"You," she said, pointing at me emphatically, "are going to get a crash course in dragon lore and a dollop of recent history. First we're going to eat. Somebody has been spreading some damn fool lie about my talking to people just to distract them while they starved to death. I haven't lost anyone yet, and I don't expect to start with you." She reached down behind some bushes, and pulled out a small basket. This confirmed another reputation of Masters. They tend to come prepared. I pulled the saddle off the mayor's horse as she set up a small but elegant picnic lunch for two. As I came back, she poured two glasses of wine, placed exactly between us on the cloth, myself getting first choice of glass. Itharias had kept a cellar. I had dined in state once when the President had visited the Governor. This was by far the most interesting vintage I had ever encountered.
She took a bite out of something that looked like a chicken leg, but wasn't. It tasted too good. She then started into her 'starvation strategy.' "OK. Which version of the three life stages of dragon kind did you learn?"
"As I heard it, as youngsters they will fly up to a town, burn it for the joy of burning, and steal what they want from the ruins. As they grow older, stronger, and wiser, they will land near a town, give their demands, and the town best be able to match the demands. Finally, an aged fully developed worm simply stays in his cavern. Any town or city nearby will know what he wants, and provide it thoroughly and promptly, lest they force him to the inconvenience of slaughtering them."
She somehow managed to nod in approval and sigh at my ignorance at the same time. "That's mostly right. It's true enough in it's way. It is also not at all the real three stages of a dragon's life. During their first ten or fifteen years, they share their parent's territory, remain in a very small rendition of the draconic form, and 'play'. While a youngster just out of the egg isn't powerful enough to create real trouble, one should consider the parent's opinions on child rearing before helping administer discipline.
"The second phase, the next fifty or so years, is spent shape shifted in some entirely non-draconic form. The dragon takes some shape common in the area in which he is to dwell, and spends several decades learning the world. Here they usually take a sentient's shape, elfin, troll, human, or dwarf. On other worlds, they might take entirely different forms, whatever fits in locally. Dragons have use of their natural intelligence and potent magical talents during this phase, so they can learn to adopt and integrate with most any culture they join."
"You won't find middle phase dragons hiding on Olympus, at the Sidhe court, at the Faerie court, among the Aesir, nor at Avalon, for example. While I would be reluctant to accuse a dragon of prudence or caution, they are not stupid.
"Finally, after they know quite well how the local cultures work, they will grow to an age where their adopted persona is just too confining. They have to take their true form. They also have to exercise their true form. No matter how subtle and wise a dragon might have been on two legs, and shall be again in age, all dragons have a instinctive need to learn how to use their physical abilities in earnest."
"Is that a polite way of saying a young dragon has to kill, plunder, and lay waste to the countryside?" Tell me something new, M'lady.
"Yes. That's exactly what it is." There was a distinct note of reproach in her voice. "When speaking of dragons, especially when discussing habits which the lesser races cannot sustain, I find it prudent to use politically correct language."
"That's an ancient phrase from industrial times. Minority cultures preferred not to be discussed using adverse terms. If members of these cultures become insulted, they created difficulties either socially, legally, or violently. While dragons tend not to bother with things like legal systems, they are capable of creating disturbances if one is not polite."
"I should be polite to dragons, huh. Even when there are no dragons around."
"One should not forget their sublime manner of gathering information."
"They snoop everywhere, and pick people's brains."
A sigh, as she finished one piece of 'chicken', and started another. "You are not getting the point."
That worm killed Itharias, M'lady. Do you wish me to be polite to... Well, yes, she does. I suppose I should be polite to Masters too, then. Fine. So much for the direct, honest Jackie the Boy. I pulled out the persona I used to satisfy Itharias when he wanted me to play princess and dine with governors, presidents and fair folk. This required me to rearrange legs and skirts, straighten the back, float the head delicately and weightlessly, and... This was going to be difficult. Princess Jaqualine had never eaten a picnic lunch of mystery bird. Well, grease would not dare get on the princess' fingers. It follows, her fingers must be clean. Illusions to fix the dress, and rearrange the hair? Unnecessary. Don't try to impress a Master with light bending. No, let's just not tell Princess Jaqualine that her garb isn't up to local standard. She's wearing something, therefore it must be quite stylish and proper. It always is.
Talora watched the transformation with polite curiosity. Her own posture shifted ever so slightly to echo the princess in what seemed to be an automatic response. Why did I have a feeling she'd seen the trick before?
Princess Jaqualine spoke. "M'lady. I believe you implied the dragons have a simple and elegant legal system." Fine, we can all be polite.
"I asked, for that, didn't I?"
'Yes, you did, you bitch,' was Jackie the Boy's thought. Aloud, the princess said, "Pardon?" Jaqualine has this unfortunate problem with her hearing when social conversation tends towards difficult areas.
Talora smiled, took a sip of the wine, gave it every bit of attention it deserved, then continued using a bored socialite voice. "Well, actually all the races have interesting legal systems. The elves based theirs on the principles of elegance, simplicity and utility, in that order. You humans attempt to value equality, human rights, majority rule and numerous other principles, with varying results. The trolls respect the biggest guy with the largest number of hefty friends. The major principle of the current draconic culture is that none of the above applies in the least to dragons. The command of no lesser being, nor even another dragon, can bind. One does not put any sort of leash on a dragon, not even a paper one. It would force the dragon to demonstrate that the leash could be broken."
Upon due consideration, the princess agreed with her entirely. It was excellent wine. "Yes. It would be improper to require any such effort on their part... What then of Talora's Laws? Could not they be considered a leash?"
"Precisely. The 'laws' started as polite suggestions made to one dragon, and made with respect. He seemed agreeable. I suspected the suggestions would be spread to the others. I let slip the word to the human leaders of the time, and they spread the human half of the highly informal bargain. Unfortunately, in human society, a neat idea of one day becomes an unbreakable law a few centuries down the road. What was quite acceptable as an informal way of avoiding trouble becomes a problem when the humans have come to expect the dragons to always behave in certain way. It has indeed become a leash.
"Then too, the humans have been trying to push at loopholes. Again, a natural thing, to be expected of humans dealing with laws. Yes, the idea that dragons initiating raids should not use lethal or absurd force against farmers trying to protect their flock with small arms is just one way of avoiding unnecessary tension between the species."
Underneath the princess' polite banter, Jackie was thinking hard. I had never liked the distinctions in my law studies between the letter of the law, the intent of the framers, and local custom. Without knowledge of 'draconic culture' though, I had messed it up, and killed people. The princess smiled ruefully, regretting her violation of etiquette. "We did gather a rather large number of farmers."
"And not all of your arms were so small. This was an attempt with forethought and deliberation to take the dragon's life. Even when the dragon is not young and full of a need to exercise, they will universally and fatally discourage deliberate attempts on their life. You should consider yourselves very fortunate that there were survivors at all."
"This one doesn't seem very sophisticated. For example, his raiding pattern is quite predictable."
"Yes, very predictable." Polite social irony. "And because he was so predictable, all the people trying to kill him were conveniently together in one place."
Jackie just took over. I still held the wine glass daintily, still held the elegant regale posture. The look I gave Talora must have been something though, as she shifted here own posture again. "We were not ambushing him. He was ambushing us. That was not a cattle raid. That was an execution."