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CHAPTER ONE

Ending a Life

She opened her eyes to a morning she didnt want. With great reluctance, she lifted her head and looked around the single room. The cabin was cold. The fire had been out for hours, and the cold and damp of the unseasonably cool spring had crept relentlessly in while she huddled under her worn blankets, waiting for her life to go away. It hadnt. Life had lingered to ambush her again with cold and damp, disappointment and loneliness. She clutched her thin covers to her chest as her eyes wandered to the stacked and sorted papers and parchments that had occupied her for the last week. There it was. Alise Finboks lifes work, all in one stack. Translations of ancient papers, speculations of her own, careful copies of old documents rendered in black ink with her best guesses at the missing words inked in red. Deprived of any significant purpose in her own life, she had retreated to ancient days and taken pride in her scholarly knowledge of them. She knew how Elderlings had once lived and interacted with dragons. She knew the names of Elderlings and dragons of old, she knew their habits; she knew so much about a past that no longer had any relevance.

Elderlings and dragons had returned to the world. She had witnessed that miracle. And they would reclaim the ancient city of Kelsingra and take up their lives there. All the secrets she had tried to tease out of old scrolls and mouldering tapestries meant nothing now. Once the new Elderlings gained their city, they would only need to touch the memory-stone there to discover all their history for themselves. All the secrets she had dreamed of discovering, all the puzzles she had longed to solve were finished now, and not by her. She was irrelevant.

She surprised herself when she flung the blankets suddenly to one side and stood up. Cold wrapped her instantaneously. She stepped to her clothing trunks, the grand travelling trunks that she had packed so hopefully in the days before she left Bingtown. They had been stuffed when she began her journey, full of sensible clothes fit for a lady adventurer. Stoutly woven cotton blouses with a minimum of lace, split skirts for hiking, hats with veils to ward off insects and sun, sturdy leather boots little but memories remained of them now. The hardships of travel had softened the fabrics. Her boots were scuffed and leaked, the ties now a series of knots. Laundering clothes in the acidic waters of the river had been her only choice, but seams had weakened and hems had frayed. She drew on a set of her worn clothes with no thought as to what they would look like. No one was going to look at her anyway. She was finished forever with worrying about what she looked like or what people thought of her.

An Elderling gown, Leftrins gift to her, hung on a hook. Of all the clothing she owned, this alone retained its bright colours and supple softness. She longed for its warmth but could not bring herself to put it on. Rapskal had said it and said it clearly. She was not an Elderling. She had no right to the city of Kelsingra, no right to anything pertaining to Elderlings.

Bitterness, hurt, and resignation to the reality Rapskal had voiced formed a tight, hard knot in her throat. She stared at the Elderling gown until the brilliant colours shimmered from her unshed tears. Her sorrow only deepened at the thought of the man who had given it to her. Her liveship captain. Leftrin. Despite the differences in their stations in life, they had fallen in love with one another during the arduous journey up the river. For the first time in her life, a man had admired her mind, respected her work and desired her body. He had kindled a like passion in her and awakened her to all that could exist between a man and a woman. He had created desires in her such as she had never known before.

And then he had left her, here. Alone in a primitive cabin

Stop it. Stop whining. She stared at the Elderling gown and forced herself to remember the wonderful moment when Leftrin had offered it to her, a priceless artefact, a family possession; he had shared it with her, with never a qualm. And she had worn it as armour against cold and wind and even loneliness. Worn it without a thought about its historical significance. How had she ever dared to rebuke the keepers for wanting something as warm and impervious as the priceless artefact she had enjoyed so often? And Leftrin? Was she faulting him for her loneliness? Hypocrite! she rebuked herself.

Leftrin had had no choice but to return to Cassarick to fetch supplies for them. He had not abandoned her; she had chosen to stay here, because she had believed that recording all that she saw in the untouched Elderling city was more important than being beside him. That choice had been hers. Leftrin had respected it. And now she was faulting him for that? He loved her. Shouldnt that be enough for her?

For a moment, she teetered on accepting that. A man who loved her: what more did a woman need from life? Then she gritted her teeth as if she were going to tear a bandage from a partially healed wound.

No. It wasnt enough. Not for her.

It was time to put an end to all pretences. Time to be done with that life. Time to stop telling herself that if and when Leftrin returned and said he loved her, all would be well. What of her could he love? When all was stripped away, what part of her was real and worthy of his love? What sort of person would cling to the hope that someone else would return to give meaning to her life? What sort of quivering parasite needed someone else to validate her existence?

Scrolls and sketches, paper and vellum in tidy stacks rested where she had left them. All her research and writing waited by the fireplace. The impulse to burn it all was gone. That had been last nights pit of despair, a tarry darkness so deep that she had not even had the energy to feed the papers to the flames.

Cold daylight revealed that as a foolish vanity, the childish tantrum of Look what you made me do! What had Rapskal and the other keepers done to her? Nothing except make her look at the truth of her life. Setting fire to her work would not have proved anything except that she wished to make them feel bad. Her mouth trembled for a moment and then set in a very strange smile. Ah, that temptation lingered; make them all hurt as she did! But they wouldnt. They wouldnt understand what she had destroyed. Besides, it was not worth the effort to go knock on a door and borrow coals from one of the keepers. No. Leave them there. Let them find this monument to what she had been, a woman made of paper and ink and pretence.

Bundled in her old clothes, she pushed open the door of the cottage and stepped out into a wet, chill day. The wind slapped her face. Her disgust and hatred for all she had been rose like a tide in her. The meadow vista before her ended in the river, cold, grey and relentless. She had been caught in it once and nearly drowned. She let the thought form in her mind. It would be quick. Cold and unpleasant but quick. She spoke aloud the words that had rattled through her dreams all night. Time to end this life. She lifted her face. The wind was pushing heavy clouds across a distant blue sky.

You would kill yourself? Over that? Because Rapskal told you what you already knew? Sintaras touch on her mind was coldly amused. The dragons consideration was distant and impartial. I recall that my ancestors witnessed humans doing this, deliberately choosing to terminate a lifespan that is already so brief as to be insignificant. Like gnats flying into flames. They flung themselves into rivers, or hanged themselves from bridges. So. The river? Is that how you will do this?

Sintara had not touched minds with her for weeks. For her to return now and to be so coldly curious fired anger in Alise. She scanned the sky. There. A tiny wink of sapphire against the distant clouds.

She spoke aloud, giving vent to her outrage, as in a single heartbeat despair became defiance. End this life, I said. Not end MY life. She watched the dragon tip her wings and slide down the sky toward the hills. Change took root in her, grew. Kill myself? In despair over all the days Ive wasted, all the ways Ive deceived myself? What would that do except prove that in the end I still could not escape my own foolishness? No. Im not ending my life, dragon. Im taking it. Im making it mine.

For a long moment she felt nothing from Sintara. Probably the dragon had spotted some prey and lost all interest in the gnat-lifed woman who could not even kill a rabbit for her. Then, without warning, the dragons thoughts boomed through her mind again.

The shape of your thoughts has changed. I think you are finally becoming yourself.

As she stared, the dragon suddenly clapped her wings tight to her body and dived on her prey. The abrupt absence of the dragons touch on her mind was like a gust of wind boxing her ears. She was left stunned and alone.

Becoming herself? The shape of her thoughts had changed? She decided abruptly that it was just Sintara trying to manipulate her again with her riddling, puzzling way of talk. Well, that was something else she had finished with! Never again would she willingly plunge herself into a dragons glamour. Time to be done with that, time to be done with all of it. She turned on her heel and went back into the little cabin. It was also time to be done with childish demonstrations of hurt feelings. Moving with a purposeful ferocity that she had thought vanished with her youth, she tidied her papers into her trunk and shut the lid on them relentlessly. There. She looked around the rest of the cabin and shook her head. Pathetic that she had huddled so long in this small space and done nothing to make it more liveable. Was she waiting for Leftrin to come back and bring the comforts of his ships cabin with him? Pitiful. She would not spend another hour sequestered here.

She layered herself into every worn garment she owned. Outside again, she lifted her eyes to the forested hills behind the patchwork village. This was the world she lived in now and perhaps always would. Time to master it. Ignoring the sleety rain, she headed uphill and followed a trail the keepers had trodden, winding past a few of the other rehabilitated cottages before reaching the eaves of the dormant forest. Her resolution grew as she left the settlement behind. She could change. She wasnt chained to her past. She could become someone who wasnt merely a product of what others had done to her. It wasnt too late.

When trails intersected, she chose to go up and to her right, reasoning that on her return, trails that went down and to her left would take her home. Ignoring the pull in her calves and buttocks and back, she punished muscles that had idled for weeks. The work of walking warmed her and she actually loosened her cloak and scarf. She looked about the forest as she had once studied Kelsingra, mentally logging the plants she knew and the ones she did not. A bare-thorned bramble patch might be thimble berries, a good thing to remember come summer.

She came to a small stream and knelt by it to drink from cupped hands before crossing it and moving on. In a sheltered hollow, she found a small patch of wintergreen bushes, their scarlet berries still clinging. She felt as if she had discovered a cache of jewels. Making a bag of her scarf, she gathered as many as she could find. The sharp flavour of the berries would be a welcome addition to her menu, as well as efficacious against sore throats and coughs. The evergreen leaves she stripped, too, relishing their scent and already imagining the tea she would brew from them. She was surprised none of the keepers had found them and brought them back, and then realized how foreign these bushes would be to the canopy-bred hunters.

Tying the scarf closed, she looped it through her belt before moving on. She left the deciduous trees behind and moved into evergreens. Their needled branches touched fingertips over her head, dimming the days light and hushing the wind. The deep bed of fragrant needles and the quiet of the woods after the constant wind made her feel as if she had cupped her hands over her ears. It was a relief.

She moved on through the forest. Hunger found her. She put a few of the wintergreen berries in her mouth and crushed them in her teeth, flooding her senses with the sharp taste and scent. Hunger passed.

Alise came to a small clearing where a storm-blasted giant had fallen and taken a rank of its fellow trees down with it. A vine similar to ivy had cloaked the fallen tree. She studied it for a time, then seized one of the tough stems and pulled it free, though it did not come willingly. She stripped the leaves off it and tested her strength against it. Unable to break it with her bare hands, she nodded to herself. She could come back with a knife, cut lengths of the stuff, take it back to her cabin and weave with it. Baskets. Fish nets? Perhaps. She looked at it more closely. The leaf buds on it were starting to swell. Maybe winter was starting to loosen its grip on the land. Overhead, a distant hawk gave cry. She looked up through the gap in the forest roof. Only with that glimpse of sky did she realize how much of the day had passed. It was time she turned back. She had meant to gather green alder twigs for smoking fish and had not, but she would not be empty-handed. The wintergreen berries would be welcomed by all.

The downhill hike quickly woke pangs in different muscles of her legs. She gritted her teeth against them and went on.

Serves me right for spending so much time sitting inside, she told herself grimly.

It was in that stratum of forest where evergreens gave way to deciduous trees that she caught an odd scent. The wind blew more freely here and she halted where she stood, trying to puzzle it out. It smelled rank and yet strangely familiar. It was only when the creature stepped into view on the path in front of her that her mind made the connection. Cat, she thought to herself.

He was not immediately aware of her. His head was low, and he sniffed at the ground with his mouth open. Long yellow fangs extended past his lower jaw. His coat was an uneven black, darker dapples against blackness. His ears were tufted and the muscles under his smooth fur bunched and slid as he moved.

She was caught in disbelief, filled with wonder at the sight of an animal that no one had seen in ages. And then, almost immediately, her translation of an Elderling word popped into her mind. Pard, she breathed aloud. A black pard.

At her whisper, he lifted his head and looked directly at her with yellow eyes. Fear flooded her. Her own scent on the trail. That was what he sniffed at.

Her heart leapt and then began hammering. The animal stared at her, perhaps as startled to see a human as she was to see a pard. Surely their kind had not met for generations. He opened his mouth, taking in her scent.

She wanted to shriek but did not. She flung her panicky thought wide. Sintara! Sintara, a great cat stalks me, a pard! Help me!

I cannot help you. Solve it yourself.

The dragons thought was not uninterested, merely factual. Alise could feel, in that moment of connection, that the dragon had fed heavily and was sinking into a satiated stupor. Even if she had wished to rouse herself, by the time she took flight and crossed the river and located Alise

Useless thought. Focus on now.

The cat was watching her and its wariness had become interest. The longer Alise stood there, frozen like a rabbit, the more his boldness would grow. Do something.

Not prey! she shouted at the animal. She seized the lapels of her cloak and tore it open wide, holding it out to make herself twice her natural size. Not prey! she shouted at it again, deepening her voice. She flapped the sides of her cloak at the animal and forced her shaking body to jolt a step closer to it. If she ran, it would have her; if she stood still, it would have her. The thought galvanized her, and with a wordless roar of angry despair, she charged at the beast, flapping the sides of her cloak as she ran.

It crouched and she knew then it would kill her. Her deep roar became a shriek of fury, and the cat suddenly snarled back. Alise ran out of breath. For a moment, silence held between the crouched cat and the flapping woman. Then the animal wheeled and raced off into the forest. It had left the path clear, and Alise did not pause but continued her fear-charged dash. She ran in bounds, ran as she had never known that anyone could run. The forest became a blur around her. Low branches ripped at her hair and clothing but she did not slow down. She gasped in cold air that burned her throat and dried her mouth and still she ran. She fled until darkness threatened the edges of her vision, and then she stumbled on, catching at tree trunks as she passed them to keep herself upright and moving. When finally her terror could no longer sustain her, she sank down, her back to a tree, and looked back the way she had come.

Nothing moved in the forest, and when she forced her mouth to close and held her shuddering breath, she heard nothing save the pounding of her own heart. She felt as if hours passed before her breath moved easily in her dry mouth and her heart slowed to where she could hear the normal sounds of the forest. She listened, straining her ears, but heard only the wind in the bared branches. Clutching at the tree trunk, she dragged herself to her feet, wondering if her trembling legs could still hold her.

Then, as she started down the path toward home, a ridiculous grin blossomed on her face. She had done it. She had faced down a pard, and saved herself, and was coming home triumphant, with wintergreen leaves for tea and berries, too. Not prey, she whispered hoarsely to herself and her grin grew wider.

She resettled her clothing as she strode, and pushed her wild hair out of her face. The rain was finding her now. Time to get home before she was completely soaked. She still had things to do tonight. Firewood and kindling to gather, coals to borrow to rekindle her fire, and water to haul for cooking. And she should tell Carson about the pard so he could caution the others. Then she could make her tea.

A well-earned cup of wintergreen tea. Part of having her own life, now.

Day the 20th of the Fish Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders


From the Bird Keepers Guild, Bingtown

To All Guild Members


To be posted prominently in all halls


It is essential that all members of the Guild remember that our profession is a time-honoured trade with rules, professional standards and secrets of bird handling, training and breeding that are confined to Guild members. Guild birds remain the property of the Guild, and the offspring of Guild birds remain the property of the Guild. Our reputation and the custom we have built up depend on our birds being the swiftest, the best trained and the healthiest. Our clients use Guild birds and bird keepers because they know they can rely on us and our birds for message transport that is quick and confidential.

Of late, there has been a spate of complaints and queries about possible tampering with messages. At the same time, we have noticed more citizens turning to private flocks for the transport of messages. To make matters worse, the recent plague of red lice led to many of our customers being frustrated at the lack of available Guild birds to bear their messages.

We must all remember that not only our reputations but our livelihoods are at stake. Our honour demands that members report any suspicions of message tampering.

Likewise, any members stealing eggs or fledglings for personal use or profit must be reported.

It is only by all of us adhering to our guild rules that we can maintain the quality of service that our patrons expect. Maintaining our standards will assure that we all prosper together.


PROLOGUE Changes | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER TWO Flight