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6

In Which Mendanbar and Cimorene Have a Long Talk and Mendanbar Reluctantly Decides to Embark on a Journey

Mendanbar took a deep breath. "I think you'd better tell me everything you know about this," he said. "When did Kazul leave, and where was she going?"

"She left last Monday," Cimorene replied readily. "She was going to visit her grandchildren in the northern part of the mountains. She does that whenever she gets a chance, and sometimes she stays a few extra days, but she's always sent word before when she's done that."

She frowned worriedly.

"I-grandchildren?"

Cimorene smiled. "I know. I was taken aback when I found out about them, too. You just don't think of the King of the Dragons as a doting grandmother, but she is. In fact, I suspect she took longer than she had to about the negotiations with the Frost Giants up there, just so she'd have an excuse to stay a few more days. Anyway, she was planning to spend a couple of days with them and then swing through the Enchanted Forest on her way home."

"She was coming to see me?" Mendanbar asked, surprised.

"Not exactly." Cimorene hesitated. "We'd heard that someone was growing dragonsbane in one of the valleys along the border, and she wanted to see whether it was true. You can see why I'm worried."

"Growing dragonsbane-you mean, deliberately planting it? There have always been a few patches of the stuff here and there."

"The way we heard it, this was an entire valley full. That's hardly accidental." Cimorene lifted the lid of the teapot and peered inside, then poured a cup for each of them. "Kazul wanted to check for herself, quietly, before any of the younger dragons heard about it.

Some of them areimpulsive. She didn't want someone tearing off in a fury to burn down the Enchanted Forest with no more reason than a rumor."

"Oh, lord." Mendanbar pushed his hair backward off his forehead and grimaced at his tea. "I'll bet that's what happened. I wish she'd sent word to me."

Cimorene studied her cup with unnecessary thoroughness. "She was afraid you might be the one doing it."

"Me?"

"The King of the Enchanted Forest . You haven't been particularly friendly since she took over, you know." She frowned suddenly. "Why'd you turn up today, anyway? And what did you mean, 'that's what happened'? Don't tell me somebody really has started setting fire to the Enchanted Forest !"

"Almost," Mendanbar said. He explained about the dead area and the dragon scales he had found. "Morwen said that they were all from the same dragon, but they had been enchanted to look as if they came from several different dragons. I was hoping King Kazul would tell me which dragon they belonged to, and maybe let me ask him a few questions."

"Let me look at them," Cimorene said.

Mendanbar took the scales out of his pocket and spread them out on the table.

Cimorene made a face. "I can tell you whose scales they were, all right, but I'm afraid it won't help much. Woraug isn't around any more."

"It's a start," Mendanbar said. "You're sure these are his?"

"Very sure. But I'm afraid you won't be able to ask him any questions." Cimorene smiled, as if at some private joke.

"Why not?"

"Because the reason Woraug isn't around any more is that he got turned into a toad about a year ago. Do you know how the King of the Dragons is chosen?"

"By a test," Mendanbar replied, a little puzzled by the question.

"When a king dies, the crown goes to whichever dragon can carry Colin's Stone from the Ford of Whispering Snakes to the Vanishing Mountain."

"Yes. Well, Woraug poisoned the old King of the Dragons. Then he arranged with the Society of Wizards to rig the test so he'd be the next King," Cimorene said matter-of-factly. "It was mostly luck that we found out in time to stop them. When we did, Woraug turned into a toad because of his un-dragonlike behavior." She sipped at her tea. "I think a snake ate him," she added thoughtfully.

There were so many things Mendanbar wanted to say in response to this disturbing summary that for a moment he couldn't say anything at all.

He took a large swallow of tea, which gave him an extra minute to think. "Is that why the wizards have been banned from the Mountains of Morning?" he managed at last.

"Of course," Cimorene answered. "Kazul couldn't do anything more.

Even though we knew it was all their idea, it was Woraug who actually poisoned the King. Didn't Morwen tell you about it? She was there."

"No," Mendanbar said. "It didn't come up." He shook his head. "No wonder Zemenar didn't want to talk about why the dragons don't want wizards in the mountains anymore."

Cimorene nodded. "The wizards don't talk about it because their scheme didn't work out, and the dragons don't talk about it because the wizards came so close that the dragons are embarrassed to admit it.

And Morwen is too discreet to spread the story around when the dragons would rather she didn't."

"I see." Mendanbar saw considerably more than that. The disagreement between the dragons and the Society of Wizards was not a minor matter, as Zemenar had led him to believe. And Kazul's princess-or rather, Chief Cook and Librarian, he reminded himself-was nothing like the sneaky, manipulative girl Zemenar had hinted she was, either. It looked very much as if Zemenar had been deliberately trying to cause trouble between Mendanbar and the dragons, or at least get Mendanbar off to a bad start with their King. He wondered what Zemenar would have said about Morwen if her name had come up.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the Society of Wizards was behind this, too," Cimorene said, waving her hand at the scales. "It's exactly the kind of twisty scheme they'd come up with."

"It's possible," Mendanbar acknowledged, "but why would they want to bring the Enchanted Forest into their argument with the dragons?"

"Maybe they think you'll clean the dragons out of the mountains, or at least reduce their numbers enough so that the wizards will be able to come through without getting eaten."

Mendanbar shook his head. "If it came to a fight, the Enchanted Forest and the Mountains of Morning would be very evenly matched. A war would cut the wizards off from both places as long as there was any fighting, and it would probably drag on for ages. Zemenar must know that. He'd have to have an awfully good reason to start something like that."

"Maybe he does."

"Maybe, but I can't think what it could be. Can you?"

"No," Cimorene admitted. "But if I figure it out, I'll let you know."

"Meanwhile, is there anyone else who could have done this?"

Mendanbar asked, waving at the line of scales on the table.

"There aren't many people who can get hold of even one dragon scale, much less five from the same dragon," Cimorene said, scowling at the table.

"Woraug's princess might have kept one or two as a souvenir, but I don't think she'd have had this many, and anyway she doesn't know any magic."

Suddenly she looked up. "Wait a minute! When Woraug turned into a toad, a whole batch of scales fell off and scattered."

"What happened to them?"

"We just left them at the ford," Cimorene said with a shrug. "Nobody thought it was important. Most of them are probably still there.

Dragon scales last a long time."

"At the Ford of Whispering Snakes?" Mendanbar asked. Cimorene nodded, and he grimaced. "Then anyone who walked by could have picked up these scales any time in the past year. That doesn't narrow things down much."

"I'm as sorry about that as you are," Cimorene said.

Mendanbar's face must have shown his surprise, because she gave him an exasperated look and went on, "Hadn't it occurred to you that we'd want to know who's plotting to get dragons blamed for their mischief?.

Especially if it turns out not to be the Society of Wizards."

"But-oh. If it's not the Society, then you have a new enemy you don't know anything about."

Cimorene nodded again, very soberly. "I just wish I had time to look into it right now, but with Kazul missing it will have to wait."

"You'll let me know when she gets back?"

"I'll tell Roxim to send you word if she shows up while I'm gone," Cimorene assured him. "And if I find her first, I'll tell her everything you've told me. I'm sure she'll get in touch with you right away."

"Thank you."

"Now, is there anything else you want to know? Because if there isn't, I need to be going," Cimorene went on. "It's a long walk to Flat Top Mountain, and I'd like to get there before dark."

"Surely you don't plan to walk all the way to the northern end of the Mountains of Morning." He was surprised and suddenly disappointed by this evidence of princesslike behavior. From their brief acquaintance, he'd thought Cimorene had better sense.

"Of course not," Cimorene replied impatiently. "I'm not stupid. I'm going to borrow a magic carpet from Ballimore, the giantess who lives on Flat Top Mountain."

Mendanbar choked on the last of his tea. "Do you expect a giantess to loan you a carpet just because you have a dragon with you?" he demanded when he could talk again.

"I'd better not, since I won't have a dragon with me," Cimorene retorted.

"Not that it's any of your business."

"You're going to wander around the Mountains of Morning alone looking for King Kazul?" Mendanbar said, appalled.

"Exactly. And if I can't find her there, I'll swing through the Enchanted Forest on the way back, just the way she was planning to.

And it's time I got started, so if you'll just-" "Oh, no." Mendanbar set his teacup down so emphatically that it rattled the saucer. "If you're fool enough to travel through the Mountains of Morning without a companion, that's not my concern, but you are not going through the Enchanted Forest alone. It's too dangerous."

"I can take care of myself," Cimorene snapped. "You forget, I've been living with the dragons for over a year."

"Maybe so," Mendanbar said, trying hard to hold on to his temper.

"But the Enchanted Forest is very different from the Mountains of Morning.

And what do you suppose will happen if the King of the Dragons's Princess-or Cook and Librarian, or whatever-gets captured or killed or enchanted going through my forest?"

Cimorene opened her mouth to reply, then paused. "Oh," she said in a very different tone. "Oh, I see. That would cause just the sort of trouble we're both trying to avoid, wouldn't it? I'm sorry. I'm used to people objecting to things because they think I can't do them or shouldn't do them. It didn't occur to me that you might have a real reason."

"Then you won't go?" Mendanbar said with relief.

"I have to," Cimorene said in the tones of one explaining something obvious. "It's my job. Besides, Kazul is my friend. I'll just have to make sure I don't get captured or killed or enchanted, that's all."

"It's not as easy as you make it sound."

"I know. I've visited Morwen a time or two," Cimorene said. "I'll manage, one way or another."

Mendanbar started to object again, then stopped. He didn't think Cimorene was quite as sure of herself as she sounded, but she was plainly determined to go hunting for Kazul. Well, she was right about one thing: somebody had to find the King of the Dragons, and soon.

Mendanbar didn't like to think of what might happen if Kazul stayed missing for long, especially if rumors about dragonsbane in the Enchanted Forest started floating around the mountains.

"Is there anyone you can take with you?" Mendanbar asked.

"No," Cimorene said. "Roxim and Marchak are the only dragons who have enough sense not to go off in fits when they hear that Kazul is missing.

Roxim is too old for adventures, and Marchak has to stay and take care of business while I'm gone. And I hope you're not going to suggest I borrow Marchak's princess."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Mendanbar said sincerely. "Is she very awful?"

"Actually, she's one of the nice ones," Cimorene admitted. "But she's very silly. She'd try, but she wouldn't enjoy it at all, and she'd be much more of a nuisance than she's worth. I'd rather take my chances alone."

"That's almost as bad an idea as taking that princess along," Mendanbar said. He sighed. "I suppose I'll have to come with you myself."

Cimorene stared at him blankly for a moment, then began to giggle.

"It isn't funny," Mendanbar said. "I mean it." He felt a little hurt by Cimorene's reaction. He wasn't necessarily stuffy or useless or a nuisance to travel with just because he was the King of the Enchanted Forest. Cimorene ought to realize that. After all, he'd fixed the sink for her, hadn't he?

"I know you mean it," Cimorene said when she could talk again. "It wasn't what you said, it was the way you said it." She shook her head, chuckling. "You sound about as eager to come with me as I am to have company. Which isn't much."

"Maybe not, but somebody-" "What was that?" Cimorene interrupted, holding up a hand for silence.

"I didn't hear anything," Mendanbar said.

"Shhh," Cimorene hissed. She rose and tiptoed to the door, listening.

In the quiet, Mendanbar heard a faint thud outside. Cimorene's lips tightened.

"Princes or wizards?" she muttered. "Wizards, I'll bet. Princes are noisier."

Still frowning, she picked up the bucket of soapy water that was sitting beside the door. As she reached for the doorknob, Mendanbar started after her. Cimorene hadn't asked for his help, but a bucket of soapy water wasn't much of a weapon against a wizard. If it was a wizard.

The corridor outside the kitchen was pitch black. Cimorene vanished into the gloom, moving with the calm sureness of long familiarity.

Cursing mentally, Mendanbar picked his way after her, one hand on the cave wall for guidance, the other stretched out in front of him to keep him from running into anything.

Another muffled crash echoed from up ahead. Mendanbar took two more steps and his outstretched arm touched Cimorene's shoulder. A moment later, Cimorene's voice said calmly, "Phrazelspitz."

Mendanbar felt magic rise around him. Light flared from the walls, then settled into a steady glow, revealing an enormous cavern. He and Cimorene stood in one of five dark openings spaced unevenly around the wall. Halfway across the cave, a tall man in blue and brown wizard's robes stood hanging onto a staff and trying to squint in all directions at once. His hair and beard were brown, and he bore a strong resemblance to Zemenar, only younger.

"Antorell," Cimorene said in tones of disgust. "I might have guessed."

"I'm glad to see you again, Princess Cimorene," the wizard said in an oily tone. "But who could fail to rejoice at the sight of so lovely a princess?"

"What are you doing here?" Cimorene demanded. Mendanbar was pleased to note that she didn't sound at all mollified by Antorell's flattery.

"And how did you get in without being eaten?"

"Oh, we wizards have our little ways," Antorell said airily. "And I came because-well, because I was concerned about you, Princess."

"I'll bet," Cimorene muttered. "What do you mean?" she said in a louder voice.

"I thought you might need a friend." Antorell's voice oozed sincerity.

"Especially after what Father said when he came back from the Enchanted Forest. If King Mendanbar really is getting ready for a war with the drag "Where did your father get that idea?" Cimorene asked in tones of mild interest.

Antorell frowned slightly, as if he had hoped for a stronger reaction.

"Something the King said to him, I think. I shouldn't have repeated it, I suppose, but I was carried away by my feelings."

"Sure you were," Cimorene said. "That's why you sneaked in here without knocking and went blundering around in the dark, instead of calling me or at least bringing a lamp."

"I didn't want to disturb King Kazul, if she happened to be here," Antorell said stiffly.

Cimorene snorted. "If you'd really thought Kazul was here, you wouldn't have come at all. She doesn't like it when people ignore her rules.

One of which, may I remind you, was that wizards aren't allowed in the Mountains of Morning anymore."

"But if there's going to be a wan" "There isn't," Mendanbar said, stepping forward into the light. "At least, not if I can help it. Why are you people trying so hard to make trouble, anyway?"

Antorell's eyes widened, and he sucked in his breath. "Mendanbar? You'll ruin everything, blast you." He smiled a sudden, nasty smile.

"Unless I deal with both of you now. Oh, yes, that will do very well.

Father will be so pleased."

He raised his staff. Mendanbar started toward him, pulling his sword free as he ran, though he knew the wizard was much too far away to reach before he finished the spell. Cimorene followed quickly, not quite running, carrying her bucket carefully to avoid spilling. They had only gone a few steps when a swirl of smoke appeared in the air in front of them.

The smoke thickened rapidly, then congealed with shocking suddenness into the largest nightshade Mendanbar had ever seen. It was two feet taller than Mendanbar and covered with spikes of coarse black fur. Its beady black eyes glared at him as it raised a long arm and clicked its dark purple claws together. It hissed, showing a mouthful of fangs.

"There!" cried Antorell over the nightshade's noise. "Vanquish that, Cimorene-if you can!"


5 In Which There Is a Misunderstanding and Mendanbar Does Some Plumbing | Searching for Dragons | 7 In Which a Wizard Makes a Mess and the Journey Begins