[[Illustration of dragon skeleton - see previous posts - labelled "Dragon’s skeleton, sketched by the Yarge naturalist Lh’ook of Migantil."]]
"I see you have thought it all out," Avan said, pulling himself to his feet. "My dear maidens, have you not considered that in addition to being seventy feet long and fire-breathing, father is, or rather was, nearly five hundred years old? I am barely one hundred, barely twenty feet long, and have no fire as yet, nor much prospect of gaining any soon. I am doing well enough in my career for one who began it when I did, but that was hardly ten years ago and I don't taste dragon meat twice in a year...”
Tooth and Claw –1:3
Dragons are warm-blooded oviparous vertebrates; at one time classical biology considered them to be unusual reptiles, but anatomical evidence suggest that their superficial similarities are outweighed by the differences, and that they should preferably be assigned to a separate vertebrate superclass, Draconi, containing the dragons and some primitive six-legged wingless relatives, somewhere between the reptiles and fish. This is still extremely controversial, with many naturalists preferring the old theories. They are intelligent omnivores with a preference for meat, especially that of their own kind. Most adult dragons are capable of flight, if not restrained by the bonds of servitude or faith.
Dragons can eat most fruit and vegetables, and a variety of meat animals including beeves and swine (and in former times Yarge, with princesses considered an especial delicacy). Carcasses are generally skinned but otherwise eaten whole and raw, efficiently dissected by razor-sharp fangs and claws; cooking passes through periods of popularity, but is currently unfashionable and condemned as a Yargish aberration by the church. The best dining rooms have efficient drainage gutters in the floor; after a meal the room can be sluiced clean of blood and other fluids in minutes. Beverages include beer and wines, fruit juices, and herbal teas.
Cannibalism is an everyday event, from the culling of inferior dragonets to the “retirement” of servants who become too old or infirm for work. Dragon meat is said to be magical; it ensures health and growth, and brings male dragons fire.
The first of these claims has been verified many times; dragons who dine on the flesh of their own species build muscle and flesh at a phenomenal rate, so rapidly that some experts believe that it bypasses the normal digestive process altogether. The mechanisms involved are unknown; eminent doctors have experimented with the vivisection of condemned prisoners, but learned little except that the speed and efficiency of absorption may gradually decrease with age and size – a young dragon in good health may convert 90% or more of the weight of meat eaten to flesh, almost as fast as it is eaten; an elderly dragon is lucky to achieve 50% efficiency and may take several hours to feel the full benefits of a meal.
It should be noted that dragons do not gain any of these benefits from eating any of the related Draconi species.
The efficiency of cannibalism allows dragons to use nutritional and reproductive strategies which the Yarge and other outsiders might find offensive, and even dragons find distasteful, unless concealed behind elaborate excuses and euphemisms; briefly, to rear their young as a food resource. Dragonets can be fed entirely on animal flesh and fruit, building up body mass which is available for consumption in an emergency. For this reason a female dragon might choose to feed all of her young, even those who would normally be culled, keeping the weaker specimens until she or one of her healthier dragonets needs an infusion of strength. Examples described include a mother who rears then eats a sickly hatchling to ensure that she will be healthy when she lays her next clutch of eggs, and a dragonet consuming his siblings. This use of living dragons as a food reserve is also seen elsewhere; condemned prisoners are kept alive and fed reasonably well until their flesh is needed. One use for their flesh is for the purpose of restitution in civil cases involving the disposition of inherited dragon meat; once eaten it can’t be recovered, short of killing the offending party, so a substitute’s flesh is provided by the court. Naturally the losing party pays dearly for this service, but when the alternative is to provide the meat from your own body the price isn’t unreasonable.
The other claims for dragon flesh are probably just as valid; dragons eating dragon meat definitely seem to be healthier than those that do not, and the growth spurt following a hearty meal often triggers the first release of flame in males – but the connection here is much less certain, since flame can also be triggered by anger, injury, indigestion, or the sight of an unusually attractive female.
Flame is generated in the throat of mature male dragons; the fuel is a complex gas which ignites as it leaves the mouth. The source is believed to be liquid secreted by a pair of glands in the throat, somewhat like the venom glands in snakes, reacting with a second fluid secreted in the mouth. Liquid secreted by the throat glands is sucked into the upper lungs then exhaled rapidly as an aerosol of fine droplets; reflexes close a series of airtight valves behind it as it is exhaled. As it passes through the mouth the droplets come into contact with the second fluid and ignite. The precise mechanism of this process is unclear, since both of the components are highly volatile; all that is known with any certainty is that the supply of these liquids is finite and slow to replenish, and that its manufacture is a severe strain on the body. Dragons using it early and too often may be destined for an early death. They may also damage their teeth and tongue.
While flame is the most obvious distinction between male and female dragons, it is a late event in the life of most male dragons – as noted above, early flame, especially when used to excess, is generally a sign that a dragon’s life will be unusually short – and there are two much more immediate differences between the sexes; the structure of the fore-limbs, and of the peculiarly delicate skin of females.
Hands: both sexes have five-fingered fore-limbs, but their hands tend to be very different. Male dragons seem to be specialised for strength and ripping power, with short broad fingers ending in claws several inches long. Females have longer but more delicate fingers and shorter claws. As a result males are rarely able to write or master other forms of delicate manipulation, and many of the arts and crafts are largely female preserves; for example, the Agorin residence is decorated with relief models of the surrounding area, constructed by one of the daughters of the house using a variety of tools and her claws. This distinction is not absolute – some male dragons learn to use special tools, such as pens with mushroom-shaped grips, and some females in manual employment develop arms as strong as many males – but these exceptions are rare.
Blushing: Perhaps the defining difference between males and females is the ability to blush. Males have thick dark skin with overlapping scales. Females have smaller gold-coloured scales embedded in more delicate tissues; the skin connecting the scales is suffused with small capillaries which swell and lend their colour to the skin when a maiden blushes. In the case of mild arousal (as when receiving a compliment or conversing with an attractive male) this process eventually subsides, but strong arousal causes blood to seep into the surrounding flesh; since the scales are not entirely opaque the colour-change tints
the skin and reddens the scales themselves. This results in a deeper and permanent tint. Some folk remedies are said to reverse the infusion of blood, but there is allegedly a danger that a maiden thus treated will never be able to blush for her true love. These drugs are properly condemned by the church as encouraging promiscuity. Females are pink for the first few years after their first sexual arousal, darkening to golden-red eventually. It’s generally assumed that any pink female is engaged or married, and that any red female is either married or widowed. Anything else is considered scandalous.
Close proximity to males can also trigger this change, so most well-equipped homes and all public areas include alcoves into which females can retreat to avoid male contact.
Unmated females eventually fade to grey, at which point they are permanently unable to reproduce.
[[small illustration comparing skin colours]]
Homosexuality: Very much a taboo subject amongst dragons, homosexual behaviour exists but is never discussed publicly, and is most often seen in single-sex institutions such as the army, schools, etc. Females in homosexual relationships do not blush and eventually fade to grey.
Eggs: Mated females can hope to produce several clutches of 3-5 eggs in a lifetime, provided that there is a gap of several years between broods. Females only lay if they spend some time eating a diet which promotes egg production, including special herbs, dragon liver, etc., and illegitimacy is virtually unknown. Over-frequent laying can damage the reproductive system and cause the mother to become egg-bound, which generally results in an agonizing death.
Health: Dragons are generally remarkably healthy if they survive the first few years of life – childhood diseases and culling account for about 50% of dragonets in the first year, another 20% in the next five years. Naturally the death toll is highest amongst the poor, servants, and other lower orders, and reduced amongst the gentry. Once childhood is past a dragon in reasonable health can confidently expect to live three hundred years or more, often much longer.
Most forms of illness are signalled by abnormal coloration and defects of the scales.
Green scales are most often seen amongst hatchlings and dragonets, and are a sure indication that the child is fit only to be culled. The exact cause of this coloration isn’t clear, but it is usually accompanied by failure to thrive and put on weight,
premature wings, deformed claws, twisted tails, and other signs of abnormality. Greenness in later life is comparatively rare, and usually a sign of serious illness; if it doesn’t clear within a matter of hours the victim is usually beyond all medical help.
[[ picture of green dragon labelled "An obviously sickly dragonet, fit only to be culled. Note the green scales, deformed feet, twisted tail, prematurely formed but stunted wings, and other signs of ill-health. Such a specimen could never thrive." ]]
Scale loss is generally a sign of impending death. This condition – in which the scales simply drop en masse from the surrounding skin – is most often seen at the end of chronic illness or extreme old age. It must be distinguished from the localised scale loss sometimes caused by parasitic infections or rot; while disfiguring, this condition is rarely lethal if treated promptly. Causes include sand and grit caught under the scales, mites, fungal infestations, poorly-treated injuries, and dietary disorders. Over-frequent bathing is believed to be a contributing factor, but so is dirty skin. Treatments include hot poultices and washing with turpentine or ardent spirits. If scales are lost treatment with a paste made from crushed herbs and finely-powdered zinc oxide is sometimes effective. For extreme cases hot tar may stop the spread of infection and promote the growth of replacement scales; unfortunately the treatment is extremely painful, and can cause more problems than it cures.
Medicine: As indicated above, most dragon medicine tends to be palliative, generally treating injuries and the symptoms of illness rather than the underlying causes. Dragon doctors are aware of the germ theory – or rather, they have heard of it from the Yarge, who are more advanced in this field – but have yet to develop vaccination or antibiotics, or effective anaesthetics other than large quantities of spirits. There are numerous folk remedies and tonics available, varying considerably in efficacy; some are worse than useless, some surprisingly effective.
Drugs apart, medical procedures include stitching and cauterising wounds, amputations, resetting broken bones (although amputation is much more common), and midwifery; the latter is primarily emergency treatment of egg-bound females, and rarely successful.
Paediatrics is again limited to a few palliative treatments; seriously ill dragonets are almost invariably culled, and treating them is considered at best deceitful, at worst an affront to Veld.
Dentistry consists solely of extracting damaged or diseased teeth; dragons replace lost teeth very quickly, so there is no need for prosthetics, fillings, and the other remedies invented by the Yarge.
One roadblock to medical improvements has been the dragon inability to use microscopes; the peculiar structure of their eyes can’t cope with the virtual images produced by their eyepieces (see sidebar on previous page for more details). Recently a new invention has become available; the ‘microscope projector’ is a cross between a microscope and a magic lantern projector, which shows the specimen projected onto a white wall or screen. Yarge usually find the results too dim to be useful for research, especially at high magnifications, but dragons have no problems adapting their sight to very low light intensity, and have begun to use the device; they now have some visual proof that microscopic organisms can live on and in dragons, but no effective means of dealing with them.
The College of Physicians in Irieth is the main authority for training and certifying doctors; there is no formal training structure for midwives, nurses, or apothecaries, although the latter must serve a long apprenticeship.
Hospitals exist, but only in the most wretched parts of Irieth and other large towns. They are generally seen as little more than abattoirs; a place to die, with the doctors eating or selling the corpse if there are no relatives to defend it. The commercial market in dragon meat is in part driven by these institutions .
Obviously an article of this length can’t hope to cover every aspect of draconic biology; for more on these topics the reader is referred to A Dragonet's Guide to Nature by the Blessed Jamanah; The Biology of Dragons by Lh’ook of Migantil (a Draconic translation is available); and Curious Mysteries of the Dragon Heart by ‘Dragon Q.’
1 The other main commercial sources of dragon flesh (again almost always in cities) are condemned prisoners, if the expense of keeping them becomes too great and there is no prospect of using them to settle a legal dispute; the corpses of paupers, sold to settle debts; the corpses of servants, sold by masters who for one reason or another prefer not to consume former employees; and occasional suicides, who leave the income from their bodies to friends or relatives living too far away for the meat to be transported. It is to be feared that there may also be a black market in the victims of murder, or worse yet, murder with the sale of victims as the main motive; a few old records and numerous stories of the type known as ‘Irieth Myths’ describe such crimes, but there is little evidence that any have occurred in recent years. In the country cannibalism is almost always a family affair, as nature intended.
2 Although this work is banned by the Orthodox Church, it is still possible to obtain copies by mail order from its current publishers in Migantil.
[[Page 6 sidebar
Dragons should not be able to fly; they’re heavily built, don’t have hollow bones, and lack many of the muscular and skeletal features seen in other flying animals, such as the keel bones found in virtually all birds. Theoretical comparison with the larger raptors and bats suggests that at best they should be able to glide down from a height, at worse should plummet like stones. Theory is evidently wrong. Nobody, not even the dragons themselves, is entirely sure how flying works, but it is suspected that the aerodynamic processes involved in dragon flight are considerably more complicated than those of any other flying creature, and that some unknown factor adds lift. Or, as the primitive Yarge claimed, it may all be magic.
Dragons can fly for several hours without pause, at speeds of up to 20-30 MPH in still air, carrying substantial weights. Speed and endurance peak with dragons about 35ft long, larger dragons are slower. Flight requires no special diet, and (to give a discredited theory more credence than it deserves) has nothing to do with gas-filled bladders, whether they contain an anti-gravitational vapour unknown to science or the effluvium of an efficient digestive system. Dragons are not balloons – only the Yarge have flown by such means – and they are certainly not rockets, propelled by their f—s, no matter what Yarge satirists may claim!
Scenario Idea: Fear of Flying
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Yarge engineers are experimenting with a new generation of steerable balloon, with powerful lightweight steam engines and streamlined gas bags. They may be able to carry marksmen or artillery, or drop explosives on our defences. Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to discover the specifications of these ‘airships’ and learn of any vulnerabilities or weaknesses. As always, should any of you be caught or killed the secretary will disavow all knowledge…” ]]
[[page 7 sidebar
The main text discusses the general health and diseases of dragons, but combat injuries are by far the most common cause of ill-health, at least amongst young males.
By instinct dragons fight with their front and rear claws, by biting, and by buffeting and flailing with their heads, wings and tails, or constricting with their entire bodies. Older dragons may also use flame, although it is generally less effective in close combat than might be supposed. It can be used to attack an enemy’s eyes, but dragon armour is fire-resistant and a near-miss does little damage; biting is more effective.
All of a male dragon’s body is armoured to some extent, the most vulnerable areas being the belly, eyes, and wing membranes. Female scales give less protection.
Teeth are used to rip at the opponent’s throat, while the front claws are most often used against an opponent’s eyes, the tail to pin him down, and the rear claws to disembowel. Most serious fights end in surrender (indicated by flattening the claws and closing the eyes) or death. All of these attacks can be used against Yarge, of course, and dragon soldiers are trained to do so.
There are no dragon martial arts, as such, since their natural ability to use several different attacks simultaneously makes them redundant.
Artificial weapons such as guns are discussed in a later section.
Scenario Idea: Duel
After a boozy evening an adventurer receives a note from a dragon of high rank with a formidable reputation as a fighter, demanding that he “repair the insult to the honour of the lady you besmirched last night.” He can’t remember much about the evening, the lady, or any besmirching that might have occurred, neither can anyone else who was there. Has a mistake has been made? If not, is there an honourable way out? ]]
[[page 8 sidebar
As previously noted, there is considerable controversy about the evolutionary history of dragons, focused mostly on their similarities to, and differences from, reptiles. The classic view is that they are aberrant reptiles; the modern view is that they and their relatives form a separate vertebrate superclass with misleading superficial similarities to the reptiles.
The main arguments in favour of their classification as reptiles – admittedly very odd reptiles – are the structure of their skulls, the production of eggs, and their scaly skin. But their eggs are more like bird eggs than those of reptiles, with hard glossy shells resembling mother-of-pearl, they are warm-blooded, and they have six limbs and eyes unlike those of any other vertebrate species (see page 9).
Of these objections the oddity of limbs is perhaps the easiest to explain. There are examples of reptiles with four, two, or no limbs, so the class as a whole seems to have some flexibility in this area; if a random change produced a reptile with six limbs, and the extra limbs turned out to have some survival value, there seems no obvious reason why they shouldn’t continue in that form. The double shoulder seen in dragons and their relatives is decidedly odd, but seems to work… but all of the other Draconi species are comparatively rare and if anything they are in decline.
Eggs and warm blood can be explained by an assumption that dragons are closer to birds than other reptiles; but nothing explains the structure of the eye.
The modern view is that the most reptile-like examples of dragon body structure are coincidental, or can be explained as form following function, but the reality is that their true evolutionary history diverged early, perhaps before the first amphibians ventured onto land. Despite surface similarities, and even strong similarities in aspects such as the shape of blood cells etc, the dragons and all other land vertebrates are very distant cousins, and the closest common ancestor was probably a fish. ]]
[[ PAGE 9 sidebar
Dragons and their related species have eyes unlike any other vertebrate. Behind the lens is a complex array of crystalline rods (a), all capable of a degree of motion, connected to a bulbous mass of neural tissue (b) embedded in the muscles that move the rods (c). Nerves (d) lead to the brain. Each rod collects light from a narrow field of view; the eye focuses by aiming the rods at the point of focus and scanning across it, in a swirling circular movement. If upset or confused this movement is more agitated. The lens does not change shape or position.
Two other structures should be mentioned; a nictitating membrane (e) which snaps down from under the upper eyelid and blocks approximately 95% of ambient light, and the eyelids (f).
[[diagram of eye, see previous post]]
Dragons can see in near-total darkness, and it is believed that the bulbous neural structure somehow magnifies the effect of very small amounts of light. It’s notable that the nictitating membrane is used in all but the dimmest light, and that dragons seem to see at their best in very dim and very bright light.
One of the consequences of this unusual mechanism is that dragons are never short-sighted; their eyes easily adjust to focus at any distance. They have little need for telescopes, since they can narrow their focus to magnify distant objects. In any case they are unable to use many types of optical instruments (including normal Yarge telescopes and microscopes) because their eye structure is unsuited to focusing on the virtual images presented by their eyepieces. ]]
[[Page 10 sidebar
Dragons do not experience “persistence of vision,” and can distinguish a hundred or more pictures per second as separate images. By comparison Yarge perceive fifteen or more separate pictures per second as a moving image. This illusion is the basis for their recently-invented mutoscope, an entertainment device which presents a sequence of several hundred engraved prints in rapid succession, seen as a moving scene lasting about a minute.
This may explain why the swirling of dragon eyes has been known to have a hypnotic effect on lower animals, including some Yarge. Susceptibility to this effect seems to be random; all dragons are, of course, immune.
The ears of dragons resemble those of other vertebrates, but their hearing is somewhat directional, focused by the external ear flaps, most sensitive in a 40° cone ahead of the dragon’s head, and comparatively insensitive to the sides and rear. Their frequency range is a little broader than Yarge, especially in sensitivity to low frequencies which Yarge can only feel as vibrations.
As with most hunting animals the sense of smell is excellent; it is again somewhat directional, focused by the nostrils. Dragons can also “taste the air” with their tongues, collecting a broader range of chemical traces than via the nostrils alone. Both of these abilities can be impaired by over-use of flame.
The poorest dragon sense is touch; their thick skins and scales render them comparatively insensitive to most tactile stimuli, except in the hands, wing membranes, and certain areas associated with reproduction. They feel little pain from minor injuries and abrasions, and can sleep easily on a rough stone floor, although they greatly prefer the cool luxury of gold. ]]
This has been approved by Jo, but if anyone spots anything that looks like a typo etc. please let me know. And remember that what the dragons believe about their evolution is not necessarily entirely true before you start throwing bricks at my version of parallel evolution.