ORIGINAL FICTION: Second Time Around, Pt. 3

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

XI. Kazhi had himself a good bath, ate a monstrous portion of eggs, ham, and bread with cheese and jam, and then collapsed into his bed, where he slept for twelve days.

He was awakened, with extreme difficulty, by a sound like a fire-siren playing a major chord outside his window. It cut into his dreamless slumber, it set up a vibration in the bones of his skull, and it dragged him, reluctantly, back into the world of the living.

He stumbled from his bed, and tried to shove an arm into his robe, one sleeve of which happened to be turned inside-out; blundering over to the window, he threw open the shutter, and looked out into the garden, where, to his complete astonishment, the Firebird was perching in the top of the tallest tree, her head thrown back, and the horrible noise issuing from her throat.

"Oy--!" Kazhi hollered, and, when the Firebird failed to hear him, he repeated the word in a much-louder bellow. The bird broke off in what for want of a better term shall be called mid-note, and looked at him with her glittering golden eyes.

"Shut up," Kazhi insisted, and rubbed some crusts from the inner corner of his own eyes. "Can't you see I'm trying to sleep, here?"

The bird shook its tail, lifting and seperating its fiery feathers, and then threw back its head again and resumed its cacaphony. It sounded now like an air-raid siren attempting to sing the Drinking Song from the first act of La Traviata.

Kazhi winced right down to his core. Then he snatched up a shoe and hurled it out the window at the warbling fenix, his rage giving strength but not accuracy to his arm. He followed the shoe with a fusillade of just about everything else in the room which was not nailed down, until the garden below looked like an explosion in a Goodwill truck, and still the fenix sang lustily and happily on, beating time with its wings, the feathers of which rattled like loose tin roofing panels in a windstorm.

Kazhi flung himself back into his bed, stuffed his head under his pillows, and clamped them down as tight as he could over his ears, but the very walls were resonating with the voice of the infernal bird.
Kazhi ground his teeth until he could nearly feel them crack.

A little voice inside his head told him, be careful of what you wish for. He knew, without asking, that the fenix would remain outside his window--wherever he might go--until the time came for her to fly to Egypt and make her funeral pyre. He wondered how long it would take to grow a grove of bamboo here in Breton France.

Then he wondered how he could sucker some gallant into stealing the Firebird.

Kazhi dragged himself into an upright position, his robe half turned inside-out, and ran his spread fingers through his curley hair. His mind began to clear, to function, to reason. To give play to his paranoia. He could not believe that the fenix had come home to roost, so to say, of its own free will.

This had the fingerprints of the Dragonmaids all over it.

Now, the Dragonmaids of the future knew where he was. They knew he couldn't get out of time, that he was essentially condemned to repeat the fifteen-hundred years between now and the moment when he invents the Time-machine in the twenty-second century. They had him like a lizard in a jar. Therefore, it had to be the other set of Dragonmaids who had sent the Firebird after him, possibly in order to spy on him, to bring them information on this new and unknown threat in their realm.

Kazhi felt cold and clammy, as if a small London fog had suddenly crawled into his pajamas.

What if that isn't actually a Firebird--? he thought slowly. What if it's--

He dared not even think her name, lest she pick up his thoughts and appear before him, a column of fire made flesh. But trying not to think about her only made him think about her with an intense crawliness tingling the inside of his skin.

He tried to calm himself by telling himself that she didn't know him, that she wouldn't know him for fifteen hundred years...or, could it be that she did know him, prior to their first encounter in the future, and that remembering a past that hadn't yet happened was what had made her so mean towards him? She had wanted to kill him from the moment she first learned of his existance--as the only original Dragonmaid, did she know, and chose to keep her knowledge from the others?

Kazhi's head started to hurt, and not just from the keening serenade of the Firebird. It had been a difficult concept to grasp, his being immortal. This newly-discovered malleability of the temporal reality was like trying to keep a hundred plates spinning on thin rods whilst a hungry tiger was trying to kill him.

There had been a movie, late in the twentieth century, about a man who invented a time-machine and the boy who accidentally went back in it, and the difficulties he faced in trying to ensure his own future birth by bringing his hopelessly-mismatched parents together as teen-agers. Kazhi vaguely recalled having found that movie's premise amusing, at the time. Now it seemed like a cruel nightmare. Marty McFly had to deal with nothing more threatening than a succession of ox-dumb and pitbull-mean Tannens. At least he didn't have a bunch of angry gods hunting him down for breaking the laws of temporal physics.

Make that two sets of angry gods.

For the first time since he had tumbled into this world, Kazhi started to give serious thought to his situation. His primary concern was not so much for his present self, but for the incarnation of him which was going through the centuries for the first time. Now that he had aroused the interest of the prevailing set of Dragonmaids, things could go very badly for Kazhi the Younger.

Kazhi the Elder rubbed the whispy growth of beard on his chin, and bent his mind to thinking of what he could possibly do to rectify the situation. The only thing that he could come up with, was that he would have to become his own guardian angel. He would have to learn how to harness the real magic power which he now knew to be within himself, to realize his inborn (or dragon-made) potential in order to ensure the survival of his former self. The former self which was going through time unable to comprehend what had happened to it, because it did not believe real magic existed.

Kazhi's thoughts then drifted into his memory. Strange, but in his first three thousand years, he had learned much of wisdom, but had not encountered anything the least little bit Fee. He had heard of dragons and fairies and the rest, but he had not believed in them; he had conducted his thaumaturgical experiments, thinking all the while that hermetics was a load of hooey.

And then it had all come together--alchemy, nuclear science, metaphysics--and he had created not only a Time-machine, but the fabled Philosopher's Stone as well, as a sort of preciptate. It made a sort of skewed sense, that a device which could transcend Time would have as its by-product an element which conveyed immortality.

Tiamat's crystallized Blood....

That was the moment when everything changed. It was as if he had stepped into another, parallel dimension, a sort of Looking-glass Land, where everything was the same, only different. It was entirely possible, Kazhi thought, that he had, that in his mad and blind scramble to escape from the Hall of Doors and the bloodthirsty pursuit of the enraged Dragonmaids, he had stumbled through a portal into another universe, one so similar to his familiar milieu that he at first could not notice any difference. Then the dragon came, and he knew that he wasn't in Kansas anymore--metaphorically speaking.

Perhaps the universe was really a multiverse, a funhouse full of alternate realities which could be accessed by the slightest change of course--that time wasn't an orderly progression of events, but a wild melee whose outcome was constantly in flux. And that people could step from one dimension to another, that in fact they were doing it all the time, and that was where the stories of gods and demons and fairies came from. Who could tell where a person went when he slept?

Tiamat...Time...at....

Kazhi got to his feet and started to pace, for his nervousness made sitting still impossible. He could feel his skin crackling, and it gave him the creeps. He knew it had something to do with a build-up of magical power, much like electricity accumulates before being discharged as static or lightning. That reminded him of the charge which had jumped between his hand and Artemis when he'd relinquished the Firebird. Was it just an excess of energy, or was it something else--the connection he shared with the Dragonmaids, and with Artemis in particular? After all, she was, technically, his sister. Half-sister. He was made from mortal flesh, whilst she had been conjured by the Gods from a shard of enchanted sword. But they both shared in the blood of the slain Dragon Queen.

Kazhi went to the window, opened the sash again, and looked out at the fenix. It had grown weary of its canticle, and was now busily preening itself. If that was a Dragonmaid in disguise, she was doing a good job of imitating a bird.

So now, here he was. The scientist who was made immortal by an accidental bath in the blood of a supernatural Dragon Queen was trapped in the sixth century, in a stolen castle, with a mortal dragon, a magic war-horse, a semi-enchanted princess, and a fenix who fancied herself Jenny Lind, whom he had liberated from the court of the Eastern Dragon King.

Oh, yeah. And a whole pile of dead magicians.

If the gods didn't take notice of him, Kazhi would be amazed.

Meanwhile, Gronok had his own suspicions as to the true identity of the Firebird. As he sincerely doubted that Kazhi had actually managed to steal the fabulous bird, Gronok believed that it was none other than his old comrade, Kabor.

So while Kazhi was occupied with his own private business, Gronok slithered into the garden and curled around the base of the tree. The fenix was still perched in the topmost branches, with her head tucked under one wing.

"Psst," whispered the dragon, and, when the bird did not immediately awaken, the dragon gave the tree a nudge or two. The fenix, with an irritated squawk, pulled its head from under its wing and glared down at the dragon. The bird showed no fear, even though the dragon, if it wished, could have snapped up the fenix like an hors d'oevre.

"Kabor--Kabor--! It's me, Gronok!" the dragon whispered--if it is possible for a dragon to whisper. "You can drop the charade, you old humbug--I'm on to you both!"

The fenix merely kept watching the dragon warily.

This made the dragon scowl, a slight contraction of his beetling eye-ridges.

"Don't try playing games with me, Kabor," the dragon continued. "I know you two are trying to convince me that the little twerp made it to the Eastern Sea. He said that the Dragonmaids forced him to release the Firebird, but I don't trust him any further than I could blow him out my arse. So don't bother trying to trick me, Kabor...."

"Who are you talking to?"

The voice of the Princess, coming up behind him from the cloister, made Gronok jump, or rather, twitch. He swivelled his head around on his sinuous neck, and raised his head until it was fifteen feet above the ground. He always felt better looking down at mortals.

"Oh, I was just trying to communicate with the Firebird," replied the dragon, casually. He studied the Princess. There seemed to be something different about her, but he could not put his claw on it.

The woman, too, looked up into the tree, where the red bird was moving gingerly to a different perch. "I cannot believe that the sorcerer was able to bring it back," she said. "I have only ever heard stories about such a creature. I never believed it was real."

"I suppose I fit into that category, too--?" asked the dragon.

"Dragons are different. Dragons I can understand," replied the Princess.

The fenix uttered an interrogatory whistle, and fastened her attention on the woman. Then, in a series of short hops, with her wings half-opened, the fenix dropped down into the lower branches, and sat a few feet above the head of the Princess, croaking softly.

As if mystified, the Princess raised her arm, and the fenix, with a light spring, left the tree and landed on the woman's wrist, closing her talons very gently, only as firmly as needed to maintain her balance.

The dragon was astonished, and the woman beamed in delight. The fenix, purring, nestled her head against the Princess's cheek.

And, in his tower, Kazhi narrowed his pale eyes, and slowly closed the shutter.

XII. Thereafter, the fenix would follow the Princess anywhere, walking after her if it could not fly; and the Princess always kept with her a little bag of crusts and crumbs with which to feed the legendary bird.

The creature also made itself useful by hunting mice and small crawling things, and during the mid-afternoon it would fly down to the river and search for fish and mudbugs. If a hapless rabbit chanced to cross its path, its strong talons made quick work of it. The bird also had a taste for fruit, and took to prowling the long-neglected orchards of the estate.

The Princess, in her simple way, was delighted with her pet, but the dragon still could not clear his mind of the idea that the bird was not genuine. He watched and waited for any clue which would belie its ogrish nature, but never once did Gronok catch it doing anything which was not fenix-like. After about a week, he had to concede that this was the genuine article.

Which only made him more wary of Kazhi.

They saw very little of Kazhi since his return from the East. He had shut himself up in his tower, surrounded by the books and tomes he had stolen from the murdered wizards, and was feverishly poring through the crackling pages, searching for true magic. The law of averages held that somewhere in those mouldering texts would be snippets of genuine sorcery, revealing the secrets of tapping into the primal energy of the universe and bending it to one's will. Kazhi had tasted the power, he knew it existed, and he could feel it when it was near; all he had to do now was to learn how to harness it.

He had dealt with so-called magic before, but he had never really believed in it; now he believed. Now he knew that there were gods, watching from just beyond the edge of human comprehension, real gods, gods who could smite and bless as it pleased them; and those gods were elemental forces, the spirits of earth, air, fire, water...the souls of the sun and the moon, of life and of death. And all of them were ruled utterly by the most powerful entity of all--Time.

Kazhi riffled through the texts. From time to time, his fingertips would tingle, and he knew that he was close to something truly occult; those books he would set aside. He became attuned to a sort of humming, an extremely low-level sensation, which one felt rather than heard, which accompanied books of a supernatural origin. And he had to admit to himself that there was a peculiar thrill which would ripple through his nerves whenever he happened to touch one of these special books--a light-headed, trembly sensation, which made his heart beat faster, and his skin feel as though it were glowing with an inner radiance. At first, he thought it was simply the excitement of having a theory proved correct, the delight of the researcher in finding that which he sought; but then it occurred to him that he was something of a lightning-rod for magical energy, and that it was the raw, incandescent feeling of touching these serpents of pure energy which made all of his cells and fibres sing like the strings of a fine violin.

He scarcely ate during the several days of his search, and he never came out of his study. The Princess left him a tray of victuals on a chair outside his door, but every tap she cared to give elicited a hoarse and quavering cry of Go away--! and so she did exactly as her queer master instructed. She occupied her time by grooming the war-horse, playing with the Firebird, and conversing with the dragon.

"I wonder what's gotten into him now?" said the dragon one afternoon as the four of them lazed about the garden after a large luncheon, taken on the grass. "He's been acting a good bit more mad than usual."

"Well--he is a wizard, you know," said the Princess as she braided flowers into Tornado's mane. The stallion was still wearing the hair bridle, although, in all truth, he was growing disinclined to try to run away. The accommodations were not nearly as grand as he had been promised, but it was rather nice to be idle for a change. They could have taken off the enchanted halter, and he would have stayed of his own free will.

"So you say," snorted the dragon, rolling onto his back and making the ground shake. He knitted his horny fingers together over his creamy belly and closed his eyes. "I think he's a fraud. I still don't know how he resisted being killed, but I don't believe he's got enough magical ability to pull off a decent shell-game."

They were suddenly interrupted by the banging of a shutter in one of the rooms of Kazhi's suite. Within seconds, books began to fly out of the window, their covers spreading like the wings of gigantic leather butterflies as they sailed through the air; but there was no real effect to this, for the books plummeted to the ground with sickening thuds which would make any true bibliophile cringe in pain.

"See?" said the dragon. "He can't even levitate a bloody book."

The fenix, unnerved, flew up into the tall tree, and the war-horse heaved himself to his feet and swished his tail. "I don't think he has any intention of levitating those books," he observed.

A few moments after this statement, Kazhi stuck his head out of the window. He looked even more pale and corpselike than usual, the dark circles under his blinking, watering eyes attesting to his hours of ceaseless study. "You, dragon--!" he called out, gesturing with an arm. "Gather those things up and burn them, would you?"

The dragon jerked his head back.

"You want me to burn those grimoires?" he repeated, as though the very notion were an outrage. "After you half killed me making me bring them to you?"

"Those are all counterfeit," said Kazhi carelessly. "Nothing more than cook-books and advice for the lovelorn. Useless to me. Burn them. The world doesn't need such trash confusing matters."

And he shut the window with a loud snap.

The Princess walked over to the discarded books. Many of them were exquisitely bound, with jewelled covers and painstaking illuminations surrounding the arcane text. She could not read them, but they fascinated her, and she hated to think of such works of art disappearing in a pile of ash.

"Some of these are quite old," observed the dragon, nudging a scroll. "This one bears the catalog seal of the library at Alexandra. It would be a sacrilige to damage such things."

"But the wizard said--"

"If he wants them burned, he can do it himself," snapped the dragon, carefully gathering up the books by pinching them with his claws. "These things are too valuable to be destroyed...and being a dragon, I can't bring harm to anything with even the slightest monetary value. Go to the stable and get the barrow. We'll hide these somewhere safe."

The Princess, the horse, and the dragon collected all of the cast-off books, and hid them in a chamber on the far side of the castle, where Kazhi never had occasion to go. There, they inspected the texts, but could make little sense of the information contained therein. If it wasn't for the pictures, they might have been inclined to agree with Kazhi, and destroy them.

They were, in fact, forgeries, works concocted out of the imaginations of mere men, without a trace of the divine spark; but some drew upon older texts, and passed along, as though by word-of-mouth, traditions from a previous age, when men were as gods, and magic was common currency. The dragon could comprehend snippets of the transcribed wisdom, and he related as much of it as he could to the Princess and the horse, but, to be truthful, they understood very little of it. And that, of course, made them believe that there were great and terrible secrets contained in those books.

"I wonder what possessed him to throw these away?" said the horse.

"If he threw these away," said the dragon, "can you imagine what he kept?"

They were silent for a while.

"He must be stopped," said the Princess. "He will take over the world, unless we do something about it now. Look at what he has already accomplished."

"I have already tried to destroy him," said the dragon. "I had hoped that he would meet his doom on the quest for the Firebird. If it had not been for Tornado, he probably would have failed."

"Now hold on a moment," said the horse, a bit indignantly. "He's not a bad sort--I can imagine why you two would bear him a grudge, but I, for one, don't want to harm him."

"You can't harm him--he's immortal," said the dragon, gloomily.

"How do you know he's immortal?" asked the horse.

"Well, he says so, for one thing," replied the dragon. "And I tried to kill him, but I couldn't. That alone ought to tell you how dangerous he could be. Only gods are immortal. Everything else is subject to injury and death."

"Well--think about it for a moment." said the horse. "Couldn't he have been protecting himself with a spell? Maybe he was projecting his image, which was what you couldn't destroy--? I've heard all sorts of things, about sorcerers, and how they can create illusions to baffle the senses."

The dragon ruminated upon this novel concept. He was reluctant to admit that, just maybe, he had been deceived, and had foolishly pledged himself to serve his conqueror.

"We must find out," said the dragon, at length, "whether this chap is a real wizard, or only a clever fakir. Princess--do you think you could worm some information out of him--about where he came from, that sort of thing?"

The Princess looked troubled, and picked at her apron. "In ten years," she said, "he never even bothered to ask my name. I should think that he would be far more inclined to confide in either of you, than he would to me. He is a very strange man. He seems to exist in a world of his own." Her voice dropped to a whisper, and she couldn't look at either of her companions. "He frightens me. Pray do not ask me to speak to him."

Their conversation had to come to an end when they heard Kazhi's voice calling for them from somewhere in the castle. To deflect his suspicion, they agreed to arrive coming from different directions, and they met him in the room which had been the Great Hall, when there had been a court at the castle.

Kazhi looked even thinner than before, and there was an unsettling glimmer about his eyes. A faint smile played on his bloodless lips as he waited for his servants to assemble.

"I need you to run me some errands," he informed them. "Princess, you take the war-horse and travel to the neighboring town, and there collect for me the items I have written on this list--"

The woman was staggered by Kazhi's simple remark. In ten years of captivity, she had never been allowed beyond the castle walls, lest she attempt to escape--and now he was sending her out into the world, mounted on his magnificent flying horse, no less?

"Me, mon seigneur?" she stammered.

"I trust you," said Kazhi, with a smile which would have been charming in a shark. "I am, at present, too involved in my experiments to afford the time to go. I will provide you with all that you will need to accumulate the items on the list--but be advised, Princess, that I will be watching you, and that any attempt at betraying me will result in the most horrific consequences."

Kazhi did not elaborate, and the next morning the Princess and the warhorse were ready to set out. Kazhi did not appear to see them off, and, as they rode over the drawbridge, the Firebird bid them farewell with her raucous screams from the pinnacle of the castle.

The Princess spoke little to Tornado as they made their way toward the nearest town of consequence. Her mind was too busy with feverish thoughts. She was dressed as a peasant, but it would not take her much to raise an army, and march against the wizard, and retake her castle--

You don't want to do that, said a small, insinuating voice in her ear.

She shivered despite the sunshine, and pulled her shawl more closely around her shoulders.

Tornado did not gallop, but he trotted along smartly enough so that the trees were a blur, and within an hour they were in the city, a trip which would take an ordinary rider at least two days to accomplish. The Princess, unused to going among people, felt tremendously nervous as she led her mount through the market square, her list clutched in her hand. She felt that everyone there was staring at her. She kept her eyes down, concentrating on the tables of the pedlars and merchants spread out across the square.

That's a good girl, murmured the voice. Go about your business, and all will be well.

She was conscious of a tremor in her hands as she located the beakers, flasks, tubes, crucibles, and mortar which Kazhi had sent her after. When she stopped to inspect the bunches of dried herbs being sold by a particularly haggish old crone, the woman cackled, "Setting up in business, are you, girlie?"

The Princess shuddered and stated indignantly, "I don't know what you mean, Mother."

"One can always tell another one," said the crone, with a toothless grin. "You're a handsome wench, but the Devil sits on your left shoulder, same as he does mine--!"

The Princess straightened and hastened away from the herbalist's stall, feeling a knot like a lump of cold cement in her stomach. She did not cease walking until she had put the entire market-square between herself and the leering witch.

She didn't hear the little voice again for some time, but it did not make her any less uneasy. What had the witch seen? Was the Devil really sitting on her shoulder? Should a girl who shared her castle with a dragon and a fenix even be asking such a question?

She managed to accumulate almost everything Kazhi had requested, save for a few of the herbs and simples, for she dared not approach the witch again. She put her purchases into her pack, and was about to find herself something to eat, before setting out for home, when she turned and found herself standing face-to-face with the wizard himself!

She nearly choked on her terror, but Kazhi looked utterly cool and unconcerned. "You should not have allowed that old hag to alarm you," he stated. "I really need those ingredients. Wait here, I will fetch them myself."

The Princess stood rooted to the spot as though someone had cast her from bronze, and even the horse was a little unnerved. They watched Kazhi's spare figure make its way through the bustling bazaar like a ship through a sea, almost as if they were the only beings who could actually see him; he paused by the booth of the herbalist, and leaned on it to speak to her. The old woman cringed, and cowered back like a beaten dog before the wizard, who never broke his calm, never raised his voice; after a few minutes of one-sided conversation, Kazhi snapped his fingers, and the woman fell down dead.

The Princess, who saw it all with horrified eyes, turned and buried her face into Tornado's mane. Kazhi returned, bearing several bunches of redolent herbs, which he slipped into the saddle-bags.

"Be careful, handling these things," he said to the Princess. "Some of these things can be quite dangerous, if you absorb too much through the skin. I shall see you when you get home."

And, before her eyes, the wizard vanished.

"I'll be damned," murmured the horse, "he really is a wizard--!"

"Yes," agreed the Princess in a hollow, feeble voice, "he really is a wizard."

Neither of them took any notice of the small, black fly which was clinging to the veils of the Princess's headdress.

XIII. Kazhi was satisfied that Princess Vivienne would never dare to betray him now. It was a fortunate thing indeed that the Princess was so child-like. It was also fortunate that the old witch had had such a weak heart. Too much self-dosing with digitalis, he figured. He hadn't wanted her to drop down dead, but it was a nice touch.

When Tornado was crossing the threshold of the castle, Kazhi released his grip on the Princess's veils and flew swiftly up into his study, where he metamorphosed back into a human, and sat down at his desk. He could barely suppress a fit of the giggles as he thought about the look on Vivienne's round face. But the prank stood to get better. He waited until he heard the cry of the fenix, announcing the return of the Princess and the horse, and then he pulled on his embroidered dressing-gown--which made him look like a real magician, as it was paisley--and sauntered down to the courtyard.

The Princess drew back from him as he came up to inspect her purchases. He pretended not to notice her aura of fear. "Everything go well?" he asked her.

"You know what happened," said the Princess in a low and accusatory tone. Kazhi raised his black eyebrows.

"What do you mean--?" he asked innocently.

"You were there," said the Princess, trembling. "You flew through the air, and appeared in the village--and you cursed an old woman, and she dropped down dead--!"

"I?" said Kazhi, touching a hand to his chest. "I assure you, you are mistaken--I have been in my study the whole of the day."

He saw the look on her face, and even the expression of confusion and doubt in the eyes of Tornado. Kazhi wrinkled his brow, as though out of concern. "Are you feeling well, Princess? You look pale. Come, let me fix you something to restore you--"

He reached out, to take her arm, but she backed away from him. "Don't you touch me--warlock!" she hissed. "I will serve you, but you will never get my soul for your dark Master!"

With that, the Princess turned and ran as fast as her legs could carry her up to her room, and slammed and barred the door.

Kazhi remained standing beside Tornado, whose nose he began to idly stroke.

"She said that like it's a bad thing," he mused, as though deeply injured by the rebuff.

"Actually--it is," the horse informed him, the muscles in his satiny neck tensed with his own unease. "Warlocks are evil magicians--they get their power by making a pact with the Devil."

Kazhi laughed.

"You think I've done that?" he asked.

"I don't know what to think anymore," replied the horse, quite frankly. "I saw you at the bazaar, too. I saw you go over to the old woman, and I saw her die."

Kazhi said nothing as he unfastened the straps holding Tornado's saddle in place.

"And don't forget it," he told the horse in a companionably menacing way.

XIV. For some time after this adventure, very little happened to disturb the domestic harmony of Kazhi's household. They got used to the Firebird's serenades the way some people get used to living near railroad tracks or airline flight paths.

Kazhi withdrew into his studies, and all hours of the day or night, weird colored lights and small, soundless explosions emanated from his suite. From time to time one or another of his servants--for there was no mistaking that the others who shared his castle were servants--would be stricken by headaches so severe that nothing else could be done, but to lie down and pray that the pain would go away. They thought that the wizard was capriciously afflicting them, but in actuality, Kazhi suffered more, for they felt only the dissipated force of the energy fields which he was struggling to control.

To say that the others were afraid of him would not be entirely correct--they were wary of him, they would have taken the first opportunity to escape, but since he behaved towards them with an air of civil malice, rather than outright cruelty, they looked upon him as a dweller in a forest might look upon a bear. As long as they stayed out of Kazhi's way, there was concord.

The dragon and the maiden continued to plot ways of getting rid of the wizard, but as the weeks turned into months, and the seasons slipped into each other, their efforts became increasingly esoteric. They had to admit that they wanted for nothing--except the horse, who didn't get his promised mares--and that the work was light. Time weighed heavily on their appendages, but they found ways of amusing themselves, with the whole of the castle's neglected contents to pick from. The Princess became very good at the dulcimer, and the dragon wrote poetry to accompany her tunes. It is a little-known fact that dragons are quite fond of poetry, and many of them compose whole sagas in blank verse whilst lying prone on their hoards. But since dragons are not very adept at writing things down, the world will never know of what glorious harmonies can be produced by the mind of Draco draconis. If people knew more about the sensitive hearts of dragons, they might not be so keen to kill them whenever they find them. No further mention was made of apples from the West, and so the Firebird idled about the garden, snapping up the odd mouse, even after Gronok had asked her to be careful of any cream-colored ones with dark eyes which might chance through.

Kazhi, meanwhile, sequestered in his chambers, probably wouldn't have minded if the four of them just upped and left; in fact, he probably would not have even noticed, except when his dinner never came. He was so wholly absorbed in teaching himself how to be a proper sorcerer that he sometimes neglected to mark the passing of days, except as they were defined by his body's functional requirements.

No one could have been more astonished than he was himself the day he succeeded in changing his shape. He believed that the Dragonmaids could do it because of their Keys, and doubted whether he could do it, too; the words of the shape-shifting ogre nonwithstanding, Kazhi retained enough knowledge of physics and mollecular biology that he doubted it could be done so easily. But he learned, after much reading, that doubt was the greatest barricade to the working of true magic.

Let it here be mentioned that there are two distinct kinds of magic in the mortal world--legerdemain and true magic. The first can be mastered by anybody willing to devote the years of study and practice to perfecting the tricks of the illusionist. This is the infamous "smoke-and-mirrors" sort of magic. True magic, on the other hand, is something entirely different. It cannot be explained in physical means. It is something that one can do only if one can penetrate the bonds of reality and "touch the hand of God." True magic is the ability to make the impossible real. And true magic is ninety-nine percent belief, and one percent ineffable.

Kazhi failed, time and again, because he did not believe that he could succeed. He believed in magic, now, he had no choice; but he could not convince himself that he could work it.

But then, something happened. He was able to light a candle just by looking at it. He had been staring at it for hours--days, even--willing it to light itself with such intensity that he could feel the muscles in the back of his neck begin to throb, and his eyes to fall out of his head. But the candle resolutely refused to light.

He gave up, and turned back to his books, losing himself in flipping through the musty pages. Evening came on before he was quite aware of it. As the daylight faded from the room, he thought about going to light the lamps--and then, suddenly, the candles burst into flame.

And that was when Kazhi realized that it was not concentration, but relaxation, that permitted the mind to tap into the swirling fields of energy which surround and penetrate all matter. We live in a veritable sea of electricity, a substance which we can neither see, nor touch, nor smell, but it is there, constantly, in greater or lesser degrees. In those days, before mankind learned to harness this power for his own amusement, there was so much of it coursing freely through the world that "miracles" were commonplace.

But this energy, like water, is finite, and the more that it is utilized, the less of it remains free, which explains why magic is so rare in the end days of the Third Age of Man.

Kazhi stared at the candles. He laughed. He blew one out, and tried again. When he succeeded at this, he eagerly turned his attention to levitating a feather--the adept's second excercise. The plume which had lain unresponsive now leaped into the air and shot around the room as though it had a life of its own.

Unfortunately, Kazhi's sudden successes made him tense, and he struggled in vain to levitate anything else. He stood there amid the debris of his career, rubbing his face, breathing deeply to calm himself. This discovery, for Kazhi, ranked right up there with fire and "Watson, come here--I need you."
Relax. Let the energy flow through you. Channel it, don't try to grasp it. Like water it will only trickle out through your fingers.

Now that he had the mental image of water to guide him, all his understanding of hydraulics crowded his thoughts. Dowsing and springs, sluiceways and millwheels, gravity-feeds and fountains all presented themselves as examples of how he could utilize this invisible power. Then he laughed, a nearly insane laugh, as from one under the influence of a drug.

May the Force be with you, he heard intoned in his head.

To think that some filmmaker had been on to the greatest mystery of the universe struck Kazhi as slightly absurd, but also entirely appropriate. "The Force"--of course! Confidence. Faith in one's own abilities. Too much confidence became arrogance, and too much arrogance became cruelty. And there was the Dark Side.

The Dark Side--why were people always so concerned about the dark side of things? After all, there wasn't any good, and there wasn't any evil--was there? It was all in one's point of view. Ask a hawk and ask a rabbit to define what is good and what is evil. No, evil was only that which went contrary to popular custom.

Of course, the excercise of supreme power without mercy could be construed as being evil, or at least, contrary to public good. The public, the Great Unwashed, those ignorant apeforms who could not understand the arcane secrets of the universe, and so, feared anyone who had mastered magic. They told their stories of fairies and gods, and never guessed the truth to them; they looked askance at anyone who professed some skill beyond the ken of ordinary folk; they prayed for miracles and burned witches at the stake. Someday there would be flying chariots and self-propelled carriages, and crystal-fronted boxes in every home which gave instant access to things occurring in distant lands, but to these people such things were magic. Kazhi, who had come from the distant future after living for three thousand years, knew differently. It was not magic, but a matter of degree.

The training of a wizard is a long and arduous process, hedged round by many mysteries and rituals--and for a good reason; only by struggle can one appreciate and respect one's acheivements. The adept apprentices himself to a master, and the master controls his scholarship, to ensure that lessons are learned in the proper sequence, and at the proper time. But Kazhi was his own master, and what was more, he was no ordinary student. With the precociousness born of priviledge, he flew from one topic to another, ignoring the months and years of practice which would normally be attendant upon each subject. From telekinesis to transmutation, he tried each trick and was elated to discover that he had a latent ability to work magic. Each success fuelled him in much the same way as alcohol makes a man livelier. Kazhi stopped short, though, of anything which might involve the summoning of demons, for he did not wish to attract the attention of any supernatural entities. And, quite frankly, he had his hands full with the four beings already under his control, without having a few imps or homonculi scurrying about.

Once he had full control of the principles of levitating objects, it was a simple enough matter to turn the energy around, and to levitate himself--although he managed to lift himself only a few inches at first, for there was some sort of gyroscopic problem in keeping himself upright that he had to master.

He also succeeded in assuming several different shapes, although they were all of necessity rather small, which made them easier to hold. He shied away from trying a teleportation, for fear of becoming stuck in some parallel dimension--although he did succeed in bringing several objects from elsewhere in the castle.

Yet there were some spells which he had seen work, which he could not figure out how to go about doing, and it vexed him to realize that there seemed to be innate magic one could perform, much like walking, and practical magic, which needed to be learned step-wise, like driving or flying a plane. He was eventually brought up in frustration. He did not know the formulae.

Invisibility was one trick he would have given his left arm to learn, but no where in his grimoires could he find the instructions for acheiving it. There was some nonsense about bones from cats which had been boiled alive, and salves made from plants Kazhi knew to be hallucinogenic, but the scientist in him rejected such spells out-of-hand. It was one thing to think you're invisible, quite another to get other people to think you're invisible. He knew it was possible. He remembered when Alix, Julia, and Anya had taken him prisoner, at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park; Anya had encapsulated them all in what she had called a Dark-of-the-Moon Sphere, which had rendered them, for all practical purposes, invisible. Kazhi had no clear perception of what this was, but he imagined it to be some sort of prism which distorted the molecules of the air to bend light rays around an object, and then to bend them back on the other side. If light does not reflect back to the eye of a viewer, then the eye cannot see. Kazhi wished that he could have observed this spell from the outside, to determine the degree of distortion, and whether one could in fact perceive faint ghostly silhouettes, if one looked closely enough.

Soon his successes began to pale, and he brooded in discontent. Magic was not something tame, to be played with at random, he came to realize. It could destroy the careless dabbler. With the reluctance born of pride, Kazhi admitted to himself that he did need a tutor, to indoctrinate him in the mechanics of higher magic. But--where in the world would he find such a wizard? He had personally destroyed most of the professional magicians in the near area--and most of them had been cranks, anyway. He would have to look abroad. And, without really thinking about it, a single word presented itself to his mind: Albion.

XV. There was snow on the ground when Kazhi finally left his tower, and went in search of his servants. The castle was dark, and deserted, and deathly cold, but in one chamber the Princess had set up a sort of sitting-room, which would have been cozy if it hadn't been so large, in order to accommodate the dragon.

This creature, sluggish in the winter cold, lay on a pile of tapestries, the warmth given off by his inner fire providing a nice, snug ambience. There was a pleasant smell of balsam-fir in the air from the greenery swagged across the hearth, which helped to control the animal odors. The horse was provided for in a corner, where a deep bed of straw had been set down, and buckets of water and corn stood at his disposal. The fenix, too, had a place to stay, dozing on a perch the Princess had built for it, its feathers echoing and rivalling the bright glow of the fire crackling in the monstrous hearth. As for the Princess, she was sitting on one of the dragon's arms, her back propped against the great beast's shoulder, embroidering a cloth, as several joints of meat and a kettle of vegetables cooked in the coals. The dragon lazily twisted the spit with the tip of his tail.

The surreal domesticity of this scene struck Kazhi for a moment, and he paused to blink. It could have been a Victorian lithograph of an industrious maid on a sofa, her dog, and her parrot--seen through the eyes of someone who had enjoyed a few too many illegal substances.

He put his hands on his hips and asked, "What's this?"

The Princess jumped up, with a look of terrified guilt on her face. "I was about to bring you supper," she told him in a hurried voice. He waved her off.

"I'm not here about that. My, my, my--you've all become quite chummy, haven't you?" He squinted an eye. The dragon scratched a claw on the floor, with a sound like chalk on slate.

"Well...it is Christmas, you know," he rumbled.

"Is it?" asked Kazhi. He shrugged. "I never much bothered with such things."

"That doesn't surprise me," murmured the dragon.

"What surprises me is that you do," the wizard shot back.

"I'm ready for a feast...the occasion doesn't matter," said the dragon.

Kazhi went over to the fire, took up the tongs, and carefully raised the lid on the stew-pot. The vapours issuing from inside made his stomach contract and his mouth water. The Princess scuffed her foot and twisted her hoop, not looking at her unnerving master.

"Is there bread to go with this?" he asked.

"N-no, m'lord," said the Princess in a dull voice. "I haven't had fresh yeast in weeks...."

"Ah. Well--what is stew without bread?" asked Kazhi, and, with a wave of his hand, a table appeared, dressed itself in festive linens, and then spread itself with golden bowls and silver cups and seven different kinds of bread and cheese and a dozen pickles, including eggs. He stifled a smile as his housemates gasped.

"And for you--" he then said, snatching a luscious bunch of black grapes from the air, and hanging it on the fenix's perch.

"And--you--" he said, clapping his hands and calling forth a bale of the sweetest-smelling alfalfa hay in living memory, which dropped at the feet of the black warhorse.

"Oh, yes--and, ah, you--" he then stated, pointing at the dragon. With a snap of his fingers, a whole roast ox materialized on the flagstones of the hearth.

He then strode over to the table, snapped up a napkin, and tucked it into his collar. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like a little music with my dinner--"

Kazhi clapped his hands, and sweet string melodies wafted down from the rafters, playing Christmas carols which would not be written for centuries to come. He pulled out a chair, seated himself, and began to load his plate. Glancing up, he noticed that the Princess was standing like a signpost, her eyes as wide as lamps.

"Oh, forgive me--won't you join me?" he invited, indicating the other chair. It slid out of itself. "Come, come--! No need to look so frightened...it's all quite natural, I assure you. Please, have a seat. I want to discuss business with you."

The woman edged into the chair and slipped into it, her eyes never leaving Kazhi, wearing an expression of astonished mistrust. Kazhi twitched a finger, and the stewpot unhooked itself from the hearth, drifted over to the table, and raised its lid like a hat; Kazhi picked around inside with a spoon, then sent the pot over to the Princess. "Careful, your grace--it's quite hot." he warned her, as he next caused a knife to cut several slices from the roasting mutton and to convey the meat to his plate.

He kept a perfectly expressionless face, but the effort of excercising so much control was making beads of perspiration break out on his brow, and he was glad when the Princess finally finished picking out her vegetables so that he could return the heavy pot to the hearth, and take a deep breath. He told himself that, in time, he would be juggling mountains.

"I'm sorry, if I make you nervous," Kazhi said to the Princess, "but I can no more alter my nature than the dragon or the fenix can be anything other than what they are. You have been of use to me; I will not harm you--not unless I have to. I have a service I need you to perform for me."

"What kind of service--?" asked the Princess warily.

"In Albion dwells a wizard, greater than me," said Kazhi as he slathered butter onto his bread. "I am desirous of having him train me in the higher forms of magic. He is reputed to be very clever, and wise, and he supposedly possesses clairvoyance. I need you to go to him, and to convince him to come here and act as my advisor."

"Why do you not go to him yourself?" asked the Princess darkly.

"Ah, well...you see, wizards are funny things," said Kazhi. "We operate under a system of respectful enmity. No wizard would willingly go and teach another wizard what he knows."

"Then send the dragon to abduct him," suggested the Princess.

"No--that wouldn't work, either," said Kazhi, sitting back and chewing pensively. "He is surrounded by a court of valliant knights who would relish the chance to slay a dragon. And I'm not keen on losing the one I have. They're not like dogs, you know--you can't just go pick up another one whenever you need one."

"I have heard that there are no more dragons in Albion," Gronok concurred, feeling a little bit grateful that Kazhi thought so highly of him. "They have hunted them all out."

"This wizard," Kazhi continued, "is in the service of a young king who--it is said--is himself descended from a dragon; although I suspect I know what his blood-line really is. The wizard has practically moved heaven and earth to get his protegee crowned as King of the Britons. That's just the sort of man I need to guide me in my researches."

The Princess narrowed her eyes as she slowly chewed a bit of turnip.

"And what am I supposed to do?" she asked quietly.

"You will go to him," said Kazhi, "and you will ask him to take you on as a student. You will flatter the old fool until he believes that you are in love with him--"

The Princess gasped in affronted dignity, but Kazhi ignored her.

"Believe me, it would not take much--old men are suckers for the blandishments of young women. You will get him to tell you the spell which will vanquish him, and, the moment you know it, you will use it to entrap him. Then I will bring him here, and barter with him--his freedom, in exchange for his service."

Kazhi detected a certain amount of uneasy shuffling among his adherents. He tapped a fingertip on the table, which rather riveted the attention of the Princess. She was, like most people of those times, terribly superstitious, and having had to share lodgings with a wizard of questionable scruples had served to make her as jumpy as a long-tailed cat at a step-dancing convention. The slightest gesture from the sorcerer could prove to be very unpleasant for her.

"What if--what if he refuses?" she asked, watching Kazhi's fingers. She felt much better as long as she could keep an eye on his hands.

"He will not refuse. You will be persistent. You will not allow him to refuse."

The Princess was feeling ill, at the thought of what he was asking her to do. She prodded her vegetables around on her plate and slouched in her chair.

"His name is Myrddyn," said Kazhi, himself devouring his meal with a gusto approaching the wolfish. "A Welshman by birth, although there's some question as to his parentage...he's not as listened-to now as in former days, and I think that might make him just affronted enough to agree to take on a protegee--especially one who bats her eyes and flatters him. I'm sure it won't be difficult. Surely, you have been trained how to flirt as part of your courtly duties."

"My lord," said the Princess in a low voice, "I have never had the chance to learn."

Kazhi's head twitched slightly. "What--? You're joking, surely--"

Her eyes averted, so that he could not see the smoldering hatred in their depths, she reminded him, "My father's kingdom was so afflicted by the anger of the faerie that no prince nor gallant dared sue for my hand...and then you came, and usurped all to which I would be heir, slaughtered my family and retainers, and have kept me a virtual prisoner for lo these many years."

Kazhi sat quietly, gazing at the Princess as though from across a great gulf. He tapped his teeth together in his cheek. The woman refused to look at him, all of her old resentment, fear, and loathing having welled now to the surface. It was everything that she could do to prevent herself from bursting into tears. The dragon, behind her, lifted his head from his own supper, conscious of the part he had played in the Princess's misery, and elected to say nothing. He merely cast Kazhi a look of condemnation.

Kazhi then sat back with a drawn-out sigh, and tightly folded his arms. He inclined his head slightly, and said, in a soft voice, as soft as velvet, "You will learn the charming arts. You will make yourself beautiful. You will captivate the British wizard and you will deliver him into my power."

The Princess shuddered, and her body seemed to go stiff. In a hollow whisper, she answered, "Yes, my lord. As you command, so shall I do."

The dragon blinked and scowled, glancing curiously from the maiden to the magician. A slight smirk tugged at Kazhi's face.

"Good. I will make the necessary preparations for you. By the New Year you will be in Camelot."

XVI. It took slightly longer than Kazhi's initial estimate to get Vivienne to go to Camelot.

The Princess proved extremely resistant to all of his best efforts to turn her into a femme fatale. Kazhi was not unfamiliar with the type; he had encountered many such women over the span of his life. He loathed them, placing them slightly below reptiles, and so, as one might imagine, his patience with the Princess was not great. He swung wildly between wheedling and cursing her. He knew he had to train her, for if he used magic Myrddyn was certain to detect it. Kazhi had a passing knowledge of the great wizard, having met him in his previous incarnation. That was when Myrddyn had been much younger, hardly more than a youth in the court of King Arthur's grandfather, Aurelius. At the time, Kazhi had been serving as advisor to that king. His tenure ended when Myrddyn, a storyteller with the gift of prophesy, looked at him one day and said, "You will bring the Devil upon us."

There was a bit more to it than that, but Kazhi had felt it best to vacate the premises before he was asked to leave at the point of a sword. One sorcerer could always see another sorcerer exactly as he is, and there was something about the young Welshman that gave Kazhi the creeps. It might have had something to do with the allegations that Myrddyn had been fathered by a demon on a nun. Now, with hindsight, Kazhi could see exactly what it was that bothered him about the young bard.

Kazhi had left the King's service, but not before he had set in motion an event which only now he understood.

He sat back in his deep chair to brood about it. Sometimes it was difficult to keep track of three thousand years of memories, but some things stood out in particularly sharp relief, especially those things which had joined the reverent folklore of the human race.

The King whom Kazhi served as court magician was a bachelor, and did not seem too inclined to wed. He had sisters, and two brothers, one of whom was weak, and not expected to survive. It was vital for him to insure the dynasty, and his advisors were constantly pecking at him to wed. They hosted tourneys and feasts, to which every available girl of noble blood was invited. But none of them suited the King.

He was a young blood, and fond of hunting and the manly sports which are warfare clothed in silk and smiles. Whether because of his superior abilities, or a tacit understanding among the men of his retinue, the King was never beaten in contest, and his praises were sung the length and breadth of the land.

He had a swelled head, in short.

Then one day, a young gallant appeared at court. In size and figure no more than a stripling, the beardless youth not only challenged all comers to single combat--he beat them. One lord after another was vanquished by the glittering sword of the lithe boy, much to the chagrin and furtive amusement of the Court. To make matters worse, the boy seemed never to tire, and he moved with the grace of a dancer. No blow could find its mark against him. He seemed invulnerable.

After each victory, this strange gallant insisted that his defeated opponent sprawl flat in the dirt at his feet and say, "You are the master, I crawl before you." This was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for strong men used to bloody battle. Finally, when there were no more dukes or lords to fight, the boy turned to the King. Without bowing, without any mark of respect whatsoever, the youth said, "And now it is your turn, King Aurelius."

The King was appalled, but he could hardly refuse. Of course by now the whispers had started that this knight was no mortal, but a creature from the realm of Faerie--see how his sword glitters, almost as though it were made of light? The King made an excuse as to the time of day, and announced a feast in the strange knight's honor--and then sent for his court magician.

"This goodly youth has nearly done the impossible," said the King in a terse whisper. "He has beaten all of my gallant knights, and now wishes to meet myself in combat. Tell me--is he the Devil, come to take me off for my misdeeds?"

Kazhi went to the feast, and from behind a screen, cast a long look at the slender youth, who was eating and drinking with the gusto of ten Vikings.

"My lord," he said into the King's ear, "that is no youth. It is a maiden."

The King was more horrified than before. "You lie!" he hissed. "No maiden on earth can fight like that warrior!"

But Kazhi could see through the aura of illusion surrounding the youth. He was persistent. "Do you this," he stated. "Give him a chamber, and in it place items which would fascinate a girl. Also hang your finest sword from the wall. See to which she goes."

The King had the preparations made, and himself conducted his guest to the room, which was decorated with tapestries and silks and flowers. The youth stopped in the doorway with a look of contempt.

"You mock me, my lord," he snapped. "I should sooner lodge in the pigsty than spend one moment in such a den! I have heard tales of the softness of your court--and now I am wont to believe them!" The youth never even bothered with the sword, but stamped out of the castle, mounted his milk-white charger, and galloped off into the night.

The next day, he returned, and asked again to be allowed to meet the King in combat. The King was even more reluctant than before, although his nobles were goading him to accept the challenge and to teach the impertinent youth a lesson. They insisted that, due to his youth and size, they had thought to go easy on him, and, had he not cunningly managed to inflict such unneccissarily grievous wounds upon them, they would certainly have gone out to meet him again themselves.

But the King was not so foolish as to permit his vanity to overcome his wisdom. He feared this strange knight, and until he could assure himself that it was not the Devil in disguise, he refused to put himself at risk. And frankly he didn't entirely trust his nobles. He had a Brutus in his family tree.

So for a second time, he put the boy off, declaring that the day was a holy festival of some martyr, and that all fighting was forbidden, but that the youth was welcome to join his court if he so wished. With a shrug, the boy agreed, and took his place at the King's own table.

And so it went for a week, with Kazhi trying to trick the youth into revealing himself to be a maiden. In all attempts, he was foiled. The youth rejected the offer of anything which might find favor with a lady--pearls slipped into his meal, he spat out in contempt; he walked past spindles and looms, he ignored the court musicians, he disdained the flowers in the garden, except to point out those which made good dressings for wounds. And poisons.

And more direct methods failed, too. The youth refused to lodge within the castle walls, mounting his horse and flying off into the wilderness at the end of each day. He never removed his armor, and although his auburn hair fell down upon his shoulders, many knights wore their hair thus, and no one questioned their manhood. The King started to scoff at Kazhi's insistence that the young gallant was a girl, and finally determined to accept the youngster's challenge.

"If I win," he said to the youth, "I would like you to be my squire."

"And if I win," said the youth, with a cocky grin, "I would like to have your kingdom."

There could be no backing out. The bet was accepted, and the two proceeded to the field of combat, with the entire court streaming behind them. They took their places, the King under his boar banner, and the youth under a flag bearing a rampant white dragon on a black field, spangled with stars.

The two fought like wild beasts, the clash of their swords ringing in the bones of all who watched them. The battle raged for half a day, with neither gaining a clear lead. The lad seemed only slightly fagged, but the King was exhausted, and knew that he would end by going down in defeat. This enraged him, and stripped him of his caution, and he attacked the youth with a fury which would have been better reserved for the battlefield, not the tournament; with a swift step to the side, the youth ran his sword into the belly of the onrushing King, who fell in a writhing heap at his feet. The blade had passed through his leather and bronze armor like a hot knife through butter.

Blood stained the grass, and the King's court poured onto the field, and carried the dying monarch back to his pavillion. Kazhi was summoned, but he could do nothing--he had seen many such wounds, and knew that it would all be over in a matter of minutes.

Then a voice at the flap of the pavillion drew his attention. There stood the victorious youth, his helm under his arm, gazing at the dying King with such a queer expression in his sea-colored eyes that Kazhi's gorge rose in his throat.

"I suppose you are here to wrest the crown from his head, then?" he demanded hotly.

"No," said the boy, "I'm here to save his life. I have no need for his kingdom--the land I come from is greater by far than any paltry patch of earth you mortals could covet. I came to teach this man a lesson in humility, for he has a great destiny to fulfil...and one which his rashness will not serve. I know you are a wizard, and I know you see me as I am; I must ask you never to speak of what you will now witness."

So saying, the mysterious youth stepped over to the pallet where the King lay breathing his last. The youth set aside his helmet, and unbuckled his armor, and stood beside the King in a tunic of white so brilliant that Kazhi could not look at it, except through the shield of his fingers. A star blazed out on the brow of the youth, and Kazhi believed that he was in the presence of a fairy, if not an actual angel. In another moment he knew beyond a doubt that the youth was a creature from the supernatural world.

First, the youth laid his hand upon the King's grievous wound, and, before Kazhi's eyes, the blood ceased to flow, and the flesh knitted itself back together. Then the youth took a slender silver bodkin from his belt-pouch, and with it, pricked the tip of the middle finger of his right hand, so that a drop of blood welled up; this, he touched to the tongue of the dying King, while murmuring unintelligble phrases.

The mortal pallor faded from the King's face, and the color of life began to suffuse his flesh once more. The spark returned to his glassy eyes, and his lids closed, then fluttered. Kazhi stared in disbelief. The youth stood quietly watching Aurelius as he painfully struggled to prop himself on his elbows, and then the King looked up at the young knight.

"Who are you?" Aurelius asked. "Fairy, or angel--?"

"I am Iphegenia Diana Nightstar," said the youth, "a servant of the Great Gods. I was sent to teach you a lesson, not to slay you; great things have been forseen for your descendants, King Aurelius. You will sire a man who will unite this land under a single banner, and he, in his turn, will be the father of the greatest King this land shall ever know. But none of this will ever happen if you continue in your rash and careless ways. You have died this day, King Aurelius, and I have restored you to life with my own immortal blood. The Great Gods look with favor upon you, but you must learn that there is more to being a King than wearing a crown. A true King is not what is worn on the outside, but that which is borne on the inside."

The King was so grateful that he fell to his knees before the shining goddess, and begged her to be his protector and advisor. So plaintively did he plead that she agreed, but on the condition that he not disclose her true identity. Aurelius agreed, and the sword-maiden took her place as the King's trusted squire. Kazhi was also sworn to secrecy.

Thus passed several years, in which the King grew in wisdom and goodness, under the tutelage of his squire. He became so fond of the presumed boy that ugly rumors began to circulate at Court, and the King's other advisors began to pressure him to choose a Queen and start a family before rival factions could depose him in favor of his brothers. But the King was so besotted with his "squire" that he could not even think of wedding anyone else.

Iphegenia--who had taken the name Eugene--was not nearly as keen about this development. She liked the King well enough, and treated him as a sister would treat a brother, and it seemed to give her genuine distress to have to shrug off his protestations of undying devotion. She was much more comfortable leading his armies into battle, or coursing his hounds, than putting up with his almost unseemly displays of hopeless ardor. And the rumors brought her genuine pain, for it was most unkind of his own courtiers to snicker about their King and benefactor behind his back.

One day, she sought out Kazhi in his study. "You know the truth," she said. "I need to know what you would advise. The King cannot live without me to guide him. His court insists he marry. He refuses to marry anyone but me. And he must marry, to fulfil his destiny."

The girl showed absolutely no emotion, which thoroughly unnerved Kazhi. A girl ought to at least sigh despondently, when faced with such a terrible descision. It amused Kazhi to think, in retrospect, that he would be facing a similar situation some fifteen hundred years hence.

"Well, Sir Eugene," he said at length--he couldn't bring himself to call her by any other name, out of habit, "--what is the impediment to marrying him? He is a fine and goodly fellow, handome and intelligent--if a bit headstrong; surely you could do much worse, than to become the beloved consort of a King."

That was when the girl showed a slight tremor of emotion. She sighed.

"The vows of my order," she said, "have pledged me to chastity. I cannot marry the King and retain my position in my Sisterhood."

"I was unaware that you were a nun," Kazhi had said. There was a peculiar expression in the valliant maiden's eyes.

"My father was a king," she told him in a low, cold voice, "and he was commanded by the priests of the temple to sacrifice me, in order to bring blessings to his war-fleet. At the last minute, I was spared, and a white hind sacrificed in my stead. Since then, I have served the Gods of an order far older than any now known to Man. I cannot tell you more, only to say that, in choosing to leave my order, it will be tantamount to death for me. You cannot appreciate the choice I must make. Should I forsake my vows, I will become mortal once more, and will lose all of my magic powers. I am a good warrior; I do not know if I will be able to make a good Queen."

One can guess what happened. Sir Eugene announced that he was going on a quest, one which must be undertaken alone; and some months afterward, a princess came to the court of King Aurelius, who said that she was the sister of Sir Eugene, his twin, in fact; that her brother had been killed on his quest, and that she was bringing his last will to the King, his dearest friend. Sir Eugene begged the King to take care of his sister, Iphegenia, and if he should so choose, to take her to wife; Sir Eugene's will assured them that Iphegenia was every bit as clever as he himself, if not moreso, for she had a woman's insight. The court was delighted, and the King was, to say the least, ecstatic. He took her to wife with all due pomp and ceremony, as if he were marrying an empress, and with her wit and charm, Queen Iphegenia became beloved of the Court and kingdom.

She retained her knowledge of magic, and took to teaching the young Myrddyn. This was about the time that Myrddyn made his chilling pronouncement, regarding Kazhi, and Kazhi found it expedient to quit the service of King Aurelius, for few courts can contain more than one wizard at a time, and it was clear that Queen Iphegenia preferred young Myrddyn over the Persian with the pale blue eyes. What was more, Kazhi felt extremely uncomfortable in the presence of the Queen, in a physical way; his skin would prickle and crawl if he had to remain near her for very long, which started to make the King suspicious of him. Hadn't Kazhi known that "Eugene" was really a maiden? Even the best of friends can fall out where a woman is concerned. Kazhi was canny enough to realize that he would be wasting his breath to protest his lack of romantic interest in Queen Iphegenia. Even if he could assuage the King's jealousy, it would be looked upon as ungallant to say that he didn't find the Queen attractive--that, in fact, she gave him the hives. Therefore, before any more rumors could start, Kazhi tendered his resignation, packed up his books, and hit the road with the five good horses the King gave him as a sort of severance package.

And the son of this odd marriage was named Uthur Dragon-head, after the standard of his mother.

After he found it expedient to quit the service of the Briton king, Kazhi lost touch with what was happening there; but history kept him informed, and there can hardly be a living person who can honestly say that they have never heard of King Arthur and the exploits of his court. Arthur was legendary. Of course, part of the function of legend was to obscure the truth, or to fill in the gaps forgotten by generations of bards whose sagas were fuelled as much by the spirit of ale as they were by the spirit of adventure.

He knew that Uthur's son and heir, begotten under mysterious circumstances, became a powerful king under the tutellage of Myrddyn, who passed on the wisdom of Arthur's semi-divine grandmother. He also knew that Arthur's kingdom came to ruin--or would come to ruin--at the hands of his nephew Modred, after the disappearance of the wizard Myrddyn. And that Myrddyn was abducted by the wiles of an enchantress named Vivien.

Kazhi rose from his chair and went over to throw another log into the gaping maw of the rather ineffective hearth. If only the fireplace would put out half as much heat as it put out smoke, he would be content. Little wonder that Vivienne snuggled up against Gronok in the bitter winter nights.

There could be only so much coincidence in the world, the sorcerer thought to himself. Here he was, stuck in sixth-century Brittany--the wellspring of the Arthurian legend--with a princess named Vivienne. Could his involvement in future history be more plain? It mattered very little that the Princess hardly conformed to the familiar description of the lissome, flame-haired maiden who beguiled the crafty Merlin with her blandishments and tears. There were plenty of actresses who didn't look a thing like the characters they were supposed to be playing.

Kazhi made a small gesture with his fingers, and a cup appeared between them. It was filled with spiced hot coco. He didn't care that chocolate would not be introduced to Europe for several hundred more years. He was a wizard, dammit. Somewhere in the world, someone was enjoying a nice cup of hot coco. It could hardly be fair that he had a dragon and a fenix, and could not have hot chocolate on a cold winter night. He did omit the marshmallow, though.

Kazhi chuckled. Strange, he thought, how much future humans would not know about the past. They would read accounts of dragons and other monsters, and believe them to be mere fables. They didn't believe in Troy, either, until someone dug it up. Considering the power which the excercise of magic gave to its adherents, it was little wonder that those who knew how to use it, would be keen to preserve its secrets. The trail through the shadowy realm would be difficult to follow, especially when the signposts were so fabulous and difficult for the common man to believe. Obfuscation of means and motives seemed to be a hall-mark for those in positions of authority, down through the ages.

The legend of Merlin could almost be taken as symbolic--how both he and Arthur, ruling by cunning and capable of almost superhuman feats, lost their heads to the charms of a woman, and the kingdom crumbled. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. And Merlin was gifted with precognition, but was blind to his own fate.

Kazhi should have paid closer attention. There can only be so many coincidences.

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