‘Please. I can’t sleep. Go walking with me. Please.’
Thymara blinked her eyes. Rapskal’s gaze was pale blue in the dimly lit room. In a bed on the other side of the room, Tats was snoring softly. Without speaking of it, she and Tats had resolved that they would not leave Rapskal on his own. Not tonight. Tats had claimed one of the larger rooms in the dormitory above the dragon baths, one with multiple beds in it. Carson had given them the nod for that. Some of the other keepers had drawn lots for guard duty for their ‘guests’. They had been confined for the night to the dining room. They’d been allowed to bathe and given bedding and most of them seemed to have accepted their fates. A few had complained and one Jamaillian merchant had wailed and ranted about being treated like a ‘criminal, and forced to lie down alongside “filth”’. Carson had drawn a lot for the first watch and Sedric had stayed with him, with Relpda to keep them company. Privately, she doubted that any of their ‘guests’ would attempt to leave with a dragon snoring across the entryway.
She and Tats had herded Rapskal away and up to one of the unoccupied sleeping rooms. Weary as they were, there had been much to discuss. There they had sat, listening to Rapskal unwind his story of the dragon attack on the ships. The longer he talked, the less he sounded like Tellator and the more like his old self.
Rapskal had always been a talker, always the one who could go on and on about any topic. Tats had dozed off before she had. She had listened to him tell his story, listened to him brag of how brave Heeby had been and how glorious the dragons had looked in flight. She had waited in vain for him to say that he was horrified at how many men had died. The old Rapskal would have done so. Instead, he simply seemed to accept it as how a battle went. When she mentioned it, he asked her incredulously, ‘Would you have rather that more dragons died? Poor Tintaglia lies in the Square of the Dragons! By morning, all that will be left of her is her memories and her flesh. The eggs inside her that should have become serpents, our next generation of dragons, die with her tonight! Have you thought of that, Thymara? I must look at that and wonder how I would feel if it were my Heeby lying there. What if it were Sintara?’
‘Sintara,’ she said quietly, and wondered how she would feel. A spark of anger in her heart surprised her. In a distant corner of her mind, her dragon spoke softly. You would be devastated. And furious. Just as they are.
I would, she admitted. She pulled her mind free of the dragon’s. But what would she do if something befell her dragon? What happened to an Elderling when her dragon died?
They die, too. Not right away, but sooner than if the dragon had lived.
She pushed Sintara from her mind again. She didn’t want to think about that. Didn’t want to think about what would become of Malta and Reyn and their baby. ‘Our dragons are back in Kelsingra now, alive and well. It’s over, Rapskal.’
‘It’s not over,’ he insisted, and she heard a tinge of Tellator’s stubbornness in his voice.
‘It is,’ she replied. ‘Our dragons are here in Kelsingra and safe. They never need leave here again. The man who led the attackers here, that Chalcedean noble, is dead. And that corrupt Trader promised he would reveal everyone who plotted against the dragons. They will be punished. So. It’s over.’
Rapskal shook his head. They were both sitting on his bed. Tats still snored on the bed on the other side of the room. Thymara leaned back on the wall. She was ready to fall asleep but wanted Rapskal to sleep before she did. She could outlast him. She hoped.
Rapskal crossed his arms on his chest. ‘The dragons can’t and won’t stay here for ever. It’s not in their nature, and you, as a hunter, must know that they can’t. They need to move seasonally, to find new prey and give the animal populations a chance to rebuild. Even if we had the herds and flocks here that they need, they were never content to be resident here year round. And they must leave when it’s time to go lay their eggs.’
Those words were not Rapskal’s. She’d never heard him choose such words. She stared at him and he mistook it for avid interest. He smiled at her.
‘Thymara, it won’t be over until the man who sent them is stopped. Think about it. Those men today, those Chalcedeans, they said they were forced against their will to come. I listened to what they said. If they go home without dragon flesh, they and their families will die. Horribly, slowly. If they stay here much longer, sending no messages promising success, their families will be tortured. And when they are all dead, the Duke of Chalced will find others to send. He’s not going to give up.’
‘He’ll die soon. He’s old and diseased and he’ll die soon. And then it will be over.’ She just wanted to go to sleep. He was making her think of all sorts of things she didn’t want to consider just now.
He turned his head and looked at her sadly. ‘You’re right about one thing, Amarinda. When he dies, it will be over. And while he lives, it isn’t over.’
‘That’s not my name,’ she said, and couldn’t tell if she were more chilled by his comments or him calling her ‘Amarinda’.
He smiled at her tolerantly. ‘You still haven’t come to understand the city completely. Or what it truly means to be an Elderling, bonded to a dragon. But you will, and so I won’t argue with you about it. Time is on my side. You’ll grow into the concept that you can lead more than one life, be more than one person.’
‘No.’ She said it flatly.
He sighed. And she closed her eyes for just a moment. She must have dozed off, for she woke to him tugging at her hand, asking to go walking. She sighed wearily. ‘It’s night, Rapskal. Chill and dark.’
‘It’s not that cold out, and the city will light our way. Please, Thymara. Just a walk, to help me relax. That’s all. A quiet stroll alone through the city.’
He had always been good at nagging her into whatever he wanted. She didn’t wake Tats. He could sleep now and take the next watch with Rapskal if the walk didn’t wear him out. She swirled her cloak around her shoulders, fastened it and followed him out of the room and down the hall. He led her to the side entrance, away from the Square of the Dragons and the death watch there. She did not object.
Outside, the chill wind kissed her face roughly.
Rapskal lifted his face. ‘Smells like spring,’ he said.
She opened her senses to the night. Yes, there was something in the wind, something more wet than freezing. It wasn’t warm, but all threat of frost had fled.
He took her hand and she was grateful for his warm clasp. He ran his thumb over the fine scaling on the back of her hand. ‘You can’t deny the changes,’ he said, and before she could reply, he added, ‘Tomorrow, if you look up at the hills behind the city, you will see the birches and willows flushed with pink. On the taller slopes behind them, the snows are almost gone. Very soon, Leftrin will have to make a run to Trehaug to see if the seeds and livestock he ordered have come in.’ He turned and smiled at her. ‘This will be the year we reawaken all of Kelsingra. Years from now, it will be hard to remember that there was a time when cattle and sheep didn’t graze in the pastures outside the city, a time when only fifteen keepers lived here.’
The fullness of his vision astounded her. She let him lead her as they walked through the dimly lit streets. As always, he filled the silence with his talk. ‘Once this city never slept. Once it was so populated that people walked through it by night and by day. There are whole sections of the city that we haven’t explored yet. All manner of wonders awaiting rediscovery by the new Elderlings. Places where artists wrought miracles and craftsmen plied their trades.’
She thought of the dry Silver well and how it would limit their future. But this was not a night to talk of that. Let him talk himself out and when his words ran down, she’d take him back to the baths and let him sleep. She thought of the morrow and all it must bring. She dreaded wondering how long Tintaglia would linger between death and life, and the child with her. She thought of Kalo devouring the dead dragon in the square and felt squeamish. She did not want to think of the arguments that would continue tomorrow over the fate of the Chalcedean warriors who had come here to kill dragons. She thought of the days before Tarman had returned, days filled with the simple work of hunting and trying to rebuild the docks and exploring the city. They had seemed so tedious, and now she longed to have that comforting boredom back.
She had suspected that Rapskal would try to take her back to the house Tellator and Amarinda had shared. She was relieved when he didn’t. They walked through other streets, and he spoke of what he knew of them. A poet had lived in that house, and written epics on the walls and ceilings. This bakery had been renowned for its sweet berry pastries. Here was a street where weavers had made the sort of garments that they both wore now. She knew he spoke Tellator’s memories aloud as if they were his own, but she was too tired to rebuke him. Let him talk them out and then perhaps Rapskal would come back to her.
He took her down a side street and she found herself in a humbler part of town. ‘A tinsmith had that shop,’ he told her. ‘The pans he made needed no oven to cook the food put into them. And over there? The woman who owned that store hammered out wind-chimes that played a thousand melodies when the wind stirred them.’
‘They worked in Silver,’ she guessed and he nodded.
‘Silver was the great secret treasure of the Elderlings and the tonic that made both Elderlings and dragons what they became.’ He halted at a door hole. ‘Lack of it will kill us all,’ he said conversationally, and stepped inside the empty doorframe of the shop. She followed him reluctantly.
‘It’s dark in here,’ she complained and felt his assent.
‘They did not use the Silver everywhere. Even then, it was a precious commodity. Where many might gather they used it for light and for warmth. For art that all shared. But in the small personal spaces, they used far less of it.’ He reached into his pouch and drew forth light. He held something out to her, shaking it free. A necklace with a moon-face charm on it. It brightened as he shook it, filling the room with a thin silvery light. It looked oddly familiar.
‘Put it on,’ he urged her, and when she did not, he stepped closer to push back her hood and loop it around her neck. The gleaming moon rested on her bosom and she looked around the shop. Little remained of the humble wooden furnishings, but there were things among the rubble that she recognized. An anvil of a kind she had never seen, yet she knew it for what it was. A stone table with grooves and drains in the surface: for working Silver. Reflexively, she lifted her eyes to where tools had once hung on a rack. The rack was gone, the tools a jumble on the floor near where they had hung. A battered ladle tangled with a pair of shears. A sudden urge to pick them up, to tidy her workspace came to her.
‘Let’s go outside,’ she said abruptly.
‘We could,’ he agreed. ‘But it wouldn’t help. You can’t run away from it. I don’t want to force you, but time is running out. For all of us.’
Cold filled her. She turned to look at Rapskal and the reflected light from the moon-charm made his eyes silver. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You know,’ he coaxed her gently. ‘I’ve been waiting for you to admit it. You do know.’ He paused and looked at her accusingly. ‘Amarinda knew. And so you know.’
You know, Sintara echoed his words. And it is time for you to stop being stubborn.
‘I don’t know,’ she insisted to both of them. It hurt her feelings that they would join forces against her, and force her to this. Whatever ‘this’ was. She spoke frankly to the man with the gleaming silver eyes. ‘You are scaring me. Tellator, go away. I want my friend Rapskal back.’
He sighed and spoke reluctantly. ‘The need is great. I love you. Then, and now, I love you. You know that. I have waited as long as I can, as long as any of us can. But we are Elderlings, and ultimately, we serve the dragons. Will you let Tintaglia die? Will you let Malta and Reyn and their baby die because you want to cling so strongly to who you were born? Thymara, I know you are frightened by this. I have tried to let you go as slowly as ever you wished. But tonight is our last chance. Please. Choose this. Choose this for me, for Rapskal. Because I would not force you. But Tellator would.’
She was shaking, fighting a battle inside herself as well as withstanding the crushing fear he woke in her. Memories were stirring, ones she did not want to acknowledge. She looked around her. ‘This was her little shop. She made things here.’
He nodded. ‘Not a shop, really. She sold the things she made, but she gave as many away. This was where she created her art. This was where you worked Silver with your hands.’
‘I don’t remember it.’ She spoke flatly.
‘Not easily, no. Silver was too precious. The memories of working it were not saved in stone. Some secrets are too precious to be entrusted to anyone except the heir to your trade. Those secrets were only passed from master to apprentice. The locations of the wells could not be kept completely secret, not when the dragons came to drink from them. How the wells were managed, season to season, that was a guild secret.’
He took her arm suddenly and she almost pulled away from him. But he was walking her to the door and she was too grateful to be leaving the building. Amarinda had worked there. She knew it now, recalled the busy little street of artisans as it had been. Not from memory-stone; it had not been used in this part of the city, but from the residue of memories that her time as Amarinda had left in her mind.
‘Ramose had his studio there. The sculptor. Remember?’ His voice had gone colder.
She glanced at the empty sockets of windows in the wall. ‘I remember,’ she admitted grudgingly. Something else popped into her mind. ‘You were jealous of him.’
Rapskal nodded. ‘He had been your lover before I was. We had a fight once. Foolish of me, not to know that a man who wields a hammer and chisel all day builds up an arm.’
She shied away from those memories. Too close, she thought, too close to something. And then they turned a corner and she was in a familiar place. There was the well plaza, just as they had left it, beams stacked to one side, broken mechanisms to another, tools in a third. The ship’s crew had put some hours in on the chain. There was a mended length of it by the well’s lip, the end fastened to the stub of one ancient post that had once supported the well’s cover. Heeby was there, too, standing quietly in the darkness. A sense of dread rose in Thymara.
‘Why did we come here?’ she asked breathlessly.
‘So you could get the Silver. So Tintaglia can live. So all the dragons can become all they were meant to be, and their Elderlings as well.’ The light from the locket she wore did not reach his eyes here in the open. They were the lambent blue they had always been but the silvery sheen the jewellery gave turned his face to a ghost mask. She did not know him.
He spoke softly but firmly. ‘Amarinda, you have to go down the well. You are the only one who knows how to bring back the Silver.’
Reyn spoke the words softly as if he thought she could be asleep. She wasn’t. Couldn’t be, wouldn’t be, and might never sleep again. She huddled by her dragon’s face, her baby on her lap. Her hand rested by Tintaglia’s nostril where she could feel the slow sigh as the dragon continued to breathe. ‘I’m here,’ she told Reyn.
He hitched closer to her. ‘I’m trying to make sense of what I’m feeling. When I was a boy and Tintaglia was a shadowy presence underground, trapped in her wizardwood case, I was fascinated with her. Then she all but enslaved me, and I hated her. I loved her when she helped me recover you. And then, off she went, and for years we heard nothing, felt nothing from her.’
‘I was as angry with her as you were. To leave us the care of the young dragons, to go off without a word. To send Selden off to Sa knows where, never to return to us.’ She caressed the dragon’s snout. She sighed. ‘Do you think he’s dead, Reyn? My little brother?’
Reyn shook his head wordlessly.
The night had turned clear, the clouds blown aside, yet it was not as cold as it had been. Spring was in the air. Above them, the moon sailed on and the stars shone, heedless of mortals below. Their Elderling cloaks kept them warm. The stones were hard beneath her. She had her husband and their first-born son at her side and the dragon who had shaped all their lives. Life and death merged at this spot, an untidy tangle of endings. The dragon’s breath flowed over their son. The smell of her infected wounds hung in the damp air.
‘She is still so incredibly beautiful,’ Malta said. She willed her voice not to choke in her tight throat. ‘Look at these scales, every one a tiny work of art. It’s even more a wonder when you realize she determined their decoration, every one of them. Look at these, around her eyes.’ Her fingers walked to them, traced the intricate pattern of white, silver and black that framed the dragon’s closed eyes. ‘No dragon will ever be as glorious as she was. The young queen Sintara flaunts herself, but she will never be as blue as our Tintaglia. Fente and Veras are plain as tree snakes compared to her. My conceited beauty, you had every right to be vain.’
‘She did,’ Reyn conceded. ‘I hate that she dies like this, broken and flawed. Such a waste to lose her. I could feel the hope in the other dragons surge when she appeared in the skies. They need her, they need what she remembers.’
‘We all do,’ Malta said quietly. ‘Especially Phron.’
The baby stirred in her lap, perhaps at the mention of his name. Malta lifted the corner of her cloak that covered him. He still slept. She bent close to study his face in the moonlight. ‘Look,’ she said to her husband. ‘I never realized it before. The tiny scales on his brows? They are the same pattern as hers. Even without her presence, he carries her marks on him. Her artistry would have lived on in him. If he were to live.’ The baby stirred at her touch as she traced his face and whimpered more strongly. ‘Hush, my little one.’ She lifted him from her lap. His thin arm and scrawny hand sprawled from his wrappings. She put the little hand on the dragon’s brows, held it there between Tintaglia’s scales and her still-soft, still-human palm. ‘She would have been your dragon, too, my darling. Touch her once, before you both go. Imagine how beautiful you would have been if she could have guided you.’ She moved the baby’s hand down the dragon’s scaling in a caress. ‘Tintaglia, if you must go, give him something of yourself first. Give him a memory of flight, give him a thought of your beauty to carry into the dark.’
‘I don’t know anything about Silver or about this well. I’m not Amarinda and I don’t know. And I’m not going down that well. Not now, not ever. I hate places like that, dark and small. Go down there in the night, alone? That’s crazy.’ Her heart was pounding at the mere thought of it. She crossed her arms, hugging herself. Tats. Why hadn’t she wakened Tats and made him come, too? No one knew they’d gone out walking.
He insisted relentlessly, in such a gentle voice. ‘Tintaglia is dying. Now is all we have. Thymara or Amarinda, it doesn’t matter. You have to go down the well. I’ll go with you. You won’t be alone.’
She tried to fight her way back to her own reality. He was just Rapskal, just strange Rapskal, and she didn’t have to let him bully her. ‘I won’t! I’m tired of this, Rapskal. And I’m tired of trying to help you. I’m going back to the hall to get some sleep. You are being too strange, even for me.’
She turned to go but he seized her arm in a grip of iron. ‘You have to go down the well. Tonight.’
She slapped at his hands and tried to twist free of his grip. Could not. When had he become so strong? He did not even appear to be making an effort to hold her as she fought his grip on her. She could not bear the gaze of the stranger looking out of his eyes at her. ‘Let me go!’
Wings flapped and a gust of air washed over her. The paving stones of the square shook as the dragon’s claws met them and skidded to a halt. Sintara! Thymara knew her scent as well as she knew her mind’s touch on hers. Be calm, Thymara. I am here. All will be fine.
Relief washed through her, bringing icy anger with it. She met Tellator’s stare coldly and stopped struggling. ‘Let go of me now.’ She suggested it calmly. ‘Or my dragon may do you harm.’
Heeby had advanced on them as she spoke, the spikes on her neck rising at the perceived threat to Rapskal. Thymara caught her breath. This could be bad. She had no desire to see the two dragons fight one another, especially not with her in the middle of it.
Neither did he. His hand dropped away from her arm. ‘You’re right. It’s better this way.’ He turned away from both of them.
Hurt choked her voice as she rubbed her bruised arm. ‘Rapskal. I loved you. Now I don’t think I ever want to see you again. You’re not my friend any more. I don’t know who or what you are now, but I don’t like it.’
She turned to go.
‘Thymara,’ Sintara said gently. ‘It will be all right. We have not always trusted one another. But now you must.’
Thymara walked slowly to the well’s mouth and looked down. An unnameable dread rose in her, a horror of confined dark places. She shuddered. Rapskal had followed her. He did not try to touch her but knelt on the other side of the well. He seized the fastened chain, pulled a length free, and dropped it in the hole. It clanked against the side. He pushed another loop after it, and then another, and suddenly the links were rattling over the stone lip as the chain paid out and down into the darkness. It stopped, taut against the pole, and Rapskal said to himself, ‘Not long enough.’ He stood up and walked off into the darkness.
Thymara remained by the well, staring down into it. An eternity of blackness. And she would go down into it.
She lifted her eyes to her dragon. ‘Don’t,’ she pleaded. ‘Don’t.’
Sintara only looked at her. Thymara felt the compulsion building in her. But this was not the dragon pushing her to go hunting when she wanted to sleep, or encouraging her to groom every single scale on her face. This was different.
‘If you force me, it will never be the same between us,’ she warned the dragon.
‘No,’ Sintara agreed. ‘It won’t. Just as I haven’t been the same since you left me hungry, with no choice but to face my fear and try to fly.’
‘That was different!’ Thymara protested.
‘Only from your point of view,’ the dragon replied. ‘Thymara. Go down the well.’
She shook her head. ‘I can’t.’ But she walked stiffly around to the other side of the well and knelt by the chain. She put a hand on it. It was cold. The links of it were big, big enough to slip a hand into. Or the toe of her boot.
‘I’ll go first.’ Did Tellator or Rapskal make that offer? He stood next to her, a coil of line over his shoulder.
‘You can do no good down there,’ Sintara objected and Heeby whiffled nervously.
‘I won’t send her alone,’ he said. He looked at Thymara, his eyes unreadable. ‘Like this. It won’t be easy, but you’re strong.’ He cocked his head at her and for an instant he was Rapskal again, telling her that one day she would fly. ‘You can do it. Just follow me.’
She moved out of his way as he knelt beside her. He clambered over the lip of the well, his hands snugged tight to the chain. She saw him grope with his feet, find a toehold in the chain for one and then reach for another. He gave her a strained smile. ‘I’m scared, too,’ he admitted. He moved his hands and slowly he walked down the chain and away from her. She watched until his upturned face had vanished in the darkness.
She glanced at her dragon and made a final plea. ‘Don’t make me.’
‘You have to go down there. You are the only one who might be able to find the Silver. You knew how the well worked, you knew how to touch Silver and not die. It has to be you, Thymara-Amarinda.’
She wet her lips, felt them dry and then crack in the chill. She could hear the chain working against the lip of the well. He was still going down. She was furious with Tellator and possibly hated him, but she would not let Rapskal go alone. ‘I’ll do it,’ she conceded. ‘But let me be the one to do it. Please.’
‘Do you think you can make yourself?’
‘I can make myself do it,’ she said.
She felt Sintara lift the glamour from her mind. It peeled away, making her skin stand up in goose-bumps and leaving the night darker around her. She blinked, becoming accustomed to her lesser human vision and then the gleam of the locket she wore. She did not speak and did not let herself think. She inserted her hands into the links of the chain and positioned herself on the edge of the well. The chain vibrated with Rapskal’s weight. He was still moving down it.
She closed her eyes and remembered her childhood days in the treetops of Trehaug. Climbing had been far more familiar to her than running. She took a breath and stripped her Elderling boots from her feet. She levered her body around and groped for the links of the chain. Her clawed toes found them. She began her descent.
Darkness swallowed her as she went down and then the gleam of the moon medallion seemed to grow stronger. Her eyes adjusted. The walls of the well were not as blank as they appeared from up above. When the gleam of the medallion met the black, there were markings engraved into the smooth face. There were not many and it took time for her to realize they were dates and levels. The Elderling system of measuring time meant nothing to her. But Amarinda recalled that the Silver had risen and fallen, sometimes seasonally and also over the years. Sometimes the Silver was scant; sometimes it flowed so strongly that the well had to be capped, lest Silver flow through the streets. She passed a notation scribed by Amarinda’s hand, for those who could work the Silver tended the wells also.
And regulated them.
The deeper she went, the less she felt like Thymara. She was no stranger to the inside of this well, though climbing a chain down was not how she usually descended. There had been levers and chains and gears. A carefully fitted platform with a hatch once travelled up and down in the shaft, just for visits such as this. She could recall the tediously slow process of turning the crank to travel down or up the shaft, and the loud clanking of the chain as it had moved through the mechanism.
She stopped climbing. It was getting colder as she descended. Amarinda had never liked coming here, had never shrugged off as routine the task of managing the Silver. It was not the danger of the volatile stuff. The Silver was always dangerous whether confined to a vial on her workbench or flowing in threads down the street. Casual contact with Silver was always eventually deadly for everyone. Amarinda knew the dangers of the Silver and chose to work with it anyway. Slowly she began descending again. But she had never liked the confinement of this shaft. Nor the dark. Nor the cold.
She stepped on his hand. Tellator cursed, the language foreign to her ears.
‘Wait!’ he commanded her. ‘I’m at the end of the chain. I’m trying to tie the line to the last few links so we can get down the rest of the way. It’s not easy.’
She didn’t respond. She clung to the cold chain in the dark, felt it vibrate with his motions. It swung slightly with their weight. No different from holding tight to a skinny tree, she told herself, and waited.
‘There. I heard the rope hit the bottom when I dropped it. It’s hand over hand from here on down.’
‘If you step down into live Silver …’ She left the thought dangling.
‘I saw debris down there when they fished for the bucket. I’ll stand on it.’
She felt him moving again. He was working harder now and his weight jerked the chain back and forth. Her hands were cramping from their grip on the cold metal and the links bit into her feet. She freed one hand to lift the necklace over her head. Rapskal was too far down for her to hand it to him. She gritted her teeth and then dropped it, letting light fall away from her. ‘Look where you step,’ she warned him, and realized that she was back to it being her and Rapskal doing something foolhardy together. She was still angry at being compelled to be here, but was not sure Rapskal was the one to blame for it.
The jerking continued for some time. Bereft of the jewellery’s shimmer, the blackness closed in on her. She closed her eyes and willed herself to remember that the shaft was not truly that narrow. Deep, yes, very deep. So far from light and moving air. She began to tremble and not with the cold. She hated this. Hated it and feared it. Darkness was a thing to her, not just the absence of light, but a choking thing that could cover her over like a smothering hand.
‘Come down,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll catch you. But be careful.’
She did not want to go down to him, but her hands were losing their strength. She moved down to the end of the chain, and then onto the rope. Her numbed hands slipped, refused her weight, and she slid, shrieking, the rope burning through her hands. He caught her hard and swung her to his side. ‘Open your eyes!’ he demanded of her and only then did she realize they were clenched shut.
She held tight to him and opened her eyes slowly. He wore the moon necklace now. The light it cast was faint and yet bright in contrast to such utter darkness. She looked away from it, trying to let her eyes adjust.
They stood together in the bottom of the shaft. Looking up, she was startled to see distant pinpricks of light. Stars. The walls of the shaft were almost smooth, the seams of the stonework fine and straight. They stood on rubble of metal and pieces of ancient wood preserved by the cold. ‘Stoop down,’ she requested in a whisper. When he did, he brought the light with him as she bent beside him. Squatting, she touched the long-broken platform beneath their feet. Here was a piece of a gear. ‘This is the part that went up and down in the shaft. It must have broken and fallen a long time ago.’
The necklace moved slightly with his nod. ‘It did,’ he said. ‘In the quake. The last big one.’ There was a clutter of sticks that crunched as she stepped on them. Something gleamed among them. Silver?
He caught his breath as she pushed the sticks aside with her bare hands and then peered more closely. ‘It’s a ring,’ she said. She picked it up and her touch woke it. Elderling-made. A flame-jewel lit with a pale-yellow gleam in a jidzin setting. Jidzin. She knew it for what it was now, Silver trapped in iron. She held it between two fingers, using it as a tiny lamp. ‘All kinds of stuff on the ground down here. But no Silver. Just earth.’ She peered closer. ‘Rapskal, look here, where we can see past the broken platform. The bottom of the shaft is paved with stones! That makes no sense for a well! Think how we lined our drinking-water holes on the way here. We wanted the water to seep up from the bottom and in from the sides. We filtered it, but we didn’t block it. Why would they make a shaft this deep and close it off on all sides from the Silver? It makes no sense.’
‘I don’t know.’ His voice was shaking. ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been down here. I wanted to come down here, but I couldn’t.’ He swallowed.
‘Well, we’re both here now.’ She recalled Carson’s frequent words. ‘Everything the Elderlings did, they did for a reason.’ She turned in a half circle. Her boot snagged on something: a piece of dirty fabric. ‘Someone’s old tunic is down here. Did they throw garbage down here when the well went dry?’
‘No,’ he whispered. ‘No.’
She tugged at the dirt-caked folds. ‘Look. Here’s a glove. No. It’s a gauntlet.’ She picked it up by a fingertip, shook it free of dirt and sticks and studied it.
‘There’s the other one,’ he said, but made no move to touch it. He crouched with his back braced against the wall, watching her. She found the mate, and tugged it from under a stone that had trapped it. The stone rolled slightly and tapped against the wall with a hollow sound. She turned to look at it.
‘Amarinda,’ he said, and his voice choked on the word. She leaned closer. It was not a stone she had dislodged. It was a skull, brown and cracked. She stared, feeling the pressure of a scream build inside her. Then it died away to nothing. She took a long careful breath.
‘These were her gloves. For working the Silver.’
He nodded. She heard him gulp back tears before he gasped, ‘After the quake. I couldn’t find her. I was desperate. I even went to Ramose. I threatened him, and he finally told me that she might have gone down the well when it hit. To make it safe somehow. Everyone was running, trying to get on the boats, pushing toward the pillars, trying to be anywhere except in Kelsingra. In the distance, the mountain was smoking. They feared mudslides and floods. It had never happened here but other Elderling towns had been buried that way. So many people were fleeing, but I couldn’t go without you. I came here, but the mechanism was broken, half of it fallen down the shaft and no one answered my shouts. My shoulder was broken. I tried to move the debris but I couldn’t. I shouted myself hoarse, but no one answered. Then the second quake hit.’ He cradled his arm, his face creased with a memory of old pain. ‘I wanted to get down here somehow, to be sure. But I couldn’t. I went back to our home, hoping to find you. Someone told me they had seen you, leaving through one of the pillars. I knew it was a lie, knew you wouldn’t leave without me, but I hoped it wasn’t. I left you a message in my column by our door. And I went with the others.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘We all meant to come back. We knew the streets would mend themselves and that the walls would heal if we gave them time. The Silver in them told them what they must be.’
His voice died away. He looked around the well shaft blindly.
‘I must have died before I ever returned. Where or how, I’ll never know. After the message I left for you, no other memories are stored in the pillars. Nothing from me. Nothing from you.’
Thymara straightened slowly. She shook the gauntlets and the last stick that fell from them was a finger-bone. The broken sticks under her feet were in fact thin ribs preserved by the cold. ‘Is this why you made me come down here? To see this, to prove she died here?’
He shook his head. Her eyes had adjusted to the pale light the jewellery made, but there was no colour to his features, only planes and shadows. ‘I wanted you to be her. That’s true. I still want that. We always dreamed that we would live again in another Elderling couple. That we would walk and dance and dine together. Make love in our garden again. That was why we made the columns as we did.’ He drew a deep breath and sighed it out. ‘But that’s not why I brought you here. I brought you here for the dragons. And for Malta and Reyn and their child. For Tintaglia. For all of us. We need the Silver, Thymara. A bit of dragon blood or a scale can start the changes. But to sustain them, to move them in directions that let us live, that will let our children live? That will take Silver.’
She knew that. It didn’t change the facts. ‘There’s no Silver down here, Rapskal. Only bones.’
She found she had slipped the ring on her finger. It hung loose against her knuckle. Not her ring. The jidzin against her skin whispered secrets she didn’t want to hear.
‘You used to tend this well. You and some of the other artisans. You spoke of managing it. I thought …’
‘I don’t remember any of this, Rapskal.’ She slapped the gauntlets against her thigh, and tried to push them through the loop in her gear belt. She wasn’t wearing one.
‘Don’t you?’ he asked her quietly.
She looked at him without speaking. She stared around at the faintly gleaming walls of the small space. ‘I remember it was dangerous to come down here. We always carried lights. We were always supposed to have a partner.’
‘Ramose,’ he said quietly.
She smiled bitterly. ‘Never trust a jealous man,’ she said, and wondered what she meant by it. A silence built and she did not fight it. She studied the smooth black walls, waiting for a memory to push into her mind. Nothing came. She looked down at the bones and tried to feel something about a woman who had died here a long time ago.
A stray thought came to her. ‘I’ve always been afraid of this well, since I saw it. But I couldn’t have known that Amarinda died here. She couldn’t go back and put this memory in the stone.’
‘No. You couldn’t have known. But I did. Even back then, when I left a message for her and then left the city, I think I knew. And my memories tinged yours.’
‘But you still brought me here.’
‘It was a last chance. For all of us.’
She thought about that for a time. A last chance. She had warned him that if he forced her down the well, it would never be the same between them. Well, she had come of her own free will. But she still suspected that everything she felt for him had changed.
‘My hands are cold,’ she said, to say something. Then she added, ‘It’s useless to stay down here, Rapskal. There’s nothing for us here. I don’t remember anything. We’d best get back up there while we can still climb.’
He nodded, defeated, and she gestured for him to go first. She had always been a better climber than Rapskal. She boosted him high and then held the line tight for him and waited until she heard him say, ‘I’m on the chain now!’ before she started to follow him.
She realized she had put on the gauntlets only when her claws pressed against the ends of the fingers. ‘Huh,’ she said, only to herself. The gloves had closed off the light from her ring. It didn’t matter, she told herself. I’ll soon be up and out of here. She took a wrap of the line around her hand and set her bare foot to the wall. Cold. She reached over her head with her free hand, gripped the rope, and began her ascent in the dark. Going up was much harder than the burning slide down had been. She had no one to hold the rope tight for her; it swung and whipped below her as she climbed, and the claws of her feet skittered on the smooth wall.
Below the chain she paused. The gauntlets had saved her rope-burned hands, but they’d be a hazard on the slick chain. She moved her weight onto the chain, then looped the rope around herself, braced her feet on the wall, dragged off one gauntlet … and found herself staring at a small tracery of Silver on the black stone before her. Had it been there when she climbed down? She was certain she would have seen it. Unless the gleam of the moon locket had hidden it from her.
She stuffed the gauntlet down the front of her tunic. She gripped the chain afresh and leaned closer. Writing. She put a fingertip to the letters, traced their almost familiar curves. It said … something. Something important. Almost of its own accord, her hand reached the end of the line of letters and then tapped a glyph there. Twice.
Below her, the grind of stone on stone startled her. She wanted to flee up the chain, but sharpest curiosity made her back slowly down the rope instead. There it was. A large block of stone in the wall was retreating, sliding smoothly away, leaving an opening behind it. ‘The seam valve,’ she heard herself say out loud.
And then the memory came, of her first trip down the shaft with the older Silver worker. He’d shown it to her, halting the platform on its slow descent. ‘Can you believe,’ he’d asked her, ‘that sometimes the Silver pressure was so high, it came into the reservoir at this level? Sometimes, we’d have to come down here and open the drains to let it out. There were pipes that would carry it out into the river and away from the city. And when the Silver seams were really producing, we’d have to shut down some of them, to keep it from welling out the top and running through the streets.’ The oldster had coughed and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. ‘This seam has been dry for decades,’ he continued sourly. ‘And if the Silver pressure keeps dropping, we probably never will open it again. Well, start cranking, girl. It’s a long way down to where the Silver comes in now. We need to measure the level of standing Silver and log it. That’s your job now, once every seventeen days. Can’t ration it if we don’t know how much the seams are producing.’
Thymara blinked, abruptly surprised to find herself alone and hanging on a rope in a well shaft. ‘Reservoir shaft,’ she corrected herself quietly. Reflexively, she reached over and tapped the glyph again. She heard the grinding halt, and then resume with a different note. She moved down the line and set her hand to the wall until she felt the brick move back into alignment. Relief slowed her thundering heart. Best to leave things as they had been until someone like Carson could help her understand what little she remembered.
As she lifted her hand from the block, it seemed to tremble under her fingers. Then it suddenly shot out, past her hand, to land with a clatter at the bottom of the shaft. A square of liquid Silver followed it, pushing out thickly, at first keeping its shape and then turning into a fat worm wriggling down the wall. She stared at it, trying to make sense of what she saw. The seam had replenished itself. And the old valve had given way. Stone grated as two adjacent blocks swung out unevenly from the wall as the heavy Silver forced its way out and into the shaft. A slow bulge began around the leak. She heard a pop and saw another brick fly out of the wall. It hit the opposite side of the shaft with force, and a gout of Silver leapt after it. She stared aghast, then shrieked, ‘Rapskal! Something broke down here!’
‘Climb!’ she shouted up the shaft. ‘Climb fast!’ She went up the rope like a frightened monkey, gained the chain and did not pause. The one gauntlet was a hindrance on the slick chain; there was no time to strip it off. She raced a zig-zagging crack in the wall that paralleled her progress. It shone silver as the long-suffering stones gave way to the pressure behind them. They opened with sharp pops that hurt her ears.
Rapskal had paid attention to her cry. He was waiting for her at the top of the well, grabbing her by the shoulders of her tunic and jerking her to safety. ‘Do we run?’ he asked her, and his eyes were his own again, wide in a scared face.
‘Uphill!’ she confirmed, and they retreated to the edge of the plaza. Dimly she recalled a tale of a time when the Silver had overflowed the well and run down the streets to the river. People, fish and birds had died from its touch.
Overpowering curiosity made them pause at the edge of the square to look back. The dragons had not fled. They stood by the well mouth, visibly shivering with excitement. They both had their heads lowered inside the shaft. As they watched, Sintara dropped to her front knees and stretched her neck down further. She looked ridiculous, hunkered down. Her ribs worked as she crouched there and abruptly Heeby followed her example. Were they drinking?
Thymara gasped for breath, her gauntleted hand on Rapskal’s shoulder. Dawn was starting to grey the sky at the eastern edge of the horizon. The dragons still drank. No Silver reached the top and brimmed over. Then Heeby uttered a squeal of protest and lifted her gleaming dripping muzzle. She stared at Rapskal indignantly. His voice was his own as he said, ‘She’s furious. Sintara’s neck is longer and she can still reach the Silver, but Heeby can’t.’ He lifted his voice. ‘Don’t you worry, pretty girl. I’ll fill buckets and buckets for you. I promise.’
Thymara’s mind began to work again. ‘The buckets Tats and the other keepers used to haul rubble away from the well. We need to fill them with Silver and get them to Tintaglia. I’ll lower them down and haul them up. You don’t touch them unless I say it’s safe.’
He nodded and turned to look at the gloved hand that gripped his shoulder. He scowled. ‘What is that made from?’ he demanded.
Thymara didn’t look at him or it as she put the second gauntlet on. Heeby lay as much on her belly as a dragon could, her head down the well, struggling to reach the stuff. She watched her own dragon gulping down the Silver as if her life depended on it. It did. She understood a little of what Sintara had told her about hating dependence of any kind. Dependence forced one to make compromises, ones they would rather not recall. She looked at the glove on her hand, heavy leather with the scale beds still visible.
‘Dragon-hide,’ she said. ‘The only thing impervious to Silver.’ She felt a shadow wash over her and looked up. Dragons were circling and a moment later, their wild trumpeting filled the air. ‘We’d better get those buckets filled now if we’re going to get any,’ she told him, and he nodded.
The baby was squalling, a lusty angry cry. Malta was laughing and crying as she fumbled at the front of her tunic. When she freed her breast, Ephron seized it indignantly; his cries stopped so suddenly that Reyn laughed aloud. Their son was thin, his eyes sunken and his little hand a claw on her breast, but he was alive and fighting to remain so. He suckled so hard that Malta winced, and then laughed again.
‘She heard me,’ she told Reyn. ‘At the last, she heard us. She Changed him.’ Tears ran down her face and followed the curves of her smile. She leaned forward to touch her dragon. The breath from her nostrils barely stirred the fine hair on Ephron’s head. ‘He’s going to live, Tintaglia. He’s going to live, and I will see he remembers all I know about you.’
In another part of the city, a wild trumpeting of dragons suddenly arose. Malta turned to Reyn. ‘I think they know. And soon Kalo will be here to take what is left of her.’
Reyn asked the dreadful question they had both wondered. ‘Will that make him of her lineage, if he takes her memories? Will he know how to help Ephron again if he needs it? Or if we have other children?’
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. Other children. A foolish dream, perhaps. They had one, one to cherish, one whose eyes were closed now, his little round belly tight and full. Had they a right to hope for anything more than that?
‘That’s Kalo coming. He’s flying fast. My dear, we have to leave her now. Come. Up and out of the way.’ Reyn stood stiffly and bent to help Malta stand.
Kalo was coming in fast and he pushed them with a wild command. Out of the way!
Malta shot to her feet and scrambled back, clutching the baby that now wailed at being awakened. There were other dragons coming in behind him, gold Mercor and nasty little Veras. ‘I don’t want to watch it,’ Malta wailed, turning her face into Reyn. ‘She’s not even dead yet! How can they?’
‘It’s their way, my dear. It’s their way.’ His arms closed around her and the child. Despite the horror she felt, she turned back to watch the dragons land around the fallen queen.
Kalo flung back his head and then snapped it forward. He darted his head in, jaws wide, and despite herself, Malta screamed.
A thick silvery mist emerged from his mouth. He leaned closer to Tintaglia, breathing it out on her. Then he whipped his head again and once more spewed a fog of Silver onto her. Mercor landed beside him. Kalo trumpeted territorially, but the smaller male ignored him. He copied him, misting Tintaglia with drifting Silver as Veras waited her turn. It settled on the supine dragon, coating her in Silver.
The slight morning breeze was carrying the stuff. ‘Get back!’ Reyn shouted as sleepy keepers began to emerge from the bath hall. They stumbled back, but the mist was heavy. Malta flung her cloak over her baby. They turned and ran, fleeing up the steps of a nearby building. The Silver made a sizzling sound as it settled on the paving stones. Malta looked back. For an instant, tiny silver balls seemed to rattle and dance on the pavement before they darted into the cracks and vanished.
‘Look at her!’ Reyn gasped and Malta turned her eyes back to her dragon.
Tintaglia was shrouded with moving Silver. It slid over her skin as if caressing her. She saw it boiling in the dragon’s wounds and cried out in low horror at the sound and the smell it made. It sank into the dragon where it coated her, vanishing like ink absorbed into a cloth. Like ink, the colour remained on her, a silver haze over her blue scales, like fog on a window. Malta held her breath.
She stared at a slash on Tintaglia’s shoulder. It bubbled at the edges. Slime and bits of dead flesh rose and dribbled down the dragon’s skin. In their wake the gash was closing, filling in with sound flesh and a coating of paler, smaller scales.
Tintaglia made a low rumbling sound, perhaps an expression of discomfort. Malta’s sense of the dragon grew stronger; she shared both her distress at the unfamiliar sensations racing through her and her discomfort as her torn flesh was so quickly rebuilt. Her breath came louder, faster, and then the dragon was panting as if she were flying hard. The thundering of her hearts as her blood raced through her healing body became an audible thumping. Her eyes opened, wide and staring, and she opened her mouth to gasp in deep breaths of air.
‘It’s killing her!’ Reyn voiced their fear.
‘No.’ Mercor’s thought was reassuring. ‘We think she is strong enough to endure this. And if she is not, well, we have done no harm.’
The dragons that had sprayed her stood at a respectful distance, watching. Briefly, Malta was more aware of them. They radiated vitality now. The glamour of their beauty was effortless. So magnificent were they. She could not doubt the wisdom of what they had done to Tintaglia. They were dragons; what right had she to question them in anything?
Hungry. The thought was strong enough to send every keeper staggering back. Tintaglia closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she once more looked out from them. ‘I need to hunt,’ she said. She came slowly to her feet, as if every motion had to be remembered before she could perform it. She was emaciated still, but her scales shimmered with light. She lifted her wings, stretched them and then refolded them. As she did so, a small metal object fell to the paving stones. She looked down at the ejected arrowhead, and then spurned it with her foot. ‘They will pay for that,’ she vowed. And then, ‘I go to hunt.’
Tintaglia, blue queen, crouched and then sprang into the air. The wind of her wing-beats staggered Malta and stung her eyes. ‘She flies!’ she cried aloud. Pride filled her heart. ‘The most beautiful of all queens flies!’
I am that, Tintaglia agreed, and winged toward the hunting grounds of the foothills.
Day the 15th of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
Sent in a triply sealed message cylinder and to be opened only before a full convening of the Guild Masters in Bingtown, with Master Kerig Sweetwater in attendance to explain these matters, and in completely discreet circumstances.
From Master Godon of the Trehaug Bird Keepers’ Guild and with the consent of the full circle of Masters in Trehaug.
Please allow Master Kerig to explain the circumstances of how we have come into possession of this document. He and we are of the considered opinion that it is genuine and that the Guild should extend thanks to Detozi and Erek Dunwarrow for the discreet manner in which they have handled an extremely difficult situation.
The message we have intercepted appears to be from Master Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick to a Chalcedean merchant in Bingtown. The message is water-damaged and written in Chalcedean, but its existence, regardless of content, is sufficient cause to suspend Keeper Kim and make a complete and intensive inspection of his coops and records.