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Dragons in their pleasant palaces. -Isaiah 14:12 The young novice made his way quickly down the quiet halls of the lodge set high up on the slopes of Mount Shasta. The rest of the shamans and other inhabitants of the Shasta Lodge were settling in for the night, but Running Bird had a duty to fulfill before he could do so. He tried to calm his thoughts, following the instructions of his teachers to reach an inner core of peace and strength as he walked up to the great doors. A knock on the double wooden doors of the chamber interrupted Hestaby’s meditation. She raised her head, the great eyes half-closed, and turned toward the entrance. “Enter,” she said, and the doors opened to admit Running Bird. He bowed deeply, hands folded before him, and the great dragon coiled in the room returned the bow with a nod of her great, scaled head. “Forgive this interruption, Lady,” the novice said in a quiet voice. “There is an incoming communication for you. It is encoded and tagged as most urgent.” Indeed? Hestaby thought. How curious. She inclined her head again in acknowledgement of the acolyte’s message. “Very well, Running Bird. You will remain and speak for me.” The young man was clearly taken aback by the command. To be privy to the great dragon’s secret communications was no small thing, but Hestaby did not doubt the loyalty of those closest to her. “I, Lady? As… as you wish.” He closed the door behind him and walked over to the communications console hugging the stone wall near where Hestaby’s great body spawled on the floor. With quiet efficiency, he tapped some keys and brought up a trideo image that filled much of the blank, whitewashed wall behind the console. The image was of a complex fractal pattern, beautiful in its complexity. A few seconds after the console was engaged, the pattern dissolved and the image of a face appeared on the screen. It was an elf with dark hair swept back from his face, covering his pointed ears. But his sharp, elven features were as clear as if he were in the room with them. Hestaby’s voice spoke in Running Bird’s mind and he relayed the words. It felt almost like the dragon were using him as a mouthpiece, requiring no effort on his part. “Leonardo,” the novice’s voice said, “what an unexpected pleasure. To what do I owe the honor of taking you from your studies?” The elf on the screen looked askance at Running Bird for a moment, and the novice felt the force of the dark gaze upon him. Leonardo shifted his attention back to Hestaby with a slight shrug, apparently deciding the dragon’s servant was of no concern to him. His voice was melodious and charming. “I have called on a matter of mutual interest, gracious lady. We both have our opinions regarding the ways and the future of our peoples. Once those ideas placed us in the minority, but recent events have changed the course of the future and may offer opportunities for… alternative viewpoints to be heard and listened to. I would very much like to meet with you to discuss the possibilities.” Hestaby cocked her great head to one side in a quizzical look as Leonardo spoke, and Running Bird waited for the dragon’s voice in his mind to tell him how to reply. There was a long moment of silence, and he looked back over his shoulder at his mistress. She nodded and the novice turned back to the screen as her thought-voice spoke through him. “An interesting offer,” Hestaby said, “one I would not have expected from you. There was a time when such a meeting would have been considered impossible.” “All the more reason to undertake it,” Leonardo replied. “I have always been fond of accomplishing the impossible as, I believe, are you.” “There are those who will see a meeting such as this as a threat,” Hestaby said, and Running Bird felt a slight chill as he spoke the words. Who could possibly threaten a dragon with the power of Hestaby, she who had once turned back an elven army from the slopes of Mount Shasta? “Perhaps, but what is life without a little risk?” Leonardo replied. Hestaby paused for another long moment, and Running Bird could almost hear the great dragon’s thoughts buzzing on the edge of his awareness before she spoke again in his mind and directed his voice toward the trideo screen. “Very well. Where do you wish to meet?” she asked. The elf gave an enigmatic smile that made his classic features seem to light up with pleasure. “How about my place?” In a vast arcology on the banks of the Rhur, a great dragon lay curled up like a sleeping cat on the fine marble floor of a room large enough to serve as a hangar for a private jet. Giant columns supported the vaulted ceiling and fine carvings decorated the stone walls. The room was solid, cool, and gave off a comforting atmosphere for a creature used to lairing in great mountain caves. Unlike those lairs of old, there were no piles of treasure, no picked bones, or rusted weapons belonging to foolish would-be dragonslayers. The room was clean and dry, filled with the heavy musk of reptilian scales and the faint charred odor of smoke. There was no furniture and no windows-save those open to display computer graphics or information-the room’s sole inhabitant needed neither. The vast room in Saeder-Krupp’s world headquarters in the Rhine-Rhur megaplex was jokingly known as “the corner office” by the dragon’s minions. They thought he was unaware of their nickname for his lair, but there was precious little the great dragon Lofwyr, President and Chairman of the Board of Saeder-Krupp Heavy Industries, was not aware of. All the dragon needed was the collection of moving images filling most of one wall of the great chamber. The display screens on the wall provided a steady flow of information to keep his vast mind occupied. A visitor to the room might have suspected that Lofwyr was asleep. Sitting curled up with his great, wedge-shaped head resting on his forelegs, large golden eyes nearly hidden beneath their heavy lids, the dragon stared languidly at the video wall. It was just before dawn in Germany, and few people were awake in the vast arcology. Lofwyr’s mind, however, was ever active, following all of the input from those screens while simultaneously juggling a dozen different thoughts at once. Some of the windows open on the video-wall provided updates on the activities of Saeder-Krupp and its many subsidiaries and interests across the globe. Saeder-Krupp was the largest megacorporate conglomerate in the world. Overseeing the hundreds of companies it controlled would be a monumental feat for a human CEO, but for Lofwyr the intricacies of corporate politics and economics were something to keep his mind occupied. He reviewed the activities of dozens of companies a minute, storing away the information and keeping mental notes he would later dictate to his servants to carry out. Stock information, buyouts, the rise and fall of businesses around the world, all took up a mere fraction of the dragon’s attention. Other windows displayed information about Lofwyr’s other interests. There were few things in the Sixth World in which he did not take at least some interest, so displays of new trideo programs, documentaries, stock portfolios, and other pieces of data gathered by Lofwyr’s agents, both living and artificial, decorated the video-wall for his edification and amusement. Toxic spills in the North Sea, gun-running in Southeast Asia, another border skirmish in China, political polls from the United Canadian and American States, all of these were grist for the mill of Lofwyr’s brain.

The dragon had a vast network of agents in every country devoted to nothing more than feeding information into his hungry brain for him to digest: updates, rumors, and secrets from all over the world. Despite the vast amount of data rushing past on the display before him, the great dragon seemed almost bored, impatiently waiting for something to happen. He huffed a great sigh, sending small trickles of smoke pouring from his nostrils as he kept watch over the world through the magic of modern technology, thinking of the days when a magical mirror or pool would have served in place of the video wall. But such tools were not as quick or efficient as the power of the Matrix for processing information. Modern technology had its uses. A musical tone interrupted the hubbub of the many display windows, and Lofwyr’s eyes widened, his head lifting slightly from where it rested. A red indicator on the display flashed “incoming transmission.” The dragon’s lips curled slightly in an almost-smile that would have chilled the blood of any Saeder-Krupp employee present in the room. Lofwyr smiled only rarely. It always meant the dragon had found something interesting to him, and no one wanted to be the object of Lofwyr’s interest. The flashing indicator opened into another window on the video wall, displaying the calm, refined features of Jean-Claude Priault, chief justice of the Corporate Court and Lofwyr’s employee. “Greetings, Master,” Priault said. Most modern people had trouble with Lofwyr’s preferred title. Even the most pitiful wretch from the Barrens of Seattle or post-war Europe believed they were above calling anyone “master,” but Priault managed the term quite well without becoming utterly servile in the process. It was one of the reasons Lofwyr liked the human and chose him to represent Saeder-Krupp on the Corporate Court: Priault was a good leader because he was such a capable follower. Lofwyr wished all humans were more like him. The great dragon inclined his head at Priault’s image, acknowledging him, then stretched his long neck up to its full height, working out some of the kinks from lying still. Lofwyr preferred to discuss business in person whenever possible, but with the chief justice on board Zurich-Orbital that was not an option. Modern communications were most inconvenient for dragons, because they did not speak as humans did: using the lips and tongue. Those organs were best used for eating, in Lofwyr’s opinion. Dragons spoke with the power of their magical brains, directly into the minds of others. Unfortunately, machines could not pick up the transmission of dragonspeech, so certain… modifications were necessary to make use of electronic communication. A human translator was one option, but Lofwyr preferred to handle this matter personally. With a slight wave of one great talon, Lofwyr’s form began to shimmer and change. Like smoke, the body of the multi-ton dragon dissolved and assumed the shape of a man, tall and thin, with long, white hair swept back from a high forehead. He wore a finely tailored suit echoing the color of the dragon’s own scales. He brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his sleeve before turning toward the screen where Priault’s image waited. Few humans had known anything of the great dragons’ ability to assume a human form before Dunkelzahn demonstrated it to them. It was a violation of one of the many secrets of his kind, but Dunkelzahn had paid the price for his indiscretions and humanity remained uncertain if other great dragons possessed the same ability. The dragons weren’t talking and people were reluctant to question a dragon who didn’t want to be questioned, which was fine with Lofwyr. He displayed his ability only in front of trusted servants like Priault. The rest of the time, Lofwyr acted through intermediaries and translators able to carry out his wishes without any need for him to assume an uncomfortable human form. “What have you to report?” Lofwyr said in a deep voice as he strode closer to the display window. Human eyes were so poor that he wondered how the creatures saw anything at all. The chief justice cleared his throat a bit. “Very little so far,” Priault said with a bit of a shrug. “We are at recess currently. Osborne has begun to present her case. What she has so far is flimsy and circumstantial. It is unclear whether Fuchi really has the evidence to back it up.” “They have,” Lofwyr said. “It remains to be seen if they can use it properly. What are your thoughts on the tenor of the Court and Osborne’s chances of success?” Priault frowned at bit, his brow furrowed with deep lines. “The Court is concerned about Renraku,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “Its growth needs to be checked, and I think the court will take advantage of any viable opportunity to do so. It depends on whether or not Fuchi’s case is considered sufficient cause for the Court to act against Renraku in some way. Their success has not been anywhere near what Aztlan tried to do along the Pacific Rim, and we know how long it took the Court to decide to respond to that. Osborne will have to make it clear that Renraku is violating the concords of the Court and using means that could endanger us all. She is off to a good start, provided she backs it up with something more than rhetoric.” The dragon in human guise turned from the display and paced back a few steps, the click of his heels echoing loudly on the marble floor of the vast chamber. His hands were clasped behind his back. “Very well,” the dragon said. “Continue to support Osborne and Fuchi quietly and give her every opportunity to turn the Court against Renraku. If she is not able to do so or her evidence is not forthcoming, I may have to take a hand in the matter. But for now I am content to allow Fuchi to act against Renraku. If the two can be maneuvered into direct conflict, so much the better. I will consider a follow-through for the conclusion of this matter while you oversee the case. Continue to inform me of your progress.” Priault executed a bow before the camera. “Yes, Master,” he said, then cut the connection. Lofwyr paced back to the center of the room, tapping the palm of his hand. He reassumed his natural form, stretching languidly to work out the kinks, his powerful muscles rip-

pling under his scaled hide. He luxuriated in the cool surface of the marble, and curled up again to resume watching the displays on the video wall and to consider this new information to plot his next move. The matter of Renraku and Fuchi’s case against them had taken up considerable amounts of the great dragon’s attention. And it was not healthy to be the object of Lofwyr’s attention.

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