The crimson-draped figure paced in the damp, circular chamber, his well-rehearsed path carrying him through the darkness shrouding the smooth stone wall and to an ancient bronze incense burner. He bent over the antique from Moonshae to permit the acrid vapors to spiral upward from the basin's scented coals into the shadowed recesses of his hood. He drew the smoky gray tendrils deep into his lungs while the haze from the burner and the room's lone, fat-soaked torch danced around his flowing robes.
Maligor's garb was similar to that worn by all of the Red Wizards of Thay-dark red, the color of blood oozing from a deep, fresh wound. The robe's many folds concealed his form; the sleeves hung several inches below the tips of his thin, pale fingers, and the hood obscured his gaunt, wrinkled face. The embroidered hem, which draped on the polished mosaic floor, swirled wildly about his slippered feet as he concluded his meditation and strode to the narrow window to gaze out over Amruthar.
The dying rays of the sun stained the city's cobblestone streets a glowing vermilion. Maligor's impressive tower rose just beyond the western edge of Amruthar, its shadow pointing like a lance to the closing gate. The location offered the Red Wizard a superior view of the major business district and the two-story inn where most of his informants operated.
Amruthar conferred an impression of quiet this early evening; only a few citizens roamed the streets in the section visible to Maligor. However, appearances in Thay, he knew, were nearly always deceptive. The alleys and shadowed walkways were alive with cutpurses and burglars just starting their evil agendas. Schemers bloomed and profited when the sky grew dark, and peddlers who proffered commodities too illicit to pass off during the day even in Faerun's most wicked country.
Most of the commonfolk were huddled inside their homes, protecting their mundane existences from the city's deviate nature. Maligor could smell the coal smoke rising sluggishly from the stone chimneys as they prepared their meager dinners. For a moment, the Red Wizard wondered what lavish feast his slaves would be baking for him-a fast that would have to be discarded, as he was too busy this evening for pleasantries.
Maligor glanced past the spacious open-air market. The crude wooden stalls were being ritualistically boarded up for the evening to prevent vagrants from sleeping inside, the unsold goods packed onto wagons to be trekked home because the merchants feared to leave them here, wisely trusting no one. The morning would bring a different view, a vibrant, welcoming, bustling scene to delight the senses. The market would be crowded with retailers hawking all manner of exotic fruits, fresh vegetables, homespun and imported cloth, and shiny trinkets to catch the eyes of women with gold jingling in their bulging purses.
Likely there would be a slave dealer or two, despite the merchant guild's mandate that slaves must be sold in the stockyards so that the sellers would have to pay taxes on their illicit goods. Some of the best deals could be made purchasing flesh in the open-air market, though, because the sellers needed to move the stock quickly before the guild tried to close them down and claim its due. Maligor made a mental note to send one of his buyers there tomorrow. A Red Wizard's prestige was often measured by the size of his slave stable. And in this country, where two-thirds of the population were slaves, Maligor always strove to maintain far more than his share.
Just beyond the emptying stalls sat the fashionable alcazar of a young Red Wizard, a man who flagrantly displayed his wealth, which he had incomparably more of than common sense or magical might. The opulent abode appeared out of place in the old section of the Free City of Amruthar. Maligor smiled. Neighboring countries claimed this was the only independent city in Thay. However, Maligor and the other Red Wizards-in fact all those who lived in Thay-knew better. While the city fell under no one Red Wizard's jurisdiction and claimed decades ago to have seceded from Thay, many of the most powerful Red Wizards lived nearby and secretly directed the government by manipulating the strings of the puppet rulers. Some wizards, Maligor among them, were more obvious in their control, openly bribing and magically charming people in key positions and making Amruthar more closely influenced by the Red Wizards than perhaps any other city in Thay.
Maligor mused that the young Red Wizard ensconced in his perfect home never could be a power in the city. The newcomer likely lived here because of the closeness of the great teachers of the arcane, such as Maligor. But the young man would never climb above the rank of a simple fledgling. Maligor would see to that.
Maligor, on the other hand, had great bureaucratic and supernatural strength. He was a zulkir, the Zulkir of Alteration, one of a handful of Red Wizards who guided Thay's destiny through an all-powerful political council that directed the rulers of each city, created laws, both useful and obscure; detailed their enforcement; and described in massive volumes the punishments for lawbreakers. The zulkirs, however, only called upon Thay's courts to discipline people when it was convenient, and in fact often ordered those in their employ to commit every illegality that could be conceived. The zulkirs, who did not trust each other and did not cooperate beyond the council, could engage in whatever nefarious and heinous acts they desired. They were above the law. The council also dictated Thay's foreign policy, which at this point consisted of keeping every neighboring country unnerved and guessing.
Each zulkir personally controlled a magical discipline and oversaw all those who studied it. Maligor's specialty was transmuting objects, living and otherwise. If his current plan proved successful, he would control much more than that.
Maligor resumed watching the young sorcerer's mansion, curious about the young wizard. He closed his eyes and concentrated, visualizing in his mind being inside the elegant building, peering through the windows, glancing down corridors, searching. In a hazy vision, he witnessed servants bearing the young man steaming platters of rare delicacies. Splendid, Maligor thought. The fool will be too full and lazy to pay me any heed this evening, and he is too weak to put up the proper wards to keep prying eyes away from his home.
It was the nature of Red Wizards to second-guess their peers and ceaselessly protect their backs. The wizards frequently plotted against each other for pleasure, for personal gain, for retribution, or simply to hone their skills. This puerile behavior prevented most wizards from gaining sufficient power to rise above their brethren, and it also forestalled them from working together to expand Thay's boundaries.
Despite the magical inactivity at the young wizard's alcazar, Maligor realized that other Red Wizards in the city would be busy this night, no doubt brewing their own wicked plans to inflict pain and suffering on others for their own financial or personal reward. He fancied that none of their plots would be as devious or promising as his present scheme, for he held little respect for his colleagues. A smile gently tugged at the corner of Maligor's pale, cracked lips. None in Amruthar, none in Thay-indeed even no one else in his own tower-knew what he was up to.
He retreated from the window to the incense burner's bitter embrace. The smoke caressed his face and made his throat feel dry and his mouth taste sour. Still, Maligor enjoyed the druglike sensation, savoring it for long moments while his eyes watered from the thick vapors. Then abruptly he stiffened, detecting another familiar scent, one less pleasing-one that smelled like rotting flesh.
Stepping away from the burner, the wizard's gray, rheumy eyes peered into the shadows, probing intently until he discovered the source of the stench, then narrowing to thin slits to evidence his displeasure.
'What do you want, Asp?' Maligor's voice had a noticeable edge to it. 'What catastrophe is unfolding? Surely something has gone amiss. Otherwise, you would not dare interrupt my meditation.'
The wizard's tones were soft and raspy, though not by choice. Appearing elderly by human standards, perhaps sixty or seventy, Maligor was in fact more than two hundred years old. The viscous magical elixirs he concocted in his secret chambers in this tower and in his other numerous residences throughout Thay helped his frail form to stave off many of the effects of age. His voice, however, hadn't held up as well against the passage of time.
'My Lord Maligor, I'm sorry to intrude, but this truly is important.' The feminine voice was sultry, caressing the stale air in the chamber like a summer breeze.
'Yes?' Maligor entreated, still peering into the darkness.