With Thanks To Lyn
She was a dragon, of course, but being a Lady always came first.
"You let the children go, naturally," she would tell her students, dragon whelplings of only half a hundred summers. "We might be monsters, but that doesn't mean we have to behave like beasts."
Lady Dragon's Finishing School For Sophisticated Young Dragons was very popular, the very best that money could buy, and all the aspirational upwardly-mobile dragons sent their whelplings there.
"After all," they told one another, "you can't put a price on class."
And class was what Lady Dragon's students got. Her school turned out the most sophisticated, the most debonair young dragons, dragons who were sure to get ahead.
Or rather, that was what was supposed to happen...
It was what always happened...
Except in the case of Wilbert.
"No Wilbert," said Lady Dragon for the fifth time, "you really should give them a chance to return the treasure. You shouldn't just start off by burning them to a crisp."
"Sorry, Lady Dragon," said Wilbert mournfully, as her servants swept up the ash and cinder that was all that remained of the latest batch of work-experience humans. Since Wilbert had arrived at the school, it was getting more and more difficult to recruit humans for training purposes.
"Oh, never mind Wilbert," sighed Lady Dragon. "I'm quite sure you'll get it eventually. Let's concentrate on something else."
But Wilbert was terrible at everything. When flying, he flopped instead of flapped. When ravaging, he sneezed instead of savaged. And - what was worst of all - Lady Dragon sometimes found herself wondering if he really wanted to be a dragon at all.
One day - after Wilbert had embarrassed the whole school by accidentally breathing out cold porridge instead of scorching fire during a competition, Lady Dragon decided enough was enough.
"Darling, this just isn't working out," she told him. "I'm afraid we are going to have to find you somewhere else to learn to be a Dragon of Substance."
Lady Dragon was expecting A Scene, so she was quite taken aback when Wilbert sighed resignedly.
"Fine," he said. "What ought I to do?"
"There are options", said Lady Dragon, trying to sound optimistic. "Have you ever thought about Wyverning? Lots of perfectly respectable dragons go down that route. It doesn't carry the same honour as being a real top-of-the-range dragon, but still..."
She looked at Wilbert hopefully.
"Fine," he said again, but there was something closed in his face.
I should let it go, thought Lady Dragon. See? The boy will leave happily. There's no need to go digging...
But Lady Dragon hadn't got where she was today by refusing to notice things.
"Unless..." she said carefully. "Unless there was some, ah, other route you were considering...?"
Wilbert looked more embarrassed than ever.
He stared at his feet.
"Well I did always want to mumblemumblemumble." He told her, in a very small voice.
"What's that?" Asked Lady Dragon.
Wilbert looked at her wretchedly. Then he gritted his teeth.
"I've always wanted," he said, forcing each word out through a haze of embarrassment, "to sing."
Lady Dragon blinked.
Really, that wasn't so bad. She had been thinking it would be something much worse.
"Singing? Really?" She asked. "You should have told me. Nothing wrong with a singing dragon. Used to be rather a fashion for it, back in my grandsire's day. Special lair-songs, for guarding treasure. You can make an unwanted treasure-hunter's head explode at fifty leagues if you hit the high notes."
"No," said Wilbert, with the air of someone determined to tell the truth however little anyone wants to hear it. "Not like that. I don't want to sing to guard treasure or knock humans out with high notes-"
"Not knock them out, dear," corrected Lady Dragon. "Explode their heads."
"Well, anyway," said Wilbert. "I don't want to do any of that. Not with singing."
Lady Dragon looked at him blankly.
What was this young dragon talking about? If he didn't want to use singing to hunt or protect his hoard, then what would he use it for?
"I want," said Wilbert defiantly, "to sing in clubs. You know, human clubs." He waved a hand vaguely. "Maybe even dance a little. If that's what they need."
Lady Dragon stared, aghast.
"Dance?" She repeated, horrified.
"That part was just an idea," added Wilbert quickly. "The singing was the main bit."
"Yes, well," said Lady Dragon in a cold voice. "I think singing in such a place is quite disreputable enough, without making things worse. Still, I see you've made your mind up. What a waste. I won't cry for your ruined life. Away with you. Now."
But as Wilbert gave her a slow, dignified bow, and shuffled away and out of the school, Lady Dragon found her heart aching for the poor young chap. After all, he couldn't help the way he was made. Singing for humans might not be the, well, traditional thing to do, but what right did she have, really, to stamp on his dream?
"Wait!" She found herself calling after him, leaping into the sky and swooping low over his head just as he was about to set out into the wide, unfriendly world.
"What is it?" Asked Wilbert. He was trying to sound aloof, but Lady Dragon knew the pride of the young, and she could sense the hope beneath, the hope he scarcely dared to admit to himself.
"Really, we must move with the times," said Lady Dragon. "Singing for humans might not be what I would call respectable, exactly, but if it's what you want..."
So Wilbert smiled at her, and they clapped their wings together in friendship, and took to the sky, determined to find Wilbert a job singing for humans.
But wherever they went, nothing seemed to come out right. It wasn't Wilbert's voice - (which was deep and sad and rather splendid) and it wasn't the material (Wilbert knew all the hits, and had even written some rather catchy new stuff in the human style). No, the problem was simple: prejudice.
"I really thought they were going to hire you," said Lady Dragon, as the latest bunch of humans ran screaming from their nightclub, trying desperately to not be the person nearest to Wilbert at the moment he realised they weren't taking him on.
"It was better than the audition at the blues club," Wilbert reminded her, which was true, because that audition had actually turned out to be less of a blues club and more of killing-monsters club. They had gotten away, of course, but it had proven necessary to completely raze the whole town to the ground, which meant Lady Dragon's personal indemnity was bound to go up again next year.
"It's no good," said Wilbert. "It's never going to work. I have to face it: mine is an impossible dream."
Lady Dragon opened her mouth to say something reassuring, then stopped.
What was that noise? It was a humming, buzzing, thrumming sort of a noise. It was drifting on the wind, and she had never heard anything like it before.
"What's that?" She asked.
Wilbert looked around in wonder.
"I don't know," he said. "But it's the most beautiful music I've ever heard."
They took to the air, trying to find the source.
"Over here!" Called Lady Dragon, swooping low over a huge tunnel that led darkly into the heart of a mountain.
Wilbert led the way. With every step, Lady Dragon found that she was more afraid. What was that bewildering sound? It was so strange!
"Perhaps we should turn back," she advised. But to her shock, Wilbert laughed, and there was no fear in him.
"Turn back?" He repeated. "But this is quite the most beautiful sound I've ever heard! I've been looking for this all my life!"
The noise swelled, louder, overpowering, big enough to fill the whole world.
The tunnel began to open up.
"No!" Said Lady Dragon, almost wild with fear. "Don't do it! Don't..."
But Wilbert gave a sudden burst of speed, and Lady Dragon couldn't do anything but follow and then...
"Oh," said Lady Dragon, though her words were quite lost. The music was just too loud.
On a stage hewn from the living rock of the mountain's heart, the band played on.
They were a very odd band. Lady Dragon found herself wondering where they had managed to get big enough instruments.
The bassist was the first to see them. He stopped playing. He had bright orange fur and three heads.
"Company," he said with one head, nudging the guitarist with the second, and indicating the newcomers with the third.
"Right, cool," said the guitarist. He was about a hundred and seventy metres tall, which was actually quite small for a kraken.
But he holds himself well, thought Lady Dragon. You would never see at a glance that he was so short.
His fingers were notched with chitin, which Lady Dragon assumed was probably quite useful for the hammer-ons.
He was wearing sunglasses, which he took off to reveal jet-black eyes beneath. He regarded the newcomers solemnly.
"'Sup," he said.
"I love your sound," said Wilbert, admiringly. "What are you called?"
At that moment, there was a sudden, deafening silence. The drummer had noticed the newcomers at last and stopped playing. This didn't take as long as one might suppose, given the number of arms involved. There were at least twenty-five of them, Lady Dragon thought, and that was only counting the limbs attached to the creature's thorax.
"Special-Needs Shark," said the kraken with nonchalant cool.
"We used to be The Anal Tastebuds," put in the drummer. "But that didn't work out."
"Nice name," said Wilbert, impressed. He hesitated. "You know," he went on slowly. "I've been trying to make it as a singer..."
The drummer and the bassist exchanged glances. This took quite a while, because they had around fifteen eyes between them, and it seemed all of them wanted to be involved.
"We've been looking for a singer," said the guitarist slowly. "We've had them in the past, but it never seems to work out."
"They always look too delicious," put in the drummer, helpfully. "I just can't stop myself. When things really got going, the beat just gets to me, and..."
"How do you feel about the risk of being eaten?" Asked the guitarist.
"Well, I generally see myself as top of the food chain," said Wilbert modestly. "I don't think I'd be very good to eat. I'm quite crunchy."
"See, I told you that was where we were going wrong," said the bassist.
"Yeah, I always said we should stop hiring human singers," added the second head.
"However cheap they are," said the third.
"I'm generally much better at eating things than being eaten," said Wilbert. "For example, I must say you all look delicious."
There was a heavy pause.
The band members exchanged glances.
Oh no, thought Mistress Dragon. He's blown it. And he was doing so well, too.
"Well then," said the kraken, "you've definitely in."
"But you've got to sign the band charter," added the bassist.
"Promising not to eat any other band member." Said the second head.
"If there's a charter, how come you ate all the previous singers?" He asked.
"That's why paperwork's important," said all three heads together.
"Yeah," said the drummer. "If they had looked closely into matters, they would have realised we weren't even allowed to eat them."
"I suppose," said the guitarist diplomatically, "it would have been rather difficult to bring up the mater of the paperwork. While being torn limb from limb and devoured, I mean."
"Glad to be on board," said Wilbert, signing the band charter. "When do I start?"
At first they only played small gigs. Lady Dragon had thought humans would never hire a band composed of terrifying monsters who could level cities as easily as keep time. But then she learnt something that all her long years of etiquette had never shown her: humans liked to be scared. In fact, they loved it. Pretty soon, Wilbert's band was the biggest act in the kingdom. Humans were falling over one another to hire them. The shows became bigger and more elaborate. There were always groupies trying to get backstage, begging to be at least slightly ravaged.
The only downside was that the music was so powerful, so completely monstrous, that any human who listened without proper ear protection underwent an immediate and irreversible process of cognitive decoherence which left them gibbering and slavering and generally overcome, undone, and insensible for the rest of their days.
But that was okay. The survivors soon learnt to wear earplugs, and the whole thing added immeasurably to the band’s mystique.
Lady Dragon told herself that she should leave. After all, her academy needed her. But every time she nearly made up her mind to go, something would crop up. First, she realised the Duke of Tontully was cheating the band out of money, promising to pay them in sacrificial virgins instead. After Lady Dragon had finished with him, they got twice the money they had originally asked for, and even got to keep the virgins (who very much wanted to be kept). Then there was the matter of soothing the band dynamics. Everyone got on fabulously, apart from the bassists' three heads, who were horribly bitchy about one another when they thought they weren't listening. Lady Dragon eventually resolved this problem by devising a rota, whereby each head took turns at not consuming a potent sleep draught brewed by a renowned enchanter. Since it only took one of them to work the body, it generally made for a less confused performance.
In fact, Lady Dragon had more or less settled into the role of band manager when the letter arrived.
It was from Flameserpent Hardcastle - her steward, who she had left in charge of running the academy when she had left to help Wilbert make his way in the world.
It was a request for help.
It was urgent.
Her first thought was, I'm too late.
She had come quickly and by herself, leaving Wilbert and his band to their busy schedule of engagements. But as she flew across the land, she saw smoke rising from the ruins of her academy.
"What on earth is all this nonsense?" Lady Dragon demanded as she crashed down amid the rubble.
"Thank goodness you're here!" Said Flameserpent, emerging from a pile of dust and bones. "I didn't know what to do!"
Then he explained that the academy had been ravished by a strange race of humans that came from the sky.
"But they're not like normal humans," Flameserpent was quick to point out. "I mean, I'm sure they're very squidgy when you break them open, but it's difficult to get close to try."
"Why ever is that?" Asked Lady Dragon, while she ran through some quick throat exercises to get her flame glands good and juicy.
"The problem is the guns," said Flameserpent, rolling the unknown word around his teeth like an especially irksome sheep skull that was giving him trouble.
"Whatever are they?" said Lady Dragon. "It sounds like something rather vulgar."
"Oh, they are!" agreed Flameserpent, sounding affronted. "They are quite, quite uncouth! They make tiny explosions that shoot nasty metal teeth.”
“How perfectly barbaric,” sniffed Lady Dragon. “But, my dear fellow, why didn’t you just melt these horrible little humans? Surely they’re not immune to fire, no matter how many of these ghastly gun things they have?”
But before Flameserpent Hardcastle had a chance to answer, Lady Dragon got to find this out for herself - for at that moment, a strange spinning disk - about the diameter of a modestly-sized castle - came floating down out of the air. Various lights engaged in all kinds of flashing activity, then - with a dramatic beeping noise - a disgorgement took place. Before Lady Dragon had time to say, ‘chewed or swallowed whole?’ she was surrounded by several hundred of the horribly strange new type of humans. They were all silver with big pointy ears, completely bald, and they all held ugly little devices which she assumed were these gun things she had been hearing so much about.
“…” said Lady Dragon, which was the sound her flame glands made as they ignited.
A sheet of (extremely ladylike) blue-white fire short out of her throat, dancing over every single one of the humans. But to Lady Dragon’s astonishment, the flame receded to reveal the newcomers completely unscathed. They weren’t melted, even a little bit. She thought it was quite rude of them.
“Humph,” she said, settling back on her haunches, and wondering idly how many of them she could swallow in a single gulp. “Well, this is most irregular. I must say I am disappointed with this frankly rude refusal to catch on fire. I will be taking it up with your lord, you can be sure of that.”
She glared at the ring of silver humans. She noticed a huge eye was poking out of the huge disk, glaring at her. For a moment, she wondered if the disk was actually a type of monster and thought about challenging her to single combat, then she realised that the thing wasn’t an eye, but rather a device of glass and metal.
In response to her words, one of the strange humans strode forward. This one was taller and slightly more silver than the others, and was evidently a leader of some sort.
“We are the Collective of Fintabula Beta,” explained the leader. “We bow to one lord only, and that lord is watching you now. I can tell you that this lord is unimpressed with your threats and your empty spectacle.”
Lady Dragon let out a sigh. If there was one class of annoying megalomaniac she hated dealing with, it was the religiously delusional.
“Fine,” she said. “Well, let’s get it over with then, shall we? What is it your god wants? Does he demand we worship him in some specific way via the setting of orchestrated fires? Or perhaps we are to send you a levy of dragon whelplings every year? It doesn’t matter in any case, because the answer is no!”
“No?” said the leader. He sounded puzzled.
“No,” repeated Lady Dragon. “You’ll not get such nonsense from us. We are a very respectable establishment, and I did not spend the best years of my life slaving away here so that your magic lord could grant me the boon of letting me keep my academy in exchange for my obedience. No, we fight!”
And so saying, Lady Dragon sent out a klaxon call to summon every dragon who ever trained at the academy, so that they might at least die gloriously, fighting against this strange human foe.
There was an embarrassed silence.
“We don’t want your dragon whelplings,” said the leader.
“You don’t?” asked Lady Dragon, somewhat hurt despite herself. “There’s nothing wrong with them, you know.”
“We know,” said one of the other silver humans. “It’s just not what we’re after.”
“Oh,” said Lady Dragon, nonplussed. “Well, what do you want, then?”
“We want what the lord demands,” said the leader in a grave voice.
There was an expectant pause.
“And…what is that, exactly?” prompted Lady Dragon, when it became obvious that the silver leader wasn’t going to tell her.
“Quality Programming,” intoned the leader, in a hushed and awe-struck voice.
“Quality Programming,” echoed all the other silver humans reverently.
Lady Dragon blinked.
“Excuse me, what?” she said. “Quality programming? What’s that?”
“Oh, it can be lots of things,” explained one of the silvers enthusiastically. “It can be, oh, historic re-enactments.”
“Baking shows,” put in one of the others.
“Sit-coms,” said another. “They’re my favourites. You know, like a bunch of friends who live together in a bar and keep on not having sex with each other.”
“We travel the known Universe,” said the leader, “in a never-ending quest to find quality programming to beam back to our billions of viewers in the home systems.”
“Back on Fintabula Beta, nearly every human is so fat they can’t leave their chairs, and so lazy they would never want to, anyway,” said one of the others. “It’s our job to keep them well-saturated with entertainment from around the galaxy. They are our lords,” it added. “We will do whatever it takes to keep the ratings up.”
A thought was beginning to form in Lady Dragon’s head, a wisp of understanding, a suspicion…
She looked from the leader of the humans to the huge glass eye and back again.
“This device…it shows things to your…your lords, far off in a distant realm?” she asked.
The silvers all nodded.
“And you thought that burning my academy might be something they wanted to see,” she went on.
They nodded again.
“And how did that particular piece of, ah, quality programming go down with your viewers?” she asked. But it was a rhetorical question, really.
Lady Dragon was astute. She always had been. She hadn’t got to run the most prestigious finishing school for sophisticated young dragons by being slow-witted.
Far off, she thought she heard the first, faintest sound of air being split by the flight of a thousand dragon wings.
The silvers exchanged embarrassed looks.
“Well,” the leader said slowly. “It wasn’t met with quite the enthusiasm we hoped for…”
“The problem is, burning down alien institutions is so, well, dated,” put in one of the other silvers. “No offence meant.”
“None taken,” said Lady Dragon, making a mental note to be looking carefully at that human when the moment came. “But look: gentleman, I think you are in luck.”
“Really?” said the leader, brightening.
“Indeed,” said Lady Dragon. “For I am not just the mistress of this fine finishing school.”
“You’re not?” asked one of the silvers. “Then what are you?”
“I am,” said Lady Dragon carefully, “the manager of the most magnificent and influential musical sensation in the world. And what is more, if it would help, I might just be able to get them to play a song or two. For your viewers, I mean.”
The sound of flapping wings grew louder. The silvers began to glance around, wondering where the noise was coming from.
“You’d do that?” asked the leader. “For us?”
“Not just for you,” explained Lady Dragon piously. “But for the whole of your race. For your viewers.”
She smiled. It was, she had always thought, a very good smile. It showed off her teeth.
“That would be most generous of you,” said the leader, looking relieved. “And I must say, by way of thanking you, we will be sure to go easy when it comes to razing and destroying the last remnants of this silly little academy of yours.”
“How very kind of you,” said Lady Dragon. “I must say you are very thoughtful.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the leader expansively. “Why, when we conquered the vast civilisation of Galacticon VII, we only slightly totally destroyed it, on account of how deliciously watchable their prince was when we dropped him in a jungle with a bunch of other princes from prominent planets. Our viewers went crazy for…”
But whatever he was going to say next was lost, because at that moment the dragons came.
Red dragons, gold dragons. Green-white and silver-purple dragons, big dragons, medium dragons (there were no small dragons, on account of certain minimal standards of dragonness which Lady Dragon had before she would accept a candidate) - the dragons flocked from every corner of the compass, landing with a great flash and bother all around. The earth shook and the air was filled with bursts of flame as the dragons wondered why it was Lady Dragon had summoned them and who exactly they needed to devour.
But, “Steady on there, chaps,” said Flameserpent Hardcastle in a hiss. “I think Lady Dragon has something up her sleeve.”
“What exactly?” hissed back the other dragons.
But at that moment Wilbert arrived. He wasn’t alone.
“Who is that?” gasped the other dragons.
“This is Kevin the Kraken,” said Wilbert proudly. “He’s the guitarist. And these other fellows are my drummer and my bassist. Together,” he added with a flourish, “we are Special Needs Shark!”
All the other dragons eyed the monsters with wonder. For they had always thought Wilbert a very silly and unsophisticated dragon; but now he looked exceedingly cool and dashing with his new friends.
“Oh, splendid,” said the leader of the humans. “Are you the entertainment.”
Wilbert looked at Lady Dragon. It was a very enquiring look.
It was a look that said, ‘Are you quite sure you don’t want me to eat this one?’
Lady Dragon shook her head imperceptibly.
Aloud she said, “Yes. This is my student Wilbert and his friends. They are the most splendid band in the whole kingdom.”
The leader of the silvers was walking slowly around the band members, examining them critically.
“The kraken doesn’t have all that many tentacles,” he complained primly. “And what’s wrong with that one’s heads.”
“They’re fine,” said the bassist’s single conscious head. “They’re meant to do that.”
“I see, I see,” said the leader of the humans, as if making a mammoth effort to overcome a profound disappointment. “Well, if that’s what you’ve got, I suppose that will have to do.”
“Just one thing,” said Lady Dragon. “These musicians are the finest in the land, but they are not very fond of loudness.”
“Really?” said the leader of the humans. “That’s a surprise. Looking at them, loudness was the one thing I was expecting for a certainty.”
“Not at all,” said Lady Dragon. “So it’s vital that your, ah, glass eye listens very carefully. And that all your viewers at home pay especial attention. And don’t put anything at all in their ears,” she added, just to make sure.
The leader of the humans blinked at her.
“Very well,” he said. “Though I do feel it’s only fair to point out to you that these are much less impressive specimens than I was hoping for. If this doesn’t boost the ratings, I might well have to send a few of you to a jungle. Just to make up.”
“I understand,” said Lady Dragon, smiling her sharp-toothed smile.
Then she looked at Wilbert.
“Hit it,” she said.
And so the band did.
The noise was like a wall of sound. It blasted across the strange humans, splashing in through their ears and spinning their brains around in their heads. The dragons, for their part, thought it a splendid sound, quite the most up-beat musical sensation they had ever heard.
When the music finally died down, Lady Dragon went up to the leader of the silver humans. He was still standing, but hie eyes were spinning round and round and flashing various colours.
“Squibble,” said the leader. “Flippert. Napfabble. Brim brim brim."
“What…what in the name of the great worm…?” Said Flameserpent.
“They’ve been scrambled,” explained Lady Dragon. “Quite completely undone. A most magnificent performance.”
Wilbert smiled, and gave a shy little bow.
At that moment, the craft that had disgorged the humans started making all sorts of alarming beeping noises.
“It sounds like…like some kind of a message,” said Flameserpent. “Or rather, like lots and lots of messages.”
He was right. The noise was like a mass of voices, hundreds and thousands of voices, voices hailing from every corner of the collective of Fintabula Beta.
The voices said things like: “Phlib.”
And: “Sahang sahang sahang.”
They went on and on and on.
“So…are we saved?” said Flameserpent Hardcastle, understanding things at last.
“We are,” said Lady Dragon.
“We are safe from the strange silver humans and their bane of quality programming?” he asked again, just to be sure.
“Yes,” said Lady Dragon solemnly.
There was a pause.
“So you don’t need us, then,” said one of the other dragons. He sounded rather sad.
“So we should just…just go back to our old lives…” said another.
Lady Dragon noticed this one was looking enviously at Wilbert and his bandmates.
She thought for a moment.
“Well, now that you’re all here,” she said. “I thought we might have a, well, a reunion.”
The various draggony graduates of Lady Dragon’s Finishing School For Sophisticated Young Dragons looked at one another.
“You know,” said one of them, “life worked out exactly as planned. But the thing is, I’m not really that happy.”
“What do you do?” Asked Flameserpent.
“I’m an estate agent,” explained the dragon.
Flameserpent Hardcastle shuddered.
Lady Dragon noticed that some of the other dragons were nodding in agreement. Not all of them, not by any means. No, most of her fledglings had turned out perfectly made for their splendid lives.
But there were a few…
They looked disappointed, somehow, worn out.
There had always been a few that she just hadn’t quite known what to do with.
She had always told herself things would come out okay for them, that they would settle down…
But looking at some of her graduates, she wondered if there hadn’t always been something missing from her curriculum, some idea she had never wholly grasped.
She looked at the ruins of her beloved academy. She had tried to do good work over the years. And she had done that, for most of them.
But maybe, just maybe, the time had come to make a change.
She looked at Flameserpent Hardcastle. He had been a very good steward, even if he hadn’t known quite what to do about the strange silver humans. Still, that didn’t matter.
When he was in charge of the academy, he would always be able to call her. If he needed her help.
And she would come, as quick as she had come this time.
But maybe it was time for a change for her, too.
She wouldn’t take all the new students, of course. Just the few who didn't fit in with the traditional studies. The ones like Wilbert. The ones who - who knew? - maybe had some other talent…
She was looking forward to telling Flameserpent that he was to be the new headmaster. He would be over the moon.
And until he started sending her the new students - the ones who just didn’t quite fit - well, she would have her hands full. It would be a lot of work, giving some of the old graduates the chance at a new life.
“Wilbert,” she said, just loud enough for a few of the closer dragons to hear her, “when you go back on tour…do you think you need some supporting acts?”