Obsession is a strange thing. It can be the fire that forges a true blade, but more often it is the flaw that causes the sword to break.

I dreamed of Hurog. It was so real I could smell the musty books in the library where I stood. Dusty tomes in languages no one could read anymore lined the shelves. Somewhere there was a map of the secret ways, but the long, shallow drawer that held all the maps was gone. If I couldn't find the map, they would kill my brother.

Tosten cried out, his voice muffled and distant, but it still hurt me.

"You take care of Tosten and Ciarra," my mother said. "I have to tend my garden."

"All right, Mother," I said. Tosten's hand was warm in mine. Ciarra was a heavy bundle in my free arm. The sun was warm and bathed the flowers of the garden in a rich orange hue...

"Where are the dragon's bones?"

Tosten screamed. His voice echoed in my head until the garden disappeared, and I found myself in the dragon cave, deep in the heart of Hurog. I had to get out, but without Oreg, I was trapped. I'd come in through the sewers.

Through the small tunnel that clamped down on me like a vise.

"Hurog's magic's been poisoned, child," whispered Oreg's voice in my head. "It seeks out weakness in the blood of the dragon. Dreamers lose their way. Anger becomes berserker rage. Ambition becomes obsession. Hatred eats your soul."

Hurog, I thought. Hurog means dragon.


Hurog was gone when I woke up. Gone so far that all I could feel was the empty place that was left, and I could have cried at the agony of the loss. My right hand was so cold it hurt; icy waves traveled up my body from the battered platinum ring. I tried to pull my hand to tuck it in my armpit to warm it as I did in the winter months, but all I did was rattle some chains.

I was in a small, dark cell with a high ceiling. A tiny window two bodylengths up the wall let in a little light, but didn't do much to cut the fumes rising from floor rushes, which should have been changed a decade ago.

At first I thought I was alone, but when I lowered my gaze to the floor, I saw a broken form lying in the moldering rushes.

I forgot my discomfort.

"Tosten?" The hand I could see was swollen and misshapen. I thought of hearing his screams in my dream and realized it hadn't been a dream at all.

"Tosten!" I shouted it. I needed him to move, because I couldn't tell if his ribs were rising at all. I couldn't bear it if he were dead.

As if in answer to my cries, the cell door opened, and Kariarn stepped through. He looked very like the boy I remembered, a year or so older than I was. His fine brown hair was trimmed neatly at shoulder length. His clothing was expensive without being ostentatious. But it was his companion I stared at.

I almost didn't recognize Bastilla in the self-effacing woman who stood just behind the Vorsagian king, her eyes lowered and her head bowed submissively. Gone was the ragged warrior, and in her place was an immaculately groomed slave wearing a wisp of ivory silk that did little to hide her body. What had Kariarn done to her?

"Ah, the guard told me you were awake, Ward," said Kariarn.

I looked at him.

"Sorry about your brother." Kariarn nudged Tosten with his boot. If I hadn't been chained, I'd have killed him. "The magic wasn't working against you. My archmage swore there was no one who could stand against it, but Bastilla said you were a stubborn Northman, and it might not work." He reached back and patted her on the top of her head like a huntsman patting his hound after a kill. I kept waiting for her to turn on him and almost didn't follow his next words. "Which is why she brought both of you. She was right; you couldn't talk fast enough, once he started screaming. It's too bad you didn't know what we needed. Who'd have thought that the lord of Hurog wouldn't know how to reach his treasure without a wizard to guide him?" Kariarn gave me a chiding look. "No matter. Bastilla left a bit of hair in the chamber so my archmage can use that to locate it. A waste of power - but with the dragon's bones, that will hardly matter." The lust in his voice when he said "dragon's bones" reminded me of the way my father sometimes stared at a new chambermaid.

I swallowed to wet my dry throat. Bastilla? Behind his back, she smiled at me. It was a smile I'd never seen on her face before, sly and triumphant.

I said, "You're telling me all of this because..."

He smiled. "I'm tired of all the old men who think they know better than I. I need young men, men who understand youth doesn't mean stupid or weak. Bastilla tells me that your wizard will follow you, no matter which ruler you choose."

He stopped speaking, perhaps waiting for me to confirm or deny what he said. But I was distracted by the cold that numbed my arm. It didn't hurt anymore, and that worried me. Had they done something to me? Why just that arm? Had they tried to steal the ring?

"I can take Hurog, Ward." The mention of my obsession turned my attention back to Kariarn. "I have magic at my fingertips that will knock down her dark walls and leave her in ruins, to get my dragon bones. Or I can take you there and give you Hurog instead. You could swear fealty to me instead of the boy-lover Jakoven. What do you owe him? He killed your cousin and took Hurog from you. Look what he's done to Oranstone. A man like that does not deserve the throne. Look beyond what is, Ward. Five Kingdoms dwindling into slow death in the hands of Tallven blood could be six flourishing lands under me. I could make you king of Shavig, Ward - as you should have been."

I could hear my aunt patiently explaining how a war could be lost before the first blood was shed. The worst of it was that Kariarn was right: Jakoven wasn't fit to manage an estate, let alone the Five Kingdoms. Kariarn wouldn't stand by while another country ravaged his lands; he would protect what was his. I even understood his obsession with magic far better than I would ever understand Jakoven, for I was obsessed, too - with Hurog.

At my feet, Tosten moved his hand briefly.

Kariarn must have seen the direction of my gaze. "Bastilla can heal his wounds; that's another of her talents. I see she didn't tell you of it. I'm sorry I let her play with him a little too long, but she'd earned her reward. She likes hurting things, and I indulge her when I can. As I said, she can heal the damage done to my allies."

I bowed my head, staring at Tosten's hand that might never again touch a harp string. I thought numbly, Bastilla did this? Bastilla enjoyed my brother's pain?

"Show him your pet, master," said Bastilla suddenly.

He jerked on her chain, roughly pulling her to her knees, coughing and choking. "Speak when I ask, slave. Have you been gone so long I must train you over again?"

She shook her head quickly, and it seemed to satisfy him. He rocked back upon his heels. "The timing is not right. Let him think a while."

She recovered control of her breathing, but she didn't get to her feet. Instead, she knelt in the molding rushes and kissed his boot. He raised her up with a finger under her chin, and she kissed his hand as she stood. I could see her face for a moment, and the blind adoration in it made me feel ill. I didn't understand. She could have stayed free of him. She was strong - a wizard, even.

I may not have loved her, but I had liked her. I stared at her for a long moment and wondered if she might be faking this.

But Kariarn said that she'd been the one who hurt my brother, that she'd enjoyed it. I couldn't imagine the Bastilla I knew hurting anyone except in battle.

She was a better actor than I was.

I looked away and met Kariarn's amused eyes. "She is my chameleon," he said, reading my mind. "She is whoever suits me best - a gift from my archmage. A human succubus. She belongs to me, body and soul. Don't you, Bastilla?"

"Only to you," she answered.

Kariarn held my gaze. "Haven't you met a Cholyte before? When they enter the order, they give up their will to Chole's prophetess, the Cholynn, or whomever she bestows them upon. The Cholynn gave Bastilla to me as a present when I turned thirteen."

He left, leading Bastilla behind him. I heard a bar slide into place on the other side of the closed door.

After a moment, Tosten groaned again and sat up. "Did he mean that magic turned her into that?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Pox rot you," he snapped weakly. "Don't look at me like that. You didn't have a thing to do with it."

"I should have spoken sooner."

"Most of this happened after you talked." He looked away from me and into the shadows. "Gods, Ward. I thought she was my friend. She broke my finger, then kissed me as if my pain were one of Mother's aphrodisiacs. She licked the blood from my back." He shuddered. "Kariarn had to drag her off of me." Tosten bowed his head and spoke as if the words were dragged from his throat. "Tell me that it was magic that made her that way. Tell me that she's possessed by demons."

"I don't think that even the gods can change someone completely. Some people just like others' pain," I whispered. "Father was like that." I remembered a dark night when I held my lover while she cried and told me that my father had raped her. I said, "After he beat me, he used to go straightaway to his bed with whatever maidservant happened to be closest."

Tosten buried his face in his knee and laughed. "Aren't you supposed to be reassuring me at this point? You know, taking care of the helpless?"

"I can't protect you from knowledge," I said at last. "You have to acknowledge evil, or you give it too much power over you. Look at Mother. She's spent most of her life running from what our father was, so she left her children unprotected against him." I hadn't realized how angry I was with her, with the passive way she'd watched Father cut Tosten with a tongue that bruised as well as his fists, until Tosten had tried to kill himself to get away from it. In my dreams, Oreg had excused her by telling me that Hurog's magic twisted her - but she should have fought for her children.

"She had you to protect her children," said Tosten unexpectedly. "Me, I'm like Mother, clinging to my troubles. All the way here...all the way from Tyrfannig, I've been hurting you because you like Oreg better than you like me."

"A wise man told me once that horses kick and bite because they are afraid or hurt more often than because they are angry." It hurt to use Penrod's arguments.

"I am not a horse," he huffed.

"But are you afraid and hurt?" I asked. He did not reply. "You can't blame a horse that strikes out in pain or fear. You just see what you can do to relieve the cause."

Tosten laughed, a real laugh this time. "Or you slit the poor animal's throat."

"I have to admit there have been times..."

If someone had been listening, they'd have thought we were idiots, laughing ourselves to jelly in a filthy cell, me chained to the wall and Tosten so badly injured he yelped now and again as he laughed.

"So how are you going to rescue us?" He asked finally. "Are you going to switch allegiance from the bastard who killed poor old Erdrick?"

"To Kariarn?" I snorted. "Now, that's a good choice. Like the chicken who went to live with the foxes because she was afraid of the farmer's dog. No."

"So we'll sit here and rot?"

I looked at the silver ring on my numb hand. "I think I have a better plan."

I called Oreg to me, as I'd summoned him often in Hurog, though I'd never tried calling him outside of Hurog's walls. Since the pyre where I'd burned the village dead, I hadn't tried any more magic, because untrained magic can be deadly. Even so, I hadn't really expected the power that flooded my call. The ring vibrated with magic and sent warmth burning through the numbness of my hand and arm and made them mine again.

I could all but smell the magic that coalesced slowly into Oreg's huddled form, which looked very much like Tosten's huddled form had, except Oreg was shaking. He twisted awkwardly until he was clinging to my leg.

"Don't leave again. Please, please...don't leave again. It was too far." His toneless, despairing whisper set the hairs on my neck on edge, and I wanted to kill whomever had done this - but Oreg's father was long dead. Oreg was the only person I knew whose father had been worse than mine. Perhaps that, rather than the ring was the true heart of our bond.

Tosten stared at Oreg.

"No. I won't leave," I promised. "I didn't do it on purpose, Oreg. Are you all right?"

He buried his face in my leg and shook like a dog who'd been in cold water too long.

"What did you do to him?" There was abhorrence on Tosten's face.

Oreg's actions reminded me uncomfortably of Bastilla and Kariarn, too. "I did nothing to him. Give him a moment, and I'll explain."

Tosten glanced from Oreg to me and then turned painfully away, muttering something that sounded like, "It had better be good."

"Where are we?" asked Oreg after a moment. He didn't loosen his grip on me, but his voice sounded almost normal, if a bit muffled.

"Buril," answered Tosten when he saw that I didn't know. "Garranon's estate."

Garranon was dealing with the Vorsag? It didn't fit what I knew of him, but neither did Bastilla's new persona.

"How did you get here?" Oreg asked. "Where's Bastilla?"

"Bastilla brought us," I said as conversationally as possible when chained up with a man clinging to my leg. "She's responsible for the damage to Tosten. And she's not Ciernack's slave, she's Kariarn's. He seemed to indicate that she'd been altered somehow by the Cholynn - to turn her into his loyal creature. Can that be done?"

"Only if she consented first," he said.

"Did you know that she wasn't what she seemed?"

Oreg pulled away and looked at me finally. Even though the room was dark, his pupils were pinpricks. "I knew she was a mage as soon as she stepped onto Hurog land, stronger than she knew or at least stronger than she would admit to. Beyond that...once such altering as you spoke of is done, it is not an easy thing to detect, not even if you know to look for it."

I nodded. "She fooled me, too. Kariarn called her a chameleon." I smiled at him. "She's like me. She can be anybody she wants to be."

"No." Tosten interrupted abruptly. "Not what she wants to be. I've been thinking about that. You wanted someone to rescue, Penrod and Axiel wanted a lover with no strings. I...she let me talk to her, about how...about things. She stayed away from Ciarra because she couldn't understand what Ciarra wanted. That was how her act worked. As long as we saw what we wanted to see, we didn't look any further."

Oreg nodded, releasing his grip on me entirely so he could look at Tosten. "Ward becomes exactly what he wants to become, usually to the vast irritation of the people around him. He can't get rid of the stubbornness or the honor."

"Or the belief that he has to take care of anyone he meets." Tosten sounded both superior and pleased.

"Tosten," I said. "There are some things you should know - in case you get out of this and I don't. Oreg is not one of Father's by-blows. He was bound to Hurog the day it was built. He's our family ghost - though he's more a mage than a ghost."

Oreg turned betrayed eyes to me - though how else he expected me to explain his recent actions, I don't know. Tosten looked at me almost the same way.

"Oreg's the ghost?" Tosten said. "And you didn't tell me?"

"I didn't know until the day Father died," I replied. "And, well, it seemed as if it were Oreg's story to tell, and he didn't choose to." That didn't seem to soothe either of them, so I changed the subject. "Oreg, could you get us out of here?" I jangled my chains meaningfully.

"Yes, master."

Tosten's eyes widened as Oreg echoed Bastilla's response to Kariarn's orders.

I rolled my eyes. "Don't sulk, Oreg. Tosten, quit looking so - "

A weird mewling moan filled the air, starting high, like a stallion's shrill whistle and then dropping so deep that the stone against my back vibrated.

Oreg came to alert like a hunting dog on the scent. "Basilisk. Where did they find a basilisk?"

"Basilisk?" asked Tosten.

"Shavigmen called them - " Oreg paused, looked suddenly enlightened, and gave me a wry smile. "  -  stone dragons. Perhaps that is what the Oranstonians call them, too."

"Silverfells's stone dragon?" I asked.

Oreg's eyes dropped. "Basilisks smell like dragons."

"So what's a basilisk?" I asked.

Oreg relaxed gradually. "It's a lizard about four bodylengths from nose to tail and weighs at least four times as much as your horse. It's as smart as a dog or a little better and has a bit of magic."

"What kind?" I asked.

"It turns people to stone." Tosten sounded breathless, but I expect that was as much pain as excitement over Kariarn's creature. "There are a few songs about them. Remember 'Hunt of the Basilisk, Ward?"

He hummed a few notes that sounded vaguely familiar, so I nodded.

"Silly song." Oreg sounded smug. "What predator would turn its food into stone? What it can do is catch your eye and hold you still so it can enjoy a leisurely meal."

"You think Silverfells's stone dragon became this basilisk? I didn't think the stone carving was supposed to be as big."

"When you turn something into stone, you take out the moisture that makes most of the bulk of flesh. A really good mage could turn you into a pebble," said the really good mage before me. He looked better, though it was difficult to tell since the cell was dimly lit. His left hand still maintained contact with my leg.

"Oreg," I said after a moment's thought, "would you take Tosten back to where you were? I think I ought to stay here. Kariarn's planning something. But I need to get Tosten out so Kariarn doesn't have a lever on me."

Oreg shook his head. "I can't. I could take him out of the castle. But I can't get any farther from you than that."

His state being what it had been when he'd answered my call, I believed what he said. "Can you take him to Hurog?"

"No - nor get myself back there any way that you could not."

I stared at him a moment. "I thought you were Hurog?"

He nodded. "I can find out what's going on there, but I can't affect it from here. This body can't leave you - as you have seen - unless it is in Hurog. And Hurog is too far for my powers to take me."

Tosten shifted uncomfortably, but moving didn't seem to help. I frowned at him but asked Oreg, "Could you take us all out of here - to where Axiel and Ciarra are?"

Oreg shook his head. "Ring magic brought me, but it couldn't send me away. I could take you out of the keep, though."

"Are you sure we're at Buril?" I asked Tosten.

He nodded his head. "Apparently, Kariarn has had people stationed here for a long while."

"Garranon is hosting the Vorsag?" I muttered to myself. It still didn't sound right. Beckram had told me that Garranon had been one of the "hundred," but Garranon had no reason to betray Oranstone.

"Someone is coming," said Oreg.

"Hide yourself," I whispered.

Tosten collapsed back onto the floor just as the door opened and three men came into the room. They unchained and escorted me out of the cell without noticing Oreg as he stood beside them. Oreg had hidden that way all the time at Hurog, but I hadn't been sure he could do it here.

Conditioned by Hurog, where the prison cells were under the guard's tower, I was surprised to be led down three sets of stairs and into what could only be the great hall. The room was much larger than Hurog's great hall and smelled woodsy and damp. Kariarn and a full ten of his men awaited me near the large fireplace on one side of the room. Bastilla was conspicuously absent. I wondered where she was.

"My lord," Kariarn greeted me with a smile, as if I'd come visiting rather than from a holding cell. "How kind of you to join us. You know Garranon, of course, but his lady doesn't attend court, so you won't have met Lady Allysaian."

His men parted until I could see that Garranon was indeed there, but he didn't look happy about it. There was a bruise covering half of his face, and his hands were chained behind his back - unlike mine. The Oranstonian's feet were chained tightly to his arms and each other so that if he walked, he'd only manage a stumbling shuffle. It was Stala's recommended method of moving dangerous prisoners. Garranon must not approve of the use Kariarn was making of his keep. It made me feel curiously relieved that the man who'd taken Hurog from me was not a traitor to his country.

At Garranon's side stood a girl a little younger than I and only a bit taller than Ciarra. She was no beauty, clad as she was in a dirty, ripped court dress, but she held herself with such pride that it didn't matter. She stood next to her husband without touching him, leaving no one in doubt of her allegiance, though she wore no chains herself.

"Garranon," chided Kariarn lightly, interrupting my thoughts, "don't you have a greeting for our guest?"

Garranon took in my chainless state in a glance and then he turned his eyes away, doubtless thinking me a traitor.

"You'll have to forgive him, Lord Wardwick," said Kariarn. "He feels that his brother betrayed him, and it has made him somewhat bitter."

"Losing your lands can do that to you," I replied pointedly after a moment's hesitation. It seemed prudent to distance myself from someone Kariarn was treating like a dangerous enemy. Trading Jakoven for Kariarn might be like the chicken who exchanged the farmer's dogs for a den of foxes, but it wouldn't hurt for him to believe I was considering it.

Kariarn smiled. "Just so. You are probably wondering why I've brought you here." He addressed his remarks to Garranon as well as me.

I inclined my head politely. The guardsmen who'd brought me watched closely, but I would never attack Kariarn until I knew Tosten was safe. Thinking about Tosten made me suddenly nervous about Bastilla's absence.

"Doubtless you intend to feed one of us to your monster and impress the Northlander," stated Garranon's wife in cool tones. She obviously liked Northlanders no more than she liked the Vorsag.

Kariarn inclined his head to her. "Lady, I'm certain you'll enjoy the show just as much." He nodded to one of his men, who hurried out of the room. "You see, Garranon, your brother was of the mistaken opinion I was going to set him up as king of Oranstone. I had considered it, but he doesn't have the ability to lead men. He had months here without you, while you played catamite with Jakoven, when he could have won the hearts of your people and your wife. Instead, he alienates everyone. If I put him in your place, your people would kill him as soon as I left." It was not wise to admit he made promises he didn't keep in front of me, to whom he also expected to make promises. But he was young, and he knew, because Bastilla knew, how badly I wanted Hurog.

The grunting sounds of a struggle turned my attention to a doorway. Two of Kariarn's men dragged Landislaw, bound much as Garranon was, into the room. Instead of bringing him to us, they took him to the center of the room and held him there.

Kariarn's eyes followed Landislaw's progress, but he continued speaking. "Because of Landislaw's inability to win over the people here, I'll have to leave one of my generals in Buril now, and a good portion of a full army. Landislaw will have to pay for his bungling."

Kariarn wasn't watching Garranon, so he didn't see the Oranstonian open his mouth to speak. Garranon's lady put a firm hand on his forearm and shook her head. Garranon closed his mouth without uttering a sound, but there was black hell in his eyes as he looked at his brother.

The hall shook with that strange, reverberating cry I'd heard earlier. I shivered, and Kariarn saw me.

He clapped a friendly hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry. My wizards have control of the beast. It takes two of them, but I have many."

On the tail end of his words, the two large doors flew open with a bang. Briefly, I could see the bailey grounds beyond, lit by the early-morning sun. A monumental form blocked the entire doorway briefly and then skittered into the great hall with a light motion that belied the creature's size. It stopped motionless a full body length from the door, allowing us all to look our fill.

It was as tall as Pansy in the shoulders, but most of its bulk was in length. Disregarding the size and a few other details, the basilisk looked a lot like the lizards that played in the king's gardens at Estian. Green scales the size of my palm covered it from tip to tail. Emerald eyes blinked unconcernedly at us from the front of its head like predators everywhere, but lizardlike, the eyes didn't appear to track in concert. Remembering Oreg's words, I averted my eyes hastily from the creature's and continued to study it.

A braided band wrapped twice around its middle with black-painted runes obscuring the natural brown of leather - wizard's work. Likely that was how they controlled the beast.

Black horn spikes studded the forked tip of its tail and continued up the ridge of its back until they disappeared in the improbable ruff of scarlet feathers encircling its neck. A tongue as large as my arm flicked out of its mouth momentarily.

I was so fascinated by the basilisk I almost didn't see the two wizards who had entered in its wake. Like my father's wizard, Kariarn's affected the uniform dress of wizardkind: long beard, close-fitted tunic of black broadcloth, and brilliantly dyed panel skirts that swept the floor. Armsmen walked to either side of the wizards, holding them by the elbows to support their weight. If they were able to control the basilisk, it wasn't without effort. A deep fear I'd held inside eased. These two would never be able to maintain such concentration during an actual battle, so Kariarn couldn't use the basilisk without risking losing as many men as his enemy.

"Direct its attention to its food," commanded Kariarn.

One of the men by the nearer wizard bent down to speak into the wizard's ear. And the guards holding Landislaw turned their heads away from the beast.

The basilisk turned toward Landislaw, who had closed his eyes and continued to struggle against the grip of the men who held him. Either their grip loosened when they turned away from him, or terror granted him extra strength, because Landislaw broke from his keepers and shuffled toward us on bound feet.

"Garranon!" He cried.

His brother made an attempt to go to him, but Kariarn's guards gripped him.

The basilisk moved suddenly, so fast that my eyes almost couldn't track it. One moment it was near the door, the next it was beside Landislaw. The noise it made drew Landislaw's attention. I knew the moment its gaze captured Garranon's brother. He stopped moving as suddenly as if he were a puppet whose strings were cut.

The basilisk kept one eye on its food and allowed the other to swivel over us. Only after the cold gaze passed over me did I realize I should have looked away, but it hadn't been interested in more food. If I stood frozen, it was not from any magic of the basilisk's gaze but from the knowledge that there was nothing I could do. Without a weapon, I stood no chance against the creature, not to mention Kariarn's guards. With my brother captive, I could not throw away my life. But standing there was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life.

Apparently reassured it wouldn't have to fight any of us for its dinner, the basilisk butted Landislaw with its jaw, knocking him over. It opened its mouth to reveal small, triangular teeth no larger than a dog's. Swiveling its head, it engulfed Landislaw's upper body, and then the reptilian nose jerked upward, forcing the limp man to slide into its maw.

One of the guards who'd been holding Landislaw turned to the side and began vomiting helplessly. Landislaw wasn't dead. Held by the basilisk's terrible magic, he would be slowly digested while he yet lived.

I'd never liked Landislaw, but no one deserved that.

"What happens to the chains?" I asked in a casual tone. I was counting on the dimness of the hall hiding my paleness.

Kariarn's eyebrow raised in reaction to my casual tone. "It vomits up the hard tissues after a few days."

"Like an owl," I said, holding my voice level. Never let the enemy know what scares you. I kept my gaze on Kariarn's face, not wanting to witness Garranon's pain. "Where did you find out how to control it?"

Kariarn smiled as if he'd found a soul mate. If I could convince him of it...My plan was half formed at best, the better to accommodate the changing situation.

"The Cholynn was very helpful. She is tired of Tallvenish rule. Without Jakoven, the Cholytes could take over and run the whole country. Her order has libraries that date back to the time of the Empire, and she has sent me several mages - though none as useful as Bastilla has proved."

"Why did you bring me here to see this?" I asked.

"Bastilla thought you might be interested in my stone dragon, since Hurog was once the home to dragons." He smiled suddenly. "Do you know that the emperors had dragons in their service? I am the first since the ancient times to own a dragon."

He was the first what? Emperor? He did not have his empire yet.

I nodded thoughtfully. "Tell me, Your Highness, how do you intend to return Hurog to me?" There was no need to fake my feelings for my home; doubtless even the impassive-faced soldiers heard my lust.

Kariarn laughed, "Directly to business. Why the change of heart?"

"You expect me to lose face before my brother? Eventually, he'll come around to the idea that I did it to save Hurog. But it will take time for him to adjust. I know the Tallvenish king will never return her to me, and I have little love left for him after he killed my cousin. My question is: What is your price?"

"Nothing you cannot pay," he said quickly, afraid his fish would slip the hook. "You will give me loyalty and taxes as you now do to Tallven."

"I've made vows to Tallven," I said letting the thought trouble my brow as if I'd just realized what accepting Kariarn's help would mean. "A Hurog does not break vows."

"No one holds to vows that are already broken," he said. "Jakoven Tallven broke the bonds his ancestors forged with Hurog so many years when he stole Hurog from you on a whim. You owe him nothing."

I let my jaw harden as he spoke, then widened my eyes and let them go soft and sad. "He did. Just as he allowed your armies to ravage Oranstone after he took away their means to defend themselves. Such a man does not deserve to be king."

"How easily you give away your honor, boy," said Garranon. His voice was thick with tears and anger.

"How dare you speak of honor to me!" I roared in my father's best manner. "You took away my Hurog, and why? So that your traitorous little brother could escape Ciernack's slap on the wrist? A punishment your brother well deserved. Perhaps if you let him accept the responsibility for his actions just once, he wouldn't have ended here. I will not hear talk of honor from Jakoven's whore." I wanted Garranon and his lady to escape tonight with Oreg and Tosten. With luck, Kariarn would never believe I'd lifted a single finger to help them.

"Take Lord Garranon and the lady back to their previous quarters," ordered Kariarn sharply.

Garranon narrowed his eyes at me, his anger a smoldering flame that momentarily blotted out the terrible agony in his eyes. His voice was a whisper that carried through the room. "Unlike you, my brother was no traitor. He owed no oath to Jakoven, and he wanted freedom for his people. He was guilty of stupidity and shortsightedness. You add greed to his list of faults. I hope I live long enough to see you feed the basilisk."

He caught my gaze as tightly as ever the basilisk could, holding my eyes until the guardsmen dragged him from the room.

Kariarn patted my arm. "You are no traitor. Jakoven is no king of Shavig or Oranstone. A real king protects his people."

I tilted my chin up and turned back to the king of Vorsag. "You are right." I said decisively. "No king who deserves that name would do so little to protect his people. Now, what are you going to do about Hurog, and why are you interested in it? Hurog has no wealth."

"No, but she has great power. And I'm not speaking of just the dragon bones. Ciernack tells me that when your uncle defied the king after he killed your cousin, all of Shavig marched to his tune."

"Well, of course." I said as if it hadn't surprised me to hear of it. "Hurog is a proud name in Shavig." I let the thought collect visibly. "Oh, I see. Through me you'll control Shavig. But that won't work if they know that you put me in control. Shavigmen don't like the Vorsag."

Kariarn smiled. "I knew you were smarter than Landislaw. What if we make you the rescuer of Hurog? Defending her from her foes. We'll kill your uncle, and then you'll return and take his men, driving us out of Hurog - after I get the dragon bones."

"And welcome to them," I said in an absent but truthful tone. The dragon was dead, and it was the living I had to protect. "But do we have to kill my uncle?"

"He took Hurog from you, Ward. He deserves no mercy."

I took in a deep breath, as if steeling myself to a difficult task. "You're right. Yes, I'll do it. But what about my brother? I won't have him killed."

"That's not necessary - if you can convince him to follow your lead."

I nodded. "I think I can bring him around."

They cleaned and bandaged the arm Penrod had wounded before the guardsmen escorted me ever so courteously back to my cell. Even the locking of the door was done with an apologetic air. They did not reattach me to the wall. The cell had been cleaned while I was gone; stale, musty straw was replaced by fresh, flower-scented rushes.

Tosten was sitting in the corner of the room, his knees up and his head buried against them. The light from the small window high over our heads didn't let me see much more. I'd been consumed with my private guilt, having watched a man die without lifting a finger to prevent it; but my brother's state pushed that to the background.

"Tosten?" I asked. But he didn't look up.

"Bastilla healed him," said Oreg from behind me. He startled me, but it was as much the anger in his voice as the sudden appearance.

"She crawled inside my mind," Tosten whispered. "I couldn't keep her out. She stole my soul, and I couldn't stop her."

Frightened, I looked at Oreg, who shook his head and said, "No one stole your soul, Tosten. You can give it away, but they cannot steal it, not even by ruse."

"Gods," Tosten moaned.

I put a hand on his shoulder.

He stopped rocking and looked up at me. "What happened to you?"

My mind flashed back to the basilisk, and I swallowed bile. "Is there anyone listening?" I asked Oreg.

He tilted his head a moment. "Not by magic."

"Kariarn took me to watch his basilisk eat Landislaw whole. It just engulfed him, like a snake eating a mouse." Even saying it made me feel ill.

"Why didn't he chain you up again?" asked Tosten, who knew who Landislaw was but had never met him, leaving him unmoved to the boy's fate.

"Because he wants Shavig, and he thinks Hurog will sway the other Northlanders, something we may have to thank Duraugh for," I answered, glad to change the subject. Much better to worry about Kariarn than to continue to think about Landislaw slowly dissolving inside the basilisk. "Give me a few moments to think."

They were silent as I ran through possibilities in my head.

There was a game that my aunt taught me to play once. It involved taking a skip-stone board and imagining all the possible combinations of play.

Kariarn was leaving for Hurog very soon, and Garranon and his wife would be dead before Kariarn left: He could not afford to leave the Lord of Buril alive. So Oreg would have to get them out of the keep.

Kariarn's abrupt delay of his plans for Oranstone after Bastilla brought us here puzzled me. Kariarn couldn't have had a better setup to take Oranstone. But Haverness might discover Kariarn's people here anytime. And Kariarn was going to risk that in order to get dragon bones out of Hurog?

Obsessions, I thought, this is all about obsessions. Kariarn wanted magic more than he wanted Oranstone. "What will he do with the bones?"

"Bastilla thinks drinking powdered dragon bones could make her the most powerful wizard alive," said Tosten. "She was gloating over it."

"What would it do for someone who could not work magic?" I asked.

"It could turn him into a mage for a time," answered Oreg. "But he'd have to continue consuming the bones to keep his powers. Eventually, it would kill him."

"Oreg, if you were at Hurog, could you keep the wizards from finding the dragon?" I asked. "Bastilla left a strand of hair in the cave."

"Possibly," he said. "How many wizards does he have?"

"How many could you defeat?"

"If I were in the keep, I could keep three or four of Bastilla's caliber out for a few days. If I could find her hair and get rid of it, much longer."

"Could you destroy the dragon bones?" I asked.

He shook his head. "No."

I nodded and dropped back into thought.

"Ward? Why did Bastilla have Penrod try to kill you?" asked Tosten. "She knew Kariarn wanted the bones, and you were the best way to get them."

"What?" asked Oreg.

I hadn't had time to think about it, but Tosten was right. It was strange. I told Oreg about Penrod's attack and how my brother had saved me.

I thought about the odd look I'd seen on Bastilla's face in Haverness's great hall while I'd been laughing with Tisala and of her reaction when I'd explained why I could not be her lover. Had she been so angry with me that she would risk Kariarn's wrath to kill me?

"I suspect Kariarn doesn't know anything about it," I said. "I wonder how much she can do outside his orders?" Oreg just shook his head, so I put the problem of Bastilla aside and thought about more immediate concerns.

Garranon, his wife, and Tosten had to get to safety. I would risk my life but not my brother's. With him safe, I could go with Kariarn to Hurog. Kariarn would destroy my home in order to get the dragon bones; if I were there with Oreg, destroying Hurog would not be necessary.

"The king," I said slowly to myself, not to my audience. "The king killed our cousin and took Hurog from me, which absolves me of oaths taken as the Hurogmeten's heir. Kariarn proposes to return Hurog to me if I support him."

Tosten staggered to his feet. "Ward...Don't do it. You can't trust him."

"No," I agreed mildly. "But then, he can't trust me, either. He's going to attack Hurog one way or the other. I need to be there, and the fastest way to Hurog is to ride with him."

Tosten frowned at me.

"However," I said, staring at the wall again, "when I tell you my intentions, you become enraged and hit me with - " I looked around and found a new item in the cell that had been added to increase our creature comforts. "  -  with the chamber pot, knocking me unconscious. You escape the cell by some ingenious method..." I stared at the door, but it looked solid. There was no bar on it, though, just a large iron lock.

"Tosten spent a lot of time on the waterfront," said Oreg. "Waterfront rats have all sorts of useful skills."

I gave Tosten an interested look, and he squirmed. "All right. I know how to pick most locks if you give me a day or two."

"I can do it faster," offered Oreg.

I grinned. "So, thinking he's killed me, Tosten gets the door open and searches through the rooms up here until he finds Garranon and his lady - because Garranon knows how to get out."

Tosten drew a deep breath. "I know Oreg will go with you...but are you sure you don't want me, too? I make a fair backup." It amazed me, coming out of Tosten. Not the offer, but the manner in which he offered it, his quiet acknowledgment that Oreg would be more help.

"I need Oreg because of Bastilla and Hurog," I said. "I need you because you can show Garranon back to Tisala and safety. I need you because Beckram likes you, and he just might listen to you tell him a crazy tale about runaway slaves who are spies and dragon bones hidden in the heart of Hurog. Get him to gather the Blue Guard and force-march to Hurog."

He gave me a wary look and checked my face for sincerity. Then he straightened his shoulders and nodded. I'd given him a task to do. I'd gotten him out of danger, especially since there was absolutely no way he could travel all the way back to Callis, get Beckram, and ride to Hurog before Kariarn got us all on ships and sailed into Tyrfannig harbor. Geography had never been his strong point. He'd be angry, but he'd be safe.

When Oreg opened the door after a bit of magic at the lock, we could hear the guards at the bottom of the stairs. We kept quiet as we began to search the other rooms on the same floor. Garranon and his wife were in the second cell we found. Oreg had no more trouble with that lock than he'd had with ours.

I pulled the door open and stepped inside, just missing being brained with a (thankfully empty) chamber pot. Originality aside, chamber pots are heavy enough to make good weapons.

I grabbed it before Garranon's wife could try it again. "Stop it," I said in a hushed voice.

"I'm the only one who gets to brain Ward tonight," said Tosten, stepping through the doorway. He bowed to her. "I am Tosten of Hurog, and you must be Garranon's wife."

"What are you doing?" asked Garranon from the shadows. He didn't sound happy, but he was quiet. I released his wife but kept the chamber pot.

"Rescuing you," I replied. "You don't think Kariarn's going to let you live, do you?"

Oreg started working on the chains that held Garranon, and I set the chamber pot on the floor.

"I know him," said Garranon's wife, nodding at me though speaking to her husband. "But who are the other two?

Garranon, shaking free of his chains, peered first at Oreg then Tosten. "They're all Hurogs...but none that I've met."

It wasn't rudeness that kept me from making formal introductions; I just couldn't remember Garranon's wife's name, and I couldn't take the shortcut of calling her Lady Buril or Lady Garranon, because Oranstonian custom didn't work that way.

After an awkward moment, I said. "You'll have to introduce me again to your wife, sir. Then I'll make known my kinsmen."

A brief smile crossed Garranon's face. "May I present my wife, the Lady Allysaian." There was more affection in his voice than I expected, given the nature of his relationship with the king.

I bowed and waved an arm at my brother. "Lady Allysaian, Lord Garranon, may I present my brother Tosten, your rescuer."

In the cell amid chamber pots and straw, Allysaian curtseyed, and Tosten bowed. Garranon said incredulously, "He's dead."

I grinned. "Hurog has a reputation for ghosts, sir. Lady Allysaian, Lord Garranon, may I present my kinsman, Oreg, who is also a wizard."

"Indeed?" Garranon murmured. "How useful."

"Now," I said. "Is there a way out of here, or does Oreg have to see if he can spirit you out?"

"And leave Buril in the hands of the Vorsag?" asked Garranon.

"Not much you can do about it at the moment," observed Oreg.

The Oranstonian stared at Oreg, a muscle twitching in his jaw. Then he turned his attention back to me. "So you are going with Kariarn. And you rescue us because...?"

"Because it is the right thing to do."

He laughed, a quiet, disbelieving sound. "I might have believed that of the simpleton you played, but you lie too well, Lord Wardwick. Kariarn has offered you the same deal he offered my brother. You have seen the results. But you're willing to risk it for Hurog, aren't you?"

Tosten drew in a sharp breath, as if he'd just realized how great a temptation Kariarn had offered me.

I nodded my head, unwilling to take time to argue. "Figure it out for yourself. My brother will take you to where Haverness's daughter's troops are gathered. She'll see to it her father knows about Buril."

Garranon's eyebrows rose. "Then you go to Hurog. Kariarn breaks in, takes whatever it is that he wants from your keep - "

"Dragon bones," whispered Oreg. Garranon continued without pause. "  -  and your uncle is killed in the battle. You get Hurog."

Tosten stiffened, looking at me wild-eyed. I guess he'd forgotten about Uncle Duraugh.

It hurt that he could believe I would kill our uncle to get Hurog. But there was a part of me that anticipated my uncle's death. Oh, not that I would kill my uncle, but that he would be killed in some way I could not prevent. The hero (me) returns and triumphs over evil, and Hurog is mine. Mine. And that's why I didn't bother to defend myself. Garranon gave me a shadowed look and turned to Tosten. "There's a passage from the next room over."

"It's very strange," said Oreg once he'd locked the two of us back in my cell and picked up the chamber pot.

"What is?" I asked.

"The way you've convinced everyone, including yourself, that the two of us can stop Kariarn and his whole army."

"I don't have to stop his army," I explained. "All I have to do is get Duraugh to evacuate Hurog rather than fight for it. All Kariarn wants is the dragon bones. He'll take them and leave Hurog."

"So you're going to let Kariarn take the bones?" Oreg tapped the chamber pot unhappily on his thigh.

"It's the only way I see for Hurog to survive."

Oreg stared at me, but in the poor light of the sputtering torches, I couldn't see the expression on his face. In the quiet, I could hear the murmur of voices as several men came up the stairs.

"The chamber pot - hit me," I said, bending my knees so Oreg could get a good angle. "I can fake unconsciousness, but it's got to be hard enough to raise a bump."

Oreg stared at the chamber pot. "I could still get you out of here. We could get Beckram and bring an army to defeat Kariarn."

I straightened. "Buril is only three or four leagues from the sea. With the wizards for communication, Kariarn'll have a fleet at the nearest port waiting for him. Beckram is at Callis. He'll have to travel overland."

Oreg worked it out for himself. "It'll take him at least a week longer to get to Hurog than it'll take Kariarn."

I nodded. "Hurog isn't ready for a siege. It won't last a week."

The guards had gone to Garranon's cell. I could hear them shouting, and I bent down again. "Do it."

"So the Hurogmeten sacrifices the dragon again," said Oreg.

I caught a better look at his face as he raised the chamber pot over his head. What I saw there told me that Oreg wasn't unhappy about the opportunity to hit me. As it turned out, I didn't have to fake anything at all.

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