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We sail upriver past endless tracts of farmland, dotted with the occasional farmhouse and not much else. Since leaving the Port of Orosis we've hardly seen so much as a village. The bare fields stretching off into the distance make for a bleak sight. I try to enlist Lisutaris's support in encouraging Makri to enter the tournament, but the Sorcerer is by turns irritable and depressed, and I can't get her interested. I notice that Kublinos the Harbour Sorcerer does make an effort to cheer her up, joining her at the rails of the barge, making the odd Sorcerer's joke and so on, but it has little effect. Lisutaris is as miserable as a Niojan whore and nothing can shake her gloom. Makri paces the decks, angry about everything. I spend most of my time in my cabin, drinking from my beer keg and trying not to think about all the people I knew in Turai.
We've been travelling for two days when Makri suddenly yells, and points to the sky. "A dragon!"
I look up. I can't see any sign of a dragon. The Orcs surprised us by bringing dragons to attack Turai in winter but I wouldn't have thought they could make it this far. Makri seems certain, however, and and rushes off to fetch Lisutaris.
"I can't see anything," says Lisutaris, peering into the grey sky.
By this time Baron Mabados and Kublinos, accompanied by an assortment of crewmen, servants and soldiers, are spilling onto the deck.
"There's nothing there," declares Kublinos.
"The woman's imagining things, " says a soldier, sneering in Makri's direction.
I'm not sneering. Makri has Elvish blood, and Elvish eyesight.
"Are you all blind?" demands Makri. "It's right there."
She points up at the white sky and finally, to general terror and amazement, we see what she's talking about. A large dragon has just broken cloud cover and is streaking across the sky. It was hard to spot because it's white. I've never seen that before. Dragons come in grey, dark green, and bronze. Occasionally a sort of dull, dark silver. Never white. Apart from this one. The sight causes panic. Soldiers scramble for their longbows and crossbows, while the non-military men take cover.
"Shall we make for the shore?" the captain asks Kublinos.
Kublinos doesn't seem sure what to do. I'm guessing he's never been in action against a full-sized war dragon before. The first time you see one, it's a disturbing sight.
"Get ready to repel an attack," yells Lisutaris, who's faced dragons many times. She strides to an open piece of deck, hands hanging loosely by her sides. "Archers, get ready to fire once I've hit it with a spell."
Makri strides to Lisutaris's side, a sword in each hand. I join them. I can sense the power already growing in Lisutaris's hands. I was a failure at sorcery but I can still feel its presence. Lisutaris's eyes turn purple, which means she's summoning up something powerful. I saw her bring down two dragons at once on the battlefield outside the walls of Turai not three months ago, and I'll wager she'll do it again if she has to. As it turns out, she doesn't get the chance. The dragon flies overhead, paying us no attention. Its great white wings carry it high across our bows and swiftly on towards the north.
"It's heading for Elath," says Kublinos. "It must be on its way to attack the King."
Baron Mabados instructs Kublinos to make all speed to complete the journey. Unlike his soldiers, the Baron showed no sign of fear at the sight of the dragon. Lisutaris remains watchful, as her eyes revert to their normal colour. She turns to Makri. "Did you ever see a white dragon in the East?"
Makri shakes her head. It's a mystery, and it bodes ill. Dragons can only be controlled by the Orcs. This could be the start of an invasion. The rowers pick up the pace, and we head towards Elath at full speed. Which, on this huge barge, is not that fast. These inland vessels are fine for travelling in comfort, but not much good for getting anywhere in a hurry. Lisutaris frets as she gazes after the dragon. "Is there no way this barge can go any faster?"
"We could throw Thraxas overboard," suggests Makri. "Probably double our speed."
I glare at Makri, but can't think of a suitable reply, still being distracted by recent events. We crawl slowly up the broad river, scanning the horizon for signs of destruction, expecting to see far-off plumes of smoke as Elath goes up in flames. Rather a waste of time, really, because we're still a long way from Elath. After a while I abandon scanning the horizon and go below deck to drink beer. Makri joins me.
"This is frustrating," she says.
I nod. If the white dragon really is about to attack Elath, we're not going to get there in time to do anything about it.
"It was only one dragon, though," I point out. "There are a lot of Sorcerers in Samsarina. Lasat Axe of Gold, and Charius the Wise. They should be able to hold it off."
Makri has no confidence in Lasat or Charius, reasoning that any Sorcerer who hates Lisutaris can't be any good. She glances at the small mirror on the cabin wall, and fiddles with her nose ring. As with almost everything about Makri, her pierced nose, barely acceptable in Turai, is cause for outrage in Samsarina. I've seen servants shudder when she passes.
"Kublinos looked paralysed when the dragon appeared," I say. "Probably never seen one before. I don't take to him."
"Have you noticed how he's playing up to Lisutaris?" asks Makri. "I think he's sweet on her."
That's an odd thought. I've known Lisutaris for a long time. I don't remember her ever entering into any sort of romance. Makri is probably imagining it. Her views on romance are usually erratic. She had one fling with an Elf in the Southern Isles and when it didn't end well she moped about it for months.
"Perhaps he's just trying to make sure he's well-placed with the Head of the Guild," I suggest. "Sorcerers are always ambitious."
"But wouldn't being friendly with Lisutaris put him in a bad position with Lasat? And maybe Baron Mabados as well." Makri looks thoughtful. "Of course, Baron Mabados has rivals at court. Maybe Mabados and Kublinos want Lisutaris as an ally. Apparently everyone's struggling for influence with the new King."
"Since when did you become an expert on affairs at the Samsarinan court?"
"I just kept my ears open," replies Makri, rather smugly. "The Barons are always trying to strengthen their positions. That's why this wedding is important."
"The wedding everyone's been talking about."
"I haven't been paying attention."
"Baron Mabados's son is marrying Baron Vosanos's daughter. It'll make a strong alliance. Some of the other Barons aren't pleased at the prospect."
I've no wish to think about a power struggle between Barons. I'm still thinking about my old companions in Turai. And my favourite haunts - the bookmaker's shop, the pastry shop, the Avenging Axe. All burned to the ground, or infested with Orcs. I shake my head, and pour myself a beer. Lisutaris does little to cheer me up when she re-appears. She's irritable from lack of thazis, and pessimistic about her reception in Elath.
"I hate these aristocratic power struggles. You can never do anything without offending someone." She looks at me rather pointedly. "Something you're already expert in, of course. It's lucky for us the Baroness isn't travelling on this barge."
"Would everyone stop going on about the Baroness? So I mistook her for a servant. Could have happened to anyone."
"She was wearing a tiara!" exclaims Lisutaris. "When we get to Elath, try not to get drunk when there are important people around."
"I'll consider it. Are you planning on watching the tournament?'
Lisutaris shrugs. "I doubt I'll have time. I'll need to meet with the other Sorcerers and start planning the war effort."
"I've been trying to persuade Makri to enter."
"To gamble on her, of course. She'll be a shoo-in, no one will beat her."
"I hear there are a lot of professional swordsmen on their way."
I brush this aside. "Makri will destroy them."
Lisutaris pours herself a goblet of red wine and empties it in one large gulp. Her hand is trembling. You can't smoke a whole thazis bush every day for twenty years and then not notice it when it's gone.
"Can't you persuade her?" I ask Lisutaris. "You like a good wager yourself."
"I do. But Makri is my bodyguard. I need her around. Anyway, none of us have any money for gambling."
This makes me pause. I haven't a coin to my name, but with Lisutaris being so rich, I expected she'd be able to come up with something.