My twelve nominally-brave hovens were in the throne room, lined up in front of Ythac.
“I’m not offering to abdicate exactly,” said Ythac. “Llredh and I will remain as the ceremonial heads of the state, as the greater part of the military, as the directors of the cyoziworm-elimination program, and as the rulers of Perstra and its environs. But eleven-twelfths or twenty-three twenty-fourths of the governance of Trest shall pass to hovens.”
“That’s not what the Black Curse promised!” snarled one of the soldiers. “He said you’d abdicate!”
Ythac glared at me briefly. “Jyothky — and give her her proper sex, even if you can’t pronounce her name — is my best friend. She is not my vicar. I did not give her power to negotiate on my behalf. If my proposal is unacceptable to you, you may reject it. In which case matters shall continue as they have since the conquest, which is to say, badly.”
All the hovens looked at Sporthen. Sporthen argued with Ythac for half or two-thirds of an hour about exactly what was staying with the dragons, and what wasn’t. Sporthen won some matters that he cared about intensely. The full form of consular government would be restored (except for Perstra), for the most important, and the consuls would have nearly all the authority that they did before. After a while, Ythac got testy, and started taking all the unsettled topics for himself. The draciarchs have the right to veto any act of government because Sporthen brought that up late, though they can’t initiate any. And Shuvanne will die without hearing of this.
“Sporthen, you’re annoying Ythac,” I said. “You’d better stop trying to get things from him, at least until you’ve won them.”
“Greedy monster! Bring on your algebra, and do your worst!” shouted Sporthen, who was just as annoyed himself.
“I am not doing algebra,” said Ythac.
I bit his left hind wing. “It’s got to be something fair.”
“Stop that. I refuse to do any test of skill or strategy. I don’t want anyone ever to think that I lost the contest intentionally. That would be embarrassing!” snarled Ythac back.
“Perfidious dragon!” started Sporthen.
“The coin, we flip her!” hissed Llredh. “No skill, no strategy is in that!”
“That’s not a worthy contest,” said Ythac. “You can’t let me call it. If I win, everyone will think I was scrying. And if I don’t call it, I’m not even involved.
“How about Pickle-or-Pie?” asked Tarcuna.
“That’s a horrible game,” said Versley. “Nobody above the age of five ever plays it voluntarily.”
“It’s horrible because you never get to make any choices. If the cards go your way, you win; if they don’t, you lose, and that is that. Ythac’s scrying and brilliant strategy won’t help him.”
“Tell me about Pickle-or-Pie,” said Ythac. Well, it’s a children’s game. There’s a long twisty path of colored spaces on the board, with a few symbols on it. You start with a pawn at the beginning; if you get your pawn to the end first, you win. You draw cards, that either say “Move forward by three spaces” or “Go to the next red space” or “Go to the symbol of the octopus.” You never get to make any choices. There’s no strategy.
“It’s a very fancy way to flip a coin,” said Ythac.
“It’s what you want,” said Tarcuna. “You have to do a lot before the game is decided.”
“It’s usually over in a few minutes, but by the fifth game those minutes seem like hours,” said Versley.
“We’ll live that much longer,” said Quarri.
“Living while playing Pickle-or-Pie is scarcely life,” said Versley. “I have three children and seven grandchildren, and I taught young ones for years. I know far too well.”
“Actually, we will save the execution of the losers for the day of the transfer of power. You might as well see the victory that you are paying your life for,” said Ythac.
“That’s very sweet of you,” I said, not entirely kindly.
“Jyothky has just volunteered to perform the executions,” he added. So I bit him again.
The courtiers arrived with a fresh, unopened box of Pickle-or-Pie. Tarcuna ripped the paper off, and picked the square pawn. “OK, Ythac. Triangle, circle, or egg?”
Ythac glared at her. “You are not playing, Tarcuna.”
“Yes, I am. I’d kind of like not to be considered quite such a traitor.”
“No, you’re not. You’re Jyothky’s hoven, not mine.”
Tarcuna snarled. “Llredh’s too!” (Not true.)
Llredh hissed, “Suicide permission, I also deny her to you!”
Tarcuna threw the board at him.⁂
The twelve allowed players drew lots to see who would go first. Twelve bullets were put into a helmet: eleven lead, one steel. One of the magistrates got the first game. “When I promised my life with the purple oath, I never thought I’d risk it playing a children’s game,” he said.
Tarcuna shuffled the cards and set up the game, hissing at Ythac and Llredh as she did. The magistrate picked the egg; Ythac picked the square. The magistrate drew a Move 3 card. Tarcuna offered the deck to Ythac. Everyone who wasn’t risking their life giggled. Pickle-or-Pie cards are small enough to be comfortable to hoven children; Ythac, at full size, couldn’t use them at all. “Tarcuna, please do me the service of drawing my cards and moving my pawn for me.”
“Sure thing. What, exactly, will you be doing in this game, Ythac?”
But that wasn’t all he was doing. Three dozen cards into the game, he was ahead by two spaces and close to the goal, and obviously finding the actual gameplay just as boring as Versley had suggested. He started casting a scrying spell. I whomped the spell with my vô to break it, and then breathed lightning into his left ear.
“Ow! Jyothky! That hurt!” said Ythac. The hovens were all quivering and weeping in alarm. And some pain perhaps; a lightning bolt is rather loud indoors.
“Yes, I presume it did. No spells, Ythac. This is supposed to be a fair contest.”
“I’m not doing anything that will affect the outcome of the game!” he whined.
“Doesn’t matter. No spells at all,” I told him.