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Reyn felt slightly queasy. He took a deep breath, reached for his water-skin and took a sip. It helped. A little. This mode of travelling by dragon was, as he had hoped, much different from when Tintaglia had once carried him clutched in her claws. Back then, his fear and worry that Malta was already dead and the clench of the dragons powerful feet on his ribs had distracted him from the actual flight. This time he rode high, between her wings, the wind in his face; and always aware of how high above the ground he was and how much his seat swayed with the motions of her flight. His back ached and his stomach was very unhappy.

He tried not to think of how old was this contraption in which he sat. Tried not to wonder how strong those peculiar straps and buckles were, and if it had been built more for show than strength. It was too late to worry about such things, and still too early to worry about the war they were bringing to Chalced. Far below him, the world was spread out like a lumpy carpet. The first day they had flown over rolling meadows and forested hills. Then they had crossed a region of swamps full of fronds and reeds and sloughs of still brown water with dead trees jutting from them. There had been a river theyd crossed, running shallow over its rocky bed, its face broken by white plumes of spray. Beyond the narrow river there had been a range of flatlands and broken hills, with trees and rushing streams in gullies. He knew by the rising of the sun that at least twice the dragons had made sharp course corrections. They were not flying directly to Chalced, but following some incomprehensible dragon route, probably one that maximized hunting opportunities and places for landing and resting. It made sense. It would have made more sense if the dragons had deigned to discuss it with the humans. Since their council of war, theyd been remarkably uncommunicative with the humans, with the possible exception of Rapskal.

Or perhaps it was only Heeby who made no barrier between herself and her keeper. Whatever the reason, Rapskal had started to irritate Reyn with his martial airs. Late last night, he had put his finger on the source of his annoyance. It was that Rapskal spoke and carried himself as if he were a man older and more experienced than Reyn. Some of the keepers seemed to have accepted him in that role. Nortel seemed to have attached himself to Rapskal as his lieutenant, passing on his tolerantly received orders about how camp was to be set up and nightly weapons drill. Of the other keepers, Reyn felt that only Kase and Boxter had fully fallen in with Rapskals insistence that they must now begin to conduct themselves as dragon-warriors. The four of them spent much time of an evening sharpening knives and polishing armour and checking dragon harness.

Today Reyn looked down on a harsh, rolling, brown land with upthrusts of rock and random patches of dusty green brush. Hed never imagined such a place and knew that it appeared on no map he had ever studied. Chalced might claim to rule the lands right up to the edge of the Rain Wild River, but these regions, he would wager, had seen little of men in the last hundred years.

To either side of him, in front of him and behind him, dragons flew, some with riders and harnesses, some bare of any adornment. Despite Rapskals posturing in Kelsingra, he and Heeby did not lead the way. Ranculos was out in front most often, though sometimes it was Mercor, and for a time it had been Tintaglia. All the dragons seemed to know whence they were bound, whether from ancient memories or from shared thoughts, he did not know. Reyn had thought that IceFyre, as the eldest dragon and the one hottest for vengeance, would lead the dragons. Instead, he was uncomfortably aware that both IceFyre and Kalo constantly vied for a spot just behind and above Tintaglia. He suspected he knew the significance of that, for several times Tintaglia had caused him to roar with terror as she folded her wings to drop down and then come up behind both of them, or suddenly put on a surge of wing-beats that carried him up so high that he felt he could not breathe. He knew from conversations with Davvie at night that the drakes open rivalry for that position terrified him.

IceFyre knows he scares me. He overflies us so closely that I can scarcely draw a breath in the wind of his wings. Or he goes very high, and then sweeps in right in front of Kalo, so that he must either dodge or collide with the old bastard. And if I get frightened and beg Kalo to let IceFyre fly where he wishes, Kalo becomes annoyed with me.

I could ask Sestican if you might ride with me, Lecter offered, but Davvie had shaken his head.

No. That will just make Kalo angrier with me. He wants me to shout insults at IceFyre. He says he will not dare to attack us, but how can he know? After a moment, he added quietly, Thank you all the same.

Their camps at night often seemed oddly festive to Reyn. He felt the old man among such youthful Elderlings. They quickly fell back into the routine they had obviously shared before. Every day, as afternoon began to approach evening, the dragons descended, demanding to be rid of riders and harness so they might hunt. Once they had dismounted and the dragons had been launched, the keepers commenced gathering firewood and setting up a camp. The dragons gave little thought to the comfort of the humans they were abandoning for the hunt. The keepers might find themselves in a hillside meadow one afternoon and on a rocky mountain ridge the next. Reyn watched in admiration as they quickly arranged their bedrolls and set out to look for water and meat. Sometimes they found neither, but as often as not, one of them would bring down a rabbit or a wild goat to share. They all carried hardtack, tea and dried fish, so even when the hunting was scarce they did not go hungry. Spring was upon the land, and at one stopping point, Sedric amazed them all by teaching them to gather dandelion greens and watercress from a stream. So they shared food and a fire and conversation every evening.

The first two nights there were jests and songs and some mock swordfights as some of the keepers experimented with their Elderling weapons. Rapskal tried to give them advice on stance and grip for their weapons, but soon gave up when it turned into good-natured rough-housing. Reyn watched the younger men measure themselves against one another, and was relieved when a shout that food was ready broke up their exercises.

Shared hot meat and cold water seemed to content all of them. They told him stories of their journey up the river and he recounted how Tintaglia had carried him in her claws to search for Malta, and dropped him into the sea when they found her. Pirates and rescued slaves and a Chalcedean fleet opposed by liveships seemed only a wonder-tale to them, and he feared that his small effort to convey the terror and horror of that war only made it seem a glorious adventure.

Sometimes Rapskal told stories, too. He spoke with a strange cadence, and sometimes he groped for words, as if the language of his birth did not allow for names of weapons and manoeuvres. He spoke of dragon wars, when Kelsingra had had to defend itself against raiding parties of dragons seeking to make a claim on the Silver seeps in the river. Reyn was heartsick to hear him speak of Elderlings battling one another on the ground as their dragons fought savagely in the air. Even worse was to know that the dragons and Elderlings enmity with Chalced reached back, not decades, but possibly centuries. The keepers sat in rapt silence when Tellator recounted stories of Elderlings captured and tortured by Chalcedeans, and the vengeance taken on their captors. There were times when Reyn thought that perhaps Elderlings were not so different from humans after all.

And times when he decided they emphatically were.

None of the keepers seemed to think it odd when Jerd chose a partner for the evening and they retired from the others, not even when she chose a different partner the second night. Davvie and Sylve shared blankets and a long night conversation that kept Reyn awake with their confidential murmuring. The lack of sexuality in their obviously intimate friendship puzzled him almost as much as Jerds casual promiscuity. He and Carson and Malta had had several long and philosophical conversations about how these new Elderlings might form their society. This was his first unveiled look at it, and he tried to conceal his surprise and dismay. He suddenly felt a stranger to their culture, as provincial as when he and Malta had been shocked by the hedonism of Old Jamaillia. He lay awake both nights, wondering if this was the world that Phron would grow up in, and how the influx of other Changed Rain Wilders that Tillamon would bring with her would view these new Elderlings. Those thoughts were almost more disturbing than pondering about the war that lay before them.

By the third night, he had accepted it as how things were among the keepers. That was the first night that Rapskal had all but bullied them into weapons practice after their meal. Reyn had thought it a bad time for it. They were all weary, and as soon as he had eaten, all he wanted to do was sleep. But he knew a bit of swordsmanship, more than any of the keepers, he thought, and he agreed with Rapskal that if they were going to carry such weapons, they should have some idea how to use them. In the evenings that followed, he tried not to let his discouragement show. Some of the keepers, such as Nortel and Boxter, were enthusiastic about learning and probably more dangerous. Davvie and Kase tried but were easily discouraged. Both Sylve and Jerd had brought bows, and both were fair but unexceptional shots with them. Rapskal was the one who surprised him. He easily matched Reyns level of skill and in some areas he surpassed him. Even so, Reyn tried not to wonder how well any of their talents would hold up in battle conditions. Hed seen men fighting one another and dying on the decks of ships, and had hoped never to witness it again. It was one thing to swing a blade in practice; it was another thing entirely to drive a knife into another mans body.

Down below them, the late-afternoon shadows stretched longer from the bushes, revealing to him that they were taller than he had thought they were. He did not look forward to spending a night in such a barren place but kept his mouth closed. It was useless to voice an opinion on where they landed. That would be determined by the dragons, and right now they were led by Skrim and Dortean. Their riders sat low in their saddles, leaning forward or dangerously far to the side and shouting comments to one another. Kase and Boxter were as alike as their orange dragons, and had even chosen matching harness and tunics for themselves. He watched them and wondered if he had ever seemed as youthful and carefree as they did. They rode to war on dragons, and seemed to accept it as just another day in their lives.

Behind him, he heard a wild shout and looked back to see that IceFyre had just made another pass at Kalo and his rider. He had only a glimpse of Davvies white face and open mouth before Tintaglia tipped sharply to one side. He seized the low arms of his dragon saddle and held tight as his body was thrown heavily against the side of it. They fell away from the formation. Distantly he heard Davvie shouting something about You torn-up old umbrella! His effort to insult the black dragon would have made Reyn laugh if he hadnt been in fear for his life.

He fought to draw a breath against the wind slashing past his face. His fingers hurt from holding on so tightly, and still they fell. He felt blood start to pound in his face and then it dripped warmly from his nose. He could not form his thoughts into words to beg mercy from the dragon; instead he simply pressed his terror toward her mind and held on as tightly as he could as the sere brown earth rushed up at him.

Then the world shifted and he closed his eyes and gripped until his fingers were numb as his body was slammed in the other direction. When he opened his eyes, the wind against his face pressed out tears that ran along the sides of his face. Tintaglia was moving in a long swift glide over the face of the hard earth. Ahead of them, a herd of deer-like creatures were bounding along in high leaps. He feared he knew what was about to happen. No! he pleaded, and then the impact came.

Reyn was flung against his chest strap so hard that it drove the breath from his body. He felt something furry hit him hard and then bounce away. For a moment or perhaps longer, he lost awareness. When he came back to himself, dusty air filled his nostrils and the shrill bleating of injured animals assailed his ears. He opened his eyes, wiped at them, and blinked. He tried to climb out of his seat before he remembered that a strap across his chest secured him. He unbuckled it with sore fingers, stood up and tumbled to the earth. He collapsed there, delighting in how still it was, how firm under his hands. Then he felt the dragon move and he got up, first to his knees and then barely upright as he made a shambling run away from her. He passed two bleating deer, their shattered bones sticking out of them like bloody sticks. A third was lying still, and the fourth had its head bent at an improbable angle. He threw himself down on top of it.

He waited for his heart to calm. His hearing came back more strongly and he could breathe again. He wanted water but didnt want to go back to the dragon saddle to get it. He could wait. Never bother a dragon in the first few moments of a kill, he counselled himself.

He heard shouts and dragon roars and then felt the blast of hot air against him as other dragons landed. Riders were hitting the ground, pulling straps free and then standing back as the unburdened dragons took flight again. He sat up slowly, taking care to retain possession of the deer. If nothing else, he intended to have a decent meal out of Tintaglias rough treatment of him.

Sylve, her blonde hair a mat of permanent tangles after days of windy flight, came to stand over him. Are you all right? she asked him timidly. Her fingertips touched her own lips and chin lightly, and she worried, Thats a lot of blood.

He swiped his arm across his face. Just a bloody nose, he assured her. Staggering to his feet, he seized one of the deers hind legs. Lets carry this off before the dragons take it away from us, he suggested.

She seized the other hind leg and they began dragging it over the desiccated earth. The air was hot and dry. The other keepers were already gathering in the dappled shade of one of the taller trees. Most of the other dragons had already left. Tintaglia was still crouched over her kills. He noticed that no dragon had been bold enough to claim any part of it. And that her harness had been removed. Who unsaddled her? he asked.

Rapskal. Sylve looked back at Tintaglia. The dragon was tearing a deer carcass in half, one foot bracing it on the ground. Sometimes I think hes fearless. Other times, I think hes just stupid.

Sometimes they go together, Reyn observed. His head suddenly spun and he had to stand still. He dropped the deer leg and held his hands over his eyes for a moment. She gave no thought to me at all when she dived on that herd, he muttered. No thought at all.

They never do, Sylve agreed with him. Oh, Mercor is better than most at considering what might happen to me. But even he dismisses my well-being when it comes to dragon business. Otherwise, I wouldnt be here at all.

Rapskal, having approached them, overheard the last of their conversation. He stooped, gathered the deers front and back legs in each hand, slung the carcass over his back and stood up easily under the burden. Reyns estimate of his strength abruptly changed.

We cannot expect dragons to consider us: it is our duty to consider them. I think we will reach Chalced tomorrow, and see the capital city soon after. We will be flying into battle immediately; there is no point in letting them prepare to meet us.

They had followed him and now they had reached the other keepers. Rapskal shrugged the deer off his shoulders and it fell with a thud to the earth. He went down on one knee beside it, drawing his belt-knife as he did so. Jerd came to stand at his shoulder and watch him. We cannot expect them to think of us tomorrow during the battle. It will be up to each of us to be sure we are securely fastened to our dragons. While we are mounted, our tasks are to watch for risks that our dragons may not notice. Of old, that would have meant that we had to watch for enemy dragons diving down on us or coming up behind us. That is not the case now, luckily.

But the city of Chalced has long been fortified against its enemies. Of old, the fortified portion of the city was upon a hilltop. I expect that will be the Dukes residence. In any case, it is what we must first destroy. The ballista there will be set to rain missiles down on an army approaching from below. But if some clever commander keeps his head and thinks clearly enough, he may be able to adjust his machinery to fling large stones upward at us. And bowmen with powerful bows on top of towers may be able to speed shafts toward us. Even a small arrow driving deep into tender flesh can do great damage to a dragon, as Tintaglia has shown us. So it is the task of every keeper to watch for dangers to his dragon. That, above all else, must concern you.

As he spoke, he began gutting the deer. He watched his hands, but spoke loudly and clearly, obviously intending to reach all the keepers. Once he had opened it, Sylve crouched opposite him and began skinning it, pulling the hide toward herself as she slashed it efficiently free of the meat below. Nortel came with a long stick, to spear the heart on a spit. Kase and Boxter were already busy with tinder and broken tree limbs. A thin spiral of pale smoke began climbing skyward.

Rapskal rocked back onto his knees, the liver a dark mass in his hands. His arms were blood-smeared to the elbow. He lectured on. If your dragon lands, you are at his command. He may tell you to go into a building to drive the enemy out to him. If he is injured and unable to fly, it is your task to defend him to the death if need be. He may choose to leave you on the ground so that he can fight unencumbered. It is his choice. He flipped the liver to Nortel, who caught it adroitly.

Do any of us actually like deer liver? Nortel asked rhetorically, earning a scowl from Rapskal.

The red-scaled Elderlings knife moved surely, disjointing the deers hindquarter. Venom drift. Have we spoken of this before? Your Elderling garb will protect you if its only a mist, but as soon as you possibly can, you should change clothing and discard the contaminated clothing. But it will only protect the parts of you that are covered, so if you see mist, cover your face and hands.

He looked around sternly. He had freed a deer haunch from the carcass and had severed the shank free from it. If its more than mist, if its a spray, then nothing can save you. A look of knowing, of terrible weariness came over his face, ageing him far beyond his years. If its thick and coming your way, blow all your breath out, and breathe deep when it hits. Suck it in and youll die fast. You wont even have time to scream.

Sweet Sa, Reyn breathed out, horrified. Nortels eyes were huge. Kase had gone so pale that the orange of his scales stood out on his face like errant flower petals.

Does that happen? Sylve asked. Her voice was steady but small.

Sometimes, Rapskal replied. Ive seen it. His gaze was distant. He began to carve slabs of flesh off the haunch. Kase came with an armful of toasting sticks cut from a nearby bush. Without a word he passed them to keepers who matter-of-factly began to claim shares of the meat. Reyn took his in turn, and followed the group to the cook-fire.

For a time, the conversation was of ordinary things. Who had salt? Did anyone want to eat the liver? Wondering what the ones who had remained in Kelsingra were doing and thinking. Reyn spoke of missing Malta and hoping that Phron did not grow too much while he was gone. Kase teased Sylve about being away from Harrikin. She blushed but freely admitted missing him. Sedric stared quietly at the fire.

Rapskal looked thoughtful. Amarinda, he said at last, and smiled sadly.

Jerd folded her legs, dropping down to sit beside him. She sighed. Youve seen many things in the stone, havent you, Tellator?

He looked at her consideringly. I lived many things, he replied. And other things I know from the stone ancestors I chose for myself. If one is to be a warrior, then one chooses the accounts of warriors, to read them from the stone and to use their experience again. And so I am Tellator, but I am also the ones that Tellator incorporated into himself.

Jerd was nodding slowly. Her eyes were travelling over his face in a way that made Reyn uncomfortable. Sylve spoke sharply. And Amarinda? Did she also choose a stone ancestry for herself?

Rapskals eyes travelled from Jerd to Sylve. He measured her and her reaction. Something in him went still before he replied diffidently, She chose other talents for herself. Some things, as you know now, were not stored in the stone. Those she learned from her masters, and in time became a master herself. But some things she chose to learn from stone.

Body skills are much easier to learn that way. Tumbling and juggling and sculpting, for example, are easier to master if one knows how the body feels as it performs those manoeuvres. The flexibility and muscle, of course, must be gained from practice. They are much easier to achieve if one remembers the experience of having done it before. One feels confidence that it can be done. Swordsmanship, for instance.

And other physical skills? Jerd asked him with a knowing smile. He grinned back at her. There are some topics that a man can never know too much about. Or a woman.

Jerd shivered. She glanced at Sylve, and then asked him, Could any woman be Amarinda? If I went to her memory-stones, could not I learn her days with Tellator? And her nights?

He looked at her consideringly. You might, he admitted. He started to say something more, then paused as if he had forgotten it. A line divided his brows and for a moment he looked tragically young to Reyn. As if he might next crumple forward and weep like a child.

Sylve spoke for him. You might learn all of Amarinda there is to know, but you still would not be Thymara.

Jerd faced Sylve squarely, fists on her hips. She was a full head taller than Sylve and for one horrified instant, Reyn thought she was going to hit her. Her voice was low and venomous. I wouldnt want to be Thymara! Who would? She doesnt know what she wants. She just likes tormenting people. She swung her gaze to Rapskal. She wants to keep both you and Tats for herself, with no regards for your feelings.

Rapskal dragged in a breath. His voice was a bit ragged. Well. One thing Thymara does know is what she doesnt want. Or who.

Jerd leaned closer. Nortel, her bed-partner of the night before, narrowed his eyes as she said quietly to Rapskal, She isnt the only woman in the world. Choose another.

Sylve appeared to be choking as she tried to think of an appropriate insult for Jerd.

Rapskal stared at her, and for a moment his eyes were wide. He struggled with something. Then the instant passed and a grim smile claimed his mouth. I shall. He looked at Jerd and dismissed her. He did not have to add the cutting words, Like Thymara, I know well who I do not want. He stood and stretched, his broad shoulders straining the Elderling fabric of his tunic. The captain grinned at his men gathered around the campfire. We should all get some sleep. Tomorrow we will reach Chalced. A city that is full of women, many of whom will doubtless be grateful to see the Duke fall. And willing to thank the victors.

Oh, Rapskal! Sylve cried in a low, stricken voice.

Reyn thought that perhaps only he heard her. He thought of his own father, drowned in memories in Trehaug, of a man who was never himself again, never recognized his children or wife again.

But Kases loud exclamation overrode all else as he said, A city full of women! He grinned at Boxter and added, Tellator, what can you tell us of grateful women?

Selden. Selden. Its time to be awake. You need to eat and drink.

He opened his eyes. Full daylight was streaming into the room. The potted roses on the balcony had leafed out, and the wind that wandered into the room was mild. As if in answer to spring, Chassim had discarded her pale shroud. He had never realized her hair was so long. She had left it loose, and it cascaded past her shoulders. The simple robe she wore was a pale pink, sashed with white. There were little rosebud slippers on her small feet. She was crouched by his couch, patting his hand to awaken him. A laden tray waited on the low table beside him.

You look like Spring herself, he said sleepily, and she blushed as pink as her gown.

You need to wake up and eat.

He lifted his head and the room spun. He set it down again. Is it today? Already?

Im afraid so. I want you to eat and then rest again before they come for you.

He lifted his arm and looked at it. Both his arms were swathed from wrist to elbow in neat white wrappings. But he knew what they looked like underneath. Black and blue bruising covered them. One of the healers spoke of making a cut at my neck. The others argued, saying they might not be able to stem the flow of blood afterward.

She rose abruptly and went to the balcony to stare out of the window. You should eat, she said hopelessly. In the distance, trumpets blared.

Chassim. I fear I wont come back to you this time. Or that if I do, I may never awake again.

I fear the same, she answered in a thick voice. And as you see, I have prepared myself. She gestured at her garments and then at the open window. Ive made my little plan. After they take you, I will wait on the balcony. If they are angry when they come to my door, I will jump then, before they can seize me. If they bring you back to me, but I fear you cannot wake again

Take me with you, he said quietly. The worst fate I can imagine is to wake in this room and find you gone.

She nodded slowly. As you wish, she said in a very small voice. She pulled herself up straighter and said, But for now, you should eat.

I dont want to feel that depraved old mans mouth on my throat.

She had started across the room toward him. At his words she shut her eyes tightly and turned her face from him, sickened. She drew a deep shuddering breath. Just eat something, she suggested.

Theres no point. If Im going to take my own life, Id sooner do it before they cut my throat and he sucks my blood again.


Unless youd like to dine with me. Shall we have a final meal together, Chassim?

She came to his bedside, lifted the tray and took it to a low table on the balcony. Do you mind sitting on the floor? she asked him. Her voice had become very calm. If we are interrupted, if they chance to come early

We can still escape. An excellent idea.

He lifted his head and this time the world did not spin. She came back to help him stand, letting him take his time. They crossed the room slowly, his legs wobbling with every step. His arms and wrists ached abominably. He was grateful to sink down on the floor beside the food. Chassim hastened to bring him cushions to lean against, and a coverlet to wrap about him. Spring was in the air, but he still shivered. It feels good to be alive, he told her.

She smiled and shook her head at him. You make no sense. And yet you do. Selden Vestrit fostered by Khuprus, you are the first man Ive ever talked with. Do you know that?

With difficulty, he tugged a cushion closer. That doesnt seem possible. You had brothers, you told me. Your father. Three husbands. You must have known other men.

She shook her head. My status meant that males were kept at a distance from the time I was a child. I sat at dinners, there were polite exchanges. My suitors courted my father, not me. And when I was given over to my husbands, they had no interest in conversing with me. I was not even an object for pleasure; they had much more skilled women at their disposal for that. I was for making a child that would mingle my lineage with theirs. That was all.

And they all died.

She had mentioned some of her history to him, but he had never prodded at what she had told him. She met his gaze. The first one died accidentally, she said. She poured wine for both of them, and then lifted the lid off a fat bowl. The aroma of a rich beef soup rose from it. She ladled out servings for each of them. Do you think I am hateful? she asked him.

You have not seemed so to me, he replied. There were nights when I dreamed of killing my captors. Times when I lunged against my chains and would have done death on any of the gawkers that I could have reached. So what is the difference between us?

She smiled at him. That I was more efficient than you were? she offered. She lifted a fold of cloth to reveal a warm loaf. When she uncovered the little dish next to it, she said, Look how yellow the butter is! They must have put the cows out onto new pasture.

Trumpets sounded again, more urgently. They both turned to look out over the city. In the distance, other horns blared a response. Selden turned his head sharply. What is that? he asked her.

She shrugged. A diplomatic visit, most likely. The guards at the city gate will blow an alarm that announces the arrival. Then the horns sound again as the visitors pass each checkpoint in the city. She sipped her wine. It is nothing to do with us, my friend.

The winds had favoured them. Sintara knew that Tintaglia had not expected to arrive at the city before noon. They had come from the direction of the dry lands, and as they came to gentler territory, more than one herd had scattered in terror as they overflew them. One shepherd had dared to shout and shake his fist at them. The herdsmen they saw spurred their horses and fled, leaving their cattle to fend for themselves.

We will feast later! IceFyre promised them.

For now, fly steady and strong. We want no warning of our coming to precede us, Mercor reminded them all.

That had all been settled back in Kelsingra. IceFyre had battled humans before, and had very definite ideas of how they must proceed. There would be no trumpeting to one another, and the path that they had followed to Chalced had taken them over the deserted lands, away from eyes that might send messengers ahead to the city. Men on horses, dragons had learned long ago, could not outrun a dragon, but they could and would continue to travel by night, with no need to kill and eat and sleep. The old black dragon had been very intent on surprising Chalced, and attacking them with as little warning or challenge as they had given him.

So now they flew, swift and straight, making no kills, regardless of how easy the prey that was offered. The scattered huts and farmhouses grew more common, and soon they were flying over the outskirts of the great city. Ahead of them loomed the city walls, and high above it, on a hill within the fortified city, stood the towers and ramparts of the Duke of Chalceds stronghold. It was more fortress than palace, and as they approached it, Sintara knew a moment of unsettling doubt. This was a bad place, a very bad place, and her inability to summon up the specific memory that told her that only made it appear more ominous. IceFyre had been insistent that the entire city must be completely annihilated. That was the only point on which Mercor had directly opposed him.

My memories may not be as extensive as yours, but this I do recall. Stirring an entire city of humans is like lying down to sleep on a hill of dagger ants. They are tiny, but they will attack endlessly, summoning their fellows from other hills if they must. To be rid of them, you have only to kill the queen in the central mound. Tintaglia has spoken of being well treated by the folk that live in the Icy Islands, and along the Black Stone Coast. The Six Duchies, she called it, and said that whenever she visited there, she was offered gifts of fattened cattle and a safe place to sleep. Will destroying Chalced threaten that?

IceFyre had been angry that the golden dragon directed his question to the blue queen, but Tintaglia had obviously been pleased. The Six Duchies has long warred with Chalced. They will probably not care at all if we destroy that city. But as one who has fought a city alone, and far more recently than IceFyre, I will say that it was a task that was dangerous and yet became annoying. It takes a lot of venom to destroy ranked soldiers, and while one is smashing ships and towers, one is not hunting, eating or sleeping.

IceFyre had drawn himself taller and taller as Tintaglia spoke. Beside the blue queen, Kalo rumbled ominously as the black dragon expressed his dominance. Now IceFyre broke in with, And while humans are poisoning you or attacking you with nets and spears, are you eating or sleeping? Or dying?

Which is better a quick kill by snapping a neck, or a long battle that inflicts wounds on both combatants? she had retorted.

They flew over a fortified holding. It astonished her how quickly warning horns were sounded. They glanced back to see the walls bristling with armed men. The gates of the keep were open and six men on horseback bearing banners raced out.

Messengers, Tintaglia confirmed. But they will be too late.

In response, all the dragons picked up speed. Sintara heard the keepers calling to one another, their thin voices snatched away on the wind. Mercor had been leading them. Now IceFyre suddenly left off his rivalry with Kalo and winged past them all to try to take the lead from Mercor. Was he startled to see that Heeby and Rapskal had beaten him to it? The red queen and her rider arrowed to the front. Rapskal was leaning forward on Heebys neck, singing wild encouragement and praise to her. She had flushed a sparkling scarlet, and her wings opened and closed so swiftly that she was like a hummingbird flying with crows. She looked almost comical as she sped ahead of the others. As Relpda, overshadowed by evil little Spit, suddenly moved forward past both IceFyre and Mercor, the old black dragon trumpeted angrily.

As if that were a signal, all of the dragons suddenly roared, announcing their coming as they arrowed toward the fortified city on the hill.

Werent you all going to keep silent and take them by surprise? Sedric objected.

Dont like Heeby in front of me, Relpda responded sulkily.

Sedric was crouched in the abbreviated dragon saddle that Relpda had insisted they use, holding tight with both hands to a harness ornamented with silver bells. Carson had added a harness of rawhide straps to the saddle and he trusted it, but he could not make himself loosen his grip on it. His eyes were squinted nearly shut and still tears streamed from them from the kiss of the wind. We are in more danger here, my lovely one. Let us fall back and let the larger dragons lead the way.

Spit trumpeted derisively. Yes, listen to that skinny little flea on your back. Fall back and when they spit acid, you will fly through the cloud. Such fun for both of you.

Sedric clamped his jaws tight shut, wondering if Spit spoke true or was once more delighting in tormenting Relpda. They were flying so fast that the landscape beneath them raced by sickeningly. There went a village, bells ringing and horns sounding warnings, and on a streamer of yellow road, a man leapt from his laden cart and raced off into a grain field, to fling himself flat as if that could hide him from the dragons overhead. They paid no mind to him. Farmsteads and hamlets surrounded Chalced the city. Sedric braced himself for the attack to begin. He did not want to be here, did not want to watch Relpda deal death to unsuspecting and helpless humans.

They would kill me if they could, she reminded him, and shame rose in him. Once he had been of that mind. Forgiven, she reminded him. But I cannot forgive those who would still take my blood and scales.

Below them, people ran about furiously, some taking shelter in houses, others racing out into the streets to see what was happening. Thin screams of terror rose into the cool morning air, and then the blaring of horns. The dragons trumpeted their own mocking response to the horns and then, so abruptly that Sedric gave a shout of surprise, the dragons tipped away from each other, dividing neatly into smaller groups and descending sharply. The screams of terrorized people reached him more clearly. For an instant, he shared that terror. Dragons were come, to spit fiery acid that would melt the flesh from their bones. Their houses would fall, any man who lifted a hand against them would certainly die, and their orphaned young would whimper and snivel in the deserted and smoking streets. There was nothing, nothing they could do to oppose the dragons, the great and glorious and beautiful dragons that were deserving of their obeisance and obedience. They should flee, flee, leave their houses and run out of the city; it was their only chance

Oh. Not you. Relpda suddenly interrupted the daunting stream of emotion. Sedric felt muffled suddenly, his thoughts closed off from a flood of dragon glamour directed at those they overflew.

They circled the city in an ever-tightening spiral, bombarding the humans below with glamour. Horses, dogs, and even yoked oxen seemed as vulnerable, for Sedric saw them go suddenly mad with terror, bolting down the streets, headed out of the city, regardless of obstacles, living or otherwise, in their paths. New screams rose, more trumpets, bells rang wildly and he felt sick with horror to be a part of it. I just want it to be over, he muttered to himself.

Soon, Relpda promised. Soon.

The soup was nearly gone. Chassim refilled their wine glasses. The condemned are eating heartily, she observed.

In the near distance, a woman shrieked. A chorus of screams rose. What is it? Selden endeavoured to rise, but she waved him back. She rose, a bit unsteadily and went to the balcony wall. The streets are filling with people. Theyre running. Theyre pointing up, at us. She gazed down at them in consternation. Then she turned her head over her shoulder and gazed up. And gasped.

She turned, leaning so far back that Selden reached out and grasped her ankle. Dont fall! he commanded her. Dont go without me!

She lifted her hand and pointed. Dragons. A sky full of dragons.

Help me up, he begged her. Then, as she continued to stare at the sky, he demanded breathlessly, A blue queen. Do you see a blue queen dragon among them?

I see a red dragon. And a silver and two orange ones. A queen?

A female. Gloriously blue, with silver and black markings as well. Graceful as a butterfly, powerful as a striking hawk. Shaming the sky with her blueness.

I dont see any blue dragons.

He pushed himself away from the cushions and onto his hands and knees. Not strong enough to crawl to the edge of the balcony, he slid and lifted his body until he was able to sprawl on the floor and look up at the sky. She was right. His dragon wasnt there. Not my dragon, he said, and hopelessness filled him.

The dragons swung in an arc past the Dukes grand palace. They were coming lower. A small silver one trumpeted wildly, spraying venom with the sound. Sweet Sa, no, Selden prayed. He had seen Tintaglia rain venom down on Bingtown when she had repelled the Chalcedean invaders. He had seen droplets strike men and an instant later, fall out the other sides of their bodies, followed by blood and guts. Nothing stopped it. He tried to find words to warn Chassim, and could not form them.

The silver dragons mist fell randomly, the droplets caught on the wind. Seldens horrified gaze followed the silvery mist as it was wafted down and onto a statue in a garden. He did not hear the hiss, but he imagined it as the newly sprouted plants withered suddenly, turning to sodden brown heaps on the soil. A moment later, the statue collapsed in a gush of powder.

Theyre attacking the palace, Chassim said breathlessly. They spit something and whoever it touches crumples. Quickly. Get back inside!

No. He felt numb. Hiding inside will do us no good. Not unless you want to be under the rubble when it all collapses on us. His mouth had gone dry, his voice hoarse. Chassim, we are going to die today. Theres no help for it.

She stared at him, her eyes wide. Then she looked out over her city again. A ribbon of destruction, encircling the Dukes stronghold, was now clearly visible from the tower. It was growing wider, the swathe of collapsed buildings and melted bodies growing closer. The dragons plan was obvious. All within the circle would be drenched with acid venom. They stood in the centre of oncoming death.

My people, she said softly.

Theyre fleeing. Look at the streets, the more distant ones. Selden sat up shakily. Fear gives a man strength, he thought to himself.

The dragons arent following them. Chassim spoke slowly as she looked down at the streets choked with people. It looked as if every inhabitant of the city was running away from them. My father. The Duke. Theyve come for him, havent they?

Selden managed a nod. Im sorry. They will destroy everything to get at him, I think.

Im not sorry. She spoke the words without remorse. I pity my people. I am saddened to see them terrified. But I do not pity my father or the end he has brought upon himself. Nor am I sad that he will not drain you dry and bring your body back to me. That, at least, I am spared.

Abruptly, she sat down on the floor beside him. He reached out blindly and took her hand into his. Tears were running down her cheeks but a smile trembled on her lips. We will still die together. With a shaking hand, she reached for the teapot. Will you have a last cup of tea with me?

He turned his gaze on her. An odd calmness was welling up in him. I would rather have a kiss. My first and last, I think.

Your first kiss?

He laughed shakily. My circumstances have not lent themselves to the giving or receiving of kisses.

She blinked and the tears spilled faster. For me, also. She leaned a little closer to him and then stopped.

He looked at her. She had closed her eyes. Her hair was sleek, her skin like cream, her lips pink. Her first kiss would come from a scaled dragon-man. He leaned in and found her mouth with his. He kissed her softly, unsure of how it was done, expecting her to pull away in revulsion. Instead, when he leaned back, she was smiling through her tears.

To be touched by a man, with gentleness, she said, as if that wonder were so great, it dispelled the circling dragons.

He put his arm around her and she leaned close to him. Together they watched as the dragons swept out of sight. A moment later, they returned in another sweeping arc. For the first time he saw that two of them carried riders. Their scaled bodies gleamed in the sun as brightly as the dragons they bestrode. One of the dragons trumpeted, and suddenly the three of them swept in a wider, lower circle. As the dragons flew, they gave cry. Gleaming droplets of acid venom drifted from their wide-stretched mouths and then they suddenly beat their wings more strongly, all three rising above the swathe of death they had spewed.

Chassim put her arms around him. She held him closer and her face was white as she said quietly, It looks a quick way to die. Perhaps faster than a fall. She helped him to stand. He clung to the stone railing of the balcony and they looked down on the city.

In the distance, the streets were full of fleeing people. Horns vied with screams to fill the air but the trumpeting of the dragons triumphed over all. They fled away from the widening circle of scorched earth. A circle, a moat of death and crumbling masonry, was forming around the Dukes grand palace. Selden saw the dragons plan clearly now. They will seal the castle so there is no escape without running into the venom on the ground. And then they will slowly destroy it, Selden said quietly. The plan came so clearly into his mind. He could almost see it unfolding as if he were with the dragons above. He lifted his eyes to the sky.

I wish we could live, Chassim said wistfully. I wish I could live to see Chalced dragged out from under my fathers foot. She turned her face and her soft lips brushed his scaled cheek. I wish we could live, she whispered.

Tintaglia! He cried out his dragons name with every ounce of strength he had, shouted it in desperation. Tintaglia! If you live, then I do, also! Blue queen, gem of the skies, where are you?

Reyn felt sickened, but not by the swaying flight of the dragon. Below him, buildings were slowly crumbling. Those too slow to flee had fallen beneath dragon spray. He had pulled his tunic up over his head, and tugged the sleeves down over his hands, having seen what dragon venom could do. He viewed the world through a narrow fabric window, and wished devoutly he did not have to see much.

He could not fault the courage of the Chalcedean soldiers. He had watched them loose arrows that arced far beneath the dragons, and then watched their ranks literally melt in a fall of acid. Some gave way to the dragons glamour as they overflew them, breaking to run. But they ran the wrong way, away from the stronghold and into the acid-riddled streets that now ringed it. Poor bastards. He caught a stinging whiff of dragon venom and drew his shirt tighter over his face.

He tried to admire the dragons strategy. No dragon flew behind nor below any other. They had broken into groups and in each group, each dragon flew alongside the others. They spewed their venom so that it fell below them, and then turned back and retraced their arc, each time getting closer to the centre of the Dukes castle. Their timing was perfect, so that the dragon groups never encountered one another. The outer walls of the castle had received several passes. They were old and very stout, but the dragons were intent on killing people, not crumbling stone. Within the arcs they had overflown, nothing moved.

Tintaglia shuddered suddenly, and broke ranks. She rose so sharply that Reyn lunged from the shelter of his tunic, thrusting his hands clear of his sleeves to seize her harness. He thought she would loop over backwards. Are you hit? Have they hurt you, Tintaglia?

Hark! she responded and shot higher in the air with a speed that left him gasping. Above all the other dragons, she banked in a tight circle over the Dukes stronghold. Where? Where? Where? she demanded, ignoring Reyns cries of What is it? What is wrong?

And then she was diving, diving alone on the tallest tower of the keep, ignoring the angry trumpeting from IceFyre that she was ignoring their plans. Reyn could do nothing but hold tight to her harness and bellow his terror as she arrowed straight for the side of the tower.

She comes like a blue star falling through the heavens. She is the Empress of Destruction, the Queen of Vengeance, and if I must die, let her deliver my death to me!

That is her? She is like the fire inside a blue opal! Chassim stared, her eyes wide in terror and delight. Her body was behind his, holding him pressed against the stone balustrade so he could stand, watching the blue miracle streaking toward them.

Selden lifted his voice and found that not all music had fled from him.

She is both wise and terrible. Cleverness beyond cleverness is hers, swift-winged, sharp-taloned, and keen of sight. Tintaglia! His voice broke on the last word.

Tintaglia tipped back, giving them a view of her sparkling belly and the glittering claws on her feet.

Chassim held him tightly but her entire body was quivering. Like glittering blue steel is she! Bring my death then, lovely one. We await you.

But it was not her jaws that came at them, but her clasping front talons. Chassim staggered back from the brink as Tintaglia seized the stone balustrade of the balcony and clung, the wind of her battering wings a hurricane around them. The talons of her front feet scored and slipped on the balustrade; her hind feet were braced on the tower below. Cracks raced through the stone railing.

Climb up, climb up now, now, NOW! The man on her back was roaring the words, and then, Climb now, now! commanded the dragon, the words echoing through Seldens bones.

He tried hard to do as she commanded, but the weakness of his body betrayed him. He felt Chassim grip the back of his robe and push him forward. He caught at the strap on the dragons chest. The man on the dragon clambered down the harness, clamped a grip on his bandaged wrist and dragged him up. He screamed in pain and scrabbled feebly with his feet, then his hands found leather and iron rings to grip. Chunks of the balcony were falling away as the dragon tore them free in her desperate bid to cling to the side of the tower. The rider dragged him up and held him before him on the dragons back. Selden sagged forward, and then gripped tight as the dragon pushed off from the tower face. She swooped away from the structure as he screamed, Chassim! No, go back, Tintaglia, fair queen! Chassim!

I am here! Her voice was weak with terror.

He looked down. Chassim clung grimly to the rings of Tintaglias harness, her garments whipping in the wind as the dragon fell suddenly away from the tower. He more saw than heard her wild scream as they plummeted together.

Then, with a sickening lurch, the fall became a glide. With a beat, beat, beat of Tintaglias powerful wings, they slowly began to rise. Chassim, her teeth bared in a determined snarl, her hair a wild stream of glory around her face, climbed doggedly, ring by ring, until Seldens reaching hand closed over her wrist. Wisely, she did not trust his grip, but he could not let her go. Ring by ring, she came closer and then was hugging him as tightly as the man who held onto him. He twisted to see the rider and found himself looking upon an Elderling such as Selden had seen only in old tapestries.

Sir, I thank you, he gasped. Oh, Tintaglia, blue queen of the skies, most powerful and wisest of all dragons, I give you thanks.

Little brother, I am always doomed to find you in the damnedest places, the rider said, and abruptly Selden knew that it was Reyn who clasped him so securely. You look but two heartbeats this side of death, Reyn added.

If only you knew, Selden replied. He was suddenly dizzy and faint with relief. What do you here? Whence come all these dragons?

Dont you know them? asked Reyn. Tintaglia was ignoring her riders, carrying them higher and higher above the city, away from the death and destruction below them. You saw them encased, you saw them hatched! We come from Kelsingra, Selden, and we come to kill the Duke of Chalced for daring to hunt dragons for their blood.

Selden felt Tintaglias assent to Reyns words course through him, strong with her anger.

But what of you? continued Reyn. You sent us no word! Your sister thinks you dead and your mother fears she is right. What happened to you? I do not think you were in that tower willingly, by the look of you. And who is this you have brought with you?

Selden drew breath but before he could reply, Chassim spoke for herself. My name is Chassim. And if this glorious queen and her dragons are able to fulfil their mission today, by nightfall I shall be the rightful Duchess of Chalced. And in your debt.

Day the 10th of the Greening Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Selden Vestrit, Singer to Tintaglia, Kelsingra

To Keffria and Ronica Vestrit of the Bingtown Traders, Bingtown

Dear Mother and Grandmother,

I write this tiny scroll to be carried by Tarman to Trehaug and from there dispatched by Dunwarrow to Bingtown. A much lengthier account of my misadventures will follow, in a scroll far too heavy for any pigeon to bear. I will ask Alise to pass it to Althea to bring home to you.

For now, the essentials. I was betrayed by my companions. I was held captive, and eventually treated as a slave in Chalced. But I am alive, and once more in the incomparable company of the magnificent queen Tintaglia, to whom I owe my life and the restoration of my health. I do not wish to go into great detail about the trials I have endured, especially not on this tiny slip of paper. I will say only this now: I assure you, I am recovering and among good people.

You will doubtless hear many strange rumours about my role in the fall of Chalced and my friendship with Duchess Chassim. I will say only that the truth is undoubtedly stranger than any gossip you may hear, and the truth is what you shall have from me when the scroll arrives.

Mother, you ask me when I will come home to stay. Please do not take these words amiss. I am home. In Kelsingra, among the other Elderlings and near the dragons, I feel more at peace and more safe than I have felt in many months. My sister Malta is here, and Reyn, like a brother to me for so many years, and so many other Elderlings! The beauty of the country here is healing by itself, and I have access to thousands of records of Elderling dragon-poets who have gone before me. I am almost shamed to think I considered myself a singer, now that I have heard for myself the poets of old! And there are traditional songs that I must learn, songs for welcoming dragons, for celebrating the first flight of a hatchling, songs to thank dragons for sharing their presence with us. I think it will take me a score of years before I shall again claim I am a competent singer!

This does not mean I do not wish to see you. When my health permits, I will come for a visit. And I hope that in time you and Grandmother will be willing to undertake the journey to see me here. I would show you my city and introduce you to the keepers and the other dragons. Especially Tintaglias mate, Kalo. Such a handsome fellow, and so strong! I am as pleased to see her with him as I am sure you were delighted to see Malta settle with Reyn.

For now I must let this missive be enough, for I am already weary with writing this. Please be patient. A more detailed account will soon be in your hands.

As ever,

Your Selden

CHAPTER TWENTY Dragon Decisions | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO Summer