"Almost right. Our magnificent neighbor is a sophisticated beast. He was likely following the rule of three. He was hungry. He had enemies. He felt like exercising, as the young ones generally do. All three motives were strong enough that they had to be answered. It is positively draconic that he did one thing which satisfied all three needs."
She had lost us. All of us. We were taking an emotional hit from misinterpreting the dragon's motives, and she was doing abstract draconic philosophy. "Rule of three?"
She paused a moment, thinking. "There ought to be three reasons for the rule of three. Yes. First, it confounds one's enemies. If one always does something for one reason only, when you do something, your motives, intentions and plans become rapidly clear. If one achieves several objectives with one ambiguous action, your opponent might not see all the motives and will not know which of the motives that are seen are more important. Second, if one makes a mistake or fails in some aspect of an operation, alternate goals might still be achieved. One can not give the impression of failure. Third, an adult dragon conserves energy. Do you have any idea how much meat an old dragon would need to consume if he tried to remain as active as a youngster? An occasional spectacular move that achieves lots of goals - or better still something subtle done with words and trickery - means an elder need not leave his lair often nor expend energy. Then there's the status angle. When one has as much brute force as a dragon, using power to solve problems doesn't prove anything or earn one respect among other dragons. Oh no. One has to be clever." She dragged out that last word, as if it were something foul. "Then too, like greyhounds love to run and hawks must fly, dragons savor complex puzzles. Life is the most complex puzzle of all."
"Three reasons? I counted five."
"Three is the absolute minimum to avoid shame and disgrace. More is better. Lots is best. If I hear Imyr has done something, or if I get advice from Imyr, I'll try hard to figure at least three reasons for the action or the words. I assume at least one of my guesses is wrong. I assume he's got at least one other reason I couldn't grasp. Then too, Imyr is the oldest, strongest and most intelligent dragon on planet. Few dragons play the game with anything close Imyr's flair. There were over a hundred guests at his wedding, and three reasons for each invitation. I couldn't begin to track just the games centered on me."
"You are very impressed?"
"When I first travelled into Imyr's territory just before the war, I assumed based on rumor and legend that he would be the most impressive, powerful and intelligent being in North America. After each of my first three meetings with him, I decided that I had underestimated him. Badly. This dragon? He too knows the art of making people underestimate him." She looked at me hard. "If I read the ground right, he is long and slender, but flies using his wings."
"Half correct." How does one say this in the socially correct way? Princess? "He had an extraordinary ability to maintain flight even after absorbing multiple rounds piercing the wings. I believe him capable of fully telekinetic flight."
"Definitely a cross breed. The wings are occidental. The body shape is oriental. Oriental dragons fly without wings, using magic. The only current breeding mixed pair is Imyr and his lady down in Wellesley. While their previous offspring preferred the complex intricate court life of Imperial China, I remember dealing with Imyr and Her Arrogance's 'precocious' son about sixty years back. If he has decided to follow the occidental pattern, he is following it aggressively indeed. We are not all that far from Wellesley. Unless this one expands his territory entirely to the north, instinct will force him to challenge his parents sometime in the next several centuries."
"If one occidental dragon over flies another's territory, except to mate, the other must rise to drive him off. The usual result is a dead dragon."
Let's apply the rule of three? "This fixes a meat supply, improves the species, and..." Shoot. "Teaches them respect?" Little but another dragon would achieve the last.
"It's instinct. Base, pure, inarguable, flaming instinct. Nothing subtle or complex about it, once both are in the air. The intricate part comes in the when and where one deliberately intrudes. A young dragon's choice of lair is very important. As one grows and one's status and hunger requires control of more sky, a series of fatal disputes with one's neighbors becomes inevitable."
"Couldn't an elder just snuff out a young one, before he grows into a threat?"
"That would imply that the elder felt in some way threatened or restricted by the youngster. A mature grown dragon would never show such a fear."
"Oh no," she said, with a playful mischievous tone. "Just a sure knowledge of what they are. I suspect too, it's part of their current culture not to."
"'Current culture?' That's the second time you've used that phrase. Dragons change? Beasts which must live alone, or only with mate and young, have a culture?"
She looked at me long and dubiously before continuing. "You've heard of the phrase 'dragon friend'?"
"Yes. I've been told it's an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, though the speakers were no doubt ignorant of the magnificent nature of draconic culture."
"If you use the phrase literally, that's just what 'dragon friend' is, an oxymoron. Dragons have male-female bonds, and thus mates. They have parent-child bonds, and thus families. Dragons do not have peer bonds. They have no friends. They do have toys. Anything which is complex, unpredictable and hard to comprehend can amuse them. Humans can be interesting toys. Elves can too, if the dragon can convince the elf to do something as unesthetic as speaking with dragons. Still, that is not friendship."
Talora look a bit embarrassed. "A dragon friend is something else entirely. There are exceedingly rare times when the race of dragons is threatened. Not an individual. Not a local group. The entire draconic population on a given planet. Under those conditions, it is possible to carefully arrange for meetings of multiple dragons to resolve the problem without challenges resulting. Until the threat is neutralized, they will act together in admirable accord. Sometimes, it is necessary for the entire race of dragons to adopt a new behavior pattern for the threat to be removed. If that happens, it is necessary to trick or manipulate a non-dragon into advising the dragons to change their way. The gullible twit is called a dragon friend."
"I gather you are referring to," I choked discreetly on the words, "Talora's Laws?" She nodded agreement. "Why then is the 'gullible twit' necessary?"
"It is quite logical, rational and proper to follow good advice. Any sentient and rational race would do so, correct? On the other hand, it is not at all proper to bow down to superior force or acknowledge that something or someone might possibly threaten dragon kind. Therefore, 'dragon friends' are - on very rare occasion - useful."
"Something threatened dragon kind?"
"Before the War, humans were much more numerous, had a better technological base, and had assets like Project Flare's orbital lasers and Project Safety's mutant 'superheroes'. These could have been a hazard if a systematic policy of eliminating youngsters had been implemented. The brute force response, destruction of the human industrial base, would have risked a Cthulhu / Trollheim victory in the war.
"The actual draconic reply was intricate and subtle. The youngsters were hidden, so their weakness couldn't be seen, let alone exploited. A few of the eldest demonstrated just how much trouble the humans could have with an adult. Imyr himself spent a few months in the Rockies, amusing himself by making fools of the entire U.S. Air Force. I eventually told Imyr why the humans were so stupidly persistent in harassing him. Another dragon had ripped open the vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The Yanks developed a prejudice against dragons as a result. Soon after I mentioned this to Imyr, the guardians of the Chicago Federal Reserve found their main vault empty, no alarms, no marks on the door, just empty."
Three reasons. "Let me guess. This made the humans realize how good he was, so they'd stop harassing him. He needed the money..." One more.
"He wanted to impress Her Arrogance, who would soon became his mate, by robbing a Fed in a more elegant and sophisticated way than hers."
"She got the old Air Force on his tail, so he married her?"
"He needed to restrain her rampages, or the humans would be forced to reply lethally, which would establish a bad precedent. He wanted access to her contacts among the Imperial Chinese dragons, who are more social and can act in combination more easily. He wanted some youngsters so he could personally manage the human's interaction with the very young. Then too, seducing a female dragon is as challenging, interesting and dangerous a task as any, worth doing for it's own sake. That she also was responsible for his amusing hunting expedition, with no bag limit on metal birds, was a mark in her favor."
"Imyr enjoyed taking on the Air Force?"
"So he said to me, the first time we met. I believe him too. Actually, he was being gentle with them. During the human policy debate at the time, I volunteered to act as a dragon simulator for training the Air Force. Oh yes. My firepower at the time couldn't match a typical dragon's, but the area of my wind cone was a rough map for their breath, I could restrict my flight patterns to draconic maneuverability, I could fly invisible, and most importantly I could take on a humanoid shape. The Air Force has the firepower to take on most dragons, excepting Imyr. But the Air Force's real problem was in fighting a guerilla dragon. He was playing cat and mouse with them. They couldn't find him. If the Air Force had taken me up on my offer to train them, I was going to wake up base commanders and their wives in the middle of the night. The old time generals just thought about it, and decided they didn't need to run the exercise.
"I became a dragon friend quite by accident. I'm not even sure if Imyr was trying to push me that way quite yet, though later when I went into dragon friend mode, I was careful to give only the advice they were manipulating me to provide. I told the humans that the courting couple had enough cash for their foreseeable needs. I told them if the dragons weren't harassed, the humans might be left more alone. I asked them to compare the money total taken from the two fed banks against the considerable cost of the fighters and choppers that had been destroyed. I told them that fighting back at any level short of nuking Wellesley was likely going to fall short. I then made sure Imyr heard the advice I gave the humans. As I hoped, Imyr saw the implied bargain, and lived up to the predictions I had made."
"So the way to leash a dragon is to pretend the leash doesn't exist."
"One cannot leash a dragon. One can sometimes convince the humans to cut their losses." Her gaze fell significantly on my gown and jewels. Suddenly, the problem wasn't ancient history anymore. "
I am a loss. I am quite prepared to be cut."
"Yet, the dragons pay their debts. If then and afterwards I settled a situation which lessened a tension between humans and dragons, soon after I'd see a dragon's action which lessened the tension between humans and elves. They wouldn't mention it. I didn't know of this point of honor until I was told by another elf. It almost scared me out of the dragon-friend business, to know what a dragon-friend was."
"Knowledge that they returned favors made you want to stop helping them?"
"The idea of deliberately using a dragon to achieve one's ends frightened me. Just thinking that a dragon might need help isn't entirely proper. It doesn't show proper respect. I stopped visiting Imyr for a while. He eventually explicitly mentioned a returned favor, likely so I would feel better about it." She smiled, remembering an old foolishness. "The funny thing was, that favor was one the Dark Lord had manipulated me into doing. I went along with it because it benefited elves and humans as well as the dragons. Imyr responded with a favor that benefited the humans I was working with, but also benefitted the dragons. Imyr was playing with threes, again. He would return the favor. While he was helping out the humans, he was helping himself at least two other ways too. And me, that was the first time I came up with my own version of the rule of three."
"Three races. I'm not allowed to feel myself clever, unless a meddling improves the situation for three races. Mind you, I'm not very clever very often by that standard, but it gives me a goal."
"I gather you don't really like clever." I copied her her derogatory pronunciation of the word.
She snorted. "It's an occupational hazard. It's hard to meddle in the Great Game without being clever. I just don't see that clever is smart. The Dark Lord will trick people into helping him, and they find themselves very dead when he finishes with them. He manages human, elf and troll like the Spanish handle bulls in their rings. Jab the victim with something sharp, then wave a red flag in front of him, and off he charges in the desired direction. The Warmaster will nudge his puppets into doing something for their immediate benefit, while not mentioning a 'minor side effect' of their action will have major repercussions. Imyr's flavor of clever is more subtle. His favorite tricks leave his tools unaware that Imyr meddled with them, what they did, or why. None of these clever styles makes anyone any friends."
"If you wouldn't mind a for instance..."