Viper-dragon society was stratified based on the size of the individual. Certain roles were reserved to the largest: they were the leaders, protectors, and enforcers of order. It was their part to ensure that the nest was safe, that it ran smoothly, that everyone's needs were met and that everyone knew their role. Mid-sized dragons were providers, crafters and builders: the ones who gathered resources for the nest. Small dragons, like Ember, were tasked with maintaining the nest: repairing, cleaning, cooking, caring for hatchlings. "So everyone has their place and duties. The trouble is ... well ... I'm very lazy." Ember sunk to the floor of her cage, curling her head on her tail. "And disobedient. And insolent. There's a dozen different duties that I'm suited to, and I hate each of them. I do my part poorly if at all. I quarrel with the leaders if I disagree with their decisions. I sneak out unaccompanied. I ... it's a long list." She sighed. "Today I was caught alone outside. That's a very serious offense. It's for my own good, of course. I'm too small to be safe travelling alone."
Aunbrel bit his tongue to avoid saying that she hardly seemed safe in the company of her nest. Just listen. Try to understand.
"Since I'm not behaving the way I should be, endangering myself and the nest, it falls on the leaders to amend my behavior. They have to do it, you see. I have to learn my place in the nest and keep it. It makes the whole nest angry and upset when I don't. That's what you ... interrupted."
Try to understand. "They looked like they intended to beat you." Aunbrel strove to keep his tone neutral.
She nodded. "I've been ... very intractable. They have to escalate."
Do they. "You do not sound intractable."
Her tail tip wiggled a little. "It's easier to say you're contrite than to actually do better."
"Won't they resume this ... punishment, when you return?"
"No. The moment of amendment is past. The leaders need the anger of first realizing the error, in order to act so. And the correction would be too delayed from that moment, now, to do me any good." Ember closed her eyes, looking weary and sad.
"... does it normally do you any good?"
"Not so far."
Well, that all sounds perfectly barbaric and revolting, and if it's not illegal it ought to be. "So you want to go back to them."
Another nod. "They only want what's best for me. And where else am I going to go?"
When they released Ember the next day, Aunbrel escorted her back to her nest. The small dragon seemed at once embarrassed and appreciative of the gesture. They avoided difficult subjects by talking about books the whole way: the Hope volumes Ember had read in the cell, her favorites in dragon literature, other works that Aunbrel liked, human books they'd heard of but that neither had read yet, and so forth. The time passed quickly.
Her building had been constructed for use by viper-dragons, and was accordingly little-suited to the needs of those who walked upright. The stoop was a ramp leading to a round door four feet wide. Even the awning over the ramp was too low for Aunbrel. A pair of small viper-dragons opened the door from within as Ember slithered up the ramp. They hissed a greeting to her, touching noses and then twining necks in what seemed an affectionate gesture. Aunbrel, however, they viewed with suspicion.
The elf guardian responded with a tip of his hat and "Good morning." Turning to Ember, he extended a long-fingered brown hand to offer a pair of books he'd been holding under his arm. "I thought you might have an interest in some of the others in the series."
Her orange eyes lit with pleasure. "I would! But -- no -- I've no way of returning them."
"I'll stop by sometime to pick them up." Aunbrel still held them out. As she hesistated, he added, "And then I'll have someone to talk to about them." The guardian was not entirely sure, on reflection, if that last was disguising his ulterior motive of following up on the dragon's situation, or if it actually was his ulterior motive.
With only a little more reluctance, Ember balanced the books on her tail. "Oh! Wait here," she said, as a thought struck her. She slithered into the round carpeted corridor of the entranceway and disappeared up a tunnel. The interior of the nest looked labyrinthine, the ceilings everywhere too low for humans, nevermind elves.
A few minutes later, Ember returned with three different books balanced on her tail. She extended them to Aunbrel. "There. Now you can read something new, too."
The elf grinned and accepted. Tipping his hat again, he took his leave.