Vaareng sighed, and crouched to chew on the second claw on his left foreleg, which showed the first signs of shedding. Claws were the proper tools of mighty drakes, not words. He was not entirely sure, but he had the vague sense that that obnoxious doctor had defeated him somehow with words.
A massive black head lowered itself to look him in the face. “Hello … are you Vaareng?”
Vaareng looked up. The dragon connected to the head was certainly a drake, for there is no mistaking that from even a faint taste of the scent. A large and rather pleasingly rounded drake, with a vane-crest burning with some peculiar black fire. But he was solid black. Oh, he was a shiny metallic black, with hints of other colors in the lustre of his scales, not the dull flat matte black of a dragoness(†)
(†) Of me, to be specific. Dragonesses au naturel are always matte colors and always monochrome: dull black, dull grey, dull tan, dull green. We are enticing and entrancing to drakes, but that is a matter of scent, not appearance. Some degree of playing dress-up with shapeshifting is tolerably feminine, but competing with the drakes is impolite. They have enough to do to compete with each other.
Vaareng uncurled with all dignity. The large black beast would make a harder fight than the little biologist, but there was no avoiding it. “I am Vaareng, and I am mighty.”
“Good, good. Nice to have another mighty drake on the expedition. I’m Driaith. Not the mightiest drake you’ve ever met, but I can hold my own in a fight. And help you hold your own, too, if there’s any trouble.” He noticed Vaareng’s scowl. “Not that I’m suggesting there will be trouble, really. What do you do?”
Vaareng shrugged. “I fight.”
“Ah, one of Tultamaan’s guards and scouts! Charging mightily into the unknown! Fighting off the living mountains of Mohonor(‡) with mere claws and teeth! Very brave, sir,” said Driaith. Vaareng spread his ears and barbels, but found no sign of mockery.
(‡) The grand antagonists of a popular fictional series of stories about exploring dragons.
“What do you do?” grunted Vaareng.
“I am one of Jaraswat’s mages. My specialty, sir, is defense spells. We shall not be sending you out with the adequate-but-unimpressive the Small Wall that you currently wear! Not even the quite respectable the Ulthana’s Targe or the Tyrathian Redoubt. No, we shall start with the Hoplonton, and layer specifics and ablatives upon that most solid foundation! You may return from scouting, sir, or you may not, but I shall have worked with all craft known to astral dragons to give you the chance to return!”
“Doctors and defense mages!” snapped Vaareng. “For a band of brave drakes, we certainly are focussing on the matters of defeat. Why not upon victory?”
“Victory takes care of itself, sir. We take care that unsuccessful attempts will not be the end of our series of attempts.” Driaith cocked his head. “Perhaps you are freshly come from your mating flight?”
“Under two years,” said Vaareng.
“You do seem to be treating this as a mating flight of sorts. I do not know why you are unmarried now —”
“Ask the vile and untraditional dragoness Melivras!” snapped Vaareng.
”— but most of us have been on ours, and not come off that well,” said Driaith. “We have been defeated once. For Tultamaan, three times or more! We do not allow mere defeats to destroy us, though! We recover, we rebound, we return, mightier in spirit, more strong and more skilled! And we make sure that the way we were defeated the first time, will not happen again.”
Vaareng’s head shot up. “Driaith, that is the first hopeful thing I have heard since Melivras dishonestly chose Tyozangi! I, too, recover and rebound and return!”
Driaith grinned at him. “Ah, Vaareng, there is a drake in there after all! And a doughty one, and one who may become great, indeed!”
Vaareng grinned back. “Oh, I am drake, never doubt it. I am all drake, and a drake of power and force!”
“You are! I shall be overjoyed to explore and fight alongside you, sir!”
“Truly! I wish to leave already, to confront monsters and troubles, to come back home with a garland of new worlds!” Vaareng’s head was ablaze with the idea that he could be defeated once, that he could admit that he was defeated, and could rise again to greater heights than a mere third-ranked married drake!