find someone to cast the Triangular Cyclonette. And probably another day or several to learn it, so they can get back afterwards,” I said.

    Xolgrohim laughed. “Yes, I suppose they might think that getting back would be relevant to them and make arrangements. No more hurry than that?”

    “I suppose it depends on what your messenger told them, and how much they believed it.”

    “My powers of sending messages between worlds are not so great, and neither are Tultamaan’s. He was supposed to tell Cterion and Uruunma that you had been trapped in the heart of a vast ruby, which your companions’ fire was inadequate to melt but which Cterion’s own flame probably could. He sent back the chirp that he was to send when he had done so.”

    I stared at Xolgrohim. He lowered Murghal’s gaze, and apologized, “I merely sought some story which would require their presence, and not raise too many suspicions about the actual situation.”

    I was still staring. “You got Tultamaan as your messenger?”, I said out loud, and summarized the matter to Ythac.

    “Regular couriers between here and Mhel are infrequent, and their rates are extravagant! There is rarely one available when you want one,” Xolgrohim explained.

    Friday, June 20th, 2014
    7:36 am
    In which I am being Sensible (according to Xolgrohim). (Mating Flight 158/240)

    Into the Trap

    I flew straight and fast to the Pit of Despair Prison; secrecy seemed pointless. I wore every defensive spell that Llred or Ythac or I could cast, and scribbled notes to Ythac constantly. Like, «Ghemel looks worse every time I fly over it. Xolgrohim’s been ripping homes down and building factories and smelting plants.» Not that I particularly needed the distraction, but if I got killed, best if Ythac knew what was going on for purposes of revenge.

    «I wish I could find out why that was,» wrote Ythac. Information mages always hate not knowing things.

    «I’ll ask him if I see him,» I scribbled back.

    And there was the Pit of Despair Prison: a huge complex surrounded by thin walls of powdery stone pierced by several roads. There was a great deal of new construction, mostly in a ring around the Pit of Despair proper, and the air stank of iron and oil-smoke and chemicals, and the despair of hovens. The trap proper was nicely marked, with a big sign on a building saying “Welcome, Jyothky. This way to Tarcuna.”

    The arrow pointed down into the pit.

    I circled the prison in the air, watching, thinking. Well, I could … Destroy all the surrounding buildings? and maybe kill Tarcuna if she’s being kept there. Oh, and certainly kill lots of Xolgrohim’s hoven pawns. Turn into something tiny and try to infiltrate? Silly at this point, and undignified. Ask Ythac? «Sorry, no good advice,» was his answer.

    «I’m just going to follow the arrow and fly into the trap,» I said. So I tried. Actually I had to land on a conveniently placed and non-dangerous ledge and climb down, since the pit wasn’t big enough for much flapping of wings and I didn’t want to use a levitation spell that anygod could swat away and tumble me inelegantly into the pit. They had conveniently installed a very solid wooden staircase, with heavy beams stuck out of the steel-clad walls of the pit, just big enough for me, so this was obviously part of Xolgrohim’s plan.

    As I climbed down, I heard a tremendous grinding of gears from overhead. Three huge metal jaws were closing off the top of the Pit of Despair, snipping me off from the light of Virtuet. «I think I know what Xolgrohim has been foundering,» I told Ythac.

    «Foundreying. Yes, it sounds that way. There’s your trap, I guess.»

    «Not much of a trap, if that’s all. Those doors won’t be a dozenth as hard to melt as Kuhankun Mountain,» I wrote.

    «If that’s all, yes,» wrote Ythac. «Keep your nineteen senses up, OK?»

    «All of them? I am nibbling on the wall now. Yummy!» I wrote. I wasn’t, and it wasn’t.

    The spiral staircase took seven turns around. At the second turn, Tarcuna called up to me: “Jyothky! You came!”

    “Oh, hi, Tarcuna. Nice to see you!”

    “I was hoping you wouldn’t, actually,” she said.

    I strolled down the staircase, my tail thumping on the wall. “Oh? Got a better companion than an alien monster who mostly ignores you?”

    “No, I still love you. But I’m pretty sure this is a trap,” she said.

    “Absolutely, it’s a trap. Did you see the poster, and the doors closing?”

    Metal slammed against metal, twice, and hoofsteps tapped out on the pit’s floor below. Someone shouted up, “I am afraid that, yes, it is a trap. Please don’t be offended.” The voice sounded half-familiar.

    “Xolgrohim, is that you?” I asked, and looked down. It was Murghal. Rather, it was Murghal’s body, with a heavy sevenfold cable of bitter sorcery wrapped around it and trailing off into the distance, and tenasensitive signs of strain everywhere. “Or Murghal?”

    “Xolgrohim, using Murghal’s body,” he said, and I saw the cables twitch with each word. “Perhaps I could explain the conditions of the trap in a bit more detail, to start with, and thereby avoid or at least postpone unpleasantness?”

    “Nice little puppet you’ve got there,” I said. The stairs ended thirty feet above the floor, so I leapt down to the middle of the clear half of the room. It wasn’t safe, but its loud hiss of menace was all potential. Tarcuna ran over and hugged my foreleg, and I folded a wing around her protectively.

    “Well, the most important thing to remember about the trap is the walls. I know you could burn your way out of anything on Hove. But these walls are special. They are a sandwich. The outer layers are steel — enough steel, I believe, so that you cannot easily claw or bite your way through them; you will have to breathe. The inner layer is a very insidious sort of filling. It is ampoules of various chemicals. If you burn them, or pierce them, they will form any number of fearsome toxic vapors, which flood the pit. I am not sure if they will kill you or not, though they are quite strong. They will certainly kill Tarcuna,” said Xolgrohim, in a smallish voice.

    “So I shouldn’t grab Tarcuna and burn my way out of here,” I said, and relayed Xolgrohim’s words to Ythac.

    “Exactly! I knew you would be sensible!” he beamed. “Now, the floor.”

    Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
    6:47 am
    Niobium Apotheosis Coils (Mating Flight 157/240)

    “Well, Murghal neng Nhestravvath came back from the desert with a doomsome demon as an ally. He’s harnessed everyone in the city up with pain. If they don’t do exactly what he says, right prompt, they hurt so bad that they’d cut their throat with a hacksaw to make it feel better. I know that for a fact. Murghal made some of the Trestean soldiers do it in the grand square, my cousin says. He was terrible before, now he is a thousand times terrible.”

    Llredh refurrowed the lentil-field with a foreclaw. ”My soldiers and my husband’s soldiers, that is who these soldiers that Murghal kills are! With Murghal, with Xolgrohim, there will be a reckoning and a night of fire! What hoven, what god, contends against me and endures? There is none! There can be none!”

    “I go first,” I said. “Those soldiers were never yours; Murghal took them before you conquered Trest. Tarcuna was mine before that, even. So I have precedence.”

    “I cede precedence!” roared Llredh. “But what of Murghal you do not destroy, that much is mine to destroy!”

    “Especially if I get killed or captured,” I said.

    Llredh breathed his assent as a column of flame, pouring miles into the sky, and most of the peasants fled. Ythac watched his husband. “Llredh, I was not sure until this very moment if they knew we were out here.”

    “Bah! Drakes and dragonesses, we are these! The dead god should quail and cower before us!”

    “The dead god is well-prepared, and intentionally tugged Jyothky’s tail to get her here. I don’t think he’ll be quailing or cowering very much,” said Ythac quietly.

    “Then he knows we are here! Or if not for certain, than he acts as if we were!” roared Llredh. “The secrecy for sneaking and creeping around in private, we never had her!”

    “Very comforting, Llredh. I’ll go round up our peasants again. Maybe they can tell us more,” I said, and did, which wasn’t so easy.

    “Llredh is very angry at Murghal,” I said. “Llredh is the dragon who conquered Trest, too. I don’t think Murghal will be around much longer. ”

    The peasants allowed as how that might be a good thing. “He won’t let us leave here, anyways, and he won’t pay for food for the city.”

    “How does he keep you?”

    “Cross the Bul Alen river and it hurts. Don’t bring food to the market, and it hurts,” said the peasant.

    “Typical paingod approach to economics … The more you can tell us about what’s going on in there, the less we’ll have to wreck … and the less chance we’ll have of killing your cousin.”

    Which uncalmed the peasant rather. “Why are you killing my cousin? Murghal is doing that already!”

    “Is he alive or dead?” Ghemelian uses different verb forms for the two, and the cousin had been getting the living forms. Fortunately we didn’t need to talk about Xolgrohim much with the peasants; I don’t know what verb forms to use for the living dead.

    “My cousin Khudris is big, my cousin Khudris is strong, my cousin Khudris is tough from farming and farming! So Murghal called him to the Pit of Despair Hospital two months ago and did a fearsome surgery upon him! Now loops of shining grey metal sprout out around his spine, spikes of metal from his shoulders, barbs pierce his cheeks, gemstones are his eyes, stained-glass lamps his ears!”

    Ythac and Llredh and I looked at each other. “Really? Why on Hove would he do a thing like that? Did your cousin Khudris offend him and need to be tortured? — but that sounds like a very strange and difficult torture. A paingod must have easier, cheaper ones.”

    “My cousin says that he has been made a god himself! I think he has been! He bought a thousandweight of beans and tomatoes. No cart brought he! He spread his arms and the beans and tomatoes floated over him, and he walked them thus into the tortured city!” said the peasant.

    “Niobium Apotheosis Coils,” said Ythac.

    “What?” said Llredh and I.

    “It sounds like the technology that the mhelvul used to become gods, before our parents conquered Mhel,” said Ythac. “Of course Xolgrohim knows how to do it; he was one of those gods. It’s sort of like the Great Separation for us: a few mhelvul survived, but they gained a presence in the astral realm.”

    “So I’m not facing one god in there. I’m facing … dozens? hundreds?”

    “You had better go as soon as you can, Jyothky,” said Ythac, arching his head over to me.

    I bopped him on the muzzle with my left ear. “You’re that eager to get rid of me?”

    “I’m thinking that a new-made god isn’t going to be that skilled with his powers. How good were you a month or two after your Great Separation, after all?”

    “Terrible. I was mostly throwing tantrums about not being able to feel anymore,” I said. “I didn’t want to learn magic.”

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you missed it,” said Ythac.

    “Oh, I’ve been complaining about it constantly in my diary … Actually, Ythac, do me another favor?” I fished my diary — not including this entry — out, and gave it to him. “If I die, and anyone misses me, have them read this. It’s the diary.”

    We embraced in the lane outside the lentil fields, while Llredh and some wondering peasants looked on. No, not that kind of embrace.

    Just a farewell kind.

    Monday, June 16th, 2014
    6:46 am
    Border of Xolgrohim (Mating Flight 156/240)

    (Day 277)

    There wasn’t any great hurry to rescue Tarcuna, not really. Xolgrohim didn’t much want to kill her, we guessed. If he did want to (or anything else), he would have done it already.

    “Unless he is trying to bring you woe, Jyothky. Or give you a distracting fury,” said Ythac.

    “I don’t think he actually hates me,” I argued. “My parents, certainly, they killed him. Killing me would annoy them a little. Killing my hoven friend whom they’ve never met wouldn’t bother them at all.”

    “I should go in there with you,” said Ythac. “Xolgrohim won’t want to kill me. If he hates my father too — and he ought to — killing me would only save my father the trouble.”

    “Have you heard from Rankotherium?” I asked.

    “I’ve told my mother about Llredh. She’s not very happy. I don’t know if she’s told my father or not. Let’s think about your lich-god problem now, please, Jyothky?”

    But there wasn’t very much we could do from outside the Mystery Zone. Except to stare at the Mystery Zone itself. It was a sticky dysparallel mess of astral magic, a rough hypersphere woven of loose burlappy cables, mostly for detection, and shot through with the scratchy tin wires of painspells. Blinding-spells grew like stinking mushrooms here and there, mostly around the Pit of Despair and one of the palaces, blocking many of Ythac’s attempts to discover anything. (But we had excellent maps, made during Trest’s invasion and occuption, current up to and excluding the capture and enslavement of both countries by astral monsters from beyond the curve of the universe.) Nothing was terribly strong, but there was a lot of it — and we felt the theoceptive prickling of the loose god about. And of course it wasn’t that much like dragon magic, and we had only a loose idea of exactly how it would behave.

    Ythac and Llredh insisted on doing every kind of research they could think of. So we interrogated some terrified local farmers, thus:

    All three of us landed in a triangle around a lentil-field where barehoofed peasants labored in thick mud. Llredh roared, “Innocent farmers! Fearing and fleeing, you must do neither of these!”

    The most organized and clever of the peasants tried to figure out what Llredh had said. The rest, naturally, tried to run away from him. Ythac and I blocked them with wings and tails and such. “Please don’t run away. We just want to ask you a few questions about what’s happened in Ghemel. We’ll pay for the information, in healing.”

    After two-thirds of an hour of determined, iron-willed, fierce peasant calming, punctuated with healing sunburn, blisters, day-old scorpion stings, and a lost finger that wasn’t going to grow back but didn’t need to be infected about it, we had three peasants to talk to. And a dozen others to farm desultorily and pretend they could rescue their friends if they got into trouble.

    “What happened in Ghemel?”, we asked.

    “Don’t know for certain,” they said. “All we know is, anyone who crosses Pran ad’Darak Street screams and screams like they was being boiled alive or something, then turns and walks into the city and never comes back out.”

    “We’ve seen hovens walking around in the city. Do you know what goes on in there?”, we asked.

    “Not for sure ‘n certain, that we don’t. My cousin says they’re mostly building things in there,” said the youngest informant.

    “What does your cousin know that you don’t?”

    “Probably a lot, if it please you. He’s been in there since nearly the beginning, and he’s important in there,” said the informant.

    Well, that was interesting. “You can talk to people inside?”

    “Oh, sure. We bring food and things to Damarrhu Market, just on this side of Pran ad’Darak, and people from the city come out and buy it. Sometimes they stay and talk. Not like proper people visiting their friends on market day, they won’t sit down and drink mint tea and sit and catch up with old friends. But they’ll say a few words,” said our peasant.

    “And what do they say?”

    “Well, Murghal neng Nhestravvath came back from the desert with a doomsome demon as an ally. He’s harnessed everyone in the city up with pain. If they don’t do exactly what he says, right prompt, they hurt so bad that they’d cut their throat with a hacksaw to make it feel better. I know that for a fact. Murghal made some of the Trestean soldiers do it in the grand square, my cousin says. He was terrible before, now he is a thousand times terrible.”

    Friday, June 13th, 2014
    6:41 am
    Kidnapped! Mating Flight 155/240

    Fury! (Day 274)

    I am so angry.

    Two days ago, Tarcuna sort of vanished. One of the servants told me she had gone off with an appealingly spherical local woman, and said to tell me she’d be back in a few days. I didn’t much blame her. She’s rather bored here, being my retainer in a situation where I don’t need retaining. There aren’t even many books in Trestean to be had. She’s trying to learn Petty Draconic — but we don’t have any books in that — and trying to learn any of the Dammese languages at the same time wouldn’t be easy.

    I mostly hoped that her romances were going better than mine.

    This afternoon, one of the servants gave me a telegraph.

    First of all, the telegraph was in a hybrid of Petty Draconic and Ghemelian, rendered as well as possible (not very!) in squirmy Dammese characters. I had to use the Word-Fox several times to make sense out of it.

    Dear Jyothky,

    I hope that the circumstances of your mating flight have become more pleasant than in the early phases. I offer my condolences for the death of Greshthanu and the departure of Tultamaan, though I hope that the composition and character of your remaining harem of suitors is more to your liking, and that you have found sufficient means for satisfying interdraconic relationships despite your technical difficulties.

    It is my unfortunate obligation to inform you that my slaves have kidnapped your companion Tarcuna and brought her to the Pit of Despair Prison in downtown Ghemel. I completely acknowledge that this is unconscionably rude, though I hope it stops short of the start of outright hostilities. I need to invite you, in person, alone, to the Pit of Despair Prison (the name is inherited from the days of Uncle Holder and is no longer strictly accurate). It goes without saying that Tarcuna will be released unharmed into your custody as soon as possible, unless truly regrettable circumstances compel otherwise.

    In any case, I look forward to greeting you at the Pit of Despair, and proferring my most sincere and spirit-felt (for I lack an actual heart) apologies for my actions. Please be aware that I have collected the most valuable and portable treasures of Ghemel in the Pit of Despair, and am prepared to emphasize my apology which any or all of them.

    I’m afraid that the invitation is for yourself alone. We cannot accomodate even a single dragon more in suitable style, although, should uninvited guests arrive, the divine magic of Mhel combines with Hove’s military science exceedingly well. It might well suffice to discourage unanticipated guests. It will certainly suffice to kill a hoven already in our clutches. This inhospitality, though regrettable and indeed regretted, is quite temporary. After events have completely satisfied their evolution, you and your companions may help yourselves to the valuables of Ghemel with my (admittedly vile) blessing.

    Your regrettably wicked friend,
    Xolgrohim

    The primary fury: My friend Xolgrohim — or self-proclaimed friend Xolgrohim — has kidnapped my second-best friend in anywhere, and is using her as bait to lure me into a trap! Aside from the obvious difficulties and inconvenience of that, I do not approve of my friends behaving badly towards each other.

    The secondary fury: After a bit of consideration, I can’t tell my mating flight about it. I would lose so many fiancée points, there’d be no counting them. I’m sure I could find something more humiliating to do than announce to everyone that I had lost track of my pet hoven and they had to go rescue her. I can’t think of what, though.

    Still, I am not without resources.

    «Ythac? Do you have time to chat?»

    «Only if it’s supremely urgent do I have time this hour, and you and Llredh are the only two who can call on that degree of urgency. Can it wait for an hour and a third?» he answered, and his mindwriting looked a bit ragged.

    «It can wait that long, Ythac.» Flying to Ghemel would take much more than an hour and a third.

    I’m not a complete idiot. (Eleven-twelfths an idiot I will grant you without the least bit of argument.) I wrote the mating flight a detailed note about what I was doing, and gave it to a slow but reliable servant to copy several times and send to everyone through the slow but unreliable Damman postal system.

    So: fly, fly, fly. I had lots of time to think, and not much else to do. I made a few guesses about Xolgrohim’s plans and intentions.

    Nearly an hour later, over one of Damma’s interminable jungles: «Right. Executions are properly arranged and sentences commuted for tomorrow. What did you want, Jyothky? Your words looked worried.»

    «I am worried.» … and I transcribed Xolgrohim’s whole telegram to him.

    «Well, that’s not good,» he wrote back.

    «That it is not,» I answered.

    «No — what’s not good is that Tarcuna is hidden from finding spells. I can’t help very much from here.»

    «Oh, that is bad. I didn’t know paingods could do that,» I said.

    «I didn’t either. I wish I could give you useful clues here, Jyothky, but I don’t have many. Do you want Llredh and me to come with you?»

    «I do, but I don’t know whether or not it’s a good idea. If he’s being honest, he’s not going to hurt me, and he’d try to kill you if you came.»

    «What makes you say that?»

    «My best guess is, he’s trying to kill my parents for killing him. Osoth didn’t exactly say very much about it, but that sounds like a very undead reason to do something like this.»

    «That’s one possibility. Maybe he’s just trying to get revenge however he can. Killing his killer’s child might satisfy him just as well as killing his killers would.»

    I had been avoiding thinking about that option. «Probably that’s not it.» I waved some textual exegesis of bits of the telegraph at him. Unpersuasively, since we weren’t sure that anything was compelling Xolgrohim to be truthful.

    «So, the only thing we’re pretty sure of is that Xolgrohim is trying to kill some dragons. Maybe you, maybe your parents. Maybe your parents preferably, but failing that, you. So I am not particularly happy about you flying there alone,» Ythac wrote. «Fiancée points won’t do you much good if you’re dead. If Arilash or anyone is paying any attention to them, which I doubt.»

    I scribbled «Well, find out what weapons he’s got for me, and I’ll do something appropriate.»

    «The most appropriate thing would be to leave your hoven there. Poor Tarcuna, but you’re a lot more important than she is.» Which is both sensible and true, but I was having none of it. So Ythac poked at the Mystery Zone with his best far-range information spells, but Xolgrohim had blocked them. «That’s all I can do from here. If I were nearby, I could do a lot more.»

    «So come nearby,» I wrote back.

    «You don’t mind? You’re flying off like some heroine from before the astral era. Thought you might want to do it alone.»

    «Esrret’s star! I want whatever help I can get! Besides, you had better help me for your own sake. Your parents offended him nearly as much as mine did. If we let him live succeed this time, he’ll be after you next. With more expertise for him, and fewer allies for you. You and Llredh had better be flying right outside the Mystery Zone, ready to swoop in for rescue or revenge!»

    «Hold on … » I waited a while. «Llredh says that yes, he’d absolutely rather fight an undead paingod than spend a single hour more on the new constitution.»

    Which sounds like a plan to me, and a better one than flying into the Pit of Despair all alone.

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014
    6:50 am
    I Win The Sex Contest! (Day 188) (Mating Flight 154/240)

    I Win The Sex Contest! (Day 188)

    Arilash and I had a sex contest today and I won!

    We were at the Erotic Temple of Patthakara, all devoted to hovens mating with each other for the glory of some of their gods. I don’t understand the theology one bit. And I got the devious idea. I said, “Arilash! We have three males here, for a total of nine male members! That’s an odd number! I challenge you thus: Each member will be used once, by one of us. Whoever has used more of them in the end, wins!”

    Well, she could hardly refuse that contest! And it was sort of a performance piece, it fit the style of the Patthakara complex quite nicely. We had grosses of hovens watching us, just sitting on the steps of the temple or under the spreading uulama trees, eating their picnics and watching and sometimes filming.

    I am the devious little dragoness though! I made sure that Arilash got two turns with Csirnis, on the larger and thus slower two hemipenes. Csirnis does not do things by halves. He does not rush. He can be quite distracting, in the most pleasant way, to a dragoness who is capable of feeling his distractions. I am not nearly so pleasant. I hope not unpleasant — the ghee helps a good deal, and after the first few rounds I was quite sloppy and sloshy with drake-juices anyways. Nor so distractable: I kept an eye on Arilash, though she mostly had eyes for her drake-of-the-moment.

    Anyways, when I had finished my fourth twine, which was with Osoth, Arilash and Csirnis were all lovingly tangled up together, their tails flopping in the reflecting pool, and they looked as if they’d be glad to enjoy each other for another hour or two. So I grinned at Nrararn, and called him over, and he was my fifth round.

    And when Arilash and Csirnis finished, my rival knew that she had been defeated in a contest in her area of strength.

    By my superior powers of arithmetic.

    (I doubt that I’ll ever win a sex contest again. I’ve managed to twine the three drakes maybe half a dozen times since the Hide and Seek game, total, compared to Arilash’s keeping them all pretty happy for most of that time.)

    Oh, well, I do what I can do. I’m pretty sure that everyone enjoyed the contest, anyways.

    Sunday, June 8th, 2014
    8:45 pm
    Patthakadu (Day 169)

    Patthakadu (Day 169)

    Damma wanted us.

    Also, of course, Damma didn’t want us.

    Damma is a very big country, larger and more diverse than Trest. It has the Chidana mountains, huge and vicious, against which the Khamrou range would be small and very innocent foothills. It has the flood plains of the Mumtarry river and its many tributaries, so green with corn and mustard, beans and cabbages and the thousand spices of Dammese cooking that they can be seen from the other side of the sky. Patthakadu and Tethettha are cities as urban and sophisticated as Dorday and Perstra, at least in the wealthier quarters. Bhalata is ancient and holy, and the huts of the gods are unchanged since the earliest days.

    And the politics is just as messy. The Mother Spice Party is more or less on top of the country, ruling with occasional stunning flashes of adequacy. The SNKVhH — a few people told me what that stands for, but I can’t remember — opposes Mother Spice at every turn. Fifty-eight registered minority parties swap back and forth between the two main poles at their convenience. Then there are the religious parties. Damma has lots of religious parties. Damma has lots of religions, each of them with lots of gods, some of whom are the same as other gods. I don’t think that even the Dammans have a very good idea of everything going on in Damma.

    Fortunately, we’re not trying to understand Damma, or even rule Damma. We’re just trying to get official permission to use Patthakadu and environs for a few years.

    Our approach was straightforwardness itself:

    1. Fly from Dorday towards Patthakadu.
    2. Realize halfway there that we might want to warn them first.
    3. Ask Ythac to have what’s left of his Diplomatic Brigade send them a message.
    4. Spend two and five-twelfths hours trying to calm Ythac, apologize to Ythac, and otherwise get Ythac to understand that we’re not actually tossing him into the volcano of his husband and his country all by himself.
    5. I (carrying Tarcuna) fly back to Perstra, while Arilash and the drakes go to Patthakadu.
    6. I stay up very late talking with Ythac about nothing in particular. We actually sleep together, in a somnolent but not adulterous sense. Llredh, according to Ythac, finds something else to amuse himself with.
    7. Csirnis somehow talks the Spice Mother Party and the SNKVhH into provisionally letting us stay in Patthakadu with official blessing. I do not think that anyone specifically points out quite how imposing it will be to have five of the seven dragons on Hove living in their country. The official blessing is conditional on some sort of religious test, in which the nation’s gods get a chance to reject us. Since they’re not real, we are not particularly worrried.
    8. Tarcuna, smelling considerably of soap and perfume, and I, smelling considerably of tired drake and no sex, fly on to Patthakadu. Of course Arilash’s the Melismatic Tempest has worn off, so the trip takes over a day and many broken ribs thanks to the utterly cursed the Dozenwing Dozentail.

    Which, unfortunately, makes it one of the best-conceived and best-executed plans we have ever devised.

    We have been given the Imperial Patthakadu Cavalry Academy as our home for the next few years. Convenient, I suppose, because cavalry hasn’t been used in the army in over a century, so they had just started shutting the academy down. (Damma doesn’t make changes over-hastily.) By the time I got there, the others had voted four to zero that everyone would look like themselves, with none of the size-changes that satisfied absolutely nobody in Dorday.

    “That’s fine,” I said.

    “So we’re sleeping in the buildings that are big enough for us to sleep in,” said Nrararn apologetically.

    “I can concede that there might be some advantage to that approach, compared to the possibility of sleeping in buildings that we do not fit in,” I said.

    “Well, you might want to sleep out of doors for a few weeks, even though it rains every night,” said Nrararn, as he showed me to my sleeping chamber. Which was a stable, again. The Royal Stable in Strobland had had a floor of mighty flagstones, tilted and drained, and washed every day by heroic Stroblander stable hands. The Imperial Patthakadu Cavalry Academy was built and maintained to different standards. The floors were dirt. Dirt packed by centuries of hoven hooves and horse hooves, to be sure. Dirt cleaned by Dammese peasants, who, as far as I could tell, had not been heroic. I didn’t dare go in.

    “I’ll either sleep outdoors, or bite my tongue off so I can’t smell it,” I said. “Can’t you use some sky magic to air it out a bit?”

    Nrararn’s tail drooped. “I tried most of yesterday.” He pointed a wing to the other side of the parade ring. “That is no longer a stinking barn.”

    “It is no longer a barn at all,” I pointed out. The boards of its walls and roof were scattered over a hundred yards, and a dozen peasants were gathering them.

    “Yet, it still stinks,” said Nrararn sadly. “Csirnis is trying to arrange for some tents.”

    I flomped on the well-horsed ground. “Csirnis should arrange to bite off the prime minister’s toes. This isn’t much of a place to live, compared to the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium.”

    Nrararn trickled his foreclaws over my head tenderly. (I thought for a while and decided to take it as a comforting gesture rather than an utterly unnecessary and inexcusable bit of ignoring my basic flaw. I was too tired to have a proper fight.) “I’m sorry, Jyothky. Csirnis is arranging to get new buildings built, actually.

    “I suppose that’s more practical than biting off toes,” I said.

    By eveningtime, two big tents had been procured. Nrararn and Arilash shared one of them, vigorously. Csirnis and Osoth shared the other, chastely. I turned into a seabird and slept on the back of a chair in Tarcuna’s dorm room, also chastely.

    We should have stayed in Dorday.

    Friday, June 6th, 2014
    6:47 am
    More Storming Off (Mating Flight 152/240)

    “I thought you said Dorday was fun,” said Arilash in a rather whiny voice, in Petty Draconic. She was draped artistically over Csirnis in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium. They had been up to something more appropriate for a mating flight than what I had been doing with Tarcuna, from the smell of it.

    “It was fun, the first time I was here,” I protested. I was myself again, or rather the small-sized version of myself that I was using for this leg of the trip.

    “I’m afraid that it’s coming off as a bit awkward socially,” said Csirnis. He gave me a big golden smile, with barbels spread.

    “Your display of beauty will not help you!” I hissed at him. “I still recognize that you are not pleased with my choice of city!”

    Osoth crept from behind a potted fake tree. “Indeed, a strange restlessness has fallen thickly upon us all, with you as the sole exception. Now, the phantoms of departure beckon us onward, forward, farward to some distant realm wherein we may, perhaps, find something closer to the heart’s desire.”

    That earned him a lightning bolt. Just a tiny one, but the accompanying thunderclap sent the hoven hotel staff scurrying away and even got Tarcuna to frown. ”I’m supposed to be your heart’s desire. Or Arilash if your heart desires sharing.”

    Osoth looked hurt. “One may acquire the occasional misconception about what is desire for me, and what is tactics. Case in point: I desire to act honorably; thus I hold to promises made for tactical reasons in a very different situation.”

    “He said ‘no’,” Arilash translated.

    “It is far from obvious that I did. Indeed, it is far from obvious what ‘no’ might mean, under the circumstances,” Osoth clarified. Unclarified, actually.

    “Dorday’s not going to get much better,” said Nrararn, on the hotel’s registration desk. “The Magic Horn said that tourism is down by 90% from this time last year.”

    “How much is that in real numbers?” asked Arilash.

    Nrararn tightened his wings to concentrate on the math. “Ten and three-quarters twelfths. The whole country is scared, and people don’t want to go away from home in case some extra disaster happens. By ‘disaster’ they mean ‘dragons’. Especially they don’t want to come here, since according to the Magic Horn, Dorday is crawling with dragons.”

    “More room for us, then,” I said.

    “More closed attractions, and more resentment from the hovens running the ones that are open,” said Csirnis softly.

    I had obviously gotten outmaneuvered again, with the whole rest of the mating flight deciding on what to do next without mentioning it to me. Getting out without bleeding fiancée points all over the Grand Hotel Dorday Elysium lobby was going to be hard. I wrote a quick urgent note to Ythac, and got back a quick urgent answer. “Patthakadu, then?”

    Arilash peered at me. “What does that mean? What language is that, even?”

    “It’s a big city in northern Damma. Also it’s a big forest and game preserve,” I said, sounding just as if I had investigated the whole of Damma thoroughly and picked the best place after much careful consideration. Actually I had picked the best place, I just didn’t know why. «Thank you, Ythac, for your finding spell!»

    Everydragon blinked at me. “You want to go? We thought you’d want to stay in Dorday.”

    “Dorday’s only a good tourist spot if you’re clever and skillful enough to blend in with the hovens, to win their trust and lull them into complacency!” I explained. “As I did last time.” I count that as winning a few fiancée points, or at least losing fewer.

    Tarcuna gave me a very odd look. “What are you say you are hoven?” She was trying to speak Petty Draconic, and making a total hash of it.

    “We’re going to leave Dorday. I am trying to talk the others into going to Patthakadu, in Damma,” I said. The other dragons nodded — yay, I had my fiancée points! If anyone else was keeping any score anymore, which I don’t think they were, since I’m the only one who had even started out doing it.

    What I gained in fiancée points, I lost in loyal minion points. Tarcuna looked rather hurt. “I haven’t seen Kangbok yet.”

    “Then stay and see her,” said Nrararn. “This isn’t your mating flight, after all. If Jyothky wants a servant, well, there are grands upon grands of people in Damma, most of them terribly poor and eager to get hired.”

    “She’s not my servant exactly. More of a minion,” I said. “If I wanted a servant, I’d get one with two working arms.”

    “If you were better at healing magic, I’d have two working arms,” said Tarcuna.

    “If I were better at healing magic, I’d start by fixing your broken psyche, so you’d have the least bit of caution back. And better sense about insulting dragons.”

    Tarcuna shrugged. “It’s all borrowed time anyways. Do I get time to pack at least?”

    “Go pack now, if you want to come with us. We’re still deciding where to go.”

    Patthakadu, of course.

    Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
    6:39 am
    Tarcuna’s Ancestral Home (Mating Flight 151/240)

    Tarcuna’s Ancestral Home

    Tarcuna’s family certainly had some status to lose. Their home was a substantial three-floor mansionlet on the side of a big park. Heavy oak trees guarded the front door, and flowering ivy dripped off the walls. A stone hoven danced on the back of a stone turtle in a little pond, and water dripped from her spread hands.

    “Great-grandpa made his money in cans, you know,” said Tarcuna as she tugged on the doorbell.

    “I don’t know. I don’t even understand,” I said. “Was he in a can? Or did the money come to him in cans? The Word-Fox doesn’t list that as an expression of abundance, but it’s not a very good fox with metaphors.”

    Tarcuna said, “Neither of those. He invented a way to boil canned food quickly, and made a lot of money. We still —-”

    A hoven man opened the door. His fur matched Tarcuna’s, red with grey stripes, though he wore his hair short and his bathrobe long. “Yes… Tarcuna? Is that you?”

    “Your very own daughter, in the flesh.”

    “Who were you talking to?” he asked.

    Tarcuna stomped one hoof. “Not ‘Welcome home, dear child!’? Not even ‘Go away, you disgusting monster!’?”

    “Come in, come in. I am glad to see you.” Tarcuna’s father held the door open, a corridor into a private universe full of knickknacks, bagatelles, flummeries, objets d’art, thingamajigs, whatnots, baubles, bric-a-brac, and novelties, but absolutely not a single whimsy. As Tarcuna walked through, he took her in his arms for a close hug. She tensed at first, and then hugged him back. Which left me, in the purse, rather squashed. A real snake might have been upset. My apotropaics are proof against paternal affection.

    “Who is it, Mogen?” called a woman from deeper into the house.

    “Tarcuna’s come back to us, Vetha!” Mogen answered.

    Vetha came running, her hooves thumping dully on the antique carpet, her braid of red hair thumping on her back, her stench of confusion and anger all about her for anydragon who has a working tongue to smell. She glared at her daughter, and said, “You’ve been in the news lately.”

    Tarcuna extricated herself from her father’s embrace, shoved past her parents, and sat in a big puffy chair with threadbare green upholstery in the parlor. I poked my head out of the bag and looked at walls full of dusty-framed photographs of self-important hovens, and stained glass lamps depicting three of the four suns. “Doing my part for the family reputation.”

    “I’ll have you know that everyone thinks you’re being simply dreadful. Treason, they call it, and I can’t say I disagree,” said Vetha.

    “Working with the government of Trest is treason? Or maybe it’s treason to be working to keep the dragons from killing too many more of us. Or perhaps it’s the bit about trying to get rid of the soul-stealing worms that’s the problem?” said Tarcuna.

    “Getting monsters to conquer your country is treason, dear,” said Vetha, sneering a bit.

    Tarcuna laughed. “I don’t have that kind of influence. I have kept them from burning a few cities and everyone in them, though. So if you really care about your reputation, you can tell everyone I’ve been more effective protecting us from the dragons than anyone else. Than everyone else put together, even.”

    Vetha hissed, “What do you want here, Tarcuna?”

    “To see you and Dad again. See if you’re ready to forgive me for the little things you disinherited me for, now that I’m a hero of the nation and all,” said Tarcuna. She was lying.

    “I don’t think that’s exactly right, Tarcuna,” interjected Mogen. “The newspapers have not yet chosen to reveal that side of your saga.”

    “Tarcuna! You started out as a pervert, then became a whore, and now a traitor and collaborator with the dragons!” said Vetha. “I’m at a loss for what you’ll come up with for an encore.”

    “Apostasy, probably. After the worm ate me I stopped going to services,” said Tarcuna.

    Mogen mumbled, “After moving in with a tappu lover, and a girl at that? The only think keeping you from apostasy proceedings is the lax state of religious record keeping and enforcement nowadays.”

    “That plus a large black dragon in my pocket should just about do it, though,” said Tarcuna. “I should try to talk Llredh into repealing the apostasy laws. They’re pernicious laws anyways.”

    “Why did you do it, Tarcuna? Why did you do it to us?”, cried Vetha.

    “I didn’t do it to you. Kangbok I did to me. After she kicked me out, I had less than a week of free will before Elesma’s worm got me. After that I wasn’t thinking about you at all, or about myself either.”

    Vetha was twisting a heavy tassle in her hands, and looking quite uncomfortable. “Lying isn’t a big addition to your list of crimes, Tarcuna. I suppose you might think you can’t dishonor yourself any more deeply. But that nonsense about cyoziworms isn’t even a very good lie. Nobody believes it. If I were you, I should just just say, ‘I needed money, so I took up the one trade that my natural inclinations suited me for and led me to.’”

    Tarcuna frowned. “Let us leave aside the question about just why I needed money, when, after all, my parents haven’t yet managed to squander all of grandpa’s inheritance yet. Actually I didn’t need money that much. I was a waitress at Billy’s. But you really ought to believe about the worms. It’s true.”

    “It’s preposterous,” said Vetha.

    “It’s true. Prof. Wulpmegarn and lots of others saw them. That was in the paper too.”

    “My dear Tarcuna!” Vetha’s adjective made my veriception sneeze. “There were three dragons in the room. Including the one who tortured Archconsul Shuvanne into surrendering the country! I should imagine that your Wulpmegarn would have been quite glad to swear to the papers that Virtuet is dark and Curset is light!” She sat up a bit straighter. “If he’s not an cunya altogether!”

    “That’s not a word I approve of in the presence of my daughter,” said Mogen.

    “What does it mean, anyways? It sounds almost like a certain rude word for one of the nicest parts of a woman’s body,” said Tarcuna.

    “And it sounds almost like the last half of your name, which is where it comes from,” said Vetha. “And what it means is, a collaborator with the dragons. I don’t know for sure everything you’ve done, but I do know you’ve given us that word.” She crossed her legs primly. “At least you had the good luck not to use the family name for it.”

    Tarcuna picked up a stained-glass lamp in her good hand, and threw it clumsily at the photographs on a wall. “And you aren’t so much a mother as an earthly incarnation of the Lady of Peppers.”

    “We’ll have no more of that, young lady,” said Vetha. “Now get out of my house, and go back to your dragons, and stop troubling decent people anymore.”

    They tossed a few more insults back and forth, with Mogen waving his arms and trying to calm them down. Neither one wanted to be calmed, though. Theirs was an old fight, and a bitter one.

    “And how, exactly, are you keeping those dragons in line? The Magic Horn says you’re sharing a hotel room with one of them! I think that the implications of that word ‘cunya’ are very precise in your case, My Daughter the Traitor Whore!”

    “I am doing no such thing!” said Tarcuna. Veriception said she was lying. Memory, of course, said she was telling the truth. I resolved to ask her about that, though I haven’t, yet. “I shan’t stay here and be insulted!” She got up, kicked the chair over, and clomped through the front door.

    “If the truth is an insult, you are certainly living your life wrong!” shouted Vetha after her, sounding glad to get the last word.

    Tarcuna pulled me out of her pouch. “Did I say something about you shouldn’t kill my mother? I didn’t mean it.” She was lying, but not very much.

    I coiled around her wrist. “Yes, you did mean it. And even if you didn’t, I’m not killing people for your convenience. If you want them dead, you can do it yourself.”

    “I’m almost tempted. I come back trying to apologize and make up, and she starts with the insults,” lied Tarcuna.

    I didn’t much want to argue with her about that. “Try again in a few years. Once Ythac gets to work, being the dragons’ ally won’t seem like such a bad thing.”

    Fortunately Tarcuna doesn’t have veriception.

    Monday, June 2nd, 2014
    12:15 pm
    OOC: On Choosing To Be Queer
    Some people, many of them anti-gay, say that homosexuality is a choice. Here's my story on choosing to be queer, and not choosing to be queer.
    I'm queer three ways. (1) I identify as neuter-gendered. (2) I do not pick my lovers on the basis of their genitalia. (3) I am polyamorous.
    TL;DR:
    (1) neuter is a bad thing, and I did not choose it.
    (2) pansexual is a good thing, and I did not choose it.
    (3) polyamory is a good thing, and I *did* choose it.
    --------------------------------------------------
    (1)
    I have always hated being masculine. The physical bits are the worst, with the social aspects a close second. This half is probably similar to M2F people. However, I'm not M2F: I don't want to be feminine any more than I want to be masculine. I don't want to be personally involved in the gender system at all.
    As far as I can tell, there is *no* upside to being neuter-gendered. It makes me uncomfortable and unhappy in my own skin and my own communities (except the genderqueer community). It's definitely not good for sexplay; details available in private. I haven't figured out how to have any fun with it. Except, I guess, when I do interesting things with gender in my fiction.
    I didn't choose to be neuter. I discovered that I was, after a long time of poking at gender identities. The discovery felt most like someone who has been sick with something mysterious and unidentified for years suddenly, finally, discovering that their condition has a name and some medical reality.
    I'd like to choose *not* to be neuter. Except, I can't.
    (2)
    I measure my sexual orientation by observing myself: noting who catches my eye, who I get crushes on, what kind of porn works for me, that sort of thing. Those observations are not heavily sex-biased. I don't like highly masculine men, or sometimes highly feminine women, but the other 70% of the population and the gender spectrum is nice to look at.
    I'm going to call this "pansexual" because that's the closest standard word I can think of before caffeine.
    I didn't choose to be pansexual. I'm pretty happy with it though. It doesn't limit my behavior or my happiness the way being neuter does.
    (3)
    If left to my own devices, I would have been monogamous. Perhaps with occasional cheating, more likely with occasional nearly-cheating and feeling terrible about it for years afterwards.
    But I met Vicki, who *is* naturally polyamorous. And part of the price of being with Vicki is dealing with her being polyamorous. Well worth it! But it's some emotional work anyhow: a fair bit at the beginning, rather less now.
    After years of envying her dating success, I decided to try it out myself. The first while was not brilliant. My current second relationship *is* good polyamory, for which Charlie and Vicki get all the credit.
    I did choose, intentionally and consciously, to be polyamorous.
    It wasn't a casual choice. It was essential for being with the love of my life.
    It isn't an easy choice for me. Even after twenty-five years, it takes significant amounts of conscious work for me and for Vicki. And even with that work, I don't feel like I do polyamory very well, compared to the innately poly people in my community. I feel like a human swimming with dolphins: after all this practice, I'm a pretty good swimmer for a human, but the dolphins are infinitely better and always will be.
    It was worth it. It would be worth it just to be one of Vicki's life partners. Charlie is a delightful bonus.
    --------------------------------------------------
    I do know what it's like to choose a romantic orientation. It's hard! It's constant work. It wakes you up at night and sits on your chest and asks "Is this who you really are?", and the best reply, "This is who I really want to be", only chases it off for so long. It's holding your boyfriend's hand and getting a quick anxiety attack of "What if your wife finds out?", and the best reply, "She knows, she gave permission, she's right behind us holding her girlfriend's hand." doesn't quite bring calm.
    I also know what it's like to innately be queer, in a way that society doesn't approve of. That's hard in a very different way, even in my very first-world-problem situation. You constantly have to work to be some approximation of your true self. The world at large often doesn't even see who you are, and when they see they are generally unfriendly and unhelpful, at best.
    Sunday, June 1st, 2014
    9:50 pm
    Language of Serpents (Day 167; Mating Flight 150/240)

    Language of Serpents (Day 167)

    “What should I wear to visit your mother?” I asked Tarcuna.

    She finished buckling her green leather belt with the big pouch around her waist, then burrowed around in the suitcases of clothes and personal effects she had taken from Red Spires, which were now taking up most of our hotel room. “Here, try this on!” she said as she tossed me a tangle of black straps and sequins.

    It didn’t seem significant to either vision or dangersense. I dodged away from it anyways. “What is it?”

    “It matches your scales!”

    “So does the night sky, and I don’t wear that,” was the only reasonable answer.

    “The night sky doesn’t match your scales,” she pointed out. “It’s green and orange and brown and blue and white. You are black. Black is not any of those colors.” I obviously can’t even keep track of which universe I’m in.

    “Well, it’s black where I come from,” I said. “How am I supposed to wear this, anyways?”

    “You can’t, not without turning into a hoven first. And don’t do that. It’s a very practical private working garment from my old job. Even when I was wormridden I wouldn’t wear it in public.”

    I poked the thing with a claw. It didn’t react. I’m sure it was just biding its time to strike. “What do you want me to look like when we visit your mother?”

    “Nothing.”

    She can be a very confusing hoven. “You don’t want me there?” I asked.

    “Oh, I want you there. I want you invisible.” Tarcuna asked.

    “That works better when I’m flying. On the ground I run into things. That makes everyone suspicious,” I said. Spells like the Esrret-Sky-Painted and the Pyerthu’s Spare Hallucination are a vaguely useful trick now and then. But they don’t work very well where it counts the most: other dragons can’t see you, but they can find you with any of a dozen other senses. You’ve made yourself look like a fountain of glitter to magioception, on the off chance you didn’t have any spells on otherwise.

    “Well, I don’t want my mother to know I’ve brought a dragon for backup,” Tarcuna said. “It would be embarrassing.”

    I turned into a tri-colored ribbon snake and slithered into Tarcuna’s belt pouch. “I suppose that will do,” she said. “Now for the harder question, of what I should wear? I’d take the peach tunic, but … do you have any spells for sewing clothes up instantly, Jyothky?”

    I peeked out at the tunic. “I don’t. Is it torn? It doesn’t look torn.”

    “It’s got a flap for Bopo to stick out. I am not going to wear any clothes like that ever again,” she stated inexorably. “But everything shocking is like that, or is too indecent to wear outdoors.”

    “You’re trying to shock her?” I wondered.

    “When she disowned me, she was vicious and vehement about the sort of life I’d be leading and how bad it would be for her social standing. As if the only reason I’d fall in love with Kangbok was to trouble her. She was sort of right about that.” (Which was a lie, but I count it as storytelling.) “So it would be only gracious to show her how right she was. And if I happen to be bad for her social standing in the process, well, that’s just more evidence she was right, isn’t it?”

    I peered up at her. She looks a good deal more imposing when one is a tiny snake. “Is that how you’re supposed to treat your mother?”

    “I’m picking etiquette up from you.”

    I blinked at her. Which works very badly with transparent eyelids. “I don’t treat my mother like that.”

    “I’ve never seen you with your mother. You treat hovens like that. I’m your catspaw. What do you expect from me?”

    “Obedience and moral guidance, maybe?”

    She flicked my chin with a fingertip, hard enough to presumably hurt. “Not likely.” She stared at her clothes, and picked something red and orange and not as revealing as she wanted.

    I let my catspaws get away with far too much, don’t I?

    Friday, May 30th, 2014
    6:42 am
    The Battle with the Guardian of the Wheel of Iron (Mating Flight 149/240)

    Guardian of the Wheel of Iron

    After breakfast, we went to the St. Cheerior Amusement Park. Tarcuna and I had spent an afternoon when I was here before, and I had enjoyed it a lot.

    This time … well, the amusements were pretty much the same. The spirals spun, the balls bounced, and the whirligigs were ready to ride. There weren’t very many hovens around to ride them though. Perhaps a few dozen, in a park which had held a few grand the last time I was here.

    The centerpiece of St. Cheerior Amusement Park is the big wheel. It’s a very big vertical wheel, a massive thing of iron and wood and glittery brass cages for hovens to ride in, built in earlier days when hovens knew some technology but not all that they know now. A heavy iron engine by its side somehow burns wood and boils water and turns it around. Not terribly fast; this isn’t a whirligig ride. I could levitate up faster than the big wheel turns. Of course hovens can’t levitate, or get into the sky in all that many ways, so the big wheel is perhaps the easiest way to see all Dorday spread beneath you like a very spiky picnic. When I was here before, the lines for the big wheel took a third of an hour.

    “Let’s go up on the Big Wheel!” I said.

    “Ooh, we can get stuffed in a little iron cage and hoisted around to shallow heights much more slowly than we can fly!” said Arilash. She flapped her wings. “Let’s go!” She and I had been determinedly mocking each other all morning, in best Mating Flight style.

    So we went, or tried to.

    With the park so empty, there were no lines, for the big wheel or anything else. A bored-looking hoven boy sat by the ticket booth, with an older hoven, just as bored, tending the engine.

    “Give us five tickets,” said Arilash to the boy. “Here’s the fifteen thurnies.”

    The boy smelled of terror. He pushed the money back at her. “No.”

    “Beg pardon?” said Arilash.

    “No. No dragons allowed.” said the boy.

    “What?”

    “No dragons allowed. This is for hovens only,” he said.

    The engineer said, “Dakko, let me take care of this,” and stepped to the ticket booth. The boy scuttled behind the engine. “Well, sir dragon, this wheel’s only for people. No dragons.”

    “That’s ridiculous,” said Arilash. “Your country is ruled by dragons now.”

    “That’s as may be, sir. I ain’t in charge of the country. I am in charge of the big wheel. And as long as I’m in charge of it, no dragons go riding it nohow.”

    “Would you deny Ythac, your master?” she hissed.

    “Yes, sir, I’d deny that Ythac is my master. I’m a free man, I am. I don’t have a master. I’ve got an archconsul, to be sure. An archconsul who’s a coward and an idiot for surrendering, but we elected him and no dragon is going to come say that he’s not ours,” said the engineer.

    “Except for Llredh, of course,” I added.

    The engineer glared at me. “I said Shuvanne’s a coward, to give up so easy. Me, I ain’t no coward.”

    “You don’t have a dragon’s claw rammed through your chest,” I pointed out.

    “You do that, sir. Kill me if you like, go right ahead. You’re still not getting a ride on the big wheel from me,” said the engineer, stinking of fear and gleaming with bravery.

    “It would be ungracious to kill this man,” said Csirnis in Grand Draconic. “Even if it were not Ythac and Llredh’s territory.”

    “I’m not going to!” I hissed back at him.

    I stared at the engineer. He frowned at me. “Well, you’ve got no business here. Go away.”

    I glared at him. I was awfully offended. Of course I couldn’t kill him or hurt him very much without poaching against Ythac and thinking much worse of myself. Maybe a flick of hukuchô? But driving him off didn’t sound helpful, and he certainly didn’t deserve the torture anyways. Maybe arguing that I was helping the hovens, but I wasn’t sure I could persuade myself of that, much less one of them. So I just glared.

    “Observe the might of Jyothky! She is currently having her tail handed to her by an unarmed, feeble hoven,” said Arilash.

    “Because I was helping you!” I squeaked.

    “I didn’t need help. I know what to do,” she said to me in Grand Draconic. In Trestean, she hissed at the engineer, “Your meagre Hoven obstinacy cannot prevent me from riding the wheel!” She leapt into the air and circled over us, hissing. “Come on, come on! We all must conquer this wheel!”

    So the drakes flew after her to the top of the wheel. I blinked at the engineer, and joined them. We sat on top of a glittering cage, which swayed and wobbled under our weight. The wheel turned slowly. When the one cage with hovens in it came to be the bottom, the engineer stopped the wheel and let them out. They fled. The engineer glared at us, and left the wheel still. So we flew back to the top car, and sat on it for a third of an hour as the engineer told everyone about us.

    After we had been there long enough to declare victory, we flew back to our hotel, and sat in the lobby while doleful or angry hovens watched us darkly.

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