“I have no objection,” Ben replied, “to telling you the whole story. Someday when I have time. If both of us live long enough. Right now, as I have explained, Zoltan and I are both extremely busy. We are in danger, and we need help.”
“I understand; we have a bargain, then, and I will do what I can to help you. Tell me, why was the Prince here, so far from home, and with so few attendants?”
Ben hesitated; then he nodded and took the plunge. “The largest of the islands in this lake is, or was, the home of a friendly wizard of great power, allied to the White Temple. His public name is Honan-Fu. In his academy a few select apprentices-”
“I know something about Honan-Fu,” Yambu rapped out impatiently. “Go on.”
“The Prince wanted to learn something about Honan-Fu’s establishment. He thought that by coming here incognito-”
“You need not be so cautious with me, big man. By now everyone knows about Mark’s eldest son. Adrian’s still only a child-he’d be nine years old now? No more than ten-but blessed with great magic. Or would ‘cursed’ be a better word for his condition?”
“All right, then. Mark wanted to see the place at first hand, before he sent his nine-year-old heir to be apprenticed.”
Yambu was nodding. “That should be interesting -one day to see a true magician-king upon the throne of Tasavalta.”
Ben grunted. “As for the Prince being unattended on this trip, well, you see his entire escort before you. Zoltan and I came with Mark down the Sanzu, then down the cliffs beside the Upper Cataract to reach this lake. That part of the route you must have taken yourself.
“We brought no magician with us-a grievous mistake, perhaps. Still, we thought we were headed for a friendly reception in the castle of an enchanter stronger than any we could have brought with us. But from the moment when we arrived on the shore of Lake Alk-maar two days ago, we could tell that there was something wrong out there on the magician’s islands. We knew that Honan-Fu had been expecting us in a general way at least, and anyway I suppose a wizard of his stature ought to have known that we were here. But he did not know. At least no boat came for us, and no messages.
“We were suspicious, and hesitated even to go into any of the villages. At last we talked to a few of the fisher folk who live in isolated huts along the shore. They were reluctant to speak to strangers, but certainly something else besides our presence was bothering them.
“And then this morning, at last, we had our greeting from the island.” Ben gestured savagely toward the lake.
The lady moved to stand beside the huge man at the window, and rested one hand lightly on his shoulder, as if to seal a bargain. She said: “I have dealt for many years with magicians-most of whom were far indeed from any alliance with the White Temple. And so I think I know that other kind, know them well enough to smell them when the air is as thick as it is here and now with their effluvium. Sometime during the past ten days, Honan-Fu has been supplanted on his island. How, and by whom, I know not, though the town is full of rumors, and suddenly invading soldiers in gray and red are everywhere. They have little to say about the one they serve. But obviously the new ruler is a wizard of tremendous power, who is no friend of the Prince.”
Then with a decisive motion she turned from the window, toward the odd little dragon that still perched preening itself upon its stand. She said: “It will be best, I think, if we dispatch a messenger.”
“You said that creature was no messenger.”
“I said that it would take no word to Tasavalta for you. But as for bringing help here for the Prince-it may just possibly be able to do that. And the sooner it is dispatched the better, I think, if Mark is not already beyond help.”
Moving beside the washstand, the lady whispered a
few words into the beast’s small curving ear.
With this the backbone of the dragon stiffened, and its demeanor changed abruptly. It drank noisily from a jar of water beside it on the stand, then hopped onto the lady’s wrist. Ben could see semitransparent membranes on its eyes, which he had not realized were there, slide back to leave the orbs a shiny black. The creature had turned its head toward the window, and stared out into the sunlight.
Lady Yambu carried it to the sill and sent it out with a sharp tossing motion. The wings of the small dragon beat rapidly and it rose with surprising speed into the sky.
“What message did you give it?” Zoltan asked. “Where is it going?”
“There is only one message that it will carry. Trust me. I have a reason for not offering you a better explanation now.”
Ben, squinting up into the bright sky, presently rumbled an oath. There were a few patchy low clouds above the lake, and out of one of them a set of leathery wings far larger than those of the small dragon had appeared. This creature was not nearly as big as the griffin that a few hours ago had carried off the Prince, but still large enough to be a formidable hunter of game no bigger than the messenger.
Now Zoltan muttered too; a second and then a third of the predatory flyers had come into sight out of the cloud. Their grotesque shapes sped in pursuit of the small dragon.
The issue of the chase was lost in yet another cloud.
A LITTLE before sunset of that same day, all three of the predatory flying creatures Ben had watched returned, gliding, to their new base on the island that had so lately been the domain of Honan-Fu. On their return to the magician’s castle all three flyers selected flight paths that would tend to shelter them from observation, and each came down as softly and as unobtrusively as possible upon a different high place. For their final descent they chose a moment when almost all the human eyes within the castle walls were focused elsewhere.
And, having landed, they avoided reporting to the Master of the Beasts, or any of their other human masters, who were the recent conquerors of this island and the domain around the lake. Instead of delivering information on potential enemies, on resources discovered, or perhaps news of some prey that had escaped them-and thereby risking punishment-the creatures brooded on their perches, waiting silently to be fed, and dropping dung down the once-spotless walls of the stolen castle.
Very few of the humans inside the castle walls were at all aware of the flyers’ return. None of the people who might have seen them were paying the hybrid creatures any real attention at the moment.
Perhaps the human breeders of the hybrid flyers had made them a touch too intelligent for their intended purposes.
The beasts looked down upon a crowd of several hundred people, mostly soldiers in gray and red, who were gathered in the castle’s largest open courtyard. Only days ago this court had been a fair place, bright with flower gardens and musical with fountains. The flowers had all been trampled into mud since the castle’s new master had taken charge, and half of the fountains had ceased to run. The pipes were broken in several of the fountains, including the largest, in the center of the court, which had been smashed, the sculpture on its top destroyed. In place of the statue of some otherwise forgotten woodland god, erected there by Honan-Fu because he liked the art and craft that had gone into it, a flat-topped altar had been hastily and crudely constructed, out of beams and slabs of wood laid horizontally on piles of rock and broken statuary.
The slabs that formed the center of the high table were now already dark with drying blood, the human blood of Honan-Fu’s apprentices and servants, required for sacrifice to the powers of dark magic.
Upon a balcony overlooking this altar, an improvised throne had been set up. The occupant of the throne sat with his back close to a wall of the keep, and it would have been hard for anyone to approach or even see him from that direction. Nor was it easy for the people in the courtyard below the balcony to right or left to see him because of the tall screens that had been placed at each side of his chair.
Only from directly in front of the man on the throne, where the high altar stood, was anyone able to view him at all clearly. From there it could be seen that the shape of his body was only partially that of a man.