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Chapter Ten

Hamanu banished his companions from the workroom. He'd lived too long outside the bounds of compassion to be comfortable within its embrace. Not that Windreaver had suddenly mellowed; the shadowy troll departed in a gust of bitter laughter. Hamanu didn't know where his ancient enemy had goneto Ur Draxa, perhaps, where he should have been all along, spying on Rajaat.

In truth, Hamanu didn't care where Windreaver was. It was Pavek who weighed heavily in his thoughts, and Pavek who ignored his command. The stubborn, insignificant mortal stopped one stride short of the doorway.

"Your hand" he said, defiance and fear entwined in his voice. Then he held out the honey jar.

"I am the almighty, immortal Lion-King of Urik, or weren't you paying attention?" Hamanu snarled. "My flesh doesn't heal, but it won't putrefy. I require neither your service nor your concern."

Pavek stayed where he was, not talking, not thinkingat least not thinking thoughts that could be skimmed from his mind. Twisting human lips into a scowl, Hamanu shaped and shifted his illusionary body. He intended to snatch the jar from the templar's hand faster than Pavek's mortal eyes could perceive. But Hamanu had a real injury: his reflexes, both illusory and real, were impaired. His fingers slid past the jar. The improvised bandage snagged the rough-glazed pottery and tugged the raw edges of his wound as well.

The Lion-King flinched, the jar shattered on the floor, and Pavek blinkedsimply blinked.

Hamanu cradled his handthe real hand within the illusiontrying to remember the last time he'd misjudged the balance between reality and his own illusions. Before the templar was born, before his grandparents had been born.

"You cannot take my measure, Pavek. A mortal cannot imagine me or judge me." There was more edge to his words than he'd intended, but that was just as well, if it would get the templar moving.

Pavek folded his arms across his chest. "You were mortal when you measured Myron of Yoram and Rajaat. You didn't hesitate to judge them," he said, omitting the Lion-King's titles and honors, as if he and Hamanu were equals.

But he wasn't surprised when the templar disobeyed; he would have been disappointed otherwise. Pavek didn't share Hamanu's hot temper, but the mortal man had a quiet stubbornness that served the same purpose. An ill-omened purpose for any mortal when a champion's mood was more bleak than it had been in an age.

"Go, Pavek, before my patience is exhausted. I do not choose to be lessoned tonight, not by you, Windreaver, or anyone."

"You didn't finish your tale."

"Men have diedand died unpleasantly" The rest of Hamanu's threat went unspoken. He wouldn't kill tonight, and he'd never kill a man who dared to tell him the truth. "Not tonight, Pavek. Some other time. Go home, Pavek. Eat a late supper with your friends. Sleep well. I'll summon you when I need you."

A thought formed on the surface of Pavek's mind, so clear and simple that Hamanu questioned every assumption he'd ever made about the man's innocence or simplicity. Surely my king needs sleep and food, Pavek thought. Surely he needs friends about him tonight.

I do not sleep, Pavek, Hamanu replied, shoving the words directly into the templar's mind, which was enough, at last, to send him staggering across the threshold.

"Friends," the king muttered to himself when he was finally alone. "A troll who loathes me, justly, and a templar who defies me. Friends. Nonsense. A pox on friends."

But the thought of friendship was no easier to banish than Pavek had been. No one had known Hamanu longer, or knew him better, than the last troll general. Urik's history was their history, laced with venom and bile, but shared all the same. What was Windreaver, if not a friend, as well as an enemy?

And what was a friend, if not a mortal man who overcame his own-good sense to bandage a dragon's hand?

Hamanu's hand, down to its patterned whorls and calluses, was illusion, but the wound was realhe had the power to pierce his own defenses, even absentmindedly. There had been other wounds over the ages, which he'd hidden within illusion. Tonight, sorcery and illusion had failed, or, more truly, Hamanu himself had failed. The sight of molten metal in his palm had filled him with horror and self-loathing, and given Pavek an opportunity no mortal should have had.

Ordinary cloth would have burned or rotted when it touched a champion's changeable flesh. There was only one piece of suitably enchanted cloth in the workroom: the celadon gown of Sieiba Sprite-Claw, champion and queen of Yaramuke. She had worn it when she died in the Lion-King's arms, with his obsidian knife piercing her heart.

Had Windreaver guessed Pavek's intentions while Hamanu was preoccupied? Had the troll whispered a suggestion in Pavek's mortal ears

Or, had some instinct guided the templar's search? Some druid instinct? Some druid guardian whose presence a champion's magic couldn't detect?

Hamanu had thought himself clever when he conceived his campaign to win Pavek's support as a means to win the druid guardian's protection for his city. His bandaged hand could be taken as a sign that he was succeedingbut, at what cost?

A wound?

That was nothing. Windreaver spoke the truth: Rajaat's champions didn't heal, but the raw crater would be consumed by Hamanu's inexorable metamorphosis. In the meantime, he'd had a thousand year's practice ignoring worse agony.

A wound, then, was no cost, but what about the nagging emptiness around his slow-beating heart, hinting that he'd lived too long?

He had Urik, and for a thousand years, Urik had been enough. Mortals came and went; Urik endured. The city was immortal; the city had become Hamanu's life. The passions of his minions had supplanted any natural yearning for love or friendship. Then he conceived the notion of writing his history, and after thatafter ages of attention and nurturinghis precious minions wandered the city like lost children while he confessed his private history on sheets of vellum. Hamanu berated himself for their neglect and sought his favorites through the netherworld.

The Lion-King turned away. Lord Ursos's bents were familiar, stale, and without fascination. The bath faded from his imagination. He looked around the workroom for another stylus.

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