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Authors: Lynn Abbey

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The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King

BOOK: The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King
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The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King
Lynn Abbey
Lynn Abbey
The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King

Chronicles of Athas. Book Five

 

Chapter One

Nameless stars sparkled in the sky above the ancient city of Urik, casting a pale light on its black
velvet fields, silver silk waterways, and the firelight jewels of its encircling market villages. On the
towering walls of the mile-square city, a score of bas-relief sculptures stood guard in shadow grays and
black, each an image of Sorcerer-King Hamanu, the Lion of Urik. With a sword in one hand and a
scepter in the other, he kept watch over his domain.

A score of bright, sulphurous eyes looked out from the walls of Urik, bright motes of singular,
unmistakable color in the chill, midnight air. Their light could be seen a day's journey beyond the irrigated
fields. The eyes were beacons for honest travelers who journeyed during the cooler nighttime hours and
warnings to covetous adventurers: The Lion of Urik never sleeps, never closes his eyes. King Hamanu's
city could not be taken by surprise or pried from his pitiless grasp.

Within the city's walls, where the gemstone eyes did not shine, men and women wearing tunics of
a similar sulphur color kept their king's laws, their king's peace, which should have been a simple enough
task. Urik did not have many laws and they rarely, if ever, changed. King Hamanu's curfew had not
changed since it was decreed a thousand years ago: Between the appearance of the tenth star after
sundown and the start of the next day, no citizen—man or woman, child or slave—was allowed to set
foot on the king's streets. By starlight, there should have been nothing for the king's templars to watch
except each other.

But since the dawn of time—long before the Lion-King bestrode Urik's walls—the laws kings
made applied only to the law-abiding folk of their domains. Wise kings made laws that wise folk willingly
obeyed. Wiser kings learned that no net of laws could govern everyone beneath them, nor should they
strive to do so. King Hamanu let the pots of Urik simmer nightly, and in a thousand years, they had
boiled over no more than a handful of times.

* * *

"Halt!" the yellow-robed templar commanded as he separated himself from a clot of similarly clad
men and women. Here, within spitting distance of Urik's Elven Market, King Hamanu's minions
coagulated for their own safety, traveling in threes and fours, rarely in pairs, never alone—especially at
night.

The pair of mul slaves bearing a pole-slung sedan chair came to an easy-gaited halt that did not
jostle their passenger. Four slave torchbearers arranged themselves in a diamond pattern around them.
The muls set the chair gently on the cobblestones. They slipped the hardwood poles out of the carriage
braces, then stood at attention, each resting a pole against his massively muscled left-side shoulder.

"Who breaks the king's curfew?" the templar demanded. The severity of his tone was belied by
the continuing conversation of his peers beside him.

The lead torchbearer, a half-elf of singularly unpleasant appearance, looked down on the human
templar with fourth-rank hemstitching in his left sleeve. "O Mighty One, we bear my lord Ursos," she
answered confidently.

She had had no accent, save for the common accent of Urik, until she spoke her master's name
with the distinctive drawl of far-off Draj. It beggared imagination that a Drajan lord would travel the
curfewed streets of Urik—especially these anarchic times since the Dragon's demise and the
simultaneous disappearance of King Hamanu's Drajan counterpart, Tectuktitlay.

"By whose leave does Lord Ursos break curfew?" he continued.

The half-elf shifted her torch to her left hand. She was unarmed, as were her five companions:
slaves were, by Hamanu's law, unarmed. By law, all citizens, including lords who traveled in sedan chairs,
were unarmed. Weapons were the templars' prerogative. The fourth-rank templar carried a staff not
quite half as long as the muls' hardwood poles, and the half-elf's torch bore an uncanny resemblance to a
gladiator's club, down to the leather wrapping on its haft and the egg-shaped killing stone lashed to its
base.

He repeated himself, "By whose leave does your lord break curfew?" loudly and somewhat
anxiously.

His wall-leaning peers at last abandoned their conversation. The slave's right arm disappeared in
folds of her funnel-shaped sleeve. There was a moment of thick tension in the moonlight until it
reappeared with a small leather pouch, which the templar passed to one of his companions for
examination.

"By your leave, O Mighty One."

"It's all here," the inspecting templar announced, extracting two metallic pieces from the pouch
before passing it to the templar beside him.

"The lion watch over you, then, and your lord," the first templar said as he retreated.

"And over you, O Mighty One," the slave replied, as much a curse as a blessing.

* * *

The sedan chair and its escort stopped short of the Elven Market. Without hesitation, the party
turned and disappeared into an alley whose existence couldn't have been discerned with the light of a
score of pitch-soaked torches, much less the four they carried. Some distance into the cramped
darkness, they stopped again. The half-elf rapped once on a hollow, drumlike door, and a rectangle of
ruddy lantern light suddenly surrounded them. The muls carried the sedan chair across the threshold. The
escort extinguished their torches and closed the door behind them.

Inside the vestibule, a person emerged from the chair. With his face obscured by an unadorned
mask and his body swaddled in a drab cloak, it was easier to say what race Lord Ursos wasn't—not
dwarf or mul, not halfling, nor full-grown elf—than what race he might be.

The ragged, menial slave who'd opened the door had run away when he saw the escorted sedan
chair. He returned with another slave, of higher status, who was clad in pale, translucent linen that left no
doubt about her sex. With a soft voice, she showed the escort where to leave the sedan chair, and then
directed them down a corridor, to a door that provided discreet entrance to a boisterous tavern. When
the escort was gone, the vestibule was once again silent—a silence so sudden and absolute one might
suspect magic in the air. Without breaking that silence, the slave led the masked Lord Ursos down a
narrow stairway to a curtained doorway. She bowed low before the curtain and swept her arm gracefully
toward it, but made no move to pass between the rippling lengths of silk.

Lord Ursos strode past her, removing the drab cloak with one hand and the mask with the other
as he swept through the silk into the upper gallery of an underground amphitheater. He was a lean,
sinewy human, with the sunken features of a man who'd indulged his every passion, yet survived. With
the casual contempt of an aristocrat, the lord held out his drab outer garments for a slave at the top of the
amphitheater stairs. The slave hesitated, his arms half-extended.

"My lord," he whispered anxiously. "Who are—?" The slave caught himself; slaves did not ask
such questions. "Do you—?" And caught himself again, in evident despair. No one, not even an elegant
lord, entered this place without an invitation.
Lord Ursos understood. Smiling indulgently, he gestured with a dancer's swift grace. When he
was finished, he held a delicate, star-shaped ceramic token between the tips of his thumb and forefinger.

A place was indeed prepared, a place in the front row, along the rail, overlooking a circular pit
floored with dark sand that sparkled in the light of wall-mounted torches. Another slave, who'd followed
them down the amphitheater's steep, stair-cut ramp, offered the lord a shallow bowl filled with a thick,
glistening fluid. The lord refused with another dancerlike gesture, and the bowl-bearer hurried away.

"My lord," the first slave began, his eyes lowered and his hands trembling. "Is there—? Would
you prefer... a pipe, perhaps, or another beverage, a different beverage?"

"Nothing."

The lord's voice was deeper than the slave had expected; he retreated, stumbling, and barely
regained his balance.

A certain type of man might come to this place for its entertainments, having paid handsomely in
gold for the privilege. All the other men in the amphitheater—there were a score of guests, with several
races represented, but no women among them—clutched bowls between their hands and metal sipping
straws likewise gripped between their teeth. Their faces were slack, their eyes wide and fixed. A man
who disdained the sipping bowl or the dream-pipe was a rare guest, a disturbing guest.

The second slave could not meet this guest's eyes again.

"Leave me," the lord commanded, and, gratefully, the slave escaped, his sandals slapping with
unseemly vigor on the stairs.

The lord settled on the upholstered bench to which his token entitled him and waited patiently as
another handful of guests arrived and were escorted to their appropriate places. Then, while the
latecomers sucked and sipped, a door opened in the wall of the pit. Slaves entered first, wrestling a rack
of bells and cymbals through the sand. Before the melodic discord faded, a quartet of musicians entered,
swaddled completely in black and apparent only as velvet darkness on the sparkling sand.

Anticipation gripped the guests. Someone dropped his bowl. The clash of pottery shards echoed
through the amphitheater, bringing hisses of disapproval from other guests, though not from the patient,
empty-handed lord seated along the rail.

Another door opened, larger than the first, spreading a rectangle of ruddy light across the pit. The
polished brass bells and cymbals cast fiery reflections among the guests, who ignored them. Nothing
could draw their attention from the three low-wheeled carts being trundled onto the sand. An upright post
of mekillot bone rose from each cart, a crossbar was lashed to each post, and a living mortal—two
women and a man—was lashed to each crossbar, arms spread wide, as if in flight.

One of the women moaned as the wheels of her cart churned into the sand. Her strength failed.
She sagged against the bonds holding her to the post and bar. The titillating scent of abject terror rose
from the pit; patient Lord Ursos was patient no longer. He pushed back his sleeves and set his elbows
upon the rail.

When the carts were set, the slaves departed, and the musicians struck a single tone: flute, lyre,
bells, and cymbals together. It was a perfectly pitched counterpoint to the woman's moan. The fine hairs
on the lord's bare arms rose in expectation as the night's master strode silently across the sand.

There were no words of introduction or explanation. None were needed. Everyone in the
amphitheater—from the slaves in the top row of the gallery to those in the pit, especially those
unfortunates bound against bone in the pit—knew what would happen next.

The night's master drew a little, curved knife from the depths of his robe. Its blade was steel,
more precious than gold, and it gleamed in the torchlight when he brandished it for the guests. Then he
angled it carefully, and its reflection illuminated a small portion of the bound man's flank. The prisoner
gasped as the first cuts were made, one on either side of a floating rib, and howled as the master slowly
peeled back his flesh. The lyrist took the first improvisation in the time-honored manner, weaving the
middle tones together, leaving the highs for the chimes and the lows for the flute.

Brandishing his knife a second time, the master made a second, smaller, gash across the bloody
stream. He dipped his free hand in a pouch below his waist and smeared a white, crystalline powder into
the new wound. The bound man gasped and strained against the crossbar. Tinkling cymbals framed his
thin, close-mouthed wail, and the flutist blew a haunting note to unite them.

The melody continued to evolve, not attaining its final form until the three captives were bleeding,
weeping, and wailing: an eight-tone trope, four ascending, then the lowest, followed by a three-tone
cascade through the middle range.

The dark passion of the night master's music quieted the lord's restless thoughts and gave him a
moment of peace, but, born from mortal flesh as it was, the melody ended all too soon. One by one the
captive voices failed. Where there had been music, only meat remained. The master departed, and then
the musicians, the guests, and the slaves, also, until the lord was alone.

Utterly alone.

His lips parted, and music, at last, rose from his throat: an eight-tone trope, four ascending, then
the lowest, followed by a three-tone cascade through the middle range.

* * *

Much later, when all but Urik's rowdiest taverns had fallen into a stupor and templars drowsed
against their spears, the midnight peace of one humble dwelling—a tiny room tucked beneath roof-ribs,
broiling by day and frigid by night—was broken by an infant's angry squalling. The mother, sleeping on a
rag-and-rope bed beside her man, awoke at once, but kept her eyes squeezed shut, as if sheer denial or
force of will could quiet her unhappy daughter.

It was a futile hope. Tooth fever, that's what the infant's malady was called by the widowed
crones, who sat all day beside the neighborhood wellhead. The baby would cry until her teeth came in
and the swelling in her gums subsided. Both mother and daughter were lucky to have gotten any sleep at
all.

"Do something," the man grumbled, rolling away from her, taking her blanket with him to pile over
his ears.

He was a good man: never drank, never raised his voice or fist, but went out at dawn each
morning and sweated all day in the kiln-blast of his uncle's pottery. He was afraid of his daughter,
astonished that something so pale and delicate would, if Fortune's wheel were as round and true as his
uncle's, someday call him Father. He wanted to do well by his offspring, but now, when all she needed
was warm hands and a swaying shoulder, he was reduced to surly helplessness. So, the woman swung
her legs over the side and swept her tangled hair out of her eyes.

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