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‘I have broken no laws. I am the son of a Bingtown Trader. I did not come here to kill dragons. I should be free to walk about the city.’

‘Don’t think so, my fine friend.’

Hest scowled, making the sailor grin as he added, ‘See, it’s our city, so we get to make the rules. And we decided that none of you are going to go walking about on your own. So. Here you’ll stay, unless one of us thinks it’s a good idea to take you for a stroll. Somehow I doubt that will happen. So relax. You’re not suffering. You’re warm, you got food. You can go take another bath if you want. That’s fine. You can go up to the tower and look out of the window. That’s allowed. But you’re not leaving this building alone until we load you up on the boat to take you downriver. That’s one thing everyone agreed on.’ He shrugged. ‘Find someone willing to trust you, and you can take a walk outside with him. Some of the others have. But you don’t get to go anywhere alone.’

‘You’re not an Elderling. What right do you have to the city? What right do you have to a vote on what becomes of us?’ Hest raised his voice, hoping that some of the others might take up his cause. No one did. The Jamaillian merchants had begged paper and ink from Alise, and were attempting to draw up some sort of a trade agreement, as if they could just bypass Bingtown’s and Trehaug’s Traders’ Councils. Fools. Trader Candral continued to stare morosely into the distance. He’d already written his confession and handed it over to the river captain. He was probably imagining what would become of him when he returned to Cassarick. His face was still bruised from the drubbing the sailors and Traders had given him on the journey here. The rowing slaves seemed to be enjoying idleness, warmth and food. The Chalcedeans were watching the altercation but seemed unwilling to be associated with his cause. Cowards. No allies there at all.

‘Some might say I’ve no right to a vote here,’ the sailor conceded. ‘Except that everyone else from the Expedition agreed that I did. So I cast my vote along with the others. You might be a bit nicer to me. I voted that we shouldn’t let the dragons eat any of you. Might start a real bad habit, was my thought. Though when I’m dead, I’ve decided, it’s fine with me if they eat me, and remember everything I’ve ever seen or done. Spit’s the one I’d choose to eat me. That mean little devil is full of spite and vinegar. I’m betting he’ll outlive all those other bigger dragons.’

Hest shook his head in disgust and turned away. There were two doors out of the gathering hall, and they’d put a guard on each of them. Earlier today, one had been a skinny girl with pink scaling and blonde hair. He’d tried to charm her into letting him take a stroll around the square, just to stretch his legs. She looked at him and replied not a word. When he’d tried to just walk past her, she hadn’t blocked him. She’d only said, ‘My dragon is the large gold one sleeping in the sun on the steps.’ Hest hadn’t challenged her after that.

‘Glad to see you. Boring way to waste the first nice day we’ve had!’ The sailor’s words weren’t for him. The youngster who came to take the sailor’s place nodded. ‘Wind off the hills today, Hennesey. You can smell spring in the air.’ His words were cheery but his tone was dispirited. The sailor slapped him on the shoulder as he walked by him.

‘Davvie, lad, it will all come right. Sometimes you just have to wait a while for the right one to come along.’ He did a ridiculous little sideways skip and added blithely, ‘Finally happened for me!’

‘Right,’ the lad said, and sat down on the bench the sailor had just vacated. The new guard heaved a sigh and his shoulders settled into a slump. He was not as heavily scaled as the others. Cobalt outlined his brows and went in a stripe down his nose. His Elderling cloak was scarlet, as were his boots. His tunic and close-fitting leggings were black. The weave was so fine it was imperceptible. Hest had never seen the like. This mere lad wore a fortune on his back. Did he know it? Would he part with any of it?

Hest studied him for a moment, and then looked at the other new guard at the far door. There were two of them, actually, sitting on a bench together with the ease of long familiarity. Both were orange-scaled Elderlings, dressed all in gleaming black. One took a dice cup and dice from his pocket. The other one nodded. The game began.

Hest ventured closer to his morose gaoler. ‘Nice day outside?’

Davvie looked at Hest suspiciously for a moment, and then responded. ‘Nice enough. Weather’s changing. Lots of good news for us.’

Hest cocked his head at the young man and ventured a sympathetic smile. ‘You don’t look as if the good news did much for you.’

‘It’s not going to help me with my problem,’ he said. He looked away from Hest.

‘Too bad.’ Hest seated himself on the other end of the guard’s bench. The boy turned and glared at him. Yes, boy, he decided, though it was hard to read age through his scaling.

‘I know who you are.’ He stated it flatly.

‘Do you really?’ This was intriguing.

‘Yes. Carson and my dad were like brothers. He’s raised me and talks straight to me. So I know who you are. And I don’t think much of you.’

‘Really. Why is that?’ Who is Carson?

‘Sedric’s been pretty honest with Carson. Well, not at first maybe, but now it’s all in the open between them. I know you treated Sedric real bad. And he’s happier now, living simple with Carson, than he ever was in your fancy house with your rich friends. He told me that.’

‘Did he?’ Hest turned away from the boy and looked at the floor. ‘There are two sides to every story,’ he said huskily. He glanced up to find Davvie watching him intently and lowered his gaze again lest the boy read his eyes too well. ‘Two people can love one another and still hurt each other. Still make mistakes, big mistakes.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘I know I can’t win Sedric back. I see that perhaps he’s better off here. That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about going back alone. Doesn’t mean it won’t leave a big hole in my life.’

The scaled youngster was silent, full of listening. Hest shot him an earnest look. ‘You’re lucky to be out here. I see how things are in this place. Oh, maybe it’s a thin, bare life here, but you can love who you want, and no one shames you. I’ve never had that. Never. Maybe if Sedric and I had been able to be open with everyone around us, maybe …’ He let his voice die away and shook his head regretfully. The boy leaned closer. Such an easy target. Young and still inexperienced, his heart freshly broken. Hest wanted to smile. Could he take a better vengeance on Sedric and his damned Carson than seducing this boy? He looked at Davvie with wounded eyes. ‘I tried to give him a good life with me, as much as I could manage. We travelled a great deal together. And when we were in town, there were many evenings with our friends. Fine wine, good food, wonderful fellowship.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘I thought it would be enough for him. I shared with Sedric all I had, introduced him to a life he had never known. We would go to the theatre together. Or go out riding. Or simply to a tavern to drink ale and listen to music. Every night we were together, experiencing all that a city has to offer young men.’ He broke off to look at the boy more closely. ‘Have you ever been to Bingtown? Or any large city?’

Davvie shook his head. ‘Carson was teaching me to be a hunter and a trapper. Now that I got a dragon of my own, I’m a keeper. I wanted to be a keeper mostly so I could stay with Lecter. But now that he’s thrown me over, and my dragon is all busy with other things, I’ve wound up with nothing.’ He lifted a hand and touched his own cheek. ‘Don’t think I’ll ever visit Bingtown or any other city looking like I do. I’d be a freak there now.’

‘A freak?’ Hest laughed heartily. A few heads turned his way and he quieted. Attention from anyone other than Davvie was not what he wanted. ‘No, my young friend. Not a freak. An Elderling. Rarest of the rare and honoured wherever you might go. Why, everyone knows the names of Malta and Reyn Khuprus! They stayed for a time at the Satrap’s court in Jamaillia and were honoured with balls and feasts every day they were there. Showered with gifts and attention! I have no idea why they chose to go back to the Rain Wilds.’

‘The dragons needed them,’ the young man said, surprised that Hest didn’t know such things.

‘Ah, of course. They did. But your dragon, you say, does not? So are you not free to go where you will?’ Hest pushed a hand through his dark hair, tousling it slightly. He tapped his fingertip on his lips, drawing the boy’s eyes to his face. ‘You’re a handsome fellow, and wealthy. You could travel to the city. Or anywhere. See more of the world. The right companion could show you off, teach you everything you’d need to know to fit in there. Introduce you to people who would appreciate you. After all, you can’t mean to spend the whole of your life here, can you? You’re much too young and too wealthy to settle in one spot.’

Davvie gave a snort of laughter. ‘Wealthy? Me? I’ve the clothes on my back. A knife. My own bow. Little enough beside that.’

Hest was astonished. ‘Young man, wealth is all around you here. Surely you are entitled to a share of it? There is so much in this city that, presented to the proper buyer, would bring you a fortune. I see others wearing Elderling jewellery; why do you not?’ He touched the back of the boy’s ringless hand, drew his finger slowly away. ‘I’ll tell you this; a single Elderling bracelet would buy you a year of carousing in Bingtown. Easily.’

‘I’ve never worn jewellery.’

Hest feigned astonishment. ‘Never? Ah, but you should! A sapphire ring to match the scaling on your hand. Or—’ He lifted his hand and playfully tapped the boy’s ear, and then, as Davvie drew back at his touch, Hest used the motion as a way to trace his jaw-line with his forefinger. ‘Dangling earrings. Silver. Or rich gold to draw the eye to your face.’

‘I feel drained,’ Selden said, and managed a feeble smile at his joke.

‘This looks infected,’ Chassim replied tartly, glaring at his swollen wrist. The Duke’s teeth had broken his skin in the most recent session, and the flesh around it was hot and red.

Selden had not felt that bite as a separate pain. He’d lost consciousness early in the act and only recovered his awareness here in the tower room. Each time the Duke bled him, his stamina dropped. He did not look at his arm as she put a hot, wet cloth on it. A strong aroma of garlic rose from the poultice and he turned his head to avoid it.

‘Is it a pretty day out there?’ he asked inanely. Chassim had opened the shutters and a soft wind was blowing through the heavy curtains. Beyond their fluttering he glimpsed the stone balustrade of the balcony. Their new quarters were spacious and airy, with a wide view of the city and the surrounding countryside. Spring was coming, he thought and smiled weakly. Spring was coming and he was going.

‘Nice enough. Do you want your curtains opened? It’s clear but not very warm out there.’

‘Please. What’s the worst that can happen? I catch my death of cold?’

‘The infection will kill you first,’ she said bluntly.

‘I know how bad it is,’ he admitted. ‘It hurts and the healers told your father that next time he must take blood from my other arm, lest the infection spread to him. I’m not looking forward to that.’ His fingers twitched against his bedding as he thought of it. Bad enough to have the Duke break open the cut on his arm every few days. Adding another one was a whole new horror. ‘I’m dying,’ he said, trying the words aloud. ‘His drinking my blood is killing me.’

‘And every time he takes your blood, he seems to get stronger. He is so triumphant about it. It’s disgusting.’ She pushed the heavy curtains aside and tied them back. The sky was blue with puffs of white cloud in the distance. No mountains in this direction. The horizon stretched on to forever. The wind wandered into the room.

‘Maybe when I die, he will start to fail again.’

‘Maybe. I won’t live to find out. If you die, then I die, too.’ She came back to sit on a stool by his bed.

‘I’m sorry.’

She made a strangled noise. ‘Scarcely your fault that my father is killing you. Nor mine. I was born into this disaster. I’m sorry that you fell into it.’ She looked out of the window. ‘I’ve been thinking that if you die, I won’t wait for him to discover it and punish me for it.’ She nodded toward the balcony. ‘I may jump from there.’

‘Sweet Sa!’ Selden exclaimed in horror. He tried to sit up but he was not quite strong enough.

‘Not in despair, my friend. Just to make it harder for him to pretend I died a natural death. If I leap from here, it may be that some will see me fall. There are people who have pledged to avenge me if I die at my father’s hands.’

Selden felt far colder than he had before. ‘And your leaping will launch a wave of vengeance?’

‘No,’ she continued to look at the sky. ‘I hope to avert it. There was a time when I wanted people to know what he had done to me; I dreamed they would all rise up and avenge my death. Now I think about it like ripples ringing out from a dropped stone. Do I want my death to result in misery and death for others? Or would I rather slip away at a time of my choosing?’ She reached over and took his good hand without looking at him. ‘I don’t really want to die at all,’ she confided to him in a whisper. ‘But if I have to, I’m not going to let him be the one to make me die. I’m not going to wait here alone, wondering if he will torture me first.’ She finally made eye contact with him and tried for a faint smile. ‘So, when you go, I’ll go, too.’

He looked at the tray on the low table beside him. The cream soup still steamed slightly. Slices of mushroom interrupted that calm sea. A brown loaf of bread was beside it and a shallow dish of pale-yellow butter. Stewed Chalcedean peppers, purple, yellow and green, surrounded a slab of steamed white fish. All so prettily arranged. They wanted him to eat well. He knew why. Earlier, he had defiantly refused the food. It had seemed pointless to eat, merely an exercise in extending his life as a blood source for the Duke. Now it seemed a way to extend Chassim’s life. ‘While there’s life, there’s hope,’ he said.

‘So they say,’ she conceded.

He reached for the napkin and shook it out.

‘I’ll give them another three or four days of my work here, to shore up those pilings. Then we have to load up and head downriver. Reyn sent a bird back to that fellow at Cassarick, asking if our seed and stock had come in from Bingtown. No bird has come back yet, so I guess we’ll have to go back there and find out for ourselves. I think it flew off in the wrong direction myself. Anyway. We’ve got a lot to straighten out in Cassarick. I still haven’t been paid. And I’m not letting the Council get away with that.’

‘What about the other boats? Will they go with us?’

Leftrin shook his head. He was seated across from Alise at the little galley table. Thick white mugs of brown tea steamed on the scarred board between them. An empty platter held only crumbs of the bread and cheese they had shared. They were the only ones aboard, but the boat wasn’t quiet. As always, Tarman and the river had their own conversation as the current tugged at him and his lines restrained him. Good sounds, Alise thought. Here on Tarman, she was immune to the whispering lure of the memory-stone. When she and Leftrin planned their future, as they did now, the only voices she heard were their own.

‘Those boats might be “impervious” but they were handled rough. There’s dragon scorch and broken oars and all sorts of repair they need. The hold of one of them is disgustingly filthy. And we don’t have enough real sailors for a proper crew. Those slaves didn’t know much more than how to pull an oar and had no reason to try to learn more. None of them started out wanting to be sailors, either. It’s going to take time for them to get used to being free men. They all seem a bit stunned yet. So there’s a lot to be done before we worry about whether they want to work a deck or not. Teaching the keepers to operate their own boats is going to be a task for milder days, when the river runs quieter.’

Leftrin chewed his lower lip thoughtfully, and then pushed his mug of tea to one side. ‘You know how Tillamon told Reyn she knew at least a dozen young women who wouldn’t mind leaving Trehaug and Cassarick behind for a chance to walk in the summer breeze without a veil? She got permission from the other keepers to invite them here. Well. I’m thinking I know a few able deckhands who might be persuaded to come this way, at least for a time. It’s easier to teach a young captain his business if he’s worked the deck himself. But, lacking that, I’d like to find experienced crew for them to learn with.’

‘So much to think about,’ Alise murmured. New settlers for Kelsingra. Farm animals and seeds for crops. Did anyone here know how to care for them? She did not enquire if anyone had asked him to teach the new captains their business. She was sure he had just assumed it. She smiled as she asked him, ‘Which of the keepers will step up to captain the boats?’

‘Not sure. Rapskal might. He’s looking for something lately and that would be better than some of the wild talk I’ve heard from him.’

She shook her head sadly. ‘I think that’s wishful thinking. Not that he couldn’t rise to that if he wanted to. But the stone memories have changed him. All he speaks of now is the need to put an end to the threat against the dragons. A permanent end. I don’t think he understands how far away Chalced is, or what sort of resistance he and Heeby would face.’

‘Wouldn’t be only him and Heeby. Kalo’s hot to take vengeance on them. Fente wants to go, as do Baliper, Sestican and Dortean. Ranculos, too. And Tintaglia, of course. She says that once she’s fed up a bit, she’s taking her wrath to them.’

‘Mercor?’ she asked faintly. She suspected that if the golden went, all of the others would follow.

‘He’s keeping his own counsel, so far. I don’t know what he thinks. But Rapskal keeps stirring up the keepers. You know about that armoury they found?’

‘I do.’ Not even to Leftrin had she mentioned that she had discovered it a long time ago but never mentioned it to Rapskal. Her discovery of it had further changed her image of Elderlings. And dragons. The battle gear for the dragons had been mostly decorative, with rings where perhaps riders had once secured themselves. Sintara’s assertion that dragons had never been ridden by humans had seemed disproven to Alise, but the blue queen had insisted that carrying an Elderling into battle was not the same as being ridden like a donkey. The thought she had conveyed was that, in that instance, the dragon was using the Elderling as a sort of auxiliary weapon rather than serving him as a charger.

There had been armour for Elderlings hung neatly on hooks on the stone walls. It mimicked the scaling of dragons in how the fine plates overlapped one another as well as in colours. The wooden shafts of the spears were long gone, bows and quivers of arrows faint outlines of dust on the floor. But the arrow-points and spearheads had survived. There were other devices there, of green-coated brass and iron infused with Silver, ones she did not recognize even as she guessed their martial uses.

‘Those young men tried on that armour and helms like Jerd trying on jewellery,’ Leftrin complained. ‘They have no idea of what it means. But if Rapskal and Kalo and Tintaglia keep urging them on, I think they’ll soon find out.’

She shied away from thinking about it. ‘So. If you were choosing captains for those two ships, who would you train?’

‘Harrikin, I’m thinking. He’s steady. Maybe Alum. Lad seems capable and smart.’

She lowered her face to hide a grin at that. She suspected he could not imagine Skelly with a man who didn’t know how to run a boat. His next words surprised her. ‘But it might not be a keeper who steps up, you know. Dragons keep them pretty tied up. Could be Hennesey stepping up to take a command. Or Skelly, when she’s a bit more seasoned.’

‘So many changes,’ she mused. ‘There will have to be regular freight runs until Kelsingra can support itself. And after that, maybe we’ll be selling meat and grain to the Rain Wilds. New settlers coming to Kelsingra. They’ll have to understand what they’re risking, of course, but I think Tillamon is right. There will be people who are willing to come and start fresh here. And we’ll need what they know. Farmers and smiths, bakers and potters and carpenters … but they’ll come. It’s not often that people are offered the chance to just begin anew.’

‘Not often,’ he agreed. He was silent, mulling something. Then, ‘Be my wife,’ he said suddenly.

She stared at him, startled by the sudden change in topic. ‘I can’t, Leftrin. Until my marriage contract is formally annulled, I’m still marri—’

‘Don’t say you’re married to him! Please don’t. I hate to hear those words come from your mouth.’ He reached across the table and set his fingertips on her lips. He looked at her with earnest grey eyes. ‘I don’t care what they say in Bingtown or anywhere else in the world. He broke his contract a long time ago. He never even meant to honour it, so how could you ever have been his wife? Be mine, Alise. I’m already yours. I want to call myself your husband. Marry me here, in Kelsingra. Start a new life with me here. Forget Bingtown and its rules and contracts.’

She tilted her head. ‘You don’t want a marriage contract?’

‘I don’t need one. If you want one, you can draw up anything you want and I’ll sign it. I won’t bother reading it because anything you want to say about how it is going to be will be fine with me. I don’t need a paper or a contract or any of that. Just you.’

‘What brought all this on?’ Alise felt flustered.

He shook his head. ‘I knew Hest existed. I knew you’d been his. There were times when I felt like a thief. There was a day when Sedric took me on about it, saying that I was going to ruin your whole life by loving you. Made me feel selfish and low for wanting you.’

‘It seems a lifetime ago.’ She smiled at him. ‘We used to worry about such peculiar things.’

‘It doesn’t bother you now? What Hest might say when he goes back to Bingtown?’

‘After Sedric spoke up? No. I think he will say as little as he possibly can and hope others do the same. Before he leaves, I will speak to him and ask him to give me my nullification. We can draw it up, and there are plenty of possible witnesses. It will happen quietly here. I will send my explanations to my family, and he will have to deal with his.’ She took a breath and met his gaze with clear eyes. ‘I’ve finished with him, Leftrin. Did you doubt it?’

He dropped his gaze. ‘Worst thing I ever heard in my life was him calling you “my darling”. I wanted to rip the tongue out of his mouth. Wanted to tear him into pieces with my hands and feed the bits to Spit.’

He spoke with a low vehemence she had never heard before from him. ‘My dear!’ she exclaimed, torn between shock and laughter.

‘He was frightening you. I could see that, I could feel it. I wanted to destroy anything that could scare you like that.’

‘I was scaring myself. Giving him power he didn’t really have. Just like I used to do.’ She smiled almost sadly. ‘It’s done, Leftrin. All done.’ She stood up and walked around the galley table to stand behind him. She leaned forward to embrace him and spoke by his ear. ‘I’m looking forward to sailing away with you.’

‘Won’t be much privacy aboard for a time until we off-load all those intruders in Trehaug.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ll be glad to give over the judging of the Chalcedeans to someone else. Poor bastards, caught between the mortar and the pestle. Doubt there’s anything left for them to go home to. But I’m not looking forward to having a whole boatload of them all the way to Trehaug.’

She gave him a quick kiss and as he pulled her closer, she said, ‘So perhaps we should use this quiet time well, now.’

‘I can’t be gone long. I’m off watch now, but my uncle will have more work for me. As always.’

‘Keeps you busy, does he?’ Hest was amused. ‘Probably thinks you are too young to manage your own life. That’s often the case with men who take on the care of young boys. They don’t see when they’ve become young men, ready to take wing on their own.’

Davvie’s eyes flickered to Hest’s, neither confirming nor denying that he resented Carson’s control of him. He cleared his throat. ‘I’m surprised you haven’t gone up the tower yourself to take a look around. It’s allowed to any of you. We decided that at the meeting.’

‘Indeed,’ Hest agreed. ‘But looking around from a tower isn’t the same as having someone explain the layout of the city.’ He was letting the lad do most of the talking, and he was talking himself into far more than Hest had thought he could persuade him to. Today, a visit to the tower together. Tomorrow, perhaps, a brief stroll outside. The boy preceded him up the stairs and he had a fine view of the lad’s hips and legs. He was young, younger even than Sedric had been, and even more green to the ways of the world. He’d break easily, Hest decided. Entice him with elegant and sophisticated pleasures he had never even imagined. Tempt his young hunger for adventure and worldliness. Make him see that only Hest could introduce him to that wonderful world.

‘Let me catch my breath, Davvie. An old man like me doesn’t take these stairs as easily as you do.’

The young Elderling halted obediently on the next landing. ‘There’s a fine view from here if the steps are taxing you,’ he offered. ‘You needn’t climb the whole way to the tower top.’

Hest stepped to the window and looked out over the city silently. He had expected the boy quickly to refute the notion that he was an old man. It pricked his vanity that he had not. Don’t let it show. He looked out of the window to feign interest but as his eyes took in the full extent of the city, even his worldly soul was amazed. The view from the river was no way to comprehend the vastness of Kelsingra. From this vantage, the city spread out in every direction. He saw a few collapsed buildings and scattered areas of damage but for the most part, the city seemed intact and unplundered. He could not begin to imagine the riches of the place. His eye marked half a dozen statues presiding over empty fountains. He knew a collector in Jamaillia who would beggar himself to add even one of them to his collection. He ran his fingers along the tiles that framed the windows. Each featured a dragon in a different posture. The lad saw him admiring them.

‘Oh, those are great fun. Watch!’

The boy ran his hand along the line of dragons and they cavorted at his touch. When he stopped, they froze as they were.

‘Amazing!’ Hest exclaimed. ‘May I try?’

‘Of course.’ Davvie had become the guide now, tolerant and amused by Hest’s amazement. Excellent. Hest assayed a clumsy attempt to activate the dragons as the boy had. He missed half of them. He tried again, with as little success. He drew his hand back in disgust. ‘I haven’t the knack for it,’ he exclaimed in disappointment.

‘It’s easy. Like this.’ Davvie took Hest’s hand in his own and ran it over the dragons. This time, they leapt and pranced for him.

‘One more time,’ Hest suggested and set his free hand to Davvie’s shoulder to allow the boy to control his hand more surely. Davvie was intent on his dragon-play. As he drew Hest’s hand once again over the tiles, the man leaned forward and kissed him warmly on the side of his neck.

Davvie sprang back with an exclamation of shock, but Hest managed to maintain his touch on the boy’s shoulder. ‘You are so handsome,’ he said throatily. ‘So exotic. How could you think your scaling ugly?’ He breathed out through his mouth, a sigh of desire, and then caught his breath raggedly. Davvie was staring at him, his mouth slightly ajar. Hest imagined sealing those lips with his own and his feigned passion was suddenly real. He moved toward the Elderling, and when Davvie backed into the wall, Hest pressed his body against him.

‘This is not … I don’t …’ Davvie stuttered. Searing curiosity and fear battled in his dark eyes.

Excellent. Hest risked that he was the sort aroused by danger and the forbidden. He pressed himself against the youngster and spoke by his ear. ‘Sedric broke my heart. I’m alone. You’ve been discarded. What harm do we do anyone if, for a short time, we forget those pains?’ He leaned his weight hard on the youth, and the hands that he put on him were purposeful and demanding. ‘There is so much I can teach you. Ask me to teach you.’ One hand suddenly moved, to grip Davvie’s throat. ‘Say “please”,’ Hest suggested pleasantly.

‘I’m not going to wait on him forever,’ Carson said over his shoulder. ‘He said he wanted to go hunting, and I waited for his guard shift to be over.’ Sedric was trailing Carson as he strode into the baths. The hunter opened the doors to the soaking room and a cloud of humid air engulfed them. Kalo, his eyes closed to slits in pleasure, was dozing in the water. ‘Davvie?’ he called, but there was no response. Sylve looked up from scrubbing Mercor and shook her head.

They were halfway to the dining hall when they heard a commotion from the stairwell. There was a wordless yell, anger mixed with outrage, followed by a muffled stream of words.

‘That’s Davvie!’ Carson exclaimed and spun toward the steps. The hunter went up them at a run and Sedric followed, his heart in his mouth. Davvie and Lecter had been quarrelling lately. Both had been sullen and unpredictable, but as far as he knew, they hadn’t come to blows. Yet the unmistakable sounds of a physical struggle were in progress.

Sedric reached the landing a half-step behind Carson and halted in shock. Hest was there. He had not seen him since he had faced him down in the street; had not wanted to see him, ever again. Yet there he stood, a hand to his cheek as a rumpled-looking Davvie tugged his tunic straight. At the sight of Carson and Sedric, Davvie flushed a deep scarlet. Hest only smiled knowingly. He leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms on his chest.

Carson’s eyes darted from Hest to Davvie and back again. Breath shuddered in and out of him, and possibly Hest did not know how furious he was as he asked Davvie, ‘What’s going on here?’

‘Nothing,’ he declared sullenly, and Sedric saw Carson’s shoulders swell. ‘Whatever it was, it’s my business. I’m old enough to take care of myself,’ the boy added defiantly.

Carson seemed barely able to contain himself as he looked from Hest to Davvie. ‘Looks like you’re doing a fine job of that,’ he growled. Fury put sparks in his eyes as he added, ‘Boy, you go from one bad decision to another! How could you be so stupid as to take up—’ He strangled on his anger.

Davvie’s eyes went wild. ‘You never even give me a chance to explain! And I don’t need you trying to protect me.’

He spun back to Hest when the Bingtowner snickered. Davvie’s fists were clenched as he gritted out, ‘I don’t play your sort of games, old man. I don’t need to pretend I’m being forced. I’ve chosen to be who I am.’

Sedric barely managed to dodge out of his way as Davvie stamped away down the stairs.

‘Well. A misunderstanding, on all parts, I see.’ Hest seemed completely unruffled. He smoothed the hair back from his brow and smiled at them both. ‘You shouldn’t blame your boy, Carson.’ He smiled at Sedric as he added, ‘He’s not the first youngster to find me attractive. Though I did misjudge how ready he was for me. Moved a bit fast for him, I suppose.’ He tugged his cuffs straight.

For the first time, Sedric noted the red spot on Hest’s left cheekbone. So. The boy had landed one on him.

Hest seemed to feel his gaze. He lifted his eyes to meet Sedric’s and added, ‘Not like Sedric. He needed the game. And he was very, very ready for me.’

Sedric found his voice. His words were soft. ‘You’re right, Hest. I was ready. Ready for you, or any other predator. Just as na"ive as Davvie.’

‘Predator?’ Hest lifted one sculpted brow. He transferred his gaze to Carson. ‘Is this his new pretence, perhaps for you? Nothing was his decision, I “preyed” on him? Ridiculous. He was only too enthused to put himself into my control. He relished every moment of it, and was a very apt student. I trust you’ve enjoyed all I taught him?’

Carson made a small sound. Sedric shot his hand out to rest on the hunter’s chest. He felt oddly calm as he said, ‘Davvie was right about one thing, Carson. You didn’t need to protect him. And you don’t have to protect me, either.’

The hunter looked at him with unreadable eyes. ‘Please go,’ Sedric added quietly.

Consternation and then hurt showed in Carson’s dark eyes. ‘I need to do this,’ Sedric said even more softly. ‘Trust me.’

Carson’s gaze searched Sedric’s soul. Then he gave one slow nod and moved stoically away down the stairs.

‘Well, well.’ Hest turned away from Sedric. He ran his hand along the tiles and set the dragons to dancing. He didn’t turn to look at him. ‘Are you ready to come to your senses and return to Bingtown with me?’


‘Oh, come. You’ve made your point. You left me and I will tell you that I quickly discovered just how hard it was to replace you. I shouldn’t have mocked your plan for us. I still think trafficking in dragon parts was a foolish venture, and I think events have proven me right. Am I correct in guessing that your current friends know nothing of what your original intent was?’

Sedric found his heart thumping against his ribs. Why? Why was this so hard? He cleared his throat. ‘I doubt there is anything you could tell him that he doesn’t already know about me. He’s not like you, Hest. He listens when I talk.’

‘I should have listened, I’ll admit that.’ Hest turned to look at him. The damn boy had landed two good blows to his ribs. They still hurt, but the epithet ‘old man’ that he had thrown had hurt even more. At least Sedric seemed to be coming to his senses. He’d sent his forest man away. Hest sensed what he wanted. Just enough sentiment to allow him to come back to Hest. And a touch of the old mastery to remind him how much he’d enjoyed it. Had he felt a moment of jealousy when he came upon Hest and the flustered boy? Hest thought so. He’d noticed how Sedric’s eyes had lingered on his face.

‘It’s not too late for us,’ Hest said. He let his voice go deep on the words and was secretly delighted with the look of incredulity that blossomed on Sedric’s face. He liked the scaling, he decided. Showing off Sedric’s changed appearance in Bingtown would definitely add a fillip of triumph to his return. He was fairly confident that if he returned with Sedric’s share of the wealth of Kelsingra to set at his father’s feet, the old man would forgive the absence of his wife. His mother would certainly understand that Alise had become completely unsuitable to share their name. He’d tell her what he’d seen, and then beg her mercy and discretion in letting him quietly annul his marriage to Alise. He wouldn’t marry again. Let his father name who he wanted as his heir. With Sedric’s share of Kelsingra, he wouldn’t need the family money to live very well indeed.

It could all be managed. All of it. Beginning with Sedric. ‘You were right. I admit it, and I apologize for doubting you. You gambled yourself and won us a fortune. I can’t even calculate the value of what you’ve won for us. It isn’t just in what we can take out of the city. People will want to come here, to visit. To have country homes, perhaps. Everything you dreamed for us can come true. Here, we can live openly, in luxury, as we wish. And when we go back to Bingtown, we can enjoy the best of everything the civilized world has to offer. Sedric, my boy, you’ve done it.’

‘I’m not your “boy”, Hest.’ The words were spoken so quietly.

Hest shifted his tactics slightly. ‘How well I know that. Ah, well, we’ve both changed, haven’t we? Sweet Sa, if you knew the half of what I’ve gone through to find you and bring you home! Well, some day we’ll share that tale with the fellows, won’t we? And have a good laugh about your sojourn in the wilderness. I’ll wager you’re more than ready for a comfortable home and a glass of good wine. And an evening alone with me.’ He smiled at him, an inviting smile that Sedric would well recall. He licked his lips.

Sedric was meeting his gaze steadily. His mouth was flat, unsmiling, his eyes unreadable. ‘No, Hest. No to all of it.’

‘No?’ His grin grew wider. ‘Ah, you’ve always begun by saying “no” to me, haven’t you? Sedric, you want me to make you change your mind, don’t you? Well, I don’t mind that. I don’t mind that at all.’

Hest swayed slightly as he advanced. Sedric watched him come and felt almost preoccupied with trying to decide what it reminded him of. And then he knew. A snake. A snake stalking a mouse.

Except that he wasn’t a mouse any more. As Hest reached for him, Sedric shot his fist out, pivoting to put his weight into it. He felt it connect solidly, saw the other man stumble back against the wall. ‘No,’ he said again as Hest lifted both hands to his bleeding mouth. ‘No to all of it.’

He turned and went down the stairs. He didn’t look back. He went out of the baths and spotted Carson at the bottom of the steps, deep in conversation with Davvie. He was listening while Davvie gesticulated, and then threw a punch at the air. Then the youngster looked up at his uncle earnestly. Sedric couldn’t hear what was said, but at the end of it, he saw the hunter nod gravely. He reached out to tousle the boy’s hair. In mid-reach, he suddenly changed the gesture to a clap on the shoulder. Davvie gave him a nod and a half-smile before turning away from him. So. It wasn’t all right, not completely, but in time, it would be.

Sedric increased the length of his stride and caught up with Carson as he started to walk away. He linked arms with him and then flinched when Carson covered his hand with his own.

Carson looked down and then glanced up at him in surprise. ‘Your knuckles are bleeding.’

‘Are they?’ Sedric held his hand up for his own inspection. ‘No.’ He wiped the blood off on his cloak. ‘They’re just bruised.’

‘Let me see.’ He took Sedric’s hand, studied the puffing knuckles, then lifted it to his mouth. He kissed them gently, gravely. ‘All better,’ he told him.

Sedric bit his lower lip to keep it from trembling, but didn’t try to hide the tears that rose in his eyes at Carson’s tenderness. ‘I think you’re right,’ he agreed huskily.

They both startled as dragons trumpeted, a peculiar note in their cries. The sound was passed from one creature to the next, until it filled the sky over the city and echoed back from the hills. ‘What are they going on about?’ Sedric wondered.

‘It’s an alarm. A stranger approaches.’ Carson was already studying the air above them.

Sedric lifted his eyes to the sky. He didn’t ask Carson how he knew these things. The hunter just did. After a scan, Sedric pointed. ‘There. Right at the horizon, very low. Black dragon. Kalo?’

Carson squeezed his shoulder. ‘You’ve a good eye, Bingtown boy. But that’s not Kalo. He’s bigger than Kalo. And Kalo was soaking in the baths.’ He squinted. ‘No. That’s not one of our dragons.’

The dragons shrieked again, more urgently, and began to converge, coming from all corners of the world to spiral above Kelsingra.

‘IceFyre.’ Sedric spoke the name aloud. ‘It has to be the drake that Tintaglia spoke of. But why does he come here?’

Damn, but it hurt. Hest took his hand away from his mouth, looked at the blood running down his wrist and grimaced. This sort of play had rules, as he had so clearly established with Sedric years ago! What was Sedric learning among these brutes? There was a limit and Sedric had just found it. Play was play, but marring Hest’s face was never on the menu. He’d pay for it, now.

His fingers found the split in his lower lip. The taste of blood was all through his mouth; his own teeth had cut into his cheek. He blotted his lip on his cuff and scowled at the spreading stain as he walked to the top of the steps. ‘Sedric!’ he barked, and then winced at the pain of shouting. ‘You’ve gone too far, Sedric! You know that.’

He knew Sedric, knew him better than he knew himself. He always had, and that had been why he’d always been able to manage him. Sedric would be waiting at the bottom of the flight of steps, already repentant, already frightened by his own defiance. Perhaps weeping and desiring forgiveness and comfort. He dabbed at his split lips again, and his tongue found a loosened tooth. Damn him!

Forgiveness and comfort? He would get neither until he had apologized and atoned. And demonstrated his contrition. He waited. Don’t break the discipline. Make him come back to me. Don’t let him think I’m going to come running after him. Let him worry for a bit. Let him see I truly don’t need him any more. It was always important to establish who was in charge early.

Hest jumped and then cowered at the first blast of dragon trumpets. When the racket continued, he straightened slowly. It wasn’t an attack. They wouldn’t attack their own city. Probably nothing more serious than dogs barking at one another, or howling at the moon. His mouth hurt, his ribs ached and he decided he had waited long enough. Let Sedric think he had won this round. Give him a tiny triumph so he didn’t feel totally beaten. It would make their next encounter even more interesting when Hest brought him back to his knees. He started down the stairs.

He reached the next landing, but Sedric wasn’t there. Nor on the next. ‘Sedric!’ He put a sharper note into his voice. He was wearying of this game. The youngster had bruised him; Sedric had cut his mouth, and now this foolish chase. Not amusing. None of it.

He reached the main floor and scanned the foyer. No sign of Sedric. The door to the plaza was ajar and a chorus of dragon noises and people’s raised voices washed in. A young man’s voice was suddenly raised, the higher pitch cutting through the noise. ‘It’s as I told you! It’s not revenge. It’s self-preservation. They’ve given us no choice!’

No. Sedric would not seek out that sort of conflict, not right now. Sedric had no interest in politics. And he would have only one thing on his mind. He would want to be alone when Hest found him. The baths? It hurt his mouth to smile. Of course. What better site for reconciliation and reunion?

He pushed open the huge door to the room. It moved easily for such a large slab. Designed for the dragons who shared it, of course. He found it a rather disgusting concept but had no objection to bathing there when no dragons were about.

But one was. The immense creature, so dark blue as to be almost black, had just emerged from the water. The liquid was sheeting off his gleaming hide, running in rivulets onto the floor. It was obviously trying to leave via the door Hest had just entered. Hest halted where he stood and eyed the wet animal disdainfully. He crabbed a few steps sideways to try to see past him. ‘Sedric!’ he called.

Not here.

The dragon’s voice was a low rumble, the force of his thought against Hest’s mind almost stunning. Others had claimed to hear the dragons speaking to them, but he had dismissed those claims as the products of susceptible minds. But there was no mistaking this. The dragon had spoken to him and he had understood it. Fascinating. He halted and stared at him, Sedric forgotten for the moment.

The dragon clamour outside grew louder.

Move out of my way.

This close, he suddenly realized how magnificent a creature a dragon might be. Like a prize stud horse. Only much larger. As with a horse, he knew the key was to dominate it. ‘My name is Hest.’ He kept his words simple and spoke clearly. ‘Do you have a name, dragon? What does your owner call you?’

The animal cocked his immense head like a puzzled dog. Then he yawned, showing some extremely large teeth and the interior of his mouth patterned in scarlet and yellow. He exhaled strongly, a foul blast of meat-scented moisture. You are standing where I am going to walk. The others call to me.

Hest stood firm. ‘Dragon, come here.’ He extended his hand and pointed to a spot directly in front of him.

When Hest didn’t move, the dragon came a step nearer. Good. Obedience seemed to come to it easily. It spoke again. Davvie serves me. The dragon’s eyes seemed to whirl slowly, thoughtfully. Davvie does not like you. But I think I might.

Hest stood his ground, his mind spinning with new thoughts, as the creature came closer to him. The dragon obeyed him and he could understand what it said. The dragon might prefer him to Davvie. Better and better. Let the boy think on that when Hest took his dragon. Yes, and let Carson and Sedric mull it over, too. He imagined himself returning to Bingtown as an Elderling astride his own dragon. If he took the dragon, if he became an Elderling, would not he be able to claim his own place in Kelsingra, regardless of what Alise or Sedric thought of him?

It was perfect. Vengeance, beauty, long life and wealth were all within his reach. All he had to do was master the dragon and transfer its loyalty from Davvie to himself.

The dragon had come very close now. He was quite a stunning creature, really. Extraordinary. What was it like to own a dragon? Sedric had one, as did his primitive friend. Even the little pink girl with the gold scaling had a dragon. How hard could it be to master one if someone like Sedric had done it?

The dragon’s eyes spun like whirlpools, gleaming swirls of deepest blue mixed with black. Hest imagined himself dressed in black and silver, astride the creature. A black saddle and bridle, trimmed in silver and blue. They would alight in the centre of the main market in Bingtown, mid-morning when the trade was thickest. He imagined how people would point and shout as they looked up at him on his circling dragon. They would scatter before him as he swooped down to alight in the centre of the market. ‘All eyes will be on me,’ Hest murmured, entranced by his vision. He reached out to touch the dragon’s muzzle.

It swung its head aside from his touch. That wouldn’t do. ‘Dragon, stand still when I reach for you.’ Dragon? That wouldn’t do. Evidently Davvie had neglected to give his animal a name to answer to. Hest would correct that right now. ‘I will give you a name, now, a special name to show you are mine.’ Easy enough. No harder than naming a horse or dog. ‘Your name is Blue Glory now. Blue Glory. Do you understand, dragon? You’re mine now, not Davvie’s, and you have to learn to obey me. So when I call you Blue Glory, you should come to me. And stand still when I reach to touch you.’ Hest spoke simply and firmly, dominating the animal with his stance and stare. He radiated confidence and command as again he reached out a hand to rest it on the dragon’s muzzle.

The animal’s eyes were spinning more rapidly. Deep gold sparks seemed to ride the whirlpool of blue and black.

‘That’s better, Blue Glory. The sooner we understand each other, the easier this will be.’

Just as his fingertips brushed the animal’s scaling, the dragon swung his head aside, lifting his head high and looking down on Hest. ‘I understand you, human. And I think I will give you a special name, too.’ The words rode a low rumble of sound from the beast.

Extraordinary. But an excellent sign of how swiftly they were bonding. Hest smiled at his dragon. ‘Shall I help you, Blue Glory? You could call me Glory’s Master. Or Silver Rider.’

The dragon still looked down on him, considering each name carefully. His eyes spun faster and faster. ‘No. I think not,’ he said, and amusement shimmered in the rumbling voice. ‘I think I will name you “Meat”.’

Then the creature turned his head sideways, his jaws opened wide and the gleaming teeth and brilliantly coloured maw came at Hest, swift as a serpent’s strike. Hest leapt back, shouting in anger and fear, but the trumpeting of dragons outside swelled loud. Hest spun and dived for the steaming bath. The dragon snapped after him and he felt a sharp tug at his leg before he fell free into the water. It had barely missed him.

The water was hot, almost scalding. Hest fought his way to the surface, spluttering and shuddering. He shook water from his eyes, snorted it out of his nose and looked up to see the dragon standing at the edge of the pool. ‘I do like you,’ the creature said, and there was no mistaking the amusement in its voice. ‘You’re delicious.’

Hest drew a deep breath and prepared to dive beneath the steaming water. In one awful moment he glimpsed the red swirls in the water around him and grasped their significance. The dragon had not missed him. His leg was bleeding badly.


His leg was gone.

He screamed then in the full horror of what had befallen him. Hest with one leg? Hest a pathetic cripple that others would mock? ‘NO!’ he shouted.

‘Yes,’ rumbled Blue Glory.

The open jaws closed on him, and his last scream was engulfed in the scarlet and yellow cavern of the dragon’s maw.

Day the 16th of the Plough Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

To Reyall, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

From Erek Dunwarrow and Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

Reyall, it may soon be that the Masters of the Birds in Bingtown will request you to bring to them all my breeding records, including my side notes and nicknames for the birds, for an intense inspection and review. Please do not be alarmed. I wish you to be completely forthcoming with them, and have complete confidence that I do not have anything I wish to hide.

We wish we could tell you more at this time, but we cannot. This note will be delivered to you by one or more Masters of the Guild. Please take no alarm from this.

Truly, all is well, and will soon, we hope, be even better as a cloud of doubt that has hung over the Bird Keepers’ Guild is dispelled.

Have faith in us.