Lord Kuro grabbed me into his talons, spread his wings and leaped into the air again, turning towards the valley. A gut-wrenching glide later, we were back at his house. He pushed me in through the door, shimmered back into his human form and entered, right after wiping his feet on the door mat.
He had not killed me yet. I was still coming to grips with having my limbs intact and not bleeding to death when he grabbed my wrist and led me to his study.
"One binding device, and related equipment are gone. What use would humans possibly have for them? Is this some puny attempt at sabotage? Do they expect to operate the thing without proper training?"
I tried to gauge the danger to my fellow conspirators from revealing our plans to this mad scientist, but could only concentrate on the memory of his talons against my chest. Realistically speaking, I was going to die sooner or later, so taking my secrets to the grave would have been noble and all that. But hot damn, it was hard to shake off generations of subservience when a superior being demands information of you.
At my minute hesitation, he snorted. "I can just tear the answers from you, if you insist on being pig-headed as well as an incompetent fool. After that, I'll go shred your little minions into appetizers and carry their remains here in a bucket to repaint my walls with. Now speak, and stop wasting both our time."
"I... but aren't you going to shred us into appetizers anyway?" The gleam in his eyes was definitely scary, but more in an unpredictable than acutely lethal way. I was starting to get drunk on all the adrenaline my system had been flooded with.
He raised an eyebrow at me, and I immediately felt appropriately reprimanded for asking such a stupid question before a supreme genius. "I may opt to skip to dessert instead. Humans give me indigestion."
I put my hand on my chest and bowed my head, an old gesture of submission, and reached out to share my thoughts with him. It was infinitely more efficient than trying to communicate by words, even though he had the unusual tendency to speak with sounds even between the two of us. Proper contact had the added benefit of near-guaranteed truthfulness; lying required a great deal more skill when nonverbal communication came with no background noise to hide it.
My summary was over in the blink of an eye; the conspiracy to sneak the rebelling humans out from the dragon realm, to restore a harmonious relationship between them and red dragons in the new promised land, and to hope for best that the others would not miss the escapees badly enough to come mess with the new colony.
When I momentarily saw the whole thing through the eyes of the brilliant black before me, I felt it must have been a naive, infinitely flawed concoction doomed to failure.
He just slouched for a moment. Then lifted a palm to his face. Then the other palm. Then he ran his hands through his hair as if trying to brush off the potentially contagious stupidity.
"So this is the quality of national security issues of late? By the stars, I definitely have not spent enough time isolated in here."
I wrinkled my nose and was almost tempted to rebut. I contained the urge to talk back with some effort, in the name of continued existence and all that.
He continued, "Why don't they just give you the damned devices and wave you off? What bloody good does an overabundance of misbehaving humans do for us anyway? If they manage to get themselves out and spare us the trouble, splendid for us, splendid for them. Did you ever just ask for them?"
My jaw dropped. One does not simply ask for supplies for treasonous acts. From his frown, I realized I had not let go of his mind yet, and my stray thoughts were leaking to him as well. So much for not talking back, then.
"It sounds like the management has gotten more backwards than I wish to recall. Very well then," he broke off our contact in mid-sentence, "I will help you reach your goal. That device you pilfered won't help you for very many generations even if you get it to work, but my latest invention will render it unnecessary." He jabbed my chest with a finger. "In return, you'll stay here and do my dishes for me."
My well-formulated argument on the topic was accidentally condensed into a single "Gwha?"
He waved his hand and turned away. "I'm just kidding. You'll stay here until I invent a suitable form of eternal torture for you, as promised. In the meantime, you can try to convince me that your overall incompetence does not extend to household chores." His face melted into a smug smile. "...Or to setting up a brilliant experiment that will change all our future, for that matter. You can follow simple instructions without being intellectually overwhelmed, right?"
Feeling somewhat overwhelmed already, I nodded mutely at his back.
Lord Kuro was a huge black dragon. He was also rather sympathetic-looking in his human form. I had tried to concentrate on how the current face of his had been someone else originally, but could not. It still made him look fetching. My memory of his real form was even more impressed, due to having had the ant perspective of my human form when seeing it.
The thing was, Kuro could be quite charming if he wanted to. He just hardly ever seemed to bother. As a result, he was really quite painful to be around. Particularly considering that I seriously wanted to keep him in a good mood and progressing the conspiratorial cause, and therefore had to bite my tongue hard whenever his unpredictable antics made me forget what he was.
By the first evening, when I was doing some menial hauling tasks as a part of setting up some kind of a testbed for his idea to bind humans to animals, I slipped. I told him in a somewhat disrespectful tone that I would be a lot more effective if instead of telling me where exactly to put each specific item, he would give me some overview of what the outcome should generally look like and only give more detailed instructions when I got the details wrong.
Instead of snapping back at me, Kuro stopped what he was doing and looked at me strangely. "You want to know what we are doing?"
I boggled at the question. Of course I did! "Is it so strange that I would be curious about this, when it can change the future of our two species forever?"
Kuro waved my comment aside. "I mean, do you really want to know? Even if it took you years to digest and possibly drove you insane on the side?"
"I have to admit I do not really see how knowledge of this device could cause insanity," present company excluded, I added to myself, "but yes - I assume there are smaller things I could learn even before being able to build something like this all by myself?"
Kuro looked both genuinely delighted and amused at the same time. It was two parts mind-boggling and three parts endearing. "It is not very often that people want to actually know. They prefer to push buttons and trust that I will be there to fix things for them when they break."
It was kind of strange hearing something like that even from from the Chief of Research. He would eventually have to find an apprentice to take over his work, and I was hoping that there would be several in line already in case something suddenly happened to him. And it could not have been very long since he were apprenticed himself. He was nowhere near the oldest dragon in the realm; he was still in his prime, maybe going through his fifth human by now.
I was more curious about the experimental ritual device than anything else, though, so I just decided to ask him about the whole apprenticing business later. "I think I can be more useful in this project with more knowledge, but I would also like to know for myself."
Kuro was thinking. I could almost see smoke coming from his ears. After a while, he nodded to himself. "Very well. We can try some basics first. I have to warn you, though, that some of this knowledge is actually painful. It will make you feel more alone, even more so for being one of the very few who know it. I can try to protect you for a while, but if you happen to start connecting the dots yourself, there are no guarantees what you'll run into. If you get into this, I won't mislead you just to protect your old world view."
This all seemed kind of elaborate, and I could not exactly ask him what it was he was talking about. "You mean... like I might find out that some kind of a curse will kill me and not feel like living my remaining life as a result? I think I would still want to know." I hoped that would be suitably reassuring.
I got the impression that he harrumphed at my use of a "curse" as an example, but agreed anyway. "Very well. We will start with some small things; I will try to make it understandable for you, but you do understand, I have not had anyone to teach for ages, so let me know when you start to feel overwhelmed."
Then he reached out to me me with his mind, with a slight awkwardness that could be compared to a shaky hand, and set out to share his thoughts with me. The connections mostly went one way; I had no idea what to expect based on pouring my report of the conspiracy on him earlier.
Despite this, I was not really expecting to feel like a tidal wave swept over my mind, flushing away everything in its wake. It did not last long; I passed out.
I came to in a bed. Apparently Kuro had hauled me off the floor and into his own sleeping quarters. It was light outside already; I grunted in disbelief at the sight. My head felt fuzzy, but was not hurting as such.
Okay, so maybe learning this binding ritual thing might take a bit longer than expected.
Kuro had apparently heard me, as he showed up before I got around to getting up. He looked slightly concerned. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm hungry, and my head feels a bit fuzzy, but I'm fine. I'm sorry about this, you could have just woken me up rather than letting me hog your bed all night." I wondered if he had slept on the floor.
He glanced aside. "I got a second bed already. It's fine."
A second bed already? That was efficient. As far as I could tell, he had not had one before I got here. "You had one stashed away?"
"No, I asked for one to be brought." Seeing my blank stare, he added nervously, "You were out for two days."
My jaw dropped. Two days? But... I did not feel like having been bedridden at all. "Surely you're joking. I would feel it if I slept for two days straight. I'm just hungry, not famished."
I could sense his mind twitching, wanting to tell me but holding back. I realized that if this was what people went through when he tried to explain anything the normal way, he had good reason to stick to just words.
"Ah... you know how your second body does not get hungry or stiff while you're spending time in the other body? I took the reason for that and made it apply to both of you at the same time while you were recovering. It's a bit of a long story, but I didn't know if your mind had been damaged so I hooked you up to the placenta to keep you stored in case you wouldn't wake up, until you went from comatose to just sleeping." He was using strange words that I did not know I knew; only the concepts came through like flashing images of the meanings of long-forgotten foreign language.
I suddenly realized that Kuro had been reduced to babbling in jargon; I wondered if he had been actually shaken. I was suddenly embarrassed; rather than speed things up, I had inconvenienced him and caused a distraction. "I'm sorry if I made you worry, Lord Kuro."
He responded by patting my hand, an affectionate gesture out of the blue. "It's alright, poor dear. You're just so young, it's hard to even imagine how young." As if realizing the strangeness of the outburst, he straightened up and adjusted the fabric of his clothes. "I'll try to find some way to teach you without doing physical damage, if you're still curious."
I smiled encouragingly, feeling privileged that he was still willing to go through even more trouble to pass me his knowledge. Then I recalled my earlier question. "I was wondering, actually... Are you able to speak with others?" Was it just me that got comatose from trying to listen to him, or was he really isolated from ever connecting with others?
His eyebrows rose. "Barely out of bed, and you're looking for generalizations. We'll make a scientist out of you yet." Then a sad look overtook the appreciation in his eyes. "You're right, unfortunately. The only dragon alive who can endure thinking with me is the Queen. Most people complain they want to gouge their eyes out just listening to me speaking."
To think of having to self-impose such a strict separation between yourself and other people just to not cause them brain damage... I started to understand where Kuro might have gotten some of his insanity from.
We set up some further experiments, and while I still needed to be told what to put where, I sometimes found I could fill in some of Kuro's explanatory sentences with terms that came to me like memories of old dreams. It was clear that something had caught from the connection before I had blacked out, and it was sufficiently encouraging to give the more effective teaching method a second try.
So, once Kuro felt we reached a phase in the work that did not require me for a couple of days, he cautiously tried to teach me again. This time he picked something reasonably irrelevant and less innately familiar to himself; excerpts from our history.
According to him, I only stood staring blankly at the wall for half an hour afterwards. He was quite proud of his restraint. I could not really remember much more than being hit by another tidal wave.
Thanks to our little experimentation on pushing the limits of shared cognition, my dreams were never boring. The historical touch got my subconscious plunging straight into vessels flying to the stars, depicted in imagery so vivid that I wondered if it was my imagination that was so thoroughly inspired - or if Kuro had actually spent the time coming up with such thoughts. He did not seem the type to pay attention to upholstery, though, so I concluded the fantasies were likely to be my own.
We had once travelled far beyond what our own wings could take us, as the legends told, and the different clans had tasks divided between them according to their ability. The blacks were the clever ones, the aggressive ones, leaders and planners, while we, the reds, got the job done and kept everything going in practice. And so on, and so forth. We had settled this world, bringing humans with us, and formed it according to our needs.
Over time, our knowledge of spacefaring and other skills that were not continuously needed in our new habitat faded. The rigid traditions to ensure the continuity of the community, such as the replacement process of the Queen and Chief Scientist by the best of the breed were set, and the selection process as well as extensive training performed in strictest secrecy ensured that the political views of the new Queen or the skills of the new Chief Scientist were never very far from the old. This provided important stability, while the high lords below the Queen were free to make some local adjustments in how to implement the Queen's will. The duties of the two kinds of leaders of dragons were so integral to our society, however, that there was no space for individual freedoms; in fact, during the training period, it was tradition that the replacement adopted the name of their predecessor.
In other words, the Chief Scientist was always known as Lord Kuro.
The realization woke me up; I still thought of Kuro by the name of his position only, and for some reason I was overwhelmed by the need to identify him as the person he was behind it. How could I go through such incredible experiences with someone and I still not even know his real name?
I brought this up when we were setting out to work. Lord Kuro chuckled uneasily and shrugged. "I gave all that up when I became what I am. But if it makes you feel better, you can call me Zacharius."
I blushed at the implication that we would be on a first-name basis; I had been hoping... Come to think of it, I had no idea what I had been hoping. But it was clear that I could not go about addressing him with that sort of familiarity. Despite this, the knowledge made me feel better. I knew something that was personal to him, not just the mantle of duty he wore.