A judge quickly found that Homer had flamed in self-defense and shown admirable restraint in merely threatening, not actually burning the other dragon. Homer was released.
They brought him the clothes he'd abandoned in the parking lot, and all his jewelry. "I had trouble getting the woman to give it up. She was sure I'd steal it 'from that brave dragon.' I've got her name and number." Jason grinned. "At least you can't blush in dragon-form."
Scarlet snickered. "I don't understand how dragons became the minority of the population. As tough and strong as you are, the flying, the flaming breath . . . I'd think you'd be on top."
"Oh, we are. In everything except numbers."
Jason made a rude gesture.
Homer folded his wings and climbed carefully into the back seat of Jason's car, and started lecturing. "The slow growth of the dragon population isn't because we have a low birth rate. It's the generation times. Females average four children, but they don't generally start having them until they're at least fifty. I was born when my mother was a hundred and eighty."
Scarlet bit her lip. "All right, assuming I believe you, do you, or Herod, or does it count for both of you? Have any children?"
"Yes. A dozen of them. We've done our duty to further the draconic race. Over two centuries ago, I might add. I left the physical details up to Herod; he's a big fan of scaly type females."
"Over two centuries ago?" She shook her head. "That's before cars, trains, all that sort of stuff. How old are you?"
"Three hundred and fifty eight. For a dragon like Herod, those are the Good Old Days. He was quite the dragon lord. A pioneer up here in the Wild North."
He kept nattering on, but Jason had stopped dead.
"Wait. You don't. You can't. Not that Herod! I figured he was named after . . . I didn't actually realize you were that old . . . "
"Stop gibbering, Jason. Yes, Herod Landbreaker. Herod The Explorer. Herod North Pole—and wasn't that just a jolly place to ascend in, all unsuspecting! The same Herod that every third baby boy gets named after. Or did for a while. That craze has pretty much worn off. Herod doesn't like the attention. The few dragons who know, respect his wishes. Most people don't realize. Even the Ripper didn't know he's still alive."
Jason restarted the car. "And that was why the Foothills Grand Jury delayed everything?"
Homer snickered. "Yeah. They probably got about as far as the affidavit of identity from King Ferris and decided they needed to talk to their legal experts. Probably their chamber of commerce and publicity agents as well. No one doubts that the old dragon lords believed in expedient, fatal and personally administered punishment for crimes, but do they really want to put that particular dragon lord in the dock?"
Scarlet sighed. "I definitely need to do some more reading."
"Don't bother. The motives they impute to him make him laugh, the atrocities they blame on him make him furious. For half of them he wasn't even on the same continent. And the legends are just silly."
"Maybe I should ask him?"
Homer snorted. "There's a reason they have to make up silly stories. He doesn't talk to people about his past. Although there's an echo, now and then, in his fiction."
Jason nodded. "And that's why you've sold the Gallery."
"Herod wants out of here, so I might as well withdraw on my own terms. And I didn't sell it, I hired a pair of wussies to run it for me. I'll pack, and store nearly everything. I have a traveling paint box and easel, some canvases. One set of nice clothes, and not my favorite jewelry, that's all going into a safe deposit box."
Scarlet looked worried. "Don't you have any control about where you go?"
"Why? I never asked Herod where he wanted to live. No, it's his turn. He flies with the Thunder and Lightning, and goes where the wind blows. I'm used to it."
The next day they drove up into the foothills, to the Calusa County Courthouse for the Grand Jury. It was short. A brief summary of events. The forensic reports. The blood around the subterranean altar, the hundreds of remains buried on the grounds. Some nearly a hundred years old. Mostly small.
"Now we know why there were no Dragon-Comer hybrids." Herod had made a brief appearance, then turned things back over to Homer, commenting on the wisdom of not scaring the jurors.
The Grand Jury stepped out briefly, returned and instructed the District Attorney to pursue murder charges against any Church Members involved. "Obviously, the dragon killed and flamed in self-defense. There will be no charges against Herod West Plateau."
". . . so they begged the Captain to let a couple of you come up for a complete exam." Scarlet looked from one man to the next.
Homer got his mouth closed. "A space ship. A real space ship! I get to go on a space ship!"
Jason grinned. "That, lady, is an offer I can't refuse."
Scarlet beamed. "The shuttle will use your airport. The Transportation Department has provisionally accepted that our airplanes meet your standards for safety and reliability. So we can start skipping that awkward hopping about, pretending we're from an island the far side of Taploi."
"A space ship!"
Halfway up, the sky darkened to black and the stars came out. Homer started hyperventilating and Herod ascended. He snapped a look around the shuttle interior, then his eyes defocused as he hunted down the memories of where he was and how he gotten here. Then he started grinning. "Homer wins. This is definitely the least expected place for either of us to ascend." He sat up straight and fastened his gaze on Scarlet. "This Hesparus, your ship. Does it travel faster than light? How?" He grilled her mercilessly, then the flight crew, and studied the ship as they neared.
"It looks damaged."
"We hit something in hyperspace. We're lucky to have survived."
"Is that the bow? From the metal splash, I'd say something hit you, from behind."
“Possibly, but things are very odd in hyperspace.”
They got a complete tour of the ship, and got poked, prodded and extremely X-rayed, Herod while morphing. The doctors were as fascinated by him as he was by the ship. When they were done, they were invited to dine with the Captain. Herod grinned. "This is where I take pity on your Captain and hand things back over to Homer."
Then the dragons had to switch back and forth with their head covered with electrodes wired to a machine. The doctors were fascinated all over again.
Herod bowed formally to the King, and as always, his Majesty laughed. "You always bowed before you dawdled me on your knee, or terrified Mother by flying off with me. You look good, Grandfather."
"Your Highness is too kind. I should have made Homer come, so you could hear firsthand about his great battle. I dare say that would make you laugh as well."
"I have films of most of it. It looks like a parody, one dragon fighting, the other dancing. How's your wing?"
"Fine. I'll baby it for another few weeks, but it's healed nicely."
"So, have you formed an opinion of the Third Comers?" His eyes narrowed. "I understand you got a tour."
"Yes. I talked to several of Lieutenant Magana's compatriots, while visiting the Hesperus. Fascinating. I've written up all my observations. The people are remarkably lacking in prejudice, very tolerant of religions, much less so of crime. Well educated, intelligent. Their medical facilities are advanced. I recommend admitting them. Make sure you split them up enough that they integrate into society, let them build that hospital and research center they're talking about." Herod snorted. "I've had to change my understanding of our history."
"Yes. I talked to the Ambassador after I got your note last week. The Three coming from a completely different planet. Humans as the starting point, Dragons as a deliberately manufactured fad and Wusses as a suite of naturally occurring mutations, that block the Change and Split. I think the myths were more entertaining."
"What I don't like is the inference that the split personality was accidental, a mistake. The right personality cluster was supposed to facilitate the use of the changed limbs. It wasn't supposed to become a separate person." Herod shuddered. "They offered to try and fix that."
"What? Can't have that. I'll make sure there's something in the treaty about it."
"Thank you, sire."
"I concur with your conclusions. They seem like nice, civilized people, otherwise. Let me know if they get nasty, once they're here in large numbers."
Herod bowed himself back out.
Jacqueline Summers, Gale Meyers and Betsy Wilson quickly became the darlings of the daytime talk shows. The three women who got away from the Ripper. Trouble gained a small following of her own after she appeared on one show, in a low cut sleeveless shirt, and argued with her sister, live, on air.
Homer even made a few appearances with them. "I owe it to Betsy. I love that ring. And the cufflinks and tie clip. She picked them all up and kept them for me. Don't look at me like that! I'm being good. Mostly."
"I can't wait to hear what Herod has to say about your TV appearances." Jason smirked.
Homer sniffed. "He said I'll find out how horrible fame can be, and then thousands of babies will be named Homer. Only a few of them draconic. I told him I've sold everything I ever painted. Then he called me a shop keeper."
Scarlet giggled. "I've read tons of things about him, now, so I guess that's one of his most deadly insults?"
"Yep. I wasn't crushed, though. The new, improved, heroic Homer is made of sterner stuff."
They all laughed at that, but Jason also nodded his approval. Homer was still prissy about his clothes, but there was confidence in his swagger.
“Do you know what Herod is going to do? Or where he’s going to go?”
Homer shrugged. “I'll find out where, when he gets there. And you?"
Scarlet grinned. "Your King has suggested that a bunch of immigrants could move to the Gold Country. My former boss has asked if I'll help set up a police force for our people's town." She looked over at Jason. "But we've decided that the best way would be to expand the Regional Police, to be a single law enforcement agency from the start. We're both going."
Homer’s smile widened. “Congratulations.”
The Ripper's trial was quick, despite the media frenzy. Guilty on all charges.
The old dragon left the city the same day the young dragon received the death penalty. Brain scans had established which personality cluster was the Ripper, and which the confused youngster who'd tried to suppress his misunderstood memories with alcohol and drugs. Jason didn't watch the execution. He heard more than he wanted about the confused and disoriented dragon being treated for the trauma of having his alt burned out.
Politics reigned. The King wouldn't cede any land to the New Comers, but he'd let them in, a hundred thousand a year, more if they assimilated well. And perhaps they'd be interested in a bit of pioneering and gold mining? Jason grinned, as he realized the New Comers would be bringing doctors with them, and were talking about electrical generating plants. The King had figured out how to bring civilization to the frontier.
Homer looked around the thick log walls of the three story tower. He hadn't seen one in nearly half a century.
Figures this is what Herod would build.
The ground level floor held a large stone fireplace and served as living room, kitchen, and dining room. He knew without looking that the second floor was split into two bedrooms. Trouble in one; the newly-wed local branch of the Territorial police used the other when their patrols brought them this far out. Sharing his home was something new, proof that even famous old Dragon Lords could change. The third floor was all Herod's, with the hatch to the roof. Herod probably claimed it was for watching for danger. Purely a coincidence that it also let him take off easily.
There were some solar cells up there, too. Enough for lights and charging computers. At least Herod wasn't going back to scribbling his books on paper.
And a satellite antenna. I'll be able to contact friends and business partners. If I dare.
Homer walked outside, stepping carefully on the stones placed in the mud. From the state of the heavy leather boots he'd found himself wearing, Herod rarely bothered. The heavy work clothes didn't bear mentioning.
There was a bath house, with a big steel water tank over a fire box. A privvy. Ugg. Be honest. There was an outhouse.
"I am too old for a howling wilderness, Herod. You'd better hope I don't ascend more than a few hours a month, or I will make your life miserable." Herod would remember him saying that, assuming the old dragon bothered to search his memory. Homer followed the path through the trees, to the creek where the gold mining was underway.
The sun was sinking toward the western horizon.
Cloud shadows chased golden sunshine across the vivid green of spring grass and to the south white thunderheads gathered over rugged black mountains. The base of the clouds grew purple and darkened the sky. The remaining light silvered the winding stream. As the sky overhead deepened to indigo, a trail of red shimmered in the air. A shout drew his attention down from the aurora. Trouble held something aloft. A last beam of sunlight spotlighted the girl, flashing off mirror bright wet scales, and a golden spark gleamed in her uplifted hand.
Homer took a slow, reverent, breath. "Where did I pack my paints?"