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CHAPTER SIX

Dragon Blood

He looks sick, the Duke objected.

Chancellor Ellik lowered his eyes silently, humiliated that his duke would publicly disparage the gift he had brought, but he would bow his head and accept it. He had no choice in that, and it pleased the Duke to keep him aware of that.

The private audience room was warm, possibly stifling to some of those in attendance. The Duke had lost so much flesh that he felt cold all the time, even on a fine spring day. Fires crackled in both the large hearths, the stone floors were thickly carpeted and the walls draped with tapestries. Soft, warm robes swaddled the Dukes thin body. Still, he felt chilled, though sweat stood on the faces of the six guardsmen who attended him. The only others in the room were his Chancellor and the creature he had dragged in with him.

The chained dragon-man, the Elderling that stood before him, did not sweat. He was thin, with sunken eyes and lank hair. Ellik had allowed him only a loincloth, doubtless the better to show off his scaled flesh. A pity it also showed his ribs and how the knobs of his elbows and knees stood out. A bandage was bound to one of his shoulders. Not at all the glorious being that the Duke had anticipated.

I am sick.

The creatures voice startled him. It was not just that he could speak; his voice was stronger than the Duke would have expected it to be, given his condition. Moreover, he spoke in Chalcedean. It was accented but clear enough.

The Elderling coughed as if to illustrate that he spoke the truth, the light sort of throat-clearing one did when afraid that coughing hard enough to clear the mucus would hurt more than it was worth. The Duke was familiar with that sort of cough. The creature drew the back of one slender blue-scaled hand across his mouth, sighed and then lifted his eyes to meet the Dukes stare. When he let his hands drop back to his sides, the chains on his wrists rattled. His eyes were human, in this light, but when he had first been brought into the chamber his gaze had seemed lambent like a cats, gleaming blue in the candlelight.

Silence! Ellik spat the word at his creature. Silence and on your knees before the Duke. He expressed his frustration with a sharp jerk on the dragon-mans chain and the creature stumbled forward, falling to his knees and barely catching himself on his hands.

The dragon-man cried out as he slapped the floor and then, with difficulty, straightened so that he was kneeling. He glared hatred at Ellik.

As the Chancellor drew his fist back, the Duke intervened. So. It can talk, can it? Let it speak, Chancellor. It amuses me. The Duke could see that this did not please Ellik. All the more reason to hear what the dragon-man would say.

The scaled man cleared his throat but still spoke hoarsely. His courtesy was that of a man on the crumbling edge of sanity. The Duke was familiar with that sort of final clutching at normality. Why did desperate men believe that logic and formality could restore them to a life that had vanished?

My name is Selden Vestrit of the Bingtown Traders, fostered by the Khuprus family of the Rain Wild Traders, and Singer to the Dragon Tintaglia. But perhaps you know that? The man looked up into the Dukes face hopefully. When he saw no recognition there, he resumed speaking. Tintaglia chose me to serve her, and I was glad to do so. She gave me a task. The dragon bid me go forth, to see if I could find others of her kind or hear any tales of them. And I went. I journeyed far with a group of Traders. I went for love of the dragon, but they went in the hope of gaining her favour and somehow turning that favour to wealth. But no matter where we went, our search was fruitless. The others wanted to turn back, but I knew I had to go on.

Once more, his eyes searched the Dukes impassive face for some sort of sympathy or interest. The Duke allowed his face to betray no interest in the tale. The dragon-singers voice was more subdued when he went on. Eventually, my own people betrayed me. The Traders I travelled with dismissed our quest. I think they felt I had betrayed them, had led them on a foolish venture that had used up their money and gained them nothing. They stole everything I had and at the next port, they sold me as a slave. My new owners took me far to the south and displayed me at markets and crossroads fairs. But then, when my novelty waned, and I began to get sick, they sold me again. I was shipped north, but pirates took our vessel and I changed hands. I was bought as a freak to be displayed to the curious. Somehow, your Chancellor learned of my existence and brought me here. And now, I have come to you.

The Duke had known nothing of that. He wondered if Ellik had, but he did not look at his Chancellor. The dragon-man held his attention. He spoke persuasively, this dragon-singer. His voice was rough, the music gone from it, but the cadence and tone of his words would have been convincing to a less susceptible man. The Duke made no response to him. Desperation broke into his voice on his next words and the Duke wondered if he were younger than he appeared.

Those who claimed to own me and sold me were liars! I am not a slave. I have never committed any crime to be punished with slavery, nor ever been a citizen of any place where such a punishment is accepted. If you will not free me on my own word that my imprisonment is unjust, then let me send word to my people. They will buy my freedom back from you. He coughed again, harder this time, and pain spasmed across his face with each rough exhalation. He barely managed to remain kneeling upright, and when he wiped his mouth, his lips remained wet with mucus. It was a disgusting display.

The Duke regarded him coldly. Now I know your name, but who you are does not matter to me. It is what you are that brings you here. You are part dragon and that is all I care about. He considered his options. How long have you been ill?

No. You are wrong. I am not part dragon. I am a man, changed by a dragon. My mother is from Bingtown, but my father was a Chalcedean, Kyle Haven. He was a sea captain. A man just like you.

The creature dared to knot his fists as he advanced on his knees. Ellik jerked on the leash he held and the Elderling gave a wordless cry of pain. Ellik spurned him casually with a booted foot, pushing him over on his side. The creature glared up at him. The Chancellor set his boot on the chained Elderlings throat and for a moment the Duke recognized the warrior Ellik had once been.

You had best find some courtesy, Elderling, or I will teach you some myself. Ellik spoke severely, but the Duke wondered if it was truly out of respect for him, or if he wanted to silence the creature before his gift could deny his bloodlines again. It didnt matter. The fine scaling, the blue colouration, even the gleaming eyes proved he was not human. A clever lie, to pretend his father was Chalcedean. Clever as a dragon, as the saying went.

How long have you been ill? the Duke demanded again.

I dont know. The Elderling had lost his defiance. He did not look up at the Duke as he spoke. It is hard to tell the passage of time from inside a dark ships belly. But I was already ill when they sold me, and sick when the pirates took the ship I was on. For a time, they feared to touch me, and not just because of my appearance. He coughed again, curling inward where he lay.

He is down to bone, the Duke observed.

Such, I believe, is their natural shape, Ellik suggested cautiously. To be long and thin like that. There are some few images of them in old scrolls that depict them that way. Tall and scaled.

Has he fever?

He is warmer perhaps than a man, but again, such may be the way of his kind.

I am sick! the creature declared again, with more force. Ive lost flesh, I cannot take a deep breath, and yes, I burn with fever. Why do you care to ask me such questions? Will you or will you not let me send word to those who would ransom me? Ask what you wish for me; I wager it will be paid.

I do not eat the flesh of sick animals, the Duke said coldly. He fixed his gaze on Ellik. Nor do I appreciate having one brought into my presence, to give off contagious vapours. Perhaps you meant well, Chancellor, but this does not fulfil your portion of our agreement.

Your Excellency, Ellik acceded. He had to agree, but there was the slightest bit of stiffness in his voice. I apologize for inflicting his presence on you. I will remove him immediately from your sight.

No. The Duke gathered his wits carefully. The tiny sample of flesh that Ellik had given him weeks ago had been invigorating. For almost two days after he had consumed it, he had digested his other food well, and been able even to stand and walk a few steps unaided. Then the sense of well-being had passed and his weakness had returned. So the flesh of a dragon-man had not cured him, but it had given him strength for a few days. He narrowed his eyes, appraising. The creature was valuable, and to disappoint Ellik too much at this juncture would be a serious mistake. He needed to accept the Elderling as a gift, to let Ellik feel he remained high in his favour. He knew that Elliks strength was what currently supported his throne. But he must not give too much power over to the Chancellor. He could not yet surrender his daughter to him in marriage. For once Ellik had got a belly on the daughter, what need would he have of the father?

The Duke pondered his options, taking his time, not caring how his guardsmen shifted in the heat or how Elliks face darkened with shame and perhaps anger. He considered the Elderling. One could become ill from eating a sick animal. But a sick animal could be cured and become useful again. The Elderlings vitality seemed strong even if he was ailing. Perhaps he could be cured.

He considered putting the creature in Chassims care. Among his women, her skills as a healer had been well known, and it would certainly keep Ellik off-balance. At present, his daughter was securely confined and isolated. Daily she sent messages to him, demanding to know what she had done, to be treated so. He had not replied to any of them. The less she knew, the fewer weapons she had to turn against him. The Elderling would have to be confined in similar circumstances to keep him safe and reserve him for his sole use. And he certainly would not entrust his care to his bumbling healers. They had not been successful in healing him; why give them the chance to sicken this creature further? Pure jealousy that the Chancellor had procured for him what they had not might lead them to poison the dragon-man.

He nodded to himself as he fitted the pieces together. The plan pleased him. The Elderling would be put into Chassims care. He would let her know that if she cured him, she might win her freedom. And if he died he would leave her to imagine the consequences of such a failure. For now, he would not ingest any of the creatures blood until he was sure it was healthy. And if the Elderling could not be made healthy enough to consume, there was still the possibility that it could be traded for what he did desire. The dragon-man had implied that he was valuable to his own kind. The Duke leaned back on this throne, found it no more comfortable for his jutting bones, and curled forward again. And all the while the fallen creature stared up at him defiantly and Ellik seethed.

Enough of this. Be decisive. Or at least appear that way. Summon my gaoler, he said, but even as his guards flinched at his command, he lifted a finger and gestured that Ellik was to be the one to obey his wish. When he arrives, I will speak to him and tell him that this Elderling is to be confined with my other special prisoner, and treated just as gently. I think that in time, he will recover his health and we will have a good use for him. You, good Chancellor, will be allowed to accompany him, and be sure he is put where he will be warm and comfortable and that good food reaches him. He waited a moment, giving Ellik time to fear that the Duke was simply going to make off with his exotic gift and return him no recompense. When he saw the sparks of anger begin to kindle, he spoke again.

And I will convey to my gaoler that you are to have the privilege of visiting both my prisoners, when and as you wish. It seems only right to reward you with some privilege. Access to what will eventually be yours, so to speak Does that seem fair to you, Chancellor?

Ellik met the Dukes gaze and very slowly, understanding dawned in his eyes. It is beyond fair, Excellency. I will fetch him immediately. He tugged at his prizes chain, but the Duke shook his head. Leave the dragon-man here while you fetch the gaoler. I have my guards and I think I have little to fear from such a rack of bones.

An expression of uneasiness flickered over the Chancellors face, but he bowed deeply and then backed slowly from the room. When he was gone, the Duke sat regarding his prize. The Elderling did not look as if he had been severely abused. Starved a bit, perhaps, and his fading bruises spoke of a beating. But there were no signs of infected injuries. Perhaps he just needed to be fed up. What do you eat, creature? he demanded.

The Elderling met his gaze. I am a man, despite my appearance. I eat what you would eat. Bread, meat, fruit, vegetables. Hot tea. Good wine. Clean food of any kind would be welcome to me.

The Duke could hear some relief in the creatures voice. He had understood that he was to be treated well and given time to heal. There was no need to put any other thought in his mind.

If you will but give me ink and paper, the creature said, I will compose a letter to my family. They will ransom me.

And your dragon? Did not you say you sang for a dragon? What might he give for your safe return?

The Elderling smiled but there was a wry twist to his mouth. It is hard for me to say. Nothing at all, perhaps. Tintaglia does not act by predictable human standards. At any moment of any hour, her fancy toward me might change. But I think you would win her goodwill if I were returned safely to where she could eventually find me again.

Then you do not know where she is? The possibility of holding this Selden hostage and luring his dragon in to where it could be slain and butchered faded a bit. If he was telling the truth at all. Dragons were notorious liars.

Held in captivity as I was, I was carried far from where I might expect to see her. Possibly she believes I have abandoned her. In any case, it has been years since I have seen her.

Not the most encouraging news. But you come from the Rain Wilds? And there they have many dragons, do they not?

The creature drew breath to speak, seemed to waver in his resolve and then said, The rumour of the dragons hatching went far and wide when it happened. I have not been home for a long time. I cannot say with certainty how the dragons that hatched there have fared.

Did the creature sense that there was a bargain to be struck? Let him think on it, then, but best not to let him know the Dukes life depended on it. He heard the footfalls of the gaoler and Ellik as they approached the doorway and nodded gravely to the creature.

Farewell for now, Elderling. Eat well, rest and grow strong. Later, perhaps, we will speak again. He looked away from the creature. Guards. Bear me to the sheltered garden. And mulled wine is to await me there when I arrive.


In late morning, Tintaglia smelled wood-smoke on the wind. The breeze had carried it a long way; nonetheless, it lifted her heart. Trehaug was not far now and the day was still young. The thought that soon she would see her Elderlings again cheered her. Pumping her wings more strongly, she braced herself against the pain. It was endurable now that an end was in sight. She would summon Malta and Reyn and they would attend to her injury. It would not be pleasant, but with their clever little hands, they could search the wound and pull out the offensive arrowhead. Then, a soothing poultice and perhaps some grooming by them. She made a small sound of longing in her throat. Selden had always been the best at grooming her. Her small singer had been devoted to her. She wondered if he were still alive somewhere and how much he would have aged. It was hard to understand how quickly humans aged. A few seasons passed and suddenly they were old. A few more and they were dead. Would Malta and Reyn have aged much?

Useless to wonder. She would see them soon. If they were too old to help her, she would use her dragon glamour to win others to her service.

As the afternoon sun began to slant across the river, the smells of humanity grew stronger. There was more smoke on the wind and the other stenches of human habitation. Their sounds reached her sensitive ears as well. Their chittering calls to one another vied with the sound of their endless remaking of the world. Axes bit wood into pieces and hammers nailed it back together. Humans could never accept the world as it was and live in it. They were always breaking it and living amongst the shattered pieces.

On the river, bobbing boats battled the current. As her shadow swept across them, men looked up, yelling and pointing. She ignored them. Ahead of her were the floating docks that served the treetop city. She swept over them, displeased at how small they seemed. She had landed on them before, when she was not long out of her cocoon. True, planks had split and broken free under her impact, and the boats tethered to them had taken some damage and some had floated away down the river, still attached to a broken piece of dock. But that was scarcely her fault; humans should build more sturdily if they wanted dragons to come calling.

She grunted in pain as she banked her wings and circled. This was going to hurt no matter whether she landed in the water or on the dock. The dock, then. She opened her wings and beat them, letting her clawed feet reach toward the dock. On the long wooden structure, humans were yelling and running in all directions.

OUT OF MY WAY! she warned them, trumpeting the thought as well as impressing it on their tiny brains. Malta! Reyn! Attend me! Then her outstretched front legs struck the planking. The floating dock sank under her; tethered boats leaned in wildly and shattered pieces of wood went flying. Grey river water surged up to drench her, and as she roared in outrage at its cold and acid touch, the buoyancy of the dock suddenly asserted itself. The structure rose under her until the water barely covered her feet. She lashed her tail in disgust and felt wood give beneath the impact. She looked over her shoulder at a boat that was now listing and taking on water. A foolish place to tie that, she observed, and moved down the dock that swayed and sank beneath her every tread until she emerged onto the muddy, trodden shore. As she left the dock, most of it bobbed back up to the surface. Only one boat broke free and floated away.

On the solid if muddy earth, she halted. For a time, all she did was breathe. Waves of heat swept through her, flushing her hide with the colours of anger and pain. She bowed her head to her agony and kept very still, willing it to pass. When finally it eased and her mind cleared, she lifted her head and looked around.

The humans who had fled shrieking at her approach were now beginning to gather at a safe distance. They ringed her like carrion birds, chattering like a disturbed flock of rooks. The shrillness was as annoying as her inability to separate any one stream of thought from any of them. Panic, panic, panic! That was all they were conveying to one another.

Silence! she roared at them, and for a wonder, they stilled. The pain of her injury was beginning to assert itself. She had no time for these chittering monkeys. Reyn Khuprus! Malta! Selden! She threw that last name out hopefully.

One of the men, a burly fellow in a stained tunic, found the courage to address her. None of them here! Seldens been gone a long time, and Reyn and Malta went to Cassarick and havent been seen since! Nor Reyns sister Tillamon. All vanished!

What? Outrage swept through her. She lashed her tail and then bellowed again at the pain it cost her. All gone? Not a Khuprus to attend me? What insult is this?

Not every Khuprus is gone. The woman who shouted the words was old. Her facial scaling proclaimed her a Rain Wilder. The hair swept up and pinned to her head was greying, but she strode swiftly down the wide path from the city toward the dragon. The other humans parted to let her through. She walked fearlessly, though with one hand she motioned for her daughter, trotting uncertainly behind her, to stay well back.

Tintaglia lifted her head to look down on the old woman. She could not quite close her wing over her injury, so she let both her wings hang loose as if she did it intentionally. She waited until the woman was quite close; then she said, I remember you. You are Jani Khuprus, mother of Reyn Khuprus.

I am.

Where is he? I wish for him and Malta to attend me at once. She would not tell this woman she was injured. Beneath the humans fog of fear she sensed a simmering anger. And she was still hearing shouts and curses from the area of the flimsy dock she had landed on. She hoped theyd repair it sufficiently for her to safely launch from it.

Reyn and Malta are gone. I have not seen or heard from them in days.

Tintaglia stared at the woman. There was something You are lying to me.

She felt a moment of assent but the words that came from the womans lips denied it. I have not seen them. I am not sure where they are.

But you suspect you know. Tintaglia spun the silver of her eyes slowly while she fixed her thought on the upright old woman. She reached for strength and then exuded glamour at Jani. The woman cocked her head and a half-smile formed on her face. Then she drew herself up very straight and fixed her own stern gaze on the dragon. Without speaking, she conveyed to Tintaglia that attempting to charm her had made her more wary and less cooperative.

Tintaglia abruptly wearied of the game. I have no time for this. I need my Elderlings. Where did they go, old woman? I can tell that you know.

Jani Khuprus just stared at her. Plainly she did not like to be exposed as a liar. The other humans behind her shifted and murmured to one another.

Half my damn boats smashed! A mans voice.

Tintaglia turned her head slowly; she knew how sudden movements could wake pain. The man striding toward her was big, as humans went, and he carried a long, hooked pole. It was some sort of boatmans tool but he carried it as if it might be a weapon. Dragon! He roared the word at her. What are you going to do to make it good?

He brandished the object in a way that made it clear he intended to threaten her. Ordinarily, it would not have concerned her; she doubted it would penetrate her thickest scaling. It would only do damage if he found a tender spot. Such as her wound. She moved deliberately to face him, hoping he would not realize that her slowness was due to weakness rather than disdain for him.

Make it good? she asked snidely. If you had made it good in the first place, it would not have shattered so easily. There is nothing I can do to make it good for you. I can, however, make it much worse for you. She opened her jaws wide, showing him her venom sacs, but he obviously thought that she threatened to eat him. He stumbled back from her, his pike all but forgotten in his hand. When he thought he was a safe distance, he shouted, This is your fault, Jani Khuprus! You and your kin, those Elderlings are the ones who brought the dragons here! Much good they did us!

Tintaglia could almost see the fury rise in the old woman. She advanced on the man, heedless that it brought her within range of the dragon. Much good? Yes, much good, if you count keeping the Chalcedeans out of our river! Im sorry your boat was damaged, Yulden, but dont throw the blame on me, or mock my children.

Its the dragons fault, not Janis! A womans voice from back in the crowd. Drive the dragon away! Send her off to join the others!

Yes!

Youll get no meat from us, dragon! Get out of here!

Weve had enough of your kind here. Be off!

Tintaglia stared at them incredulously. Had they forgotten all theyd ever known of dragons? That she could, with one acid-laden breath, melt the flesh from their bones?

Then, from back in the crowd, the pole came flying. It was the trunk of a sapling, or a branch stripped of twigs, but it had been thrown at her as if it were a spear. It struck her, a feeble blow, and bounced off her hide. Ordinarily, it would not even have hurt, but any jarring movement hurt now. She snapped her head on her long neck to face her attacker, and that hurt even more. For an instant, she began to rise on her hind legs and spread her wings, to terrify these vermin with her size before spitting a mist of venom that would engulf them all. She resisted that reflex just in time: she must not bare the tender flesh beneath her wings and above all she must not let her attackers see her injury. Instead, she drew her head back and felt the glands in her throat swell in readiness.

TINTAGLIA!

The sound of her name froze her. Not for the first time, she cursed the moment that Reyn Khuprus had so callously gifted the humans gathered in Bingtown with her name. Since then, all humans seemed to know it, and use every opportunity to bind her with it.

It was the old woman, of course, Jani Khuprus, moving in a stumbling run to put herself between the dragon and the mob. Behind her, her shrieking daughter was held back by the others. She halted, swaying, in front of the dragon and threw up her skinny arms as if they could shield something.

Tintaglia, by your name, remember the promises between us! You pledged to help us, to protect us from the Chalcedean invaders, and we in turn cared for the serpents that hatched into dragons! You cannot harm us now!

You have attacked me! The dragon was outraged that Jani Khuprus dared to rebuke her.

You wrecked my boat! The man with the boat hook.

Youve destroyed half the dock!

Tintaglia turned her head slowly, shocked to find how careless she had been. There were other humans behind her, humans who had come out of the damaged boats and from the shattered docks. Many of them carried items that were not weapons, but could be used as such. She still had no doubt that she could kill them all before they did her serious harm, but harm they could do in such tight quarters. The trees that leaned over her would prevent an easy launch, even if she were not injured. Abruptly, she realized that she was in a very bad situation. There were other humans, looking down on her from platforms and walkways, and some were moving down the stairways that wound around the immense trunks of the trees.

Dragon!

She swung her attention back to the old woman. You should leave, Jani Khuprus cried out in a low voice. Tintaglia heard fear in it, but also a pleading. Did she fear what would happen if the dragon had to defend herself?

You should follow the rest of your kind, and their keepers who are turning into Elderlings. Go to Kelsingra, dragon! That is where you belong. Not here!

Elderlings. In Kelsingra? I have been there. The city is empty.

Perhaps it was, but no longer. The other dragons have gone there, and the rumour is that the keepers who went with them are becoming Elderlings. Elderlings such as you seek.

Something in the old womans voice no. In her thoughts. Tintaglia focused on her alone. Kelsingra?

Go there! As Malta and Reyn have gone there. Go, before blood is shed! For all our sakes!

The old woman had caught on quickly. She stared silently at the dragon, projecting the warning with all her heart.

I am leaving, Tintaglia announced. She turned slowly, deliberately back toward the docks. The men in front of her muttered angrily, and gave way only grudgingly.

Let her leave! Janis voice rang out again, and surprisingly, other voices echoed hers.

Let the dragon go! Good riddance to her!

Please, let her pass, with no one killed!

Let her be gone, and let us be done with all dragons!

The men were giving way to her as she moved toward the damaged dock. They cursed her in low voices and spat on the ground as she passed, but they let her go. Within, she seethed with hatred and disdain for them, and longed to kill them all. How dare they show their petty tempers to her, how dare they spit at her passing, the puny little monkeys! She swung her head slowly as she passed, keeping as many of them in view as she could. As she had feared they might, they closed ranks behind her and moved slowly after her. They could corner her on the dilapidated docks and possibly drive her off into the cold swift river if she were not careful.

She loosened her wings slightly and steeled her will. This was going to hurt, and she would have only one chance. She studied the long wooden dock before her. Loosened planks sprawled at odd angles and yes, two tethered boats were foundered there, listing at their moorings. She gathered her strength in her hind legs.

Without warning, she sprang forward in a great leap. Behind her, human voices were raised in roars of fear and dismay. She landed on the dock, and it gave to her weight. And then, as she had hoped, it recovered buoyancy and began to rise. Not much, but it would have to be enough. She flung her wings open, shrieked in harsh fury at the pain and drove her wings down hard as she leapt up.

It was enough. She caught the wind above the moving river water and, beat by painful beat, rose into the sky. She thought of circling back, of diving on them and sending them scattering, perhaps even diving into the river. But her pain was too great and her growing hunger stabbed her. No. Not now. Now she would hunt, kill, eat and rest. Tomorrow, she would fly on to Kelsingra. Perhaps one day she would return to make them sorry. But first, she must find Elderlings to heal her. She banked and turned and resumed her painful journey upriver.


It wont be long now, Leftrin said, and felt vast relief at being able to utter the words. He stood on the roof of the deckhouse. The wintry day was winding down to an early close, but he had sighted the first buildings of Kelsingra. They were nearly home, he thought, and then chuckled. Home? Kelsingra? No. Home was where Alise was now, that was clear for him.

The journey had been long but not nearly as long as his first trip to Kelsingra. This time he had not been slowed by the need to hold his boat to the pace of plodding dragons, nor to stop early every night so that the hunters might bring meat for the dragons and the keepers could rest their weary bodies. Nor had they wasted days in a shallow swamp trying almost in vain to find their way back to the true course. But even so, the thin wailing of the sickly infant had made each day seem to last a week. He was sure he was not the only one to have been unable to sleep through Phrons colicky cries. Looking at Reyns gaunt face and bloodshot eyes, he knew that the babys father had shared his unwilling vigil.

Thats Kelsingra? That scatter of buildings? Reyn seemed incredulous.

No. Thats the beginning of the outskirts. Its a big city, and it sprawls along the riverbank and maybe extends up into those foothills. With the leaves off the trees, I can see that its even bigger than I thought it was.

And its just deserted? Empty? What happened to all the people? Where did they go? Did they die?

Leftrin shook his head and took another long drink from his mug. The steam and aroma of the hot tea swirled up to join the mist over the river. If we had answers to those questions, Alise would be ecstatic. But we dont know. Maybe as we explore the city more, well find out. Some of the buildings are empty, as if people packed all their belongings and left. Other homes look as if people pushed back from the table, walked out the door, and never came back.

I should wake Malta. Shell want to see this.

No, you shouldnt. Let her sleep and let the baby sleep. It will all still be here when she wakes up, and I think you should let her get whatever rest she can. It would have shamed Leftrin to admit that he wasnt thinking of Malta so much as his own peace. He doubted that Reyn could wake her without disturbing the baby and setting off another long spate of crying. The child was only quiet when he was asleep or nursing, and he seemed to do little of either of late.

Is that another dragon? Reyn asked suddenly.

As Leftrin turned his eyes toward the sky, he felt a tingle of interest from his ship. He squinted, but the only colour he could make out was silver. When I left, only Heeby had made it aloft. The others were trying, but none of them were doing too well. Its one reason I was so startled to see Sintara a few days ago. Still, it doesnt seem likely

Its Spit! Hennesey shouted the news from the afterdeck. Look at that little bastard fly! Can you see him, Tillamon? Hes silver, so when hes in front of the overcast, hes a bit hard there! See him? He just broke out from those clouds. Hes one of the smallest and, to start with, one of the stupidest of the dragons. Looks like he can fly now but even if hes smart enough to get off the ground, hes still a mean little package of trouble. When we get to the village, youd best avoid him. But Mercor, now theres a dragon youll enjoy.

Tillamon, her shawl clasped around her shoulders, shaded her eyes with her free hand and nodded to every word. Her cheeks were pink with the chill wind and excitement. And perhaps with something more? Hennesey had seemed more garrulous and social of late. Leftrin glanced at Reyn a bit warily, wondering if the Elderling had noticed that the mate was perhaps just a bit too familiar with the lady. But if Reyn had noticed, his objection was drowned by the sudden shrill wail of his son.

Damn the luck, he said quietly, and left the captains side.

The effect of the babys crying on the crew seemed a palpable thing to Leftrin. He wondered if it was because it also seemed to distress the liveship. A shivering of anxiety, probably undetectable to some of the crew members but definitely unnerving to him, ran through the ship. Almost as if in response, Spit dipped one wing to circle overhead, dropping lower with each revolution. Of all the dragons that could take an interest in their arrival, Spit was his least favourite. He was as Hennesey had described him: dim-witted when they had first taken the dragons on, and mean since he had acquired a mind of his own. His temper was uneven, and it seemed to Leftrin that he was the most impulsive of the lot. Even the larger dragons seemed to give him a wide berth when he was in a foul mood.

As he watched, Spit left off circling above Tarman and sped off downriver. Leftrin hoped hed spied some prey and that hed hunt, kill, eat and leave them alone. But in a moment, he heard distant shouts and realized that Spit was now circling the Bingtown boat that still stubbornly shadowed them. Leftrin smiled grimly. Not the sort of prey hed had in mind for Spit. Well, theyd been curious as to what had become of the cast-out dragons that had left Cassarick in mid-summer. Let them have a good look at what one of them had become.

Spit descended another notch, tightening his circle so that no one could mistake the object of his interest. Leftrin watched in amusement tinged with alarm as the distant deck of the pursuit vessel suddenly swarmed with human figures. He could not make out what they were shouting. From the very beginning of their pursuit, they had kept their distance from Tarman, never hailing the other ship nor coming close to tie up beside them in the evenings. They had enacted that quarantine, not Leftrin, but he had chosen not to challenge it.

Now, as Spit circled ever closer to them, he regretted the decision. Regardless of their eventual intent, they were fellow Traders and humans. He wished now that he knew who captained the Bingtown vessel and the temperament of the crew. He wished he had seized an opportunity to caution them against provoking the dragons. They were no longer the earthbound beggars they had been.

I never thought they would follow us this far up the river. I was sure we would lose them along the way.

Hennesey had joined him on the roof of the deckhouse. When the baby had begun to wail, Tillamon had hastened to see if she could be of any help to Malta, leaving the first mate to recall his duties to the ship. Leftrin glanced over at him. Hed known Hennesey since he was no more than a scupper plug on the ship when Leftrin himself had first come aboard to share that lowly status. Was there a light in his eyes that had never been there before? Hard to tell. Right now, he stared raptly at the drama unfolding downriver.

Who could have predicted this? No one. Leftrin wondered if he were trying to evade responsibility. For onto the deck had come a man who now assumed the unmistakable stance of an archer. They were too far away for a warning shout from him to carry to the men on the deck or the circling dragon. They could only watch disaster unfurl.

Oh, dont do it Hennesey groaned.

Too late. Leftrin could barely make out the arrow that took flight but he tracked it by Spits response. The dragon evaded it easily and then shot skyward, beating his wings hard to gain altitude.

The fools on the Bingtown vessel cheered, thinking they had warded off the dragons attack. But as Spit reached the top of his arcing flight, he trumpeted out a wild summons. A strange thrill shot through the liveship; Leftrin saw Hennesey feel it as much as he did. Before either man could comment, distant answering cries came from all directions. Then, in less than a breath, half a dozen dragons, including gleaming Mercor and shimmering Sintara, hove into view. Some came from the city, some simply seemed to appear in the sky as if the clouds had hidden them. Kalo, black as a thundercloud and as threatening, shot toward the circling, keening Spit.

Like crows gathering to harry an eagle, Hennesey pointed out, and in an instant, he was proven right. Instead of one dragon circling the hapless ship, a funnel cloud of avengers was forming. Leftrin was left breathless with wonder. How they had grown since last he had seen them, and how their ability to fly had transformed them! He felt awe that he had walked among such fearsome creatures without terror, that he had doctored their injuries and spoken with them. To see them now, glittering and gleaming even in the dimmed sunlight of the overcast day, transformed them from the crippled and wounded creatures he had shepherded into knife-edged predators of incredible power.

On the ship below them, men were bellowing commands and warnings to one another. Their archer had set an arrow to his bow and stood, muscles taut, ready to fire should any dragon descend within range. Leftrin could hear the dragons calling to one another wild trumpets, distant rumbles of thunder and shrill cries.

Theyre disagreeing about something, Hennesey guessed.

Those dragons can you call to them? Can anyone here persuade one to come to us? Malta had joined them. Leftrin turned to look at her, shocked that in the midst of the dragons threatening the other vessel, she still thought only of her child. Then he really saw her and his heart filled with pity.

The Elderling woman looked terrible. The colours of humanity had fled from her face, and the overlay of bluish scaling made the rest of her seem grey, as if someone had ornamented stone. There were lines by her mouth and under her eyes. Her hair had been brushed, braided and pinned up. It was tidy but it did not gleam. Life was draining out of her.

I cant call them, Im afraid. But we are close to Kelsingra, Malta. As soon as we arrive the keepers will be able to summon them. Even if we could call one here, it could not land and speak with us. Once we are off the river

Dragon fight! Hennesey interrupted them. From Tarmans deck, there were shouts of amazement. Leftrin turned in time to see Spit diving on the distant ship. He seemed luminous, his silver sparkling like a tumbling coin, and by that the captain knew that his poison glands would be swollen or ready. Matching him in his dive was Mercor: as Spit swept over the ship, the golden dragon came up suddenly beneath him and knocked him off his course. The golden dragon beat his wings strongly, bearing the smaller silver up and away before tilting sideways and away from him, leaving Spit flapping wildly as he fell. As he went down, a pale cloud of sparkling venom shone. Just short of the water, the silver dragon recovered, but not well. He flew, his wings flinging up splashes at the tips, to land awkwardly at the rivers edge. The venom fell too, dispersing as the light wind touched it, landing harmlessly in the river rather than on the ship. From the shore, Spits vocalizations were savage and furious.

The crew of the other ship bent energetically to their sweeps. It was moving downriver as fast as the current and its oars could carry it. Overhead, the circling dragons took it in turns to feint dives at the fleeing boat, their trumpeted calls conveying merriment and mockery to Leftrin. After a time, he realized that the boat was scarcely their target any more; they appeared to be competing to see who could dive fastest and swoop closest to it before rising back to join the others. Spit managed to launch himself back into the air but he did not join the others. He flew laboriously, possibly injured from his collision, back toward the heart of Kelsingra. Leftrin continued to watch the Bingtown boat as the dragons harried it out of sight down the river. He waited, but even after it was out of sight, the dragons did not return.

Theyve changed, Hennesey observed quietly.

Indeed they have, Leftrin agreed.

Theyre real now, the mate said. More quietly he added, They frighten me.

Day the 27th of the Fish Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders


From Keffria Vestrit, of the Bingtown Traders

To Jani Khuprus of the Rain Wild Traders, Trehaug


Jani, as we both well know, there is no privacy to bird-sent messages any more. If you have anything of great confidentiality, please send it in a packet by any of the liveships that ply the Rain Wild River. I have far more confidence in them than I do in the so-called Bird Keepers Guild. I will do the same, save for tidings that must reach you immediately and thus must, unfortunately, be subject to spying and gossip.

Herewith, the bones of what you must know. My messages to Malta are going unanswered. I am gravely concerned, especially since she was so close to giving birth. If you can send me any tidings to put my mind at ease, I would greatly appreciate it.

Other information also too grave to delay sharing: I have finally heard from Wintrow in the Pirate Isles. You may recall I wrote to him months ago to ask if he knew anything of Selden. As is often the case with letters sent through that region, both my message and his response were greatly delayed. He had no tidings of Elderlings but was alarmed at gossip of a Dragon-Boy exhibited in a travelling display of freaks and oddities that had been journeying through his territory. Efforts on his part to learn more were fruitless. He fears that those he has queried have been less than frank for fear of incurring the wrath of the Pirate Queens consort. I beg you to use your contacts to ask if anyone has heard of such a travelling exhibition, and where they were last seen.


With great anxiety,

Keffria


CHAPTER FIVE Taking the Leap | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER SEVEN City Dwellers