Thymara felt strangely shy as she took them out of the pouch where she had stored them. ‘They don’t really fit me. My claws stick out too far.’ By daylight, the gauntlets were green. No trace of Silver clung to them. ‘They’re very supple, and I think perhaps they were made especially for her. Amarinda.’
‘Where did they get the dragon hide?’ Harrikin wondered aloud.
Thymara shook her head wordlessly. Tats hazarded a guess. ‘It would have been a special gift from a dying dragon, maybe. Or maybe from a dragon who had the duty of devouring a dead dragon.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe the answer will be found in one of the memory-stones one day.’ A darker thought came to Thymara. ‘Or it might have been taken from a fallen enemy. A dragon who came and tried to raid the well and was defeated.’
‘Did you look for it in Amarinda’s pillars?’ Carson asked her.
She found she was blushing. ‘No. I didn’t find anything about working Silver in her pillars.’
Those who had stayed behind were gathered around the Silver well, former slaves as well as keepers. The slaves still kept their own company, but were beginning to take an interest in the keepers’ daily tasks. Carson had been trying to convey to them that if they wanted to share the keepers’ food, then they had to share the work as well. Thymara was not completely certain that they understood that. But all of them had begun to look less haggard and cowed. When asked to help, they did, but so far none of them had volunteered. They had debated keeping the Silver and the gauntlets secret from them, but in the end they had decided to not worry about it. To whom could they tell the secrets of Kelsingra? ‘If we knew what the secrets really were,’ Carson had added dourly.
In the absence of the dragons, Carson had declared that they had to devise an effective cap for the Silver reservoir. He and Harrikin had hunted the hills for downed trees and had the good fortune to find the trunk of a substantial oak. All had laboured to cut and shape the slabs of timber that they had fashioned into a well cover. It was rough, little more than a rectangle of wood that fit over the well mouth. As it was, it might keep anyone from falling into the well, but it would do little more than that. It was Carson’s hope that Thymara might be able to shape it into a securely fitting cap.
A bucket of Silver, drawn from the well, waited on the paving stones before her. ‘I suppose I just put on the gauntlets, dip my hands into the Silver and then …’ She looked all around at the others. ‘Has anyone ever found a memory of anyone working Silver? Seen them at work?’
‘I’ve seen people wearing Silver gloves, still gleaming. But I didn’t really see what they were doing. They were crouched down by a statue, looking at the base of it and talking as I walked by. In the memory,’ Alum added, as if to explain.
Thymara slowly began to draw on a gauntlet.
‘What if it leaks?’ Tats demanded wildly. ‘What if it soaks through? What if there’s something about this that we don’t understand, something that hurts her or kills her?’
She spoke patiently. ‘I tested them earlier. In water. Not a drop got in.’
‘But that’s not water in that bucket!’
‘I know.’ She had both gauntlets on now. She flexed her hands and felt the pull of the supple leather against them. For only a moment, she considered that she was wearing someone else’s skin on her hands. A dragon’s, certainly, but had not he or she thought and spoken just as clearly as a human? How would she feel about someone else wearing her skin as gloves? She stared at her green-gloved hands for a moment and then shook her head. ‘I’m going to try it,’ she said, as if any of them had doubted it.
The Silver in the wooden bucket swirled sluggishly. No one had jostled it. It had not ceased its restless motion since Carson had slowly lowered the bucket into the stuff, poked it with a long stick to make it tip, and then gingerly hauled it up again. He had held it by a length of dry rope to allow every droplet of Silver to drip back into the well before setting it beside the well mouth on the paving stones. They had all gathered around it, to watch the slow undulation of the liquid within.
‘Is it possible it’s actually alive?’ Tats had asked.
No one had tried to answer. And no one had touched the bucket since, but still the stuff moved, coiling within itself, silver, white, grey, a fine thread of black, moving like liquid snakes tangled with one another.
Slowly, being very careful not to splash, Thymara pushed her right hand into the bucket of Silver. She went no more than fingertip deep and then drew her hands out. For a moment, the Silver clung smoothly. Then it began to pull away from the glove in droplets. She held her hand over the bucket and there was silence as they watched the Silver droplets fall.
‘Do you feel anything?’ Tats asked tensely.
‘Just heaviness. Like a wet glove.’
She moved her fingers, flexing them slowly, and the droplets ceased falling and spread evenly over the gauntlet. Thymara caught her breath as they began to spread upward, toward the cuff, but they stopped at the wrist, forming a perfectly straight line there.
‘Umh.’ Carson had squatted down beside her to stare at her hand over the bucket. ‘Wonder how they made it do that? Stop instead of spreading all the way up to your arm.’
‘Enough experiment for one day?’ Tats suggested.
Thymara shook her head slowly. ‘Stand back. I’m going to move over and touch the wood.’
As she slowly straightened and then took the two steps toward the completed well cover, the gathered observers moved in a circle around her. She turned her hand slowly as she went, palm up, then back up, then palm up, keeping the Silver evenly spread.
‘Is that something you remember to do?’ Carson asked her, and she replied tightly, ‘I don’t know. It just feels like the way to do it. To keep it from dripping off.’
She squatted by the well cap and set her laden glove on it. ‘What do I do?’ she wondered aloud. Then, before anyone could reply, she drew her hand along the wood, stroking the rough plank with the grain. ‘I’m pressing on it, trying to make it smooth,’ she said.
All were silent, watching. As she trailed her fingers on the board, the Silver drained from the glove onto the wood until her hand was gloved only in green dragon leather. The Silver was smooth on the wood in the wake of her hand, but only for a moment. Then it began to gather itself up into tiny balls on top of the plank.
‘I knew it couldn’t be that easy,’ Tats muttered.
Thymara scowled at it. She ran her glove over it again, and again the Silver coated the wood obediently. She stopped and watched it gather itself up into tiny balls like droplets of dew. ‘Why does it do that?’
‘No one told it not to,’ Alum observed.
Thymara gave him a sharp look. She ran her fingertips across the Silver and wood again. ‘Be flat, be smooth.’
The Silver scattered before her touch, ran in erratic circles behind it. For a moment, it smoothed itself into an even sheen over the wood, and then bubbled up again. Harrikin crouched down beside her. ‘May I try?’ he asked hoarsely. ‘With the other glove?’
‘You remember something?’ Carson asked him, almost sharply.
‘Maybe it’s like the dragons. Maybe you don’t tell it what to do. Maybe it needs to be persuaded.’
Thymara held out her free hand, and he carefully drew the glove from it and slid it onto his hand. It fitted badly on his larger hand and the fingertips were empty and flopping. Thymara lifted her hand away and his took its place. He glanced at the others self-consciously, then visibly focused himself. ‘Be smooth and lovely. Bring your beauty to the wood. Shine and gleam. Be as strong and smooth as the face of a placid lake, be strong as polished metal.’
Unevenly, his fingers trailed along the wood, and unevenly did the Silver obey him. Narrow streaks of gleaming Silver-polished wood followed his touch. Where he had not touched it, the Silver darted about, formed itself into balls and danced nervously, uncertainly on the surface of the rough plank.
‘Try it again,’ Carson suggested, his voice barely a whisper.
Alum looked up at him and then back at the wood. ‘Look how narrow the stripes are. It would take forever to …’
‘Don’t say it!’ Carson interrupted him hoarsely. ‘Don’t suggest anything we don’t want it to do.’ He stared at the beaded dancing Silver as if it were game he were stalking.
‘Add your beauty to the wood; give it your gleaming strength.’ Harrikin had gone a bit pink on his cheeks but he spoke on. ‘Like a shimmering, gleaming pond of shimmering, gleaming, beautiful, still water. Please be like that. Let me see how you can make your beauty part of the lovely, pretty, smooth wood.’ He looked up suddenly at the others, his eyes desperate. A thin line of polished wood was following his awkward touch.
‘You are like the moon’s shimmering path on a still pond,’ Thymara suggested. Harrikin nodded tersely.
‘Let your beauty on the wood be like the moon’s shimmering path on a still pond.’ He spoke to the Silver, and another narrow streak of gleam joined the first.
‘The glorious strength of molten iron running in a steaming stream,’ Carson muttered.
Harrikin nodded and spoke again to the Silver. ‘Add to this wood your glorious strength, like the smooth running of molten iron in a steaming stream.’
‘I’ve got one!’ Alum said softly. ‘The beauty of a woman’s hair, unbound and falling down her bare back before her lover’s eyes.’
‘Lucky for you that Leftrin’s not here,’ Carson muttered. Alum flushed pink under his pale-green scaling.
Thread by thread, compliment after compliment, the Silver was persuaded to merge with the wood. When the final dancing drop was stilled, Harrikin rocked back on his heels. He heaved a sigh. He drew the glove off slowly and offered it back to Thymara. She took it carefully. He stood, flexing his back and shaking his head. ‘Alum was right. Look how long it took to persuade one gloveful of Silver to bond with the wood. There it is, a stripe that’s barely a finger wide. It’s going to take days to finish that well cap!’
‘Seems likely,’ Carson replied thoughtfully.
‘And it seems likely that if we do it, it may last a hundred years,’ Tats added.
Thymara was gazing around at the city. ‘How did they do it? How did they raise it all?’
‘Very slowly,’ Carson replied. ‘And not with magic alone.’ He seemed to be thinking something through and then he added, ‘I don’t think they used it because magic made it easier or quicker. I think they used it to do things that otherwise couldn’t be done. Then the effort would be worth it.’ He scratched his chin thoughtfully. ‘Obviously, we’ve a lot left to learn.’
Malta looked up from perusing the empty beds of soil. Through the glass panels overhead, she could see the sun venturing toward the horizon. Another day gone, and no word from the dragons or any of the keepers. How many times a day did she stop whatever she was doing and scan the skies? The rooftop hothouse offered her a view in every direction, but the skies remained stubbornly empty of dragons.
‘I’m sorry,’ Alum said as he shut the glass door behind him. ‘Am I disturbing you?’
‘Not really,’ Malta said. ‘As long as we speak softly. Phron is sleeping.’ She nodded toward him. She had spread an Elderling robe out on one of the hothouse benches and put him down there. He looked a different child. He was still not the chubby pink infant she had dreamed of cradling, but she suspected that, for an Elderling’s child, he was very healthy. Tintaglia’s influence was more obvious on him than it was on her or Reyn. His scaling was a decided blue, as were his eyes. His body shape was more lithe than rounded. She did not care. His eyes were bright; he slept deeply, ate eagerly, and stared at her with wide trusting eyes while he nursed. Every day he grew, and every day she wished his father were there to see it.
The tall youth advanced hesitantly and then perched on the edge of a bed. ‘I thought we didn’t have any seeds to plant?’ Alum studied the soil Malta had loosened in one of the long, narrow beds. She realized that, with Skelly gone with Tarman, he was probably as lost as she was.
‘We don’t,’ she admitted. ‘But it’s something we used to do in our gardens back in Bingtown in springtime. We loosened the soil in the beds and renewed it before the seeds were planted or the young plants set out.’
Alum tilted his head at her. ‘But you were a Trader’s daughter. Surely you had servants for that sort of work?’
‘We did,’ she admitted easily. ‘But my grandmother spent time in her own hothouses when I was very small. And by the time I was older, we no longer had servants, and we were growing not flowers but vegetables for the table. I admit I did as little of the dirty work as I could; I had a horror of ruining my hands then and I could not understand the pleasure my grandmother took in nurturing growing things. Now, I think, I understand her better. And so I ready seedbeds even when we don’t have seeds yet.’
Alum idly stirred the soil with a long-fingered, silvery-green hand. ‘I thought all Trader-born were wealthy.’
‘Some are. Others, less so. But wealth doesn’t mean idleness. Look at Leftrin. Or Skelly.’ She suspected she knew why he had sought her out. She’d lead him right to it, then.
‘Oh, yes,’ he agreed. ‘She works, and she works hard. For years now, she’s been working toward a dream. Taking over the family liveship when Leftrin … when he’s finished with it.’
‘When he dies,’ Malta said easily. ‘When he goes, he’ll die on the deck of his ship, Alum. And everything he was and all he knew of the river and the ways of Tarman will go back into the liveship. It’s how it’s done. And it’s important that there is someone there who is ready and willing to take over the captaining of the ship.’
‘I know,’ he replied quietly. ‘We’ve talked about it.’ He fell silent.
Malta waited. It was coming.
‘This time, when she’s in Trehaug, she promised she’d talk to her family, with or without Leftrin. She’s going to tell them that Leftrin and Alise want to get married and maybe have a child, and so she wouldn’t be his heir any more. To see if she can break her engagement to that Rof fellow that her family promised her to. She thinks that he won’t want to marry her if it’s not certain that she’ll inherit.’
‘And then what?’ Malta prodded him gently when he fell silent.
‘She’d come back here, to me.’ He sounded confident of that part.
‘That’s the hard part. I’m an Elderling. Ranculos says I’m going to live a long, long time. Hundreds of years, perhaps.’
‘And she isn’t,’ Malta said ruthlessly.
‘No. Not unless Arbuc will turn her into an Elderling, too. It must be possible! Tintaglia has you and Reyn and now Phron. So, if he wanted to, he could make her an Elderling, too. Then we both could have a long life. Together.’
‘I suppose he could. I still don’t understand everything about it. But I know that he would have to want to do it.’ She watched Alum’s face and added, ‘And she would have to desire it, also.’
‘She says she’d feel disloyal to Tarman. That in some ways, the liveship is her dragon.’
She knew what he would next ask her. She wasn’t surprised when he said, ‘You came from a liveship family. You chose Reyn over your family ship. Reyn and Tintaglia. Could you talk to her for me? Tell her there’s nothing wrong with choosing her own happiness?’
He was so earnest. His eyes were so hopefully fixed on her that she hated to disappoint him. But, ‘It wasn’t that simple, Alum. I did not have a close bond with my family’s ship. Truth to tell, I had little interest in Vivacia. I thought my aunt or my brother would inherit her—’
‘But Selden became Tintaglia’s as well. And Skelly told me that Althea chose Paragon, not her own family ship. So it doesn’t always happen that a liveship trader stays with her own liveship!’
Malta sighed. ‘It was very complicated, Alum. And some of us did not have as much of a say in what we “chose” as you might think. Tintaglia never asked me or Reyn if we wanted to be her Elderlings. She took us. Nor did my elder brother Wintrow want to be bonded to a liveship. Yet he is, and content with it now, I imagine.’
Her heart sank as she thought of her brothers. Wintrow long gone to the Pirate Isles and seldom even visiting Bingtown these days. And Selden, gone Sa knew where. Her mother alone in Bingtown. And all at the whim of dragons and liveships. How little of her life path had been determined by what she thought she had wanted. And now, once more, she and Reyn were separated by a dragon’s decision.
She swung her gaze back to Alum and spoke her truth. ‘There can be much more to a decision than you can know at this stage of your life. Wise or foolish, well thought or on the impulse of a moment, Alum, the decision must belong to Skelly.’
He watched his hand. It was slender and scaled the same silvery-green as his dragon. He dragged it through the soil and then admitted, ‘She still dreams of captaining Tarman. She loves the ship and she said that if Leftrin doesn’t have a child, or if he dies before his child is ready to captain the ship, she would want to step in.’ He squirmed uncomfortably. ‘I asked her if she couldn’t be an Elderling and a liveship captain, and she said—’
‘Tarman would hate it. As would Arbuc.’ To his unwilling nod, Malta added, ‘Dragons in any form are jealous creatures, Alum. You have given your life over to one, and with it, you have surrendered many choices …’
‘Arbuc is worth it!’ he declared before she could say more.
‘I am sure he is, to you,’ Malta went on implacably. ‘And Skelly might say the same about Tarman. Would you leave Arbuc to follow Skelly to a life on the river with her liveship?’
The look on his face confirmed for her that he had never even considered such a choice. ‘Don’t rush her,’ Malta suggested quietly. ‘As you have said, you have scores of years before you. Possibly hundreds. You have more time to wait than she does to decide. If she waits ten years to decide, will you no longer want her? And if that is true, if she became an Elderling for you, would you still want her in ten years? Do not be too hasty to cut her off from what she has in favour of what you think you could make of her.’
His mouth had gone flat and there was a resentful sadness in his eyes that had not been there before. Malta tried not to regret that she had put it there.
‘I know you are right, Elderling Queen,’ he said huskily. ‘I was afraid to consult you, without knowing why. Well, now I do. I was going to ask you if I should request this of my dragon when he returns. I was going to ask if you had ever resented sharing Tintaglia.’ He shook his head at himself. ‘It’s not my choice, is it?’
Malta shook her head slowly.
He stood up and then bowed to her gravely. She thought of telling him she was not Queen of anything, and then decided that, for now, perhaps it hurt nothing if he thought of her that way. He turned to go, and then suddenly halted. He reached into a pouch at his hip.
‘Carson and I hiked up into the hills. It’s spring up there. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The ground is dry and you can walk over it, and plants cover it everywhere. I thought I understood dry land after being here most of winter, but …’ He shook his head in wonder at it. ‘Carson found these and gathered them. He said we should give them to you, since you were spending so much time in the hothouses.’
From his pouch, he took a small prickly branch. Shrivelled brown husks clung to the end of it. ‘Rose hips,’ said Malta. ‘From wild roses.’
‘Yes! That’s what he said, too. He said you might want to try planting them.’
She took them from him and looked at them in her palm. Three shrivelled rose hips. She turned and looked back at the scores of empty gardening beds. ‘It’s a start,’ she said, and smiled at him.
‘A start,’ he agreed.
It had become almost a ritual for her. Every evening before the sun went down, Thymara climbed the map tower and looked out.
It was a different place compared to the first time she had seen it. She had spent a day helping Alise clean all the windows, inside and out. Alise had been very unhappy with the crude piece of scraped leather that covered the broken pane, but Carson had apologetically assured her it was the best he could do. It kept out the wind and rain.
The table he had devised to support the ancient map that had fallen to the floor was likewise rough, but at least it raised the map out of danger from errant feet. The long-ago fall had cracked it and parts of it had crumbled, but it was correctly oriented to the city and it had been useful to the keepers any number of times. Carson never seemed to tire of studying it, and repeatedly insisted that it was capable of telling them far more than they were capable of asking of it. Thymara had dismissed that possibility. She climbed the endless stairs, not for the map but for the view.
She stared out over the ever-changing terrain. The sere grasses of the wild meadows beyond the city had gone green. The forested hills had taken on new colours as trees leafed out. Even the colour of the river seemed different; it was certainly not the chalky grey of the Rain Wild River that she had known. Here it appeared a silvery brown between verdant banks.
But it was the sky she scanned, looking for signs of returning dragons each evening.
She heard the scuff of feet on the stone steps and turned to see Tats emerge from the stair. ‘See anything?’ he greeted her.
‘Only sky. Coming here is a bit silly, I know. Why would they be coming home at sunset rather than any other time?’ She shook her head at herself. ‘And even if they were, likely I’d see them from the ground almost as soon. Sometimes it seems worrying is something I feel like I have to do, that maybe worrying about them actually keeps them alive and real.’
Tats gave her an odd look. ‘Girls think strangely,’ he observed, without malice, and then stepped to the windows to scan the world outside. ‘No dragons,’ he confirmed needlessly. ‘I wonder if they’ve reached Chalced yet.’ His eyes wandered to the panels between the window-frames. They, too, were decorated to be a continuation of the map on the wall. He studied them idly. ‘They built this room for a reason.’
‘Probably a lot of reasons. But it’s like Carson says. It can’t give us answers until we know what questions to ask.’
Tats nodded. He gazed out over the river as he asked her, ‘You miss him a lot, don’t you?’
She tried to think of how to answer. ‘Rapskal? Yes. Tellator? Not at all.’ She lifted a hand to her chest. Anxiety squeezed her heart. It was becoming too familiar a sensation. ‘Tats. Which of them do you think will come back to us? Rapskal or Tellator?’
He didn’t turn to look at her. ‘I don’t think there’s any separating them any more, Thymara. I think that it’s useless to think of him that way.’
‘I know you are right,’ she said unwillingly. She told herself it wasn’t true, that she would never think of Rapskal and Tellator as one and the same. Then she recognized it for what it was. Like her worrying, a useless belief that by thinking a certain way, she could make it so. Tats said something in a gruff, low voice.
He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. ‘I said, I thought you loved Tellator. That he was the love of Amarinda’s life. Lovers never to part in that life or this one.’ He hesitated, refusing to meet her shocked stare, and then muttered, ‘Or so Rapskal explained it to me.’
She bit down on her anger, refusing to give it voice. After a long, tight pause, she said unevenly, ‘Rapskal? Or Tellator?’
‘Does it matter?’The misery in his voice was plain.
‘It does.’ Her voice came out more strongly. ‘Because Tellator is a bully. And perfectly capable of deceiving anyone to get what he wants.’ She walked away from Tats to look out of a different window. ‘The night he asked me to go for a walk and then took me to the Silver well … that’s not something Rapskal would have done. I even think he knew that if Rapskal went down the well, I’d follow him.’ She had not spoken of her last encounter with Rapskal to anyone. Did not ever intend to.
‘Thymara, they’re the same person now.’
‘You’re probably right. But even if Amarinda loved Tellator, I don’t. I am not Amarinda, Tats. I went down that well for Rapskal, not Tellator.’
He didn’t respond. When she looked over her shoulder, he was silently nodding as he stared out of the window. ‘For Rapskal,’ he said, as if that confirmed something.
She reached a decision. ‘Would you come for a walk with me?’
Tats stared at her. The daylight was fading and the city itself did not gleam yet. He squinted at her through the gathering dimness in the tower, his own face an unknowable landscape of lines and shadows. She thought he would ask her where or why. He didn’t. ‘Let’s go, then,’ was all he said.
The coming of evening seemed always to stir the ghosts of the city. As they descended, they walked through three errand boys running up the steps, yellow robes hiked up around their knees. Thymara strode through them, and only afterwards thought how strange it was that it was no longer strange.
The twilight outside was partly of the sky and partly of the city itself. Daylight gave way to stone-light. The insubstantial throngs that milled in the city became less transparent, their music stronger, the smells of their food more alluring. ‘I wonder if this city will ever again swarm with so many Elderlings.’
‘I wonder if it ever did,’ Tats countered.
‘What?’ His words almost startled her out of her determination.
‘Just something I speculate about. All these people … are we passing through one night of Elderling time here, or the overlay of years?’
She pondered his question and sometime later realized that they were walking in silence. She led him away from the heart of the city, into a district of fine homes. The streets grew quieter, with less public memory-stone, and only a few private monuments to haunt them. There an elderly dragon slept near a fountain while a woman played upon a flute nearby. The music followed them and then faded as they reached the cul-de-sac at the top of the hill. She halted for a moment. Thin moonlight poured down. The double row of pillars marched to the front door, one line marked with shining suns, the others with the round-faced moon.
‘I know this place,’ Tats said. A chill had come into his voice.
He didn’t reply and she sighed. She didn’t want to hear him say that he had once followed her and Rapskal here. Had he watched them touch the pillars, hands joined, observed as they sank into sensual dreams of another time, other lives? He had halted as if turned to stone.
‘I’m going inside,’ she told him.
‘Why? Why bring me here?’ There was pain in his voice.
‘Not to rub salt in a wound. Only to have someone with me. While I finish something. I won’t be long. Will you wait here for me?’ She didn’t want to come out alone to the black stone pillars veined with Silver. Even as she stood there, the memories tugged at her mind, beckoning her. She dreaded walking inside alone.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I just … I’ve never been inside their house.’
‘No.’ She couldn’t explain it and she wouldn’t try. Perhaps it had been that while she didn’t walk where they had lived, she could pretend that their lives were still real, still existing in some ‘now’ that was just around the corner.
‘Why now? Why with me?’
Time for honesty. ‘Because I have to. And to give me courage.’ She turned from him and started the long walk between the pillars. The Silver was strong here, the stone of the finest quality. Only the best for Amarinda the Silver-worker. As Thymara passed each pillar, the memories tugged and snagged at her. By night she glimpsed them, over and over. Tellator in evening dress, leaning on one of his pillars, an insouciant smile on his perfect face. Amarinda, wearing a summer dress of white and yellow. Flowers studded her flowing hair and a breeze that Thymara could not feel stirred her dress. Tellator, grave of mien, standing bold in armour, gripping a scroll of paper. Amarinda in a casual robe, perched on a stool, barefoot and playing a small stringed instrument. Thymara passed incarnation after incarnation of the two lovers until she came to their door.
Her hand found wood softened with age to the consistency of a sponge; her memory told her it was dark, polished panels embellished with suns and moons. She pushed it open; it scraped over the floor and she stepped inside. After a few steps into the room, the house roused to her and lit unevenly. She glanced around, her memory imposing order on the room’s chaos.
Time had not treated their love nest kindly. All the furniture was long gone, collapsed into wood dust, and the draperies that had graced the wall were now only threadbare shadows. She more felt than saw that Tats had followed her. Don’t hesitate now, she told herself. The archway in the wall led to a hall. She walked hastily, denying the ghosts that plucked at her. That darkened room would have been a bath; that one the bedchamber they had shared. This door at the end of the hall was the one she wanted. The broken slab hung unevenly. She did not think Rapskal had ever come here. She pulled the pieces of wood down and stepped through.
It took a moment to adjust to the reality. The ancient quake had tumbled the back wall of the room into her little garden. Her fountain with the statue of the three dancers was buried under rubble. The ceiling hung in jagged teeth against the sky. Winter storms had rained into her wardrobe, and summer sun had baked the wreckage. Next to nothing had survived in this room. But in her mind’s eye, she could still see it as it had been. There had been expensive paintings and rich hangings on the walls. A little vanity table, the surface cluttered with pots of cosmetics, had been there. An enamelled shelf had held her collection of spun-glass sculptures.
All gone. She reminded herself that none of it was hers, and she could not miss what she had never owned.
She turned her back to the gaping hole in the wall. Her fingers walked over the chill stone of the interior wall. There was the indentation, and when she pressed with three fingers, she heard the familiar click. As the concealed compartment swung open, light blossomed from it. Gleams of yellow and blue reflected on the dusty wall. She leaned forward and looked in. Oh, yes. She recalled it now. Flame-jewels awoke after lifetimes of slumber. She heard Tats gasp, heard him step forward to glimpse the treasure.
Thymara allowed her eyes to linger on it. The significance of each piece swelled forth. The lavender circlet Tellator had given her on their anniversary, the earrings of topaz that he had brought her when he returned after nearly a year’s absence … She pushed back at the memories, reached into her pouch and took out the softly shining moon-pendant. A last time she looked at it. Tellator had worn a matching one, a gleaming golden sun. She had seen it often against his naked chest, felt its press against her breast when they made love.
No. She had never felt that.
Thymara lowered the pendant into the hidden compartment, let the fine silver chain slither in after it. A moment longer she stared at the mementos of another woman’s passion. Another woman’s life. Amarinda’s. Not hers. Gently, she pushed the drawer back into alignment with the rest of the wall and heard it latch.
She turned back to Tats. ‘I’ve finished,’ she said quietly.
Puzzlement showed on his face. ‘What were you doing? Is that where you keep your—’
She shook her head and turned away from it. As she led the way back through the hallway she said, ‘No. As I told you, I’ve never been here before. I don’t keep anything there. I was just returning something that wasn’t mine. Not ever.’
In the dimness she reached out to find his hand waiting for hers. Together, they walked out into the night.
‘It’s a different world,’ Alise said.
‘It’s my world,’ Leftrin asserted quietly. ‘The world I know best.’
She looked up at the small houses perched in the branches overhead. In a few more minutes, they’d be at the docks of Cassarick. She had resolved that once they tied up she would disembark and confront her old life. She’d go with Leftrin to the Traders’ Hall, not just to confirm his stories that dragons had left Kelsingra to attack Chalced, but to stand before the Council and demand her wages. She would go with Leftrin when he informed them that he had Chalcedean captives to transfer to their custody, be with him when he handed both Trader Candral and his written confession over to Trader Polsk, head of the Council.
Several hours ago, the small fishing boats that plied the river had discovered Tarman. Some had shouted greetings and questions, while others had stopped their fishing and now trailed behind them. At least two of them had raced ahead of them to spread the word that the Tarman was returning. Leftrin had responded to each of them in an identical manner: a smile, a wave, and a toss of his head toward Cassarick. Alise knew their curiosity would be boiling over. There would be many questions and interest in every detail.
With every passing tree trunk, she held tighter to her resolution to face it all squarely. It was time to stop running away, time to prove she had begun a new life on her own terms. As she looked up at the more numerous houses they passed, folk were coming out to point and shout to one another. She had expected their arrival to stir interest, but not on this scale.
‘I’m not sure I belong here any more,’ Alise said quietly.
Tillamon came out on deck and advanced to stand by the railing next to her. Alise glanced over at her. She had gathered her hair back from her face, and then pinned it to the top of her head. Every scale on her brow, every wattle along her jaw-line was bared. She wore an Elderling gown that was patterned in gold and green. Matching slippers shod her feet. Earrings dangled beside her pebbled neck. She answered Alise’s smile with, ‘Hennesey and I are going with Big Eider to visit his mother. Then I’m taking Hennesey to Trehaug to meet my mother and little sister.’
‘And your older brother?’ Alise asked her teasingly.
Tillamon only smiled wider. ‘Bendir will, I think, be pleased for me. At first. When he and mother discover that I’ve decided to live in Kelsingra when I’m not travelling on Tarman, they’ll fuss. But once I tell them that Reyn has gone off to Chalced on a dragon to destroy the city, they’ll probably forget all about me.’ She smiled as she said it, and added, ‘For years, Bendir has used our younger brother to distract mother from his ventures. Now it’s my turn.’
Leftrin grinned, but her words had turned Alise’s mind to the dragons and their mission.
‘I wonder if they’re there yet,’ Alise ventured.
Leftrin took her arm. ‘There’s no point in worrying. We won’t know anything until they come back. For now, all we can do is take care of our own business here. And we’ve plenty of that.’
‘What do you think will become of them?’ Tillamon nodded toward the Chalcedean captives. They sat on the deck, glumly watching Cassarick draw closer. A length of anchor chain was coiled in a circle, and each man’s ankle was manacled to it. Alise had not witnessed the ‘incident’ that had led to that drastic solution. She had awakened in the dark of night as Leftrin sprang out of bed and raced out of the door. An instant later, she heard shouts and impacts, flesh on flesh and bodies on wood. By the time she had flung on clothes and followed the noise, it had all subsided. A furious Skelly was helping Swarge drag out chains while Big Eider sat at the galley table, head bowed and barely conscious, with a cold wet cloth on the back of his head. Bellin stood, feet spread wide, with a fish club in her hand, glowering at the Chalcedean captives. Several of them showed the marks of her club, while Hennesey, with blood running over his chin, sported a brass fid for mending lines. The former slaves had stood alongside the crew, one of them holding an obviously damaged fist to his chest. The look of satisfaction on his face made little of his pain.
‘We had a small mutiny,’ Leftrin explained to her as he guided her back to their cabin. ‘They thought they could take over Tarman and make the ship their own. Ignorant fools. I can’t believe they thought they could get away with that on a liveship.’
The Chalcedeans had travelled in chains on the deck since then, wearing the slave manacles that Hennesey had quietly transferred to Tarman before they departed Kelsingra. It horrified Alise, but she was more horrified by the injury to Big Eider, who had been dazed for several days afterwards. Several of the former galley slaves had stepped forward to help man the ship during his convalescence. The crew had hesitantly accepted their aid at first; now they almost seemed to belong on Tarman’s deck.
Leftrin looked over the captives and shook his head. ‘Traders don’t execute anyone,’ he said. ‘They’ll be condemned to work off their crime, possibly in the excavations. Cold, hard work that grinds a man down. Or maybe they’ll be ransomed back to Chalced, with extra penalties for being spies.’
Alise looked away from them. Not executions but death sentences, she thought to herself. It wasn’t fair, not for men forced by threats to do as they had done.
‘Looks like they have room for us at the end,’ Hennesey called back to them. He was standing ready with a mooring line as Swarge guided Tarman in. Alise craned her neck and saw that substantial sections of the old dock had been replaced with new planks.
‘Let’s tie up,’ Leftrin grumbled, and then he left her side, and she and Tillamon moved up onto the roof of the deckhouse to be out of the way of the crew working the deck. The two Jamaillian traders were already up there, as well as the other merchants. The remaining members of the impervious boats’ crews had been pressed into service for the journey down, and worked alongside Tarman’s crew and the former slaves. Alise was well aware that the liveship needed little help from humans when travelling with the current, but as Leftrin had observed, ‘A busy sailor has less time to get into mischief. And there isn’t a man among them who hasn’t dreamed of working on a liveship. Maybe we’ll find a lively one or two to take back to Kelsingra with us, to crew the keepers’ vessels.’
Trader Candral was there, too, looking pale with dark-circled eyes. He had been an especially unpleasant passenger, weeping or complaining how he had been tricked into his treachery and once trying to bribe Leftrin with promises of later riches if he would just let him off the ship without ‘betraying’ him. Alise found it hard even to look at him. It had been a crowded journey, and she was looking forward to having them all off Tarman’s decks.
A sizeable crowd had gathered to meet them. Alise recognized Trader Polsk, and perhaps a few others from the Traders’ Council. Several were dressed formally in their Trader robes; all watched them approach gravely. Others seemed to be just gawkers and bystanders, drawn down to the dock for whatever spectacle the Tarman might offer.
Skelly jumped from the boat to the docks with the first mooring line and quickly made Tarman fast. She caught the second line that Hennesey tossed, and in moments the liveship was secured. The Council members surged forward to meet them and at once the Jamaillian merchants began shouting that they had been kidnapped and held against their will and their investment, a lovely impervious ship, had been stolen from them. Trader Candral joined his voice to theirs, exhorting them not to believe a word of what Leftrin or anyone else said of him: he had been forced to pen a false confession.
In the midst of the general cacophony, Alise saw the Chalcedean prisoners come to their feet, lift the length of anchor chain that joined them, and begin their dull shuffle to the gangplank. Their heads were bowed. One man was muttering something in a low voice, perhaps a prayer. As they neared the gangplank, one at the end of the line began shouting frantically and trying to pull away. The other men looked at him, grim-faced, and then two of his fellows seized him and dragged him along.
‘Sit down. Not ready for you yet,’ Hennesey told them irritably. His lower lip was still bruised and swollen, and his tone plainly conveyed his dislike for his charges. But if they understood that he spoke to them, they gave no indication. If anything, they stepped up their pace. Trader Candral was now shrieking almost hysterically that it was all a lie, he had never betrayed the Rain Wilds, while the Jamaillians were trying to out-shout him with their badly accented accusations of piracy and kidnapping.
Alise divined their intention a moment too late. ‘Don’t let them!’ she shouted, even as the first four Chalcedean captives stepped up onto the gangplank. And then off, into the river.
Connected by their chains, the others followed them, some willingly, others not. Hennesey and Skelly caught hold of the last two, but the weight of the chained men and the pull of the current snatched them out of their hands and into the water. The grey river closed over the last man’s scream, cutting it off as if it had never been.
Silence cloaked the dock.
Skelly stared, stricken, at her empty hands and scratched wrists. The last man had not wanted to go into the river.
‘No one could have stopped that,’ Hennesey told her. ‘And it was probably a better death than they would have faced back in Chalced.’ A muttering began from the shore. Before it could rise any louder, Leftrin stepped to his ship’s railing. ‘Dragons are on their way to attack Chalced, to punish them for hunting dragons! Send word to Bingtown that they must be braced for retaliation.’
A breathless quiet followed his words.
Tillamon shocked everyone when she lifted her voice. ‘And perhaps Cassarick and Trehaug may wish to consider well what happens to cities that harbour dragon-killers!’
Day the 21st of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Kerig Sweetwater, Master of the Bird Keepers’ Guild, Bingtown
To Erek Dunwarrow of Trehaug
Erek, old friend, this is not an official notification. It will take the Guild Masters here a month of dithering before they can decide to take the action, but I am sure it will be approved. Your name is almost the only one that has come up to fill the recently vacated post of Keeper of the Birds at Cassarick. Kim had risen to control his own coop and oversee those of his journeymen. There will be fewer birds and journeymen under your supervision than in your Bingtown post, but I feel it will be every bit as difficult a task. It is a large responsibility and to be honest, you will be stepping into a shambles of dirty coops, unhealthy birds, poorly kept records and undisciplined apprentices.
So, of course, I consider you precisely the man for the job!
But if, by any chance, this is not something you would take on, please notify me immediately via a Dunwarrow carrier, and I shall withdraw my advocacy of you.
Not likely, say I!
With pride in my former apprentice,