A Non-Romance of Dragons
- Mating Flight
It's finally time for Jyothky and eight other misfit adolescent dragons to go off to an unexplored, dragon-free universe and decide who will marry whom. They're astral dragons, mighty and arrogant, with devastating breath weapons and vast magical powers, and they're not even there to conquer the place. What kind of trouble could the natives possibly be — even civilized and technologically sophisticated natives? Or the mind-controlling parasite worms, or the undead god, or any of Hove's other surprises?
…Maybe quite a lot of trouble, but not as much as they will bring upon themselves.
- 2 To Be Read lists
Conjuring in the Indigo Desert (Day 1)
Today I grew up. Finally. Everyone’s been waiting for me the last fifteen years. Naturally it happened in the most embarrassing way possible, right in front of one of my fiancés and a non-dragon.READ MORE
I woke up and ate nine rabbits and flew to the Tumult Sands to clean up. The Tumult Sands are a little scrap of desert where indigo sand boils around. It’s never still. It’s like it’s being stirred by a huge wooden spoon from the sky, and like someone with about seven heads is underneath it puffing it up. It used to be sacred to the mhelvul’s gods, before my parents chased them off and gave the mhelvul something more worthwhile to serve. The mhelvul used to tie a spare child of the noble classes upside-down on a heavy iron scaffold there every spring and fall, and let the sands scourge them to death. The desert gods would gather around and lap up the child’s blood and spirit as he died. What good that did the mhelvul, I don’t know. Kept the desert gods from eating them more, I guess. Only, the mhelvul don’t go into the desert, and the desert gods didn’t leave it. There’s nothing else there but stirred-up indigo sand and that horrid iron scaffold.
But it’s a good place for a bath. I perched on that scaffold and let the sand blast my scales clean. It doesn’t like me very much, that sand. It hates dragons for what we did to its gods. It leaps up and splashes around me and tries to flay my skin off, as if I were a mhelvul sacrifice and a half.
Everyone else thinks I’m being silly, taking sandbaths there. Everyone else says it hurts. The ichor of the ancient paingods is in those sands. The touch of them is like being raked with salted claws.
I wouldn’t know, though. I can’t feel.
Anyway, nobody else ever comes to the Tumult Sands. Except that morning, Osoth did.
I should explain about Osoth. He’s one of my fiancés. He’s not the oldest — Tultamaan has a dozen years on him — but he acts the oldest. I mean, like he was several centuries old, or sometime more, not just seventy years. He’s eighteen feet long plus head and tail. That’s a touch short — not that I can talk, I’m four feet shorter than that. His scales are patterned quite intricately, curling lines of deep grey and deeper grey on a background of light grey. You can see the spellwork making it grey, though. He’s just a gloomless pastel violet underneath it, quite pretty really, but not the necromantic style. (I’m just a flat black — girls always get dull colors and no patterns.) He affects eight small horns, four of which curl around his eyes. He thinks it makes his head look a bit skullish. I think it makes him look like he’s wearing goggles. And he’s got the same wing-shaped ears and the usual bulbous eyes that dragons always do and skulls never do.
Oh, and he’s a necromancer, of course. I said that before, right? His breath is a gust of some terrible poison dust that he excavated from a cursed grave. He’s got an ordinary fiery breath weapon too, from back before he discovered necromancy, but he never uses it.
Astrally, he’s perfect. I can see this of course, but small people can’t, because this part of him — of us — is in a slightly different world. A pert little whefô, pulsing with the essence of flame and poison dust for his two breaths. Around that a nice symmetrical four-lobed vô, nice and strong, good for breaking spells so well. Most of us have four lobes in our vô, from when the doctor performs the Great Separation, but often they’re not so symmetrical. (Well, the ones of us who survive usually do. Five-sixths or more of dragonets die from it, but we don’t count them.) His thezô is a perfect sphere, which makes sense ‘cause he’s very good with magic.
Then his hukuchô is perfect too, a big forward-pointing almond shape twice the size of his body at least. Hukuchôs are pretty useless really, though lesser beings cannot endure their touch, so they’re good if you ever need to make a bunch of small people run away or faint or something. I keep telling myself that a hukuchô doesn’t matter very much, because mine has a huge jagged ugly rip in it that matches the rip in my mind that keeps me from feeling. I survived my Great Separation but not really very well.
It’s hard to see or aerocept or hear much in the Tumult Sands, so I noticed him as a growl of medium-bitter magic and danger first. Since the Sands are my family’s territory, good manners demanded that I fly up and get ready to drive him off. Which is all very silly. Nobody just flies in and attacks anyone anymore, not on Mhel. And if you’re poaching on someone else’s territory, you wouldn’t pick the Tumult Sands anyway, would you? There’s nothing there to poach.
“Jyothky! Behold, it is I, Osoth, foremost among your fiancés! I bring you tribute! Do not strike at me with your fierce claws, do not exhale upon me the depths of winter which dwell within your inner heart, do not rip at my breast with your deadly fangs!”
“Well, let me see your tribute. If it’s good, I won’t kill you,” I said. It’s good to be polite to your fiancés, especially if they’re polite to you first. Not that I could kill him in a fair fight, anyway. Especially starting out with him flying in high and me flapping like a frantic sow to get off of that nasty iron scaffold and out of the messy low winds of the Tumult Sands.
“I have brought you a rabbit stuffed with caramelized onions, and with efforasze — that strong cheese — upon which you may break your fast this glorious place, with the dust of gods and small people all about us,” he said.
Well, it wasn’t quite breaking my fast. I had just scooped my breakfast out of the hutches, though, and rabbits are much nicer stuffed with onions and cheese. So I flew up to him, and politely snatched it out of his claw and devoured it. If you ever wondered why I’m so tubby, this sort of thing is why. It was pretty tasty. He must have brought it from his home, or something. My parents’ cooks aren’t very good.
“I have inspected your tribute, and find it adequate,” I told him. (That means “delicious” when you’re talking about tribute. Or “excellent” if the tribute isn’t food.) “So I shall not drive you off with claws and teeth and breath. This time.”
He dipped his head and flew under me for a minute and a third. That’s etiquette, too. If I had been lying about not attacking him, he had just ceded me the advantages of height and facing. In theory I could have attacked him and had the advantage. Of course, if he’d actually been worried about it, he’d have had all sorts of extra defenses prepared. I’d probably have dived into a doominess of surprise skeletons and flying ghosts, knowing Osoth. And he’s my fiancé and my friend and bigger than me. And nobody attacks like that anymore, it’s all sneaky feuds or honest blood-duels between friends. This stuff about manners is all very silly.
“What meditations do you perform here, Jyothky, in this dustyard of dead gods and dead mhelvul?” He actually talks that way.
“Not meditations, but ablutions, that the scourging sands may flense dry blood from my scales.” I answered. I don’t actually talk that way, but around Osoth I sometimes wind up talking that way. That’s got to count for something. I don’t know if it counts for him or against him, though. Is it imposing? Or pretentious?
“Oh, have you already hunted on this day?”
“Just in the barnyards of my parents’ small people,” I said. He looked a bit disappointed, so I added, “They do not stuff their stock with onions and the greatest of cheeses!”
He craned his head towards me, peering out of his fake eyesockets, his tongue darting. “You have tarried here overlong already, have you not, Jyothky? The blood of the farmers’ beasts may have been cleansed from your claws, but the blood at the corners of your eyes is dragon’s blood, or my tongue deceives me.”
“Sneaky sand!” I keep a close eye on my body usually, but I can’t keep a close eye on my eyes. A tenasensitive peek (that’s a sense observing structural integrity, in case you’re from a tenablind species) showed only the least bit of injury. I didn’t bother healing it. It’s not very good form to look like I can’t handle a bit of pain in front of one of my fiancés. Especially since handling pain is the only good part about not being able to feel.
(Which is a point in Osoth’s favor. Whoever I marry is going to have to pay attention to my little injuries. He showed me that he can do that. I suppose anyone can, but he knows he should.)
(Also, I’m sure you’re wondering why I wasn’t wearing any protectives. I had taken them off for sandbathing. The sand is fierce enough that any good spell will think it’s attacking me, probably because it’s attacking me, and keep it away.)
“Sneaky indeed, for these sands are laced with the vengeful dead,” Osoth said.
“Sounds like you’d like them, then.” I really do talk like that. I should try to be more dignified now that I’m grown up.
“Indeed. I shall in time rip the secrets of ancient treasures long-lost from the unwilling spectres of the dead,” he said.
I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted. Pleased, because one of my fiancés should be thinking about his hoard, on the chance that he actually manages to get married. Insulted, because this is my family’s land. He’d bought safe passage with a stuffed rabbit, but there’s a big gap between safe passage and actual treasure-hunting.
So I hissed at him.
“Cterion, your mighty sire, has given me leave to undertake this endeavour,” he said. “Indeed, he has given me encouragement.”
Well, if Dad said it’s OK, I can’t complain much. (When I asked him about it that night, he said he was just being calculating. Treasure lost for centuries underground isn’t doing us any good, even if it’s on our land. And there’s, a priori, one chance in six that I marry Osoth, so treasure that he finds might do us — which is to say, me — some good. So why not let Osoth look? That’s the economics of Cterion for you.)
(I wonder if Dad told him about watching out for me getting injured?)
“Well, can I watch? I mean, I know there are all sorts of undead things in my bath-desert, but I’ve never actually met them.”
“Certes!” Necromancy has some major professional hazards. I guess the worst of them, for dragons, is having bits of archaic languages sneak into your everyday speech. “We shall descend under the shelter of my mightiest spells to the very heart of the desert, wherein I shall bind terrible spirits!”
(Maybe my father’s wrong. Do I really want my children to grow up talking like that?)
We flew down through the messy twisty winds to the iron scaffold. We ended up using my best protective spells, which are better than Osoth’s. Dad taught me the Ulthana’s Targe early on, when it was clear I would never be able to feel. It’s a family specialty. And Rankotherium taught me the Hoplonton. I’ve never been very good at it. But the Hoplonton cast badly is much tighter than the Small Wall, cast expertly, which is the best that Osoth knows. Osoth is very clever with fancy magic, like his necromancy. But I’m better with child’s magic, ordinary things like protection and shapeshifting and language and healing. Practical things. Basic things. The only things that an underage dragon is allowed to study. And since I’d been underage so long, I’d gotten good at them.
(So that means we’d complement each other magically, doesn’t it? Maybe I should marry him.)
Well, Osoth’s impractical magic is very impressive. He churned the indigo sands with his spells, and sieved them with sorceries, and caused them to swirl and spiral more than they ever do in the normal course of events. (Not that the normal course of events there is normal.) He scooped up a heap of broken bits of blue bone that didn’t look like anything more than the ordinary sand, and corked them into a sapphire bottle, and giggled and slap-slap-slapped his tailtip against the ground. I don’t think necromancers should giggle. I think they’re supposed to laugh hideous insidious laughs, but Osoth giggles.
“What did you get, Osoth?”
“Let us torment it and discover, O my fiancée!” he said.
I wasn’t sure how to torment some dust in a sapphire bottle, since claws don’t really work very well on dust. Osoth knows how to torment dust with words, though. Heavy little words that landed on the bottle like a rain of mercury. They looked rather pretty. I can’t work spells with words in them yet, so I was jealous.
The bottle howled as they fell on it. “Depart, and let the dead sleep in peace!” it mewled, in a voice like winter wind blowing through ashes.
“Not likely!” said Osoth. “Who are you?”
“In the grave there are no names,” said the bottle.
“You’re not in the grave. You’re in a little gemstone bottle in my claw,” said Osoth. He added three more quicksilver words which I refuse to try to write down.
The bottle moaned at Osoth’s incantation, and surrendered. “When I lived, Xolgrohim was my name. Mighty was I among the gods of war and pain.”
“Now you’re mighty among the gods in bottles. Did you have any treasure?”
“Wealthy was I when I lived, wealthy beyond measure. Seven palaces of jade and chalcedony had I, and a thousand priests did me homage, and ten thousand warriors brought me tribute. All fell to the dragons, all was taken or destroyed. Now let me sleep.”
“Reeeaaally? If I open that jar up and dump you out, you’ll be gone for good. No more sleep for you!” said Osoth.
“Is that how it works?” I asked Osoth.
“Indeed it is, O my fiancée, in the simplest of instances. But there are subtleties to the practice of necromancy, subtleties within subtleties. His actual status would be worse than that: not asleep, yet not wholly destroyed. Necromancers could still call him up and torment him. Yet I have means of granting him a less tenuous existence: not life, but considerably more than death,” said Osoth, back to his usual style of speech now that he was talking to a live person. “But more proximately, are you ill?”
“How would I know?” I grumbled. I cast a very direct spell to tell me my general health. Nobody else I know needs to cast that on themselves. “No, I’m perfectly healthy, except for minor abrasions.”
He looked nervously at my hind legs or so. “Are you sure?”
I would have breathed ice on him, being suddenly in a surprisingly and uncharacteristically terrible mood, except that he actually looked worried. “No, I’m not sure. You know that. Don’t ask me such things.” He looked even more worried. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re laying an egg.”
“I am?” Which is about the stupidest thing to say — how could he mistake it? I stuck my neck between my forelegs and looked. Yes, indeed, there it was, forcing its way out of my cloaca: the tip of a gleaming amber blob big enough to fit a dragonet. Or a medium-sized lionness, say. One was about as likely as the other, since I was a virgin. I have protection spells on to keep me from relieving myself at socially awkward times — and I will kill anyone who tries to dispel them! — but of course they don’t cover eggs.
Well, that was embarrassing. Having one of my fiancés see me at a very intimate time is bad enough. Having him notice it before me was hideous. And having the ghost of a conquered god staring also…Well, I suppose every dragon has to do something so remarkable that no other dragon has ever done it before. I’d rather have had something a bit more glorious for myself, though. Like, oh, being killed by a rabbit.
Osoth naturally didn’t realize that. “You are, indeed. Allow me to be the first to express my congratulations on your attaining maturity.” Of course he would say that. The whole mating flight had been waiting for years for me to grow up.
“Better you than that horror in the bottle,” I said. I wished I could have come up with something caustic.
“May I help you back home?” asked Osoth.
Right. I couldn’t just lay the egg in the Tumult Sands and breathe it to ashes. I needed to take the cursed thing to show my parents and and my fiancés and everyone else who might care that I was now sexually mature and the long-delayed mating flight could finally get going.
Without anyone bothering to teach me any adult magic, for one disadvantage.
“I can get there myself!” I said. That was worth a breath, at least a small one. An ice breath, which is more annoying but easier to heal than fire. (Yes, I’ve got both, and lightning too. I had a long time to study child’s magic.)
Of course, he was wearing the Hoplonton I had given him, so it didn’t touch him. He blinked innocently at me. “Jyothky, I beg your indulgence. Forgive me for whatever insult I have offered to you. But be aware that it was inadvertent, and, indeed, I do not know what it is.”
So I tried to dart at him to bite him. As I write this, half a day later, I don’t think that biting him would have been at all polite. It seemed to make sense at the time. Laying an egg makes a dragoness crazy, everyone says. Even if she can’t actually feel it.
When Arilash darts, it’s beautiful and elegant. When I dart, usually it’s just sort of massive on a small scale. This time, it was all waddly and awkward. Why having something going on behind my hind legs gets in the way of something that’s mostly forelegs and neck, I don’t know.
So I didn’t successfully bite him that time. Just as well, I guess.
He didn’t complain. “O Jyothky! Shall I command the liches of long-dead mhelvul to bring you to your parents’ home, wherein you shall be given a festival commensurate with your new status?”
“What a horrid thought.”
“Perhaps, O Jyothky, you do not appreciate the value and utility of necromancy. The dead are not mighty, but they are many, and with proper spells they are obedient.”
(Which is a point against marrying him. Animata are fine when servants are scarce, but would I want to have animated skeletons all over the house doing the housework?)
“No, I don’t. I’m going home now. Stay and play with your sapphire bottle if you like.”
Well, it was a horrible trip. I tried to fly, but I was too awkward. Whenever I flapped my wings, my protection spells screamed that I was being attacked by a dragon. The dragon being me: flying while you’re laying an egg is likely to rip something important inside of you. So I wound up levitating rather than flying. Dead slow.
Also, it gave all the peasants a chance to look up at me and see me with an egg hanging halfway out of me. Until I realized what they were pointing at and why they were screaming. I wrapped myself in the Esrret-Sky-Painted so that nobody would see me. I did a really bad job of it. Osoth could see me. Not just magioception or dangersense, but out and out see me. I guess I actually was in serious pain or something.
Xolgrohim, in the sapphire bottle in Osoth’s claw, couldn’t see me. And the mhelvul stopped looking so terrified. So that part worked at least.COLLAPSE
[Note: I am a long-time fan of Bard's work and was a beta reader on this project.]
The Mating Flight duology is my favorite of Bard Bloom's published works to date.
Bard's dragons are creatures of breathtaking power and vast talents. They are also rife with ordinary, petty problems as they struggle to cope with their greatest allies and enemies: one another. Their culture is both alien and perfectly understandable from their perspective. Jyothky makes a splendid guide to this culture, despite -- or perhaps because -- she is frequently blind to its faults. When the book opens, Jyothky is a whiny, self-involved youth whose concerns revolve almost entirely around how she is perceived by her peers. Her growth from this point is slow and fitful and delightfully plausible.
The early part of the book is engaging, as Bard sets the stage for "how a mating flight is supposed to go". The need for this context won't become clear until later, as Jyothky's own mating flight goes off the rails in ways she could not even imagine at the start. And then gets further and further from the "normal" course as the story unfolds. While I enjoyed the scene-setting as well, I especially like the later part of the book and its sequel, as Jyothky and her fiancés are forced to grow and consider what they truly want for their lives, and what kind of dragons they want to be.
I also adore the themes of the book. Jyothky is a dragoness wielding immense personal power: she can melt mountains, casually shrug off the effects of heavy weaponry, destroy weapons of mass destruction, heal herself and others of mortal wounds, and far more. Yet for all this, she is also crippled: she has no sense of touch. The spells that tell her when she's been damaged are no subsitute for a sense of pain, or for feeling warmth, cold, a caress, a hug, or anything else. Neither her power nor her disability are downplayed in the story, even though she takes the former for granted and whinges frequently about the latter. The book explores how vast power may not be sufficient to achieve personal goals, and for that matter that getting what you want might be one of the worst outcomes. One sees the devastation wrought by overconfidence and carelessness, and how people of all kinds can do terrible things in the name of pride. Everything that happens in this book follows sensibly from the choices characters make, from their worst blunders to their greatest triumphs. (Arguably the same event, in certain cases.)