Aunbrel got to his feet, straightening as much as he could, though the low ceiling forced him to stoop. He stumbled to Ember's side. She was missing a half-dozen scales around her neck. "How bad is it?" he asked. She met his gaze with blank orange eyes, as if she couldn't remember how to speak his language. That bad, then.
River coiled between them and the other viper-dragons, repeating, "Stop" again and again, and then something longer that he didn't understand until she repeated it in the human tongue. "This one has protected the samassas. He has a right to be here. He is ifisith. He has a right."
I am what? "Ifishith"? That's ...a nest role? Leader? Aunbrel boggled, watching the viper-dragons around him. Frequent contact had given him a better feel for their moods, and he realized that the nest was not only angry and hostile, but pained. Wounded.
"Then he should stand with us," hissed the turqouise dragon. "Why does he stand by the samassas-fith?"
"And he must agree with the amendment," the indigo viper-dragon hissed.
"No." Aunbrel hunched, his head pressed against the too-low ceiling. "You're not fixing anything. Not like this." Like a wounded animal, gnawing at its own limb in an effort to stop the pain. "Tell me what's wrong."
A half-dozen voices called out answers in the dragon tongue: even if he understood it like a native he could not have made them out. River again slithered a circle just inside the ring of the leaders made, hissing a warning. They fell silent, then spoke one at a time.
"She defies the natural order."
"Spoke against the will of a leader."
"Encouraged willfulness in others."
"Resisted all prior amendment."
"She must be amended." All of the leaders hissed in unison on the final words.
This is unbearably petty. Aunbrel licked dry lips. "Who was hurt?" He turned, looking from one viper-dragon to the next. They returned blank, uncomprehending gazes. "What did she damage? Because the only injury I'm seeing right now is on her."
"You do not understand." River slid into place in the circle of the other leaders. "She damages the order. The nest cannot continue like this."
Aunbrel choked. "Is your culture so fragile it cannot abide one tiny creature questioning it?" Then why am I here?
"This is the moment of amendment. We cannot lose it," the turqoise dragon hissed. "You need to understand."
"Well I don't! She's not broken!" the elf guardian growled, "And if she was, this wouldn't fix her! This is madness!"
"There is no other way!" Coils bunched about them, necks drawn back to strike.
Aunbrel shifted to a fighting crouch over Ember, truncheon in one hand and guardian blade in the other, painfully aware that neither was likely to do him or Ember much good against six dragons several times his size. He looked from one pair of dragon eyes to the next, waiting for the first strike. The elf's eyes fell on River, as ready to attack as any of the others. Why did you bring me here? To approve? You had to know I wouldn't. Is that a dragon custom too? What are you waiting -- Realization hit him. "You don't want to do this."
"Of course not!" River roared. "Do you think we would, if we had any choice at all? The nest cannot abide this turmoil."
'And where else am I going to go?' Ember had said.
"Ah." Aunbrel blinked, twice. "Ahh. Of course. Miss Ember, would you like to join my nest?" His tone was almost conversational. Around him, viper-dragons gaped, astonished.
Ember rolled her head back to stare at him, her eyes still blank. After a moment, she gave an all-over shake of her body, as if coming back to herself. "... what?"
"I know it's not an actual nest, as such. Just a flat. And I don't have any nest-partners so it'd be very different from what you're used to. But you don't seem exactly wanted here, as you are, and I'd like your company -- I hate living alone, in truth -- so. Er. Would you?"
Ember considered this for another two and a half seconds. "Yes."
"Splendid. That's sorted, then." Aunbrel holstered his weapons and lifted Ember. "Which way is out?"
The nest around them seethed in confusion. River sidled over to make a gap in the ring. Stooped by the cramped ceiling, Aunbrel made his way to the opening.
"Stop!" the indigo dragon cried.
"This is impossible," said the turqoise. "He is not even dragon!"
"I don't see how that enters into it." Aunbrel didn't stop. "Mistress River called me ifishith. You've let me protect your nest-partners before. If I am ifishith, I may lead my own nest. You cannot abide my nest-partner's behavior, and have failed to amend it to your liking; I have no such problem. Miss Ember is no longer your nest-partner, so you need not concern yourself with her any longer. Hence. Good night." Aunbrel moved forward on chutzpah alone. If I pretend convincingly enough that this makes sense, maybe we can get out of here before they realize it doesn't.
River slithered in a U-shape around the two, leading the way to the exit as her broad length shifted aside any other dragons. She ignored the protests and confusion, and Aunbrel followed suit. When they finally cleared the labyrinthine tunnels into open air, Aunbrel straightened, flexing his shoulders backwards and sighing. "Thank you, Mistress River."
"And you, Guardian. May your nest prosper. Farewell, Ember. Know that you both are always free to visit here." The giant dragon lowered her head to Ember, who lifted hers to bump noses gently, tongues flicking out. River turned and slithered back into her nest.
Aunbrel helped Ember up to his shoulders, wincing as his hand brushed one of the bare patches of skin where a scale was missing. "Will those grow back?" he asked quietly. "Do you need medical care?"
"I'm fine, now. They'll grow back in time." Ember rested her head on top of his. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. That is, you truly are. Honestly, I hate living alone, and I enjoy your company, and ... " A sudden horrible thought struck him. "... and ... and ... I didn't just ask you to, er, become my mate, did I?"
Ember convulsed with mirth, her coil shaking around his shoulders.
"You're laughing. That means no. Right?"
She bobbed her head, gasping. "No. Nest-partner is different from mate."
"Ah. Good. Good." Aunbrel exhaled in relief, and started walking home. "You know I don't have any idea what I'm doing, right?"
Ember nodded again. "Me either." After a moment, she added, "I think I like it. Oh, and samassas aren't normally allowed to mate. That's why it was so funny. That and your panicked tone ... you don't mind that I was laughing, do you?"
"No. Why would I?"
The little red dragon nestled her head in the elf's dark hair. "No reason," she said, with a happy sigh. "No reason at all."