Port-of-Zom is, indeed, a grotty port city in Vlechinse. It’s smaller than Dorday, and far uglier. The bay side of the town is a skeleton forest of iron scaffolds (used for getting cargo onto and off of ships, not hoven sacrifices), ugly brown brick buildings made from the river Zom’s ugly brown mud baked into ugly brown bricks, barren parking lots, snaking train tracks carrying battered old cars spattered with ugly brown mud, and other assorted practical things spattered with ugly brown mud. Beyond that is a slovenly slum, homes for dock workers and railroad workers and whatnots, hotels and bars and whorehouses for sailors from afar. And, of course, one singing spot of magic from Llredh’s protective spells and such.
We landed in an abandoned lot rather far in the outskirts of town, Arilash and Ythac and I, and Tarcuna in her harness on my back. The Zomites were nervous to see us fly in. I suppose some of our fiancés had been a bit violent here and there around Hove — actually, I had been, though entirely for good reasons. So we weren’t quite as welcome to just fly in somewhere for some nonviolent purpose and land as we might be. The Vlechinse army started to gather to defend the most vital bits of town from us — the port, the governor’s house. Misplaced! Nothing in Port-of-Zom was more valuable than our fiancé.
“Is he really wormridden?” asked Arilash.
“He sounds like it to me,” said Tarcuna as she struggled to get off my back one-handed. “I’ll go check if you like though.”
“How can you check?” asked Arilash.
“Go and ask him, what else? There are some code phrases, they’re obvious to the wormridden really, I’m sure he’ll have learned them.”
Ythac was in rather a state. He’d bite the tip of his tail, wince when he noticed what he was doing, and then heal it. A few seconds later his tailtip would be in his mouth again. “Once we know he is … What do we do? We can’t stun him out and and do surgery on him, the way you did to Tarcuna. He’s far too dangerous for that, even in hoven form,” Ythac fretted.
“No, we can’t.”
He thought a moment. “Jyothky, are you sure that cyoziworms can’t infest dragons in dragon shape?”
“I didn’t check it exactly. It can’t conquer a dragon in dragon shape, I know that much. It shouldn’t be able to control Llredh if he turns back. They control hovens with little barbed probes in the brain. Our brains are a different shape, probably the probes won’t work. A lot bigger, so the probes probably won’t reach very much. Healing is probably a good idea though. Tarcuna’s a bit broken, we don’t want Llredh broken too.”
He bit his tail, winced, healed. “Tarcuna. Do you think he’ll know that? Or that his worm will?”
Tarcuna thought a bit, looking up quite calmly at Ythac’s huge teal eyes. “I certainly didn’t know that. I didn’t know about the brain probes. Bopo didn’t seem to understand dragons very well. I was really afraid that Spotty would kill him for trying to colonize her — I couldn’t care about her killing me — but I couldn’t explain that to Bopo. He just wanted it, so I had to do it.”
“Good, then. How long before a cyoziworm can … colonize, you say? … colonize another hoven?”
“Two days. They could spread very fast, but they keep their numbers down mostly,” said Tarcuna.
“So I’ll try to tempt Llredh back to dragon shape, which should free him, and then we heal him a whole lot very fast, and … if that doesn’t work, I guess we’ll do something else,” said Ythac. “Jyothky, Tarcuna, you know as much about what’s going on as anyone, is that a good plan?”
I thought a bit. “Well, we’ll want to get the worm out as quick as we can. It shouldn’t poison a large dragon so fast as a little hoven, but it could make him sick.”
“Right. OK, get down off of Jyothky, and go and find out about him, Tarcuna.” He plucked her delicately off my back, and set her on the ground. “Oh, and we need to clean you. You stink of dragoness.” He blasted her with illusions and scent-destroyers, while Arilash tried to tease him about his choice of words. “Now you sing of recent magic, but Llredh probably won’t catch that. Ready?”
Tarcuna waved her good arm. “Sure!”
“If you take this opportunity to run away, I will find you in about three minutes and come and kill you,” said Ythac.
Tarcuna gave him an odd look, and shrugged. I glared at Ythac. “She’s my, um…”
”‘Whore’ will do for now,” said Tarcuna.
“OK, she’s my whore. And I worked pretty hard to save her life. No killing her without my permission,” I said.
“Well, Murghal’s the only hoven I’ve met, and he’s always wanting to run away, and I’m very upset and nervous about this, so please accept my apology even though it’s pretty feeble? Or bite me if you want more revenge,” said Ythac to me.
“I accept your apology, Ythac. Just stop scaring my, um, pet hoven,” I said.
“I’m not scared,” said Tarcuna. “I’m ready whenever you want me to go.”
So she hiked citywards, and we flew to the hills to wait. “Fearless little girl, that,” said Arilash.
“She is now. I think I broke her,” I said. So I had to explain how I did surgery on her, and how I wrapped her in my hukuchô to knock her out, and that probably burned out the part of her soul which was capable of knowing fear. Or maybe it was ripping holes in her brain that did it, if the fear center is next to the right-arm center. Then Arilash made Ythac teach me the Lure of Dreams, which is a grownup sort of spell that traps people in a dreamworld. It’s mostly a torture spell, if you make the dreamworld unpleasant, but you can use it as a sleep spell. Ythac was the worst spell-teacher in Hove that day, missing parts and being all bitey and impatient when I didn’t get a piece right the first time. But Arilash and I made him keep at it. It mostly served to distract him from the wait.
Two hours water, a bicycle rickshaw drove out to the edge of town, and Tarcuna got out in the abandoned lot and looked around. Ythac was off in a flash, flying towards her in a vast thunder of wings.
“Is he wormridden?” Ythac demanded. “Llredh, I mean.”
“Yes, he is,” said Tarcuna.
“How did you tell?” I asked, coming in rather more slowly than Ythac.
“Oh, walked up to him and asked if he knew about the little cup and the dripping — that’s one of our passwords. He said he did, complained a bit about how very little his little cup was. I asked where there was a place to rest from it. He’s guarding a wormhouse. He said he’d let me in. I told him I needed to do something first, but I’d be back afterwards. That means that Bopo is going to make me do something — he probably thought I needed to feed Bopo. He was polite to me. He looked kind of unhappy though.”
“I should think so, being all conquered like that!” shouted Ythac.
Tarcuna clapped her hands to her ears. “Ow, that hurt, so loud!”
Ythac turned to me. “Right. I’m going to go save him, if I can. If I don’t come back, do not come after us. Not you alone, and not you with everyone else. Oh, I should tell you where everyone else is,” and he told us who was hiding where. And then, “Jyothky, tell my father I died bravely and … make something up that’s totally not like what really happened.”
I sort of goggled at him. “Well, good luck…” We embraced in farewell.