Enver stood in the map room doorway. "Omniscience, a messenger approaches."
The sharpest mortal ear could not pick out the sounds of sandals rapidly slapping the tiles of the palace corridors as the messenger neared the end of her journey. Her journey continued because Hamanu didn't rely on his immortal ears. He'd known about the message since it passed through Javed's hands in Javed's encampment south of the market village ring.
"Good news or bad, Omniscience?"
Hamanu smiled fleetingly. "Good. Nibenay sent it with our messenger, alive and intact. I believe he has accepted my terms. We'll know for certain in a moment, won't we?"
Enver nodded. "For certain, Omniscience. Our messenger alive, that's certainly good news."
The dwarf's tightly ordered mind accepted that the Shadow-King was also a living god, and that gods, all other aspects being equal, weren't omniscient with regard to one another. His eyes were wide with awe and dread when the dusty half-elf slapped to a halt beside him. She clutched Gallard's black scroll-case tightly in both hands, as if it were a living thing that might try to escape or attack her. Nibenay's nine-rayed star glowed faintly on the case's wax seal, which protruded between her thumbs.
Knowing what she carried, although not the message it contained, she'd pushed herself to her limit and beyond, as had every other relay-runner who'd touched it
"O Mighty One—" she gasped, beginning to cramp from her exertions.
Enver steadied her. He put his own powerful short-fingered hand around hers, lest the scroll case slip through her trembling fingers and shatter on the floor.
"Give it to me," Hamanu suggested, reaching across the sand-table where he'd recreated Urik and its battle lines.
The half-elf doubled over the instant Enver took the case. The trembling was contagious; the dwarf's fingers shook as he handed it to Hamanu.
"See to her needs, dear Enver," the Lion-King said, dismissing them and their mortal curiosity with a nod of his head.
Ah, the predictable frailties of his mortal servants... the pair stopped as soon as they were out of sight and wrung their hands together in desperate, silent prayers: Good news. Good news. Whim of the Lion, let the news be good.
Hamanu slid his thumb under the scroll-case seal. The hardened wax popped free, and a tiny red gem rolled onto the sand pile that stood for the village of Farl. Never one to believe in omens, Hamanu fished it out of the sand and squeezed it.
Alone. When the sun is an hour above the eastern horizon, he heard the Shadow-King's hollow, whispery voice between his own thoughts. The armies will begin their engagement. I will cast the first spell, then Dregoth, then Inenek. Do what must be done, and the walk of Urik will be standing at sundown. This I solemnly swear.
The Lion-King let the bright gem fall back on the sand. By itself, the gem was worth many times its weight in gold. What was the worth of a champion's solemn oath? At least Gallard was no longer spouting nonsense about spells to forestall the creation madness that had overtaken Borys. Beyond that, Gallard's oath was worth what Hamanu's oath would have been in similar circumstances: very, very little, no more than a single grain of sand.
Hamanu studied the sand-table in front of him. Gentle mounds and grooves imitated the more detailed map of Urik's environs carved onto the map room's northern wall. Strips of silk littered the sand: yellow, of course, for the city's forces, green for Gulg, red for Nibenay, black for the largely undead army of Giustenal. The red, green, and black strips were where Rajaat promised they'd be. If there was a battle tomorrow, it would be on a scale not seen since the Cleansing Wars. If ±ere wasn't a battle, there'd be mortal sacrifice to equal the day Borys laid waste to Bodach.
Was there a third alternative?
Yellow silk fingers surrounded the sandpile that stood for the market village of Todek, southwest of the city. They faced nothing, except a tied-up bundle of blue ribbons. Blue, for the armies of Tyr. Blue, for the army—enemy or ally—that hadn't arrived. Hamanu's eyelids fell shut. He clutched his left forearm where, beneath illusion, an empty place remained unfilled.
Not an army. An army wouldn't make a difference. But two people—even one person, one young mul with the sun's bloody mark on his forehead—that could make all the difference in the world.
Windreaver couldn't answer. There'd be no answer.
As soon as he'd returned to Urik after his disastrous meeting with Sadira at the Asticles estate outside of Tyr, Hamanu had sent a peace offering to the sorceress: a champion's apology, rarer than iron, rarer than a gentle rain in this dragon-blasted world. He'd sent golden-crust himali bread from his own ovens, because bread had been peace and life and all good things in the Kreegills, and a hastily scribed copy of the history he'd written for Pavek, in the hope that she would understand why he was what he was, and why losing Windreaver was a loss beyond measure.
He should have sent Pavek. Pavek had a true genius for charming his enemies. As a runaway templar, he'd charmed the druids of Quraite. As both a runaway and a would-be druid, he'd charmed the Lion-King himself. If anyone could have undone the hash that Hamanu had made of his Tyrian visit, Pavek would have been the one.
But for Hamanu, sending Pavek out of Urik would have been sending away his last—his only—hope. So he'd appealed to the Veiled Alliance of sorcerers in Urik, stunning them, of course, with his knowledge of their leadership, their bolt holes, and all that his knowledge implied. For Urik, he'd told the old rag-seller who was Urik's mistress of unlawful sorcery. And, reluctantly, she'd sent an adept through the Gray with his gifts.
The adept had arrived. The gifts had been conveyed to the Asticles estate. Beyond that, without Windreaver to be his eyes and ears in tight-warded places, Hamanu knew nothing, which was, itself, an answer. The sorceress wasn't coming. Whether Rajaat plucked Sadira's strings in subtle melodies, or she was simply a mortal woman as stubborn and single-minded as he'd been at her age, was a dilemma the Lion-King would never resolve.
These last two days, he'd picked apart the memory of their abortive conversations as often as he'd examined the deployments on the sand-table. He'd blamed Sadira— mostly he'd blamed Sadira—for her failure to listen, but he'd blamed Rkard, too, and Rajaat, and Windreaver, for planting the weed's seed in his mind in the first place. At one time or another, Hamanu had blamed everyone for his blundering failure to win Sadira's help.
Recalling his own words, he'd blamed himself: his blindness, his prejudice, his overwhelming need to answer hurt with hurt. In the end, with the blue silk ribbons still tied in a compact bundle and Gallard's red gem in the sand beside Khelo, blame was unimportant.
"Mistakes," he told the absent Windreaver, "were made. I had choices, and I made the wrong ones. Now, I pay the price of my own foolishness. What do you think, wherever you are, old friend, old enemy? Will Pavek come to Urik's rescue with his druid guardian? Will the guardian vanquish the dragon I become? Will that be enough? Is there a guardian who can stand against the first sorcerer?"
He swept his arm across the table, leveling the mounds, burying the multicolored ribbons beneath the sand.
"From the day he made me his champion, I have prepared for the day when I would face my destiny. I had a thousand times a thousand plans, but I never planned for today."
Hamanu extinguished the map room lanterns with a thought. He left the room and found Enver sitting on the floor outside the door.
"You heard?" Hamanu asked.
The dwarf's upturned face, pale and vacant, answered before his thoughts became coherent.
"Go home, dear Enver." Hamanu helped his steward to his feet. "Stay there tomorrow. You'll know what to do."
Enver shook his head slowly from side to side. "No," he whispered. "No..."
Hamanu laid his hand atop the dwarf's bald head, as he might have done with a child. "It will be better, dear Enver. I will not be able to protect or spare you, and whoever comes after me—" "Omniscience, there can be no after—"
The dwarf shook his head, ducking out from beneath Hamanu's hand. His focus, that uniquely dwarven trait that guided a dwarf's life and determined his fate after death, was foremost in the thoughts Hamanu gleaned. It was a face the Lion-King scarcely recognized, though it was him, Hamanu, as Enver knew him.
"Your focus will be fulfilled, dear Enver. It is I who abandon you, not you who abandon me." He put a guiding hand on his steward's shoulder and pointed him away from the map room. "Go home now. It's time."
Enver took a few flat-footed steps, then turned, painted a new portrait in his mind's eye, and turned away again. The swift painless poison Hamanu had provided for all his household was, in truth, a regular precaution whenever he led his army to war. Rajaat's champions had learned how to kill each other. The dwarf's determination not to use it was an almost-tangible cloak around his shoulders as he walked down the corridor. Hamanu hoped he'd change his mind. The fate of anyone who'd been close to the Lion-King wouldn't be pleasant once the Lion-King was gone.
Hamanu waited until the corridor ahead of him was silent. Then he followed Enver's footsteps. From the map room, he went to the armory, from the armory slowly through every public room. Except for the slave and servant quarters, which he avoided, the Lion-King's palace was deserted. He'd sent away as many as he could, to Javed's camp or to their own families.
The sun had set some time ago. Slaves had set torches in the hundreds of wall sconces, as they'd done every night for ages. Hamanu snuffed the torches out, one by one, with a thought or a memory as he walked by. He came to the throne room with its monstrosity of a throne; he wasn't sorry to leave that behind.
Above the throne hung the lion's head lantern, the eternal flame of Urik. Hamanu recalled the day he'd hung it there and lit it. Immortal wasn't eternal. He'd known there'd come a day, a night, when it was extinguished—but not this night. He left it burning and felt its yellow eyes on his back as he left the throne room and began his circuit of his private places, closing doors, saying good-bye, until he came to his cloister sanctum.
His vellum history was there, a leather scroll-case beside it. He'd written no further than Windreaver's last battle. A thousand years went unrecounted; wars with all his neighbors, with rebels, criminals, and blighted fools. Except for the dead, all his wars had been alike. If he had written them, they'd all read: We fought; I won. Urik prospered. Urik endured.
There was nothing more to write. Hamanu rolled the vellum sheets together, tied them with a silk cord, and slid them into the case that he slung over his shoulder. Bathed in moonlight, the Kreegill murals painted on the walls were studies in charcoal and silver; they seemed too real to consider touching. Pavek's tools stood where he'd left them, in an orderly row against the little cottage. The novice druid had restored the scorched dirt. He'd planted grain in the ground he'd tilled and tended. High as a man's forearm, it, too, was silver in the moonlight.
Hamanu plucked a sprig and held it to his nose. He remembered the smell.
When the cloister doors were bolted shut for the last time, from the inside, Hamanu made a familiar slashing motion through the air. Netherworld mist enveloped him. He emerged beneath the palace gate-tower, a slightly built, dark-haired human youth with a leather case slung over a narrow shoulder.
The templar guards didn't notice him, nor did anyone else. Urik's streets were quiet, though not as doom-laden as the palace. War had been a regular occurrence throughout the Lion-King's reign. Even siege camps beyond the ring of market villages weren't unknown—and weren't a source of great concern for the ordinary Urikite. After all, as the magic-voiced orators reminded them at the start of each watch: Urik has never lost a battle when the Lion-King leads her armies.
Outside the Lion-King's inner circle of confidants and advisors, the city's plight was not widely known. Mortal minds, Hamanu had learned long ago, were ill-suited for lengthy confrontations with despair. Let them carry their faith to the end, or to the Lion-King's fountain in the city's center where, by moonlight and torchlight, a small crowd had gathered. Long, slender eel-fish swam in the fountain's lower pools. They were bright streaks by day, dark shadows by moonlight, and sharp-toothed at any time. When a Urikite made a wish, second thoughts were ill-advised, and woe betide any light-fingered criminal who tried to skim the ceramic bits from the bottom. Those coins belonged to the Lion-King, the living god who cherished them, though he had no use for them. His eel-fish would eat just about anything, but their favorite snack was a finger or a toe.
Let him lead us to victory. Make him invincible before our enemies. Return our king, safe, to us—
As if they knew Hamanu, the Lion of Urik, was not a god at all.
He was lost in listening when he felt a tug on the hem of the plain illusory shirt he wore.
"Want to make a wish?" a little boy asked.
The boy's thoughts were of a brother, a giant of a brother who'd been called up in the second levy a quinth ago, and of his mother, a shrunken woman on the other side of the fountain. The woman gave a shy, toothless smile when Hamanu looked at her.
"My brother's outside," the boy said. Neither he nor his mother had the least notion that explanations were unnecessary. "You got a brother outside? A sister? Somebody?"
He had no brothers, not for a thousand years, but Hamanu had somebody—ten thousand somebodies in yellow and mufti—outside the wall. "Yes."
"Bigger'n stronger than you, huh?"
He was Manu tonight, this last night in Urik; it had seemed appropriate. And Manu had been an unimpressive youth, though not as spindly as the boy imagined, comparing Manu to his mountain of a brother. If he'd been real, and not illusion, Manu could have slept outside the walls tonight; the third levy would have taken him.
The boy tugged Hamanu's shirt again. "You scared?" And where the brother had been in the boy's thoughts, there was fear, hurt and emptiness: all that a child could understand of war.
"Yes, a little." Manu knew better than to lie to children.
"Me, too," the boy admitted and held out a dirty, half-size ceramic bit. "We can wish together?"
"What shall we wish for?"
The boy pressed a pudgy finger against his lips. Hamanu nodded quickly. He should have known: wishes were secrets between the wish-maker and the Lion. They tossed their bits in together: two tiny ripples in the moonlight. Not even a god could have said which was which.
"It's gonna be all right, isn't it?" the boy asked, looking up at him. "The Lion'll take care of 'em, won't he?"
"He'll try," Hamanu said.
He was spared from saying more when the boy's mother called, "Ranci!" and held out her hand.
"Whim of the Lion," Hamanu said to the boy's shadow as he darted around the fountain. "He'll try to save them all."
The Lion-King put his fountain behind him and wandered the streets of his city. Pools of light spilled out of every tavern doorway where folk came together to either find courage or lose fear at the bottom of a mug. Taverns didn't have anything to soothe a champion's nerves. Nothing he could eat or drink would make this night shorter. Nothing he could imagine would make it easier.
Pavek's thoughts from a few long nights ago came back to him: Surely my king needs friends about him tonight. Hamanu hadn't wanted friends that night, and wasn't entirely certain he wanted them now. But he'd intended from the beginning to give his history to the druid-templar who was—he cocked his head and listened through the crowded melange of thoughts and voices—among friends. Hamanu wandered back toward the palace, toward the templars' quarter with its crisscross maze of identical red-and-yellow striped facades on identical streets. Throughout the ages, the rivalries within Urik's templar bureaus had been as intense and deadly as the rivalries among Rajaat's champions. Nothing Hamanu could have done would have put an end to rivalry, but by keeping the bulk of his templars in yellow robes and all of them in identical dwellings in just one quarter of the city, he'd done as much as one man could to lessen the damage rivalries caused.
Within his slight-framed illusion, Hamanu remained Hamanu. His champion's ears listened through the walls as he walked and yanked the most flagrant of his weedy templars as he passed their dwellings. He filled their minds with morbid guilt and lethal nightmares; he savored their anguish as they died. Then he calmed his vengeful heart and put his fist on the door of Pavek's house.
He had to knock twice before he heard someone moving toward the door. Even then, he wasn't certain the woman was coming to open it or was chasing a child who'd strayed into the vestibule. With or without his preternatural senses, Pavek's house was one of the noisiest dwellings in the templar quarter. Hamanu was about to attract Pavek's attention through his gold medallion when, at last, he heard footsteps on the interior stairs, and the door swung open.
It was the woman he'd heard before, and she did have a damp and writhing child straddling her hip. She wasn't a slave—Pavek didn't keep slaves—and she wasn't one of the servants Hamanu had hired to open the house before Pavek returned to Urik from Quraite. She wasn't a Quraite druid, either; druidry left its mark on those who practiced it, as did any magical or Unseen art, and she didn't bear it. Stirring her thoughts gently, Hamanu was surprised to discover she was simply a woman who'd lost her man to the second levy and, reduced to scrounging for herself and her child, had made the fateful mistake of offering herself to a certain scar-faced man.
By the look and sound of the dwelling, she was far from the only stray Pavek had brought home.
"I wish to speak to the high templar, Pavek," Hamanu said.
He was prepared to stir her thoughts to obedience, but that was unnecessary. Strangers, it seemed, came to this door all the time and, disguised as he was in Manu's homespun garments, the woman assumed he was another stray like her.
"The lord-templar's in the atrium. I'll take you to him—"
Hamanu raised his hand to stop her. There was more life in this place than he wished to have around him tonight. "I have something for him. If you'll fetch him for me, I'll give it to him and be gone."
She shrugged and hitched the toddler higher on her hip. "What's your name?"
He hesitated, then said, "Manu. Tell Lord Pavek that Manu is here to see him."
The name was common enough in this, Hamanu's city. She repeated it once and disappeared up the steps into the living quarters. Hamanu shut the door—a slave's job, but there were no slaves here—and settled down to wait on a tradesman's bench.
In a few moments Pavek appeared at the top of the stairs. He was alone. His right hand was tucked under his shirt hem and resting lightly on the hilt of a steel-bladed knife.
"It's a little late for caution, Pavek," Hamanu observed without raising his head. "Half the city could walk through your unguarded door. Half the city already has."
"Manu?" Pavek descended a few steps. "Manu? Do I know you? Step into the light a moment."
Hamanu obeyed. His illusion was, as always, perfect, and though Pavek could not hide his novice druidry from one of Rajaat's champions, there was nothing at all magical about the aura the illusory Manu projected. Indeed, there was nothing about Manu that Pavek should have recognized, including the scroll case, which was plain leather, sturdy, but scuffed. A child's spindle top shot out of the doorway behind Pavek, followed immediately by the child who'd lost it. The top bounced down the stairs, coming to rest at Hamanu's feet. Pavek put a hand out to stop the child, a scruffy little creature of indeterminate race and gender. He bent down and whispered something in the child's ear. There was a hug and a high-pitched giggle, then the child was gone, and Pavek was coming slowly down the stairs.
Hamanu picked up the toy and handed it to Pavek as he reached the last step. Their eyes met in the lantern light. Manu's eyes were brown, plain brown—even Dorean, who'd loved every part of Manu, said his eyes were ordinary, unremarkable. Hamanu's eyes, the eyes Rajaat had given him, were obsidian pupils swimming in molten sulphur. When Hamanu crafted his illusions, he always got the eyes correct, yet Pavek stared at his eyes and would not look away.
"Great One," he said at last, trying—and failing—to kneel on the entrance steps of his own home. "Great One."
Pavek lost his balance. Hamanu caught him as he fell forward, and held him until he was steady on his feet again.
Somewhere a child screamed, as children would, and incited a commiserating chorus.
Hamanu plucked the top out of the air where it had hovered while the Lion-King assisted his templar. He'd changed his mind about staying here. "Is there room in this house for one more?" he asked, dropping the toy in Pavek's nerveless hands.
"It is yours, Great One. Everything I have—"
"Manu," he said, grabbing Pavek's arm to keep him from kneeling.
Pavek nodded. "Your will, Great One—Manu."
They went up the stairs together. The child who'd lost the toy was waiting inside the hall along with two others, one definitely a dwarf, the other definitely a girl. They were soft-voiced and polite until Pavek relinquished the top. Then they were off, shrieking like harpies.
"Are you collecting every castoff and stray in Urik?"
"They have nowhere else to go, Gr—" Pavek caught himself. "I find one... but there's never just one. There's a sister, or a friend, or someone." He gestured at the ceiling. "This place, it's so big. How can I say no?"
"I can't have this, Pavek. You're giving the bureaus a bad name."
Pavek gave Hamanu the same worried look Enver had given him at least once a day. But Pavek—Whim of the Lion—knew when his humor was being tested.
"Not to worry, Manu. My neighbors think I'm fattening them up for market."
They laughed. It was invigorating to laugh in the face of doom. Manu, head-and-shoulders shorter than Pavek, reached out and gave the bigger-seeming man a hearty, laughing thump between the shoulder blades, which rocked him forward onto his toes. For a heartbeat, there was silence, and a world of doubt in Pavek's thoughts. Then Pavek dropped an arm on Manu's shoulder and laughed— tentatively—again.
A cold supper had been laid out in the moonlit atrium and a score of men and women gathered together to enjoy it. Hamanu was mildly surprised to see Javed sitting beside his chalk-skinned bride. The king of Urik might reasonably expect the Hero of Urik to lay his old bones on the hard ground of the army encampment the night before a great battle. But Javed knew exactly what they faced and how little difference his own presence on the battlefield would make tomorrow, and Mahtra, his bride, was as comfortable in this dwelling as she was anywhere. She'd practically lived here when it had belonged to Elabon Escrissar.
For that matter, Hamanu had visited House Escrissar many times and in many guises, but never as himself, certainly never as Manu.
There was a glimmer of inquiry from Javed's mind when Pavek introduced Manu, a Gold Street scribe left behind when his employer pulled up stakes and ran for a noble estate outside the walls. Hamanu had no difficulty raising a mind-bender's facade to defeat the commandant's curiosity. He had to scramble a bit, though, to keep up with the story that Pavek was cutting quickly out of whole cloth.
As for the other guests, beside Javed and Mahtra, there were the Quraite druids, all eight of them, including the young half-elf Hamanu had met before. Beyond-the-walls druids weren't the only guests in Pavek's house; there were Urikites, too, eating at his table, and not merely the strays he'd swept off the streets: A cheery earth-cleric helped himself to a handful of dried berries while a smattering of merchants and artisans—most of whom would not have nodded to each other on a sunlit street—talked softly among themselves. That they spoke naively of an unattainable future didn't diminish the remarkable nature of the gathering, especially in the red-striped home of a high bureau templar.
Pavek was a remarkable man, sitting at the foot of his own table—when he sat. Somewhere in the house there had to be servants, but Pavek was the one who poured wine for Manu and anyone else who needed it. He was the one who brought fresh food from the sideboard and carried away the empty bowls. A truly remarkable man, Hamanu decided as he sipped his wine and settled among the cushions. Quite possibly remarkable enough to evoke a miracle.
Hamanu's spirit was as calm and optimistic as it had been since he'd left Tyr, which, perversely, left him thinking not about where he was or with whom he was, but about Windreaver. Having put himself in the midst of friends, the immortal champion found himself with nothing to say, except to an ancient troll he'd never speak to again, no matter what happened tomorrow. He hadn't helped himself, either, with his choice of illusion.
He'd made himself Manu as Manu had been in Deche. Smooth-chinned and slight, that Manu appeared years younger than the rest of Pavek's atrium guests. He was a child among adults, and they patronized him. Hamanu could have aged himself: Manu had been a hardened veteran by the time Myron of Yoram snatched him away from the trolls in the sinking lands. Lean and scarred, he could easily have been mistaken for a half-elf, if there'd been half-elves in those days and if he hadn't been short-statured, even among humans.
But, then, being mistaken for a half-elf wouldn't necessarily make Manu more welcome or more comfortable in this gathering. The only half-elfin the atrium was Ruari, the youngest of the Quraite druids, who'd collapsed under the weight of his terror a few years ago when the Lion-King had asked him his name. Surrounded by congenial folk on the opposite side of the table, Ruari wasn't talking to any of them, nor they to him. All Ruari's attention went into his wine cup, which had been filled too many times.
Among the numerous legends that attempted to explain how Athas came to be, there were many tales of elves and humans. Half the tales maintained that elves were humanity's first cousins, the oldest of the Rebirth races. The other half, predictably, maintained that elves were the last, the youngest, the race that yearned in its heart to be human again. All the tales agreed, though, that elves and humans found each other considerably more attractive than either race found their inevitable half-breed offspring.
Frequently abandoned by their parents, half-elves were a dark and lonely lot. A casual stroll through any slave market would uncover a disproportionately large number of half-elves, as would a roll call of the templar ranks in any city. Hamanu had always found them fascinating, and in this gathering of Pavek's friends, none was more fascinating than Ruari.
Ruari's aura was all defense, closed in on itself; it posed no challenge for a champion's idle curiosity. There was nothing about Ruari's life that didn't yield itself to Hamanu's very gentle Unseen urging. The young man had all the earmarks of a typical templar: a vulnerable heart, an innate conviction that he'd never be treated fairly, a greater appreciation for vengeance than justice, and a quick and cruel temper. There were scores just like him wearing yellow in this quarter and scattered through the encampments outside the city walls. But Ruari had followed a different path. His mother had been a free elf of the tribes and the open barrens, and when she abandoned her rape-begotten son, she'd dropped him in Telhami's arms instead of an Elven Market flesh-peddlar's. Telhami had reshaped Ruari's destiny, channeling all his empathy into Athas until she'd made a druid out of him.
Pavek's efforts could go for naught, too, before this night was over. Ruari was so handsome, so attractive, with his shades of copper hair, skin, and eyes; and Windreaver was an aching hole in Hamanu's spirit that hadn't begun to heal: Hamanu hid his hand beneath a cushion. He made a human fist and let an unborn dragon's talons dig into the heel of his palm.
He should have taken Manu outside the walls to Lord Ursos's estate, where catharsis—especially the catharsis of pain and fear—was an every-night ritual.
A sudden movement on Ruari's shoulder startled both the half-elf and the Lion-King. Half-elves had a special rapport with animals, which Ruari's druidry enhanced. The house critic—exhausted, no doubt, by children who thought it was a brightly colored toy—had taken refuge behind the copper curtain of Ruari's hair. But Manu's presence had roused it from its slumber. Both youths, Manu and Ruari, looked up from the slowly stretching lizard and met each other's eyes.
Look away quick, Hamanu advised, but druid-trained Ruari resisted Unseen suggestion.
Ruari's eyes narrowed, and he tried to stop the critic from climbing down his arm. Outrage, jealousy, and envy erupted from the half-elf's spirit, piquing the attention of the other sensitives in the atrium. Pavek, who alone knew how hot the fire Ruari played with truly burned, was frantic in his determination to break the attractive spell between them.
Pavek might have succeeded. Critic minds didn't comprehend sorcerous illusion. The critic saw what it saw and placed its feet accordingly. Once the lizard had ambled across the table and begun its journey up Manu's arm, Hamanu had to pay more attention to the substance of his illusion than to the half-elf glowering at him.
Then someone—possibly Javed, Hamanu quite didn't catch the voice—said something about the ways in which a veteran might fortify himself before a battle that might well be his last.
"I know what I'd do," Ruari interjected boldly. His narrow-eyed stare was still fastened on Manu, whom he clearly considered younger and less experienced than himself. "I'd find myself a woman and take her back to my room."
But Ruari didn't stop there. He went on, describing his wine-fueled fantasies—and they were fantasies. Hamanu perceived that on the top of Ruari's thoughts: the boy had dallied, nothing more. Pavek told his young friend to be quiet. By then it was too late.
Too late to visit Lord Ursos.
Too late for Ruari.
Though Pavek tried, putting himself squarely between them when the supper was, at last, concluded and the guests were departing. Ruari was the last to find his feet. Lopsided and stumbling from the wine, he aimed himself at an open door and headed off, alone, for his bed.
"He's hotheaded and harmless," Pavek insisted, and beneath his words the thought: If you must consume someone, Great One, consume me.
That would have defeated Hamanu's hopes and intentions entirely. They were alone now, except for the critic still balanced on Hamanu's shoulder. The lizard never flinched when Hamanu remade his illusion, becoming the tawny-skinned, black-haired man Pavek knew—or thought he knew—best.
"You will come to the southern gate at dawn."
They stood face-to-face, Pavek a bit shorter now, but not falling to his knees.
Hamanu unslung the scroll case. "For Urik." He placed his unnaturally warm hands over Pavek's and molded them over the scuffed leather. "When I am gone, you will raise that guardian spirit of yours."
"I will try, Great One."
"You will not try, Pavek. You will succeed. You will raise Urik's guardian. You will evoke every power it possesses, and you will destroy me, Pavek. That is my command."
Rajaat, the Dark Lens, the Gray, the Black, and a dragon, they were all just words to Pavek. He tried to rank them in his mortal mind, but for him, there was no catastrophe greater than Urik without its Lion-King.
"You'll know, Pavek. You'll know when you see what I become. Your conscience won't trouble you."
"But Rajaat—" the templar protested. "A dragon will protect Athas from Rajaat, isn't that true? Isn't that what the dragon—what Borys the Butcher of Gnomes did for two thousand years?"
Rajaat wasn't Pavek's worry. Rajaat would be Sadira's worry, and Rkard's. Rajaat would be their punishment for doing nothing when they could have put an end to both Rajaat and dragons. Hamanu wouldn't talk to Pavek about Rajaat.
"Borys was the Butcher of Dwarves," Hamanu corrected gently, after forcing the War-Bringer out of his mind. "Gal-lard was the Gnome-Bane; he took the name of Nibenay after Borys became the dragon, which was a thousand years ago, not two thousand."
"But—" Pavek had been educated in the templar orphanage; he knew the official history of his city.
"We lie, Pavek. We've all lied; all the champions. When the wars ended, Tyr measured its years from one High Sun solstice to the next, a full three hundred and seventy-five days, but Draj and Balic measured theirs by equinoxes. Their years were half as long. Albeorn—Andropinis of Balic—didn't want to be associated with the champion Elf-
Slayer. So we lied, we took history apart and put it back together again so mortals who might remember the Cleansing Wars might never think that we had led them." Hamanu squeezed Pavek's hands tighter around the scroll case, then let go. "This, and this alone, is the truth. Keep it safe."
Pavek frowned. The gesture tugged his scar and caused a twinge of pain, which Hamanu shared.
"You should let me fix this."
"More illusions? More taking history apart and putting it back different?" Pavek asked.
"You'd be a handsome man. Women would notice."
"It's not my face that keeps Kashi away," Pavek said honestly.
And Hamanu had to agree. He traced the ugly scar with a fingertip, but left it alone. "Good-bye, Pavek, Just-Plain Pavek. It's time for me to go."
Pavek started to nod, but his chin stayed down against his chest. "I will miss you, Great One." His voice was thick. "If ever I have a son, I will name him Hamanu."
"Kashi won't stand for that," Hamanu said as he turned away.
He was halfway to the door when Pavek called him back.
"Telhami—" the templar began. His face was raised; his eyes were glistening. He had to begin again. "Telhami will be waiting for you."
Hamanu cocked an eyebrow, not trusting his own voice.
"When... if... you'll become part of the guardian after, Great One. That's what she says. And she'll be waiting for you."
He hadn't thought about after; it gave him the strength to turn away and walk out the door.