"Fine. You've done far to well in absorbing both Dragons 101 and Masters 101. You also managed not to go bonkers in the process, which troubles me. You should be far too close to the situation, and therefore bonkers. I could start 102, but I think it's time to end theory and look at the more immediate problem."
"You're going to tell me why you're here?"
"I could. OK, I will. Imyr asked me to come talk to you."
"That's one reason."
"He also gave me a bottle of wine, under the condition that I share it with you, and he said 'please'.
What! "Didn't you say dragons and Masters don't use 'please.'"
"Yes. I said it to you. I've said it to Imyr. I've said it to the Dark Lord. I've said it to a lot of people in the last century or two. It's been one of my favorite ploys for reforming the Master system. Still, only twice have I heard Imyr say 'please' and the other time was under duress."
"Which tells us?" Greatly daring that 'us'. Wait a minute. Has she tricked me into becoming 'us'?
That tells us Imyr wants to hide his motivation. He's very good at that. He knew if he said 'please' I'd have to come. Dragons aren't the only ones that might be accused of a stubborn pride that might be mistaken for a death wish. He knew that if I came, I'd talk. I always talk. He would figure that if I talked, I'd like you. That always happens too. If I like someone, I'd also want to do something to protect you. That means stepping between Imyr and Junior, which was not exactly on my list of 'things to do' this century."
"What would he want us to do."
"It doesn't work that way. First, we think out all the options until we discover we only have one real out. Only then do we try to find three reason why Imyr wants us to do it. We can then each briefly consider if what Imyr wants is in our own interest. After carefully considering everyone's motivations and the side effects decades down the road, we both do exactly what Imyr wants and expects."
"So glad to have expert advice."
"I know. It stinks. Still, it saves so much time to assume that Imyr is trying to be clever, and assume further that he successfully tried to be clever, which is worse."
Well, if those are the rules... "Look for forced moves then. I have to surrender the New Hampshire to the dragon. If I don't, lots of people get burned. I also think he has to toast me. Young dragons generally work on a reputation. Mercy isn't exactly the image they push."
She wants me to say the next part? "Then the question is whether I ride alone, or whether you come with me."
"If you have to surrender to a dragon, and want to suggest terms, do you want to bring alone someone who might be considered a potential threat? If you were negotiating with other humans, would you bring a loaded pistol to the table?"
"Forcing down the dragon using superior firepower is out, huh?"
"Not me alone. I could call in a few IOUs, and do it clean. That would be taking the human's side against the dragons, which is also not on my 'list of things to do this century'. It's also not what Imyr is trying to force us to do. Brute force is not his way. There's something clever somewhere which gets everyone what they deserve, or Imyr wouldn't have involved me."
"You hope. I would prefer to avoid the part which says I'm toast."
"Can you keep a secret?"
"I hope so. I can make promises. I'm motivated. I'll make lots of promises just now."
"The dragon doesn't have to toast you. The local humans do have to think you've been toasted. If you don't mind leaving Jackie the Boy, the United States, and maybe the Princess behind forever, I could make you part of my witness protection program."
The choice between making up all new personas and toast seemed easy. "Witness protection program? You've done this before?"
She glared at me. "That's the other half of the secret. If you let it be known that the youngster didn't kill you, that he got soft and backed down, I don't care how far you get from his turf, watch out. On the other hand, if it becomes known that I work with some of the girls who never return from delivering dragon gifts, I'll likely never get another one. All the toasting will be for real, black, and charred. What we might get away with for you today will likely never happen again for anyone else. If that happens, forget about the dragons, I will be upset. Understand?"
"Got it." For a while there I had forgotten the names and reputations of the other six masters. Her tone of voice just then provided a reminder. "If you only get some of the girls, who gets the rest?"
She held the glare. "What is you opinion of the average farm girl your age, or townie?" She paused briefly. Poor, as it happens. "The dragons have a certain amount of pride. The human lottery system for virgins is in many way unsatisfactory. Among the many other problems is that it will far too often produce ladies suitable only as meat gift. I don't like it. If you have ideas to fix the problem, let me know."
"I'll bet if I do, they'll not be on your list of things to do this century."
"You might be surprised. The current power imbalance between humans and dragons is likely to be the next big crisis. Some Master, somewhere, is going to forge a dragon slaying Key, and give it to a human hero. This little situation here feels like a minor foreshadowing of a major crunch. I'd guess the Key won't be released for several decades, but the tension is building. Imyr may have said 'please' just to show me the problem in miniature, and watch to see how I jump."
"That's one reason."
"We've also had a surplus of heroes here. Itharias was good. You were good. Too good. The two of you have been solving every minor crisis before it became major too long. The humans haven't seen a major crisis in years. Their wizard is dead. You're the apprentice, and you're gone. The best of the militia was mauled, and likely has their morale shot. New Hampshire is open."
Heroes, thought Jackie. We were so good, we made our country vulnerable.
"There's also the Trolls."
"Itharias and I have them pretty well suppressed."
"They will not stay that way. Their population of adult males has had time to recover. The King of the White Mountains can't retain sole control of the local tribes unless they are thinned out, and soon. Either he gives everyone action against the humans, or some youngster will make a go at the Kingship. With the human wizard gone, and the usual reinforcements nervous about crossing Imyr's turf to enter a zone controlled by his young son, the humans are going to have to placate the dragon soon with many gifts and pleas for protection from the trolls besides."
Heroes. We were so good, we made our enemies stronger.
"Then there is a little riddle I asked Trudy the Ravager during the war. It's coming to roost now. Assume a hillside, a flock of sheep, and that both shepherds and wolves eat mutton. Would it be more clever to be a shepherd, or a wolf."
"Is it better for dragons to prey on humans, or develop and protect them?"
"Are humans then, just sheep?"
"Just now, yes. Many of the dragons are trying to change that, including Imyr. Do they not seem to be a little more provocative than would truly be wise? They aren't wise. They're clever. If they continue to eat young pretties for lunch, eventually the 'sheep' will start acting more like mountain bred rams. That will produce an environment much more interesting and stimulating for an adult dragon."
Heroes. Our most dread and impossible opposition is trying to be helpful. Talora was likely right about the Troll King's war. Itharias's sources had been picking up the hints. The little worm up the hill had timed his entrance perfectly. He could be elected governor of New Hampshire before the year was out, and it was Itharias and I who had set it up. It is somewhat hard to be polite when your world is turning upside down. I think I managed it, though my memories of those few moments are somewhat hazy. "Anything else?"
"Just don't do anything heroic when you go up."
"Tell the magnificent wonder beast you have spoken with me, and I am pleased with you. If he has no pressing needs for your services, I am willing to donate an appropriate gift in meat and metals. I'm prepared to go up to 'generous' in meat and meatals, but I'm not going to be generous with services."
"Got it. How hard shall I make him press?"
"You'll be on the spot. You'll know when to break, I assure you."
"You'll want repayment?"
The other 'Used Virgins' have a fund set up for this sort of thing. You'll be due for a lot of rookie hazing if you pull through. You'll be expected to contribute to the fund if you get the chance. If I read you right, you'll be interested enough in what the Virgins will be doing that your chance to repay in service will come."
"Just what does a 'Used Virgin' do?"
Talora sighed in exasperation. "The humans seem to produce a surplus of males with swords, guns, muscles, charisma, and courage, but a general lack of common sense?"
"Right. Have you ever noticed that the best of them seem to bump into exquisite exotic foreign women who know a little magic, a lot of politics, and how to stay out of unnecessary trouble?"
I hadn't. A brief consideration gave me a dozen examples on the East Coast alone, some of whom I'd worked with personally. "Talora. Naughty. You're being clever. They're talking to each other?"
"With me involved? Of course they are talking to each other! I've got two of the strongest instincts of the humans working on this one. Male lust, and female gossip. There is one major flaw."
"In discussing which Masters might forge what type of dragon slaying widget, and figuring combined responses of the dragons, the Used Virgins, Imyr and myself, there is a strong chance that this might be fun." She looked at me, dead serious. "I promised myself that if the Great Game ever became fun, I'm out. Fun is worse even then clever."
"I can see that. Anything else?"
"Dangerous question. There is always something else. First, don't be in the least sure Junior will buy this. Never for a moment think that you're alive now and home free. That's the quickest way to get burned. Just to keep you're attitude correct, consider he's likely a telepath. He's likely going to be a better judge of your character than I am. I'm guessing and going on instinct. I might be wrong. He won't be. If he crisps you, I'm going to trust his judgement that your death is the best possible thing for New Hampshire. I'm not going to conjure up an avenging hoard. Brute force is not being used to influence the dragon. We are giving in. We are surrendering. He gets all of the benefits of your death, including a meat gift, plus a gold gift too. Got it?"
"And finally, I'm missing something here. I'm missing something big, and I don't like it. Something exceptional is going to happen."
Whoosh. "Lady Talora. I was minding my own business. I was simply riding towards certain doom. Why did you have to come along and ruin my day? How do you know something is missing?"
"We're doing the expected thing. This is forced play. If we jump through all Imyr's hoops, everything looks decent. If we don't, assorted disasters abound. But the set up we've foreseen isn't clever enough. Imyr isn't out to impress you with clever. Nor me, very much, because that would be hard. He's out to impress his son with clever. There's more to this than giving your new neighbor a choice between backing down to one of his father's ploys, or getting a Master upset at him."
So much for my place in the grand scheme of things. "I think I ate too much of your mystery meat."
"You're finally hitting overload?"
"Yah. I'll be all right. First dragon on the right. I'm worth an appropriate gift in meat and metals, but not a generous gift of service. No sweat."
"Sweat is better. Sweat quite a lot, if you can manage it. You know, you're amazing? I got all the way into Masters 103 before reality shock hit."
"Do you do this often?"
"Not really. The dragons have a strict quality testing standard for Used Virgins."