“I don’t mean to disintegrate Jyothky’s plans in the darkness of my breath,” said Ythac, “But Trest is not being an example that hovens are better off under our rule. Not yet.” He lashed his tail. “I don’t think it’s the fault of our rule. The hovens aren’t cooperating very well.”
I waddled over and leaned against Ythac’s side. “I know. Tarcuna gives me no end of misery about it. But your troubles are the best evidence that a direct military conquest won’t work properly here. If you don’t mind telling us?”
Ythac put a wing over my flank. “I don’t mind telling you. Llredh conquered Trest for me as a wedding present…” He told the story of the conquest in cold Grand Draconic, without an inflectional marker of how he felt about it.
“That’s certainly a more classic form of conquest than insidious insinuation. In some texts, it is the best form of conquest, when it works. It is quick. It preserves the value of the country, which conquest by flame does not.” (That’s burning a few cities, destroying the army, and demanding surrender of whatever is left. The dragons of Hasqueth conquered by flame, and notoriously burnt up a vast treasure of peerlessly carved bone and wood, and caused an economic collapse which cost them two-thirds of their subject population over the next duodecade.) “If the leader is hated, as Shuvanne seems to have been, it may engender less resentment than conquest by flame, as well.”
Ythac flicked his tail. “I haven’t lived inside those texts, though I certainly read them. Trest obeys us, Trest is conquered. Trest does not obey us well. I have commanded vast public works; they are not being built, or not fast or skillfully. I have proclaimed beneficial laws; they are not enforced, or not very often. I have revealed the peril of cyoziworms, with plentiful evidence from hoven scientists; the populace does not believe me. Dragons are feared in Trest, but not respected and certainly not loved. Chevethna and Arthane have better control of Ghemel than I do of Trest, and never mind that I’ve been at it much longer.”
“You have my sympathy, and if I could figure out how to support you, I would,” I said, and hugged him again. “But I think I understand something of the hoven psyche by now. They are not an easy people to conquer. The mhelvul were easy; they lived as slaves of their paingods in any case. We simply took the place of the masters, and the mhelvul obeyed us. Hovens … some hovens are slaves, to be sure. Mostly they aren’t, or not exactly. The peasants in Damma can vote for the rulers of their country, though their votes are often ignored and generally bought. The citizens of Trest had much more say about the government of Trest than the peasants of Damma. Having had this taste of power and autonomy, hovens react very badly to being conquered by greater force. Oh, and the greater force is a problem too; they have killed a dragon, once.”
“They killed a dragon after we had weakened him greatly and broken his apotropaics,” said Csirnis. “I am not sure how even their greatest guns would work against, say, Boruu and his quotidian protections.”
“True. That matters a great deal in a war. If we get impatient and try to conquer by force, we will have to worry about that extensively. But in the minds of hovens, we are not unkillable near-gods from beyond the universe. We are monsters of considerable power, yes, but we can be defeated and killed, and they know it.”
“When were we ever unkillable?” asked Gwixion. “Mhelvul must have killed nearly a dozen of us.”
“Unprotected children and careless adults were killed, much after the conquest. When nineteen dragons came to Mhel with flame and magic, a grand of mhelvul gods died, but not one dragon,” Ythac said.
“Not so on Hove,” I said. “We have lost one already. I do not intend that we lose another. So the theme of our conquest of Hove is this: In regular conquests, resistance to us seems impossible and hopeless. When we move to conquer Hove, resistance to us shall seem short-sighted and pointless. Hovens will not fight us. They will choose us.”
Arthane cheered and crashed his wings together. The rest of my friends smiled, more or less dubiously. Boruu, who is not particularly my friend, rolled his eyes. “You’re not planning to rule for a gross of years, or two, or three, are you? Hove doesn’t have a single world-wide government, and if it did, they certainly wouldn’t abdicate in your favor any time soon.”
“I think I could endure simply being wealthy, powerful, much-loved by a medium-sized country, and, of course, frequently found in the company of my husband. Speaking as someone who had intended to rule Hove, and still might at some point,” said Chevethna. “This will come about over the next year or two.”
“Exactly. We’ll rule Ghemelia, or we sort of do already. We’ll fix it up, and then we’ll have a home country for the first while,” I said. “We’ll pick up a few other countries here and there too. We don’t need to conquer Hove all at once: one country at a time, as convenient. That’s the ‘insinuation’ part of the plan.”
Boruu shrugged. “I don’t suppose I had any big plans for the next grand of years. None that Chevethna and Arthane hadn’t already dashed, anyways.”
“This isn’t the last planning meeting we’ll have,” said Ythac. “In a duodecade, or twelve, we can change our minds and conquer the place by flame and magic. What is harder is to start off conquering by flame, and then switch to insidious means. I know that rather too well.” He disentangled from me and embraced Llredh, rather shyly. “Though I do not reject or resent my husband’s present in the least.”
Arthane hissed to me, “They really are in love, aren’t they? I do not understand that. I do not even want to understand that.”
I hissed back, “Well, I don’t understand how anydragon can be in love. I don’t need to understand it, I just need to pretend it made any sense and that the dragons involved care about it.”
He didn’t speak for another dozen minutes, chewing on that.
On the Use of Supernatural Medicine as a Tool of Conquest
“Do you have any particular part in this conquest for Boruu and myself?” asked Psilia.
“I have a part for you to consider, and tell me whether you can put up with it,” I said. “If you can’t, I’m sure there are plenty of other choices.”
“I’m worried already,” she said.
“Chevethna said you’re a good healer. I would like you two to go Zheribac and set up a medical practice,” I said.
She looked at her flank regretfully, where dozens of scales were loose. She put some small and elegantly-scented healing spells into a couple of them. “I am a good healer. Not because I enjoy it, though. With my weak scales, I get hurt far too much, and somebody has to take care of it. Which usually means me, but sometimes Boruu. So we’ve got the power to do that.”
“She is unenthusiastic, not being much of an Uplifter at all,” said Boruu. “I am an Uplifter, though like most of us I prefer to uplift my own small people intead of some that I’ve never met in a country that I’ve never been to. Perhaps you could explain your intent here? In your most inspiring words?”
“I am not an Uplifter at all. I am a Downcrusher. You would be too, if you visited the war-pits of Logresh,” said Psilia.
“I never have,” I said. “But we’re on Hove now, and I hope I don’t need to explain again why we’re taking a slow and subtle approach.” Two-thirds of an hour of repeated explanations later, plus an incomprehensible but rather upset polemic from Llredh, we got back to the point. “I want to start the process of getting hovens to regard dragons as powerful, benevolent beings who will, for suitable consideration, bring them good things that hovens cannot procure for themselves. So I want you to heal them — especially diseases that they don’t know how to cure — for money.”
Boruu nodded. “How much money?”
“Lots of money,” I said. “But not lots and lots of money. Ythac, could you please use your considerable hoven spy network to find out how much a doctor charges for treating, oh, Moray-Lagrozo Syndrome for a year? In Trest, if not in Zheribac. That should be what you charge for a full heal, Psilia. We want to be Hove’s best and most expensive doctors.”
Chevethna laughed. “You have done your homework, if you know the uncurable local diseases already! If anyone doubts my wisdom in putting Jyothky in charge, let them listen to this!”
“Well, if you were in charge, I’d be just as helpful,” I told her, because I am the worst dragon for dominance that ever was. So she bit my wing as punishment for defying her in her support of me, which is very confusing. Psilia is very good at healing spells though. She used a small one like a silver ball full of plainsongs, that worked more nicely than the Rose Rescaler and with a twelfth the effort.
Tultamaan shook his head. “You are being Unwise. You may think you’re working in support of your scheme, but you’re really not.”
I hissed at him, “And you may think that you’re keeping your promise not to complain, but you’re really not.”
Tultamaan shrugged his wings. “I’m not coming here to be Useless, you know. I’m not just on this trip because I Know The Way. I have Many Excellent Ideas.”
“You’re just on this trip because the king of Mhel finally got sick of you, plus you were poaching from Rankotherium, and you got exiled,” I shrilled.
“That’s one Way of Looking At It. A Wrong Way, but it is one Way,” he said. Infuriating beast. “Are you ready to hear the Devastating Flaw in your Current Scheme? Together with the readily-available Means for Fixing It? Or would your Royal Queeniness prefer a bit more Libel first? I don’t mind. I’m quite used to it.”
“Just say it, Tultamaan. If it’s your usual whining nonsense we’re going to fight another Duello Prolongato, though,” I said.
“I imagine we’ll end up fighting, because you don’t seem to Understand Things Very Well sometimes. But here it is, None The Less. You said we were to become Hove’s best and most expensive doctors,” he said in a mockingly gutteral version of my voice. I nodded sharply. “And you also said that we’re trying to become well-loved by hovens,” he continued. I nodded to that.
“Now, your Brilliant and Insightful Investigation into the depths of the hoven mind — which involves shapeshifting, does it not? And has something to do with that whore who follows you around constantly? — In any case, you might not know this, but the most expensive doctors are Not the best-loved. They are, I would suspect, rather Unpopular.”
I hissed annoyedly. “The price isn’t to be well-loved, Tultamaan. You’re missing the point. We also need to become rich. We want to live well while we’re conquering the place. And, for that matter, wealth will let us conquer more easily: if a country has a famine, we could buy them food, and earn that much extra gratitude.”
“Yes, yes, I had gotten that far, and Quite a Few Steps Further. But y’don’t want one part of your plan to Counteract the other. That’s casting spells into your vô. You don’t want the doctoring to make us Unpopular. And if there is any dragon who understands Unpopularity in all its varigated Splendor, that dragon is Myself.”
I flicked my tail. “For some very good reasons. Go on.”
“So Psilia and Boruu ought to charge a lot sometimes. But they ought to do half their healing for free. Hire a hoven secretary to hold a lottery, perhaps. Show everyone that they are Benevolent and Hoven-Loving Creatures, who mean nothing but Good Will to the Whole World. Unlike the wicked tan personage who showed up at the Kyongsy Temple first, who might have given them the Wrong Impression. What was her name again? I seem to recall that she was the Less Inferior of my last pack of fiancées, back when I still thought such things mattered.”
“Um … Arilash?” guessed Arthane, while I spluttered sparks and other sparks.
“Arilash! I remember now, yes, Arilash. What has become of Dear Little Arilash? I haven’t seen her or heard of her since the war.” Which surely was a lie; I can’t imagine Tultamaan not keeping up with the gossip. “In any case, if this honored and surely entirely proper Couple.” He swept a wing at Boruu and Psilia. Everyone but Nrararn and Csirnis and I laughed. “This Couple who Surely are Uninvolved in any Indecencies with Arilash or Anyone Else. If they charge high fees sometimes, and free sometimes, they will get both the Wealth and the Good Regard that fit in your plan. They won’t be working against themselves.”
Boruu grinned. “The real reason Tultamaan came to Hove: Psilia is the one dragoness anywhere who will have him.”
Psilia smirked. “He’s not that bad a lover. If you wrap your tail around his muzzle to shut him up, of course.”
I snarled at them. “Please keep that private. Hove isn’t all libertines.”
She slithered over and bonked her muzzle against the underside of my chin, which is a sort of lightly grovelly apology. “I’m sorry. I’m not used to having any other libertines around, or dragons who tolerate us.”
I licked her between the eyes, which is the polite acceptance of that apology. “I’m getting used to the libertine part. I did share a cave with Arilash for a long while. But the last breaking of my mating flight is still poison-bitter on my tongue.”
Boruu had been chatting with Tultamaan. When I finished mutually apologizing on his wife, he spread his wings. “I think I like Tultamaan’s plan, to get both money and respect of hovens. We’ll present it as compensation for Arilash’s fight at the Kyongsy Temple, even.”
“Which was also My Idea. A Codicil on my Previous Point,” said Tultamaan.
I bit my left wing. “Right. It does sound like a good plan, Tultamaan.”
“Heartfelt Thanks are not necessary, Jyothky. An Angry Expression of Adequacy will suffice. It’s not as if your plans would be Completely and Inevitably Thwarted by your own incompetance without me. They might simply be Greatly Delayed.”
“Tultamaan, thank you for contributing to our plans, and if you ever have any other improvements to them, please don’t hesitate to say them. Though with fewer insults, if you can manage it.” Getting the words out was not so easy, and I don’t think they sounded quite sincere, because they weren’t. He’s bad enough when he’s wrong, but he’s utterly horrid when he’s right.