I fluttered down — I was perched on one rim of the amphitheatre — and politely snatched the package out of his forepaw. I glanced at it — a small chest or crate, tightly bound with metal, without any magic or gods or, for that matter, structural flaws or danger or moving masses of air. (Dragons have a lot of sensory modes. I am missing one of the best, but I still have the occasionally-useful ones like those.) “I accept your tribute, and grant you the freedom of Hove, to pass here and there as you will, so long as you observe the proper subservience towards the native dragons and their rights and properties.” Which is all very etiquette and not to be taken seriously. “Actually I don’t know if it makes any sense to formally welcome you to Hove, since you were here before me.”
Quel Quen grinned a neatly-fanged grin. “It is your territory, O Queen, and would not the rituals of royalty be the same if you were the dozenth ruler of Hove, not the first?”
“I suppose they would be. I hope I never find out. If anyone managed to depose me, I doubt I’d try to get the throne back. And if they depose me less nicely, I’ll be dead. Unless my friend the necromancer doesn’t let me do even that.” I realized I was babbling in the presence of the famous explorer, and tried to get the conversation back in order. “How do you find Hove, now that it is a dragon-world?”
He sat on his haunches and curled his tail neatly around his paws. A stage hand dropped some metal prop, which clattered against racks or rocks. “It is a surprise, every time, to see which worlds are swiftly and cleanly conquered, and which worlds are taken messily or not at all.”
“Which was Hove to be?”
“I had guessed that Hove would be taken by flame and claw, with grosses of dragons needed to chase down and slaughter rebellions in every corner of this round and cornerless world. Grands of grands of hovens dead, and dozens of dragons as well. A bloodless conquest is the last thing I expected.”
“A conquestless conquest! We don’t rule here, or not to speak of. And not exactly bloodless either: grands of hovens died, and one of my fiancés too.” I cocked my head to him. “And that’s not the story I was expecting from your brief description of Hove!”
He curled his tail, a bit embarrassed. “The brief description was, not to put too fine a point on it, brief. You had conquered Hove, or non-conquered it, by the time I was ready to write the details out. I had to dig out another world to make my guidebook be the proper three-dozen worlds long.”
“Did you go out exploring some more and find one?”
“No, nothing so challenging! I leafed through my notebooks and picked the best of the worlds I hadn’t planned on mentioning. Or rather, the least awful of them. Just me and Hhreamsen fretting about whether Palisen would do, or should we use Exequir, or perhaps the perpetual lightnings of Def-dauph are not so very bad after all? After two days Hhreamsen bit my tail and told me to pick one,” said Quel Quen.
“Which was it?” A trio of hovens scampered up a pole next to me, muttering “Excuse us, ma’am”, and fussing with the lighting system.
“You shall have to read the book to discover!”
“Immediately after you depart!” I said, and flicked at the latches on the tribute-chest to open it.
Quel Quen chuckled. “Longer than that; the last two chapters have yet to be written! Including the one about a world that only Hhreamsen and I know which it is. No, the box of papers that you are opening is our original research notes on Hove itself. I have no idea what use they will be to you, or to anyone. But there they are.”
I beamed, quite honestly. “Oh, that is quite a thoughtful present! We have the beginning of a Royal Archive, with a few documents and diaries and details. Your notes shall have a place of honor among them! If, indeed, notes are capable of honor. That might be a property reserved for dragons, or perhaps for intelligent beings more broadly.”
Hhreamsen puffed smoke. “In fact we are here on a matter of honor.”
“Oh? What sort of matter of honor could have brought you to Hove?” I was worried! I expected that somehow one of my more important subjects had offended Quel Quen, in a way that no mere bloody duel could satisfy, and I was going to spend the next two years trying to arrange for, say, Tultamaan to give some peculiar compensation to Quel Quen short of the entirety of Tultamaan’s life’s blood. That’s what it usually means.
“Well, as you are sure to have guessed, I and nearly everyone in my exploring company are bachelors,” said Quel Quen. Court etiquette requires asking for favors of royalty in the most oblique way imaginable. Sometimes it’s so that the queen can figure it out and present the supplicant with the favor as if it were the queen’s own idea. I’m not sure why anyone thinks that’s good thing. The rest of the time it’s so the queen can figure it out and not say anything, so that she doesn’t have to deny an outright request, which might offend the supplicant. I hate this custom, mostly because I am impatient and not always that good at figuring out what people want from the oblique hints.