‘I wish we could take this discussion somewhere warm and speak of it calmly,’ Alise said quietly. She was sheltered in the angle of Leftrin’s arm, his cloak around her as well as her own. She knew her body was not cold, but the rising cold that she felt inside her was making her feel ill. She was still tired from her time in the stones; even with Leftrin holding her, she felt the lure of them tugging at her like small children begging for her attention. Too much was happening too fast. She felt shamed by the misery and uncertainty in the eyes of the captives and the abject resignation of the thin, scarred slaves filled her with horror. Alone, that would have been bad enough, but the keepers were quarrelling as if they were still the youngsters they had been when they left Trehaug. Kase, Boxter and Jerd were in favour of letting the dragons do whatever they wished with all the captives. They were the extreme. All of the others had taken up varying opinions as to what fate was deserved by the slaves, the Jamaillian traders, the Chalcedean dragon-hunters and the others. Rapskal had calmed somewhat. His earlier martial attitude had been completely at odds with all Alise knew of the young keeper. Thymara’s attitude toward Rapskal’s transformation had mirrored her own. She and Tats flanked him now, Tats with an arm across his shoulder and Thymara clasping his arm, as if their physical touch could keep him in this world and time.
Perhaps it could. She knew that she only slept deeply now when she could anchor her body to Leftrin’s warm back, only felt solidly in this world when, as now, she held his hand in both of hers. She regretted her sojourn among the memory-stones even as she knew that it had been necessary, and that she would one day attempt it again. The knowledge she sought was too important to all of them. She tightened her grip on Leftrin and struggled to keep her thoughts in this world and time.
She glanced away and her eyes met Carson’s. He shook his head slowly at her, mirroring her dismay. He had arrived late on the scene, come back from hunting with Davvie and his catch. She knew from Leftrin that he had been taking more time with his foster-nephew lately. Davvie and Lecter quarrelled often of late, and Carson had been blunt with them both, telling them that he thought they were choosing one another by default rather than based on a true attraction. She did not think his bald stating of the situation was very helpful to either of them, even if she secretly agreed with it.
Carson lifted his voice in a shout that silenced half a dozen angry and worried arguments among the keepers and stilled the anxious shouts of the prisoners. ‘Let’s round them up and take them to the baths. No matter how guilty they may be, they are still human, and even the dragons have said there are innocent men among them. So let us act as befits who we are, rather than who we think they might be. Take them to the baths, let them be clean and warm, and let us be comfortable as well while we discuss this.’
He had a way, Alise thought. Harrikin backed him with, ‘Carson’s right. They may be brutes but we are not.’ Kase and Boxter were already in motion as if they were sheepdogs given a command. The cousins moved in unison, flanking the prisoners and shouting at them to get up and follow the Elderling in forest green, since they were being taken to a judgment place. That was a bit more harsh than she would have phrased it, but it did get them up and moving.
Leftrin tugged at her arm. ‘Come, my love. Let’s get you a hot cup of tea and something to eat. I’ll wager you haven’t eaten yet today.’
‘I haven’t,’ she admitted. It was strange to sit down with him to their simple foods and humble settings when her mind still reeled with memories of elegant meals in elaborately staged venues. Scarlet wine would not fountain from a carved flower to fall into a chilled crystal goblet for her. Just hot tea with Leftrin. That was as she preferred it. Surely not all the Elderlings had lived that way, but the ones who considered themselves worthy of preserving their complete memories seemed to have pursued lives of utter luxury. Perhaps, she mused, she had been seeking information from the wrong stratum of society. Where, then, should she have looked?
Startled, she turned her head to see who had shouted her name. The voice was hoarse. She looked at her friends but found that the Elderlings around her were staring back over their shoulders at the weary prisoners who were trailing them. As she stared in consternation, a tall man flung back the hood of his cloak. ‘Alise!’ he cried, and his voice trembled with warmth now. ‘My darling, is it truly you? After all the days and all the hardship, I’ve found you at last! I’ve come to take you home!’
She stared. Then she began to shake, not a trembling, but a shuddering. Her knees buckled and she would have fallen if Leftrin had not tightened his arm around her. She felt every muscle in his body tighten and his chest swell with anger. ‘Hest,’ she breathed in a choked whisper, confirming what Leftrin had already guessed.
‘If he tries to touch you, I’ll kill him,’ he promised her heartily.
‘No, please,’ she gasped. ‘No scenes, not in public. Not like this.’ Most of the keepers guessed or knew that she had left a husband behind in Bingtown. Only a few knew how he had deceived her and hurt her, and even fewer knew the extent of Sedric’s role in it. She and Sedric had protected one another, leaving those griefs and deceptions behind as they both built new lives in Kelsingra. But now Hest had come to tar them with shame, and everyone here would change their opinions of her. She had come among them as the dragon expert, the learned woman who had helped them believe in the existence of Kelsingra. They had seen her as a bit eccentric, but most of them admired her for her toughness and resourcefulness. She had survived Rapskal’s thoughtless comment that she was not one of them, proving that even if she was not an Elderling, she was still essential to the colony.
Hest would take all that from her now, revealing her as a foolish woman who had been mastered by a man who cared nothing for her. All would know her past shame, and she would have to carry it forward into the future.
The thoughts flashed through her mind like a bolt of lightning that burned an image into her eyes. Without thinking, she turned her gaze to Sedric. His face was as white as hers. He had taken two steps out of Carson’s sheltering arm to stare in disbelief at what fate had washed up on their shores. The hunter’s face had gone still and stoic, as if he waited in the eye of a storm for the cold winds and rain to return. But Hest’s charade of affection was for her alone.
‘Alise, my dearest one, don’t you know me? I know, hardship has changed both of us, but it’s me, your husband, Hest Finbok. You’ll be safe now. I’ve come to take you home.’
The entire procession had halted to watch their interchange. Prisoners were exchanging confused looks. The keepers were parting to open a way between Alise and the man who had called her name. Hest moved toward her confidently, advancing from the gaggle of prisoners to walk through the ranks of the stunned keepers and up to Alise. They watched him curiously as he passed. He was, Alise thought, as dapper as ever. If he had endured hardship, it showed only in that he was leaner than she recalled him and perhaps a bit more muscled. The skin of his face was weathered, but it only made him more handsome. His fine black boots were scuffed, his tailored trousers a bit worn, as was the ruffled shirt he wore, but as always, the cut and colours of his clothing drew every eye to him. He pushed back his cloak from his shoulders. The wind stirred his dark hair and a smile lit his face and eyes as he advanced on her, his arms open as if to embrace her.
‘Who is that?’ Davvie demanded in awe. He looked dazzled.
Carson replied with a terse, ‘Shut up.’
Reyn startled everyone when he stepped into Hest’s path. ‘Who are you? Go back with the others until you are judged.’ He met Hest’s stare eye to eye.
Hest responded with wide-eyed shock. ‘But … but I’m Hest Finbok! I’ve come all this way to find my wife Alise! I hired passage on the newest and swiftest ships I could find to come in search of her. When treachery by the captain let it fall to Chalcedean pirates, I thought all was lost. But here I am! Sweet Sa, your miracles never cease! I am here, and alive, and so is my darling wife! Alise, don’t you know me? Has your mind been turned by this harsh place? I am here now, and you need no other protector than your loving husband.’
His words, she thought, danced all through the truth, never touching it. Reyn, startled, stayed as he was as Hest stepped around him.
‘No.’ It was the only word she could manage. Her throat was dry, her heart pounding. She could not find breath to say more than that, but she clung to Leftrin’s arm as if it were her only lifeline in a wild sea storm. And he did not let go of her. He stood firm at her side.
Leftrin spoke in a low growl. ‘The lady says “No”.’
‘Take your hands off my wife!’ Hest ignored Reyn’s challenge of him as he stepped around the Elderling to glare menacingly at Leftrin. ‘She is obviously not right in her mind! Look how she stares! She does not recognize me, poor thing! And you, scoundrel, have taken advantage of her! Oh, my Alise, my darling, what has he done to you? How can you not recognize your own loving husband?’
She felt a low rumbling from Leftrin as if he snarled like a beast. His arm in her clutch had become hard as iron. He would protect her, he would save her. All she had to do was let him.
‘No,’ she said again, this time to Leftrin. She squeezed his arm reassuringly and then stepped out of his shelter. She stood free of him, and the wind off the river blew past her. Her unbound hair lifted in wild red snakes and she knew a moment of dismay as she wondered how ridiculous she looked, her skin weathered, her woman’s body garbed in the bright colours of an Elderling as if she did not know her age or her place in the world.
Her place in the world.
She squared her shoulders. As she walked forward, Reyn stepped toward her as if to offer her his arm and support. She waved him off without meeting his eyes. She advanced on Hest, hoping to see some flicker of doubt in his eyes. Instead his smile only widened as if he were truly welcoming her. He actually believed that she would resume that role, would pretend to be his loving, dutiful wife. That thought touched fire in her soul. She halted before him and looked up at him.
‘Oh, my dear! How harshly the world has treated you!’ he exclaimed. He tried to put his arms around her. She set both hands to his chest and pushed him firmly away. As he staggered backwards, it pleased her that he had not expected her to be so strong.
‘You are not my husband,’ she said in a low voice.
He teetered a moment, then caught his balance. He tried to recover his aplomb. But she had seen the sparks of anger flare in his dark eyes. He tipped his head, solicitous, his voice stricken. ‘My dear, you are so confused!’ he began.
She lifted her voice, pitched it for all to hear. ‘I am NOT confused. You are NOT my husband. You broke the terms of our marriage contract, rendering it void. From the earliest days of our marriage, you were unfaithful to me. You entered into the contract with no intent of keeping yourself to me. You have deceived me and made me an object of mockery. You are not my husband, and by the terms of our marriage contract, all that is mine comes back to me. You are not my husband and I am not your wife. You are nothing to me.’
It was gratifying to see the surprise on his face. This was not what he had expected. He had thought to take control of her just as easily as he once had. But it was frightening, too, to watch the expression in his eyes shift. How quickly he reassessed the situation, how swiftly he found a new tactic and a new balance.
‘Unfaithful? Me?’ He stood taller. ‘How dare you! Would an unfaithful man have risked all to come this far to rescue you from this place? You! Traders of Bingtown and Trehaug, I call you to witness!’ He spun back on the dumbfounded prisoners who were taking in the scene as if it were a puppet play. ‘This is my wife, Alise Finbok! I sent her, at her most earnest wish, to visit the Rain Wilds. How she became caught up in this expedition, I do not know, though I know that some of you were there when she embarked on it. I do know she is rightfully married to me, and if this beast has alienated her affection for me, then he must answer for it! Annul our marriage agreement she can, if that is truly her own heartfelt desire. I will set her free! But I have not violated our contract and I will not be denied my rightful claim on properties she has acquired during our marriage!’ He spun back and pointed a finger at Leftrin. ‘And you, scoundrel, do not think you will go unpunished for your part in this! You have stolen my wife’s affection and alienated her from me. The Council shall sit in judgment on you. Prepare to forfeit every greasy coin, every bit of property, even that stinking barge you own for this grievous insult to me and my family.’
Alise cursed the weakness that made her legs shake. ‘You were unfaithful!’ she cried out again, and she could not control the waver of her voice.
‘My dear, you are not yourself!’ he cried again, heartbreak in his voice. ‘Come back to me. Forgiveness is still possible. I will take care of you, restore you to a safe life where you are free to pursue your studies in quiet and calm. Say but the word, and I will see that no word of this scandal ever touches your family or your name.’ He looked earnestly into her eyes, the picture of a wronged but forgiving man.
But she clearly read his threat, couched as an offer of forgiveness. Her family. Her reputation in Bingtown. Did she care for such things any more? She thought of her mother, of her younger, unwed siblings. Her family had no wealth, only their status as honourable Bingtown Traders, folk who always kept their bargains. The scandal he threatened could destroy them. She hesitated, duty to her family’s name shredding her heart.
‘You were unfaithful. From the very first night you made her your bride. I will testify to that.’
She scarcely recognized Sedric’s voice. It thrummed with deep passion. He pushed his way past the staring keepers to stand beside her, lifted her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. She clutched at him and felt his unseen trembling as they confronted together the man who had dragged them both through so much misery.
Hest drew himself up straight and sparks of scorn danced in his eyes. ‘Ah. My valet. My runaway servant. Do you think I don’t know of your private bargains? Your disgusting dealings with Chalcedean merchants to sell them dragon parts? Do your friends know of that? Now that they do, will they believe you? A man who lies once will lie often.’
Sedric went even whiter but his voice was steady. ‘My friends know all, Hest. My dragon knows all. And she has forgiven me.’
That rattled Hest. Alise’s thoughts scattered as one part of her mind rejoiced. You never saw that he might have a dragon, did you, Hest? You saw his changes, but you could not truly imagine how much he had changed.
But Hest had not changed. He recovered as neatly as a tumbling acrobat who comes to his feet again. Only those who knew him well recognized the tiny pause of uncertainty before he spoke. He still played to the crowd as he disbelievingly asked, ‘And knowing of your treacherous nature, you think they will believe whatever foul thing you say? You will testify against me? You, Sedric Meldar, a lowly servant? Then do so now, before all of us. Tell us then, give us one instance of my unfaithfulness to my wife. Just one will do.’ His gaze was sharper than a knife. Alise saw victory dancing in his dark eyes.
Sedric drew a breath. The trembling she had felt as she gripped his arm stilled. He spoke clearly, his voice pitched to carry to everyone there. ‘I shared your bed for years, before you took Alise as your wife, and for years afterward. You spent your wedding night with me. And in the years that followed, you made her a laughing-stock among our fellows. In that circle, all knew that you disdained the company of women for that of men. I was your lover, Hest Finbok. I helped you deceive her, and did not speak up when you mocked her.
‘And if need be, I will stand before all of Trehaug, and all of Bingtown and attest to that. You were an unfaithful husband to her, and I, I was a treacherous friend.’
Alise stared at Sedric as he committed social suicide. But he turned and met her gaze and said, ‘And again, Alise, I am so sorry. Would that I could take back those years of your life and give them to you unscathed.’
Her eyes brimmed with tears. Sedric had just destroyed all chance that he could ever return to Bingtown and resume his life. Even if he remained in Kelsingra for ever, if even one Trader returned to Bingtown, all would know not only what he had done to her, but what he was. ‘I forgave you, Sedric. I told you that a long time ago.’
‘I know that,’ he said very quietly. His hand covered hers as he added, ‘But I did not deserve your forgiveness then. Perhaps I can say I have earned it now?’
‘You have,’ she said quietly. ‘And more. But, Sedric, what have you done? All will know that you …’
‘That I am what I am,’ he said calmly. ‘I do not apologize for that. Ever.’
She sensed someone behind them and turned slightly, thinking it might be Leftrin. It was not. Carson was grinning, but as he stepped forward, a single tear tracked down his sunburned cheek. He folded Sedric into an embrace from behind that lifted the smaller man off his feet. ‘Proud of you, Bingtown boy,’ he said huskily. He set him down on his feet and leaned down to kiss him. The kiss did not end quickly and Sedric’s hands came up to cradle Carson’s bearded face to his own. Several of the keepers favoured the couple with knowing whoops that drowned out the incredulous muttering from the watching prisoners. Alise found herself smiling, as much for joy for them as for the stunned expression on Hest’s face.
She felt a nudge and turned to see Leftrin. He stuck out the crook of his elbow and she took his arm in his ragged coat sleeve. ‘I think we were going to get some tea?’ he asked her conversationally. She nodded, and instantly forgave him the triumphant look he shot over her head at Hest. She walked a dozen steps with Leftrin before she glanced back. Hest was standing alone, staring after them.
‘How is he?’ Reyn asked as he took a seat beside his wife. He spoke quietly, not to interrupt the conversation going on in the central part of the gathering room of the baths. A strange site selection, he thought, but at least it offered ample space. Every keeper and the full crew of Tarman, except for Big Eider and Bellin, sat in rapt attendance. Reyn wondered if the chaotic discussion was similar to how the earliest Rain Wild Council had begun. Every keeper had an opinion and seemed intent on airing it. Leftrin and his crew seemed likewise focused on having a say.
Several of the dragons, still steaming gently from their baths, had remained as well. Reyn wondered if they were really interested in how the humans settled things, or simply hoping for an easy meal if executions were indeed the final decision. Spit had stretched out alongside the captives, who were seated in a group on the floor. From time to time he extended his neck and took a deep snuffling breath as if savouring the aroma of their fear. Mercor, gold and dignified, made up for the smaller dragon’s lack of gravitas. Baliper was present as well, eyeing the captives thoughtfully. The presence of the dragons threw the room into its rightful perspective. Humans and even Elderlings seemed small and transient in the massive gathering space.
Malta looked down on the quiet bundle in her arms. ‘He nursed for a short time. He’s not asleep. He seems too tired to eat or to cry right now.’
‘The quiet is a relief,’ Reyn said honestly and then wished he could bite the words back. She gave him a stricken look and he read her thought. Soon enough, it will always be quiet. ‘Let me hold him for a time,’ he said, to soothe the hurt, and she gave the baby over so readily that he knew she had already forgiven his thoughtless words. The bundled child was lighter than he had been the week before. He was losing flesh and his dark eyes were dull. Reyn began the methodical rocking that holding the child seemed to trigger in him and Malta smiled faintly.
‘Have they made any progress over there?’
He nodded. ‘Most of the talking now is just the keepers agreeing with themselves and saying why they think they’ve reached the right decisions. But that’s an important step for them, too. Sometimes I forget how young most of them are. There was some hot talk at the beginning. It almost made me smile. Some of them seemed to echo what their dragons were saying. Leftrin said, several times, that people should decide the fates of humans, not dragons. I don’t think that that sentiment was completely accepted, but it cooled things down. They’ll take a final vote soon. But I think the slaves will be freed and allowed to determine what they want to do. Leftrin has said that the next time Tarman goes down to Trehaug, the slaves can ride for free. From there, it would be up to them what they did. Some spoke of families, long lost to them. Others seemed dazed at their sudden freedom. They were offered the chance to stay in the village across the river. Not sure if they completely understood what they were being offered. My Chalcedean is rudimentary at best, and pretty rusty.’
Malta nodded. ‘Mine is the same. Selden was the only one of us who ever learned our father’s language. I think he did it to impress him. But it didn’t.’ Her eyes had gone far as she thought of her vanished brother. Reyn waited. After a moment, she stirred herself. ‘Selden is gone, along with Tintaglia. I suppose that’s fitting, somehow.’ She sighed, dragging herself back to the present. ‘And the other prisoners?’ she asked.
‘That was harder. Leftrin accused Trader Candral to his face of being part of a conspiracy to slaughter dragons and sell the flesh to Chalced. Evidently there was a woman, Trader Sverdin, who was also involved. The Chalcedeans threw her overboard before they even left Cassarick. She probably drowned. Some of the keepers were for letting the dragons eat Candral, but Leftrin talked long and hard that Candral needed to be taken back to Cassarick and put before the Council there. He told them that unless they do so, the Council will never confront the corruption within their own ranks. Candral begged for his life and promised he would this very night write out who was involved and how. Evidently he had a hand in the hiring of some hunter who was part of the Tarman Expedition and attempted to kill Relpda.’
She nodded at his words and he wondered if she was really hearing them. He spoke on anyway. ‘The Chalcedeans are claiming they were forced to come here, that their families are hostage back in Chalced. I find that believable but the dragons are finding it hard to understand that perhaps that means they deserve mercy. They drew dragon blood. There is no denying that. Then there are the crewmen from the ships. Some say that they were only obeying their captains’ orders. Well and good, I suppose, but at least one of their captains was a traitor to the Traders.
‘There are two merchants from Jamaillia who seem to have just got caught up in the whole mess, as well as several investors from Bingtown who thought they were making a maiden run on their wonderful new vessel. The keepers won’t compromise that they are keeping the ships; they do seem to be impervious to the water, from what Swarge told us after a look at their hulls. I’m not sure it’s fair for them to seize the ships, but I suspect that before all is done, some deals and bargains will be negotiated. The Jamaillians already asked about future trading treaties. And that led to the Bingtown Traders interrupting and saying that only a true council could negotiate such things. And then several keepers asserted that neither Bingtown nor either of the Rain Wild Councils had any authority over them. That led to some very interesting discussion.’
Malta nodded and her smile touched her eyes. ‘I heard. You didn’t even ask me if I wanted to be Queen before you told them all that wasn’t why we had come here.’
Reyn lifted a hand from their child to caress her golden hair. It was coarse under his touch but his memory told him it was spun gold. ‘That was because I was sure you would say “yes”.’ He smiled at her. ‘And they would have let us simply walk in and take charge of all this.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I never want to be the one to say “This man lives and that man dies.” I am glad they think so highly of us and I am glad that they listened to me when I pleaded for clemency for the prisoners. But I am even gladder that they are talking and reaching the same conclusions on their own.’
‘Negotiation. It’s the Trader way of solving things,’ she said, and he smiled.
‘I haven’t forgotten all you did for Bingtown when you faced down the Satrap of Jamaillia and the Pirate King.’
She returned his smile faintly. ‘That seems a very long time ago. Where did I get that energy?’ She shook her head. ‘Trader Finbok?’
‘Claims to have simply been on his way to look for Alise and Sedric before he was abducted with the other passengers. Some of the others dispute that; Candral says that a note from Finbok lured him down to the vessel. Hest denies it. Right now, there’s no hard evidence and no reason to charge him with anything.’
‘It doesn’t quite add up somehow. But I’m too tired to put my mind to work on it.’ Malta frowned. ‘Candral must go back. Someone must pay for what those horrid men did to me the night Phron was born.’ She looked down at her baby. ‘If I must go back to stand before the Council and speak about what I did that night, I will.’
‘I’ve no desire to put you through that. Sooner or later, the truth will out,’ Reyn told her.
She nodded slowly. All spirit had gone out of her since she had heard of Tintaglia’s death. The dragons had not wished to discuss it, other than to say that Kalo had stayed behind to eat her memories. He had not returned with the others; Reyn privately suspected that devouring a dragon the size of Tintaglia would take even Kalo several days. He was surprised at the depth of loss he felt at her death. Tintaglia had abandoned the other dragons to their fates years ago. She had left without a word of farewell to either Malta or him. Not even Selden, her beloved poet, had she warned before she vanished. For a short time, they had heard reports of her, including one that she had found a mate in the far north. What she had been doing for all those absent years they would never know, nor why she had decided to come back to the Rain Wilds. It sounded as if she had died but a day’s flight from Kelsingra.
He thought of her as he had last seen the dragon. Tintaglia had been arrogant and full of vitality, a queen in every sense of the word. She had left her mark plainly on himself and Malta and Selden. And, he now realized, on their children. Malta had miscarried several times. He tried to imagine himself as he could have been, a father surrounded by children, if only the dragon had been there to Change the babes in Malta’s womb so they could survive. It was a useless fantasy.
‘Tintaglia,’ Malta said suddenly.
He nodded. ‘I was just thinking of her, too. She was not so bad, for a dragon.’
Malta sat up straighter. ‘No. I feel her. Reyn, she’s not dead. She’s coming here.’
Reyn stared at her, his heart breaking. When they had first received the news that Tintaglia was dead, Malta had screamed like a madwoman. He had gathered her up and taken her away from all the others, even Tillamon. They had sat together with their doomed child, sat and rocked and wept and ranted behind closed doors. And when it was done, a strange calm had fallen over her. He thought perhaps it was a woman’s way, to come out of such a storm of emotion and pain as if she were a ship emerging onto calm seas. She had seemed, not at peace, but emptied of sorrow. As if she had run out of that particular emotion and no other one arose to take its place. She had tended Ephron with gentleness, even during the long hours when his shrill keening nearly drove Reyn mad. She had seemed to be absorbing every sound, every scent, every sight of her child back into herself, as if she were a stone taking his memories into her.
It had frightened him, but this was worse.
‘She’s dead, Malta,’ he said gently. ‘Tintaglia’s dead. The dragons told us so.’
‘The dragons were wrong!’ she insisted fiercely. ‘Listen, Reyn! Reach out to her. She’s coming, she’s coming here! She’s in a lot of pain, she’s hurt, but she’s alive and coming here.’ She reached for the baby, whisked him out of Reyn’s arms and stood suddenly. ‘There’s a chance, just a chance she can save him. I’m going to meet her.’
He watched her stride away from him. Then he glanced back at the others gathered at the other end of the hall. They were still deep in their discussion. None of them seemed aware of anything unusual. But Malta had seemed so certain. He stood still and let his eyes close. He reached out, opening himself, trying to still all his own thoughts.
Nothing. He sensed nothing. Nothing except the pain of looming death. His pain or a dragon’s pain?
He threw the thought aside and, catching up the cloak Malta had left behind, hurried after his wife and son. In the distance, he heard a dragon trumpet. Another replied, and another, and suddenly a chorus of dragon cries was resounding. As he stepped out into the early evening, the city seemed to light itself more brightly. Dragon cries came from every direction. Malta was a thin figure hurrying toward the centre of the Square of the Dragons, her baby a tiny bundle in her arms. The wind whipped her hair. He looked up to see dragons against the reddening sky of evening, flying in like a murder of crows summoned by the caws of one.
Not much farther.
Hurts too much.
Look. Look there, that haze on the horizon. Those are the lights of Kelsingra, welcoming you home. Think of nothing else, Tintaglia queen. Get there and you will find hot water and Elderlings to tend you and Silver. They were descending into the well to repair it when last I was there.
Silver. There was a thought she could hold to. Silver could do marvels when administered by a skilled Elderling. She had ancestral memories of a drake struck by lightning. He had crashed to earth, his wing a scorched framework of bone and little more. It had taken over a year, but he had flown again. They had healed his burns with a spray of Silver. An Elderling artisan had built him a wing of Silver – light, thin panels that articulated on tiny gears. It had not been his own wing, but he had flown again.
Just fly. I will summon them to meet you. Then Kalo trumpeted an alarm cry such as she had never heard. She heard it taken up in the distance, by dragons hunting on the wing, by dragons roused from sated slumber and by dragons that were on the ground within the city. She thought she heard it echo from the distant hills and then knew that it was no echo. The dragons were continuing the calls as they began to gather. More dragons than ever she had seen in her life were welcoming her.
‘Down there!’ Kalo trumpeted it to her. ‘You see it now, don’t you? You remember it?’
‘Of course.’ If she had not been in so much pain, his query would have annoyed her. She had been here before, even in this lifetime. She’d found it dead and deserted and had left it in anger. Now, it was warm with light and welcoming sounds.
‘Go there. They will help you. I go to hunt.’
She already knew of his hunger. She wondered why he chose to tell her obvious things and decided it had to do with his daily exposure to humans. They were always speaking the obvious to one another, as if they had to agree a thing was so before they could act on it. Below her, she saw the open square. Two Elderlings stood in the centre of it, pointing up at her. ‘Tintaglia! Tintaglia!’ They were shouting her name in voices full of joy. Others were just starting to pour out the doorway of … of the baths. Yes. The baths had been there. Hot water and soaking. The thought almost made her woozy, and then flapping her injured wing just became something she could no longer do. She was falling, trying to swing her body’s weight toward her good wing, trying to spiral down to land gently. Then she realized who it was standing to meet her. The relief that washed through her slacked all her muscles.
My Elderlings. Silver. Heal me. She threw the command at them with all her strength, too breathless to trumpet the words as she plummeted the last bit of distance to the ground. Her once powerful hind legs folded under her as she struck, and then she fell to her side on the ground before them. Pain and blackness swallowed her whole.
‘She has dozens of small wounds. Lots of nasty parasites in them. But if that was all that was wrong with her, I’d say we could clean them up, feed her good, and she’d be fine. It’s the infection and that big injury just under her wing. That’s foul and it has eaten right into her. I can see bone in there.’ Carson rubbed his weary eyes. ‘I’m not any kind of a healer. I know more about taking animals apart than I do about curing one. I’ll tell you one thing, though. If that was game I’d brought down, I’d leave it lie. She smells to me like bad meat, through and through.’
Leftrin scratched his whiskery chin. It was venturing toward morning after a day too filled with events. He was tired and worried about Alise and heartsick about Malta’s child. He had felt a wild thrill of hope when some of the keepers had begun shouting that Tintaglia had returned. But this was worse than the news of her death had been. The dragon lay there in the grand open square, soon to be dead. Malta sat on the ground beside her, huddled in her cloak, her child in her arms.
‘The Silver!’ she had cried out into the stunned silence that had followed Tintaglia’s fall. ‘Bring me all the Silver we have!’
Leftrin had expected that someone would object, that some other dragon would wish to claim a share. To his surprise, no one had challenged her. All the keepers had seemed to think it an appropriate use. Only one of the dragons had lingered to watch what would happen. Night was chill and dark; dragons preferred the warmth of the baths or the sand wallows for sleeping. They were not humans, to keep a vigil by a dying creature. Only golden Mercor had remained with her. ‘I do not know why Kalo kept her alive, nor why he brought her here to die,’ he had commented. ‘But doubtless, he will return for her memories. When he does, I caution you to be well out of his way.’ When the other dragons had wandered away from the dying creature as if Tintaglia’s fate shamed them, he had remained, standing and watching.
Sylve had run to fetch the flask of Silver and brought it out to the plaza. She carried the flask two-handed, and the Silver inside it whirled and swam as if alive and seeking escape.
‘What do you do with it?’ she asked as Malta gave the child to Reyn and took it from her hands. Such trust there had been in her voice, such belief that the Queen of the Elderlings would know what to do for the fallen dragon.
But Malta shook her head. ‘I don’t know. Do I pour it on her wound? Does she drink it?’ All were silent.
Malta followed Tintaglia’s outstretched neck to her great head. The dragon’s large eyes were closed. ‘Tintaglia! Wake! Wake and drink of the Silver and be healed! Be healed and save my child!’ Malta’s voice quavered on her final plea.
The dragon might have drawn a slightly deeper breath. Other than that, she did not stir. In her opalescent robe that brushed the tops of her feet and clutching the flask of gleaming silver liquid, Malta looked like a figure from a legend, but her voice was entirely human as she begged, ‘Does no one know? What should I do? How do I save her?’
Sylve spoke quietly. ‘Mercor told me the dragons drank it. Should you pour it into her mouth?’
‘Will she choke?’ Harrikin ventured a cautious question.
‘Tintaglia? Tintaglia, please,’ Reyn ventured.
‘Should I pour it in her mouth?’ Malta asked the golden dragon directly.
‘There is not enough there to save her,’ Mercor said. ‘No matter what you do with it.’ Then he turned and walked away from them, up the wide steps and into the baths. Sylve looked shocked.
The words seemed not to register with Malta. ‘I can scarcely feel her,’ she said, and Leftrin knew she did not refer to the hand she laid lightly on the dragon’s face. ‘She has grown so much since I last saw her,’ she added, and for a moment, she sounded almost like a doting parent. She stroked Tintaglia’s face, and then pushed at the dragon’s lip. Leftrin drew closer to watch, as did the gathered Elderlings. The lifted lip bared reciprocating rows of pointed teeth, neatly meshed together.
‘There is room between them, I think, if I pour it slowly,’ Malta said. She spoke very quietly as if she and the dragon were the only creatures in the whole world. She tipped the flask and the Silver spiralled out in a slender, gleaming thread. It did not flow swiftly, as water would have, but cautiously, as if it lowered itself to the dragon’s mouth. It touched her teeth, pooled briefly along her gum and then seemed to find the entry it sought. It vanished between her teeth. No last drop fell from the flask; it had poured like a spooled thread unwinding and so it vanished, too.
The night seemed darker with the Silver gone from sight. The ghost light of the Elderling city gleamed softly all around them. The keepers stood, waiting and listening. After a long, chill time, murmurs began. ‘I expected a miracle.’
‘I think she is too far gone.’
‘She should have poured it on the wound, perhaps.’
‘Mercor warned us there wasn’t enough,’ Sylve said miserably, and hid her face in her hands.
Reyn had been crouching beside Malta, their child in his arms. He stood up slowly and lifted his voice. ‘We would be alone with our dragon and our child, if you do not mind,’ he said. He did not speak loudly, but his words seemed to carry. Finished, he sank back down to the cobblestones beside his wife.
In ones and twos, the keepers drifted away. Sedric tugged gently at Carson’s arm. ‘We should go,’ he said softly.
Leftrin glanced over at them. ‘You should,’ he agreed gently. ‘There’s nothing else any of us can do here. And death is a private thing.’
Carson nodded, plainly reluctant to leave. Sedric stepped forward. He unfastened the catch of his cloak, lifted it, and swirled it around Malta, Reyn and their child. ‘Sa grant you strength,’ he said, and then stepped quickly away, shaking his head.
Leftrin looked around the square. He was the last. He stepped forward, thinking to ask them if they were sure, if there was anything he might bring or do for them. Then he thought better of it. He turned and walked slowly away from the dragon. Away from the Elderlings and their dying child. He felt as if loneliness filled in the space he left behind him. Loneliness and heartbreak.
He pulled his old coat tighter around himself. It was not a time to be alone. The city whispered all around him but he didn’t want to hear it. Long ago, the city had died, and now he suspected he knew why. A cataclysm might have shattered it and sent some of the Elderlings fleeing. But when the Silver had run out, then the end had been inevitable.
He thought of the youngsters he had brought up the river. He had not meant to come to care about them. Just fulfil a contract, have a bit of an adventure in the process, maybe draw a chart that would carry his name into history. And then return to running freight on the river on his beloved liveship. He hadn’t wanted his life to change this much.
Well, perhaps he had. He sighed, feeling selfish that while others paid a serious price, he had gained a woman who loved him. A woman who was giving up everything to be with him. Hest had made it real for him today. So tall and grand a man, dressed so finely, speaking so genteelly. He had begged her to come back to him.
And she had turned her back on all that, for him.
She was waiting for him now, back on his liveship. He walked faster.
Day the 14th of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Erek, of Trehaug
To Kerig Sweetwater, Master of the Bird Keepers’ Guild, Bingtown
Kerig, it is with great relief that I have received your message. Detozi has also felt great anxiety and fear that our actions would be interpreted as disloyal to the Guild or perhaps even indicative of being traitors to the Guild.
I am glad to say that Two-toes has gained weight and that the colour to his hackle and bib has brightened. His foot was badly cut from hanging, but he has recovered warmth and movement in his toes. If he does not recover sufficiently to carry messages, I suggest that he is still of great breeding value and should be retained in the capacity. As you suggest, I will ask permission to continue to care for him until his recovery is complete. In any case, a live bird that was listed as dead is definitely a part of a much larger mystery!
Detozi and I will together take the sealed message, along with your letter, to Master Godon and ask that he present it unopened to the full circle of Master Bird-Handlers here in Trehaug for them to open and study.
I am extremely grateful to have this serious business taken out of my hands.
Your former apprentice,