“But there is something I would like to ask of you — all of you,” said Ythac.
“I don’t know that you’re exactly in a position to extract favors from us,” I said.
Ythac spread his wings and said quietly, “I’m not demanding anything more than a minute or two to ask a favor, and you can refuse the favor. Llredh and I have a particular enemy on Hove, and we would like your assistance dealing with it.”
“You wish us to assault your Ignoble and Disgusting Tendencies? We should be Delighted. What weapon works best on such things? Breath? Teeth?” said Tultamaan, snorting frost.
“Foreclaws,” snapped Llredh. The two of them hissed at each other until Csirnis glared at them.
“Cyoziworms, actually. You all know about them?” Everyone did, by this point. Nobody had worn anything but a dragon shape since they had heard, in fact. Getting conquered by a worm after what we know would be embarrassing beyond words, and probably inconvenient beyond deeds as well.
“Horrible things,” I said, and meant it.
“Llredh and I would like to destroy the entire species,” said Ythac quietly.
“A worthy cause,” said Csirnis. “I shall be glad to help.”
“A total distraction,” said Arilash. I think they’d told her about it in advance; she had her speech prepared. “Yes, they’re horrible. Yes, they’re a wicked minor parasite on the hovens. Yes, Llredh has every reason to take whatever revenge on them he wants, and Ythac to help him. But — they’re not intelligent, they’re not organized. They’re scattered all over Hove. Nine of us could learn the best finding spells, and spend all our time flying around killing them, and they’d reproduce faster than we could kill them. They’re not exactly dangerous to us if we’re paying any attention, and there’s absolutely no glory to be gained for killing one, and no loot either. Llredh, Ythac, you have my utter best wishes in your marriage or whatever you’re going to call it, never doubt that. But I won’t go hunting cyoziworms for you. And if any of my pretty drakes — my remaining pretty drakes — do it, I won’t count it as anything more than it is. I’m not going to give extra credit for killing them, I mean. If you do something brave or wealthsome while you’re doing it, it’s still brave or wealthsome. But spending time away from me, hunting cyoziworms, isn’t going to count in your favor.”
“They’re my pretty drakes too,” I said. “It will count for them in my favor.”
Arilash glared at me. “Jyothky, you’re being stupid. Suppose your husband spends three years of the mating flight hunting worms. That’s a quarter less of a hoard, and not even any good stories about what he did in that time. Your parents will not be impressed. Nobody will. And it’s not like much else you do impresses anyone that much anyways.”
“Taking a deeply moral position which works to one’s practical disadvantage doesn’t impress you, Arilash? A pity. It impresses me. I could do worse than marry Jyothky,” said Csirnis. His words tasted like hot spiced fat to me; I could have married him right then.
“That’s ridiculous, Csirnis!” hooted Arilash. “You can do better than Jyothky!”
“We would be honorable paupers together. We and our outcast friends,” said Csirnis. And that sort of returned me to Hove, or Mhel maybe. To my senses, I mean. He’s beautiful and glorious, but he’s crazy, and he has every sort of contempt for basic draconic society. How could I live with that?
“Csirnis, listen to me. We should have a single standard for the mating flight. It is not fair to the drakes otherwise. You must be able to compete against each other, knowing roughly how you will be judged. Beauty, prowess in battle, prowess in love, hoard — all these are clear enough. Squashing annoying little worms — not so clear. Let us have one standard for the whole flight,” said Arilash.
“Will you agree to abide by our one standard, even if it is killing worms?” asked Csirnis.
Arilash said, “How about this. We shall have a contest, all who agree with you against all who agree with me. If my side prevails, helping Llredh squish worms counts for nothing. I’ll be generous here: brave deeds done while doing so count extra. If your side prevails, drakes can spend a third of their time hunting worms and that counts a lot for Jyothky and me both. But you’ll be generous here: extend the mating flight by half so that everyone can get a good hoard anyways.”
I peered at her. “It sounds like either way, both sides get something of what they wanted.”
“Exactly,” said Arilash. “That’s my kind of dominance contest.”
“Six more years of being Ignored by Nubile Dragonesses,” said Tultamaan. “I know which side I shall be upon.”
“Six more years of a tough mating flight,” said Nrararn. “I, too, know which side I shall be upon. Jyothky, you have my apologies, but fighting worms doesn’t sound very appealing to me.”
“You don’t have to, either way,” I hissed. “You can, is all.”
“Well, I probably won’t,” said Nrararn.
The sides were obvious. Csirnis, Llredh, Ythac, and me wanting to fight the worms. Arilash, Greshthanu, Osoth, Nrararn, and Tultamaan not wanting to. This fight would be a sort of nine-dragon Krage’s Glory: after seven hits, a dragon will drop out of the fight, and the side with any dragons left at the end wins. We thought that was pretty fair.
“The victory, already she is ours,” said Llredh. “The best fighter, the second-best fighter, those are on our side. My husband, he is neither best nor second-best, his top skills are elsewhere, but Osoth cannot stand against him, Nrararn cannot stand against him, Tultamaan will soil himself against him. Jyothky, her breath is mighty, she is probably a match for Osoth or Nrararn.”
Greshthanu mused, “But we’re still a whole dragon up. Arilash plus Tultamaan plus me can probably beat Csirnis plus Llredh. Osoth and Nrararn are kind of evenly matched against Ythac and Jyothky… maybe a bit overmatched, but whoever’s left after three of us take care of Csirnis and Llredh will make up the difference.”
“Your theory, she is a lying puppet of illusion!” said Llredh with a snort. “Ythac, he has depths you know nothing of!”
“I certainly haven’t put bits of myself as deeply into him as you have!” said Greshthanu with a giggle.
“Depths of powerful! Your defeat by us, she will be total and ignominious,” said Llredh.
“We shall all contend with the bravery and passion of the noblest dragons,” said Csirnis. “Let our battle be the stuff of legends and heroic epics, to be remembered a grand of years!”
Unfortunately, Csirnis was right in that.