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There were some wonderful places up near the foothills. Smaller, but with sweeping views. Closer to hunting. Carson added the last in a lower voice, knowing that hunting was not really one of the criteria that topped Sedrics list. He turned his eyes toward the hills and cliffs that backed the city and stared wistfully at their forested flanks.

Closer to the wild lands. And farther from everything else, Sedric pointed out with a wry smile.

From the river, perhaps, Carson countered. But closer to everything else that we need right now to live independently. The hunting is good in the wooded hills; the dragons prefer to hunt the more open lands. And there are trees that may bear nuts or fruit. There will almost certainly be wild berries. The supplies that Captain Leftrin brought back from Cassarick wont last for ever. We shouldnt be waiting until they run out before we worry about it. We should be stocking up on meat now, and scouting for other food sources.

I think Ive heard this before, Sedric said quietly, and Carson suddenly stopped in mid-breath.

Then he laughed. I know. I say the same things over and over again. Usually to you, because I sometimes think youre the only one listening to me. The others act like children, thinking only of this day, this hour.

The others listen, too. Theyre just enjoying a brief respite from daily hunts and work on the dock and every other task you urge them to undertake. They are young, Carson. And suddenly they have tea and jam and ships biscuit again. Give them a few more days, and then Ill help you persuade some of them to go on an extended hunt again. But for now, cant we take a bit of time for ourselves? Theres a house I want to show you. I think youd like it.

A house? Carson cocked his head and grinned. Or a mansion?

It was Sedrics turn to shrug ruefully. Well, any house in Kelsingra is bound to seem a mansion to you. The Rain Wilds taught all of you to build small. But theres a street of houses I walked through a few days ago that intrigued me. And yes, they are large, even by Bingtown standards. But the one I went into had garden rooms in it, with transparent ceilings. So, although we might be a long way from the forest or foothills, we might be able to grow food right in our home.

If we had seed Oh, very well. Lets look at it, Carson conceded as Sedric shot him a long-suffering look. I suppose you are right, and Leftrin did say that he did put in an order for seed and chickens and so on. I just never imagined myself tending a garden. Or raising birds to eat.

I never imagined myself as an Elderling, Sedric countered. Carson, I think we are going to have a lot of years to explore many kinds of lives. We may farm, or raise cattle

Or hunt.

Or hunt. Here. I think this is the right street. Kelsingra is so big and so spread out. Every time I think Ive learned the city, I find another street to explore. Up this way, I think. Or was it downhill from here?

Carson chuckled tolerantly. Did you notice if there was a view? If so, that would be uphill. He halted and watched Sedric look up and down the street. He straightened the collar of his tunic. He had to admit that the clothing Sedric had chosen for him was comfortable. And warm. And weighed less than his leathers. He glanced down at himself, at his legs clad in a blue that reminded him of a parrots wings. Elderling garb. At least the boots were brown. They were so light, he felt as if he had nothing on, and yet his feet werent cold and the stones underfoot didnt jab him. The wide brown belt he wore was of Elderling make, as was the sheathed knife he wore on it. The blade wasnt metal. He wasnt sure what it was, but it had been razor sharp from the moment he drew it from the sheath and it had stayed that way. It looked like blue, baked pottery to him more than anything else. Yet another Elderling mystery.

The more the keepers explored the city, the more artefacts they found. True, most of the houses and shops and buildings were empty, as if the people who had lived here had packed and left. But in some sections of the city, they were finding mansions and homes that held all sorts of Elderling items. Most items of wood had crumbled to dust, and scrolls and books had likewise decayed. But some of their fabrics had survived, especially of the sort that his tunic was made from, and it was not unusual any more to see keepers ringed and necklaced as if they were wealthy Bingtown Traders. It made Carson uneasy, though he had difficulty expressing why. Just as deciding which house to take over as their own made him uncomfortable. He and Sedric had been sharing chambers above the dragon baths, and even these had seemed a sybaritic luxury to him. He wasnt sure that he understood why Sedric wanted a large and elaborate home. But he deserved one, if that was what he wanted.

He glanced over at him and had to smile. Sedric looked so intent, as alert as any hunter, as he prowled down the street studying the grand houses that fronted it. The move to Kelsingra had agreed with him. Carson was a fastidious man about cleanliness, when such a state was possible, but Sedric elevated it to an art form. His hair gleamed gold, touched with the metallic sheen that Relpda had awarded to every part of him. To his eyes and his skin, his nails and even his hair she had lent coppery warmth. Today Sedric had chosen to echo that gleam with metallic blues in his tunic and hose, while his belt and boots were black. The Elderling garb wore so well, Carson thought no one needed more than one extra change of clothing. But Sedric had appropriated a rainbow for his wardrobe and took unutterable joy in varying his garb, sometimes several times a day. Even if Carson did not understand his partners infatuation with clothing, it did not diminish his delight in watching him exercise it. Sedric felt Carsons scrutiny and turned to the hunter with a questioning look.

What? he demanded.

Carsons smile widened. Just you. Thats all.

A blush suffused Sedrics face, rendering him both more boyish and yet more charming. And that he blushed because he was overwhelmed by Carsons compliment only magnified the effect for the hunter. He jostled Sedric with an elbow and then put an arm around him. Which house? he asked him genially, knowing that if, at that moment, Sedric declared he wished to live in all of them at once, hed have done his best to make it possible.

Wait! Sedric said sharply. He shrugged out from under Carsons arm and strode briskly away. For a moment, Carson felt hurt; then he recognized the intensity of Sedrics stalking. An odd prickle of premonition ran up his own spine as he stared around.

This was a district of elaborate houses, and almost every intersection boasted a fountain or a statue or plaza of some sort. Any of the structures were palatial by Carsons standards, but Sedric was moving steadily downhill, ignoring their allure. He strode through a small square with a statue of a woman pouring water and turned deliberately into a street of humbler houses. The thoroughfares went from broad avenues fit for a parade of dragons to wide but winding streets and the buildings changed to a more human scale as they moved along it. Odd. Carson had never imagined that such simple dwellings might attract his peacock lover. Sedric moved strangely, peering from side to side, not like a man who considers the houses he passes but as if trying to find something hed lost. No. Like a man who had lost his way, Carson suddenly realized, and was looking for a landmark. He lifted his own eyes and scanned the area. Like all of Kelsingra, it was built of stone, and here a bluish-grey stone predominated. He noticed nothing noteworthy. Cautiously, he opened his awareness of the city and let the impressions of Elderlings long dead touch his thoughts.

He had always felt a bit squeamish about this aspect of being an Elderling. A private man himself, it felt strange to wallow in the personal memories of others. The other keepers seemed to take it in their stride, and personally he did not blame those who chose to enjoy the sensual memories of another time. In such a small population, it was better for them to satisfy their needs that way than to jostle and fight for the available partners. And he knew there was valuable information to be gained in sharing memories from the stones technical information on the workings of the city in addition to knowledge of the ways of dragons and the surrounding lands. He knew that Sedric enjoyed tapping the memory-stones in the same way that he had enjoyed going to plays or listening to minstrels. The stones of the city were full of stories, some dramatic, some poignant. But no other part of the city had felt the way this one did. It was quiet. No memories stirred here, no brief waft of scent or echo of someones laughter from a long-ago summer day. Here the city was mute, hoarding its secrets in silence. Sedric glanced back at him, bafflement on his face, and Carson sensed his partner had just shared the same realization.

What are you looking for? he called to Sedric, and his words bounced back to him from the silent stone.

Im not sure. Sedric stared all around him like a man wakening from a dream. The streets just suddenly seemed very familiar. As if Id been here before, and often. For an important reason. But every time I try to remember that part of the memory, it fades out of reach. But in an odd way. The Elderling memories Ive taken from stone usually stay with me clearly. But this is like fog

In a purposeful way. Carson finished the thought for him.

Yes. As if something were being deliberately concealed.

The buildings that they passed now were no longer homes or mansions, but were designed to allow dragons to enter as freely as humans. They walked quietly past them, their softly shod feet whispering on the paving stones.

Its older here, Sedric said suddenly. The way the streets are paved, the buildings this is older than the part of the city where the dragon baths are, or that grand Hall of Records with the map tower.

I suspect this is where Kelsingra began. Carson nodded to where worn steps went down into a buildings entrance. It seems to me it would take a lot of feet walking down stone steps before they were worn like that. And these buildings are actually lower than the street, if you look at it. As if the streets have been repaired and raised. In reply to Sedrics startled glance, Carson looked aside. Ive never been there, but Ive heard that Old Jamaillia is like that. One fellow who had been there told me that openings that used to be first-floor windows are doors now, the streets have been built up so much.

Sedric nodded, a slow smile curving his lips. I have been there, and youre right. Strange. I was looking right at it and not really seeing it.

For a time, they walked in silence. The streets grew narrower and the buildings humbler, as if when people had first settled here, they had not known the full ambition of Elderlings. Carson found that Sedric had drawn closer to him. Carson linked arms with him, and felt himself more alert than he usually was in this city. The din of memories simply didnt exist in this part of the city. Perhaps it had been built before the Elderlings had gained the magic of storing memories in stone. The scuff of their footsteps on the cobblestones seemed louder, the warmth of Sedrics skin under his fingers more intimate. All his senses were keener here. He felt more himself, and wondered uneasily who he had been before.

There! Sedric said suddenly, and pointed.

What is it? Carson asked. Recognition tickled at the back of his mind but he could not summon the memory.

I dont know, Sedric admitted. I only know its important.

Carson shivered suddenly but not with a chill. Something else. Danger? Anticipation? He lifted his head and sniffed the air, wondering if the scent of a predator had triggered it. Nothing. But an almost sexual excitement infused him suddenly, and as it tingled through his body, he recognized it was not his own. Spit, never far from him in thought, knew something about this place. Or almost did. Somewhere, the little silver dragon had tipped his wings, ignoring the dozing deer below him. He was winging back to the city as fast as he could. Carson stared around him, trying to see what his dragon had glimpsed through his eyes.

It was an open plaza, not as wide nor as grand as many in the newer part of the city. In the centre of it was a tumble of rubble. The destruction looked both deliberate and recent; or at least much more recent than the other quake damage to the city. A length of black chain coiled like a dead snake. Timbers of green and gold and red had been rendered to kindling. They approached the collapsed structure slowly, and Sedric was the first to speak. Its sticking out of a hole there. See the low wall around it, or what is left of it? It looks like a well, for drawing water, but much wider. But with a river so close by, why would they dig a well here?

It wasnt for water, Carson said quietly. He listened to his own words as if someone else were speaking them, then fell silent, chasing an elusive idea. At last he spoke a single word. Silver, he said aloud, echoing his dragons thought, and then shook his head in denial. It makes no sense.

But Sedric seemed to grow taller, as if he were a puppet and someone had just drawn his head string up. His eyes opened wider. Silver? SILVER! He shouted the word. This is it, Carson. From my dreams. The Silver place. Sweet Sa, youre right. This is the Silver well, the whole reason Kelsingra was first built. Remember, a long time ago, you wondered why theyd built such a grand city here. What was the reason for it, what trade, what industry, what port anchored it? Why build a city for dragons in a place so chill and damp in the winters? Why did the Elderlings stay here? And heres our answer. The Silver well. The secret heart of Kelsingra.

Carson blinked. Sedrics words had filled his ears, flooding his mind with vague memories, linking half-thoughts and hints into an almost recognizable network. Secret, indeed. Knowledge kept from outsiders. Only Elderlings were allowed to come here, to this part of the city. He breathed deeply and it was as if he inhaled information. He frowned as another thought drifted into his mind. And not all Elderlings. Only a few had the privilege of this duty. It was a closely kept secret, not just from the outside world, but even within the city. Memories of it were never preserved in the stone, at least not intentionally. It was passed down, from one generation of well-tenders to the next. Silver was so rare, so precious, that the well sites could not be mapped nor recorded in memory-stone. Like a guild secret that only masters could know. A secret so precious that even the dragons did not speak of it to dragons from other hatching grounds. His gaze went sad and distant. A resource so precious, it was probably the only thing dragons would war over with one another.

How do you know? Sedric demanded curiously.

Carson lifted his shoulders and let them fall in a slow shrug. Some of it comes from Spit, but even he didnt have enough to puzzle it out. Ive been deliberately seeking out the places where people stored memories of how the city worked. The water system, the heated buildings, how the stones were fitted so well to one another. I like to know how things are done, how things were done. I have found a lot of information about what they did, but little about how. I think those same people who left stone memories of what they did tended this well, and did something else here. Its not clear to me. But I think that, without intending to, they stored bits of those memories with the other ones. Enough for me to puzzle it together and get a feeling for it. Like following a game trail with no tracks. A bent stick, a torn leaf

For a moment, his vision dimmed. He blinked and shook his head, and then realized he hadnt imagined it. The day was darker. He glanced up to find the reason. Overhead, the dragons were gathering in a gyre that spiralled up to block the suns thin rays. They circled overhead, coming lower. Spit led the way. In the distance, golden Mercor was coming fast, growing larger. He trumpeted and the others answered. Wordlessly, they were summoning all the keepers to converge here. Carson looked at Sedric; his friend was smiling. I think they heard me.

But as Carson looked up at the circling creatures, he felt a premonition. It became a flood of sensation, jubilation and anticipation making his heart hammer. He knew he felt only an echo of the emotions of the dragons. Sedric. What is the Silver well? What is it about the stuff that comes out of it?

Im not sure exactly. Mercor said to Malta that all dragons have some Silver naturally, in their blood, that it helps them change us to Elderlings. There has to be more to it than that, given how anxious they are to find it. I think well soon find out just why its so important.

Thymara jerked as if jabbed with a needle. An instant later, Tats followed her example. She had been dozing in the crook of his arm. They had fallen asleep in the glass-roofed atrium of a building that had once been devoted to flowers. The bas-reliefs on the walls depicted flower blossoms of a kind she had never seen before, and of a size that seemed completely impossible, until Tats had gently suggested to her that the images were made so large in order to show detail. The room they were in was at the top of the building. A flat section of the roof would have allowed dragons to alight and enter through an archway. A maze of large pots and vessels of earth surrounded benches where once Elderlings had sat and discussed the plants. She had tried to imagine having the leisure hours in her life to spend a whole day just looking at flowers, and could not. Did they eat them? she had wondered aloud. Did they work here, growing them for food?

By way of response, Tats wandered over to a statue of a woman holding a basket of flowers and set his fingertips to her hand. His face grew bemused, his gaze distant. She watched his awareness recede from her, slipping into the memories of the woman with the flowers. His eyelids drooped and the muscles of his face loosened as he wandered through her life. His expression became vacant and slack, almost idiotic. She found she didnt like how he looked, but knew it was useless to speak to him. Hed come back to her when he willed it, and not before.

Almost as soon as she had the thought, she saw his eyes twitch, and then he blinked. Tats came back into his face and then smiled at her. No. The flowers were cultivated simply for their beauty and fragrance. They came from far away, from a land much warmer than here, and only inside this room could they flourish. This Elderling wrote seven books about them, describing them in detail and giving directions for their care, and telling how one might force larger blossoms or subtly change the colours and fragrances by using different types of soil and adding things to the water.

Thymara drew her knees up to her chin. The benches were like the bed in her room; they appeared to be stone, until one had been seated for a time. Then they softened, slightly. She shook her head in wonder. And she devoted months of her life to this work.

No. Years. And was well respected for it.

I dont understand.

Im starting to. I think it has to do with how long one expects to live. He paused and then cleared his throat uncomfortably. When I think about how long we may have to live, how many years I may be able to spend with you, it lets me think about things differently.

She shot him a strange look and he came over to sit on the wide bench next to her. He met her gaze for a time, and then lay back on the bench and stared up at the sky through the dust-streaked glass. Rapskal and I had a talk. About you.

Thymara stiffened. Did you? She heard the chill in her own voice.

A small smile tweaked Tatss mouth. We did. Would you be more pleased if Id said wed had a fist fight? I think we both knew it might come to that. Rapskal is changing as he takes on the memories of that Elderling. Hes becoming more He paused, seeking a word. Assertive, he said, and she sensed it was not quite the word he wanted.

And he was the one who was wise enough to come to me and say he didnt want us to end up fighting. That wed been friends too long to end it for any reason, but especially over jealousy over you.

She sat stiffly beside him, trying to decipher not only what she felt but why she felt it. Hurt. Angry. Why? Because she felt they had gone past her, perhaps decided between themselves something that should have been discussed with her. She imposed calm on her voice. And what did the two of you decide?

He didnt look at her but he reached over and took her hand. She let him hold it but did not return the pressure of his fingers. We didnt decide anything, Thymara. It wasnt that kind of a conversation. Neither one of us is Greft, thinking that we can force you to make a decision. Youve proven your point to both of us. When or even if you want to be with one of us, you will. And until then He gave a small sigh and then finally looked at her.

Until then you wait, she said, and felt a small thrill of satisfaction at his understanding that she controlled the situation.

I do. Or I dont.

Startled, she met his gaze. It was strange to look at his face now and recall the smooth-skinned boy he had been. His dragon had incorporated his slave tattoo into his scaling, but the horse on his cheek looked more dragonish now. She almost lifted a hand to touch it but held herself back. What does that mean?

Only that Im as free as you are. I could walk away. I could find someone else

Jerd, she growled.

Shes made it plain, yes. He rolled onto his side and tugged at her hand. Reluctantly, she lay down beside him. After a time, the bench adapted to her wings, cradling her. She looked into his eyes, her gaze cold. He smiled. But I could also be by myself. Or wait for others to come and join us here. Or go looking for someone else. I have time. Thats what Rapskal and I talked about. That if, as seems likely, we may live two or even three hundred years, then we all have time. Nothing has to be rushed. We dont have to live as if we were children squabbling over toys.

Toys. Her, a toy? She tried to pull away from him.

No, listen to me, Thymara. I felt the same way when Rapskal first spoke to me. Like he was making what I feel a trivial thing. Like he was telling me to wait and that when he was finished with you, I could have you. But that wasnt it at all. I thought it was stupid of him, at first, all the time he spent with memory-stone. But I think hes learned something. He said that the longer life is, the more important it is to keep your friends, to not have quarrels that can be avoided. His smile faded a bit and for a time he looked troubled. He said that, as a soldier, he had learned that a mans deep friendships were the most important thing he could possess. Things can be broken, or lost. All a man can keep for certain are the things in his mind and heart.

He lifted his free hand and traced the line of her jaw. He said that no matter what you decided, he wanted to stay friends with me. And he asked me if I could do the same. If I could resolve that what you decided was your decision, not something we should blame on the other fellow.

I think thats what Ive been trying to tell you, Thymara said quietly, but in her heart she wondered if that were so.

He said something else, something Ive been thinking about. He said that from what hes remembered from the stones, some of the Elderlings had the same sort of problem. And they solved it by not being jealous. By not limiting each woman to one man. Or each man to one woman. He turned to look up at the sky again. She wondered what he didnt want her to read in his eyes. Did he fear (or hope) that she would agree to that? It was not the first time she had heard such an idea. Jerd had made it plain of late that she would share her favours where she willed, and that none of the male keepers should think she was his simply because shed shared one night with him. Or a month of nights. Three or four of the keepers had seemed to accept this relationship with her. Thymara had heard a few disparaging remarks from them about her, but she seemed to be gaining a genuine partnership with several of them, one in which her partners seemed as bonded to each other as they were to her. Thymara was sceptical that it would work long term but had resolved to ignore the situation.

But if that was what Tats was broaching as a solution She spoke stiffly: If thats what youre hoping for, Im sorry, Tats. I cant be with both you and Rapskal, and be glad of it. Nor can I share you with another, even if she werent Jerd. My heart doesnt work that way.

He heaved a sudden sigh of relief. Neither does mine. He rolled to face her and she let him take her hands. I was willing to compromise if it was the only future you saw. But I didnt want to. I want you all to myself, Thymara. Even if it means waiting.

The depth of feeling in his words took her by surprise. He read it on her face. Thymara, its no accident Im here in Kelsingra. I came here because of you. I told you and your father that I just wanted the adventure, but I was lying. I was following you, even then. Not just because there was no real future for me in Trehaug, but because I knew that there was no future for me anywhere if you werent there. Its not because you just happen to be here, and I just happen to be here. Its not because youre a good hunter, nor even because of how beautiful youve become. Its you. I came here for you.

She had no words to reply to him.

He spoke as if he had to fill the silence. Some of the others have made me feel like an idiot because I cant compromise. The other night, after dinner, when you went out walking with Rapskal, Jerd called me aside. She said there was something on a high shelf in her room, something she couldnt reach. It was a ploy. There was nothing there, but once we were alone, she said that she didnt have the problems you did with men. That if I wanted her, I could be with her, and then still court you if I thought I wanted you as well. She said she could keep it secret, that youd never know. He looked into Thymaras eyes and quickly reminded her, Jerd said it, not me. I didnt agree to it, and I walked away from what she was offering. In a lower voice, he added, Trusting her is not a mistake Id make twice. But she did manage to make me feel childish. Foolish that I couldnt just dispense with the old rules and live our lives as we pleased. She laughed at me. He paused for a moment and then cleared his throat. Rapskal made me feel that way, too. And while he didnt laugh at me, he told me that in a few decades Id change my mind. Hes so comfortable with these ideas. But Im not.

Then I suppose Im as childish and rule-bound as you are. Because I feel the same way. She moved her head onto his shoulder and spoke hesitantly. But if I say that I still dont feel ready, will you change your mind?

No. Ive thought it through, Thymara. If I have to wait, then, well, I have the time. We dont have to rush. We dont have to rush to have children before were twenty because we may not live past forty. The dragons changed that for us. We have time.

Then maybe I am ready. She almost said the words aloud. Hearing that he would no longer pressure her to decide, hearing that he understood that, with her, it had to be exclusive, had affirmed something about him. Instead, she said, You are the man I thought you would be.

I hope so, he said. And then they were still for a while, so still that she started to doze off, until Sintaras excited jab awoke her.

Silver! she exclaimed, and Tatss voice almost echoed hers. His dragons excitement came through in his inflection. But he gave Thymara a puzzled look. A silver well? The Silver well? He was incredulous. Did we dream it?

She shook her head at him and grinned. Sintara says that Carson and Sedric have found it. She showed me where. She blinked, the location of the well suddenly reordering her mental map of the city. Of course. It all made sense now. Knowledge seeped up from buried memories; the secret that only Elderlings and dragons must know, the one bit of knowledge that must never be shared with the outside world. The very reason for Kelsingras location and existence. She did not smile: it was too immense for that. Its dragon Silver. The source of all magic.

Selden awoke to low voices. A mans voice, insistent and almost mocking, a womans voice, indignant and venturing toward anger. I will tell my father.

Who do you think gave me the key? Who do you think ordered the guards to allow me to come and go as I please?

You have not married me! You have no right to touch me! Get away! Stop!

It took Selden a time to realize that he was awake, that this was not a dream, and that he recognized the womans voice. He dragged himself to a sitting position on the narrow divan. The fire in the little hearth had burned low: it was late at night, then. He looked around the small study. No one was there. A dream, then?

No. A mans voice, low and angry, from the next room: Come here!

He clutched his head to make the room stop spinning, then went off into a coughing fit and abruptly the voices in the other room were stilled.

Youve wakened him, Chassim exclaimed. I have to see if he is all right. You would not want him to die before my father has the chance to kill him. Her voice was full of disgust for whoever she addressed.

He can wait until Im finished, the man replied abruptly. His words were followed by a crash of falling furniture, and then a womans shriek, suddenly muffled.

The long robe she had given him to wear was twisted around his hips and swaddled his legs. Selden swung his legs off the bed and then struggled to free himself. Chassim! he called, and then choked on his coughing. He stood, feeling too tall, swaying like a reed in the wind. His knees started to buckle under him. He grabbed the back of the divan and took two staggering steps until his outstretched hands met the stout wood of the door. He had not been out of this room since he arrived here; he had no idea where the door led. He slapped at the heavy panels and then found the handle and tugged at the catch. The door swung open and he followed it in a stagger. Chassim was pinned on the bed by a heavy man. His one hand clutched her throat while with the other he was dragging her nightrobe up her body. Her hands tugged hopelessly at the hand that choked her. Her head was flung back, her braided hair coming loose, her mouth wide open and her eyes bulging with terror at not being able to breathe.

Let her go! he shouted, but the words took all his breath. He staggered forward, coughing. He caught at a pot of flowers and threw it at the man. It bounced off his back and fell to the floor, unbroken, rolling in a half circle, spilling soil as it went. The man glanced over his shoulder; his face, already red with passion, went purple with fury. Out! Get out, or I kill you now, you freak!

Chassim! Selden shouted, for her tongue was beginning to protrude from her mouth. Youre killing her! Let her go!

She is mine to kill! As are you! Ellik shouted. He released her, lifting his body off her to come at Selden.

A brass figurine was at hand. Selden threw it at the Chancellor, and watched it sail past him to land with a thud on the floor. Then Ellik seized him by the front of his robe, lifted him off his feet and shook him like a rag. Selden could not control the wild whipping of his head. He rained blows on his attacker but there was no strength in his hands or arms. An angry child would have fought more effectively. Ellik laughed, mocking and triumphant, and flung Selden aside. He struck the door and clutched at it as he slid down it. Darkness made the room small and then it did not exist at all.

Someone gripped his shoulders, rolling him onto his back. He flailed, trying to land a telling blow until he heard Chassim say, Stop it. Its me. Hes gone.

The room was in darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he made out the paleness of her nightrobe, and then the faded gold of her tattered braids hanging around her face. Seeing her face with her hair half loosened around it made him realize she was younger than he had thought. He pushed his own hair back from his face and suddenly realized that he hurt. All over. Badly. It must have showed on his face for she said wearily, He saved a few kicks for you, on his way out.

Did he hurt you? he asked, and saw small sparks of rage light in her eyes at the stupidity of his question.

No. He only raped me. Not even in a very imaginative way. Just plain old-fashioned choking, slapping and rape.

Chassim, he said, shocked; almost rebuking her for how callously she dismissed it.

What? she demanded. Her mouth was swollen but her lip still curled in dismay. Did you think it my first time? It was not. Or will you pretend to be surprised, and claim that this is not the way of your kind?

She touched him kindly as she spoke so harshly, taking him by the shoulders and pulling him to a sitting position. He coughed again and was ashamed when she lifted the corner of her sleeve and wiped his mouth with it. When he could speak, he said, Among my people, rape is not condoned.

No? But I am sure it still happens all the same.

It does, he had to admit. He gently pulled free of her. If she had not been watching, he would have crawled back to the divan. He could feel where Ellik had kicked him. Once in the ribs, once on the hip and once in the head. It hurt, but it could have been worse. Once, he had seen a man beaten down and then stamped upon. It had happened right outside his cage when he had first been put on display. The attackers had all been drunk, all mocking spectators, and he had not felt kindly toward any of them, but he had still screamed at them to stop and yelled for help, for anyone to come and intervene.

No one had.

I tried to make him stop, he said. Then he wondered why he had pointed out his own failure to her. He got himself to his feet and crossed the short space to the divan, catching at furniture as he went. When he reached it, he more fell than sat on it.

Chassim watched him accomplish this, then went to the hearths edge and added a stick or two of wood. In a few moments, flame woke and ran along the sticks. In the additional light, he could see her cheek starting to purple. Yes. You did, she said, as if there had been no gap in their conversation. Then she turned to look at him directly. Sitting on the floor, with her braids falling down, her pale nightdress catching light and shadow from the fire, she looked more childish than ever. Like Malta, when she was a girl and he a small boy and they had sometimes crept down to the kitchen at night to see what treats the cook might have tucked away in the pantry. It had been a very long time ago, he suddenly realized. A tiny bit of a pampered childhood that had lasted only a short time before war and hardship had shattered it forever.

Chassims eyes were not a childs as she asked him, Why? Why did you do that? He might have killed you.

He was hurting you. It was wrong. And you had been kind to me He was shocked that she would ask him why he had tried to help her. Was it such a strange act? He reached deeper, pulled up a painful honesty. It happened to me once. He blurted out the words and then was horrified. He had never intended to speak of it to anyone. Having someone else know about it made it real.

She stared at him, her blue eyes wide, and he wondered what she thought of him now. How much less human did it make him in her eyes?

How? she said at last, and he saw that she did not grasp what he was saying.

He spoke roughly and suddenly understood her own callousness when she had spoken of what Ellik had just done to her. There was a man who wanted me. As a novelty, I think, as when some men mate with an animal, just to see what might be different. He paid the man who kept me captive well. My keeper let him into my cage and walked away. And it was like he was insane. Like I was a thing, not even an animal. I defied him, and I fought him, and then, eventually, I pleaded, when I knew he was far stronger than I was. It didnt help. He hurt me. Badly. And then he got off me and walked away. There is something about knowing that someone is taking pleasure in giving you incredible pain with no remorse. It changes how you see yourself; it changes what you can believe of other people. It changes everything. His words ground to a halt.

I know, she said simply.

A silence fell. The fire crackled and he felt more naked than he had when he was displayed bare for all to see. I was sick for days afterward. Really sick. I had so much pain. I bled and I had a fever. I dont think Ive been completely healthy since then. The words tumbled out of him. He lifted his hand, covered his own mouth to stop them. Tears he had not shed then nor since burned in his eyes. The tears of a torn and battered child, helpless against violence done to him. With his last shred of manhood, of dignity, he fought to hold them back.

Flesh rips when you are forced. She spoke the harsh fact quietly. I have heard people, other women, make mock of it. As something that some women deserve, or as a fillip of excitement to the act. Something to pretend, for titillation. I cannot understand it. It makes me want to slap them and choke them until they understand. She stood up slowly and he could see the pain it cost her. She took a few breaths and then leaned over him to pull a blanket around him. Go to sleep, she suggested.

Maybe tomorrow will be a better day, he dared to say. He coughed again.

I doubt it, she said, but without bitterness. But whatever it is, it will be the only day we have. She left the room slowly, pausing at the door. Your dragon, she said. She cocked her head at him. Did it hurt when she changed you?

He shook his head slowly. Sometimes the changes are uncomfortable. But what we shared was worth it. I wish I could explain it better.

Does she know where you are now? Does she know how they hurt you?

I dont think so.

If she did, would she come here? To help you?

Id like to think so, he said quietly.

So would I, she replied. And on those odd words, she left him.

Day the 5th of the Plough Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Jani Khuprus of the Rain Wild Traders, Trehaug

To Ronica and Keffria Vestrit of the Bingtown Traders, Bingtown

Keffria, I have taken your advice. A lengthy explanation of Maltas absence is on its way to you in a wax-sealed packet sent on the liveship Ophelia and entrusted to Captain Tenira. He is, as we all well know, a man of impeccable honour.

I beg you to hold the information in deepest confidence. I myself am still awaiting more tidings, but I have shared what I know with you. I regret that I must be so evasive and leave you to endure the wait for the packets arrival. Right now I share your reluctance to entrust information about confidential family business to Guild birds.

I share your agony over Seldens fate. Would that we had even one scrap of certainty of what has befallen him. We have sent a response to Wintrow, telling him we still await news.

All else here is the best that it can be, given the daily worries that we share for Selden.

I pray you, if you receive good tidings about our boy, send them as swiftly as possible, by bird. That would be a message I would wish to share with the world.

May Sa shelter us all!


CHAPTER TEN Tintaglia s Touch | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER TWELVE Dragon Warrior