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Dragon Pax

Scholars and doomsayers had been predicting the Great War for almost a century beforehand, and when it finally came it was brief and furious, erupting like a fusion bomb among the sixty worlds of the Empire. The more strategic planets were fought over by as many as seven separate factions, and were often reduced to rubble in the process. Other planetsthe poor or unimportant oneswere largely neglected by the starfleets, and were left to their individual fates as space travel all but disappeared.

Power, not the destruction of civilization, was the goal of those in the struggle; but, too late, they realized they were in over their heads. For although each faction had carefully calculated its strength and chances before making its move, none had anticipated the wild-card effect of the Dragonmasters who had suddenly appeared from nowhere onto the scene. These twelve menvirtual unknowns, all of themhad no warships and only minimal troops. But the powerful nightmare shapes that were their dragons evened the odds tremendously. Huge, virtually indestructible, appearing and vanishing on command, the dragons wreaked havoc on any ground forces that opposed their masters, crushing soldier and armored treader with equal ease.

Their size and sheer impossibility inspired almost universal fear and hatred, but it also prompted new alliances and betrayals among the warring factions as each tried to guess who the ultimate victor would be. But the forces unleashed were too destructive and the scramble for power quickly became a fight for survival. For many, even this goal was not to be achieved.

One of the few planets untouched by the war was Troas, and this was due more to luck than good planning. Rosette, the western end of Troas's single continental land mass, was the summer home of the Emperor and a resort area for members of the Imperial Court. Had anybody of importance been there when hostilities broke out, Rosette would undoubtedly have been burned to a cinder. But the Emperor was back on the capital, and the relative handful of Imperial troops were quickly withdrawn from Rosette for more important duties.

Royd Varian was three years old when the war began; he was five when Dragonmaster Harun Grail arrived at Troas and declared himself absolute dictator. At his age, Royd knew nothing of the politics of the situation. All he knew was that, later that year, his father was taken away to fight against the Easterlings from the other end of the continent, a war from which he never returned. Lying awake night after night, tears streaming down his cheeks, Royd listened to his mothers muffled sobs in the next room and resolved that, someday, he would kill the Dragonmaster.

His mother died barely a year later, and Roydwith no close relatives at handspent the rest of his childhood in a state-run orphanage. Though with the passage of the years the fire of his hatred waned, his resolve remained firm, and as he grew up all aspects of his life began to shape themselves toward his goal.

He studied history and political science in school, the better to know his enemy. On his own he learned military science and the use of weapons, and he worked at building up his physical strength and stamina. He sent letters asking about the chances of working on the household staff at either of the Dragonmaster's two estates, and landed a temporary job as mason's assistant; at about the same time he made his first delicate contacts with the outlawed Rosette Freedom Party. He rose through the ranks upon both sides, his single-minded determination driving him over all obstacles.

And finally, at age twenty-four, he considered himself ready.

Royd hefted the little four-shot dart gun doubtfully. "I don't know, Phelan," he told the tower of muscle standing beside him in the backroom darkness. "This doesn't pack much punch."

Phelan Hapspur shrugged. "You want something with punch or something you can hide? We've only got a limited arsenal, you know."

"Yeah." Royd frowned, then stuck the gun into his waistband, pulling his tunic down to conceal it. "All right, I guess this'll have to do. I'd better go now; the loading should be finished out front."

"Good luck." Phelan slapped him on the shoulder. "We'll be watching for your signal."

Royd nodded and slipped out the door into the meat market's main room. A burly man in a bloodstained apron came up and handed him a piece of paper. "All loaded, sir," he said. "If you'll sign here..." Royd glanced through the store window in time to see one of the butchers boys closing the doors on the cold-truck outside. As one of the food buyers for the Dragonmaster's city palace it was Royd's responsibility to personally check all the meat as it was loaded; but he knew Temmic could be trusted. Taking the paper, he glanced over it and then signed.

"Thanks, Mr. Varian," Temmic nodded. "See you next week?"

Probably not. "Sure, Temmic. So long."

Stepping out into the afternoon sunlight, Royd paused for a moment to listen. Above the normal city sounds around him, he could just make out the low roar of many vehicles. Grail's convoy, returning from the Dragonmaster's country retreat as scheduled. Royd squinted off in the proper directionsometimes Grail had the smaller of his two dragons lead his convoysbut nothing could be seen. No matter; the Dragonmaster would soon be home.

Climbing into the cab of his cold-truck, Royd started the engine and headed toward the palace, threading through the mixture of pedestrian, animal, and motorized vehicle traffic with practiced skill. Within a few minutes he was at the outer wall of the palace grounds. The gate guard passed him through with a nod, and he drove another two kilometers through sculped lawns and gardens to the huge building itself.

Entering one of the service bays, he helped the kitchen workers unload the cold-truck and then chatted with one of the cooks for a few minutes before returning to his bed in the number two servants' dorm. He was now off duty until later in the evening. Then, by prearrangement with one of the other servants, he would help clear the dishes from Civil Affairs Director Marwitz's customary late- evening supper... a task that would bring him to within fifty meters of Grail's own office suite.

Lying back on his bunk, Royd closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Curiously, despite the nervous tension slowly building within him, he felt no elation or pride in what he was about to do. Assassinating Dragonmaster Grail had long ago ceased to be just a matter of personal vengeance. It was something he had to do for the people of Rosette, for while Grail and his dragons lived there could be no freedom. And if it cost Royd his lifeas it probably wouldit was still a fair bargain.

At seven-thirty he got up, changed clothesmaking sure no one saw the gunand reported to the majordomo for work. With three other boys he was sent up to the palace's fifth floor.

Civil Affairs Director Clars Marwitz was a short, dark-eyed man with a perpetual scowl and an acrid personality. Royd had disliked him from the first, and that opinion had been going steadily downhill ever since. His power over the lives of Rosette's people was absolute, and he used it ruthlessly to crush any dissention that he found. Next to Grail himself, Marwitz was the most hated man in Rosette. Still, Royd managed to give him a vacuous servant's smile as they collected the Director's dishes.

Back in the hall, Royd took a deep breath. This was it. "You go on ahead," he told the other three servants. "I'm going to check down the hall and see if there's anything to pick up in the Dragonmaster's office."

Picking up an empty tray, he turned and started walking, not giving them the chance to warn him that no one could enter Grail's suite without an invitation. The hall was very long, and Royd's throat was very dry by the time he reached the Dragonmaster's door.

Two men wearing hard faces and the gray uniforms of Grail's personal bodyguard flanked the portal; their laser-sighted automatic rifles pointed a centimeter or so to either side of him. "That's close enough, kid," one of them growled as Royd came to within three meters. "State your business."

"Hey, I'm just a waiter," Royd said, staring with suitable nervousness at the guns. He'd been holding the tray vertically in front of him, concealing the dart pistol clutched in his right hand; now he lifted the tray to a waist-high horizontal position, bringing the gun invisibly to bear on one of the guards. "I just came by to pick up any dishes that Dragonmaster Grail might need washed."

"Anyone send for you? No? Then scram."

"Yes, sir." Gently, Royd squeezed the trigger, turning the tray and gun slightly. The drug was supposed to act almost instantly to paralyze the nervous systemif the darts penetrated the guards' clothing, that is. He fired again. "I just thought"

Without a word, the first man crumpled to the ground. The other wasted his last second gaping in bewilderment, then he too collapsed.

Royd dropped the tray and snatched up one of the rifles, shoving his dart gun back in his waistband. He tried the door; it was locked. Stepping back, he raised the rifle and gave the lock a full second on automatic. The wood and metal shattered, and a single kick sent it swinging inward. Royd charged in as the hall behind him filled up with the raucous clang of alarm bells.

The room he had entered was an anteroom of sorts, with three other doors heading inward from it. A saucer-eyed woman sat frozen at a desk by one of the doors, her fingers still poised over her scriber. Keeping his gun pointed toward the doors, Royd snapped, "Where is he?"

She might have been carved from stone. Cursing under his breath, Royd studied the doors. Barely visible under the leftmost was a thin line of light. He strode to it, wrenched it open, and stepped in, rifle at the ready.

Sitting at a desk in the center of a luxuriously furnished office, his eyebrows raised quizzically, was Dragonmaster Harun Grail. Royd raised his rifle. "Don't move, Grail."

The Dragonmaster's gaze never faltered. "You've got exactly one second to put that gun down before I call out my dragon," he said with icy calmness.

"Don't waste your breath on bluffs; I know better. Neither of your dragons is small enough to fit in a room this size. You're all alone now."

"All right." Grail's tone hadn't changed. "What do you want?"

"Your life."

"Why?"

He was stalling for time, Royd knew; waiting for reinforcements to arrive. "Ask the devil," he retorted.

"You can't escape," Grail pointed out. "Soldiers are on their way right now."

"That doesn't matter. What matters is that Rosette will be free again once you're dead."

"You're a fool if you believe that."

Royd opened his mouth to reply, but just then he heard the sound of running feet out in the hall. He aimed the rifle

And with a miniature thunderclap of displaced air a five-meter-long black creature appeared, its serpentine neck arching high over Grail's desk, its wings spread in defense of its master. Fiery red eyes glared balefully at Royd; taloned paws rose against him. Reflexively, Royd pulled the trigger; for all their effect, the steel-jacketed slugs might have been confetti. At least two of the ricochets came close enough to hear.

"You see," Grail's voice came from behind the outstretched wings as the echoes died away, "I have three dragons, not two."

"Damn," Royd breathedand just then a half-dozen soldiers stormed through the door behind him.

Wrenching his gaze from the dragon, he spun around, rifle ready. But these weren't Grail's professional bullies; they were just common soldiers, many of them drafteesthe sort of people whom he was trying to free. Besides, killing them wouldn't buy him more than a few minutes at most. Taking his finger off the trigger, he lowered the weapon and prepared to die.

"Don't kill him!" Grail's voice snapped from behind him. Royd half-turned, a bitter curse ready for delivery... and then the soldiers were swarming over him. Something wet and aromatic hit his face and the world went black.

He awoke slowly, by degrees, as if his head had gone on a long journey and had to be coaxed back. Something was pressing against his back; only slowly did he realize he was lying face-up on a cot of some sort. With a supreme act of will, he managed to force his eyes open.

"How do you feel?" a gruff voice behind him asked.

"Allall right." Gritting his teeth, Royd sat up, fighting paroxysms of dizziness and nausea. Carefully, he turned around.

Dragonmaster Grail was sitting on a chair, watching him.

Royd gazed back, wondering briefly if this was a dream. "What are you doing here?" he croaked, his throat strangely dry.

"I want to talk with you."

Frowning, Royd looked around him. The room he was in, though small and plain, was clean and airy. The two chairs looked comfortable; the cot he was sitting on was soft and had clean sheets and blankets. Whatever this was, it was no ordinary cell.

Grail interpreted Royd's inspection correctly. "No, you're not in my dungeon. This is a sort of guest room I've had set up for you."

"Why bother? You're going to shoot me anyway. Or do you want me in good shape for the torture?"

"There will be no torture, and perhaps no shooting either. Tell me, why did you try to kill me?"

"That again? What difference does it make?"

"It matters a great deal to me." Grail's voice was low, but strangely intense.

Royd looked at him, seeing for perhaps the first time the wrinkles in the dictator's face, the slight stiffness in his movements. How old was Grail, anyway? Royd suddenly realized he didn't know. "I wanted to kill you because you've turned Rosette into a repressive, regimented society where individuals have no rights and no purpose except to serve you. You've had hundreds of your opponents jailed or murdered and started at least three wars with Easterland since you took over."

"You sound like the Rosette Freedom Party's recruiting speech," Grail said dryly, "but I can see you really believe it. Oh, don't worry, you won't have to answer any questions about your friendsI already know everything worth knowing about them. "You're right, of course; I've done most everything you mentioned. But have you taken note of the good things I've done for Rosette? When the Great War started and all the Imperial troops and technicians were pulled out, Rosette went right to the brink of total collapse. Most of your food and machinery had been imported from offworld, you know, and those supplies were diverted pretty damn quick to more vital fronts.

"Now Rosette's own food production is way up; in the last four years we've actually had crop surpluses. We're now making our own machinery and vehicles, and have two new power plants well into the design stage. And those 'wars' you mentioned were attempts by the Easterlings to invade Rosette. We successfully fought them off"

"Fought them off!" Royd spat. "Slaughtered them, you mean, with your machine guns, artillery, and those damn dragons"

Abruptly, Grail stood up. "Look, you young idiot," he snapped, "without the dragons all of Rosette would have been overrun by hordes of Easterlings and trampled into the dust."

"Damn it, all they wanted was food. There are people starving over there!"

"You want to starve with them?" Without warning, Grail was seized by a coughing fit. He sat back down, and Royd briefly considered jumping him. But the older man's eyes were alert... and the room was large enough to hold the dragon he had seen earlier. Royd stayed where he was.

Grail finished coughing and took a couple of deep breaths. "Look, Varian," he said quietly, using Royd's name for the first time. "There are twenty million people in Rosette and just over a billion in Easterland. Even at the current rate of food production here we can't possibly relieve their annual crop shortfalls. In five or ten years we may be able to do it, but until then there's just no way. Their only hope is to leave us alone and to let us put our full energy into developing our economy and our landRosette's got the richest soil on the planet, though a lot of it's still tied up uselessly in the old Imperial estates. It's a long-term hope, sure, but it's the best we can offer them."

"It's hard to be patient when you're starving," Royd muttered. Something was off-key here; Grail's speeches and official pronouncements had always painted Easterland as a deadly enemy whose destruction was vital to Rosette's security. What was this talk about supplying them with food?

Grail smiled faintly when Royd put the question to him. "The 'Easterland threat' campaign was put together by Clars Marwitz, my Civil Affairs Director, to try and unite Rosette behind me. Marwitz is shrewddamn shrewdbut he's power-hungry and completely amoral. Bears close watching.... Anyway, I went along with the plan because I'd rather have all you dissidents working to help build up Rosette's potential than inciting riots and forcing me to put you in prison. Most of you are smart and educated, and Rosette needs all the help you can give her." A frown had been growing steadily across Royd's forehead, in direct proportion to his confusion. "What's going on? Why are you telling me all this?"

Grail's eyes bored into Royd's. "I want you to take over as head of state when I die."

For a long moment there was dead silence in the room. "What?" Royd whispered at last.

"You heard me. Rosette's developed about as far as it can under an absolute dictatorship. It needs to be nudged toward something more decentralizeda constitutional monarchy, perhaps, as a first step. But I can't do that."

"Why not? There's no one to stop you."

Grail sighed. "All right. Suppose I announced I was reorganizing the government and wanted the Rosette Freedom Party to share power with me. Would your leaders be willing to drop by the palace and discuss the issue?"

"Not likely," Royd admitted. "They'd think it was a trap."

"You see the problem, then. I'm known as a dictator, and there's no way I can easily change that image."

"But you could abdicate. Go into retirement."

"I could," Grail nodded. "Of course, there would probably be a bloody power struggle, possibly even a civil war. Rosette was on the brink of one when I arrived nineteen years ago, as a matter of fact, though you're too young to remember it. But assume for the moment I can find a way to block that. Who's going to defend Rosette from another Easterling attack?"

"Uh..." Royd hesitated; it sounded like a trick question. "I gather the army's not strong enough?"

"Not now. It could be, by drafting every single man from age seventeen on up. But then the economy would go straight to hell." Grail shook his head. "No, Easterland is held back mainly by fearfear of the dragons. Rosette needs a Dragonmaster, at least for a few more years, and it's up to me to make sure the wrong man doesn't get that kind of power."

There were a lot of implications in Grail's statement, not the least of which the suggestion that the dragons could be transferred to a new owner. But for Royd one question overrode all the others. "Why me?"

Grail shrugged. "You care about the people of Rosette."

"How do you figure that? Just because I tried to kill you?"

"Because you were willing to spend many years of study and even give your life to gain freedom for them. And, maybe more important, because you didn't fire on the common soldiers who came to arrest you." Grail ran a gnarled hand through his graying hair.

"And besides, I haven't got enough time to go out searching for more likely candidates. The doctors tell me I've only got six to eight months left. All my instincts tell me you can handle the job of putting this countryand eventually the whole planetback on its feet. If you're willing, the job's yours. I can start your Dragonmaster training tomorrow. What'll it be?"

Royd's head was spinning. This couldn't possibly be what it seemed; it had to be some sort of trick. And yet, what did he have to lose? He'd been prepared to diehad expected to dieand there was nothing worse Grail could do to him. As long as he was careful not to betray his comrades, it would probably be best for him to play along. Whatever Grail's plan was, perhaps he could turn it to his advantage. "All right," he said slowly. "I can't make any promises yet about succeeding you, but I'm willing to give it a try."

"Good." Grail got to his feet, rapped twice on the door. "I'll come for you in the morning. Sleep well."

The door opened, giving Royd a glimpse of gray uniforms in the hallway. Without another word the Dragonmaster strode out, and the door was slammed firmly behind him.

The emotional drain of the day's events made for a deep sleep, and Royd would probably have kept at it through much of the morning had Grail not awakened him at the stroke of seven. No guards were in sight; in fact, Royd saw no one else at all as the Dragonmaster led the way down two dimly lit corridors and up a narrow staircase.

"Where is everyone?" he asked, fighting the urge to whisper.

"These hallways are seldom used," Grail answered. "I'm sure you understand the need for secrecy. In here."

The room they entered was large and high-ceilinged, its furnishings those of a conference room. The view through the diamond-patterned windows told Royd he was on the east side of the palace and about four or five floors upsomewhere in Grail's private section, he guessed. On the carved rock-ebony table were four suitcase-sized boxes and a covered tray. The odors from the latter made Royd's stomach growl.

"Sit down," Grail said, indicating the chair closest to the tray. "We'll want to get started as soon as possible, but I can fill in some of the background for you while you eat."

Royd removed the lid and did a quick survey. Chopped phorlax meat mixed with nuts; two twelve-centimeter surf-skimmers, finned and roasted whole; a four- fruit salad cup; and a steaming cup of ch'a. His opinion of Grail went up a notch anyone who would serve a meal like this to a prisoner couldn't be all bad. Another thought crowded in on the tail of the first: that that might be precisely what Grail wanted him to think. In a somewhat more subdued state of mind, he sat down and began to eat. "You and your dragons have already had breakfast?" he asked.

"I have; the dragons haven't," Grail said. "That's the first popular misconception you'll have to unlearn. The dragons aren't alive; they're just machines."

Royd blinked. Like everyone else, he'd always assumed that the dragons were living pets of their Dragonmaster. The idea that they were mechanical was actually harder to believe. "Machines?"

"Yes." With a pop, the small dragon appeared a few meters off to the side. "Take a look yourself. Go on, it won't hurt you."

Swallowing hard, Royd got up and approached warily. The creature sat motionless on its haunches, its talons glinting in the thick purple carpet, its red eyes following Royd's every movement. "Look at the outer skin, the eyes, and the talons," Grail instructed. "And inside the mouth; you'll see there is no saliva."

The monster opened its mouth. Gingerly, Royd looked in, then glanced briefly at the other points Grail had mentioned. "Doesn't look like any machine I've ever seen, but I'll take your word for it," he said, backing away. "You build them yourself?"

"Oh, hell, no. They're way beyond human technology. They were built by some extinct race out in the Castor stars millennia ago. My guess is that they were used as bodyguards." Another pop and the dragon was gone.

"That vanishing act is a good trick," Royd said as casually as he could, determined not to be overawed. "How does that work?"

"Look here." Reaching into his tunic, Grail pulled out a small gemlike object hung around his neck by a thin gold chain. He handed it to Royd. "This is the key. Somehow, the dragons are keptwell, not inside, of course, but sort of next to it. That's bad wording; what I mean is that there's some sort of dimensional pocket associated with the amulet, where the three dragons are kept. A kind of limited subspace, I expect, similar to the one starships travel in, except more localized."

Royd examined the amulet. A deep, brilliant red in color, it was roughly teardrop-shaped and shimmered in a way that made it look like he wasn't actually touching its surface. It was warm to the touch, and when he squeezed it he could feel... not a vibration, exactly, but something that didn't belong in a normal rock, either.

"The sensation you're feeling isn't physical," Grail said. "At least, I've never been able to detect it with any kind of sensor. It's strictly a psychic effect." Royd nodded abstractedly. The key to Grail's power, and he was holding it in his hand. For a moment he was tempted... but Grail wasn't stupid. He wouldn't have deliberately disarmed himself. Reaching across the table, Royd dropped the amulet back into Grail's outstretched hand.

"I can call the dragons out to any distance from the amulet I choose, up to a few kilometers," the Dragonmaster went on, slipping the chain around his neck again. "And, of course, I don't have to be touching the amulet at the time."

"Of course," Royd repeated, a slight shiver running down his back. The old dictator was definitely not a safe man to underestimate. If Royd had yielded to the temptation to grab the amulet and run...

He resumed eating. Grail busied himself with the boxes of equipment, and by the time Royd had finished breakfast there were three sets of electronic displays arranged in a semicircle on the table in front of him.

Grail glanced at the empty tray. "Finished? Good. Get up, and put that tray somewhere."

Royd did so, and Grail slipped into his vacated chair, flipping a handful of switches and putting on a bulky headset. At once the displays came to life, showing a variety of squiggly curves. "What you're seeing are the shapes of some of the electrical waves in my brain," Grail explained. "Watch what happens to the patterns when I call one of the dragons."

Subtly, but noticeably, the curves changed, and an instant later the dragon stood beside them.

"And they'll change a bit more as I give it commands," Grail continued. "Watch."

The dragon turned and sprang to the window in a single twelve-meter leap, hissed once, and then did a little shadowboxing with its front paws. Then it vanished, and the displayed curves resumed their original shapes.

Grail looked up at Royd. "You're going to have to learn how to control your own brain waves so as to match the ones you just saw. For starters"he pointed out a relatively high peak on one of the curves"you can try to flatten this to about half its size." He demonstrated, then stood up and handed the headset to Royd. Automatically, Royd took it and put it on. "But how do I do that?" he asked, bewildered.

"You'll have to figure that out for yourself," the dictator answered, making a slight adjustment in the helmets position and all but pushing Royd down into the chair. "Try flexing some muscles, or thinking different thoughts, or whatever else works for you. Keep your eyes on the trace. When it shrinks even a little go back and try what you were just doing again."

He pointed across the room. "That door leads to a bathroom; the dumbwaiter over there will bring you lunch at noon. I'll be by sometime in the afternoon, and I'll want to see some progress here." He tapped the proper peak on the display and, without another word, strode from the room.

Royd stared after him a moment, then turned back to the displays. Somewhere in all of this window dressing, he knew, Grail was planning some sort of trickery. But he couldn't for the life of him see the trap; and until he did he had no choice but to play along. Sighing, he set to work.

It was more like early evening when Grail finally returned. "Let's see how you've done," was his only greeting.

Gritting his teeth against the throbbing headache which had developed in the past hour, Royd made the high peak flatten a bit. A dismal showing, he thought, but Grail nodded in apparent satisfaction. "Not bad for the first day. How do you feel?"

"I've got a headache. Otherwise okay."

"I expected as much." The Dragonmaster dug a small bottle from his pocket and tossed it to Royd. "Two of these will take care of your head."

"Thanks," Royd said, grudgingly. "What's happening in the outside world today?"

"Not too much." Grail pulled out one of the chairs and sank into it. He looked tired. "A hailstorm in the northwest destroyed a good deal of Androc Districts corn; we're trying to decide if we've got time to replant or whether we should try to put in a different crop, one with a shorter growing season." He looked keenly at Royd. "You know much about agriculture?"

"Not a thing."

"I'll get you some books to read. Efficient farming is the key to lasting peace on this planet. I also had a long talk with some Easterland envoys this afternoon. They're threatening war if Rosette doesn't give them more food and industrial assistance. Oh, and your Rosette Freedom Party friends have added your name to the list of those 'murdered by the brutal son of Satan.' That's me."

"What did you tell themthe Easterlings, I mean?"

"Oh, I told them we couldn't spare any more than we were already giving them, and that if they didn't like it, that was their problem."

"But they're talking war."

"Sure, but that's all it is: talk. True, their army outnumbers ours by at least ten to one, but they know they can't order an all-out attack. The dragons are too powerful a deterrent." Grail shook his head. "They know that, but they still insist on making high-voltage threats. That'll hurt them, too, in the long run, because it then looks like they keep backing down. Keep that in mind, Variannever make a threat you can't follow through on."

"That's at least twice now you've implied your dragons keep Easterland off our backs." Royd's headache was nearly gone, but he was still feeling grouchy. "How do you figure that? There are at least three hundred kilometers of land border and five or six times that much coastline. You and your dragons can't possibly defend all that from a really serious assault."

"Of course not. But it's the psychological effect that does it. How would you feel about going to war if you knew you'd eventually have to face being torn apart by an indestructible monster that's as tall as this palace?"

He shook his head wearily. "I call it dragon paxor more correctly pax dracontea, I suppose: a peace imposed by the dragon. But it's based upon fear, and that kind of peace can't last." He fixed Royd with a sudden glare. "And that's why you have to move Troas toward something else, something more stable."

Royd swallowed the retort that came to mind as Grail leaned over and turned off the power to the displays. "That's enough of this for now," the dictator said. "You can stay here tonight; there's an adjoining room I've had set up for you to sleep in. In the meantime, I brought something for you to read." The small dragon appeared beside him, its gaping mouth holding a stack of perhaps a dozen books. Setting them down on the table, the creature vanished.

"It's easier than carrying them myself," Grail grunted. "These cover some of the basics of politics, diplomacy, and psychology. Read as much as you can tonight, then go back to your mind-conditioning exercises in the morning. Your meals will be delivered as before, and there's spare clothing in the other room. I may or may not see you tomorrow, but I think you've got enough to keep you busy for a while." He stood up and nodded. "Good evening, Varian."

Royd didn't see Grail the next day, nor the day after. Late the third evening, however, the Dragonmaster returned. "How are you doing with your exercises?" he asked, sinking into a chair.

Royd put down the book he'd been reading and reached for the headset. "Not too bad. Let me show you."

A minute later, Grail concurred. "Very good. It's still not completely down, but that'll come with time. Here's your next task." He touched a jagged trace on a second display. "This should become more like a sine wave: smoother curves and with the peaks spaced farther apart. I found this step easier than the last one when I was learning, if that makes you feel any better."

Royd felt his ears prick up. "You learned to control the dragons this way, too? Who did you learn from?"

Grail ignored the question, nodding instead toward the book on the table. "I see you're reading Iviza. What do you think of his theories?"

"I don't like them," Royd told him, switching mental gears with somewhat less ease. "He doesn't seem to even allow for the existence of morality in politics. I think he's wrong."

Smiling slightly, Grail settled himself more comfortably in his chair. "Tell me why," he challenged.

The two men talked long into the night, discussing politics and related subjects. At times Royd almost forgot who he was talking to; the Dragonmaster's political viewsor at least the ones he was admitting towere much closer to Royd's than the latter would ever have expected. It was a wrench sometimes to remember that this was the man who had sent Royd's father to his death. The man Royd had sworn to kill.

The days stretched into weeks, and Royd's life settled into a reasonably comfortable routine. He worked several hours daily on the mind-conditioning equipment; ate, slept, and exercised on a rigid schedule; and spent the rest of his time reading. Every few days Grail would stop by, usually in the evenings, to check on Royd's progress and to bring him new books.

He also kept Royd informed on current events, both general news and the more private details of governmental business and infighting. His candor in speaking about his subordinates was sometimes surprising, and gradually Royd began to see that the Dragonmaster was less an omnipotent ruler than simply a powerful man in the midst of a machine not entirely under his control.

Almost against his will, Royd frequently found himself in sympathy with the dictators goals, and at such times he had to sharply remind himself to watch for traps, verbal and otherwise. If there were any traps, though, he never spotted them.

Oddly enough, as Royd's feelings toward Grail began to soften, he noticed his own confinement was being eased. His door was no longer locked, and he was allowed to move freely among the half-dozen rooms of his section of the palace, though he was still forbidden to enter the more public areas where people might see him.

More than once he considered escaping and rejoining the Rosette Freedom Party's underground, where his new knowledge of Grail, the government, and the dragons could be put to good use. Each time, though, he chose to stay. The more he learned, he told himself, the better their chances of ultimately bringing down the regimehe no longer thought of it in terms of Grail aloneand of restoring freedom to Rosette. It never occurred to him that he might be staying simply because doing otherwise would be betraying Grail's trust.

But Grail was not the type to let his subordinates have secrets, even from themselves, and eventually he forced the issue in his characteristically blunt way.

It was in Royd's eighth week of captivity when Grail showed up unexpectedly as the youth was beginning his mind-conditioning work. "Turn that off and get your coat," the Dragonmaster ordered. "We're going on a little trip today."

Royd blinked his astonishment. "What? Where are we going?"

"To see dragon pax in action. Come on."

He led the way to the palace roof, where one of Rosette's three VTOL gunships was waiting for them. The craft was designed to carry up to thirty troops: on this trip, Royd and Grail were its only passengers. They strapped in, and Grail used the intercom to give the pilot his orders.

"Where exactly are we going?" Royd asked as they lifted silently into the sky.

"The Rosette-Easterland border," Grail answered. "Louys Pass, about six kilometers southeast of Hagston. Our patrols say that there's a new Easterling base being set up there. I want to walk One past it, just to remind them what they'll have to face on this side of the line."

One. It was the first time Royd had ever heard Grail refer to any of his dragons by any sort of name. " 'One' is your biggest dragon, I take it?"

Grail nodded. "One, Two, and Three, in decreasing order of size."

"Not terribly original."

The Dragonmaster stared out a window. "I originally called them Alecto, Magaera, and Tisiphonethe three Furies from ancient Earth mythology, who pursued and punished evildoers in terrible ways. But... I suppose after the fracture- bombing of Solfa it seemed to me that I had no business calling the dragons by cute names. They're fearsome, deadly weapons and shouldn't be treated like pets."

Royd shivered. For the Furies to be considered 'cute names'... "It must have been pretty bad. Solfa, I mean."

"The entire world was destroyed. I mean that literally; what the bombs themselves didn't get the tectonic upheavals that followed did." Grail's jaw muscles tightened visibly. "Three billion people killed, for the sole purpose of trying to destroy two Dragonmasters. That shows you how much the Emperor fears us."

Royd digested that. "How'd you escape?"

"I was already in space when the attack started. My ship took some damage, but I got away. That's when I came here." Grail spoke almost mechanically; from the look in his eyes it was clear his thoughts were still with the slagged surface of Solfa. His breathing seemed to have quickened, and Royd noted with some uneasiness that he was beginning to wheeze.

"Maybe we'd better stop talking for a while," he said. "You don't want to go into one of your coughing fits."

"You're right." Grail sank back in his seat and smiled wanly. "It has been getting worse, hasn't it?"

"Yeah. What are the doctors doing for you?"

"Not much they can do. My lungs are slowly filling up with scar tissue. It's something I picked up forty years ago out on Agave. Not contagious, by the way."

"Glad to hear it. Now shut up and get some rest."

Grail smiled again. "Yes, Doctor," he murmured, closing his eyes.

The aircraft reached its destinationone of Rosette's border outpostsan hour or so later. Grail, seemingly recovered from his earlier discomfort, obtained two horses, and he and Royd rode off into the low mountains that formed a natural barrier between Rosette and Easterland. No one at the base asked Royd's name or position; Grail did not volunteer that information.

The mountains were not particularly high, but they were steep and treacherous in places. Clearly, though, Grail had taken this path before, and he led them skillfully up the slope. After perhaps an hour he reined in. "We go on foot from here," he told Royd. "I want to get a little closer before I release One."

They made their way through the trees and underbrush for half a kilometer to a small clearing where, without warning, the forty-meter dragon appeared. Shifting its bulk with surprising grace, it moved off between the trees. "Glad we found this clearing," Grail grunted. "If you bring One out in the woods you usually knock down a tree or two in the process. Makes a hell of a noise." He looked at Royd. "Did you feel anything when I released it?"

Royd hadn't even thought to try applying his mind-conditioning work. "Uh"

"Forgot to, huh? Never mind; get ready and I'll bring out Three."

And this time Royd did sense something. A presence of sorts, but cold and faintly menacing.

Grail nodded when Royd tried to describe it. "That's the dragon, all right. Scared hell out of me when I first contacted it, too. I'm going to put Three through its paces; watch how the feeling changes with each movement." The dragon turned and leaped into the lower branches of the nearest tree. "Shouldn't you stick with one dragon at a time?" Royd asked, glancing in the direction that One had taken.

"No problem. I can handle all three at once." He smiled crookedly. "And no more than threewhich is why there are twelve Dragonmasters instead of just one."

"Oh?" Royd said with forced casualness. Grail had never given him more than tantalizing hints about how the older man had become a Dragonmaster, and Royd didn't want to scare the story back underground by seeming too eager.

"Yeah. The man who found the first amulet out at Castor was able to use it to find the other eleven. It had taken him nine years of trial and error to figure out how to call and control his first set of dragons, but he found out that there was simply no way for him to control two amulets at onceI suspect they were deliberately designed that way. So he called in a bunch of his cronies and taught us how to be Dragonmasters. We had it easy; with his knowledge the process only took a few weeks."

Royd shook his head. "Nine years. The man had a lot of patience."

"He didn't have much else to do," Grail replied bluntly. "He was in hiding. If he'd stuck his nose out of the Castor system the Imperial Patrols would have shot it off."

"What do you mean?"

"He was a pirate. So was I."

For a moment the two men looked at each other in silence. Then, slowly, Royd shook his head. "I don't believe it."

"Why not?"

"You don't talk like a pirate, for one thing. And you're too well educated."

From the other side of the mountains came the sound of gunfire. "Just the Easterlings shooting at One," Grail explained as Royd, startled, turned to face the sound. "Don't worry; it's not going to kill any of them today. You know, you can't be stupid and be a pirate these daysrunning a starship takes brains." He sighed. "But you're partly right: I didn't start life as a pirate. For several years I taught microelectrical engineering on Goldstone."

Royd looked at the dictator's lined face. "What happened?"

Grail shrugged awkwardly. "I'm not really sure. Academic life was just too frustrating, I suppose. There were many improvements that needed to be made in the university, but no one would listen to my ideas. As low man in the pecking order I couldn't accomplish anything except irritating those in charge. "When they finally tossed me out, I drifted around industry for a whileno other college would hire meand when Damrosch offered me a job on one of his ships, I took it. I didn't know then that he was a pirate, and when I found out... I don't know; I suppose I've always been a better follower than a leader. That's probably why he gave me one of the amuletshe figured I could be trusted to back him up."

"Did you?"

"More or less. Even when most of the other Dragonmasters deserted him during the Great War to try and set up their own kingdoms, I stayed with him. His plan was to capture one planet, build it up over a period of several years, and then use it as a base of operations to take over the whole Empire."

"Is that when you left him?"

"Soon afterward. The planet he chose was Solfa."

"Oh." Royd was silent for a moment. "For a born follower you sure picked up the trade of dictator pretty fast."

Grail took a step toward him, face contorted with sudden anger. "I had no choice, damn it!" he shouted. "This place was coming apart at the seams. Can't you get that through your head? I was the only one who could hold it together." He broke off in a fit of coughing, clutching his sides and sinking to his knees in the brush. "My inhaler," he managed to get out. "It's with the horse."

Royd glanced at Three as the dragon crouched motionless, temporarily bereft of guidance. "The dragon would be faster," he said.

"Scares the horses," Grail gasped, shaking his head. "You go. Hurry."

Royd sprinted the half kilometer back to where they had tied the animals. There was a pouch tied to one of the pommels; opening it, he found a small gas cylinder with an attached mouthpiece. He had it in his hand, and had actually taken the first few steps back toward Grail, when the realization of what he was doing crashed in on him and brought him to an abrupt halt.

Grail was the Dragonmaster, the ruthless dictator Royd had sworn to kill... and Royd was about to try and save his life.

For a brief moment he wavered; but the proper course was unfortunately clear. No end could ever be divorced from its means, and to allow an old, sick man to choke to death would be to sink to Marwitz's level. A government that gained power in that way would have proved itself merely a successor, not an alternative, to the Dragonmaster'show then could it ask for the people's trust? And besides, Grail had asked him for help. To betray that trust would be the act of a Judas... and Royd did not wish such a bloodstain on his conscience.

The coughing had stopped, but Grail was still wheezing badly when Royd reached him. His hands trembling, the old man took the cylinder, turned a valve, and held it to his mouth. Within a few seconds his breathing had eased.

"You okay?" Royd asked, himself still somewhat out of breath from the return sprint.

Grail nodded and got carefully to his feet. His eyes swept across Royd's face, a strangely knowing expression in them... and Royd felt his face reddening.

"You bastard!" he exploded. "That was a test, wasn't it? Damn itand you knew I'd come back, didn't you?"

Grail held up a hand. "I really did need the inhaler," he said. "And no, I wasn't sure you would return. But I thought it likely."

"Does that thing let you read minds, too?" Royd asked bitterly, nodding at the amulet.

"No, not at all. But the state of mind you've been learning gives you a sort of sense for danger." His eyes looked deep into Royd's. "You still want to kill me, don't you?"

Royd returned the gaze. "Yes," he said harshly. "And someday I'll find a way to do it."

"I'm sure you will. But wait until you learn to control the dragons." Grail glanced toward Three, and the dragon vanished. "Come, it's time to return to the outpost. We'll take a short air tour of the border and be back at the palace by nightfall. I've called One back; I think we've given the Easterlings enough to think about for a while. I trust a short tour is all right with you?"

"Whatever you want," Royd said curtly. "You're the boss here."

"Yes," Grail agreed. "I am. Shall we go?"

Back in his room again, Royd slumped into a chair and glared at the mind- conditioning equipment, his stomach still churning with anger and shame. Wait until he could control the dragons, indeed: Sound adviceand an obvious trap, for Grail had made it a point to keep himself familiar with Royd's progress. He would know exactly when Royd had the necessary skill. And when that point was reached... what? Royd still didn't know what the old dictators ultimate plan for him was.

But that was almost irrelevant. A swift, unexpected attack was the only way to kill the Dragonmaster. Royd had had that chance and had blown it. His sense of justice and honor had played him false, he realized; there was no honorable way to commit murder. The next time, he told himself firmly, he would ignore the prickings of conscience... if there was a next time. Across the room, the door opened. Royd looked up, expecting to see Grail; but it wasn't the Dragonmaster who entered the room.

It was Civil Affairs Director Marwitz. And two of his uniformed bullies.

Marwitz stopped abruptly; clearly, he hadn't expected the room to be occupied. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

Royd opened his mouth, then closed it again. There was no reason he should tell Marwitz anything, "Who are you, and what gives you the right to disturb my privacy?" he countered.

Marwitz murmured something, then walked farther into the room. The guards followed, closing the door behind them. Their guns were drawn; their expressions were not pleasant.

Royd felt sweat breaking out on his forehead. "I warn you, Dragonmaster Grail will be furious when he hears you've disturbed me."

"Will he, now." Recognition flickered across the Director's face. "And why would he be upset for me to find a failed assassin in his own palace?" The voice hardened. "What's going on?"

Royd remained silent. "Waverly!" Marwitz snapped.

One of the guards stepped forward, yanked Royd to his feet, and backhanded him hard across the mouth. Knocked off balance, Royd tripped over his chair and fell heavily to the floor. "What's going on?" Marwitz repeated. "I warn you tonight of all nights I have no time to waste on false valor. Talk fast or I guarantee you'll soon wish you had."

Royd wiped blood from the corner of his mouth, shook his head. "The Dragonmaster will roast you over one of your own fires for this," he said with as much bravado as he could muster.

"Svoda." Marwitz turned to the other guard. "Go call Quebbe and tell him to set up his equipment; I'm sending him a new test subject. You'll be leaving by the south service road; pull all but one guard off the gate there, and make sure he's one of mine. Then quietly collect four or five other men you can trust and bring them back here."

The guard saluted and left. Marwitz turned back to Royd. "It will be a few minutes before you'll be leaving. You have just that long to change your mind." He pulled out one of the chairs and sat down, the guard Waverly standing by his side.

Royd felt the first prickings of panic inside his throat. He'd heard rumors of Marwitz's torturers, stories that had made his blood turn to ice water. And unless he could somehow alert Grail as to what was happening, he was going to find out firsthand if the rumors were true. He had to escape before the other guard returned. But how? He was still sprawled on the floor, his every twitch the object of close scrutiny. And he had no weapons at all... or did he?

It was his only chance. Carefully taking a deep breath, he began to concentrate.

The first few steps were easy: convolutions of the mind that he had already mastered. But his training was not yet complete, and he found himself in the position of a thief who knows all but the last two numbers of a combination lock. Desperately, he visualized the wave patterns he had seen so many times before; brought back the sensations he'd felt near Louys Pass that morning; tried to remember how the amulet itself had felt... and suddenly it all seemed to click. Opening his eyeshe hadn't remembered closing themhe focused on a spot a few meters behind Marwitz and Waverly....

And the small dragon was there.

The two men spun around, Waverly with his gun raised. There were many ways for Three to attack, but Royd knew instinctively that he didn't have enough control yet to order them. Instead, he tried a simple command, visualizing both the words and the action: Pivot around quickly on your hind legs.

Three whipped around in a one-hundred-eighty-degree turnand its tail lashed Waverly and Marwitz, slamming them hard into the edge of the rock-ebony table. They crumpled to the floor and stayed there.

Royd crawled over to them, the effort of holding Three making him a little light-headed. Waverly was dead; Marwitz only unconscious. Retrieving the gun, Royd got to his feet and let his control relax, sending Three back to the amulet around Grail's neck.

He staggered to the door, but just as he reached it he heard footsteps in the hall. There was barely enough time for him to leap behind the door before it swung open. Svoda and four other guards strode into the room.

The first time, Royd discovered, was the hardest. The guards had barely time to recover from the sight in front of them and to reach for their weapons before Three was once again in the room. Royd repeated the tail-swinging technique, and within seconds the guards were sprawled across the room in various degrees of injury and unconsciousness.

The dragon vanished, and Royd drew a shuddering breath. For an instant a wave of nausea swept over him, both from the effort of controlling Three and from the destruction he had so easily unleashed. But there was no time to lose. Either Marwitz was up to something especially devious or deadly"tonight of all nights," he had saidor, more unlikely, this was a test Grail had cooked up for him. In either case, however, his course was clear: he had to get out, and fast. And if Marwitz had really left the south service road clear... then it was time to strike.

Stuffing Waverly's pistol into his belt, Royd left the room, locking the door behind him.

He found Phelan Hapspur in one of the Rosette Freedom Party's secret meeting places, and the two men greeted each other like long-lost cousins.

"Damn, but I thought we'd never see you again," Phelan grinned. "How'd you escape?"

"Never mind that now," Royd said. "I can get us into the palace if you can be ready in half an hour or so."

"What?" Phelan stared wide-eyed at Royd; for the first time he seemed to notice the latter's clothing and physical condition. He drew back slightly, his eyes narrowing. "Just where were you being held, Varian?"

"That's not important"

"Yes, it is. You haven't been tortured; you haven't even gone hungry. What do you think that looks like to us?"

Royd was suddenly aware that there was a ring of people around them. Many were armed and dressed in black nightsuits; not all looked friendly.

"Look," he said, keeping his voice calm, "I can get you inside the palace inside, not out in the grounds where they can pick us off one by one. You going to pass up a chance like this?"

"How you gonna do that?" a voice from the crowd challenged.

"Director Marwitz was going to take me out for some unauthorized torture. He cleared all but one guard off the south service gate to avoid having unnecessary witnesses to my departure. I escaped and clobbered that guard on my way out. But he'll be found when the next shift goes on duty in an hour or so. I see you're set up for some kind of raid anywaydamn it, you'll never have this chance again."

There was a moment of silence. "All right," Phelan said slowly. "There's a lot here you're not telling us. But you're right; this is worth taking a chance on. But if you're lyingif it's a trapyou'll be the first to die."

"Understood. Now, we have to work fast. Give me some paper and I'll sketch our route. Oh, and there are some people we absolutely have to hit..."

Far away the sounds of sporadic gunfire could be heard as Royd sprinted down the deserted hallway toward Dragonmaster Grail's office suite. He'd left Phelan's squad minutes earlier to find Marwitz, to make sure the Director didn't escape. But Phelan had moved faster than Royd had expected, and the group had already entered Grail's office. He'd heard firing from that direction as he came up the stairs, but now there was only an ominous silence.

Running through the bullet-chipped outer doorway, between the crumpled bodies of the guards, he skidded to a halt in Grail's office.

The tableau before him was a potent mix of surrealism and deja vu, and for an instant Royd flashed back to his own invasion of this sanctum a short eternity ago. In the dim light and harsh shadows thrown by Grail's desk lamp, Phelan and his five men stood or crouched motionlessly, their automatic rifles half-lowered in a gesture of uselessness.

Facing them across the room, Grail stood by his desk, the black figure of Three between him and the rifles. Grail had been speaking; he broke off as Royd entered.

"So this is your doing, is it?" he said. "I should have known. You deserved death for trying to kill me, but instead I treated you humanelyand this is the thanks I get."

The words of the Dragonmaster were bitter, but, strangely, the tone was not. Royd frowned, searching Grail's face for clues to his feelings.

"Varian, did you get Marwitz?" Phelan asked, his eyes still on Grail.

"No. Someone beat me to him."

"Damn! According to Grail here most of the soldiers we've been killing were Marwitz's men, in the middle of their own coup attempt. But maybe it's not too late to join forces. Whip over to the communications sectionnorth side, third floor and tell McDodd to call for a parley."

"Join forces with Marwitz's butchers? Are you crazy? They'd stab us in the back first chance they got."

"I didn't ask your opinion," Phelan snapped. "Get moving. We can use their help."

Grail laughed, a short bark that sounded almost like a cough. "Such shortsighted naiveteand you really believe you can govern Rosette? You're a fool."

"The people will govern Rosette," Phelan corrected.

"The people aren't ready," Grail said flatly. "Democracy isn't something you learn overnight. And even if it were, even if you had every man in Rosette behind you, you couldn't keep the Easterlings from immediately pulling the whole thing out from under you. Only the dragonsand their masterhave enough power to protect Rosette. Or haven't you been listening?"

"Damn you!" Phelan's temper was very near the breaking point. "Your damn dragons and your damn dragon pax don't mean a single thing to me. You're no different from anyone else, and if you can control those animals, then so can I."

"As I said, a fool." Grail's voice fairly dripped with contempt. Reaching up, he pulled the amulet from around his neck and tossed it to Phelan, who automatically reached out and caught it. "Therethat's the key to controlling my dragons. Go ahead. See what good it does you."

Phelan stared at Grail, opened his mouth and closed it again, and then peered down at the amulet in his hand. For a minute he squinted hard at it. Finally, he looked up.

"You see?" Grail said. "You have no more chance of controlling my pets than you have of swimming around Troas. Any of the rest of you want to try it? Go ahead, try it. The sooner you're convinced Rosette's survival depends on me, the sooner you'll surrender and we can put an end to this nonsense."

"Don't listen to him," Phelan said grimly. "He's bluffing."

"Yeah, maybe," someone muttered. "But what if he's not?"

"Shut up!"

"And you would have controlled my dragons," Grail scoffed. "You can't even control your own men. Look, even Varian ignores you."

Phelan glanced over in surprise. "Varian? I gave you an order, damn it. Get moving."

"No." Royd took a deep breath. "I can command the dragon."

All eyes turned to him. "What?" Phelan asked.

"You heard me." Royd's eyes were locked onto Grail's. "I learned while I was a prisoner here. The... dragons... took a liking to me. All of them will obey me."

Grail's face was unreadable. "Prove it," he said flatly.

Royd nodded slowly. He began to concentrate... and he had contact. But there was something else there, a presence he'd not felt the last time: Grail's own control, undoubtedly. He set his teethand suddenly, with absurd ease, the presence fell away. The dragon was his.

Royd held out his hand and tried an order. Without hesitation, Three walked forward.

There was a gasp from Phelan's group. Royd glanced at them. They still held their guns, but, curiously, seemed to have forgotten them. It was up to Royd then; and the long-forgotten debt was finally going to be paid. He turned his attention back to the dictator and ordered Three to turn and prepare to jump... And hesitated.

He couldn't do it. He couldn't kill Grail.

The realization was a shock that even the incident at Louys Pass hadn't prepared him for, and it hit him like a hot needle in the gut. It wasn't just that he couldn't kill Grail dishonorablyhe simply couldn't kill the dictator at all. The old reasons for his hatred still existed; but in the past few weeks he'd found the reasons were not always justified.

But even that was almost irrelevant, for all intellectual arguments paled before Royd's emotional response. He suddenly realized he liked Grail; liked him and sympathized with his attempts to handle the job he hadn't really wanted. And with new clarity he saw that, in many ways, he had come to consider the Dragonmaster his friend.

For a long moment he stood amidst the turmoil of truth crumbling in self- delusion. And then, suddenly, it was too late; for even as Royd's internal battle raged, he felt control of Three being wrenched from him.

Once more the chance to kill the dictator had come and goneand looking into Grail's eyes, he finally realized that this was the trap the Dragonmaster had been patiently planning all these weeks.

He had tricked Royd into exposing the Rosette Freedom Party's hierarchy in this futile attack, secure in the knowledge that Royd himself could not throw his full loyalty to his old friends. Even the exquisite timingpitting the underground against Marwitz's attempted couphad probably been part of the plan. Grail had been toying with them, and now the game was over... and they Were all about to die.

From its crouch, the dragon leaped

And Grail screamed as it slammed into him.

The competing presence vanished; automatically, Royd took control of Three once more, his own mind a maelstrom of stunned disbelief. What had just happened was completely incomprehensible. He stared at the torn figure that had been Grail, half-expecting it to get up again. Nausea rose into his throat, blistering it, and for a moment he thought he would faint.

Someone had moved to his side. Phelan. "Good job, Royd," he said huskily. "I guess this is yours now." He held out the amulet to Royd, who numbly took it. "Uh, we'd better get goingwe've still got to clear out the rest of the palace. Are you and him"he nodded carefully toward Three"going to help us?"

Royd automatically started to nod... and suddenly realized it had been a question, not an order. He looked at Phelan with some surprise, and slowly the realities of the situation began to penetrate his numbed mind. He, Royd, was Dragonmaster of Troas now. Whatever else happened today, whether Phelan or someone else came out on top, Royd was ultimately the pivotal figure of Rosette's ruling structure. He had the final say here... and the final responsibility.

He cleared his throat. "Yes, I'll come along. Instruct the men to kill only soldiers who are shooting at them; all civilians and surrendering guards should be taken alive. There's no need for a bloodbath; a lot of them will be willing to work with us, and the rest can be taken care of later. Understood?"

Phelan threw one last glance at the dragon. "Understood," he growled.

It was nearly one in the morning, but the lights in Grail's old study were still blazing. Hunched over the desk, a pot of ch'a by his elbow, Royd felt like he could sleep for a week. But, tired or not, there was work here that only the Dragonmaster could do. Leaning back in his chair, Royd reflected half-bitterly that Grail had chosen his successor wellRoyd's own sense of responsibility held him to his desk as effectively as chains.

Someday, he hoped, he'd be able to tell the people of Rosetteor maybe the people of a united Troasthe other side of their former tyrant: the Grail who had worked quietly and thanklessly in their behalf. Even now, six months after Grail's death, Royd felt hot shame at the ways he had often misjudged Grail, right up to the Dragonmaster's final, cold-blooded sacrifice.

It hadn't made any sense at the time; but now, Royd could see how the swift transfer of power and reputation had effectively short-circuited any possibility of a civil war. Grail's ruthless type of nobility had run deeper in the man than even Royd had realized; and although the people were not yet ready to accept that, Royd knew there was still one way he could build a proper and lasting monument to the late dictators efforts.

Gazing down, he frowned at the papers on his desk. Even his first, tentative steps toward a constitutional monarchy had caused uneasiness among some of his more powerful supporters, and these new proposals would have to be carefully worded if he was to avoid more grumbling. Still, if it came to a political fight, Royd had the power to force the changes, and everyone knew it. Dragon pax, he was learning, had many aspects.

Taking a sip of ch'a, Royd got back to work.

Afterword


How does a hard-SF-oriented writer work dragons traditionally fantasy denizensinto a story? Now you know.

For many of you "Dragon Pax" will be a new story... which in a way is sort of a pity. The story was originally published in Rigel magazine, a quarterly edited by Eric Vinicoff which lasted two

years before folding. I was consistently impressed by the quality of

the stories Eric printed, and I've often wished more people had been

able to find Rigel while it was around. Each loss of an SF magazine

means one less market for short fiction; and if you like short fiction,

as I do, these losses eventually start to hurt. So get out there and

support your local SF magazine!

Ahem. Enough from the soapbox, already. And now, in the words of Monty Python, for something completely different....


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