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Arthur came to Ingat on a fine afternoon in early summer. His sea-sorcery being somewhat unreliable, and having no wish to find himself suddenly swimming for his life in the deep sea west of Pendor, he'd bartered for passage on a merchant ship carrying linen out of Telio. He had learnt to travel light: an oaken mage's staff and a knapsack on his shoulder were all the goods that he possessed.

As he walked in along the quay, a susurrus of rumour rippled around him. He did not listen too closely. The arrival of a mage -- and certainly some had recognised him as such, despite his youth -- was always a matter of moment on these small islands out in the Reaches, even those without current cause to welcome a wizard.

"You'll be come to see to our dragon, then?" said the fellow at the inn, serving Arthur with ale and bread and waving away his coin.

"I am," said Arthur. "Has he been about this last week?"

The man shook his head. "Don't see much of him at all," he said. "He don't kill, 'part from a sheep now an' then; he don't steal aught, he don't fly out by day, he don't fancy maidens." This with a sly sidelong look: it was common knowledge that wizards were chaste.

Arthur blushed. "I'm glad your young folk are safe," he said. "Now, where do I find this dragon?"

A mile -- an uphill mile -- west of the town, Arthur halted at a crossroads, wiping sweat from his brow, and turned a slow full circle. Behind him small white houses, red-roofed, clustered around the quay. (He could just about make out the blue flag atop the tallest mast of the ship that'd brought him here.) To his left, southwards, a sandy track led down to a farmstead. To the west, the road diminished into a seldom-trodden path, half-overgrown with brambles. To the north, a wider path led twistily through a copse of ancient trees, some half-fallen and held up by garlands of ivy and the branches of sturdier specimens.

Arthur turned north.

Very quickly he was out of sight of the crossroads, and the cool green shade around him was like balm. He kept an eye on the path before him, looking for dragon-tracks: looking, truthfully, for any sign of his prey. Nothing. The copse turned out to be a wood, rather more extensive than Arthur'd expected from the innkeeper's account. The silence had a different quality to the hot stillness of the road.

"A visitor! What a delightful surprise!"

Arthur's teeth set against that voice even before his mind had acknowledged its familiarity. "Eames," he said, turning quickly in case Eames had somehow crept up behind him. He couldn't see anyone, anything. Only trees.

"To what do I owe the pleasure, Arthur?"

"Apparently," said Arthur, "there's a dragon terrorising the townsfolk."

"Well, I wouldn't have said 'terrorising', per se," said Eames thoughtfully. "Irritating, perhaps. At worst."

"You, irritating? Eames, I'm astonished."

"And you've come all this way to, what? Reprimand me?"

"To stop you," said Arthur firmly. "They don't care for dragons out here in the West Reach. C'mon. Let's see what you've got."

He waited, peering into the sun-barred green shadows of the wood, but no dragon was forthcoming.

"I don't have all day," said Arthur to the wood. "Why so shy, Eames? It's not as though --"

"I don't much care for dragon-form," said Eames, from somewhere to Arthur's left. "Thinking in the True Speech is like tying knots in one's mind: it takes an age to unravel anything."

"Then don't be a dragon," said Arthur, impatient and amused.

"On the other hand," came Eames' voice from over Arthur's shoulder, "dragons are positively encouraged to pursue virgins. And only a fool -- which dragons never, ever are -- would limit himself to virgins of a particular gender."

Arthur exhaled, short and sharp. He was fairly sure that he was blushing again, but it wouldn't be the first time that Eames had embarrassed or humiliated him. Nor, indubitably, the last. He turned on his heel to confront his old friend.

"I'm disappointed," he said at last, examining Eames for stray oddities. "I was looking forward to seeing your dragon-form."

"Why, thank you, Arthur," said Eames. He was himself (at least, he wore the form that he'd assured Arthur was his true appearance): a muscular man with a labourer's shoulders, a whore's mouth, and eyes like a storm at sea. It was an attractive sum of parts. "Your faith in my shape-changing is extremely flattering. I confess I wasn't looking forward to the part where you squash me back into this shape by speaking my true name. Forcible changes are frightfully uncomfortable, you know."

"It's not as though you've an especially mellifluous name," said Arthur. "But I'll use it anyway if you don't depart Ingat tonight."

Eames gestured at himself. "Surely they won't object to --"

"Eames," said Arthur, "I'm leaving tonight: and I." He swallowed. "I want you to come with me."

"Oh," said Eames, doubtfully: and then, like the sun coming out, "oh."

-end-