Thymara peered at the black dragon, trying to discern what was wrong with him. She took a half-step forward, and Tats seized her upper arm and drew her back. ‘He’s mad with pain.’ Tats said apologetically, ‘He isn’t one of ours, Thym. He might do anything.’
The battered black dragon threw back his head and roared again. The insides of his mouth and throat were bright green with red streaks. When he dropped his head, a red froth dripped from his mouth to sizzle on the paving stones. He stared around at all the gathered folk, his eyes swirling madly. Thymara could not tell if the sounds he was making indicated pain or whether he was threatening anyone who came near. He had not uttered a word that she understood. His half-folded wings were ragged and rent. Some of the tears looked old, but there were recent ones as well. He looked both healthy and yet battered. He lifted his head and roared again. Then he curled his head in and down and swung it from side to side.
‘Can’t we help him?’ Thymara spoke the words but didn’t step forward again. When the dragons sounded the alarm, their keepers had come running from all directions. Thymara had thought Mercor and the other drakes would drive the black intruder away, but they had let him land.
‘IceFyre.’ Sintara had confirmed for her when she had reached toward her queen. ‘Stay clear of him. I think he’s mad.’
All the keepers had gathered to stare at the oldest dragon in the world but they had halted at a sensible distance. Mercor, Sestican and Sintara were on the ground. Even they had not approached within striking distance of the black. The others circled overhead in a whirlwind of colours and wings. The keepers exchanged looks but no one approached him.
And into the midst of the chaos came Heeby and Rapskal, dropping through the circling dragons like a dumpling falling into soup. The red dragon landed ungracefully and her rider slid from her shoulder.
Tats gave a distressed groan.
‘What is he thinking?’ Thymara demanded of no one. Since their night in the well, she’d kept Rapskal at arm’s length. There had been moments, during a meal or a shared task, when he’d seemed to be his old self, and her heart had yearned for them to be friends as they’d once been. But then there were the moments when he seemed completely foreign to her, calling for death by dragon for the prisoners. Or, as now, dropping down into their midst in extravagant and fanciful dress. Rapskal had put a heavy shaft to one of the spear-heads he’d found in the old armoury and he brandished it aloft as he walked in a slow circle around the black dragon. The scale armour he wore over his Elderling tunic and trousers shifted as he walked, and it seemed to Thymara that he deliberately rocked his hips to encourage the movement. It was effective. The sunlight caught and bounced off it, making him gleam black and gold. Heeby wore a matching harness. A water-skin hung from it, and something that was perhaps a horn. Thymara could not identify the rest of the items that dangled from it. The red dragon jingled as she pranced to follow Rapskal, well pleased with herself.
He circled the growling and groaning dragon once before stopping directly in front of it.
‘Now what?’ Tats growled.
‘Rapskal, no!’ Thymara cried, but he did not react to that name and she would not call him Tellator.
Rapskal walked fearlessly up to the roaring black dragon, dropped to one knee before him and bowed his head. At the sight of him, the dragon’s groans suddenly stilled. Rapskal lifted his head and his voice rang out clearly. ‘Kelsingra welcomes you, Glorious One! How may we serve you?’ He swept a wide arm to indicate the outer circle of keepers and ship’s crew. ‘I am Rapskal, Elderling to Heeby, the wondrous scarlet queen. I and all my fellow Elderlings would be honoured to guide you to the Silver well and watch you drink. The baths await you, and attendants who would swoon with joy to groom every one of your glorious scales! As the dragons of Kelsingra have permitted you to come here, the Elderlings of Kelsingra stand ready to serve you. Tell us your need, O eldest of dragons, and we will rush to meet it.’
Silence flowed in to follow his words. The black dragon regarded him intently. Rapskal continued his obeisance, his face lifted fearlessly. At last the creature spoke. ‘IceFyre am I called by humans. At least one here recalls the old courtesies of your kind!’ His gaze swept over them all, dragons and humans. ‘By treachery, I am poisoned. Humans have done this to me, luring me with fat cattle filled with death. If you have Silver, then lead me there. But I did not come here seeking Elderling praises or even Silver, though I welcome both. I came to see if any dragons still live who are worthy of that name, if any would rise to avenge me against the ones who seek to kill dragons for their flesh.’
Rapskal stood and lifted his spear high. ‘If no other rises to serve in that glorious cause, I will go. Fearless Heeby and I will take to the skies and slay any who have dared to lift a hand against dragons.’
Mercor spoke. ‘I will lead you to the Silver and you may drink your fill. Then we dragons will speak of vengeance, when you are rested and all are gathered.’ The golden drake’s gaze swept over the gathered Elderlings and came to rest on Rapskal. ‘Do not speak for dragons, Rapskal. Not even Heeby.’ His tone was severe. ‘Dragons alone can judge the gravity of the offence, and dragons alone will determine if it is an uprising against dragonkind, or foolish herdsmen seeking to claim grazing beasts as theirs alone.’
Instead of calming the black dragon, Mercor’s words seemed to focus his anger. He lifted his head high, eyes whirling as he stared at the golden dragon. ‘Humans knew where I hunted, and deliberately put out poisoned cattle. When I ate, I slept, and awoke sickened and weak. Then they came out with nets to snare me, and spears to let my blood flow and basins to catch it. They did not seek to kill me because I had eaten cattle. They put out cattle in the hopes that a dragon might become prey for them! But I was not as weakened as they thought. Many I killed! And many more will I kill!’
‘Only if you live,’ Mercor pointed out calmly. ‘First, we must give you strength against the poison. This way to the Silver.’
Mercor wheeled and walked away. IceFyre let his gaze wander balefully over the gathered humans, Elderlings and dragons. Then he turned to follow Mercor. The other dragons fell in behind them, and the keepers parted to let the procession through. Heeby looked at Rapskal and then trailed after the others. Rapskal remained standing where he was. He looked mildly stunned.
The vortex of circling dragons shifted, and Thymara suspected they would land near the Silver reservoir and hold their council there. The keepers were left standing, looking at one another uneasily. Into the silence and stillness, Tintaglia descended. The blue queen had recovered most of her strength, but still lacked flesh. As she landed, Malta hurried to meet her. Like her dragon, the Elderling Queen was still recovering, but Thymara had to smile at her impeccable grooming. She wore not a tunic and trousers as most of the keepers did but a flowing gown with draped sleeves. Her face was still thin, but her hair had been dressed in meticulous curls heaped high on her head and framing her scarlet crest. Her face shone with welcome for the dragon who had saved her child.
Tintaglia accepted the welcome as her due. She looked after IceFyre’s vanishing procession. ‘He made no cry for vengeance when I was the one who was dying,’ she observed sourly to her Elderling. ‘Yet let them succeed in giving him a bellyache, and he will melt all their cities with venom.’ She snorted in disgust, and added, ‘Vain as he is, he is right. And so I will tell the rest of them. The time has come. The city of Chalced must be destroyed.’ She looked at her Elderling and added, ‘You should stay here. Dragons alone will decide what we will do next.’ Malta halted, startled, and Tintaglia strode away from her.
‘We have to take action!’ Rapskal was undeterred in his effort to rally them. ‘We must begin to ready ourselves to ride to war now!’
Thymara sighed, and Tats took her hand. Harrikin lifted his voice. ‘We know nothing of war. Is this our vengeance to take?’
Rapskal shook his head as he turned to confront him. ‘It’s as I told you! It’s not revenge. It’s self-preservation. They’ve given us no choice!’
‘I’m afraid he’s right.’ Thymara was shocked to hear calm, sensible Alise taking that stand. The Bingtown woman’s face was grave rather than fired with enthusiasm for war as she added, ‘You heard what he said. This wasn’t about a dragon preying on herds and cattle owners becoming angry. This is humans hunting dragons for meat, scales and blood. We have all heard Malta’s tale. We have seen Tintaglia’s suffering. The Chalcedeans we hold have admitted it is why they came, and now that they have failed, others will be sent. It cannot be ignored any longer.’ She was not speaking in a loud voice, but her words were clear and the keepers had begun to gather in a circle around her. Thymara thought that Leftrin looked as surprised as she herself felt, but he did not interrupt or contradict Alise. ‘I cannot speak for the dragons and what they will do, but at the least, humans should speak out against what the Chalcedeans are doing.’
‘They will not respond to people speaking. When has Chalced ever listened to us asking them to respect our boundaries and to stop preying on our ships?’ Hennesey stood with his arms crossed on his chest.
‘So, it’s war! Who goes with me?’ Rapskal asked. He looked around at them all. Did anyone breathe? Thymara knew she did not.
He pulled something from his pouch, shook it out and dragged it on over his head. A head covering. A helmet that shaped to his head, making him appear far less human as it capped his skull with overlapping scales. He gave his head a shake and a crest like a parrot’s stood up on the helm. Thymara was torn between a desire to laugh or to gasp in horror as he became even more foreign to her. ‘All of you who desire to be warriors must follow me to the armoury, to see what weapons we can repair and what armour will fit you all. Some of your dragons will accept harness and be willing to bear you.’
‘And others won’t,’ Tats predicted sourly. He stepped forward. ‘Rapskal, we are not warriors. I am good at hunting, and if a man lifts a hand to me, then I will stand up to him. But you are speaking of attacking a city, days and days away from here. A city full of people who have never even thought of coming here to prey on dragons. It’s a completely insane idea. And the dragons have not yet said that they wish to go to battle. They told us, clearly, that it was their decision.’
Rapskal cocked his head. He appeared to listen for a time, then took a breath and looked around with confidence. ‘IceFyre has finished drinking. He believes he will soon be fully recovered. And the others have decided to take Tintaglia’s advice. Strike at their main city, where their duke rules. Remind them that dragons are not river pigs to be slaughtered as they wish, but the Lords of the Three Realms, Earth, Sea and Sky.’ He looked at Tats and said in a voice that was more Rapskal’s than Tellator’s, ‘Tats, will you ride beside me?’
Tats hesitated, looked at Thymara and clasped her hand tightly for a moment before he let go of it. ‘I can’t let you go alone, my friend. I’ll go with you.’
The dragon doors to the baths swung open and Kalo sauntered out. He looked fresh from the baths, but a strand of gut still dangled from the side of his mouth. Thymara reflected that for all their superior claims, not one of the dragons could groom well without a keeper’s aid.
‘Davvie!’ the immense blue-black dragon bellowed. ‘Davvie, fetch harness for me. We fly tomorrow at dawn.’
Davvie stepped forward, eluding Carson’s reaching hand. His eyes were wide but he did not seem altogether unwilling as he objected, ‘Kalo, we cannot be ready that fast. There are weapons to repair, and so much to learn.’
The dragon snorted disdainfully. ‘Begin now and you will be ready when I summon you. Those who come with us will learn on the way. IceFyre has drunk from the Silver. He is recovering swiftly. Once he has hunted and eaten, we will take vengeance to the Duke of Chalced. I fly with him. Ready yourself or do not, as you please. This is dragons’ business. We fly at dawn.’
Davvie stared at him. ‘I thought you were going hunting after you bathed …’ he objected weakly.
‘I am fed well enough for now. To the armoury and quickly. I wish to be first to make a choice of the colours there.’ With a fine disregard for his keeper, Kalo strode away.
Sintara watched the others as IceFyre drank from the Silver well. Tintaglia eyed the black dragon speculatively, as if measuring him against the other males. He was definitely larger than the others but she knew that was not the best criterion in selecting a mate. She lifted her eyes and looked back toward the baths, watching for Kalo. Sintara copied the older female and compared him to Sestican and then looked at Mercor. High summer was the time for mating, but it was never too soon to assess one’s choices.
IceFyre lifted his head at last. His muzzle dripped Silver in languid drops. He stepped away from the well, stretched and then sprawled out on the paving stones. He curled his head and his tail toward the centre of his body, and was abruptly asleep. Mercor advanced a step toward him and sniffed the air around him. ‘He was sickened but he will recover, and quickly,’ the golden dragon announced.
He looked around at the others. Sintara tried to remember the last time they had all gathered in a group. Even when they had been on the other side of the river, they had seldom convened. Cassarick, she thought. Back in the days before we were true dragons. When we were caught at the edge of the river, living in mud, feeding on carrion. Then Mercor had rallied them and together they had concocted the plan that would persuade the humans to help them find Kelsingra. They had thought they were lying when they hinted at a storehouse of Elderling wealth in Kelsingra. Little had they realized that, to humans, the whole city was a vast treasure.
She thought of the days and distance they had travelled, the changes they had undergone. They had made their keepers into Elderlings, learned to feed themselves, to fly and to hunt. They had become dragons. And tomorrow?
‘We go to battle against humans,’ Mercor said gravely. ‘Truly, there is no choice.’ He looked at Tintaglia. ‘You have done this before?’
She gazed at him oddly. ‘I have, and in my own life. But dragons have all done this before and more than once. You have no memories of this?’
Sintara kept silent. She possessed no such memories. Mercor was thoughtful for a time, his eyes whirling as if he spun his way back through years and lives. ‘A few,’ he conceded. ‘But our memories are incomplete. We were too short a time in our cases, and you were but one dragon spread among many serpents when you helped us to spin them. You did what you could, but we are not dragons as you and IceFyre are. And our Elderlings are not as you recall them. They are newly made, and still discovering the memories of those who went before them. They will not know how to fight, or how to aid us in fighting.’ He looked at her gravely and asked, ‘How dangerous is it to make war on humans? To ourselves and to our keepers?’
The large blue queen looked astonished that he would ask such a question. ‘We cannot worry about that!’ she snapped. ‘Humans have risen against us. You saw my wounds! I nearly died of them. IceFyre was poisoned, but even before that, humans had attacked him, with nets and spears. They do not fear us as they should, and while they do not fear, they do not respect us. I have travelled far and had much to do with humans. Some cannot understand us at all when we try to speak to them; they think us dumb beasts, no different from a lion or a wolf. Or a cow, awaiting slaughter. Others are so overwhelmed at the sight of us that they are idiotic in their worship. You have been fortunate in the ones they chose to send with you when you left Cassarick. The changes they had already undergone seem to have readied them to be fit companions to you.
‘But of the humans you will encounter where we must go? They are nothing like the humans you have known. They will try to kill you. They will not greet you or speak to you first. They will feel no wonder, but only the awe that is based on terror. Fear will motivate them and killing you is all they will think of. And you can be killed by them. Do not think of them as puny or stupid. They are sly and treacherous, and they will kill you if they can.’ Her gaze raked over the assembled dragons as if they opposed her. Her own words were enflaming her anger.
‘You can stay here and hide from them. But the longer you wait before you make them recall their proper place in the world, the more resistance they will give you when you find you must defend yourselves. They will discover the places that we must use, the nesting beach, and the clay banks that we must use to spin our cases to change from serpent to dragon. They will find them and they will fortify them against us. Do you want to wait until you have to fight for them? Wait until they come in and devastate our nests and the unhatched young?’ Her colours had brightened and Sintara could see her poison glands working.
Mercor spoke his question calmly. ‘Our keepers. Our Elderlings. If we take them into battle with us, the other humans will try to kill them, also?’
Tintaglia looked amazed at the stupidity of Mercor’s question. ‘Of course they will! And they will most likely shoot first at them. Your Elderlings will be more vulnerable to their weapons, too, as well as to our own venom. Our attack must be coordinated. One dragon attacking a city can do as it pleases. But when we fly to war together, then we must consider the wind, and what targets we wish to destroy, and how to keep venom from drifting onto another dragon or his Elderling. So. If you bear your keepers into battle, you must have a care for them, if you wish them to survive.’ She paused as if thinking. ‘But they are useful to have in a battle. If you are caught on the ground, they will fight alongside you. When your eyes are fixed on one enemy, they can spy another one behind you and give warning. They can only slay one at a time, but they are useful.’ She paused and then added, ‘Sometimes it is kinder to take them with you than to leave them alone. If you do not return, they will mourn and then die anyway.’ She walked forward to the Silver well. As she bent her head to drink, she added, ‘It is a decision all dragons must make.’
‘They fly at dawn,’ Leftrin told her. He and Alise were leaning on Tarman’s rail, drinking tea and looking across the ever-restless river. ‘And I think we should leave tomorrow, too.’
She looked at him in astonishment. ‘Tomorrow?’
He nodded. ‘My dear, Reyn has sent his last bird, but news such as this cannot depend on those little wings. Nor do I think it was well trained, for when he set it free, it seemed to fly off randomly. No. When the dragons take flight, Tarman must leave as well. The dragons all say it is dragon business, but Chalced may very well view it as a strike by Bingtown and the Rain Wilds. We need to get to Cassarick and warn them, so they can send on word from there. The Traders must be given the chance to prepare for whatever may come.’
The sun was setting on a day that had shaken Alise’s world to its foundations. Yesterday, her life had had a routine. She had Leftrin in her arms again at night, a fascinating city to study, and a lifetime of useful tasks before her. Then IceFyre had arrived, a dragon such as dragons had once been. His accusations of human treachery and his call for vengeance had fallen on fertile soil. She had been willing to admit that something must be done, but was horrified at how quickly the dragons had decided to destroy Chalced. For that was their avowed ambition. Alise and Leftrin both suspected that Tintaglia had already been preaching the necessity of war to the other dragons, just as Rapskal had been trying to stir the keepers. And the keepers! How willingly the youngsters had leapt at the chance to ride off to war. They had raced one another to the armoury, selecting armour and battle colours, working earnestly to repair ancient weapons. Sylve had come to her, begging her to come and help them make sense of the dragon harness and armour. And so she had gone, taking her sketchbook of all the ancient murals, and using her drawings as examples of how dragons were once garbed for battle. She had been torn between fascination at making her sketches come to life, and dismay that she would help the young Elderlings ride off to risk their own lives.
And to kill.
It made no sense to her. When had the keepers become capable of killing? Did they not understand what they were going into? Her own memories of the Chalcedeans invading Bingtown flooded back into her mind. She smelled again the stink of the burned-out warehouses in the days that had followed the raids and looting. Her mother’s sister and her entire family had perished in the first attack, slain in their nightrobes, even the youngest girl, a child of three. Alise had gone with her mother, to find the bodies and bring them to their house on a cart and wash them for burial …
‘Alise? Do you agree we must leave tomorrow?’ Leftrin took her hand and tugged at it gently to turn her gaze to meet his. She had been silent and thoughtful for too long. He was worried that she was wandering in her stone memories again. She would not tell him she had been somewhere far darker.
‘The dragons are right. The old saying is true. “Sooner or later, there is always war with Chalced.” It is all they know there. And better that we take war to them than that they bring it to us again. Leaving tomorrow isn’t a problem, my dear. I have little enough to pack. I’ve spent so much time on Tarman lately that most of my things are already in your cabin.’
‘Our cabin,’ he said, and grinned. ‘Our home now. I wish I could offer you a more pleasant voyage than what is before us. The crew will rig shelters on the deck, and more than half of the slaves have decided to build new lives here. The other slaves want to be taken back to Trehaug. But even leaving some behind, the galley will always be crowded. I’m glad the weather has turned milder. Half our passengers are going to have to sleep out on the decks.’
‘I’m sure I will be fine. As long as I can retreat to the cabin and have a bit of time alone with you, I can manage. And I’m looking forward to journeying with Tarman again. He will show these “impervious-ship” sailors how a true liveship runs the river.’ She ran her hand along Tarman’s railing in a caress, as if she stroked a dragon. Leftrin shook his head in wonder as he felt his ship give a shiver of pleasure. Her hand stilled as she added in a lower voice, ‘But I’m not looking forward to being around Hest. I know I must see him, and so must you. Pledge to me now that you will not let him provoke you to violence.’
‘Me? With my mild temper?’
She seized his shirt-sleeve and shook it lightly. ‘I’m not teasing you, Leftrin. The man’s arrogance knows no bounds. No matter what anyone says or does to him, he only sees the world as it relates to him and what he wants. You haven’t truly seen how he is. Any situation, he always finds a way to turn to his advantage. He will find some sort of profit from this. Some advantage for himself. Nothing else has ever mattered to him.’
‘Well …’ Leftrin hesitated and Alise felt dread rising in her soul. He met her gaze, wet his lips and added, ‘Transporting Hest may be a problem that we don’t actually have.’
‘The keepers haven’t offered him asylum here, have they? Who did he talk to? They should be warned! That man can make any lie believable! Does Sedric know Hest will be staying here?’ She felt sick with dread.
‘No. Nothing like that, my dear. Actually, I’ve been wondering how to tell you this. Harrikin has been in charge of those keeping watch on the captives. He always had at least two guards on the doors at all times. He allowed a few of the captives to go out for walks, well chaperoned, but the Chalcedean hunters and Trader Candral, he kept on a tight leash.’
She was nodding, her brow furrowed. ‘And Hest?’
Leftrin licked his lips, clearly uncomfortable with the news he had to share. ‘Hest is missing.’ He blurted the announcement, and added hastily, ‘When they took a count tonight, there was no sign of him. Davvie was the last guard to see him. He let him go up the tower and look out of the windows. Sedric and Carson both vouch that they last saw him there, on the second landing. They admit there was a quarrel and it got physical, but they left him there and walked out right in the middle of IceFyre coming down. The guards didn’t leave their posts, but they were distracted. Hest could have come down the steps, gone into the baths, hidden, and then escaped when everyone was caught up in Rapskal’s speech-making. However it happened, Hest is gone.’
Alise felt sick. Hest. Hest loose in her city, looking for treasure. Hest where she might round a corner on one of her rambles and suddenly confront him. She knew an instant of chilling dread. Then she reconsidered and smiled at Leftrin. ‘He’ll have gone treasure-hunting, to try to fill his pockets with whatever he can carry. But soon enough, he’ll discover that we have the only food supplies in the city. And if he knows somehow that this boat is leaving tomorrow, he’ll want to be on it. I doubt he wants to stay in Kelsingra any longer than he has to.’ She took a breath and squared her shoulders. ‘Eventually, I’ll sit down with him and get what I need from him. But until then, I’m not going to worry about him.’
‘Then neither shall I,’ he promised, and drew her closer. Then he looked at the sun and sighed. ‘Go gather your things. I have to stay here. The crew is loading supplies tonight. They’ll bring our passengers down in the morning.’
The moment she opened the door to her chamber, she was aware of him. Rapskal was sitting on the edge of her bed, waiting for her. She halted where she was, the light from the long hall spilling into the room. Wariness rose in her, and she felt a surge of hatred for the circumstances that made her so wary of him.
As she moved into the room, the light strengthened. ‘Shouldn’t you be sleeping?’ she asked him, her voice tight.
‘I wanted to see you before I left tomorrow. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Or if I’ll come back. I thought we might have a last night together. Not a commitment from you; just a last night.’
Thymara stared at him. He looked very fine. His long hair had been brushed until it gleamed and was fastened back from his face. It bared his features and made him look older than she knew he was. But his face had changed from the boyish Rapskal who had embarked on the expedition with her. His jaw was stronger, the planes of his face flatter. Heeby had scaled him red to match her, but his scales were as fine and supple as those on a tiny fish. The tunic he wore was gold and brown and the breadth of his shoulders filled it. He was muscled differently from the other keepers, his body deliberately built rather than showing the strengths of his work. His eyes gleamed blue at her.
She realized she was staring at him. A smile very slowly came to his face. He lifted a hand, crooked a finger at her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I want you out of my room, Tellator.’
‘Thymara, please. I know I was harsh that night. It was necessary. Think of what would have happened if I hadn’t insisted you go down the well. It was much more than you finding the Silver for us. You found yourself. You discovered anew who you were meant to be, how strong you were …’
‘Stop it.’ She walked swiftly to a bag on the vanity table, opened it and drew out the moon-faced pendant. It glowed at her touch. ‘You should take this with you.’
‘It’s not mine, it was never mine, and I don’t want it. I’m not Amarinda and I don’t want to be Amarinda.’
He hadn’t moved. ‘You don’t have to be Amarinda for me. In this life, I loved Thymara long before I knew that I had loved Amarinda.’
She crossed the room, and when he made no move to take the pendant, she dropped it in his lap. He caught her wrist. She didn’t struggle against his grip, but only said, ‘If you don’t let go now, I’m going to hit you as hard as I can in the face.’
He gave a snort of amusement. ‘You might try, but it would never land on me.’ He let go of her wrist and she stepped away.
‘You’re not Rapskal,’ she said unevenly, hating that her voice caught in her throat. ‘Rapskal wouldn’t act like this. He wouldn’t talk to me this way. Rapskal was strange and silly, but he was also honest and honourable. And yes, I loved him. I don’t love you.’
His eyes followed her as she moved away from him. ‘I’m Rapskal. I’ve always been Rapskal.’
‘You were Rapskal. You’re someone else now. Rapskal would never talk to me this way, would never resort to trickery or pry at me with emotions—’
‘Everyone changes,’ he cut off her words.
She looked at him. Tears threatened but she would not weep in front of Tellator. Rapskal would have known that she wept for loss. Tellator would see it as feminine weakness. With a sickening lurch of her heart, she realized that there was enough of Amarinda in her to know exactly how he would react to her tears. ‘Not everyone changes as you have. Rapskal let you in and you became him. But if he had never touched the stone, he would never have become you. He would have grown and changed but—’
‘You’re being ridiculous!’ He laughed. ‘Are you saying I should have grown and changed only exactly as you wanted me to? Am I a plant, to be snipped and pruned and kept in a pot? Is that what you want? Someone you can completely control, someone to whom you dictate exactly who and what he is? How is that fair? What sort of a love did you have for me, that demands that I must always remain the same? If you had never groomed a dragon, you would not be the woman you are now. Does that mean your changes are wrong? Can you go back and be the Thymara you were the day we left Cassarick?’
‘No,’ she admitted. She took a ragged breath. His words were like a shower of stones. He spoke so quickly, built his logic so fast that by the time she’d seen the fault of his reasoning in one thought, he was ten thoughts away from it. His voice was low and reasonable but she felt battered by his words. She spoke quickly. ‘I’d give anything to speak to the Rapskal who journeyed here with me. He is the one I wish I could embrace one last time. Because I now know that I will never see him again, regardless of whether you come back or not.’
He opened his arms. ‘I’m here, Thymara. I’m here right now, and always have been. You’re the one who has refused to grow and change. You want to stay the girl who scampered through the treetops and accepted her father’s rules. Your parents made all your decisions for you, and now that you’re on your own, you still can’t step away and decide things for yourself. You want nothing to change, Thymara. But things that don’t change die. And even after death, change happens. You are asking the impossible. And if you keep requiring the impossible of your friends, they are going to grow and change and leave you behind. There you are right now, always standing apart and alone. Is that what you want? To be alone the rest of your life? Is that how you are choosing to grow? You used to be so indignant at how Jerd regarded you, but truly, what did you expect? She was growing into this new life. And you were not.’
The hateful, painful tears spilled. She knew that he twisted the facts, that what he said was not true, but the words wounded her all the same. She gave up trying to talk to him. Gave up trying to defend herself from Tellator. ‘You drowned him,’ she said in a low savage voice. ‘You pulled him down and drowned him.’
He shook his head at her and his eyes went hard. ‘You want me to be silly and boyish, don’t you? To chatter like a brainless squirrel, to hold your hand and run beside you and never think of you as a woman or of myself as a man. Why would I want that? The other keepers are beginning to respect me and my dragon. Listen to what you are saying! To win your love, I must remain the laughable idiot Rapskal, keeper of foolish, tubby Heeby. Is that what you are saying?’
His words trampled her. ‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ she protested. ‘You’re twisting everything.’
‘No. I’m just making you look at things as they are. Do you want to love a lack-wit boy, a bumbler, the butt of the jokes? Or do you want to love a man, a competent fellow who can protect you and provide for you?’
She shook her head, helpless before the onslaught of his words. ‘Stop talking about Rapskal like that,’ and it was as if she pleaded with a stranger to stop mocking her friend. She just wanted it all to stop. She wanted him to go away, but also wanted to never have the memory of this horrid, useless quarrel. The realization came to her, as clear as water. ‘You’re not trying to talk to me any more. You’re not trying to talk me into being Amarinda; you’re not even trying to get me to spread my legs for you tonight. You’re just trying to hurt me now. To say anything that will hurt me because I won’t let you rule me. The Rapskal I loved would never do this to me. Or to anyone.’
His face changed. It was only for a moment. Then the lines of his jaws and eyes firmed again, and she had to wonder if it was a trick, a deception, that for a moment she had glimpsed her old friend. The man stood abruptly. The moon-pendant fell unheeded to the floor.
‘I came here to say farewell,’ he said harshly. ‘If all I wanted was a woman to spread her legs, well, Jerd would doubtless oblige. I wanted you to become all you should be, Thymara. To grow into being the sort of woman that is suited to a man like me. And you’ve changed our farewell into a stupid, childish argument about who I am. So. Have it your way. I’m leaving. I’m leaving this room, and you, and tomorrow I’m leaving the city. And if I never return, well, I’m sure you won’t regret that you turned your last chance to bid me goodbye into another one of your silly plays. I can’t waste any more time on you. Tomorrow I fly, to lead the dragons in their vengeance against Chalced. To put an end to people hunting dragons. That doesn’t seem to be something you much care about.’
The cold river of his words tumbled and bruised her on the rocks, drowning her in his acid criticism. She pointed wordlessly at the door. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she fought the sobs that tried to rise and choke her. He stalked to the door and she followed, two paces behind, out of reach. I fear him, she thought, and knew by that admission that the love she had felt for wild, silly, gentle, thoughtful Rapskal was only a memory.
He turned in the hallway, his eyes hard and glittering as jewels. ‘One more thing,’ he said coldly.
She shut the door in his face. She crossed the room and sat down on the small chair in front of the mirrored vanity. She looked at herself, at the winged Elderling Thymara.
And then she let her tears take her.
‘Dawn,’ Thymara scoffed. ‘I think the dragons meant, “After we wake up and when we feel like it.”’
‘They need the sun.’ Tats excused their late arrival. ‘And it’s important for them to have the Silver, as much as they can drink. They will fly faster and longer.’
‘And their venom will be all the more potent,’ Thymara added. ‘Sintara told me so. She said that Tintaglia had counselled them all to drink deeply before they departed.’
The small group fell silent. The force was finally massing in the middle of the Square of the Dragons as the sun approached noon. All of the dragons were going. Some, like Heeby and Kalo and Sestican, had chosen elaborate harnesses. Others had submitted grudgingly to a simple strap that secured a perch for a rider. A few, like Sintara, had refused all harness and even the idea of carrying a rider into battle. Sintara had dismissed Thymara’s offer to go with her with a brusque ‘You’d be in my way.’ Fente had listened to Tats’s ardent pleas to accompany her with great pleasure, but in the end she, too, had dismissed him. He now watched the others with undisguised envy. Davvie already perched high on Kalo, staring around him as if he had never seen Kelsingra or his fellow keepers before. A half-smile came and went on his face. Thymara watched him and wondered why all of the boys were so eager to go to war.
Reyn was going. Tintaglia was resplendent in a jewelled harness, the metallic plates fastened together with wires. She had chosen gold and a pale sky blue that set off her own indigo scaling. Next to her, Reyn wore a helm of pale blue and an Elderling tunic of the same colour. There had been no armour that fitted him. He had dismissed it with, ‘It would have been too hot and heavy anyway. And at least this time, when I travel with Tintaglia, she will not squeeze me in half with her claws as she nearly did the last time I flew with her.’
His attempt to make light of his departure with the dragon failed with his wife. Malta was not pleased to let him go and not only because she feared for him. No, she had wanted to be the one to ride the queen into battle. Her anger at what had been done to her dragon had only grown as the full tale became known. And she had old reasons of her own to wish revenge upon Chalced, as well as her more recent injuries at their hands. ‘The vengeance should be mine! I have never forgotten my days aboard a Chalcedean ship, and at their mercy. Nor will I ever forgive that they tried to kill my child!’ Only her baby’s needs had kept her in the city and on the ground.
Jerd had not wanted to go, but Veras had insisted. Thymara pitied her. Her face was pale and strange with all her hair tucked away under a helm. She gripped one of their old bows and her quiver was full of hunting arrows. She sat on the ground near her queen and looked as if she might be sick. Sylve stood beside her, looking more insubstantial than ever in the sleek-fitting armour. Harrikin stood staring at her, his heart in his eyes. His dragon had refused him. He had begged Veras to take him instead of Jerd but the queen had refused, and Ranculos had been livid with jealousy at the idea. ‘You will stay here,’ he had told his keeper, and Harrikin was left with no other choice. Nortel was going and looked almost as pleased as Rapskal about it.
On the steps of the baths, seven former slaves sat watching the chaos and pageantry as if it were a puppet show. Long servitude had left harsh marks on all of them, minds as well as bodies. Thymara wondered if they fully grasped that the Tarman had truly departed, leaving them here to begin new lives. Only a few had adopted the Elderling garb they had been offered. The others had washed and mended their tattered clothes and seemed to be grateful that they were allowed time to do that. They still kept to themselves and spoke mostly Chalcedean to one another.
Rapskal was everywhere, striding about, directing keepers to tighten or loosen a harness strap, asking each keeper if they had filled a water bag and packed rations. He had a practised air to his motions and questions that nearly broke Thymara’s heart. She knew it was Tellator who was seeing to his soldiers. She watched him sternly assist Jerd to mount and stand by her as she settled into place on Veras. The other keepers imitated her.
Spit had insisted that he would carry no one, not even Carson. They had quarrelled about it, and when the hunter had attempted to put a harness on the silver dragon, Spit had hissed at him. Mercor had intervened. ‘This is something a dragon decides for himself,’ he had warned Carson gravely. The hunter stood beside Relpda and looked up at Sedric perched on her back. Tightly packed gear bags hung from the rings on her bell-studded harness. Thymara thought to herself that Carson had packed everything he could possibly imagine Sedric needing. The two men regarded one another gravely. Carson reached out to touch Sedric’s boot, nodded tightly and then turned away. She saw Sedric swallow and lift his face to stare into the distance. Thymara shook her head sadly for them.
‘Kase and Boxter?’ she asked Tats.
‘Going. Alum isn’t. You know how Arbuc loves to show off when he flies. He didn’t want to worry about spilling Alum off if he did a back-loop.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘It’s going to be very strange to be such a small group here in the city. Especially with Tarman and most of the captives gone.’
She touched his hand. ‘At least we’ll be together,’ she reminded him.
He didn’t look at her. His eyes were following Fente. She had chosen a bright-yellow harness and once he had adjusted it for her, his dragon had dismissed him. ‘I wish we were both going with them.’
Malta drifted over to stand with them. In silence, they watched Rapskal climb up the straps that dangled from Heeby’s harness and take his place in a high-backed saddle almost between her wings. Once settled, he lifted his horn to his lips and blew out a precise ascension of notes. ‘Tellator.’ She growled the name to herself and looked away from the Elderling who had stolen the boy she had known. Heeby gathered herself under him and instead of her familiar trundling take-off, leapt into the air, bearing him up with her.
In the next moment, Thymara and Tats were blasted with wind as the rest of the dragons launched into flight. The beating of their wings battered her ears and blew her hair across her face. The rank smell of dragon musk assailed her and then, just as abruptly, they were standing in the silent square, looking up as the dragons grew smaller above them. She blinked dust from her eyes.
Malta spoke into the silence. ‘Tintaglia’s gone, and Reyn with her.’ The baby she held hiccupped and she patted him absently. ‘I never imagined how hard it would be to watch them both leave us.’ She folded the child closer to her.
Thymara heard her unvoiced thought. How many of them would return and when?
‘Oh, Fente, be careful,’ Tats murmured, his eyes fixed on his diminishing green dragon. He turned to Malta. ‘I don’t even know how far Chalced is from here, or how long it will take them to get there.’
Malta shook her head. ‘No one knows how long it takes a dragon to fly anywhere. They have clear weather, at least for starting the journey. The dragons will have to take time to hunt each day, and they will sleep at night when it’s dark. But they will travel straight this time rather than following the river. So, I have no idea at all.’ She gave a sigh. ‘Tarman left this morning with a full load of passengers, Tillamon amongst them.’
‘Why didn’t you go?’ Tats asked her curiously.
She looked startled. ‘This is my home now,’ she said. ‘Kelsingra is the city of Elderlings. I may go back to visit Trehaug or Bingtown, some day. Or perhaps my family will come here. But Ephron will grow up here, amongst his own kind. He will never go veiled. Kelsingra is where we belong. This is our home now.’
‘Mine, too,’ Tats admitted, and Thymara nodded.
Spring sunlight glittered on the dragons in the distance. Alum drifted over to join them. It was a small, disconsolate group that stood in the plaza and watched the dragons wing away into the distance. Carson cleared his throat. ‘Well. There’s work to do. From what Thymara has told us, there’s a danger from that well if we can’t find a way to cap it in times of high Silver. And the dock isn’t going to build itself. Nor those boats get cleaned up.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘No sense standing around wasting daylight. The sooner we start, the sooner we’re finished. And work keeps the mind busy.’
‘There’s always work where Carson is involved,’ Tats muttered, and Thymara smiled her agreement.
Day the 21st of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From the Masters of the Bird Keepers’ Guild, Trehaug
To the Masters of the Bird Keepers’ Guild, Bingtown
To our fellows, greetings.
As was suggested by Master Kerig Sweetwater, we have proceeded with great circumspection and attention to detail in the matter of Kim, formerly Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick, and the grave allegations that have been made against him.
Close scrutiny of the birds coming and going from his coops, an accounting of revenues collected, and the judicious interception and inspection of messages passing through his hands have revealed too many irregularities to be ignored. At best, they indicate a complete disregard for Guild standards, and at worst, treachery to the Guild and treason to the Independent Alliance of Traders. The full extent of his wrongdoing has not yet been established.
For now, he has been stripped of all authority, his birds confiscated, his apprentices reassigned for retraining in correct procedures and his journeymen rebuked for not reporting irregularities that they must have witnessed. Some may eventually be dismissed from the Guild or required to spend additional years as journeymen.
There are indications that the corruption was not confined to Cassarick. As the connections become clear, other bird keepers may face charges of broken contracts or dismissal from the Guild. A painful time is before us, but at least we have flown through the worst of this storm and may soon emerge into better weather.