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Chapter Seven

Hamanu sent them awayall of them: Windreaver, Pavek, Enver, the myriad slaves and templars whose labor fueled the palace routine. The Lion-King retired to distill the reagents and compose the invocation of the stealthy spell he'd need to get close enough to see his creator's prison with his own eyes andmore importantlyget away again.

"Oil, O Mighty Master?" Windreaver whispered from the darkest depths of the room where Hamanu worked into the night.

The storerooms beneath the palace were flooded. Their contents had been hurriedly hauled to the upper rooms for safekeeping, leaving Hamanu's normally austere and organized workroom in chaos. The treasures of a very long lifetime were heaped into precarious pyramids. Windreaver's shadowy form would be lost amid countless other shadows, and Hamanu didn't break his concentration to look for his old enemy.

"Do you truly believe oil from the egg-sack of a red-eyed roc will protect you from your master?"

"... nine hundred eighty... nine hundred eighty-one..." Hamanu replied through clenched teeth.

Shimmering droplets, black as the midnight sky and lustrous as pearls, dripped from the polished porphyry cruet he held over an obsidian cauldron. Four ages ago, he'd harvested this oil from a red-eyed roc. It had vast potential as a magical reagentpotential he had scarcely begun to explorebut he did not expect it to protect him from the first sorcerer.

Nothing but his own wits and all the luck in the world could protect the last champion from Rajaat.

"You're a fool, O Mighty Master. Surrender and be done with it. Become the dragon. Any dragon would be better than Rajaat unchained. You certainly can't fight Rajaat and your peers."

"... nine hundred eighty-eight... nine hundred eighty-nine..."

Unable to provoke an explosion from either Hamanu or the concoction in front of him, Windreaver turned his attention to the clutter. Save for his acid voice and the swirling wake of his anger, the troll had no effect on the living world. That was his protectionhe could slip undetected through all but the most rigorous wardings, including the ones Hamanu had set on this room. It was also his frustration.

Whirling through the room, Windreaver shook the clutter and raised a score of cluttering dust devils from its shadows. Hamanu stilled the air with an absentminded thought and counted the nine hundred ninety-second drop of oil. The devils collapsed. There was another table in the workroom, uncluttered save for writing implements and two sheaves of vellum: one blank, the other already written upon, It drew Windreaver's curiosity as a lodestone attracted iron. The air above the table sighed. The corners of the written-upon vellum rustled.

Driven by a very local wind, the brass stylus rolled to the table's edge and clattered loudly to the floor. The vellum remained where it belonged.

"Memoirs, O Mighty Master?" The rustling stopped. "An apology?"

Windreaver's accusations were icy knives against Hamanu's back. The Lion of Urik wore the guise of a human man in his workroom where no illusion was necessary. Human motion, human gestures, were still the movements his mind knew best. He shrugged remembered shoulders beneath an illusory silk shirt and continued his count.

"What fascination does this street-scum orphan hold for you, O Mighty Master? You've wound him tight in a golden chain, and yet you plead for his understanding."

"... one thousand... one thousand one."

Hamanu set the cruet down and, taking up an inix-rib ladle, gave the cauldron a stir. Bubbles burst on the brew's surface. The two-score flames of the overhead candelabra extinguished themselves with a single hiss and the scent of long-dead flowers. A coal brazier glowed beneath the cauldron, but when Hamanu stirred it a second time, the pale illumination came from the cauldron itself.

"I noticed him, this Just-Plain Pavek of yours, Pavek the high templar, Pavek the druid. His scars go deep, O Mighty Master. He's scared to the core, of you, of every little thing."

"Pavek is a wise man."

"He's young."

"He's mortal."

"He's young, O Mighty Master. He has no understanding."

"You're old. Did age make you wise?"

"Wiser than you, Manu. You never became a man."

Manu. The troll had read the uppermost sheet of parchment where the name was written, but he'd known about Manu for ages. Windreaver knew the Lion's history, but Hamanu knew very little about the troll. What was there to know about a ghost?

Shifting the ladle to his off-weapon hand, Hamanu reached into an ordinary-seeming leather pouch sitting lopsidedly on the table. He scooped out a handful of fine, dirt-colored powder and scattered it in an interlocking pattern across the cauldron's seething surface. Flames leapt up along the powder's trail.

Hamanu's glossy black hair danced in the heat. He spoke a word; the flames froze in time. His hair settled against his neck; illusion maintained without thought. Moments later, screams and lamentations erupted far beyond the workroom. The flames flickered, died, and Hamanu stirred the cauldron again.

"You're evil, Manu."

"So say you."

"Aye, I say it. Do you hear me?"

"I hear. You'd do nothing different."

"I'm no sorcerer," the troll swore indignantly.

"A coincidence of opportunity. Rajaat made you before he made me."

"Be damned! We did not start the Cleansing War!"

"Nor did I. I finished it. Would you have finished it differently? Could you have stopped your army before every human man, woman, and child was dead? Could you have stopped yourself?"

The air fell silent.

Iridescence bloomed on the swirling brew. It spread rapidly, then rose: a noxious, rainbow bubble as tall as a man. The bubble burst, spattering Hamanu with foul-smelling mist. The silk of his illusory shirt shriveled, revealing the black dragon-flesh of his true shape. A deep-pitched chuckle rumbled from the workroom's corners before the illusion was restored. Hamanu released the ladle. The inix bone clattered full-circle around the obsidian rim, then it, the penultimate reagent, was consumed. Blue light, noxious and alive, formed a hemisphere above the cauldron, not touching it. With human fingers splayed along his human chin, concealing a very human scowl, Hamanu studied the flickering blue patterns.

Rajaat, creator of sorcery as well as champions, had written the grammar of spellcraft in his own youth, long before the Cleansing Wars began. Since then, additions to the grimoires had been few, and mostly inscribed in blood: a warning to those who followed that the experiment had failed. Hamanu's stealthy spell was perilously unproven. Its name existed only in his imagination. He would, in all likelihood, survive any miscasting, but survival wouldn't be enough.

Still scowling, Hamanu walked away from the table. He stopped at a heap of clutter no different from the others and made high-pitched clicking noises with his tongue. Before Windreaver could say anything, a lizard's head poked up. Kneeling, Hamanu held out his hand.

The lizard, a critic, was ancient for its kind. Its brilliant, many-colored scales had faded to subtle, precious shades. Its movements were slow and deliberate, but without hesitation as it accepted Hamanu's finger and climbed across his wrist to his forearm. Its feet disappeared as it balanced on real flesh within the illusion.

"You astonish me," Windreaver muttered from a corner.

Hamanu let the comment slide, though he, too, was astonished, hearing something akin to admiration in his enemy's voice. He was evil; he accepted that. A thousand times a thousand judgments had been rendered against the Lion of Urik. He'd done many horrible things because they were necessary. He'd done many more because he was bored and craved amusement. But his evil was as illusory as his humanity.

The Lion-King couldn't say what the lizard saw through its eyes. Its mind was too small, too different for him to occupy. Scholars had said, and proven, that critics wouldn't dwell in an ill-omened house. They'd choose death over deception if the household doors were locked against their departure. From scholarly proofs, it was a small step to the assumption that critics wouldn't abide evil's presence, and a smaller step to the corollary that critics and the Lion of Urik should be incompatible.

Yet the palace never lacked the reclusive creatures. Shallow bowls of amber honey sat in every chamber for their useeven here, amid the noxious reagents, or on the roof beneath Hamanu's unused bed.

With the critic on his arm, Hamanu returned to the worktable, dipped his finger in just such a delicately painted bowl, and offered a sticky feast to his companion. Its dark tongue flicked once, probing the gift, and a second time, after which the honey was gone. A wide yawn revealed its toothless gums, and then it settled its wrinkled chin flat on the Lion-King's forearm, basking in the warmth of his unnatural flesh.

With a crooked and careful finger, Hamanu stroked the critic's triangular skull and its long flanks. Bending over, he whispered a single word: "Rajaat," and willingly opened his mind to the lizard as so many had unwillingly opened their minds to him.

The critic raised its head, flicked its tongueas if thoughts were honey in the air. Slowly it straightened its legs, turned around, and made its way back to Hamanu's hand, which was poised above the blue light, above the simmering cauldron.

A shadow fell across Hamanu's arm. "This is not necessary, Manu."

"Evil cares nothing for necessity," Hamanu snapped. "Evil serves itself, because good will not." He surprised himself with his own bitterness. He'd thought he no longer cared what others thought, but that, too, was illusion. "Leave me, Windreaver."

"I'll return to Ur Draxa, O Mighty Master. There is nothing you can learn there that I cannotand without the risk."

"Go where you will, Windreaver, but go." The critic leapt into the cauldron. For an instant the workroom was plunged in total darkness. When there was light again, it came only from the brazier. The brew's surface was satin smooth; both the troll and the critic were gone.

The reagents must age for two nights and a day before they could be decanted, before the stealthy spell could be invoked.

There was much he could write in that time.

* * * | The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King | * * *