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City Dwellers

Moving to the city had proved more challenging for the keepers than the dragons, Thymara thought. Kelsingra was a city built for dragons. The broad streets, the immense fountains, the scale of the public buildings all proclaimed that dragons had resided there. Entries were tall and wide, steps were set for a dragons tread, and every dimension of every chamber dwarfed humans to insignificance. For keepers who had grown up in the tiny tree-houses of Trehaug and Cassarick, the differences were stunning. It doesnt feel like Im inside, Harrikin had observed the first time he entered the dragon baths. All the keepers had clustered together, looking up in wonder at the immense frescoes on the ceiling far overhead. Sylve, Thymara, Alum and Boxter had held hands and tried to measure the diameter of one of the supporting pillars. The first night that all the keepers had spent in the city together, they had slept in a cluster in the corner of an immense room, as if the building were a new kind of wilderness in which they had to huddle together against unknown dangers.

For the dragons, it was different. They had prospered since they had gained access to as much warmth as they wanted. After soaking in the baths they had gone on to recall and visit other sites in the city that had been created for the enjoyment of their kind. At the crest of one of the hills, there was a structure where sections of stone wall alternated with glass beneath a domed roof. The ceiling was a strange patchwork of glass and stone as well, while the heat-radiating floor contained shallow pits of sand in varying degrees of coarseness.

The building would have been incomprehensible to her a few years ago. Now she knew at a glance that it was a place for dragons to sprawl on heated sand while watching the life of the city below them or the slow wheeling of the stars by night. She had first seen it when Sintara had summoned her there a few days ago, much to Thymaras surprise, and bade her search through the cupboards and shelves to see if the tools for dragon grooming remained in their old storage places. While she had looked, Sintara had writhed and wallowed in the sand, near burying herself in the hot particles. She had emerged gleaming like molten blue metal fresh from a furnace.

Time had rendered most of the grooming tools into rust and dust, but a few remained intact. There were small tools with metal bristles of something that rust had not eaten, and brushes like scrubbing brushes, but with the handles crafted of stone and the metal bristles set in clusters. There were metal rasps with the wooden handles long gone, glass flasks with a thickened residue of oil in the bottom, and a gleaming black case that held an assortment of black metal needles and other items she did not comprehend. Specialized tools for grooming dragons, she supposed, and wondered if one day all the niceties of that lost skill would be recalled.

With the smaller brushes, Thymara had performed the delicate grooming around Sintaras eyes, nostrils and ear-holes, scrubbing away the remnants of messy meals. They had not spoken much, but Thymara had noticed many things about her dragon. Her claws, once blunted from walking and cracked by too much contact with water and mud, were now longer and harder and sharper. Her colours were stronger, her eyes brighter, and she had grown, not just putting on flesh, but gaining length in her tail. Her shape was changing as her muscles took on the duties of flight and forgot the long earthbound years of slogging through mud. This was no great lizard that she groomed, but a raptor, a flying predator that was both as lovely as a hummingbird and as deadly as a living blade. Thymara privately marvelled that she dared touch such a being. It was only when she noticed Sintaras eyes whirling with pleasure that she realized the dragon was a party to all her thoughts and was relishing her wonder.

As she realized it, the dragon acknowledged it. I awe you. Perhaps you cannot sing my praises with your voice, but reflected in you, I know I am the most magnificent of the dragons you have ever seen.

Reflected in me?

Dragons did not smile, but Thymara felt Sintaras amusement. Do you fish for compliments?

I dont understand, Thymara replied both honestly and resentfully. The dragons response had somehow implied she was vain. About what? About having the most beautiful of the queen dragons? One that alternated ignoring her with mocking or insulting her?

The most beautiful of all the dragons, Sintara amended her thought for her. And the most brilliant and creative, as is clearly reflected in my having created the most dazzling Elderling.

Thymara stared at her wordlessly. The brush hung forgotten in her hand.

Sintara gave a small snort of amusement. From the beginning, I saw you had the most potential for development. It was why I chose you.

I thought I chose you, Thymara faltered. Her heart was thundering. Her dragon thought she was beautiful! This soaring she felt, was it merely Sintaras beguilement of her? She tried to ground herself but was certain this was not the dragons effortless glamorizing of her. This was what Sintara actually thought of her. Extraordinary!

Oh, doubtless you thought you chose me, Sintara went on with casual arrogance. But I drew you to me. And as you see, I have employed a keen eye and a sure skill to make you the loveliest and most unusual of the Elderlings that now live. Just as I am the most glorious of the dragons.

Thymara was silent, wishing she could deny the dragons self-aggrandizing, but knowing only a fool would claim to have lied in her thoughts. Mercor gleams like liquid gold, she began, but Sintara snorted contemptuously.

Drakes! They have their colours and their muscles, but when it comes to beauty they have no patience for detail. Look at Sylves scaling some time and then compare it to your own. Plain as grass she is. Even in colouring their own scales, the other dragons lag far behind me. She shook herself and then came suddenly to her feet, erupting out of the hot sand and opening her wings in a single motion. Look at these! she commanded proudly, flourishing her wings so that the wind from them sent particles of sand flying into Thymaras face. Where have you seen such intricacy, such brilliance of colour, such design?

Thymara stared. Then wordlessly, she dragged her tunic up and over her head, to unfold her own wings. A glance over her shoulder told her that she had not imagined it. The differences were of scale only. She mirrored Sintaras glory. Dragons did not laugh as humans did, but the sound Sintara made was definitely one of amusement.

The dragon settled herself onto the sand, leaving her wings open over the heated beds. There. Next time you are moaning and snivelling that your dragon has no time for you, look over your shoulder and realize you already wear my colours. What more could any creature ask?

Thymara had looked back at her basking dragon, torn between emotions. Did she dare trust any display of kindliness from her? You seem different, she ventured hesitantly and wondered what the dragon would read more strongly, her suspicion or her hope. She braced herself for mockery. It did not come.

I am different. I am not hungry. I am not cold. I am not a crippled, pitiable thing. I am a dragon. I dont need you, Thymara. Sintara shook herself and excess sand that had been trapped beneath her scales went runnelling down her sides in streams. Without being asked, Thymara found a long-handled brush. The handle was of a strangely light metal, as were the bristles. She studied them for a long moment; they gleamed like metal but flexed at her touch. More Elderling magic, she supposed. She began to apply it to Sintara, working from the back of her head down, dislodging particles of sand that had wedged at the edges of her scaling. Sintara closed her eyes in pleasure. By the time she reached the end of her tail, Thymara had formed her question. Needing me made you dislike me?

No dragon likes to be dependent. Even the Elderlings came to realize that.

Dragons were dependent on Elderlings? She sensed that she trod in dangerous territory, but she formed the question anyway. For what?

The dragon looked at her for a long moment and she wished she had not dared to ask, sensing how resentful Sintara was of her question. For Silver. She spoke the word and stared at Thymara, eyes whirling as if the girl would deny what she said. Thymara waited. For a time Silver ran in the river here and was easy to find. Then, there was an earthquake, and things changed. The Silver ran thinly for a time. Some dragons could find it by diving into the shallows and digging for it. Sometimes it welled up abruptly, and showed as a silver streak in the river. But mostly, it did not. Then, we could only get it from the Elderlings.

I dont understand. Thymara kept her words as soft and neutral as she could. Silver? A treasure of some kind?

Neither do I understand! In a fury, the dragon erupted fully from the sand-pit. Its not a treasure, not as humans think of such. Not metal made into little rounds to trade for food, nor decorations for the body. Its the Silver, precious to dragons. Its here. It was here, first in the river near this city, and then, when the Elderlings lived, here in the city, somewhere. Everything else we can find here. All the pleasures we recalled from Kelsingra are here the hot-water baths, the winter shelters, the sand-grooming places, everything else we recall so clearly is here. So the Silver should be here too. Somewhere. But not one of us can find it. There were places in the city where the Elderlings helped us get the Silver. None of us recall them clearly. All of us find that strange, as if a memory has been deliberately withheld from us. Sintara lashed her tail in frustration. One place, we think, is gone with the collapsing street along the riverside. Another may be where the earth split open and the river flowed in. Gone and lost. Baliper tried to dive for it there, but that chasm is deep and the water got colder the deeper he went. There is no Silver there for us.

There were other places. We think. But those memories are lost to us, lost since we hatched, along with all manner of information we cannot even guess at. We will not be full dragons, nor you real Elderlings, until we can find the Silver wells. But you refuse to remember! No Elderling dreams of the wells. And try as I may, I cannot even make you dream of a Silver well!

With these words, she had given a final shudder and a lash of her tail. Thymara leapt back and watched her wade out of the sand-pit and then stalk out of the doors that opened for her and then closed behind her, leaving Thymara staring after her.

Thymara had pondered the dragons words in the days that followed. Sintara had spoken true. She had often encountered a dragon wandering the streets, snuffing and searching. Her curiosity was piqued. She had asked Alise if she knew of any Silver wells in Kelsingra, but Alise had only looked puzzled. There is a fountain called Golden Dragon Fountain. I read of that, once, in a very old manuscript. But if it remains intact, I havent found it yet. She had smiled and then commented as if vaguely amused, But I dreamed a few nights ago that I was looking for a silver well. Such an odd dream. She had cocked her head and furrowed her brow with the faraway look of someone who tinkers with the threads of a mystery. A strange thrill ran through Thymara. It was the same look Alise had worn so often earlier in the expedition, when she had been putting pieces together to understand something about Elderlings or dragons. She had not seen it on her face for some time.

Alise mused aloud, There are odd mentions in some of the old manuscripts, things I was never able to make sense of. Hints that there was a special reason for Kelsingra to exist, something secret, something to guard A slow look of wonder had dawned on her face. She spoke more to herself than to Thymara as she muttered, Not so useless, perhaps. Not if I can ferret out what they mean.

Alises look had gone distant. Thymara had known that any further conversation with her that day would consist of her own questions and the Bingtown womans distracted replies. She had thanked her, decided she had delivered the mystery to someone better suited to handle it, and put silver wells out of her mind.

But Sintaras remark about dependence she did not forget. She watched the other dragons grow and yes, change, some becoming more affable and others more arrogant as they gained independence of their keepers. It was odd to watch the ties between them loosen. Different keepers adapted to the dragons dwindling interest in them in various ways. Some relished having leisure time and a beautiful city to explore. Suddenly the keepers could put their own well-being first. They made their first priority comfortable lodging. Although the city offered a vast array of empty dwellings, Thymara was amused that she and her fellows ended up in three buildings that fronted onto what they had begun to call the Square of the Dragons, after a very large sculpture in the middle of it. They could have moved into what Alise called villas or mansions, structures that were larger than the Traders Concourse back in Trehaug. Instead, most of them had chosen the smaller, simpler quarters above the dragon baths, housing obviously designed for those who tended dragons. It was wonder enough to Thymara to have as her own room a chamber twice as large as her family home had been. It was wealth to possess a bed that softened under her, a large mirror, drawers and shelves of her own. She could soak in a steaming bath as often as she wished and then retire to a room so comfortably warm that she needed no blankets or garments at all. She had time to study herself in the mirror, time to braid and pin up her hair, time to wonder who and what she was becoming.

But such luxuries did not mean that daily life was all leisure. There was no game in the city, and few green growing plants and no dry wood for cooking fuel. Gathering those demanded daily hikes to the outskirts of the sprawling city. Carson had suggested that they needed to create some sort of a dock for Tarman. The liveship would need a safe place to be tied up when he returned, and they needed a place for unloading the supplies they hoped he would bring. We will need docks and wharves, too, for our own vessels. We cant always assume Tarman and Captain Leftrin will ferry our supplies for free.

That comment had drawn startled looks from the gathered keepers. Carson had grinned. What? Do you think we are reclaiming this city for only five years, or ten? Talk to Alise, my friends. You may well live a hundred years or more. So what we build now, we had best build well. With that, Carson had begun to sketch out the tasks before them. Hunting and gathering for their daily needs, building a dock for the city and, to Thymaras surprise, sampling the memories stored in stone to try to understand the workings of the city.

Thymara had volunteered to bring in food and hunted almost daily. As early spring claimed the land, the forested hills behind the city yielded greens and some roots, but their diet was still mostly flesh. Thymara was heartily weary of it. She did not relish the long hike to the edge of the city, nor the return journey burdened with firewood or bloody meat. But her days in the hills with her bow or gathering basket were now the only simple times in her life.

On the days when she remained in the city, she contended with both Tats and Rapskal. Their rivalry for her attention had eclipsed the friendship they once had shared. They had never come to blows, but when they could not avoid one another, the awkwardness between them froze any hope of normal conversation. Several times she had been trapped between them, besieged by Rapskals endless chattering from one side as Tats sought to win her attention with small articles he had made for her or stories of his discoveries in the city. The intensity of the attention they focused on her made it impossible for her to speak to anyone else, and she winced whenever she thought of how it must appear to the others, as if she deliberately provoked their rivalry. If Tats had noticed something about the city and wondered about it, Rapskal was sure to claim knowledge of what it was and explain it endlessly while Tats glowered. As the keepers still gathered for most of their meals, it had begun to cause a rift in the group. Sylve sided with Thymara, sitting with her no matter which of her suitors claimed the spot on her other side. Harrikin made no effort to disguise his support for Tats, while Kase and Boxter were firmly in Rapskals camp. A few of the others expressed no preference and some, such as Nortel and Jerd, resolutely ignored the whole issue when they were not making snide comments on it.

If one had work duty, the other took advantage of his absence to woo her. When Tats worked on the docks, Rapskal would insist on going hunting with her, even if Harrikin were her assigned partner for the day. Worse were the days when both she and Rapskal were free. He would lurk outside her chamber door. The moment she appeared, he would beg her to accompany him back to the villa and the memory columns, to join him in learning more of their Elderling forebears.

She felt a trace of shame when she thought how often she surrendered and joined him there. It was an escape to a gloriously elegant time. In that dream world she danced gracefully, partook of extravagant feasts and attended plays, lived a life such as she had never imagined. But Amarindas passing observations of life allowed Thymara to gain an understanding of how the city had once worked. Conservatories had furnished fruits and greens year round, while the humans in outlying settlements and across the river had traded what they manufactured, raised and grew with the Elderlings for their magical items. With Carson and Alise she had visited several of the immense greenhouses. They were sized for a dragon to stroll through, with chest-high beds for soil and gigantic pots for trees. Yet whatever had once flourished there had perished long ago, leaving only a shadowy tracery of long-vanished leaves on the floor and hollow stumps in the soil. The earth in the containers looked usable, and water still spilled from leaks in the system of pipes that had once heated and irrigated the plant beds.

But without seeds or plant stock, we cannot start anything here, Alise observed sadly.

Perhaps in spring, Carson had said. We might move wild plants here and tend them.

Alise had nodded slowly. If we can find seed or take cuttings from plants we know, then the new Elderlings could begin to farm for themselves again. Or if Leftrin could bring seeds and plant starts to us.

In other memory-walks, Thymara glimpsed gauntleted Elderlings at work. They stroked sculpture from stone, imbued wood with mobility, and persuaded metal to gleam, sing, and heat or cool water. Their shops lined some of the narrow streets and they called greetings to Amarinda as she passed. Thymara felt an odd kinship with them, an almost-recall of what they did but not how. Amarinda merely strolled past amazing feats with scarcely a glance, accepting them as part of her everyday world. But there were other places and times when Amarinda focused her attention intently and relentlessly, drowning Thymara in her emotions and sensations. The Elderling womans infatuation with Tellator continued, deepened and became a lifelong passion. In the space of a single afternoon of memory-walking, Thymara experienced months of her life. She would emerge from those hours with dimmed eyes and dulled senses, her hand clasping Rapskals as he sprawled on the steps beside her. She would turn her head and see him wearing Tellators smile, and the thumb that rubbed sensuously against the palm of her hand was not Rapskals at all. Only slowly would his gaze become Rapskals again, and she wondered who he saw when he looked at her, which parts he remembered as they rose, stiff and chilled. Rapskal always wanted to speak of the shared memories afterwards. And she always refused. After all, they were only memories. Dreams.

Did it matter what she experienced as a memory-walker? If the food she ate there did not nourish her, did the sex she enjoyed in that world matter in this one? She was of two minds. Certainly, it had changed her attitude toward many things that people could do in a cosy bed on a winters eve or in a meadow under a summer sky. Could she claim she was not being intimate with Rapskal when she knew that he wore Tellators skin? Certainly, she assured herself. Sometimes. For he could change nothing that Tellator did or felt, just as she had no control over Amarinda. She could not prevent their lovers quarrels and she could not sidetrack their sensuous reunions. It was as if they watched the same play, or heard the same story told. That was all.

Sometimes she could almost believe that. Certainly, that puppetry of intimacy did not seem to completely satisfy Rapskal. Often, as they walked back to their lodgings he would drop hints or outright beg her to come with him to some private place where they could re-enact what they had just experienced. She always refused. Over and over, she had told him that she did not want to risk a pregnancy. Yet she could not deny that she longed for the excitement of being the woman in control of the situation. Or a woman being loved by a man.

And today, as she strolled with Tats down to the riverside to visit the dock construction, the same thoughts were still on her mind. What would it be like to have Tats as a lover? She had experienced Tellator any number of times now, and shared one long night with Rapskal. Would Tats be as different from both of them as Rapskal had been from Tellator? It was an unsettling thing to wonder and she tried to push the thoughts aside. She gave the young man beside her a sideways glance. His face was grave and thoughtful. A question popped out of her mouth before she considered the wisdom of asking it.

Have you dream-walked in any of the memory-stones yet?

He squinted at her as if she were a bit odd. Of course I have. We all have. Boxter and Kase go to a whorehouse and linger with the sampling they offer there. Some of the others join them there from time to time. Dont look at me like that! What else would you expect them to do? Neither Kase nor Boxter have any hope of finding a mate unless other women move to Kelsingra, and that certainly wont be any time soon. Alum, Harrikin and Sylve found a place where some of the famous Elderling minstrels immortalized their performances. And you yourself lingered with us when we watched the puppet show and the juggler and then the acrobats that night the Long Street was remembering a festival there. So, yes, weve all memory-walked in the stones. Hard to avoid it when we live here.

That wasnt what she had meant, but she was relieved he had taken her question that way.

I know. How can you walk down one of the broad streets at night and not share the memories there? She snorted. Sylve told me that when Jerd finds a street memory of a festival night, she follows the richly dressed women home, and then searches their dwellings for any jewellery or garments that have survived. She has amassed quite a wardrobe. She shook her head, wondering if she thought Jerd was greedy or envied her expert looting. Then in a low voice, she admitted, That isnt the kind of memory-walking I was talking about.

Tats gave her a long level look. Do I ask you questions like that?

She looked away. After a time had passed when she did not respond, he added, There are a lot of reasons to memory-walk that have nothing to do with sex or eating or listening to music. Carson tries to discover how the city works. He asked me to see what I could find out about the original docks. Not that we can replicate them, lacking the sort of magic the old Elderlings had. But to see what sort of things they considered when they were building them, as people who had known this stretch of river for a long time. He sighed and shook his head. I went to places where I thought they would have kept records of things like that. That big building with the map tower, and then that one with all the faces carved above the doors. We thought maybe that was an important place. But nothing. Or actually, much too much. I learned things that I still dont understand. Do you know why so much of this city is still standing? Why grass hasnt grown in the streets, or cracks havent started in the fountains? Its because stone remembers here. It remembers that its a building facade, or a street or the bowl of a fountain. It remembers, and it can repair itself, on some level. It cant fix itself if a quake makes a gigantic crack. But tiny cracks and crumbles just dont happen. The stone holds onto itself. It remembers.

He shook his head in wonder at the thought and then added, And they could do more than that, it seems. You know how some of the keepers swear they have seen a statue move? The Elderlings knew how to do that. They breathed life into the stone, and the stone keeps a part of them and can move. Sometimes. When its awakened by something. Something that I could not understand, even though an old man was remembering it clearly. It made me realize that Alise was right, is right. We need to know what she knows about the history of this city, and then we need to apply it. You know what she told me a few days ago? That when Rapskal confronted her that day and said she wasnt an Elderling and that the city didnt belong to her, she was so discouraged that she nearly burned all her work! Can you imagine it? I knew I felt angry at him that day, but Id no idea how badly he had hurt Alise.

He paused, and she sensed he hoped she would share his anger. He waited for her to say something and she knew that if she did, it would be saying much more than that she thought Rapskal had been thoughtlessly cruel. Tats watched her stillness. But she could not find a way out of her silence. Rapskal hadnt said it to hurt Alise; hed said it to assert his right to the city. A silly thought danced in her brain. Alise is a grown-up. Can grown-ups really have their feelings so badly hurt? So hurt they think of burning all their work or killing themselves? But by the time she realized how childish her reaction was, Tats had shaken his head at her silence and moved on.

We need to map this city. Not just the streets, but where the spring houses are, and the drains. And we need to make maps that show what information is stored where. Right now, its like a huge treasure house, full of thousands of boxes of treasures, and we have thousands of different keys. The wealth is here, right under our feet, but we cant make sense of it. Like that Silver well that Sylve was talking about the other day.

She looked at him, surprised. He mistook it for confusion.

I guess your mind was elsewhere. She says she keeps having dreams about a silver well. Shes wandered through the city looking for it, but hasnt seen anything like what she dreamed. She thinks shes remembering something that Mercor knows about. She says he mentioned something about the silver wells of Kelsingra, a long time ago when we first began our journey here. She wants to talk to him but shes like the rest of us. Since her dragon took flight, he doesnt have a lot of time for her. And she said another odd thing. She says it feels like he avoids the topic, as if it makes him uncomfortable.

Sintara spoke to me once of a silver well. It seemed very important to her. But she said her memories of it were fragmented. She put the words out casually.

The well isnt silver, Tats said slowly. He gave her a sideways glance as if he expected her to mock him. I dreamed of it last night. The structure around it was old and very fancy. As much wood as stone, as if it had been built at the very beginning of the city. Inside there was this mechanism I couldnt see it well. But when you cranked up the bucket from the depths, it was full of silvery stuff. Thicker than water. Dragons can drink it and love it. But I had the feeling it was dangerous to humans.

Humans? Or Elderlings?

He looked at her for a long moment. Im not sure. In the dream I knew I had to be very careful of it. But was I dreaming it as if I were a human or an Elderling?

It was her turn to sigh. Sometimes I dont like what this place is doing to me. Even without touching memory-stones, I have dreams that dont quite belong to me. I turn a corner and just for an instant, I feel like Im someone else, with a whole lifetime of memories and friends and expectations for the day. I pass a house and want to visit a friend, one Ive never had.

Tats was nodding. Those standing stones, the big ones in the circle in that plaza, they remind me of different cities when I pass them. You know, the other Elderling cities

She shook her head at him. No. But I walk through a memory of a market and suddenly I want a fish cake spiced with that hot red oil. And then, just as abruptly, Im me again and I know that Im sick of fish, with or without red oil.

The memories tug at me, too. I dont like it Tats halted suddenly. He took her arm, pulling her to a stop.

Down by the river, work progressed under Carsons supervision. A crude wooden dock made of logs had been roped to some of the old support columns. The river tugged at it and grey water bulged and flowed over the end of it. Harrikin, stripped to worn trousers and securely roped against the current, was in the water, trying to force one log into alignment with another. Carson was shouting directions to him as he kept tension on a line tied to the opposite end of the timber. Lecter, muscles bunching with effort, crouched over a log on the shore, slowly turning a drill to put a hole through it. Not far away, Alum was smoothing straight pieces of sapling into dowel. The sound rode thin on the spring wind. Nortel, ribs bandaged from a log-setting mishap earlier in the week, crouched on the dock with a mallet and pegs, waiting to fasten the log. It was cold, wet, dangerous work. And it was Tatss assignment for the afternoon. He tugged at her hand and she met his gaze. Ive heard what Rapskal says. That we have to plunge ourselves into the citys memories if we are to learn how to live here as Elderlings. But I also remember all the warnings I heard in Trehaug. What Leftrin told us before he left, that lingering too long near memory-stone can drown you. That you can lose your own life in remembering someone elses.

Thymara was silent for a moment. Tats had put a precise finger on her own fear, the one that she didnt like to admit. But we are Elderlings. Its different for us.

Is it? I know Rapskal says that, but is it? Did the Elderlings prize having their own lives, or did they grow up so saturated in other peoples experiences that they didnt realize what was theirs and what theyd absorbed? I like being me, Thymara. I want to still be Tats, no matter how long I live and tend my dragon. And I want to share those years with Thymara. I dont need to soak you in someone elses life when Im with you. He paused, letting her feel the sting of that little barb. Then he added, My turn for a question. Are you living your life, Thymara? Or avoiding it by living someone elses?

He knew. She hadnt confided in him about the memory columns and her visits there with Rapskal. But somehow he knew. A deep blush heated her face. As her silence became longer, the hurt in his eyes deepened. She tried to tell herself that shed done nothing wrong, that his hurt was not her fault. He spoke while she struggled to find words.

Its pretending, Thymara. His voice was low but not gentle. Its not plunging into this life in Kelsingra. Its letting go of now, and living the past, a past that will never return. Its not even really living. You dont make decisions there, and if the consequences become too dark, you can run away. You take on a style of thinking, and when you come back to this world, it sways you. But worst of all is, while you are swimming in memories, what are you not doing here? What experiences are you missing, what chances pass you by? A year from now, what will you say about these seasons, what will you remember?

She was moving from embarrassed to angry. Tats had no right to rebuke her. He might think she was doing something foolish, but she hadnt hurt anyone with it. Well, only him, and only his feelings. And wasnt that partially his own fault, for caring about such things?

He knew she was getting angry. She saw how he tightened his shoulders and heard his voice deepen a notch. When youre with me, Thymara if you ever decide to be with me I wont be thinking of anyone else except you. I wont call you by someone elses name, or do something to you because its what someone else liked a long, long time ago. When you finally decide to let me touch you, Ill be touching you. Only you. Can Rapskal say that to you?

Her mind swirled with conflicting thoughts and emotions. Then, from the riverbank, Carson shouted, Dragon fight! Keepers, get down here!

She spun away from Tats and ran, as much toward danger as away from it.

Why do you hate me?

She gave two final snips with her shears before she spoke, then ran her slender fingers through his hair, loosening it as she checked for any more mats or tangles. It sent a shiver up his back and he shuddered to cast it off. Another woman might have smiled at his reaction. Chassims eyes remained cold and distant. She replied with a question of her own. Why do you suppose I hate you, dragon-man? Have I treated you with anything less than respect? Been less than attentive and subservient to you in any way?

Your hatred shimmers around you like heat from a fire, he replied honestly. She stepped away from him to fling handfuls of his damp hair out of a barred window. That task done, she closed the window and then folded down the elaborate wooden cover. Even though the cover was painted white and bore images of birds and flowers, it still plunged the room into gloom. Selden sighed at the loss of sunlight: his body craved it after the long months of deprivation.

The woman halted, her hand on the screen. I have displeased you and now you will tell my father. It was not a question.

He was startled. No. I just miss the daylight. I was kept for months inside a heavy tent, and journeyed here in the hold of a ship. Ive missed fresh air and daylight.

She moved away from the window without opening the cover. Why look on what you cannot have?

He wondered if that was why she had draped herself, head to foot, in a shapeless white shroud. Only the square of her face was visible; he had never seen a woman attired so and suspected it was her own invention. All Rain Wilds folk went veiled when they visited other places. Even when they went to Bingtown, where folk should have known better, their scales and wattles drew curious eyes and invited fear or mockery. But a Rain Wilds woman would have veiled her face as well, and her gloves and robes would have been rich with embroidery and beading. Her garments would have displayed her wealth and power. This woman was swathed as plainly as if her body had been wrapped for a paupers grave. Her bared face, though fair, was a window into the anger and resentment she felt. Almost he wished she had hidden those eyes from him.

Yet the fury in her eyes had not reached the gentleness of her touch. He lifted his hands to his hair and ran his fingers through it. She had left it to his shoulders. It felt light and soft, and for the first time in months his fingers moved freely through it. Such a wonder to be entirely clean and warm. She had trimmed his nails, hands and feet, and scrubbed his back and legs and arms with a soft brush until his skin blushed pink and his scaling shone. His wounds had been cleaned and bandaged with salves and clean linen. It had felt odd and uncomfortable to be groomed as if he were a prize animal, but he had neither the strength nor the will to resist her. Even now, wrapped in soft blankets and enthroned before a fire, he felt it took all his strength just to hold his head upright. He gave up and let it loll back on the cushions. He could feel the drag of his eyelids. He struggled to stay awake: he needed to think, to put together the pieces of information they had given him.

The Chancellor had brought him here, apparently at great expense, and presented him to the Duke. The Duke had spoken kindly to him, had placed him here with this woman who tended him with both gentleness and disdain. What did they want of him? Why had his presentation to the Duke seemed so formal and portentous? Questions, but no clear answers. Life was suspended, his existence dependent on the whims of others. He had to decipher the mystery. In this womans care, he had the chance to regain his health. Could he manipulate that into a chance to regain his freedom?

Stay awake. Ask questions. Make plans. He fixed a smile on his face and inquired casually, So. Chancellor Ellik is your father?

She turned back to him, startled. Her upper lip was lifted like a cats that smelled something bad. He could not tell if she were pretty or even how old she was. He saw her pale-blue eyes and sandy lashes, a face sprinkled with faded freckles, a small mouth and a pointed chin. All else was hidden. My father? No. My suitor. He wishes to marry me, to gather power to himself, so that as my father fails, he may assume it.

Your father is failing?

My father is dying, and has been for a long time. I wish he would accept that and do it. My father is the Duke of Chalced. Antonicus Kent.

Selden was doubly startled. Your father is the Duke of Chalced? That is his name? Ive never heard it.

She turned away from him again, hiding her face from his honest stare. No one speaks it any more. When he made himself Duke, years before I was born, he declared that was all he would ever be, for the rest of his life. Even as a child, I did not refer to him as father or papa. No. He is always the Duke.

Selden sighed, all hopes of an alliance fled. So. Your father, the Duke, is my captor.

The woman gave him an odd look. Captor. That is a kind word for someone who intends to devour you in hopes of prolonging his own life.

He stared at her without comprehension. She met his gaze. Perhaps she had intended to jab him with her words but as he looked at her, her face changed slowly. Finally she said, You dont know, do you?

His mouth had gone dry at the look on her face. She didnt like him, so how could she feel so much horror and pity at his fate? He drew an uncertain breath. Will you tell me?

For a moment, she bit her lower lip. Then she shrugged. My father has been ill for a very long time. Or so he says. Others, I think, would simply accept it as ageing. But he has done all he could to stave off death. Many a learned healer he has brought here and many rare cures he has consumed. But over the last few years, all efforts have failed him. Death beckons, but he will not answer its call. Instead, he threatens his healers and in turn, fearing death just as much as he does, they have told him that they cannot cure him unless he can procure for them the rarest of all ingredients for their medicines. Powdered dragon liver to purify his blood. Dragon blood mixed with ground dragons teeth to make his own bones stop aching. The ichor from a dragons eye to make his own eyesight clear again. The blood of a dragon, to make his own blood run hot and strong as a young mans.

He shook his head at her. I dont even know where my dragon is right now. In the past three years, I have felt her mind brush mine only twice and never have I been able to reach out to her. She does not come at my call, and even if she did, she would not give up her own blood to save me. I feel sure she would be roused to killing fury at the thought of a man wishing to drink her blood or make medicine from her liver. He shook his head more strongly. I am useless to him! He should ransom me and demand his healers find other cures for him.

She cocked her head and the pity in her eyes became unmistakable. You did not hear me out. He could not get his dragons blood, but what my suitor gave him woke his curiosity. A small square of scaled flesh. Flesh cut from your shoulder, if I am not mistaken. Which he ate. And it made him feel better than he had in months. But not for long.

Selden sat up. The room began a slow turn, rotating around him in a sickening way. He shut his eyes tightly, but it only became worse. He opened them again, swallowing against the vertigo. Are you sure? he asked her hoarsely. He told you such a thing, that he ate my flesh?

My father did not tell me, no. My suitor Chancellor Ellik bragged of it. When he came to tell me that you would be put in my care. The smoothness had gone out of her speech. Her words hitched along and he sensed a terrible story behind them.

Her eyes had gone distant and dark. He reached out to touch her arm. She gave a small shriek and leapt away from him. She stared at him wildly. What is it? he demanded. Tell me what you know.

She retreated from him, reached the covered window and halted there. He feared suddenly that she might fling the cover wide and throw herself through the window. Instead, she turned back to face him, a cornered animal, and flung the words at him as she might fling stones at hounds baying after her. He cannot have dragons blood, so he will have yours! He will consume you, as he consumes every living being that comes near him. Consume and destroy, for his own dark ends!

To hear her speak the words made the unthinkable something he must confront. A strange coldness filled him slowly, flowing out from his bones. When he spoke, his voice was higher than usual, as if air could not quite reach the bottom of his lungs. It wont work, he said desperately. I am as human as you are. My dragon has changed me, but I am not a dragon. Drink my blood, eat my flesh, it will not matter. He will die just as surely as I will.

Full knowledge of the fate the Duke intended for him penetrated his mind. He had not, at first, comprehended why they had taken a sample of his flesh and skin when he was being sold. He had thought then that it was to prove that he was scaled. The wound on his shoulder from that sample still oozed through the clean bandaging the woman had applied to it. He had thought it was healing and left it alone, but the girl had abraded away the thick scab to reveal the festering infection beneath. He wrinkled his nose as he recalled how bad it had smelled.

Even the meaning behind the Dukes words when he had first been brought before him had slipped past Seldens cognizance. But this woman who had been entrusted with his care seemed determined to make him confront it. She studied him from across the room, then, as abruptly as she had taken flight, she calmed. Her voice was low as she crossed the room to sit by his couch. The Duke knows that your flesh and blood will not serve him as well as a dragons would. Knows it, and does not care. He will spend you ruthlessly, using you as a stopgap measure to keep himself alive until he can obtain the genuine cure.

She tugged his blanket straight, her lips folded. Then spoke without hope. And so I must heal you of infection, and clean your body, and ply you with food and drink, just as if you were a cow being fattened for the slaughter. We are both his cattle, you see. Chattel to be used however it best suits him.

He stared into her face, expecting to see anger or at least tears. But she looked wooden, her eyes fixed on a hopeless future. This is monstrous! How can you just accept what he does to me? To you?

She gave a bitter laugh and slumped on the simple wooden stool and gestured around the little room. It was small and comfortably appointed, but the bars on the window and the stout door proclaimed what it was: a gilded cage. I am as much his captive as you are, and as human as you say you are, but it will make no difference to him. He will consume us both. I am the bribe that he offers Ellik in return for the Chancellor doing all he can to preserve my fathers miserable life. It gives me a little comfort that you say that if he consumes you, your death will not buy him more life. She looked down at her hands and confided hopelessly, Once, I had planned to outlive him and then to proclaim myself his rightful heir. All my brothers are dead, either at my fathers hands or of the blood plague. And I am eldest of my sisters and the only one not wed away in trade. The throne should be mine upon his death.

He looked at her incredulously. Would his nobles support you in such a claim?

She shook her head. It was a silly dream. Those I attempted to rally to my cause are, ultimately, as powerless as I am. It was the fancy I concocted to give purpose and hope to my life. Now its gone. I have no way left to reach out to those who also shared my ambition. Instead I shall comfort myself with the knowledge that he will not outlive me by much, if at all.

Selden furrowed his brow. But you are a young woman. Surely you shall outlive your father by many years.

My fathers daughter might have a long lifespan, but not Elliks wife, I think. His last wife gave him heir sons for his own fortune and name. That was all he needed of her, and when he was finished with her, her life was finished, too. He needs but one son from me to establish a regency the other nobles will not challenge. I am sure that is why the mother of his sons died so suddenly; to make space for me. She looked at him. I did not know her but I mourn her. His last woman has scarcely begun to rot in her grave, and Ellik is ready to begin on me. No. I will be consumed just as you are. But not, I am told, until I have restored you to health. So. To hasten our ends, you should eat. Her tone became falsely light, a mockery of the tragedy in her eyes.

She rose and brought a little table to his bedside. On it was a tray with a large covered dish set beside two smaller ones. She lifted the lid on the large dish. Selden stared at a mound of raw meat cut into chunks. An inadvertent sound of disgust welled from his throat. She stared at him. Are you not hungry?

If it were cooked, he said faintly. At the prospect of food, his mouth had begun to water, but the bloody red chunks of flesh only reminded him of his ultimate fate. He turned away, swallowing. His wakened hunger was making him nauseous.

I can remedy that, she said, and for the first time, her voice seemed free of bitterness. I can toast it over the hearth here, and will welcome whatever you leave. My father does not think it fitting that women consume flesh. This is my provender. She uncovered the two smaller dishes. One held grain porridge with a generous pat of butter still melting in the centre of it, and the other a heap of boiled vegetables in an orange, yellow and green heap. At the sight of them, Seldens stomach growled loudly. The homely smell of stewed turnips, carrots and cabbage almost brought tears to his eyes.

Chassim was silent for a moment. If we share all, there is enough for both of us to dine well. Her voice was hesitant, her eyes downcast.

Please, he begged, and something in that simple word woke the first shadow of a smile he had seen on her face.

Please, she said softly to herself, as if the word were foreign to her. Yes. And with thanks.

Day the 28th of the Fish Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Sealia Finbok, wife of Trader Finbok

To Hest Finbok, beloved Son

A message to be held for him at the Trehaug Traders Concourse.

My dear boy, you left Bingtown with scarcely a word to us! I do not even know where you lodge in Trehaug. Still, I need you to know that your father is quite angry to learn that Trader Reddings son accompanied you. He says that he expressly forbade you to take a companion with you, something that I regard as quite ridiculous. How could anyone tolerate an extended journey to a place as backward as the Rain Wilds without a cultured and witty fellow to help pass the tedium? To calm his wrath, I told him a bit of a story, that is, that I insisted you take Redding with you as I was concerned for your safety, travelling alone in such an uncivilized place. So, when you return, you must agree with my story when your father asks you.

Most Important! Lissy Sebastipan has broken her engagement to Trader Portys son Ismus! She discovered that he had a bastard daughter with a girl from a Three Ships family. The whole town has been buzzing, for their wedding was to have been the social event of the year. I am in an agony of sympathy for Lissys mother, yet at the same time, I confess that I do see a wonderful opportunity here for you! I am sure you take my meaning!

Please do not waste too much time on what I perceive as a useless mission. Come home, annul your contract for abandonment, forget that eccentric and ungrateful woman and let me find you a faithful and appropriate wife.

Should you have time to do any trading, I have heard that some absolutely amazing deep-purple flame jewels have recently been unearthed. Do look into this rumour, and feel free to use the family credit if they prove worthy of purchase.

With all affection, and the desire that you use your travel time to revive your poor broken spirit and renew your enjoyment of life,

Your loving Mother

CHAPTER SIX Dragon Blood | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER EIGHT City of Elderlings