Chapter Three - Conversations Among the Dragons

"So?" said Loriel. "How was it?"

Pendre raised his head to find his friend sitting on the riverbank, looking at him expectantly. "How do you think it was?" he countered.

Loriel cocked his head. "That bad?"

"I told you." Pendre rolled over, trying to get comfortable, and scowled. "My father can ruin anything."

The colony of dragons made its home in a stretch of cave-riddled limestone cliffs above a shallow river, high in the mountains that lay to the east of the city. It was perfect dragon habitat; rough and forested, far away from towns, roads, and tourist sites... and some gentle political pressure and a few donations in the right places had seen to it that it always would be. The humans considered this area a 'wildlife preserve' and did not go into it. Dragons and humans did better when they left each other alone.

Even if they hadn't been so isolated, though, it would have been difficult for human eyes to pick out the two adolescent dragons by the river unless they'd been looking for them. Dragons came in much the same colours as stone; Pendre's mottled yellow-brown scales blended in with the multicoloured stones that lay on the banks, and Loriel's blue-gray would have been difficult to distinguish from the limestone boulders scattered here and there.

Loriel raised himself onto his hind legs and hopped into the air – two lazy flaps brought him to the shoal in the middle of the river, where he landed on the edge of the same large rock Pendre was sunning on. "So what happened?" he asked, rearranging his wings as he folded them again.

"Absolutely nothing," Pendre replied, annoyed. He'd been looking forward to telling Loriel about the city... it rankled that there was in fact so little to tell. "We went, Dad talked about numbers with a fat woman for an hour and a half, and then her daughter came running in to say that there was some kind of an emergency going on, so we had to go."

"And that was it?"

"That was it," he affirmed. "I was hoping we'd at least stop for lunch or something, but Dad wanted to leave right now. All I got to see besides the one building was the inside of the car... and he wouldn't teach me how to drive it. He said I'm not old enough."

"Huh." Loriel flicked his ears. "Well, at least you learned something, right?"

"Yeah. I learned that humans can make money seem eve more boring than Dad does," Pendre grumbled. He lay his head down on the rock and shut his eyes, hoping his friend would get the idea and leave him alone. Normally, Pendre was by far the more social of the pair, but right now he was in the mood to sulk. The sun was low, the rock was warm, and he wanted space to spread out his wings, soak up the heat, and feel sorry for himself... without company.

It didn't work. "Hey," said Loriel, nudging Pendre's shoulder with his snout. "Before you fall asleep, can I ask you something?"

"You just did," Pendre replied automatically.

Loriel chose to ignore that. "What was it like?" he wanted to know.

"Huh?" Pendre looked up again. "I already told you, it was boring. Why are you asking again?"

"That wasn't what I meant," Loriel snorted.

"So what did you mean, then?"

"I meant," said Loriel, "what was it like... y'know, being human?"

"Oh. That." The question didn't cheer Pendre up at all – another thing that had turned out far less interesting than he'd expected. "The same. Boring."

His friend clearly didn't believe it.

"It was," Pendre insisted, and reluctantly clarified. "It feels kind of funny for the first couple of minutes. You get a bit dizzy, and you have to find your balance, but after that, it's fine. You just can't think about it too much, or you start feeling sick. And clothes itch," he added. "Happy? If you don't believe me, go try it yourself."

"If I could do it myself, I wouldn't be asking you," Loriel pointed out.

Pendre shrugged his wings. "It's not hard."

"Says you."

"It's not." Pendre sat up and gave Loriel a shove. "It's big magic – you can see it happening. It's the little stuff that's hard, becaue half the time you don't know if you're really getting anywhere or if you're just imagining you are."

Loriel shoved back. The two of them had never seen eye-to-eye on what was difficult and what was easy about magic. Pendre was better at the showier aspects and quickly got frustrated if he didn't achieve any obvious results, while Loriel was good at the theory, and at all, subtle bits of magic that required less effort but more finesse. "All right," he said, "if it's that easy, then show me. Teach me how, and we'll see if you're right."

"No." Pendre braced himself against the rock and pushed harder, obliging Loriel to do the same. Eventually, one of them would force the other off the boulder and into the river, and by unspoken but long-established agreement, whoever got wet would have lost the argument.

"Why not?" Loriel gritted his teeth as he pushed harder.

"Because it's impossible to teach you anything. You always get sidetracked asking a million stupid questions."

"Yeah? Maybe if you asked more questions, you'd be better at scrying."

"Maybe if you didn't ask as many, you'd be better at everything else!" Pendre relaxed a moment to prepare for a final good push, but Loriel felt it and seized the opportunity to head-butt him in the flank. He lost his balance, and his wings opened by reflex as his curved black claws scrabbled at the boulder, leaving long white scratches in the stone... but at the very last minute, he managed to grab a crevice and keep himself out of the water.

It was only a temporary save, though – now all Loriel had to do was push him again, and in he would go. The river was shallow, but dragons were poor swimmers and had an inborn dislike of getting unnecessarily wet.

But just at that moment, the light level suddenly dropped. Both of the young dragons looked up at the Western sky, where clouds were sliding slowly across the orange disk of the setting sun. It was not a promising sight.

"Looks like it's going to rain later," said Loriel, taking a step back.

Pendre scrambled up on top of the rock again. "Looks that way," he agreed. "We should go in."

"Yeah. I'll look that up tonight," Loriel added, meaning the transformation Pendre had just refused to teach him, "and we'll see who's right."

"If you can learn how to do that from a textbook, I will eat it. Cover and all," Pendre told him.

"I'll bring it with me, so you can," Loriel promised. He widened his stance, preparing to resume the shoving match... but a far-off grumble of thunder sounded, and moments later both dragons were scrambling inside the caves.

"I'll see you later, then," said Pendre, as soon as they were safely out of the open air.

"See you," Loriel replied, and the two set off in different directions into the cavern complex.

As one of the colony elders, Siotha had a nook high up in the cliffs, where the caves were dry and crystalline instead of being wet and moldy like the lower ones tended to. It wasn't nearly as spacious or generally nice as the areas that belonged to the matriarch and her daughters, but still very much the dracone equivalent of an upper-class suburb. Pendre's father was always telling him that he ought to appreciate how privileged they were.

A shed yellow-brown scale was lying in the entranceway – it was the same colour as Pendre's own, but too big to have been one of his. Probably Siotha's... unless, of course, Marmoni had stopped by to be doted upon. Pendre hoped that she wasn't still here. He pushed the scale out of the way and headed in.

His luck seemed to be improving; Marmoni was not in evidence, and Siotha was curled up in an alcove in the cavern wall, ungainly wings and tail draped over a heap of pillows and oriental rugs and snout in a book. His back was turned towards the door, so Pendre moved carefully, slinking along the floor like a guilty cat – maybe he could get to his own chamber without his father noticing. Further parental interaction was not on a list of things he wanted to do tonight.

"Hello, Pendre," said Siotha.

Damn it! Pendre tried very hard not to groan out loud. "Hi, Dad."

Siotha pushed his book aside and swiveled his long neck to look at his son. Dragons kept growing, albeit slowly, for their entire lives – the really old ones, the elders and the matriarchs, attaining truly gigantic proportions. If he stood on his hind legs and stretched, Pendre was about seven feet tall at the shoulder. Siotha more than tripled that.

"May I talk to you?" the older dragon asked.

"Yes," Pendre sighed. This was stupid – he'd already gotten one talking-to on the way home. He had apologized, he had promised he would never again fall asleep during what was supposed to be a learning experience... what more did Siotha want?

"Don't roll your eyes," his father said sharply. "I'm not about to lecture again." He didn't add that for all the good it did, he might as well not have lectured the first time, either... but Pendre knew he was thinking about it. "I wanted to talk about what you're going to do while I'm away this weekend."

"Yes, Dad," said Pendre. Siotha was going to Europe; somebody there was auctioning off a couple of very old books, and he never missed a chance to acquire such things. His collection already contained hundreds of them, along with a selection of paintings and sculptures, all from Italy and all around five hundred years old. Pendre had no idea what was so fascinating about them.

The usual arrangement when Siotha went away was that Pendre would be sent to spend those days staying with the matriarch and her three daughters. They were the only females in the colony; Imon, the matriarch, was the mother of both Pendre and Loriel, though dragons didn't tend to recognize maternal relationships. Pendre didn't dislike Imon, though she tended to come across as not terribly interested in her male offspring, but Larke, Goneril, and Marmoni were insufferable... especially Marmoni.

So he was surprised but not at all unhappy to hear his father say, "I think you'll be pleased to know I've decided not to leave you with Imon this time."

Pendre perked up. "Really?"

"Yes," Siotha told him, "but you'll have to prove to me that you deserve it if you want it to happen again."

"Yes, Dad," said Pendre, and this time he meant it. "Don't worry. I promise, I won't touch a thing."

"Well, it's not just that." For once, his father actually seemed amused. "You have to look after yourself to some degree, too. I want you to get enough to eat and enough sleep while I'm gone – no staying up into small hours of the morning to practice magic with your friends."

"Yes, Dad."

"And don't make a mess."

"No, Dad. I said I wouldn't touch anything. And I'll keep the bats out, I swear."

"And do not be a nuisance to Marmoni."

"Of course not," said Pendre. That would be easy – if they weren't sharing living space, he wouldn't have to be obnoxious. Making Marmoni so angry she refused to speak to him was about the only way he got any peace from her. All three of Imon's daughters were spoiled and bossy, but Marmoni always seemed to save special venom for Pendre, who was out of the entire colony, her only full sibling... she particularly delighted in thinking of ways to remind him that Siotha was consistently nicer to her than to Pendre.

Thinking of that reminded Pendre of something he wasn't allowed to do when staying with his mother. "Hey," he said, "is it all right if Loriel stays over while you're gone?"

"As long as Jenking allows him," said Siotha, "and like I said, I want you to get enough sleep."

"We will," Pendre promised. Filling the first requirement would be easy – Loriel's father never seemed to care where his son went, anyway. "And we won't touch anything. I'll keep him away from your books. Are you just flying?" he wanted to know, "or are you going on an airplane?" Airplanes had been one of the things Pendre had wanted to see up close but denied the chance to.

That must have been the wrong thing to say; the amused expression on Siotha's face vanished. "Do you have any idea far away Rome is?" he inquired.

"A long way?" Pendre had very little idea of the scale of the world – he'd seen globes and maps, but there was never really anything on them that could put the size of these places in perspective.

"It's about five and a half thousand miles," Siotha replied. Pendre was about to guess that the answer must, then, be 'airplane', but his father continued: "furthermore, do you know how expensive air travel is?"

"Not really, no."

"From here to Italy would cost about two thousand dollars," said Siotha. "So the answer to your question is, actually, 'no'."

"Oh." Pendre felt stupid.

"Magic is good for things besides showing off, you know," his father added.

"I know. Um... I think I'm going to go study for a while." All of a sudden, Pendre really didn't want to continue this conversation. "There was something I wanted to teach Lorry how to do, but he always asks questions. Okay?"

"Er... all right." Siotha looked puzzled.

"Thanks." Pendre kept his eyes turned resolutely away from his father as he crawled up the passage into his own chamber. This little room was shaped like a donut; long ago, dripping water had formed a stalactite on the ceiling that grew longer and longer until it met the matching stalagmite rising from the floor. It wasn't a practical shape, but Pendre had insisted that this be his room; it was too neat to use for storage or anything like that.

There, he flopped down on his couch and sighed. Just when things were looking up, he had to get a reminder that his father considered him an idiot after all. Oh, well... it could have been worse. Even if Siotha thought he was stupid and hadn't let him explore the city, at least he got to stay by himself for the weekend instead of with Imon and her horrible daughters. He could actually do what he wanted for once instead of...

And that was when Pendre got what - at the time, anyway - seemed like the best idea he'd ever had.