The Dragonbone Petticoat

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Chapter 1A

Ilmar at first didn’t deign to see them, for while they were well dressed, they were much too thin to his taste. While their flawless ensembles leaned into the effete gray area shadowing both good and bad taste, in which lords and ladies became frilly, painted puppets, what could not be overlooked was their unpalatable emaciation, for he preferred to wine and dine plumper guests, from the pleasingly round to those so rotund their crinkled eyes leaked fat and their elbows and knees were pinched in the effort to hold back massive, wobbly flesh. In art, Ilmar was a sophisticate, equal parts aesthete and sensualist, but in diet, he was a cannibal, plain and simple.

Having slouched in his chair until his hands, gripping the armrests, were elevated over his head, Ilmar now appeared to hang on only out of spite, or perhaps to maintain a tenuous pinch on the stem of his wineglass, which had become slick with condensation and made a wet circle on the wood. While he now craved only the things griffins hungered for, and he could no longer savor his favorite wine, a chilled wineglass was just as cool and comforting in his slack grip. “While I can’t say I found your lackluster proposal intriguing, at least it abstracted my attention, and I have questions now that I didn’t have before.” Absentmindedly, Ilmar sent another pulse of ice magic into the wineglass, until the streaked glass frosted with a crinkling sound.

“We live to serve.” The woman’s true nature seemed buried beneath the surface. Not that she was a deep person, but far from it, seeming to Ilmar just as superficial as any of his wives. And this vain creature was buried several layers under, so that beneath a youth caked on by rouge and eye-shadow lay a middle age brushed thin by the dye reddening her hair past its natural, pale blush to shades of pink and scarlet more often caught in glints of rubies, and even under this lay a loftier antiquity crinkling here and there, not only in the crow’s feet tightening her eyes to darkening beads, but the wizened corners of her lips and the shrunken hollows between her fingers.

“Do you indeed? How delightfully slavish.” Gripping the cushioned arm rests until his fingernails pinched in and dug at his cuticles, Ilmar he licked his lips and imagined how the svelte scientists might taste. While he preferred the plump, the thought of these walking bread sticks tucking themselves in his oven on his say-so was hilarious. “Well then, while young master regales us with his scheme, be a good girl and bring us small plates and steins. Give the keg a generous pull, if you wish. Make yourself at home. Not that you haven’t already, as your proposal was much too long.” While he mournfully eyed their rolled-up sheafs of blueprints, his eye flicked up, sparking with sarcasm. Ilmar well knew the woman was the master, and the man her creature--and perhaps her creature comfort to boot, given his over-affectionate toadying--but he did so love to rib his guests. And now he occasionally de-ribbed them, then went on to thoroughly de-bone them, Lancurc having first tenderized them in salt or boiling water.

“His lordship jests.” The man’s laugh was so practiced that he seemed to glow, as if it leaped from a natural spark of good humor.

“No, I am quite peckish,” said Ilmar. “If we begin while our appetites aren’t seen to, young Venos. you take your own lives in hand.”

“Very droll,” giggled Venos. While his eyes slitted in mirth, Ilmar could see the younger wizard seething behind his feigned amusement. “Our host is part dragon, Lucinia.”

As Venos turned to regard his mistress with overacted pleasure, he missed the dragon-clawed glare with which Ilmar favored the wizards.

“Do you mean the way he seems to slough his skin, as he seeps to the floor like that?” Lucinia elevated her nose, which by nature already arced toward the heavens, so lofty was her proboscis and so imperious and snooty was her manner.

“No,” Venos tittered. “I’m thinking of chameleon scales. Our philanthropist would have us think him an anthropophagus.”

“There are false smiles all around,” said Ilmar with a laconic tone. “Is this your usual fare, or can I trap your bon mot under glass, and by water and love, hope a laugh flowers?”

As Venos’s smile vanished, his shoulders slumped, as if his attitude of hilarity had spilled downward in a gush to his feet. “You make it hard, don’t you?”

“What, walking on tiptoes?” With a lazy wave, Ilmar gestured toward Lucinia. “That one is so dry and barren your heels wouldn’t even leave a mark. But walk upright or scamper on all fours for all I care. Just get to the point.” By clutching the entire sheaf, Ilmar leafed through by the expedient and rather rude manner of dropping one page at a time, so that they unfurled down until the crackling parchment bobbed back gently, as he scanned the three-quarters of the page that wasn’t bunched up in his hand, cocking his head nearly horizontally to read the hanging blueprints and notes. “What am I looking at? I don’t care who’s the master here. I’ll pay whomever explains this.”

“Is Lord Andercruik not an aficiando of fashion?”

“Lord Andercruik is my cousin, and he gussies up now and then. By that remark, I’m guessing you find my robes outlandish to your taste.”

“Please, Great Wizard. We should not speak of taste.”

Ilmar pondered Venos, who had found an even more ridiculous mode of address even as he stung Ilmar with a gibe. He was more oxymoron than man, and the rest was moron unadorned with a prefix. “As they say,” Ilmar chortled, “there’s no accounting for it. Where a vegetarian sees a corpse, I see fine cuisine.”

“Very good, Great Wizard.”

“We’re all great wizards here,” Ilmar snorted, “judging by these curious designs.”

“You are too kind.”

Ilmar fixed him with a steely eye. “If you will not call me Ilmar, Rich Wizard is more true, and funnier still.”

“Great...er, Rich Wizard?”

“You’re not here for my skill or art, you’re here for my cash.”

As Lucinia glided over with a girlish bat of her shoulders and a delicate lurch of her waist, Ilmar grinned. The old hag was flirting. He snorted his amusement. While he didn’t find her tempting at all, not at gut level, and definitely not any lower than that, he felt a little jig in his step, for it was energizing to feel desired, flattered, and cozied up to. Having offered her his arm, he snapped his other hand, sparking a melodious song, which one might have thought a capella, were it not for the utter absence of a choir, or any human voices other than their own.

Be sweet, my ancient wine

Be red, my beauty fine

Be blood, my food divine

He hammered out these magical strains as he went, threading each voice of woven air into a windy harmony, not only ethereal sopranos, airy altos, eerie tenors and gusting basses, but a trilling scat of tumbling syllables he hoped did not speak to his drunkenness. Having known visitors were on the way when the griffins sunning on his battlements began screeching, yowling, and fanning their wings,

Ilmar had held his nose and downed a half-jug of wine. While he liked being petted, adored--and fed, when he thought a body wouldn’t be noticed--being half-drunk polished his inborn rudeness and new, feral nature to a semblance of manners. While he hated people each for their own good reason, he had found that with the proper lubrication, company could be quite intoxicating.

Be loved, my dead design.

It was utter nonsense, and he knew it, but composition had never thrilled him more. After this final line, he loosed a cannonade of nonsense syllables, swung the tottering, sweating Lucinia in the final arc of their dance, and bowed.

“Rich Wizard,” she said at last, still panting.

Ilmar nodded with a satisfied smile. Of course Lucinia had got it right on the first try, being the sensible one. Having sussed her out as humorless only moments ago, he would make it a point to ignore her in favor of her tall, pretentious toady, who was not only respectful, but amusing.

“Rich wizard!”

Having turned his back on her, Ilmar returned to the wine jug, and poured himself a refresher without offering a glass. “Milady.” He looked at her sidelong. “Take a rest.”

“Rich Wizard?” Her strident tone was now stressed with flecks of rage-foam, flicking from her lips.

“I mean only that your sweet little heart beats faster than a hatchling’s. I would not have you expire, having just funded your enterprise. Hush now. I would talk with your apprentice.”

Properly chastised, Lucinia dropped in his favorite easy chair--upholstered with the bloated dress of Gaspar’s wife--and closed her mouth as neatly as if her strings were cut, then directed a shrewd, dark look towards Venos, which the toady absorbed with his beaming smile. The face he turned on Ilmar was mingled, for having collected his mistress’s glower in full, it darkened the bright smile he reflected toward Ilmar, who clapped Venos on the back, guided him toward the door, and upon their passing through, slammed it and dropped the cross bar.

“What of Lucinia? Hadn’t she better be present?”

“Why? These are not her designs.”

After a nervous twitch, Venos grinned a smug smile. “How could you tell.”

I only guessed, you fool of a toady. It’s what I would have done. “How like an old bat to make you do the work, then claim it as her own.”

“Lucinia’s not that...”

“She’s old enough to expect her entitlements. No doubt some graybeard did the same to her, and in her mind it’s her turn,” said Ilmar.

Venos’s smile drew flat with a wispy, abstracted air, as if he had long contemplated such things, and was astonished to see his ideas reflected. “You flatter me, Ilmar.”

“Please.” Ilmar shook his head and waved his fingers, as if it was a mere trifle to stroke this minion’s vanity, for indeed it was. “We are hardly on a first name basis. Call me Rich Wizard.” Ilmar stroked his beard. “I rather like it.” Glancing at the blueprints still scrunched in one fist, Ilmar drew them to his face, dropped to a slower pace, and examined them meticulously, as if not merely contemplating them, but navigating them in the present moment. “We might call you Clever Wizard.” He eyed Venos sidelong. “Are you happy working for that artifact?”

“Rich Wizard, my mistress has great renown, peerless skills, and priceless wisdom.”

“That biddy’s more precious than priceless, I’d say.”

While a tittering snort eased from Venos’s nostrils, their trembling flare twitched only for a moment in his calm, mask-like reserve. “Please, Rich Wizard. If you truly wish to honor me, let us not discuss Lucinia.”

“I have nothing else to add. Your long presentation has fatigued my wit, Clever Wizard.”

“And you may call me Venos.”

“Forgive me if I decline.”

When Venos gritted his teeth, stopped short in the hallway, laid one hand on the rolled sheaf, and fixed Ilmar with a stubborn glare, Ilmar realized he must revise his estimate of Venos, who now seemed less lapdog than donkey or badger. “If we were here for sport, I might not mind, Rich Wizard. But we are here for business, and your habits become distracting.”

“You are here on sufferance,” sneered Ilmar. “At the time of my constitutional, and very near lunch. If you will be Clever Wizard, it will at least whet a generous appetite.”

Venos sighed and shrugged. “As you will, Rich Wizard.”

Now he was a rabbit, thought Ilmar. While Ilmar had enjoyed tearing into Venos with mental claws, and supping on his bleeding inferiority, if the dapper but pitiful minion would only lay there cold and dead, it was no fun at all. “Forget it. I give you back your name. Why should I invest in your design, Venos? And be quick about it, as quick as a hen fleeing an axe.” Why was he thinking about animals all the time, Ilmar wondered. Was the griffin’s influence seeping into his brain? At this point, Ilmar could scarcely care, if it ended up putting more meat back on the menu.

“I presume you like money, Rich Wizard?”

“Oh, the lucrative potential of your invention is quite apparent. And call me Ilmar,” he said, with a grudging sigh. “No, I mean the other purpose.”

Venos looked at him askance. “What other purpose, Ilmar?”

“Its covert purpose, of course. Do you think me so dull as not to see this”--he pointed to a finely inked patch on the schematic--“or this”--he tapped another--“or this--this one’s my favorite.”

“You do me too much credit. You see things I never intended.”

“So I’m seeing things?”

“Call it serendipity.”

Ilmar’s brow creased in a dark look. “Serendipity? That’s a load of hot, stinking stupidity, Venos.” As Venos backed away, Ilmar checked his rage until it mellowed to a low simmer. “You play a nice part, but fashion isn’t your interest, is it?”

“I have always striven to advance the cause of good taste...”

“But that’s only instinct, Venos. I’m interested in a man’s work. A man’s heart. This isn’t fashion. This is science.”

“Please, Rich Wizard.” When Venos rolled back to the nickname, Ilmar guessed that the lapdog was the true Venos, and wondered when he would play dead. He could only roll over so many times. “Don’t shout. While she is somewhat older, there is nothing wrong with her hearing.”

“I shaped this castle from mountain granite. With the door shut, she won’t hear anything.”

“But there mustn’t even be a chance of her overhearing.”

“She doesn’t know about your experiment?” Ilmar’s sneer peaked, but softened. “I pity you, Venos. She gives neither you nor your talent a passing glance.”

“Experiment? It’s only a toy. Something to occupy me at my desk.”

“A toy?” Ilmar chuckled. “As a specialist in breeding monsters, Venos, I recognize new life when I see it.”

Venos scoffed and turned aside. “It’s hardly alive. You may as well call a wind-up top a living thing.”

“In my lecture at last year’s Exhibition, I likened animals to exactly that--clockwork mechanisms with a certain amount of spring in their lively steps, which unwinds gradually from birth to death. Why else would enchanted monsters, such as dragons, dracoils, and griffins, live so much longer than their mundane cousins, like deer, wolves, or pigs, or even you and me? ” Having rested his elbows on an embrasure window sill, and his head on one hand, Ilmar gestured to the near wall, where a half-dozen griffins sprawled in the sinking daylight. When two rolled on their haunches to eye the window, their glare riveted over Ilmar’s shoulder to bore through Venos. “That one, the silvery one using his mangy wing for a pillow. Three hundred years old.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Venos. “And how could you possibly know?”

“To me, the fineness of their construction is as obvious as your clever plans. It is just that their design is infinitely subtler than your graphite and pen.”

“Someone made them?” Venos snickered. “You should move to Ardem. I thought my enchantments professor was mad. You definitely put the mad in scientist.”

“If you only knew. You’re dangerously close to finding out just how mad.”

Drawing back from the embrasure, Venos gestured wildly, as if his hands were not fingers but fireworks, exploding to underscore the sputtering of his mouth. “Maybe it’s true. No, not that you’re mad. Forgive that liberty. I meant only that designs have something of the divine. Even when I thought these plans finished, I could not stop meddling with them, not so much willfully expanding them as following the arc of a seed, as if the blueprints themselves were an egg alive, with not only a life burgeoning inside its body, but a mind coalescing inside its wooden head.”

“Calm down, Venos. They’re a fearful sight, but it’s not like I’d feed you to the griffins. That would make me far too jealous, as I’m still sucking on the marrow of your ideas.”

Having shuddered, Venos’s face was again hard as flint. “Then you will fund our project, Ilmar?”

Ilmar cocked his head. “Rich Wizard.”

“Did you not say...”

“Do you not know a negotiation when you’re in one?”

“We’ve already presented our proposal in as modest a means as we could imagine.”

“There’s a Clever Wizard,” tsked Ilmar. “I know better. Being both book-smart and streetwise myself, I know wizards are more often rams than sheep. You would not spend such an effort in reaching my cloud island were you an everyday, fleeceable fool, Venos.”

“What is your counter proposal?”

“I wouldn’t deign to offer one. Send the bill.”

“Then what are we negotiating for?”

“For the sport of it. Without my lunch, I must have something to sink my teeth into.” Despite his easygoing matter, Ilmar’s brooding was a blazing ship set afire by his volcanic appetite, having been denied his preferred fare far too long. Lunch. I haven’t had lunch in weeks. I can’t keep lunch down, and can’t help let lunch come up.

“If you want something more substantial to chew on, I could show you my work.”

“You’ve already started?”

“Lucinia is by no means poor,” said Venos, “and we only reached out once my researches led into more costly avenues.”

“Creating is expensive enough, but creating a mind--that’s a pearl of unimaginable price.”

“Perhaps not. I have some ideas. Would you like to see?”

Ilmar only nodded, brushed Venos’s away from the strange body mapped out in graphite and ink on crinkled sheets, and with a slight lift of his eyes, as if to steady his vision, he at last deigned to grip them in both hands, the better to look dead on at this future Exhibition spectacle. Having confirmed his glimmer of its value, which he had not wanted to let on under the sufferance of the hag, he now only grudgingly allowed to twist the left corner of his lip into a lopsided smile. Even as his grip tightened possessively on the sheafs, he felt the tension slip away, and the smile that stole across his lips felt genuine. “Very nice, Venos. You’re certain she doesn’t know?”

With Venos now standing so uncomfortably close, the broad, dark-skinned mage reminded Ilmar of a mountain that, in contracting vampirism, had tapered to a point on which he now teetered,

tottering even as it overshadowed. “Why should she know?”

“If you’re uncertain, we must assume she knows.”

“But she hasn’t said anything!”

“One can know and not care, or more likely, recognize a detail without attending to it, especially where minions are concerned. You needn’t pout, as I mean no slight in calling you her follower, Venos.”

“You speak as one with experience?” Venos glowered at Ilmar.

“What wizard was not minion before master? Moreover, with experience in overlooking faults in my own minions, you might trust me here. As much as I hate to admit it, your mistress is not unlike me, if only in temperament. In matters of taste, I am an independent, and not so slaved to trends, and in matters of skill, you can trust that I am her superior, but in matters of the heart, we are not so different. We both want the same thing, Venos.”

“And what is that, Rich Wizard?” Did the dusky, top-heavy wizard’s voice become huskier? And his glower had changed until it held a nervous edge, that threatened to bite back. Surely cannibalism was not so common now in the kingdoms of Lamuna, where it had only occurred in prehistory, war, or catastrophe; having cleared the first for millennia, and being currently free of the latter two, the human realms must be largely free of that fearful diet. Then why was Venos’s grin a flesh-craving one? It was the mirror of Ilmar’s own blood-hungry grin.

When Ilmar bowed his head, the better both to glance at the plans and avoid Venos’s glare, the top page unfurled, and he smacked his hands together, flapping the scroll between them, in snatching the dropped end. Why was he so flustered, he wondered.

“Is it not obvious? We are procurers of talent, Venos. We desire underlings worthy of oversight.”

Venos cleared his throat, stepped away, and paced down the corridor. “I had not expected you to make that offer.”

“It isn’t an offer yet. But to be fair, that was the direction I was heading. You’re not much of a negotiator, are you? You like cutting through from start to finish.”

“I won’t deny that while I’ve always liked a clean, crisp beginning, and a tidy, neat ending, I’ve never cared for middles.”

“But, Venos! Middles are what you squeeze! The juicy part! The good stuff!” Having boiled to a howl, Ilmar’s enthusiasm bottomed out into a growl.

“I am under contract,” said Venos.

“When I studied under Lothgud, I was court wizard to Algus. Has no one ever told you that double the masters means double the pay?”

Venos’s lower lip protruded as he seemed to contemplate. Raising his finger, he stroked one eyebrow as tenderly as one would pet a kitten. As his fingertip smoothed the brow, the wispy hairs tapering to the temple flicked up, as if in disobedience to the inventor. “What would you require? I would not have it said that I am disloyal, Ilmar.”

“You would not have it said, would you?” snickered Ilmar. “I hear the distinction you make, and respect you for it. Reputation is armor in this life, not only a powerful inducement to negotiation, but protection from the rabble, who more often than not shy from men of honor.”

“Do not mistake me, Ilmar. However much I resent Lucinia, I love her even more.”

“Of course. You do her a disservice with such closeness, for intimacy is self-serving. As close friends betray our faults as often as enemies, I would have none so close. In truth, you are as close to me now as any have been. A toast is in order.”

Leading Venos into an antechamber, Ilmar waved his hand and a cabinet swung outward noiselessly.

“A toast, Rich Wizard?”

“To friendship.” Reaching in the cabinet, Ilmar took a wine bottle and two glasses.

“Perhaps I am not so insincere as you, wizard. Let us toast, rather, ‘to friendliness,’” countered Venos. “To friendly ventures, friendly business, and so on.”

“That’s problematic, Clever Wizard.”

“Why so?”

“Because our venture is decidedly unfriendly--profitable yes, but not friendly. While we toast to our own advantage, Lucinia may suffer in the end, and no matter how wondrous your toy, every moment of animation or awareness must be misery for the inanimate, when paralysis is torture to the living”

Having uncorked the wine, Ilmar poured to a thumbnail’s width from the rim, then passed the sloshing glass.

“Logic is not an asset in my field of magic,” sniffed Venos. “Enchantment is, in and of itself, a non sequitur by its very nature. If I make a mug that fountains coffee on command, it isn’t causality that accounts for the coffee. Logic dictates that nothing comes from an empty mug, but this hypothetical mug would, nonetheless, fill jug upon jug with scalding hot coffee. With sufficient skill and imagination, I can make anything flower with illogical fruit. Now, logic can be of use here and there in mapping the nodes of illogic, but I can also treat them as lacunae, from which any wish can enter reality.”

“As I have always felt logic to be like poorly worded game rules, ripe for cheating, manipulation, and misreading, we have much in common, friend.”

“You like games?” Venos’s probing glance bore a hint of hunger.

“I love them, but to my sorrow rarely play. Having been betrayed by those I trusted, I prefer an entourage of thralls too mindless to grasp the rules.” Ilmar sipped his wine. “It’s amusing to watch them fumble the pieces, but I haven’t found a sufficient handicap which would allow me to play a satisfying round.” Ilmar repressed his shudder from the sour taste of the wine--a vintage he once adored, now tainted by griffin bloodlust.“How is it, anyway?”

“How is what?”

“Your enchanted coffee.”

“To tell you the truth, I haven’t perfected the taste.”

“It is a common flaw in enchanted food and draughts. When the taste is perfect, the aftertaste is peculiar, and so forth.”

“I will rise above it.”

“One in a thousand wizards master it, Venos. There are better applications for your great skill.” Ilmar tapped the schematic. “Here you might easily insert what would pay off in dividends later. Leaving none the wiser.”

“Only you.”

“You as well. Such is partnership.”

“Am I to take it that this is the condition of our funding?”

“You paint me as an extortionist, Venos. Say instead that your vision must accomodate my own.”

“Would you like to see what happens when I broach the subject to Lucinia?”

Ilmar guffawed. “I can imagine. Why tell her anything? I prefer to allow your charade, and credit Lucinia as the designer.”

“I wonder what she’s thinking now.” Either the wine flushed Venos’s cheeks, or this thought of his mistress made him nervous.

“Let’s ask her.” Clapping Venos on the shoulder, Ilmar rose.

“I haven’t finished my wine.”

“Tip it back, man.” Knocking back his own, Ilmar tossed the glass into the corner, where it evaporated in a spool of mist.

“Is this magic wine?” asked Venos.

“You put me in a delicate position, given our conversation,” said Ilmar.

“How so? The flavor fills my nose. I might be jealous, had Iattempted it myself.”

“In context with what my remarks on the difficulty of magicking up food and drink, I would seem to be bragging.”

“You should be proud. It’s fragrant, sweet but not too fruity, and has a hint of bitter without aftertaste.”

“Perhaps I have had too much of my own vintage. It’s everyday wine to me.”

“I wouldn’t offer any to Lucinia. She can be stingy with praise.”

“But she seems so graceful,” snickered Ilmar.

“Oh, she knows how to turn a compliment. I have heard a handful. And she is most delicate of phrase.”

“The young give the old too much credit,” groused Ilmar. “Fragile is not delicate.”

“As I would not have her snap either way, let us not have her think herself obligated to me for our negotiation. Perhaps over one of those games you so rarely get to enjoy? If you ask my mistress questions relevant to our project, the honor of our deal might be conferred upon Lucinia.”

“That sounds wonderful. So long as you let me win.”

“Why would I need to? You being the more rarefied intellect. Speaking of which, what would said rarefied intellect have me insert in my design?”

“Don’t worry, Venos. It’s an improvement.” At the younger wizard’s scowl, Ilmar only beamed a broader smile. “Until now you have only played at creation.”

“What do you mean?”

“Right now it is only art to you.”

"Only art?”

“Not that I am dismissive of the arts. They make the doldrums of our life not only bearable, but so intriguing that we revisit them in our memories. But your impulse here is not artistic.”

“Of course it is!”

“Are you so sure? With only the slightest nudge, it would cease to be artifice.”

Venos muttered under his breath as he examined the schematic, drawing his finger along where Ilmar had pointed. “You mean I could make something real.”

“Not real,” tittered Ilmar. “You’re a wizard, not a god. But you could make something that mattered, that acted upon this world in profound ways despite its utter unreality.”

“It’s not what I intended.”

“Isn’t it?” Ilmar felt his smile broaden to a smug width. It filled him with a foul pleasure, not unlike swearing.

“What would Lucinia say?”

“Ask her.”

“No,” said Venos. “I will insert what you suggest.”

“Not that it changes the design much.” Ilmar smirked. “You were already flirting with the idea.”

“What if I was?”

“Don’t mistake me, Clever Wizard. I could care less about what goes on in your head. It’s what happens in the world that interests me. And your project promises a grand upshot.”

“There would be expenses, you know.”

“Yes. It’s why you came to me. Had Lucinia peered too closely, she would have suggested cheaper components and brought your project to an honorable but inhibited conclusion. But you’re not after anything so stifling as renown and respect, are you? You’re out to create life, you petty little, would-be godling.”

When Venos looked as if he would have liked to say something, he settled for clearing his throat, then, after a premonitory lull, wrested the blueprints away with a vigor surprising in one so slim.

In this dust-darkened wing of Ilmar’s castle, the younger wizard was even skinnier than his shadow, and as he examined his plans with the wide, fervid eye of a fanatic looking on a divine mystery for the first time, this emaciation made his rekindled interest seem hungry. “I see now why you would think so.”

“Even wizards hide causes from themselves, Clever Wizard.”

Venos scowled. “I am no child, hiding from my own desires. I know what I want.”

“Yes you do.” Ilmar noddled and chuckled. “You’re making yourself a playmate, aren’t you?”

“Do you intend to fund me, or mock me, Rich Wizard?” While Venos grumbled and fumed, his persistence in using Ilmar’s ridiculous honorific spoke volumes as to how much Venos craved the consummation of his vision. Unspoken or unspeakable as it was, Venos had talked around it for twenty minutes, and managed to lead Ilmar in a circumlocutory dance that ended with money in hand.

“As you will, Venos. Forgive my little game. Being surrounded by thralls, only my occasional guests give me the interaction I desire.”

“Indeed.” Venos’s eyebrow arched. “Are you not attending this year? It is to be a Grand Exhibition. Surely you’ve heard?”

“Indeed. And I have agreed to head a lecture.”

On reaching the double doors to the dining chamber where they had left Lucinia, Ilmar rested his fingers on the handle, then turned in a whisper. “Just to be clear--my funding is contingent on your insertion of an instrument of my own devising, Venos.”

While irritation flashed in Venos’s eyes, and anger twitched at the corner of his lips, he managed to tamp down this defeated look under a broad smile. Ilmar marveled at how easily the younger wizard could suppress his toxic, serpentine emotions, and wondered how his mistress had managed to constrain such a monstrous ego, so very like his own. “Very well, Rich Wizard.”

“Call me Ilmar.”

“Very well, Ilmar.”

Having once been Algus’s court wizard for far too long, Ilmar well knew the taste of swallowed pride, and guessed that Venos had likely tried anyone and everywhere before approaching Ilmar. Not that Ilmar was too proud to be anyone’s last choice, given how hard he had made it to be reached.

Being unapproachable meant others minded your business.

Lucinia proved so adept at counterfeiting her feelings that the evening proved a delight, if a veiled joy, under which simmered the ugliness of her resentment, and the bitter, black taste of her jaded mirth, which made a half-dozen attempts to insinuate a tryst had occurred between her apprentice and their new patron. The old bird was so vain that while she no doubt guessed he let her win at Qamary, she preened anyway, a draconic peacock, simpering at a full roar as she gloated over the game.

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