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CHAPTER 1

 


The tower quivered when the dragons roared at the village perimeter, where they guarded the community of Emath from the jungle beyond and the things in it. 


The noise startled Dennis. He didn't much like heights, and he was holding onto the railing of the highest of the palace's crystalline spires. He'd thought maybe he could see his father's boat from up here. 


He'd been wrong. There was no sign of King Hale or the net-tending skiff which the king had rowed to sea alone this morning and every other morning for the past week. Far out on the horizon, the glittering needle of Banned Island pinned the dense gray-green sea to the blue-white sky... but there were no sails, and no little rowboat either. 


"The heart which worries," said Chester, "makes its owner ill." 


"Do you have to keep saying things like that, Chester?" Dennis snapped to his companion. 


"Indeed I must say them, Dennis," Chester replied smugly. "It is to speak such wisdom that I was fashioned." 


The lilting voice came from somewhere in the featureless forty-pound metal egg that served Chester as head and body combined. Dennis knew his companion well enough to read Chester's tones as clearly as the facial expressions of a human speaking... but Chester had a right to be smug; and anyway, it didn't do any good to get angry with him. 


"Well, talk then if it satisfies you," Dennis replied, half resigned and half sulky. "But I don't see that it's ever done me any good, your wisdom." 


He turned from the sea to watch the dragons. It was market day, so the Wizard Parol was opening a path for visitors through the concourse which the great beasts prowled—ready to tear and devour anyone who tried to enter Emath unbidden from the jungle. 


Dennis craned his neck, but even so he could barely peer past the new houses of stone, wood, and tile built right up to the perimeter's inner edge. Emath was growing, had been growing fast for as long as Dennis was old enough to notice. He could remember when the village was only a straggle of shanties against the walls of his father's great crystalline palace... 


Or he thought he could remember that; but memory was a funny thing. The present bustling community didn't have much to do with that dim past, when he'd walked clutching the hands of his parents and looking up in wonder at a new world. 


Emath had changed. Her fishing boats were richly successful. The magnificent harbor—the only good one on a coast wracked by storms—made her the center of exchange between human traders and the tribes of lizardfolk from the jungle of the interior. 


And Dennis had changed even more. At sixteen—in three days more—he was as big as a grown man; as strong as most; and quicker than anyone else in Emath. 


He was Prince Dennis, who wished his father didn't row out to sea alone—and that Hale didn't when he was home snarl as savagely as the dragons on guard. 


"The man who sold me to your father on the day of your birth, Dennis," Chester said, "had intended to keep me for himself forever; saying that I was a great marvel." 


"And indeed you are a very great marvel, Chester," the boy agreed, reaching down to stroke the smooth metal of the little creature's case. 


He was suddenly glad to have a friend who stayed a friend: who didn't glare at him with unexplained anger, like Hale; or cling and cry like Queen Selda, and neither of them able to say what was wrong. 


Or even admit that something was badly wrong. It was the uncertainty... 


Chester reached up to Dennis with one of his eight ropy limbs, legs when he walked and hands when he chose they should be. "He said to me, 'Can you not silence your silly wisdom, Chester?' And I told him, 'The fault of every character comes from not listening, master.' And he sold me to your father, saying that I was just the thing for a child babbling nonsense." 


"If you had fur, Chester, I would rumple it," Dennis said as his fingers scrabbled against the metal. "Since you do not, I will only tell you that indeed I have gained from your wisdom—if that wisdom made you become mine." 


Chester's tentacle squeezed the boy's waist gently, then released him. 


Again a dragon roared. The beast lurched up on its hind legs, lifting its great-toothed snout a full twenty feet in the air. Its short forelegs were flailing at an invisible barrier, the passage that Parol's magic had armored across the beasts' concourse. 


Lizardmen waited at the edge of the jungle. Distance made their features impassive to Dennis, but their heads darted from one side to the other to watch each of the pair of dragons. When Parol signaled, the lizardfolk would sprint across the perimeter into Emath with their trade goods. 


Not so long ago, the native traders would have crossed with stately pomp. Some of them would have rolled clumsy great-wheeled carts laden with fruits and pelts and timbers, gems washed from the flanks of distant mountains and items still more wonderful dug from the ruins of incredibly ancient cities. But that was when the Wizard Serdic controlled the perimeter he had established when first he came to Emath— 


And when Parol was only Serdic's most recent apprentice. 


Parol was a plump, ill-favored youth, much like the others in previous years whom Serdic had hired—or bought—from trading vessels. The apprentices helped with spells so complex they required two voices, and they did the physical drudgery in the separate wing of the palace that formed the wizard's quarters—sweeping the floors, cleaning the equipment, and carrying meals to Serdic's sanctum, which ordinary servants of the palace were never permitted to enter. 


Then, after each few years, Serdic brought in a new apprentice and disposed of the old one. Put the boy on an outbound trader with a warning never to return, King Hale said; or darker things, as others whispered, but they never spoke where Serdic might be listening—and where might not so great a wizard find a way to listen if he wished to? 


Serdic talked little of himself; talked little to anyone except when he had to, as when he tutored Dennis in reading and mathematics and astronomy because the king had set that among his wizard's duties. Serdic had been cold with Dennis and utterly disdainful of Hale—but he'd obeyed Hale, in that as in all things which the king ordered. 


Rumor—manufactured in the parlors and taverns of Emath, or brought in with traders like other exotic cargoes—said that there was no wizard in the world more powerful than Serdic, and that Serdic was three hundred years old. Everyone had been certain that in a few weeks or a month, Parol would go whichever way the earlier apprentices had gone, before they learned enough to pose a danger to their master—who was as cautious as he was terrifying. 


But instead, the Wizard Serdic had died. 


"It is a son's good and blessed portion," said Chester, "to receive instruction." 


"I wish my dad would come back," said Dennis. 


He twisted his head around abruptly as if he could trick fate into giving him a glimpse of what he wanted to sea. A pair of fishing boats were headed in early. Either good fortune had filled their holds or bad luck had left them in need of repairs. Facts were facts; what they meant was in the hands of time or the gods. 


King Hale's skiff was not in sight. 


"You can't see him, can you, Chester?" the boy asked in sudden hopefulness. 


"From here I cannot see him, Dennis," Chester replied. The robot had no more eyes than mouth, so Dennis had never been sure how he went about seeing. "If he were to row back over the horizon, I would see him." 


"Doesn't matter," the boy lied. 


The dragons snarled and lunged from either side against the magical barrier which restrained them from the scampering lizardmen. The lithe, gray-scaled traders from the interior carried their packs over their flat heads as they crossed, partly as a feeble protection in case the guard beasts broke through the barrier—and partly so that if the worst occurred, the victims would be blindfolded by their loads and wouldn't see what had happened until the great teeth ended their fear. 


"Parol isn't very good, is he?" Dennis said. His mind could spin for only so long on uncertainties before it settled back to practical problems. "We're going to have to get a real wizard to replace him." 


Serdic's death—Serdic no longer a lowering, sneering presence in the palace—had exhilarated Dennis as surely as the clear, cool sky that follows a storm. 


If Serdic really was dead. No one had believed it at first. 


The wizard had been speaking to Hale in the throne room of the palace in front of a score of people—including Dennis. "But raising the port duties from one percent to two won't cut trade, Your Majesty," the wizard said. "Majesty" when Serdic's tongue wrapped around it rubbed Dennis like a handful of nettles. "They have no other port that—" 


Serdic stopped. Everyone watched him, waiting for some particularly waspish concluding statement. 


The wizard fell forward. His forehead clunked hollowly against a crystal floor so hard that years of use had not even dulled its polish. 


"It is true, Dennis, that Parol can barely bridge the barrier for the traders to come and go," Chester was saying. "He will not be able to expand the perimeter again, as surely it must be expanded lest the folk of Emath all be stacked upon one another." 


It took Dennis an instant of shock to remember they were talking about Parol, not the Wizard Serdic who was terrible even in memory. 


Any thought that the apprentice might know more than an innocent man should about his master's death was put to rest when they summoned Parol to the audience hall immediately—and Parol fell on his knees in horror and disbelief. 


For three days, King Hale kept the wizard's body on a bier in the audience hall, dressed in its richest robes. Parol insisted that the Wizard Serdic couldn't have died, not truly. Everyone else believed that this was some sort of sardonic trick with dire implications for those who acted as if Serdic were really gone. 


Then the body began to decay, and they had to bury it—with honor, near the Founder's Tomb on the spit of land across the harbor entrance. 


It was still hard to believe Serdic was dead, but watching Parol bumble through a simple task cast a pinch of dust over his master's memory. 


"Of course," Chester went on, "it may be that Parol will learn if he applies himself. He who is thoughtful and persevering, that man is chosen among the people." 


"How can Parol learn?" Dennis said. "Serdic isn't around to teach him any more." 


He frowned. "Is he?" 


"Serdic is not here to teach him, Dennis," Chester replied. "But Serdic's books and the equipment Serdic brought here to your father's palace, those are here for Parol to use. Only..." 


The robot paused thoughtfully. Dennis looked down at him and raised an eyebrow. 


"Only," Chester said, "the teaching that comes to the fool, Dennis, is as weightless as the wind." 


In the same tone, so that it was a moment before the boy understood the words, the robot added, "Your father is returning now." 


The skiff was a dot on the horizon, scarcely distinguishable to Dennis' eyes from the mast tips of the dozen or so trawlers sailing in for the evening also. Dennis blinked back tears. 


"Well," he said, "let's go down and meet him. Maybe he'll be in a... better mood than he's been for a time." 


And maybe Hale would even tell his son what was wrong; but the boy didn't believe either of those things would happen.


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