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It had begun rather formally as afternoon tea in the captains stateroom on the Paragon. But by the end of the first hour, it had become mugs of coffee on the foredeck of the liveship, with the figurehead fully involved in the conversation. Tarman was moored alongside Paragon at the docks of Trehaug. Alise wondered if the two ships communicated on a level that excluded humans but decided it would be rude to ask. It seemed decades since she had last been aboard Paragon. She looked back at her memory of the journey to the Rain Wilds and recalled her awkward conversation with the ship and with Althea and Brashen Trell. She laughed to herself, but no one remarked on it, for Paragon was in the middle of a lively tirade against the indignity of transporting chickens and sheep.

And I wish Tarman well with the nasty creatures. Worse than seagulls for squawking and mess on the decks.

Perhaps so, but our boy is going to miss them, Brashen observed.

I think hell miss the fresh eggs more than hell miss the messes hes had to clean up, Althea countered, laughing. She stood up and leaned to see past the deckhouse. He and Clef have just about finished transferring the stock to Tarmans deck. So we have perhaps ten more minutes of adult conversation before you are inundated with questions about the dragons and the One Day War.

Well be happy to answer them as best as we can. Not that we were there for any of it. And if we are to believe what every dragon told us of it, then each one was personally responsible for the fall of the city and the death of the Duke.

And the rise of a duchess, Althea added. Weve had bird messages from Selden, but they are not very satisfactory. We have only the bones of his tale, and each time he writes we learn a bit more, but he also tells us that still he cannot come home just yet. That there are still things he must settle there in Kelsingra. Her emphasis on the word settle made it clear that she thought there was more going on than her nephew had confided. She looked from Alise to Leftrin, perhaps seeking confirmation or gossip.

Leftrin spoke hastily. Your youngster looks like he knows his way around a deck. When you think hes ready to try a term under a different captain, hed be welcome aboard Tarman. Things are a bit more rustic and hed be sleeping in the deckhouse with the crew, but Id be glad to foster him for a trip or two.

Brashen and Althea exchanged a look, but it was not the boys mother who said, Not quite old enough yet. But Ill take you up on that offer when he is. I know hed like to see his aunt and uncle soon. Not to mention his cousin Ephron. Brashen smiled as he attempted to change the subject. When do you think Malta and Reyn might be bringing the baby downriver for a visit?

Youd take Boy-o off my decks? Paragon was appalled.

Only for a short time, ship. I know hes yours as much as ours, Brashen replied placatingly. But a slightly wider circle of experience wouldnt hurt him.

Hmph. The figurehead crossed his arms on his carved chest. His mouth went to a flat line. Perhaps when Ephron is old enough to take his place here for a time. An exchange of hostages, as it were.

Brashen rolled his eyes at them. Hes in a mood today, he said in a low voice.

I am not in a mood! Merely pointing out that you are a liveship family, and that you should think well before letting one of our own go off on another liveship, with no guarantees that he will be returned. Ideally, the exchange should be a member of Tarmans family. He turned his gaze to Leftrin and Alise. Do you expect to breed soon?

Leftrin choked on his tea.

Not that Im aware, Alise replied demurely.

A pity. It might be productive for you just now. Paragon was politely enthused.

Can we please just not? Althea asked him, almost sharply. Its bad enough to have you offering Brashen and me your helpful insights into productive breeding without you extending your wisdom to our guests.

Alise could not tell if Brashen were embarrassed or red from suppressing laughter.

It was Tarmans suggestion that they might find such information helpful, as so far they have enjoyed breeding, but fruitlessly. Thats all. Paragon was unflustered.

Brashen cleared his throat suddenly. Well, speaking of hostages

Were we? his ship interjected curiously.

We were. Speaking of hostages, how did all that work out? There were rumours in Bingtown, but we left to go south to pick up your stock, and then returned right up the river. So we havent heard much of that.

Sadly, if you ask me, Alise replied. Im sure you know that the Chalcedeans chose to drown themselves rather than face the Council or be ransomed to their duke. The Council did finally pay us, but only, I think, because I was present to speak for the keepers, and to testify that nothing nefarious had befallen any of us, except what some members of the Council itself had planned for us. Trader Candral went back on his word, and denied everything, even when confronted with all the pages he had penned while in Kelsingra. He maintained that we had forced him to write such things, and one of the Jamaillian merchants vouched for him. Personally, I suspect that some sort of a private trade agreement was brokered during the voyage back to Trehaug, one that was very profitable to the Jamaillian merchant. I fear we will never see justice for what was done to us. We should, perhaps, have kept Candral sequestered from the others. She looked to Leftrin as she said this, and he shook his head.

As loaded as Tarman was? Small chance of that. And I think there were others on the Cassarick Council that had more than an inkling of what was going on. He was protected. He shook his head. Well, theyll pay a price for that. Tarman will never carry any cargo for them again. Nor will the Warken or the White Serpent. At Brashens quirked eyebrow, Leftrin clarified, The keepers and dragons have finally named their impervious ships. Come the end of summer, they plan to make their maiden voyages on them, but to Trehaug. They wont stop in Cassarick at all. No goods from Kelsingra will ever be traded there, until the Council investigates and punishes those who plotted against us.

The most solid blow that a Trader can take is to his purse, Althea approved. You may yet rout out the rotten apples in the barrel. And the others?

The slaves who were working the ships stayed in Kelsingra. Some seem to be adapting. Others may want to leave. Weve left that up to them. There were others, some from Bingtown, a few from Trehaug. None of them wanted to stand as a witness against Candral. So we cant actually prove that Candral or any others on the Council were either bribed or threatened by the Chalcedeans to sabotage us. So. Refusing to trade with them is as much as we can do to them, Leftrin concluded sombrely.

They tried to kill Tintaglia, Paragon reminded them all severely.

The orders to attack her and IceFyre originated in Chalced, Alise pointed out gently. And Sa knows theyve paid for it a hundred times over.

Paragon made a sceptical sound, but all the humans fell silent for a time. The reports of the fall of Chalced had been dire. The Dukes palace had fallen to IceFyres orchestrated attack. The old black dragon had been both ruthless and relentless. He had not been content with killing the occupants. By the time the dragons had finished, nothing but crumbled ruins remained. There had been a disorderly military response that Spit had enthusiastically defeated. The populace had quickly learned that not even buildings offered any real protection against dragons newly infused with Silver. By evening, a cowed group of nobles offered a surrender, only to discover that the dragons had captured the Duchess of Chalced and already arranged terms with her.

Rapskal and Heeby remained in Chalced. Nortel, Kase and Boxter and their dragons stayed as well. Strange to think that four dragons are deemed an ample force to back the new duchess as she establishes her authority over Chalced.

So Kelsingra favours her rise to power? Althea asked.

Alise lifted one shoulder. The dragons favour her rise to power. She set very favourable terms for an alliance. Chalced had always had harsher laws than Bingtown. She has imposed a death sentence on anyone who lifts a hand against a dragon. Shepherds and herdsmen are to pay a dragon tax that sets aside a certain number of beasts each year as prey for dragons. She had some opposition from some of the nobles at first, but she was ruthless with them. That the nobles must recognize her authority had been a key term of their negotiations and the end of hostilities. Only one defied her. She sent the dragons. That was the end of it.

Harsh, Brashen said quietly.

Chalcedean, Leftrin replied. He shrugged. I dont think she could establish order there any other way. There is still restlessness in Chalced, especially in the outlying provinces, but I dont think it will reach civil war, as some said. Duchess Chassim seems to be trying for other alliances as well.

Alise broke in with, We heard an extraordinary rumour that the new duchess was actually negotiating a truce between the Chalced States and the Six Duchies region of Shoaks.

Preposterous, Althea said. No one remembers a time when those two countries werent warring.

So preposterous, its probably true, Brashen offered. All of them fell silent for a moment, considering the changes.

Selden, Althea abruptly said. She looked directly at Alise. How is he? Really?

Alise looked for a long moment at Leftrin, decided that they were owed honesty, and met Altheas gaze. You are his family. You need to know. He is scarred, and not just physically. The Duke was literally devouring him. Sucking the blood right out of his veins. The marks on his arms were still visible weeks after Tintaglia brought him back to Kelsingra. When first I saw him, I could not believe he was standing upright by himself; he was so thin and his face so drawn.

Althea went pale. Wed heard rumours. Sweet Sa. Little Selden. I think of him, and I see him always as a noisy little fellow of seven or eight. But we heard other rumours, ones that link him with the Duchess of Chalced? They made no sense to us!

They were prisoners together, Alise confirmed. And they seem to have formed an attachment. More than that, I dont know, so I wont gossip. Except to say that I know some have been critical that the dragons and Kelsingra have backed the young Duchess of Chalced in taking over rule of her country. They say we should have made Chalced completely subservient. But if not for the efforts of the Duchess Chassim, Selden would have died there. From what he tells us, her imprisonment was worse than his and for years longer. Given all she did for him, as an Elderling and as Tintaglias Singer, those who negotiated the terms felt that putting her in power would be the swiftest path to peace in the region.

Brashen scratched his chin and then smiled at Althea. Changing history seems to run in your family. First Wintrow and Malta, now Selden. He took a sip of his tea.

Paragon spoke up, his voice wry. So fortunate for you that you married the sane, responsible female in the family.

Brashen choked. Althea slapped him on the back, perhaps a trifle harder than she needed to. She spoke through his choking laughter. But Selden is recovering?

Quite remarkably, given all he endured, and not just at the hands of the Duke of Chalced. Tintaglia has hinted that some of his illness was simply due to his unsupervised growth. He was young when she Changed him, and away for quite a time, so not all was right inside his body

That is dragons business! Paragon interrupted indignantly.

That is family business. Selden is my nephew, Paragon, as well as Tintaglias Elderling. I have a right to know how he progresses, and therefore, so do you! And you should care as much as I do.

The rebuke from Althea subdued the ship. Paragons face grew thoughtful. He lowered his voice. Did not they think to treat him with Silver?

Alise stared at him for a moment, shocked that he would speak such a secret aloud. Then she decided that if it was dragons business, then he had the right to know the whole of it. The knowledge of how to do that is lost to us, Alise told him. But his dragon oversees him daily. His outer injuries have healed. He walks among us, and eats well, and sings to Tintaglia once more. And I suspect that you will see him again, down this way. He desires to visit not only the Khuprus family in Trehaug, but also his mother in Bingtown. And eventually to return to Chalced and the Duchess.

I would not allow that, were I Tintaglia, Paragon offered.

She was instrumental in keeping him alive when her fathers treatment of him would have otherwise killed him. Its a very long story, Paragon. There is a great deal more than what I have told you.

But tonight, you will return to tell it to us? the ship suggested.

Leftrin stood and walked to the side. Alise followed him. He looked down on the deck of his own ship. Hennesey looked up at him unhappily and gestured at the animals penned on the aft deck of the barge. Clef was grinning and describing something to a horrified Skelly. Boy-o sat on Tarmans railings, swinging his heels and laughing. Leftrin glanced over at Alise. We should get under way. But I think we can stay until morning.

There has to be a better way to house these birds, Sedric complained. He ducked as one of the message birds took sudden unreasonable fear and leapt from its perch to flap crazily past his head. It alighted on one of the nesting boxes fastened to the wall.

The structure was one of the smaller, more dilapidated buildings near the rivers edge. Since it was already in poor condition, the keepers had decided that keeping pigeons in it could scarcely do it more harm. Carson scowled at the musty straw, thick with bird droppings, that floored the small house where they had confined their little flock of pigeons. Or a better way to send messages between here and the rest of the world, he countered. I think we were too hasty in asking for messenger birds. Especially since none of us know much about them. He squinted at the birds. Which one just came in?

They all look alike to me, Sedric replied. But this is the only one with a message tube tied to its leg. Come here, bird. I wont hurt you. Come here.

He moved slowly, his reaching hands framing the bird. It rocked from foot to foot on its perch but before it could decide to take flight, Sedric gently closed his hands on it. There. Not so bad, is it? Not so terrible. No one wants to eat you. We just want the message tube. He held the struggling birds wings smooth to its body, offering it feet-first to Carson.

Just a moment, just a moment this string is so fine. Its hard to find ah, theres the end. And here we have it. You can let him go.

Sedric held the bird a moment longer, soothing it and smoothing its feathers, before setting it back on its perch. The animal recovered almost immediately, and began greeting his mate with a cooing, bobbing dance. Sedric followed Carson outside into the sunlight.

Whos it from? Leftrin? Are they delayed in Trehaug?

Im still trying to get it open. Wait a moment. The caps off but the little paper wont come out. Here. You try. The hunter passed the small tube to the curious Sedric and smiled as he watched him eagerly tap and shake the tube until the edge of the paper showed.

Sedric coaxed out the tiny roll and opened it. His brows went up in surprise as he read, and then a furrow formed between them. He let the paper coil in his hands.

What is it? Bad news?

Sedric rubbed his face. No. Just a bit of a surprise for me. I recognized the handwriting. Its a note from Wollom Courser. And its actually addressed to me. Hes an old friend from Bingtown. One of Hests circle.

Oh? Carsons voice was slightly cooler.

Theyve raised a substantial reward for anyone who can send them news of whats become of Hest. Wollom adds his own plea. Evidently he thinks that perhaps Hest is hiding here with me, avoiding his old life and his familys disgrace and living well in Kelsingra. His gaze met Carsons.

The big man turned up an empty hand. No one saw him again after that day. I dont know, Sedric. Ive wondered about it more than once, but I just dont know what became of him. We left him there in the tower. Youve said he wasnt a hunter or a fisherman. No food has gone missing. No one, keeper or dragon, has seen him. Weve told them that.

Sedrics hand closed on the paper, crumpling it. You dont know what became of him. And I dont care. He tossed the message to the ground and the wind off the river gave it a small push. Carson looked at it for a moment, and then put his arm across Sedrics shoulder.

The pigeons are all right for now, he said. But what we should give some thought to is where we want to house the chickens. The summer sunlight glinted on the two Elderlings as they turned away from the river and walked up into Kelsingra.

What do you think is beyond the foothills?

More foothills. Tats panted. Then mountains.

They had paused to catch their breath and drink from their water-skin. The day was warm. Summer was growing strong. Thymara had freed her wings from her tunic and held them half-open to cool herself. Tats and Thymara had been climbing steadily since morning. They both carried their bows, but Thymara was more interested in exploration than hunting today. She turned and looked down over the green-flanked hills to the city below them. Most of it remained still and uninhabited, but there was activity down near the docks. The crew of the White Serpent had taken her out on the river. The oars moved evenly as the ship moved against the current. The wind carried the faint shouts of Rachard as he called the stroke-beat to them. The former slave was the teacher now, and seemed to be adapting well to his new role.

Look. Thymara pointed in a different direction. Sedrics trees. The ones he and Carson dug up and moved to the big pots on the Square of the Dragons? You can actually see the leaves on them from here. They almost look like trees now instead of sticks.

A dragon trumpet, a taunting challenge, turned Thymaras eyes to the clear blue sky above. Again? she groaned aloud.

Apparently, Tats said with vast approval. He swivelled his head. Where is he?

Tintaglia was overhead. As they watched, she spiralled upward, ever higher. She trumpeted again, and they heard it answered from the east. They both turned to watch Kalo coming. This was not the leisurely circling of a dragon seeking game, nor the diving fall of a dragon strike. His long powerful wings drove him forward and upward. He looked black against the blue of the sky, except that each down-stroke briefly bared the silver tips of his wings. His long tail snaked and lashed behind him as he flew.

Tintaglia was a glittering blue set of wings in the sky. She hung, circling effortlessly. Her mocking call reached them clearly.

Tats scanned the rest of the sky. I dont see IceFyre this time.

That last battle was pretty savage. Alise told me that from what she learned when she first studied dragons from scrolls and records, the males seldom did serious injury to one another in mating battles.

I dont think Kalo read the same scrolls she did. I think that after their last clash, IceFyre conceded. Probably went off to kill something big, eat it and sleep it off. Tats nodded to himself. The better dragon won. Im glad Kalo got a mate.

Thymara corked the water-skin. Lets follow that cleft up to the cliffs. I want to look at them and see how hard theyd be to climb.

Tats stood staring upward. Kalos deep frustrated roars were answering Tintaglias clear trumpeting. Dont you want to watch? he teased her.

Thank you, but half a dozen times was enough. Cant they be done with it for the day?

I think theyre enjoying it. Wait. Whats that?

Something had caught his attention in a different quadrant of the sky. Thymara strained her eyes. Sintara. But whats she doing?

The younger blue queen was moving faster than Thymara had ever seen her fly. Arrow straight she flew. Then as golden Mercor crested the ridge behind them, Thymara heard Sintara utter the same challenging trumpet that she had first heard from Tintaglia. Scarlet Baliper and orange Dortean suddenly rose from the forested hillside. Oh, this should be good, Tats exclaimed and sat down. He flopped back in the meadow grass and stared at the rivals as they closed in on Sintara. Baliper might have a chance against Mercor, he speculated. Theyre about of a size, but I think Mercor is cleverer. Dortean? I dont think so.

As if the dragons had heard him, Mercor suddenly looped in his flight and turned on the hapless Dortean. The orange male fled but could not evade the golden. Mercor chased him as he fled, and as Dortean neared the ground, Mercor dived on him. Dortean no longer had the altitude for evasion. He crashed into the trees, sending a large flock of starlings into mad flight. Mercor narrowly avoided following his rival into arboreal disaster. Wings beating strongly, he pulled up just above the treetops and skimmed over them. The branches waved wildly in his wake.

Baliper had made good use of the distraction. The red dragon battered his way skyward, while Sintara continued to mock him. Mercor roared a challenge at him, but Baliper did not waste his breath in a response and continued to gain on Sintara. Her mockery changed to an angry cry. She flew at him, they clashed in midair, and Baliper fell away in a dazed spiral. In a dozen wing-beats they had both recovered, but he had lost more altitude than she had. He was focused completely on his pursuit of her when Mercor struck him from behind.

Baliper writhed back, flipping to face the golden, and the males gripped, talons to talons. Wings beating wildly, front talons clenched and roaring at one another, they were falling through the sky as they tore at each other with their clawed hind feet. Sintara, silent now, circled above them, watching her suitors fight. Far above her, the silhouettes of Tintaglia and Kalo had merged.

Theyre falling, falling break it up, fellows, or youll both die! Tats cried out in awe.

But Baliper and Mercor did not separate, not for another two breaths. Then with an infuriated scream, Mercor abruptly tore himself free of the scarlet dragon. Wings beating wildly, he careened off. Baliper managed to flip over, and then to veer away from the trees that had awaited him. He landed badly in a meadow, rolling and bending a wing before crashing to a halt. Thymara stared at him, sick with dread, until she saw him lift his head, stand, and then shake his wings back into position. As if aware of her gaze, he gave a final angry trumpet before stalking off into the shelter of the woods.

Hes nearly caught her! Tats exclaimed admiringly.

Thymara turned her eyes skyward. Sintara seemed to be making a very genuine attempt to escape Mercor. She looped back once, slashed at him with an angry scream, and then tried to resume her climb. It was useless. The tempo of Mercors golden wings increased and his speed with it. Suddenly, the golden dragon overshadowed the blue. His head snaked in to seize the back of her neck in his teeth.

Hes got her. Tats sounded very satisfied. He rolled his head to grin at Thymara and then continued to watch the mating dragons.

Thymara made a disgusted exclamation and gave him a strong push. He turned to her, grinning, and before she could draw her hand back, he seized her wrist. He tried to pull her to him, but she jerked free of him, turned and ran. Her heart was beating wildly. Thymara! Tats shouted and No! she called over her shoulder.

She ran, but the sudden thunder of his footfalls was close behind her. She felt him catch at the trailing edge of her wing. She snatched it from his grip, felt a sudden lift from her spread wings, and closed them on the down-beat. Behind her, Tats gave a wordless startled cry.

The ravine! he shouted, and she saw it wide before her. It gaped, a steep-sided crack in the hillside, possibly a scar of the same quake that had levelled parts of Kelsingra. She started to slow, to turn to elude him, but he was too close behind her. Dont be stupid! he shouted, but it wasnt, she decided, it wasnt stupid at all.

She snapped her wings open, managed two down-beats that nearly lifted her off her feet and then she leapt. For a dizzying moment, there was nothing under her feet save the sudden drop-off. In the ravine far below her, she glimpsed a narrow, rushing stream cutting its way toward the river. Three more beats of her wings lifted her and then, as she lost focus and altitude in amazement at what she had done, the meadow on the other side seemed to reach up for her. She landed running, caught herself, skidded to a halt on her knees and then turned. Tats! I flew! I really flew, it wasnt just a jump. I flew!

Tats had halted on the other side of the cleft in the earth. He was staring at her, a very strange expression on his face. Abruptly, he turned away. He walked off and then, putting his head down and pumping his arms, he ran from her.

She watched him go. Her heart that had been beating so wildly with joy and excitement now seemed to pump coldness through her body. Too strange. She was too strange for him. She glanced down at the black claws on her hands that had set her apart since the day she was born. She had always been too strange, too Changed by the Rain Wilds. The wings and the flight had been too much even for loyal Tats. Tears stung her eyes as she watched him go.

A shrill keening turned her eyes upward. Yes. Mercor had caught Sintara. Joined, they circled high above her. She shook her head, tried to clear it of the dragons heat that she had experienced so clearly. Time to be practical. Her bow. Had she dropped her bow in her wild flight from Tats? Where? On the other side?

She looked back the way she had come and saw Tats coming at her. He had gone up the hill slightly and now was running back down it in silence. His teeth were gritted in determination. The gully! She shrieked the warning at him, but it was too late. In two strides he reached it and flung himself forward in a wild leap.

He couldnt possibly make it.

But he did.

He hit on his feet, tucked his head down, rolled in a wild somersault and came up on his feet again. His impetus carried him forward and he crashed into her. But as his arms wrapped around her and he carried her to the ground with him, she knew it was no accident. Caught you, he said.

The impact had driven the breath from her body. She gasped in air and, Yes, she answered. You have. At last. She saw his eyes widen. Then, as she took a deeper breath, his mouth covered hers. She closed her eyes, feeling his weight on her, smelling him, pulling him closer. The sun was above them, warming the whole world, and the only sound she heard was the joyous trumpeting of dragons.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Chalced | Blood of Dragons | EPILOGUE Generation