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CHAPTER TEN

Tintaglias Touch

But we came so far! Malta protested. There must be something you can do! Please!

The golden dragon once more lowered his muzzle and drew his breath in as he nearly touched her child with his nose. The dragons head was so large that she could see only one of his eyes at a time when he was this close. That black eye seemed to whirl as he slowly lidded it and then opened it again. The wind off the river rose in a gust and swept past them. And Malta waited, hope painful in her chest.

A number of the dragons had converged on the baths late last night. Alise had cautioned her that they would not be patient of questions when they were soaking lethargically. So Malta had risen at dawn and waited in the Square of the Dragons, knowing they must pass her before they could take to the skies to hunt. They were hungry. One after another, she had importuned them to help her babe. A few had simply passed her by as if she were a mad beggar woman. Others had paused to snuff the baby. He smells of Tintaglia, a green queen dragon had told her, and a tall cobalt dragon had said, Would that I were of Tintaglias lineage! before he passed on. One after another, she had stopped them, sometimes with the aid of their keepers. Hunger flared in them and she shared their relentless appetites when she spoke to them.

Now only one remained. His slender, golden-haired keeper stood with her hand on his mountainous shoulder, almost as if her touch could restrain him. Hunger blazed inside him, but fondness for the little creature at his side tempered it. Malta felt how impatience simmered in the dragon but desperation boiled in her own heart. She reached for courtesy, reviewed all she knew of dragons and sank down in a low curtsey. Please, O Glorious One. Please, proud lord of the Three Realms. Please help me understand.

Golden Mercor drew his head back and looked down on her once more. He was almost patient as he repeated what he had already told her. No one here is sufficiently related to Tintaglia to accomplish what you ask. Her marks are on you and on your mate. She made you the Elderlings that you are. Your child has inherited from you the distinctive traits of the dragon who made you. For him to survive, the one who left her marks upon you must alter them so he can grow. He snorted, and his rank carrion-scented breath smelled to Malta like death and despair. Perhaps he tried to be gentle as he said, You should not have bred without the permission of your dragon.

What? Reyn demanded, fury scarcely caged in his voice.

Malta made a small and hasty motion with her hand, trying to caution him to calmness but as he stepped forward, his anger was like a cold cloud around him. Malta more felt than saw several of the dragon keepers who had accompanied them step closer to them. Plainly, what she was now hearing was news to them as well. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw flecks of fury in one girls eyes. Thymara, yes, that was her name.

Permission? the winged girl repeated in a low voice full of outrage.

Alise suddenly held up her hands as if by doing so she could quell the mood of the Elderlings or at least bid them suppress their frustrations. Please. Malta, if you will, allow me to ask a few questions. She stepped between Reyn and the dragon, as if her small body could shelter him from the dragons wrath. Mercors eyes were spinning faster, with tiny flecks of red in them. Malta held Ephron closer and reached out to seize Reyns hand. He put his arm around both of them, but did not allow her to retreat. Mercors keeper stood biting her lip.

Alise glanced back at them nervously and then lifted her voice. Mercor, most gracious and golden of all dragons, font of wisdom and power, have patience with us, we plead. What you tell us confounds us, and we seek only to understand.

Even in an Elderling robe, standing as tall as she could before the dragon, the Trader woman looked short and round now. Her body had not changed, Malta realized. It was her contrast to the tall and willowy Elderlings that surrounded her that made her seem like a different creature from them. Yet all the dragons seemed to treat her with respect. Certainly she seemed most adept at speaking to them. Malta was as frustrated as she was frightened, but bit back her anger and made not a sound. Alise had kept the golden dragons attention when he had seemed on the point of dismissing them all. He looked at her, and pleasure at her praise seemed to shimmer off his golden scales like heat from a stove.

Ask your questions, then, he invited her.

Malta clutched at Reyns arm. She could feel the ridged muscles in his forearms and knew how difficult it was for him to restrain himself. After days of waiting for the dragons to converge and have speech with them, it seemed that all they could tell them was that Ephron must die. Had they come so far and waited so long just to hear what she had most feared from the moment of his birth? She looked down into the little face she held so close to her breast. Her son was swaddled in an Elderling tunic to keep the cold and damp from him, but even so, he never seemed warm to her touch. His dragon scaling was bright where it outlined his brow and the line of his nose, but his human flesh below it seemed greyish, and he was so thin. The little hand that had ventured outside his coverings clutched at her with fingers more like a birds bony talons than a childs fat fingers. An ache sharper than any physical pain she had ever endured stabbed her every time she looked at him. So tiny and so brief a life, and he had never known a moment of ease or contentment.

Alise was speaking. For generations, the folk of the Rain Wilds have suffered the deaths of their children, children born too Changed to survive. Those who have lived have taken on some aspects of Elderlings that we have seen depicted on ancient tapestries, but they too go to early graves. All these things the Rain Wild Traders have accepted as the cost of living where they do. Yet in all those days, there were no dragons to wreak changes on them. Why, then, wise Mercor, did they have to endure such hardships?

The dragons head was held high and he appeared to be looking off into the distance. Was he thinking, or merely wishing the puny humans would leave him alone so that he could safely launch himself back into the air and return to hunting?

He spoke reluctantly. Humans are vulnerable to dragons. Of old, we changed some of you deliberately, to better fit you to be companions and servants to our kind. You lived such a short time that it was nearly impossible for us to achieve full communication with a human before it died. And so we allowed and shaped change for those who seemed most fit to live alongside us. But soon humans learned that any exposure to dragons and the things of dragons could change any human, and that those changes were not always beneficial. So those who took pleasure and found purpose in serving the dragons built their cities and their works, lived alongside us and took joy in serving us. They cherished the ways we could change them.

Those who wished to remain unchanged ventured into those cities but seldom and knowing the risk involved. Here, in Kelsingra, Elderlings lived. Humans lived and worked in a different settlement, across the river. Others lived outside the city, where they tended herds or grew crops far from the Silver-streaked stone walls of the city. Risks were known, and those who took the risks did so of their own will. We did no wilful harm to humans; if harm was done, they brought it on themselves.

Was it the dragons words alone or did he summon memories from the stone? Malta felt entranced, as if she saw and heard the things he related. She could see this square thronged with folk, talking together in the spring sunshine. A silver-gloved Elderling with three elaborate marionettes dangling from his hands shouted to three tall, slender women carrying gleaming pipes. One lifted hers to her lips and tweetled a reply to him, and several passers-by laughed at the exchange. Through the Elderlings came a lumbering violet dragon, his wings chased with silver, wearing an elaborate golden harness covered with a thousand tiny round bells. The crowd parted for him and many an Elderling shouted a greeting or made an obeisance to him as he passed. The bells made a sweet, shrill jingling. Mercors ancestor? The glorious scene of prosperity and plenty faded and she once more stood in the windy plaza hearing his words.

While dragons were gone from the world and Elderlings, too, humans came into the lands where once we had prospered. You discovered the magic creations of the Elderlings and the places they had shared with dragons. You handled their works and lived where dragons had walked and lived. Enough influence remained that those who lived there changed. But the changes were random, not shaped by a dragon, and often displeasing or dangerous.

So you keepers were when you first came to serve us. Contorted by proximity to the things of dragons, but not on the path to being true Elderlings. But, with a bit of blood to bond you to us, we could shape you to be more pleasing. For there is Silver in dragon blood, and we are most powerful when our blood is rich with it. Deprived of Silver as we have been, each of us yet still has the power to shape an Elderling to our service. So, we have Changed you, made you Elderlings, and if later you attempt to have children, we may shape them as well. But no dragon can change what another dragon has begun, any more than a human can change the aspects of another humans child. Tintaglia herself might be able to aid your baby, but none of us can.

There was nothing of apology in his tone, and a cold part of Malta wondered if dragons could even grasp the concept of regretting something they had done, or feeling responsible for the pain their carelessness could cause. Her fear vanished suddenly, leaving only her fury. If her son could not live, what did it matter what this dragon might do to her? She stepped forward suddenly, almost shouldering Alise aside to stand before Mercor. She felt her skin flush with her anger and knew that the crest on her brow and her scaling took on brighter colours as she did so.

I never asked for this! Her low voice was swollen with anger and sorrow. Tintaglia never sought our permission for the changes Reyn and I have experienced, let alone warned us that our baby might suffer for them. Our changes brought beauty and pleasure to us, but we would not have accepted them if we had known the price! Nor did I ever take blood from Tintaglia! So how can this change in me be her doing?

The dragon tucked his head and looked down on her. His black eyes were spinning with silver glints that seemed to ride that ominous whirlpool. But his response was thoughtful rather than angry. You were near her at some point. Did you run your hands over the cocooned dragon? Share long thoughts with her, perhaps, breathe the warmth of her breath?

Reyn spoke quietly, to her rather than the dragon. Selden and I were there when she melted her way out of her case. The air was thick with the stench of dragon; we both breathed it in.

I was there, too, in that same chamber. And Sa knows I shared thoughts with her during that time. But

Mercor made a sudden sound of impatience, cutting her off. He looked up at the morning sky, as if he longed to take flight and begin his days hunt. The other dragons had already left. He alone remained and she sensed he would not stay much longer. When he returned his gaze to Malta, the ebon liquid of his great eyes spun more slowly. A long moment passed as he studied her. Great puzzlement and curiosity were conveyed as he asked, Why do you ask so many questions, Malta Vestrit Khuprus? Malta could feel how he tried gently to compel a truthful answer by the use of her full name. You have been touched with Silver in a purposeful way. The smell of that magic is all over you and wakes my thirst for it. Why do you ask questions when it seems to me you must know the answers very well indeed?

Me? Tintaglia marked me with blue, not silver! She looked at the scaling on her arms, trying to discover the meaning of his words.

Mercor snorted out his disdain. You bear the mark of Silver, on the back of your neck. I can smell it on you still, even though you have worn it for years. Someone touched you, with skill and purpose, and sent you on your way to fulfil a great task. The dragon leaned close to her, and she saw her own shocked face reflected in his gleaming black eye. Whence came the Silver that marks the back of your neck? You must know how great our need for it is! You come to us, asking this favour, but hide from us the source of your Silver that began your change.

Maltas hand flew to the back of her neck. I dont know what you are talking about! she proclaimed in confusion. But she did know of the faint silvery scaling there, each mark the size of a fingerprint. Never before had she associated it with a dragon. The marks had been there since the day her family had launched the Paragon, long before the fall of Bingtown had sent her fleeing to the Rain Wilds and ultimately to the cocooned dragons chamber. No dragon had put them upon her. She held Tintaglia responsible for many things in her life, but not those marks.

Reyn spoke out in her defence. She has always had those marks. Birthmarks when first I glimpsed them, just dusky smudges, now made silver by her changes. That is all they are. We keep nothing from you, great dragon. Whatever we have is yours, if you will just save our child. Take my life, eat me now if you wish, but let my son know a moment of peace and calm! And then the man Malta loved more than life fell to his knees and offered the golden dragon his bent neck.

Oh, please, she moaned, knowing how ravenous the dragon was. But Mercor did not move to strike. If anything, his stillness became that of stone. All around her the gathered keepers kept silent. Sylve kept her hand on her dragons shoulder, and Alise stood with both her hands clasped over her mouth as if to seal in a scream of terror.

Then the dragon slowly swung his head away. You speak those words as if you believed them true. You know nothing useful, I fear. Tintaglias Elderlings, I cannot help your babe. But if you have any loyalty to dragonkind He lifted his head high and suddenly trumpeted the words loud, issuing his command to every keeper there: Find the Silver well for us! She is proof that one still exists, somewhere! In her lifetime, someone has touched Silver and shared that touch with her. If you care for us at all, make this your quest now. For until it is found, no Elderling magic can be done, no dragon can prosper! Find the Silver well for us.

If we find this Silver well for you, will you then save my baby? Malta tried recklessly for a bargain. She knew nothing of Silver. Offering it was her last hope.

The dragon looked at her a final time. I have told you. Only Tintaglia can save your child. Reach for her, Elderling. Tell your dragon of your plight and perhaps she will come to aid you. He turned away and Sylve lifted her hand and stepped out of his way. He did not look at Malta as he added, But do not have great hopes. Tintaglia did not come to us when we needed her. If she would not come for dragons, I doubt she will come for an Elderling.

Malta could not breathe. Did the dragon know he had just condemned her child to death? Did he understand what it meant to them? He looked at her, and his slender keeper shook her head slowly. A sense of Mercors sympathy reached Malta, but it was the same sort of sympathy she would have extended to a child with a wilted flower. The dragon did not grasp her agony.

But cannot one of you Reyn began, but Malta was already turning away from them all.

Lets just go, she said quietly. If this must be, let us just go somewhere private and be with him while we can. She walked away, not so much from Reyn as from the gathered keepers and the dragon. Some things were too hard to bear, and the scrutiny of outsiders only made them worse. She began to tremble as she walked, a shuddering she could not control. Reyn was suddenly at her side, putting his arm around both of them and guiding her staggering steps. Behind her, the muttering of voices rose but she did not look back. She and Reyn could do nothing for Ephron except be with him as his little life ended. So that was what they would do.


Get up here. Now. The Chalcedean barked the order as if it had been Hests idea to stay below decks after the sun was up.

He had awakened from his chill and cramped sleep as soon as the locker was opened. Even so, it was hard to move quickly. Hest was still blinking at the light as he emerged onto the deck. Early morning, he estimated, and for a blessing, it was not raining at the moment. He looked about hastily, trying to gauge the situation quickly. The boat was moving slowly upriver, the rowers steady at their oars. The other impervious boat was following them. He stared at the other craft for a moment, wondering if they followed under duress or if they were allied now.

The Chalcedean had no patience with his curiosity. Not there! He cuffed Hest, then pointed ahead of them, and Hests jaw dropped at what he saw. Ahead of them was a low spit of grassy mud projecting into the river. Amid the rushes, the dragon was curled like a huge blue cat, asleep and glittering in the wan afternoon light. The Chalcedean spoke in a low voice. We are going to kill it. But we need to know everything you know about dragons. Does it have a vulnerable spot? If it awakens before we manage a quick kill, how will it respond to our attack?

Hest shook his head. I dont know. Ive never tried to kill a dragon! Look at the size of that animal. Youd have to be mad to attack it! The assassin gave him a dangerous look and Hest reconsidered his tack. What did he know? Only what he had heard. He cleared his throat and spoke more calmly. When the Chalcedeans invaded Bingtown, a dragon helped us fight them off. A blue one, like that one but much smaller. She was able to spit acid, sometimes as a mist that rained down on ranks of men and sometimes in a spray aimed at one man. She also used her wings and her tail to lash at the ships and the warriors. She had clawed feet, too. But what I am telling you is what I was told. I never actually saw her fighting. I wasnt in that part of the city. He hadnt been in Bingtown at all for those weeks, in truth, but had fled with his mother to their country house. The marauders had never penetrated that far inland.

Useless! The Chalcedean dismissed him, turning away to speak to another of his party. They conversed in Chalcedean, and they were either unaware that Hest was a fluent speaker of that tongue or did not care if he overheard them.

We will put in here, downriver of it, and approach on foot. The creature is far larger than expected, from what our spies have told us of the Rain Wild dragons. We have two archers, and they must go first. Aim for an eye and perhaps we will kill it as it sleeps. If it awakes, then send in everyone else with pikes.

The other man shook his head. Lord Dargen, it is too dangerous. When we captured the other vessel, as you commanded, we lost men we could not afford to lose. We are already spread too thin manning both vessels. If you take most of our men off both ships to attack the dragon and the attack fails, there will not be enough of us left to man one ship. We will all die here.

The assassin Lord Dargen stared at his companion as if he were stupid. This is why we came. To kill a dragon, to butcher it, and to return to Chalced as swiftly as we may. He shook his head, and then smiled. We may all die here, or we may all die somewhere else, or all our families may die while we are here thinking of ways to save our own lives. It is done. We are marching toward death as soon as we are born. The only hope a man has is that his family line will remain, that his sons will go forward to father more sons, and that his name will be remembered by them. If I do not soon bring to the Dukes feet that which he desires, all futures will be lost to me. So, I risk my life today, in the hopes that my memory will go on forever if I succeed. Put in to shore. I myself will lead the men. He jerked his head at Hest. Put my servant back in his den. He is useless and I do not want him underfoot.

The man seized Hest by the arm and jostled him along. As he was shoved unceremoniously and without benefit of ladder below decks, Hest knew that he was receiving the treatment the man longed to inflict on Lord Dargen himself.

Lord Dargen, he muttered as he stood up. Now I have his name! A thread I can follow to deliver vengeance to his door. He spoke the words aloud, but in the cold wooden space they sounded as hollow as a childs threats against the father who has sent him to his room. He folded himself into the corner, his arms wrapped around his knees, and tried not to think what would become of him if the dragon attacked the ship. Hed be helpless, trapped like a rat in the bilge as the ship went down. Cold water. He never imagined hed die drowning in cold water.

Tintaglia lifted her head and unlidded her eyes. Outrage that anyone dared approach her while she was sleeping flooded her. Humans, clustering close, weapons raised! She surged to her feet, tail lashing, and roared at the sudden pain that swept her as her injury opened and fresh fluid ran down her side.

Leave me! she demanded, and as her command washed against the men facing her, the first barrage of arrows struck. She was in motion, but three still struck her face. They rattled off her, one striking her ridged brow, and the two others hitting just below her eye. Plainly her eye had been the target, and in that instant she realized fully that they intended to kill her. She turned her shoulder and flank to them, showing them only the most heavily scaled parts of her body. At the same time, she slashed her tail and men tumbled, either victims of her blow or of their own frantic efforts to avoid it. She became aware of the other men moving up on her: they were trying to surround her!

One man ran forward, a pike in his hands. His face was set in a rictus of fear and determination. One of her ancestors had known such a charge, and so she did not rear back onto her hind legs and expose her softer belly. Her wings she kept clapped tight to her sides lest they see her swollen wound and know her vulnerability. Instead, she threw her head back on her long neck and then snapped it forward, opening her mouth to hiss out a cloud of venom.

But nothing emerged from her wide-open jaws. Her poison sacs were empty, victim to her long illness. The warriors cowered and one man screamed as the mist of saliva engulfed them. When, a few instants later, they realized they were unhurt, they whooped triumphantly and surged at her in a wild charge.

She willed herself to spin tightly, to meet their attack with a savage lash of her tail. Instead, she moved as ponderously as a wounded buffalo, limping as she slowly wheeled away from them. They were on her, jabbing at her with their spears and shrieking. All she could sense from their thoughts was fear and triumph and bloodlust, just as if she were battling jackals for the rights to a kill. She swept her tail, knocking some of them down, while others leapt back and jeered at her.

You will pay! she roared at them, and from one or two of their minds sensed astonishment that an animal could speak. But the others were deaf to her words, as so many humans were. They came at her again, thudding their useless spears against her heavy scaling. She turned toward them again, thinking of charging at them and crushing as many as she could with her jaws. But a spear flew, striking dangerously close to her eye, and she knew a sudden jolt of fear. These humans could kill her. They were not shepherds trying to drive her away from their flock, nor hunters trying to defend their prey from her. They had come here to kill her.

She roared again and there was a small satisfaction in seeing some of them hastily retreat. But others set their spears at the ready and ran toward her.

Tintaglia had no choice. She staggered toward them, stiffly and then in a lumbering charge, whipping her head from side to side, sending one man flying into the rushes and flattening another. She trod on her screaming victim as she passed, vindictively flexing her foot to be sure her nails scored him well.

Once past them, there was no escape save the river in front of her. She could not take flight; she needed time to limber her muscles and space to gather herself for that first painful leap into the air. She lashed her tail as she thundered past them and knew the satisfaction of feeling it connect and hearing a man scream. She did not look back. Better to appear that she was merely stalking off rather than fleeing.

The river awaited. She did not pause, but waded into it. Her enemies had nosed their vessels onto the bank downstream of her. So the humans had abandoned whatever quarrel they had with each other to unite in coming after her! She thought about destroying the ships in passing, but doubted her strength. Instead, she waded chest-deep in the water and started upriver. If they wanted to come after her, theyd have to reboard their vessels and man the oars. And if they did come up on her in the water, she thought she could possibly tip a boat over, or at least destroy a bank of oars.

She heard them shouting in frustration on the bank behind her. A spear splashed into the water beside her, and an arrow struck her back plates, lodged briefly between two of them and then fell. Stupid insects, daring to attack her! If she hadnt already been injured, there would have been nothing but smoking meat and shattered wood left of them and their ships!

She took another step and then the river water penetrated beneath her tightly clasped wings and she trumpeted in furious pain as the icy water found her wound with an acid kiss. Lurching on, she stumbled to her knees as the agony stabbed into her deeper than the arrowhead had ever penetrated. The men on the shore screamed and whooped like monkeys as they watched her sink, her legs collapsing under her. She turned to look back at them, and shrieked a thought out on a wild blast of anger: You will all die! I give you a dragons promise unending. All humans who attack dragons die!

She sent that blast of anger winging wide, a desperate message to the distant dragons of Kelsingra. As the pain stabbed deeper into her and the cold water sucked the warmth from her flesh, she wondered if any heard it.

Day the 5th of the Plough Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders


From the Bird Keepers Guild

Notice of Commendation


To be posted at all Guild Halls


We are most pleased to announce this honour for Erek Dunwarrow, formerly a Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown, and a Master Bird-Handler in good standing with the Guild. With this commendation, we recognize his significant contributions to the bird-breeding programme at Bingtown, specifically the programme for breeding birds for hardiness and swiftness.

A prize of sixty silvers is hereby awarded to him, and the further honour that birds of this particular lineage and colouration will now be formally named as Dunwarrows.


CHAPTER NINE Passing Ships | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER ELEVEN Silver