“It wasn’t a bribe,” snarled Greshthanu. “It was a display of culture.”
“A display of cuisine, at least,” said Csirnis calmly.
“That it was, that it certainly was! I made sure that Kbrench’s feast was a week later,” said Greshthanu. “But … what do you suppose they came up with?”
“A little bowl of pickles and mushrooms and rice, to show how poor they would be without that slice of land?” I guessed.
“Hah, no, worse! They served a similar feast — the two countries mostly have the same cuisine, after all — but even the oh-so-clever prince will never guess what the ox was encrusted with,” said Greshthanu. He arched his head up and half-struck at Csirnis, as a challenge.
“I would not offer offense to your storytelling or to the local spices, which are largely mysteries to me, by guessing,” said Csirnis. (Backing out of a challenge like that? Very weak of him! But guessing wrong wouldn’t have counted for much either, I suppose. Tiny point to Greshthanu.)
“Cinnamon and cumin and asafoedita and such … yes … but also with the dung of the hybarcas!”
“Extraordinary,” murmured Csirnis. “What’s a hybarcas?” Arilash and I explained that it’s a big wolverine sort of thing, whose droppings are probably quite foul and certainly never eaten intentionally. “Whyever did they do that?”
“Bah, you get ahead of the story!” said Greshthanu. “It matters not why they did it, not yet. I put my paw upon the neck of the king of Kbrench, and commanded him to eat of it! Which he did with reluctance and trembling. So straightaway I had my answer: Cartharn had a noble nature, but Kbrench had the vilest nature among all mhelvul! Right, right? Do you not agree?”
“Well, I would like to know a bit more first,” said Csirnis.
“Bah, you demur, you disagree, you cavil and quibble and argue with vast bubbles of windy words, Csirnis! What sort of a foulness-lover are you? On Chiriact I imagine that you dine daily on pheasants festooned with ferret feces, but on Mhel we do no such thing!”
Csirnis fluttered his wings in a rather girlish giggle. “Well, I suppose I can do without them for a dozen years on this mating flight. Perhaps even longer than that… Yes — for the company of Arilash and Jyothky, I shall give ferret feces up forever!”
“He said ‘no’,” said Osoth, in Grand Draconic. (That will take some explaining. The phrase “He said ‘yes’” sounds pretty much like another phrase that can be translated as “Overly complicated” or “too effete” — the hisses are toned differently, but it rhymes and scans and has most of the same letters in most of the same order. So “He said ‘yes’” is a sort of put-down for someone whose courtly speech has gotten the better of them. Lately “He said ‘no’” has gotten to be that too.)
“So, Kbrench insulted you, so you awarded the land to Cartharn?” I asked.
“Exactly! That is exactly how it went,” said Greshthanu. “But the story does not end there. I was clever, very clever.”
“What else did you extort out of them?” asked Osoth. “A grand-weight of gold, as a payment that you do not destroy them from the insult?”
“Nothing so unfair, nothing so unfair! I am an Uplifter, you must surely know it! I did, indeed, discover why Kbrench had given me such an insult,” said Greshthanu.
“We were wondering that, yes. Even I was, and I’d heard somewhat about the judgment,” said Arilash.
“Cartharn has a most devious chef — Pdunk is his name. Pdunk made a great show of preparing his roast ox by a secret recipe known only to Rankotherium’s personal chef, whom he, Pdunk, seduced and cozened out of it some years before. That recipe, assembled and cooked in the main kitchen with great pomp and many people watching, was the blend of spices and feces. He explained it in detail, how we enjoy slightly putrid food by mhelvul standards, and how the musky pungency of the manure is a spice to our tongues,” said Greshthanu, flicking his ears in disgust. “Yet in the bread-kitchen next door, they prepared a similar ox without any foulness in the crust. By means of a secret door they had built between the ovens, Pdunk and two assistants exchanged the oxen as they were roasting. The untainted ox was served to me; the tainted one was cast into the Rumzu. Then the Cartharn feast was a success.
“And, secretly, Cartharn’s spies told Kbrench the whole recipe of the foul-crusted ox. And Kbrench’s chefs resolved to match Cartharn’s deed, and prepare the same recipe, and they served it to me. And thus they lost the contest!”
“Well, I don’t know which is the most cultured,” said Csirnis. “But Pdunk of Cartharn is certainly clever.”
“Hah! I, too, am clever! In the Rumzu, the fouled ox floated, and fetched up against a fallen tree, and there it stuck. And then the farmers of Kbrench came upon it, and saw it, and knew that they had been tricked. They sent their children as spies to the private celebrations of Cartharn, and learned more of the story. And then they came to me, and told me of their humiliation.”
“Oh? What did you do?”
“Well! I interrogated them with veriception, I can tell you, and Pdunk as well! I had already proclaimed Cartharn the more cultured one, and it would be a shameful thing to change my mind. So I called for a ceremony of formally proclaiming the debatable lands to be Cartharn’s. And at that ceremony, I gave Pdunk the devious chef his choice: either to lose a leg, or to lose the debatable lands,” said Greshthanu. He smirked. “Pdunk squirmed himself heartily, before he agreed to lose his leg! I almost made him roast it and serve it to me, but that seemed a bit much.”
“A suitable reward and suitable mercy, perhaps, for the crime of not serving you a shit-ox,” said Osoth.
“Obtuse Osoth! He arranged to serve it to me!”
Osoth scratched his head with his tailtip. “In that case, why did you not give the land to Kbrench?”
“You are being deliberately dumb now! I had already pledged it to Cartharn!” roared Greshthanu.
“I suppose I see.”
Greshthanu sneered at Csirnis. “So these are the sorts of political subtleties and entanglements that a real drake must face, on a real and still untamed frontier world!”
“Well, I have never faced a banquet dish quite like that,” said Csirnis.
“Bah! Not the cooking, but the treachery! Bravery and cleverness, power and sorcery — these are our great tools! Not your dainty little court concerns!”
“Where did the ‘bravery’ part come in, Jyothky? Or the ‘cleverness’ part?” asked Osoth to me, in a whisper just loud enough for everyone to hear. “I think the ‘power’ was from intimidating a bunch of poorly-armed mhelvul. The ‘sorcery’ part is also obscure.”
“I figured out the plans!” roared Greshthanu.
“Well, yes. Too late to do anything about it, and after the mhelvul had told you about most of them,” said Osoth.
“You, too, do not understand! For this insult I challenge you to the Caramelle!” roared Greshthanu. Which he won, of course, five touches to two. Osoth isn’t really a very good fighter.
Csirnis should have challenged Greshthanu then, but he didn’t. Which confuses me. Maybe Csirnis is actually the coward that Greshthanu is trying to paint him as? But no, coming here alone isn’t a coward’s deed.
Then we got to the waterfalls at Plaga Point. They’re impressive enough, I’ll give Arilash that. One of them is a tall sort of vertical waterfall, as a small but intense mountain stream pours down a gap. The other one is a ring-river which flows around the mountain. When it gets to the same gap, it waterfalls too, but left to right.
No, that’s not how rivers go normally on Mhel. The paingods did a few worthwhile things, when they ruled this world. Naturally they stuck them in the wilderness two hours’ flight away from anywhere that mhelvul normally lived.
The dragons who like water spent a while circling around and through the crossing waterfalls. Osoth and Arilash even persuaded me to make a few passes. I continue not to like water.
Flying through a waterfall is just like flying through the air. Except that first your aeroception doesn’t work very well, since your flight path isn’t all air. Then when you get closer, your kineception doesn’t work very well, since there are grands upon grands of small quickly-moving drops of water all over. Then your vision doesn’t work very well, because water splashes into your face.
Then your veriception doesn’t work very well, because Csirnis and Arilash asked me whether I enjoyed it. And I’d lose fiancée points if I told the truth. So I made quite sure that my lying spells were working before I answered.