As the two of them hissed at each other, Csirnis flared his shoulder-scales and shook out a length of chain holding a dozen engraved steel ovals. “In service of the mating flight, and in deference to the wishes of the King of Mhel, I suggest we go to some other world. I happened to bring with me the copy of the summary of Quel Quen’s latest surveying trip. They’ll be published in a book in a few decades. Until then I doubt that many other dragons will know about any of these worlds.”
Arilash leaned across the ring and politely snatched the ovals from his talons, and read the first one. “What do we have here? Mavirta. A Basic Ball of a world, inhabited by seven-eyed Basic Bipeds with strong wizardry. Very active gods. Constant wars with the living dead. Lots of magic treasure lying around for the taking… I guess ‘lying around’ means ‘being used by a hero less mighty than an average dragon’. Anyone interested? Osoth?”
Osoth laughed a dry bitter laugh, and said, “I greatly prefer to have amiable relationships with the undead. And by ‘amiable’ I mean relationships in which I am clearly dominant. Mavirta, from that brief description, holds little appeal.”
Tultamaan said, “And strong wizardry and constant wars mean lots of Hard Fights for us, too.”
Llredh breathed a little tongue of flame towards Tultamaan. “For Tultamaan’s fear of wizards and wars, we dare not go to Mavirta.”
Tultamaan rolled off his couch and against my flank. “Do not do that, Llredh! This is a Council-Meeting, albeit an Informal and Undignified one, verging upon the Vulgar and Supremely Petty, compared to my Usual.” Llredh just smirked at him.
“Does anyone actually want to consider Mavirta any more?” asked Ythac.
“I am compelled to admit the logical possibility that, while Mavirta holds little direct appeal to me from the brief description, that the other eleven worlds in Arilash’s hand are still worse. Perhaps, arguendo, the great explorer Quel Quen has gone off his form. Indeed, it is not unimaginable that none of the dozen worlds currently dangling from yon steely chain will please us, and that we might need to resort to different primary sources,” said Osoth prissily.
“Mavirta was not my guess about which of the dozen worlds would make the best place to go,” said Csirnis in a silky voice. “We could come back to it if none of the other eleven are better in the end. But I have read them, and think there are four or five that may serve us well.”
“Well, then, let us shuffle the ovals and read the most useful ones at the end, so that we may feel relieved and hopeful when we come upon them,” said Osoth.
“Or read them first, so that we can dispose of the useless ones in short order,” Nrararn said.
“Useless, no world is her! Conquered and ruled, they can all be!” said Llredh with a little roar.
“Arilash, perhaps you could read Plurdat, the fourth of the ovals, as a counterexample to Llredh’s claim?” said Csirnis. A delicate little claw-thrust into Llredh’s metaphorical eye, that, and particularly elegant for co-opting Arilash into delivering the actual blow.
So Arilash skipped two ovals, and read. “Plurdat. A swamp world, infinite in one direction, finite and unbounded and eight miles in the other direction. What, that would make it an infinite tube? That’s odd! Inhabited by sentient frogs, barbarian ones. No gods. No treasure. Anyone want to go eat frogs in a swamp for a dozen years, with option to rule them forever?” She looked left, she looked right. “I believe we have proven Llredh wrong.” Eight dragons fluffed their wings; one snorted sparks.
Arilash began, “More usefully …”
Osoth chirped, “But what could be more useful than confounding Llredh?”
“More usefully, we may consider Poxis, which is what Quel Quen called it. The natives called it Dust, but we’ve already got a world called Dust, so they’ll have to change. Another Basic Ball inhabited by Basic Bipeds, this time with trunks and forked fingers. They’re really good crafters, good at enchanting magic devices, not much other magic. One fairly active creator god and three fairly active rebel angels opposing him and each other — he must be awful, usually there’s only one rebel angel. Desert world. Constant plagues. That one sounds good to me, the drakes will have plenty of good treasure to hunt there,” said Arilash.
“We must consider precisely what sorts of Trouble, Annoyance, and other forms of Difficulty we might achieve in the presence of four mutually-hating Divine Beings,” said Tultamaan.
“Bah! Against me, against Greshthanu, against girl-named Csirnis, what god shall prevail? There is no god, there can be no god!” proclaimed Llredh. Which isn’t true. Gods, and less than gods, have killed young dragons before. And old ones too.
So we argued for a while about Poxis. Mostly we liked it, since any treasure-hunting we do there is sure to come up with lots of magic devices, and those are excellent treasure.
“Next one is Hove. More Basic Bipeds, this time with hooves, udders, and short fur. High technology, no magic, no gods. Typical Toroid shape, nice terrain. Anyone want to go fight giant robots and not collect enchanted rings for treasure?”
“I do!” called Llredh.
“What, really?” asked Arilash. “It sounds insipid to me, with no magic.”
“The technology, she is amusing to fight. The treasure of technology, she is a special delight! The palladium, the vrexium, the niobium, these metals are greater of value than the gold, the silver, the copper!”
“And also there are other treasures, for the more refined and culturally superior dragon to enjoy. Imagine a magic box that can peform a thousand songs on a thousand different instruments!”, said Greshthanu.
“We all know about your father’s collection from Oisec,” said Arilash. (Which I barely did — I had heard that he had a particularly nice and unusual hoard, but didn’t know the details.)
“My point exactly,” said Greshthanu. “A good hoard from a magic world is respectable, but a good hoard from a technology world is memorable. It’s the kind of hoard that everyone knows about.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” said Arilash. “But anyone who wants to sire children on me had better give me at least one good magic ring too. Stereo sound systems and flashy televisions only count for so much, and that only until they’re broken.”
“I know plenty of repair spells,” said Greshthanu.
“And we are Largely Better Off in a world that lacks both Magic and Gods,” said Tultamaan.
“Except for the giant robots and nuclear weapons,” said Greshthanu. “I’ll bet those would pull your wings off and kill you nice and slow.” (I’m pretty sure that nuclear weapons don’t work that way.)
“So, you’re against it, Greshthanu?” asked Arilash.
“No, I’d be glad to see a giant robot mash Tultamaan’s hind legs ‘til they match his forelegs. I’m hardly worried about a giant robot myself!” said Greshthanu.
And so on around. We rejected Arthiothis and Mnenzu and Traa out of hand, got a bit of interest in Orro and Oixe and Fanhanhan, and seriously considered Warvesh and Prane and Desperzio. I really liked Desperzio. The people there were llama-taurs, not Basic Bipeds, and they used science and magic both, and they were already under the control of seven Grand Archangels who didn’t seem to be much stronger than dragons and were friendly to visitors. But there was to be no looting on Desperzio, so none of the drakes liked it, and there were no mountains, so Arilash didn’t like it much either.
And in the end, everyone thought that Desperzio and Hove were acceptable, except Tultamaan, who didn’t find any of these worlds acceptable and wanted to go somewhere very civilized, so we ignored him. Greshthanu and Llredh favored Hove. Osoth, Ythac, and I favored Desperzio. The other three didn’t care much.
So we battled it out. Deciding on the terms of the battle took longer than the battle itself. We offered them fair terms, that’s three hits on one of them would remove that one from the battle and two on one of us would — so each side could have six total — but they laughed and said “No thanks”. So two hits to take anyone out of the battle, giving us an advantage in scoring. Then we had a very long argument about who was allowed to heal who, ending up with anyone can get healed by anyone but after the fight is over and it doesn’t count. Then a shorter one about defensive spells, ending with everyone wearing just their own. And then a very fast one about where we’d fight. Ythac made us fight high up in the air, where we wouldn’t rip up much of the garden.
So Ythac and Osoth and I flew as high as we could. We picked out Greshthanu as our first victim, and circled around, and dived at him from three angles. He looked stupid and stunned as we came close, and I scored his face with lightning breath. But as we closed upon him, he dived in a tight curl and got away from us, and his tailspikes left long bloody slashes on Osoth’s side, and his fangs took a large bite out of my forewing. And we chased him down, and forgot about Llredh for a half-second too long, until his flame breath removed me from the fight (second hit). Llredh leapt on Osoth then, and bit his cheek and clawed his belly (second and unnecessary third hits). Ythac scorched Llredh, but the two big dragons struck at him from both sides, and he didn’t have much of a chance. So we lost.
“Hove! She is our destination,” roared Llredh. “The zeppelins, the robots, the marvels of her technology!”
Osoth glared at him. “It may be some while before you fully appreciate the marvels of technology, Llredh! You have not mastered the mysterious and subtle engineering art of counting to two properly!” He healed his three wounds ostentatiously.
“The full measure with its laigniappe, in war, this is what I provide!” He grinned at me. “In battle, in love, both these places!”
I glared at him as I healed myself. “I suppose we’re going to Hove.”