‘We’re wasting our time, Cap,’ Skelly said. She stood squarely before Captain Leftrin as she spoke. ‘It’s too dark down there, the drop is too long, and the Silver too shallow. We’ll never bail up any Silver dropping that bucket. It lands wrong every time. Weight it to tip on its side, and it’s going to stay tipped on its side, spilling out any Silver it might take in as we haul it back up.’
She paused to draw breath. All around the well mouth, the few keepers who had gathered remained silent. Three fruitless days of fishing for Silver had brought them only discouragement. Carson had insisted today that regular work be resumed. So some had gone to the hunt to add meat to their stores while most of Tarman’s crew was back at the docks, tending Tarman or working on reinforcing the docks. Thymara and Tats had returned to the well to see if any progress had been made.
‘You saying we should give this up?’ Leftrin scowled down at her.
‘No, sir. I’m saying, it’s going to take hands. You have to let me try. I’m the smallest and lightest of the crew. And you need someone with some muscle in her arm for the climbing part. It has to be me. Sir.’
Tats lowered his eyes and beside him, Thymara was silent. She knew they both agreed with the deckhand. Skelly was the one for the job. At the same time, she suppressed a shudder. She could not imagine trusting her life to a length of rope, let alone descending so deep into a cold, lightless hole in the ground. Just the thought of it made her queasy. The job might need hands, but they wouldn’t be hers.
‘I’m not going to trust your life to a piece of line that long.’ Captain Leftrin was blunt. ‘Your rigging skills won’t be much use to you if your hands are numb from cold. If the rope breaks, you die from touching the Silver. We heard that from Mercor himself. So. That’s not going to happen.’
‘Then you’re saying we’re giving up?’ She was so astounded that she forgot the ‘sir’.
‘Not giving up. Just not doing it your way. We’ve got a lot of salvaged chain. In pieces. I don’t know what broke it into lengths, but whatever did it is a lot stronger than a man with a hammer. I had Big Eider working on some last night, trying to see if he could open some links and hammer it back together. No luck so far. But once we get it mended, if we can make it long enough, then I might trust it to take someone down that hole. Not you, but someone.’
Her offended protest was cut short. Distant trumpets were sounding. Everyone froze, and then the meaning dawned on them.
‘The dragons are coming back!’ Lecter shouted. ‘Sestican! Sestican!’
‘Fente will want a hot soak and a grooming.’ Tats sounded almost apologetic.
‘As will Sintara.’ Thymara knew what it meant. Until the dragons were bathed and groomed, their lives would not be their own. And as Sintara did not enjoy the company of any of the other queens, chances were that she would not see Tats for that time. She felt a pang that surprised her. Had she so quickly become accustomed to spending her days with him? It had been simpler without Rapskal and her feelings for him complicating her life. And with that thought came another on its heels. She would have to deal once again with Rapskal and what he was becoming. A shiver of dread went through her. Each time she saw him, he was stranger. And more of a stranger.
‘Are you coming?’
The others, keepers and ship’s crew, had already begun hurrying back toward the Square of the Dragons. Tats had paused to wait for her. ‘I’m coming,’ she replied, and hurried to catch hands with him before they ran together.
By twos and threes, the dragons arrived. The boasting and trumpeting and the cries for attention from the keepers made it nearly impossible to get a coherent account of what had happened. Fente was disgusted that she had had to land in the river and walk about on the mud. She had made several kills on the journey home, all in the muddy margins of the river, and insisted that she was filthy even though, to Tats’s eyes, she was her green gleaming self.
Her account of how the dragons had flown into battle, cowing the evil humans into submission by virtue of their glittering beauty, seemed far-fetched to him. ‘So you captured them all without shedding a drop of blood?’ he asked as he inspected her claws after her long soak in the hot water.
She stretched her toes languorously. He found a bit of grit caught between two of them and diligently brushed it away.
Some died. One demanded to be eaten, so Spit ate him. Some jumped in the river and drowned. Some ran off in the forest, and so we left them. Then they had a fight amongst themselves on the way here, and some of them were injured. Stupid humans.
‘I see,’ Tats said quietly. ‘And Tintaglia, who you went to rescue?’
‘Dead by now. We were too late. All we could do was avenge her. Kalo remained behind with her, to eat her memories when she was gone.’
Tats looked away from her. Tears stung his eyes. So the first-born child of the King and Queen of the Elderlings must perish as well. ‘That will be hard for Malta to hear.’
‘She is deaf now?’ Fente asked, her curiosity idle. Tats shook his head and gave it up. From the way she dismissed the events, he knew there was no use in asking for details. She would be far more interested in telling him what she killed and exactly how it tasted than in explaining to him how a battle had been won and two ships captured.
Or so they claimed. Not all of the dragons had returned yet. Of the ships and Rapskal and Heeby there was no sign, nor of Kalo, Mercor and Baliper. They are coming, very slowly, Fente had explained to him. And then she demanded that he clean very carefully around her eyes, for she feared she had picked up water ticks from hunting in the river.
He had just finished that task when he heard more trumpeting from the river. The others have returned, she told him. He followed Fente out to the square where she launched into the air without a word of farewell. She was off to the hunt. She had no interest in ships or homecomings, not while her stomach was empty. He watched her depart and then followed the other keepers down toward the city docks.
That area had changed substantially since Tarman’s return. Leftrin and his crew had made a dozen small changes to Carson’s handiwork and had expanded it in other ways. Tarman was now tied securely within a slip, his lines run to stout shore anchors as well as to an anchor set in the river to keep him from being driven against the shore. It looked to Tats as if the ship could not possibly be torn free, but Leftrin insisted that two hands be aboard him at all times, and none of the crew seemed to think that odd.
When the dragons had arrived and told them that they could expect two more vessels to dock soon, the first reaction had been disbelief. It had been followed by activity that reminded Tats of a stirred-up wasps’ nest as keepers and crew frantically tried to make space for two more boats at their ramshackle dock while dealing with the demands of the dragons.
Mercor had been the first of the dragons to land. He came in gracefully, landing against the river’s current and sending a plume of water rooster-tailing behind him. He had calculated his speed precisely and emerged quickly from the water, to Sylve’s shouts of admiration.
But his first words had not been a greeting but a query. ‘Have you found Silver yet? Is the well cleared?’ As the other dragons landed and made their way to shore, he listened gravely as he was told that only a small quantity of the precious stuff had been pulled up from the well, and that efforts to reach the bottom of the well had been suspended by news of the dragons returning with two ships.
‘And the Silver you did find?’ he asked avidly.
The small quantity of the precious stuff had been carefully poured into an Elderling flask made of heavy glass and placed in the centre of the table where the keepers dined. There it sat and shimmered, casting an unearthly glow of its own into the room. Tats had been certain that Malta and Reyn would try to apply it directly to the child, but they had not. Perhaps Kase’s small mishap had persuaded them of its danger. In the transfer from the large bucket to the much smaller flask, a single drop of Silver had fallen onto the back of his forearm. He had exclaimed in fear, and then as the others drew near, he bent his head over his arm and stared at the Silver as it shimmered.
‘Wipe it off!’ Tats had exclaimed, tossing him a rag.
He had dabbed at it, to no effect. ‘It doesn’t hurt,’ he had told them. ‘But it feels very wrong, all the same.’ They had all watched in silent fear as the Silver spread on his skin, outlining the scales on his arm and then almost disappearing.
‘Nothing happened,’ Sylve said hopefully.
Kase had shaken his head. ‘Something’s happening there. It doesn’t hurt, but something is happening.’ He’d swallowed uneasily and then added, ‘I hope Dortean comes back soon. He’ll know what to do about this.’
In the day since then, he had shed all his scaling where the Silver touched him, and the skin beneath it looked raw and angry. And remained a dull, silvery grey.
Mercor had listened attentively to their tale. ‘Yes. Dortean will be able to deal with that much Silver, if Kase goes to his dragon promptly.’ The golden dragon’s eyes had whirled slowly. ‘And that was all the Silver you were able to bring up?’ he had asked again.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sylve had told him, and her dragon had wheeled away from her in silent disappointment.
The other dragons soon knew the full tale, and had unhappily conceded that until all the dragons had returned, the vial of Silver would remain untouched. They had accepted the news that the well was all but dry and that the Elderlings would have to work on a device that would lower one of them down to harvest what little Silver there might be. They had not seemed very excited at the news and he guessed the reason. The well was already incredibly deep. They surmised, as he did, that the Silver was all gone.
‘Tats!’ Thymara called, and he glanced back to see her running toward him. The back of her Elderling tunic stirred as her wings struggled to open. She had confided to him that sometimes that happened when she hurried, as if some part of her thought she should take flight. Now as she came toward him, smiling, the wind lifting her hair, he saw how much the wings were changing her. She carried them, a weight on her back, and even folded, their angles projected up higher than her ears. Lovely as they were, he suddenly wished she did not have them, for they forced him to recognize that all of them were changed as much as she was, just as far from the humans they had once been. All of them had changed, and all were just as much at risk from the lack of Silver as the dragons were. He thought of Greft, dying of his changes on the journey to Kelsingra. Did such an end await all of them?
‘You look so solemn,’ Thymara said as she caught up with him.
‘I’m a bit worried about Rapskal,’ he said, and it was not a lie even if it was not the immediate truth.
They crested the last hill and looked down at the docks. Sintara and Baliper were wheeling overhead and Spit had flown up to join them. Rapskal circled them on his scarlet dragon. His shouted victory song reached them as a thin whisper on the wind.
Oars powered the two ships that were coming in to dock. They were long and lean, low to the water. Their masts were stripped of sail and folded down to the deck. The oars rose and fell in an uncertain rhythm that spoke either of weariness or clumsy oarsmen. ‘Catch a line!’ Big Eider’s cry rang out as he threw a coiled line to them, and the men who scrambled to catch it were certainly not sailors. They caught it, and then stood staring at it until one of the oarsmen leapt up to take it from their hands.
The rest of the docking proceeded with similar awkwardness. Some of the men on the ships were doing nothing to help, only standing and shouting that they were innocent men, honest Traders from Bingtown, and that they had done nothing to hurt a dragon or to deserve to have their ship stolen from them. Tats and Thymara halted where they stood to watch the spectacle. As the second ship ran into the first, tangling oars and breaking several, the shouts and curses rose in a storm. Other lines were thrown, and a man stood on the raised deck of one of the ships screaming orders that either his crew ignored or did not know how to obey. On the other, a reasonably competent crew ran about frantically trying to protect their vessel.
‘This is bad,’ Tats said in a low voice. ‘Fente told me the dragons conquered evil warriors. They don’t look like warriors. They look like merchants.’
‘Trouble will come of this,’ Thymara agreed.
Slowly they moved down the hill to see what the river had brought them.
‘Like a courting bird,’ Big Eider said, and Leftrin growled in agreement. It had driven him nearly mad to see ships handled so. They might not be alive, but they were gracious, well-built craft and they did not deserve to be run into pilings nor each other in the course of a simple docking. As they were finally being secured to the dock that he did not completely trust for one ship, let alone three, Heeby landed Rapskal nearby. The young Elderling slid down from the scarlet dragon’s shoulder, patted her, and suggested she ‘Go take a long soak, my lovely, and I’ll be along to scrub you down soon.’ As his darling lumbered off, Rapskal promenaded down to the tethered ships. He stood, looking at his prizes and nodding to himself, prompting Big Eider’s remark.
As his fellow keepers began to close in around him, he lifted up his hands and his voice. ‘Hostages! Disembark and show yourselves.’
‘Hostages?’ Skelly asked in disbelief.
‘That’s what he said,’ Leftrin growled at her, and then went forward to be certain the captured ships were not left completely unmanned. Hennesey followed him, and with a shrug and a jerk of her head, Skelly motioned to Big Eider. They trailed their captain while Swarge looked on from Tarman’s deck, smoking a pipe and shaking his head in disapproval.
Leftrin glanced back once at his own vessel. Alise, still looking pale, had come out of their stateroom and onto the deck. She was freshly attired in a long, pale-green tunic over leggings and boots of darker green. Her long red hair, freshly plaited, hung in loops to her shoulder and was secured with rows of bright pins. He knew that style. He had seen it portrayed in mosaics in the city. It worried him that she had unthinkingly adopted it, as did the preoccupied look on her face. He wished she had stayed in bed. Since her excursion into the memory-stones of Kelsingra, she had seemed distracted and weary. He had begged her to stay out of the city for a few days, to rest on Tarman and be away from the stone. She had complied, but even so, she didn’t seem quite herself yet.
‘All of you! Right now!’ Rapskal’s shouted order rang in the air. Leftrin was astounded to see how quickly his captives scrambled to obey him. He had heard scattered talk of the ‘battle’ and most of it had seemed rather incredible to him. He had resolved to hear from a human exactly what had happened, but as he watched Rapskal, he wondered if his account would be any more coherent than those of the dragons had been. The youngster stood, fists on his hips, watching the men disembark. Leftrin mentally sorted them. Here were two merchants, from Bingtown or beyond, and there was a fellow he recognized from Trehaug. Tattooed faces and ragged clothes and their limping gaits proclaimed those bewildered men as slaves, and there, to Leftrin’s astonishment, was Trader Candral from the Cassarick Traders’ Council. He looked a bit the worse for wear, and the bruises on his face appeared to be recently acquired.
The Chalcedeans came ashore in a group, eyes wary and backs straight. They moved with discipline, and he spotted their leader easily as he chivvied them into a tight formation. They might be captives but they had not fully surrendered. Leftrin watched them grimly, knowing well why they had come to the Rain Wilds. Wondering what was to be done with them, he glanced back to see the last of the men leaving the ship. A few lingered behind the rest, checking tie-up lines, and he wagered that the last man walking down the gangplank with slumped shoulders was one of the erstwhile captains. ‘What would it be like, to have someone take your ship from you by force?’ he wondered aloud.
‘A wooden ship or a liveship? Because I don’t think anyone could take our liveship from us.’ Skelly denied the possibility of ever losing Tarman.
‘It’s been done a time or two, sailor, as you should know. But it’s not a thing I like to think about.’ Leftrin didn’t look at her as he spoke. He was watching Rapskal’s captives as they left the dock and crowded together on the shore. The other keepers were gathering, expressions of anger and curiosity on their faces. Reyn and Malta were there as well, with Malta clutching her rag doll of a child to her chest. The captives stared wide-eyed at the keepers, as astonished by them as they were by the dragons. What Leftrin noticed was that most of the keepers were staring at Rapskal rather than the strangers he had brought among them. They watched him as if he were the novelty, something they had never seen before. Perhaps he was.
Rapskal strode up and down before his captives, bidding them line up with their fellows. Even so, the Chalcedeans kept to themselves. When it was done to his satisfaction, Rapskal finally turned to the other keepers. ‘Here they be!’ he announced in a ringing voice. ‘Here be the ones who dared come into our territory to shed dragon blood, to slaughter dragons like cattle, for foreign gold. The dragons have defeated them and judged them. Those judged blameless of aggression against dragons shall be ransomed back to their own people. Those who are not ransomed will labour for us, in the village across the river. Those who have risen up against dragons, who have shed dragon blood or showed aggression to dragons, shall be executed by those they have offended.’
A gasp rose from the assembled keepers and cries of outrage and fear from the prisoners. Leftrin was transfixed with horror. Executions?
Several of the prisoners were shouting that he had told them they could live in service to the dragons. One man fell to his knees weeping and crying out that he had been forced and had had no choice. Leftrin strode forward, and then broke into a run as Rapskal crossed his arms on his chest and set his mouth in a flat line. ‘The truth is not owed to our enemies! I said what I said so that you would labour willingly to bring our captured vessels here. But a man who has lifted a hand against a dragon is not fit to live, let alone live among us. So, you will die.’
‘No! NO!’ Leftrin roared the word and a silence swept through the gathering as if borne on the wind. His crew came at his heels, to stand with him.
The keepers were clutching at one another, wide-eyed with shock. Thymara, her face white beneath her blue scaling, stepped forward stiffly, walking like a puppet. Leftrin held up a forbidding hand and she halted, agony in her eyes.
‘This is not the Trader way!’ Leftrin shouted. Rapskal transferred his gaze to the captain and his eyes blazed with outrage at the interruption. Leftrin advanced on the Elderling anyway, his burly hands knotting into fists. ‘Rapskal, how can you speak so? Never have we executed anyone! Leave that for Chalced, or corrupt Jamaillia. Never have we condoned slavery, nor have we killed as punishment for wrongdoing. If they did wrong, punish them. Judge a cost, make them labour until it is paid. Exile we have used, and indenturement. But not death! Whence come these terrible ideas? Who allows dragons to be the sole judges of the fates of people?’
Emotions flickered over Rapskal’s face. The set of his mouth wavered and for a moment, a startled boy looked out at Leftrin. ‘But it has always been so, has it not? Death the punishment for attacking a dragon?’ he asked in honest confusion, all the eloquent elocution gone from his voice.
‘Rapskal! Stay, stay with us, don’t go!’ Thymara leapt forward suddenly and seized him in her arms. ‘Don’t go. Look at me, speak to me. You are Rapskal! Remember yourself!’
Tats joined her, putting a hand on Rapskal’s shoulder. Sylve stepped forward and tall Harrikin, each putting a hand on him. In another breath, Rapskal was surrounded by all the keepers, all straining to touch him.
Leftrin watched in confusion. ‘Don’t go?’ he muttered to himself.
‘You were right to warn him, my dear, all those weeks ago.’ He turned, startled, to find Alise beside him. Her gaze met his, her grey eyes true. ‘Elderling or not, he has spent too much time in the memory-stone. It is not that he has drowned, but that the memories of someone else’s lifetime have overshadowed his own. I know the man who lives again in Rapskal. Tellator. He was a leader among the Elderlings during a time of war with their neighbours. He was passionate in all things, and bloody-minded in his hatred of those who fought against them.’ She shook her head slowly. ‘We would like to believe the Elderlings were always wise and kind, but their roots were human. They had their failings.’
‘I have to protect the dragons,’ Rapskal was saying now. He looked around at the worried faces of his fellows and added, ‘What else are we to do with such villains? Let them live among us? Let them go, to plot further against us? I – I don’t like to kill, Thymara. You know I am not even a good hunter. But in this, what else are we to do?’
The bunched prisoners sensed the division in those they faced. Some howled for mercy, others shouted that they were Traders and only the Council could judge them. Three men made a break for freedom, only to have Heeby trumpet a warning at them that stopped them in their tracks. The red dragon half-opened her wings and advanced on the men, her jaws wide. They retreated into the huddle of prisoners. The Chalcedeans had formed up, back to back. Weaponless, they would still fight. Leftrin shook his head. ‘What are we to do?’ he asked no one quietly.
The world had gone mad.
Hest stood in the centre of the captives, his head bowed, the hood of his cloak up. On the final leg of the journey up the river he had asserted his rights to his stateroom and his possessions, such as they remained. Most of the Chalcedeans had gone onto the other ship, and no one else had the will to challenge him. It had been a relief to don different clothing and throw his worn-out rags over the side. The foods and wine Redding had brought aboard for them had largely been consumed by their Chalcedean captors, but the bed and bedding had seemed an exotic luxury after his days of sleeping in the hold. He had still had to help work the deck and labour in the galley, but he had managed not to have to take an oar. Between what remained of his own clothing and Redding’s, he was warmly and almost stylishly attired again, and he had found time enough to shave and to trim his own hair. He had not known what to expect when they docked in Kelsingra but had fallen back on one of his father’s old axioms: a man who bears himself with authority will often have authority ceded to him. And so he had locked himself in his room and readied himself for the city and all it might hold, emerging only when he knew docking was under way and thus avoiding most of the work. And when the order had come to disembark, he had taken care to blend with the others until he knew what sort of welcome awaited them.
Yet he had not been prepared for the reality he confronted. He had expected a muddy excavation, or vine-draped ruins. When they had come around the final bend in the river and seen Kelsingra spilled out across the hillsides, he had been just as shocked as the rest. To see a vast city flung wide across low-rolling hills had been astonishing. How could such a place have ever existed, let alone withstood the ravages of time, weather and nature?
And how much treasure did it hold?
However Kelsingra had survived, here it was. Yes, the docks were gone, replaced by makeshift planks, logs and crude pilings, but they functioned. And when a small committee of Elderlings had come down to meet the ships, he had decided they were the ones he must impress with his importance. Shock and horror had numbed him when the scarlet man condemned some to death and others to slavery. It was only now, as the denizens of the place squabbled with one another and shouted over the top of one another, that he pieced together the puzzle. They were not truly Elderlings. These were the banished Changed ones, sent off with the dragons. They had dressed themselves in Elderling finery and for a time he had been deceived. There was the old Tarman, the ugliest liveship ever built, as evidence. So, if this was where the ship had ended its voyage and these were the survivors … He lifted his head but kept the hood of his cloak pulled well forward as he surveyed the gathered ‘Elderlings’.
After seeing the ferocity of the dragons and enduring his own journey up the river, he had doubted if either Alise or Sedric had survived. Both of them lacked his adventurous nature, and Alise especially was a creature of drawing-rooms and teashops. If he found himself a widower, as Alise’s heir he would—
And then he recognized her. The incongruity of her gleaming garments with her plain features almost broke a guffaw of laughter from him. Her freckles were more obvious than ever, and if possible, the red of her hair was redder. Contrasted with the slender and youthful ‘Elderlings’ in their bright garb, she looked short and stout. Her hair hung in ropes, and the snug trousers she wore showed every curve of her calves. Scandalous attire for any Bingtown woman, it was even more shocking on a woman of her years. She chose to stand with the rough-cut ship’s crew; did she think their crude company made her look superior? If so, she was mistaken; the contrast was even more laughable.
Then, as he watched in abhorrence, the weathered ship’s captain who had first dared to countermand the execution order put an arm around Alise and pulled her to his side. Did she struggle? No. She leaned into his familiarity, letting her head drop onto his shoulder. It was when she set her open hand to his chest that he realized with affront that she was intimate with the man. A common river-man, coarse and ignorant, was bedding the wife of one of Bingtown’s most eminent Traders? The insult was unthinkable, to him and to his family. He could not, would not take her back into his home and bed. Dirtied as she was, how could she bear him an heir worthy of the Finbok name? He would disown her and dissolve the marriage!
But not before he had asserted his right to half of her claim to the city. As his eyes roved over Kelsingra, the magnitude of that fortune stunned him. He almost laughed over his earlier fears. There were his ‘captors’, probably less than two dozen people. Why, their captives outnumbered them! He tried quickly to count the clustered keepers, to work out Alise’s approximate percentage of claim to the city, but they were milling and clustering tightly around the scarlet man who had condemned the Chalcedeans. One of them shouted something about judging the ‘foreigners’. Ridiculous. They had no authority! Tall they might be, but their scaled faces were still young, almost childish.
Even so, he had nothing to fear from their judgment. He had not done any physical harm to a dragon, nor could anyone ever prove he had intended to. As a Bingtown Trader, only the Bingtown Council could sit in judgment on him. These people might be dressed in Elderling clothing, but if they presumed to judge him, they’d soon have the Council and every Trader in Bingtown on their backs. Masquerade as they might, they were still citizens of the Rain Wilds and subject to its laws. They might detain him, might even demand ransom of his family, but eventually they would find that their little gaggle of misfits could not stand before the combined economic might of the Rain Wild and Bingtown Councils. If they thought they could ship treasure from here and live by their own rules, they’d be sadly surprised when they found the sole navigable waterway held against them. Young as they were and foolish, they probably had no idea of how things had always worked. Neither Bingtown nor Trehaug nor Cassarick would suffer their grip on the Elderling artefact trade to be loosened.
With every passing moment, Hest gained more confidence in his position. He was just on the point of stepping forth and demanding that his rights as a Bingtown Trader be recognized when four of the Chalcedeans attempted to escape. The response of the red dragon sent them scurrying back, and Hest quickly moved as far away from the culprits as he could. If the dragon decided to dispatch one or more of them, he did not want to be confused with them.
The tumult among the Kelsingra Elderlings was subsiding. A woman was weeping and holding onto the scarlet man while a stouter fellow had draped an arm across his shoulders. Some crisis had passed, it appeared, though he had no idea what it meant. In avoiding the Chalcedeans, he had moved to the outer fringe of the huddled captives. Most of them had fallen silent, though a few still wept or cursed quietly. The slaves had squatted down to passively await whatever fate would befall them now. Clearly this was not the first time that the course of their lives had changed without their consent.
His fears calmed, he coldly assessed his position. So his ‘wife’ had turned sailor’s whore. There was a lever he could use. If she had any sense of shame left at all, he might be able to persuade her to pretend she was dead and let him inherit all her share in return for his keeping silent about her sluttish behaviour. She could not possibly return to Bingtown after what she had done, not if she cared for her family at all. So, Alise was not a problem. He’d have all he wanted from her, and be able to return unencumbered by her.
He could see that others among the captives were likewise evaluating their positions. The two Jamaillian merchants were talking fast and low to one another, surely discussing what trade terms they could offer, and who would not only ransom them but send enough coin that they could buy priceless Elderling relics to take home with them. He saw them look over at the keepers, who had been joined by the ship’s crew and were in earnest discussion. Only the dragon was watching their captives now, but one dragon was an ample guard for all of them. What were the Jamaillians trying to discern? Probably the same thing that Trader Candral was puzzling about. Who was truly in charge here? Who would not only decide his fate, but be the person who would negotiate their future?
Hest ran his eyes over them, dismissing the sailors in their rough clothes, considering only those masquerading as Elderlings. His eyes snagged on one tall fellow, standing at the edge of the crowd. He was watching the street behind him, waiting for someone, and ignoring the lively discussion among the dragon keepers. Hest read him carefully. Of all of the Elderlings, he best maintained his bearing. Carefully attired in garments that complemented one another as well as his own colouring and in gleaming black boots, he had a born gentility to his posture. The wind tossed his cloak gently and moved his hair on his shoulders. A handsome fellow, lean and tall and well muscled, his scaling was coppery-brown over his own tanned skin. Hest felt a stirring of interest in him and smiled to himself. It would be a novelty to run his hands over smoothly scaled flesh. The tall man turned and said something to one of the others. From the depths of his hood, Hest stared at the copper Elderling.
But it could not be. The man would easily be of a height with Hest. Sedric had always been willowy and slight, forever boyish. This fellow was unmistakably a man, his shoulders wide and his chest deep. Then as a smile broke out on his face, he was unmistakably and forever Sedric, but a Sedric transformed by magic into an exotic and magnificent creature. Hest gazed at him, entranced. All Sedric’s flaws had been burnt away. Hest evaluated him, studying how he stood, watching and waiting. The almost-childish softness that had become an irritant to Hest over the last few years had been chiselled away, perhaps by hardship. However it had happened, it was gone, replaced by muscle and firmness. Here was someone who would yield to Hest, but not as easily as the old Sedric had. His pulse quickened at the thought. Sedric had become worthy again of his attention. And when Hest brought him back to Bingtown, what a sensation he would be in their circle!
With a dizzying lurch, Hest suddenly realized that Sedric had fulfilled his dream. Dragon parts or no, the share of the city that Hest could claim through his trollop wife and his employee was a staggering amount. His eyes roamed over the city above the docks, and his heart suddenly leapt to new ambitions and ideas. Any one of those mansions could be claimed as his. Here, truly, he could live however he wanted to live, away from the condemnation of Bingtown and family. Did he need to return to Bingtown and take up his life there, under his father’s watchful and disapproving eye? With the wealth he could rightfully claim, he could establish himself here, his friends could join him, and once trade was launched with other cities, he could travel wherever he wished. And Sedric had done it! He’d done it for both of them!
Sedric. He had been a half-schooled youngster when Hest had plucked him out of his dull and stunted life. Unsophisticated and na"ive, everything about Hest had left Sedric wide-eyed with wonder. Hest had educated him in the ways that a young Trader’s son should live, taught him how to dress and ride and dine, to choose a wine or critique a play. And he supposed that along the way, he’d wakened his appetites and his ambition for a finer life than that for which his humble family had prepared him. Hest shook his head in wonder, not just at Sedric but at himself. They’d laugh about all this some day, how Hest had inadvertently set Sedric’s feet on the path that had won him a fortune. He looked at him with fondness and some pride. So many misunderstandings along the way, Sedric. So many missteps on your part. But nonetheless, here we are, and fortune smiles on me through you.
Hest took a moment to straighten his collar. He would step out from amongst the captives, stand proud as he threw his hood back and called Sedric’s name. He paused a moment to savour the amazement and joy he would kindle in Sedric’s eyes. Not to mention the awe and envy of the prisoners as he alone was greeted and welcomed by the gleaming bronze man.
He had stepped free of the others and lifted his hands to his hood when he heard someone call Sedric’s name. And there, coming down the street, a bow slung across his shoulder, was the man Sedric had been watching for. There was a youngster at his side carrying several dead birds. Hunters returning with their kills? He saw how the smile widened on Sedric’s face, a look both of welcome and relief. Sedric strode hastily to meet them as Hest watched in consternation. What could he possibly have to say to such a rough man?
He lost all interest in his own fate as he watched Sedric greet the two newcomers. He took a moment to speak to the youngster who displayed his grisly trophies with evident pride. Hest was shocked when Sedric actually took hold of one bird and hefted it approvingly before returning it to the lad. But then, as Sedric began explaining with obvious excitement all that was going on, the tall hunter put his arm around him and pulled him close. Sedric leaned on him for an instant in obvious affection. Then, in an open display of warmth, the tall hunter kept his arm around Sedric as they walked toward the others. It was impossible to miss the bond between the two of them. A wash of numbness spread up from Hest’s belly. Sedric had replaced him? Had forgotten him and set him aside for a handsome savage? The insult scored him with a thousand claws. Jealousy roiled through him, followed by cold hatred.
Sedric would regret his faithlessness. There were many ways to hurt a man like him.
Day the 12th of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Reyall, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown
To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug and Erek
Dear Aunt Detozi and Uncle Erek,
I think perhaps you have been expecting to receive this letter for a long time, perhaps for as long as I have been hoping to send it. I know that initially you both had reservations about me courting a Three Ships girl. But I thank Erek for not only taking the time to get to know Karlin, but speaking well of her and of our desire to become engaged. I know that my parents have expressed trepidations about how an ‘outsider’ will react to a Rain Wilds youth with quite a bit more than ‘minor’ scaling. Neither she nor her family have ever made an issue of it!
And now, I will remind you all quite cheerfully of what Erek told me when he was instructing me in managing the breeding records of the birds given into my care: ‘It is always healthy to introduce new blood of a good quality into an established line.’
And such is our intention!
Her parents are, of course, just as conservative as mine in this matter. They have told us that we must wait a full year, but are allowing us to announce our intentions publicly at last!
So, enclosed, the public announcement of our engagement! Please post it prominently so all may share my pride and joy! One scroll on every tree in the Rain Wilds still could not express it!