They’re big and deep, twisty enough so that Virtuet’s light doesn’t sneak far into them at any hour of the day. The stone is some soft orange stuff that isn’t exactly sandstone. It’s not as hard as claws. That afternoon, everyone else claw-planed their sleeping places flat of all the little bumps. I just picked a vaguely flat spot that wouldn’t do any actual damage when I slept there. Everyone else is just over-sensitive. Or, well, just plain sensitive.
But the fun part of my afternoon wasn’t the sex (which didn’t happen). We caught a hoven.
One of the caves was all nice and empty, as far as we felt like looking.
The other cave wasn’t. It smelled of all sorts of things: sweaty mammals, oiled metal, cloth, spiced meat, uncleaned privy, this, that, and the other. We’d landed in a flutter of wings that didn’t leave any tracks in the sand by the cave entrance, but there were winding trails on the path to the river, as though a thick-tailed creature had walked back and forth several times without leaving footprints.
“What’s that?” I wondered. “Are there local dragon-cousins?” But it didn’t smell a bit ophidian.
“Let’s go and see.” Ythac folded his wings and stalked into the cave, mouth half-open, the fires ready at the base of his throat.
Someone inside growled at him in a deep voice, a complicated guttural language that vaguely reminded me of strangling an unusually eloquent cow. I stuck my head over Ythac’s shoulder to see. It was a hoven, of course: a Basic Biped, with hooves on his feet, a single smallish teat or udder on his chest, big rectangular eyes flat on his round face. He had short grey fur all over. (I looked at his picture books afterwards — hovens come in grey, dim blue, dim red, dim purple, and most combinations. Lucky ones have stripes.) Unfortunately he had ten fingers, like mhelvul — I hate that, it means they use decimal not duodecimal.
Anyways, he was holding a big gun in both hands. He shouted a war-cry. (Let’s give him that. It might have been the name of his favorite dessert or anything, we couldn’t understand it.) He shot at us with the gun. Little metal bullets spattered off our scales and protective spells, and bounced off the rocks.
“That’s a shame. We’ve got to kill him now,” I said.
“Are you sure?”, Ythac asked.
“Well, he attacked us,” I said. “He still is attacking.” The hoven had picked up a big axe and was trying to split Ythac’s chin.
“Pretty brave of him,” Ythac said.
“Right. It’s the brave ones we need to kill. Otherwise they’ll all be encouraged to fight at us.” Which is only common sense. Also one of the few things that my parents agree on about punishing mhelvul.
“That’s how it goes on dragon-worlds. This one’s still unconquered,” Ythac pointed out. “They aren’t under the law really. They don’t even know the law.”
“Oh, you’re right. I had forgotten that.”
“Besides, he’s so cute. Look, he’s standing on a ladder trying to hit my eye.”
“Absolutely fearless when cornered,” I agreed. “What are our choices, since it sounds like we’ve got some?”
“Defeat him in some thunderingly obvious and overwhelming way. After that we can take him for a slave if we don’t want to kill him.”
“It would be convenient to have a few slaves.”
The hoven whacked Ythac in the gum with the edge of the axe. Ythac yelped, “Hey! I felt that!”
“Lucky lizard. I’d trade a grand of slaves to be able to feel that.”
“Sorry, sorry.” He didn’t sound very sorry.
“Do you want to thunderingly defeat him, or should I? We shouldn’t both do it. We’d squish him.”
“I’ll do it.” Ythac brushed the hoven with the edge of his hukuchô. The hoven howled in involuntary fear and leapt backwards away from him. Hoven, ladder, and axe landed in three separate places. The hoven picked himself up and tried to run, limping considerably from a leg badly twisted in the fall.
Ythac pounced on the hoven — Ythac pounces very gracefully, I wish I could do that — and snatched the hoven up and scrubbed him with the Great Titan Sanitarium for half a heartbeat, until his leg wasn’t twisted anymore.
“You’re so nice to your slaves, Ythac.”
“He’s not going to be a very good slave with a bunged leg, now, is he?”
“Well, pass him over to me. I want to learn the language. You can loot the cave,” I said.
“I caught him, I get to use him first,” he said.
“I’m the dragoness. You need to impress me,” I helpfully reminded him. But by that time he had cast the The Spilling of the Speech. (If I ever invent a spell, I am not going to start the name with “the”.)
“OK, here’s your hoven.” He handed the squirming man over, and I cast the same spell, and learned the whole Ghemelian language. It’s big and complicated and mostly stupid… any language without an aorist tense is stupid. Also it’s not called Ghemelian, it’s stupidly called Ursk Eskarak, but I’m going to call it Ghemelian to be tidy.
“Who are you, hoven?” I asked him in Ghemelian.
“You speak?” he said, sounding all surprised.
“Dragons all do. Now, who are you?”
“I am Murghal dvo Sdrezi tho neng Nhestravvath.” He was somewhat calmer. “Put me down, and depart from my home immediately.”
“It’s my home now, mine and my rival’s. The drake is going to live next door. You can have it back after we leave.”
“I shall not leave it! This is my final refuge — the armies of Trest have left me nothing else — and I shall not be further pushed to the margins and the deserts!”
“You’re not leaving it. You’re our slave.”
“I am slave to no man!”
“Exactly!” I beamed at him. “You’re slave to a girl dragon!”
He wasn’t instantly convinced. I held him in my forepaw and brushed him lightly with my hukuchô, and he screamed and soiled himself and tried his best to flee. When he was able to speak coherently, I sent him to the river to wash up, tracked him down a bit when he tried to run away, brushed him with my hukuchô again to punish him, let him wash up again, and finally sat on the orange sands of the Khamrou Voresc to learn a bit about Hove.