The practical jokes were petty, I knew that. But I was a slave, and my powers were limited by my servitude. As I could only express my favor in small ways -- helping the lost to find their way, mending clothes, and so forth -- so could I only express my disfavor with trivial annoyances. I put rats in his luggage, weevils in his food, and puddles of water in his blankets. As I said, petty. But I couldn't seem to help myself.
Once again, the Hurogmeten was going to betray Hurog's trust. And I could not stop him.
The dragon had been beautiful when she was alive. Her scales had glittered in the sunlight, rose and gold and cream, pure as a maiden's blush, her eyes molten pools of silver. She would sing to me sometimes. Lullabies. I could not remember it anymore, but her songs haunted my dreams still. And the glory of her in full flight -- the power and majesty and sheer mystery of wings beating against the sky--! I would carry that sight to my grave, no matter how fiercely I tried to forget.
She had not deserved her fate.
Well. Neither had I.
But even dragons were no match to the devouring maw of men's greed and lust for power. And there was no room for mystery in the world anymore.
Those of us with power -- we who could make ourselves useful -- we were but tools to the hands of stronger men. That was the way of things. I'd had centuries to accept it.
But, oh, how I wished my misery would end!
I'd thought Ward might end it. His idealism gave him strength, as did his love and his desire to protect his own. But now I knew it was those very things which had once given me hope that would make him betray me -- and her -- again in the end. He loved his family. He loved Hurog. He even loved me, strange as I found that. He would do everything in his power to protect us and keep us safe -- and by so doing, give us over to the taint that stained Hurog's magic. His love would doom us all.
I could see the taint tightening its hold on him as we sailed closer to Hurog. Day by day, its grip grew stronger, although he remained oblivious to it. Kariarn brought it out in him, helped the stain to encroach on Ward's soul. He encouraged Ward to rant about whatever annoyed him -- the stupidity of fools, the tyranny of his father. He was ranting to me now, caught in a rage like the ones his father had been prone to.
I knew Ward would never hurt me. That was, in fact, the problem. But I could not help myself from feeling afraid of him. He was such a big man, and could injure me badly without half trying.
I was terrified.
He waved his hand, gesturing to make a point. I did not flinch.
Many of my previous masters enjoyed my suffering. If I did not give them what they wanted, they left me alone.
Ward noticed my non-flinch -- well, of course he did, he was both too kind and too observant not to -- and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. My fear had hurt him. I wasn't sure if I was pleased or upset by that.
When he opened his eyes again, he was calmer. "I can't change what Seleg did," he said. "There is nothing I can do to make it right."
I didn't say anything. Ward was wrong - he could make it right, if he chose. But he wouldn't be able to hear that from me. He wouldn't believe me.
I had to show him.
"I could have you get the two of us into Hurog when we are close enough," he said. "We could help my uncle hold her."
"Duraugh can't hold Hurog, Ward," I said carefully. "There are too many here. Even with all of the Blue Guard, Hurog could not withstand this many men. Not in its current state. It's not ready for a siege."
Ward was still casting desperately about for answers. "Could you move the bones out?"
No, and no again. "Out of the cave and its protections, every wizard within a hundred miles could find the bones, but it doesn't matter." I felt dimly grateful towards Seleg and the paranoid way the old man had constructed my curse. It made it easy to say no to the pleading in Ward's eyes. "Seleg bound me past my death to keep the bones hidden in the heart of Hurog."
"Do you see any options that would keep Kariarn from the bones?"
And in that question, I heard the inevitability of my betrayal yet again. There was an option - the only option - and, deep down, buried underneath the layers of desperation and denial, Ward knew it too. And he would never consent to it. He had fought all his life to protect those he loved. He could do nothing less, not even if it meant the destruction of everything that was important to him.
"No," I said, and turned my face away. I couldn't look at Ward anymore.
"Oreg," he said, helplessly. There was silence, then.
I would not look at him, at the man who would betray me out of love. I wouldn't.
He said my name again, and I could not stop myself. I looked him in the eyes.
Oh, his eyes.
His body language and tone of voice were studies in nonchalance, but his eyes screamed pain and confusion to the world.
"Do you think that I would kill my uncle just to become Hurogmeten again?" he asked casually, as if it didn't matter to him at all what I thought. But his eyes told me the idea that I might believe this of him was killing him.
No, I did not believe it. I never had. Despite his deep connection to his homeland, his fierce, abiding love for it, he would never murder his family for it. It wasn't in him.
And then I felt as if a bright light had suddenly sparked inside of my brain, illuminating the darkness there with an intense conflagration.
It wasn't in him.
Ward wasn't his father. And he certainly wasn't Seleg. He was himself, gloriously himself, and utterly incapable of being anybody else. He might have lost sight of that fact, with his chameleon-like ability to play roles, but I should not have.
I found myself on my knees without any clear idea how I had gotten there.
"I believe you would never had killed a dragon to save yourself," and I did. I did. Is this what faith felt like? "I believe that you would never knowingly betray a trust."
Strip away all the distractions, all the other faces he had been forced to wear, and you were left with a simple core truth, burning brightly enough that I could see it even through the veils of my fear.
"You would not betray Hurog." He would have to be shown the way carefully, because he would not want to believe what we both already knew. But he would do it. He would save Hurog. "You would do the right thing, no matter what the consequences." He would save me.
It would hurt him to do it. I could see that, despite my own hunger for peace. Killing me would wound him deeply - so deeply he might not recover from it. But he would do it, despite the cost.
He was Ward, and he would always do the right thing.
For the first time I could remember, I knew, absolutely, that everything would be all right.