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CHAPTER EIGHT

City of Elderlings

Alise! Alise, are you in there? Alise straightened up slowly. She had been hunched over a table-top inlaid with very detailed illustrations of dragon anatomy. She now realized she had been hearing shouts in the distance for some time, but had blocked them from her mind, assuming they were only the citys memories trying to invade her. Most often the citys whispers were a distraction. Today, cleaning and studying the diagrams, the whispers had been informative. She prayed she might never need to know how to remove a broken tooth from a dragons jaw, but valued the knowledge all the same.

Im here, she called, wondering who needed her for what now. The interruptions always seemed to come when she was in the most interesting part of something, and for what? So that she could identify a stove part or something that someone had found. Earlier in the week, it had been Rapskal with an armful of very large buckles set with sparkling stones. I know these are important, he had said without preamble. I know that I know what they are, but when I reach for the memory, it slides away. It isnt something I used to deal with directly, but I know that someone did it for me and it was important to me and my dragon. He had taken a breath and added mournfully, I found them in a pile of rubble behind my house. Something bad happened there, Alise. I know it.

Shed looked at him dispassionately. He would never be her favourite person, but seemed artlessly unaware of how devastating his comments had been to her. He was the one who had pointed out that she was not an Elderling and never would be. He was the one who had told her that she had no say over what they did with the city, that the city belonged to the new Elderlings, not her. True as those statements had been, they had still devastated her and turned her life upside down. Shed had to change her image of herself from the very bones out. Ultimately, she knew, it had been good for her. That did not mean she enjoyed being reminded of it.

You never touched one of these before today, she pointed out to him. But you may have sampled the memories of someone who did. An understatement if there was one. All knew how obsessed Rapskal was becoming with his other selfs memories. She took one of the buckles from him and turned it slowly in her hands. Its from a dragons harness. Not for battle armour but for show. Perhaps as part of a victory parade or other celebration

Battle harness? he had interrupted her. Battle harness? YES! Yes, thats it, thats what this reminded me of. But but Mouth slightly ajar, his eyes went distant and the light went out of his face. I dont remember all of it. I should, but I dont know

Go to the Hall of Records, the building with the map tower. Climb up, oh; I think it was on the third storey. There are many wall decorations there that you can study to see how the harness was made and fitted.

Yes. Yes, now I remember. Heroes were honoured there. Valiant men and dragons of great battle prowess Absently, he took the buckle from her hands. Clutching it to his chest, hed left her standing without even a thank you as he hurried off to try to recover a piece of a self hed never been. She sighed. Leftrin had warned them all, but nothing she could say now would dissuade any of them. Lingering too long in memory-stone was dangerous.

And exciting.

She might not be an Elderling but privately she still believed she was the one best suited to extract the citys secrets. The knowledge she had gleaned from her studies prepared and anchored her. It was not so foreign to her, and yet she could hold tight to her humanity and not be swept away. Still, it was frightening to let her own life and thoughts be swept aside in the stream of memories stored in the citys stones. She had learned a new discipline in this city. When she ventured into her memory sampling, it was for a specific purpose and she kept her attention tightly focused on what she wanted to know, refusing all other tugs at her attention. It was like diving into deep cold water to retrieve a sparkling stone.

Alise!

The voice came again and she recognized it as Sylves. Before she could respond, the keeper called once more, Alise? Are you in here? Tarmans coming. Theyre back!

Im back here, Sylve! Then the meaning of the girls shout penetrated her distracted mind. Tarman had been sighted. Leftrin! He was back! And she was on the wrong side of the river. Hed be expecting to find everyone at the village site, not in the city. She leapt to her feet, dragon dentistry discarded. Leftrin was coming, and she looked a fright! She hurried to the door of the chamber and peered out into the tall, wide corridor. Wheres Heeby? she demanded as Sylve came barrelling toward her. Behind the girl, the tall double doors stood open to the gusty wind of the spring day. Alise hoped the little dragon and her keeper would carry a message to the ship for her.

She and Rapskal are guiding Tarman in! Carson says he thinks our dock will hold, but not be very good for unloading yet. Hes worried about it, but I think it will be a good test of what we built.

Tarman is coming directly here? She had even less time to prepare for him.

Yes! We sighted them coming on the river, not long after the dragons had their quarrel.

Dragon quarrel? Alise interrupted in alarm. Was anyone hurt? She must have been tightly focused on the city to have remained unaware of that!

No, no injuries among the keepers. It happened in the air, downriver. We couldnt see much of it, but we did see Mercor give Spit a good tumble. But Spit rose again, so he couldnt have been much hurt, and then the whole flock of dragons moved farther away down the river. So we still dont know what that was about. But shortly after that, we spotted Tarman!

Alises hands flew to her hair. Then she laughed at the instinctive gesture of a Bingtown woman. It would be silly to fuss over her appearance. Leftrin knew the conditions shed been living under! Well, at least he would find her in better circumstances than when he had left. Since the keepers had moved across the river and into Kelsingra, they were all cleaner and better groomed. Nonetheless, she found herself pulling the precious few pins she still possessed from her hair and letting it down. She shook it out as she hurried after Sylve. Her hands moved as she strode along, smoothing the stubborn red ringlets, re-braiding it, and then pinning it back up. She wondered what it looked like and then discovered that, truly, she didnt care. And if Leftrin did, well, then he wasnt the man she thought he was. She found herself smiling confidently. He wouldnt care.

I wonder what upset the dragons. Was it the beginning of a mating battle?

I dont think so. Didnt you hear them? There was a lot of trumpeting from Spit, and then the others came to see what he wanted. That was what caught Carsons eye, all the dragons converging. At least six of them went to Spit, in a big circling swarm. Then I saw Mercor clash with him! Why, we dont know and they havent been paying much attention to us since then. But Mercor went up under him as Spit was diving down and then he just tipped Spit off sideways. We saw him fall and then the trees were in the way and everyone was terrified that he would land in the river. Well, except a few of us who were rather hoping the little beast would get a good cold dunking. But then we saw him come up again. I still have no idea what it was about.

Her voice dropped on her last words and Alise heard the hurt in it that Mercor had not spoken to her since the fray. Since the dragons had become capable of feeding themselves, they had taken little interest in their keepers. Of course, any dragon might still summon a keeper at a moments notice for special grooming, but few of them made daily contact with the young Elderlings. Some of the keepers seemed as affronted as snubbed lovers over this. Others, like Sylve, were sad but resigned to their loneliness. She and Boxter seemed to take the abandonment the hardest. Some of the others, notably Jerd and Davvie, seemed relieved to be free of their demanding dragons. Last night, as the keepers had shared a sparse dinner in the back room of the dragon baths, Sylve had bravely spoken the truth that the others preferred to ignore.

Nothings changed, really. They feel about us as they always have. From the beginning, they were honest. They wanted to get away from Cassarick and become dragons again. They tolerated us because they needed us.

The keepers gathered around the ancient table had grown still, food forgotten.

And now they dont. So, they tolerate us still, but they prefer their own kind. Or they prefer their solitude.

She was right, but it had not lifted the gloom that had fallen over the company since the dragons had achieved flight. Alise could sympathize. She recalled how heady it had been to be the subject of Sintaras attention. And when the dragon had taken the trouble to cast her glamour over her? She smiled and swayed slightly at the thought of it. It had been all-encompassing. The delight and joy of being the object of a dragons attention had been surpassed only by the giddiness of her infatuation with Leftrin, and then the swirl of excitement at realizing he reciprocated her admiration. Now that was something no one ever got from a dragon!

When she had first met the blue queen, she had felt light-headed each time the dragon deigned to speak to her. She had been willing to do anything, any task, no matter how menial, to keep that regard. She had felt such a sense of loss when the dragon had recognized that Thymara was a better provider and had chosen the girl over her. If Leftrin had not been there to cushion the blow, she probably would have been devastated to lose Sintaras regard. She smiled now as she thought how well he had distracted her.

In the days since the dragons had stopped paying attention to their keepers, some of them seemed to have chosen similar distractions for themselves. She had watched, uncomfortably, as Thymara swung between Rapskal and Tats. She pitied all three of them; yet at the same time, she reflected that each of the young men knew of his rival. Thymara did not deceive them as Alise had been deceived. Thymara respected her suitors and struggled to treat them well.

Jerd had plunged herself into yet another torrid romance; Alise did not know which keeper she had chosen this time, and wondered wearily if it truly mattered.

It was strange to watch Davvie and Lecter be so absorbed in each other. In Bingtown, it would have been a scandal for two young men to be so openly passionate about one another. Here, their relationship was accepted by their fellow keepers, much as they accepted that Sedric and Carson were partnered. Perhaps once one realized how deeply one could bond with a creature as foreign as a dragon, all forms of human love seemed more acceptable. The two young keepers could often be seen wandering the town together. Their laughter at the smallest shared joke made others smile, while their tempestuous quarrels, it sometimes seemed to Alise, were only because both of them so enjoyed the drama of parting and the relief of coming together again.

Others of the keepers, such as Harrikin, had immersed themselves in hunting. Tats seemed as fascinated by the engineering of the city as Carson was. A few, such as Nortel and Jerd, had become devoted treasure-seekers; while Rapskal spent his free time, when he was not trailing after Thymara, in a different sort of exploration of the city. Since he had asked her about the buckles, he spoke often of weaponry and techniques of fighting and how the city had once defended itself from the dragons of another city. It frightened and alarmed her to hear that once there had been such rivalries among Elderling cities and the dragons that inhabited them, but when she asked what was at the base of their quarrel, Rapskal had gone silent and looked confused. It worried her.

Alise and Sylve emerged into the streets; the fresh spring wind bludgeoned them, whipping Alises freshly confined hair out into wild red strands. She laughed aloud, and reached up to salvage the last of her pins before they could be scattered. Her hair flounced free onto her shoulders. So be it.

Hurry! Sylve called over her shoulder, and broke into a run.

Alise broke into a dogged trot but the Elderling girl ran effortlessly away from her. Sylve had shot up taller than Alise and her face was beginning to be that of a woman rather than a child, but she had growing still to do, and not just her body. Alise was glad that Harrikin apparently had the patience to wait for her. The girl obviously enjoyed his company, and all spoke of them as a couple, but Alise had seen no indication that he had attempted to gain more than her promise from her. They walked hand in hand sometimes, and she had witnessed a few stolen kisses, but he was not pressing her. For now, he was her true friend, and Alise did not doubt that in time he would win all that he sought.

As Leftrin had.

The thought warmed her suddenly and she abandoned her reserved jog, stretching her legs into a run and astounding herself and Sylve by catching up with the girl. They glanced at one another, windblown hair netting their faces, and then both burst into laughter. The final hill before the run down to the docks fell away before them, and they both raced down it.


Leftrin risked one backwards glance. The gyre of dragons had dispersed or perhaps they had descended below the tree-line to harry the hapless Bingtown ship. He felt sorry for that crew but knew he could do nothing for them. The dragons would probably be content with just chasing the boat away, and good riddance to it. Surely the dragons could not have changed so much as to casually slaughter humans? Could they?

He pushed that thought out of his mind and focused on the problems that he could do something about. He had some very immediate worries. Tarman was struggling as he approached the Kelsingra docks. The steady current pushed the barge on relentlessly. The water that swept past the city was deep and swift, eating away at the bank and the structures on it. Obviously, it had been doing so for a number of winters. In some stretches, the current foamed and crashed over the stony bones of recently conquered masonry. Leftrin gritted his teeth at the sight and refused to imagine Tarman suddenly slammed against it by a trick of the current.

As the ship approached the heart of the citys waterfront, Leftrin could see that the keepers had attempted to rebuild the dock. Rough logs had been roped or pegged to the standing-stone pilings that were all that remained of the ancient docks. It did not look very sturdy and he questioned his wisdom in listening to Rapskal. Right after they had witnessed the dragon attack on the boat, Heeby had flown over them, Rapskal on her back. The keeper had shouted down to them, over and over, to come to Kelsingra, not the village. When Swarge had waved that he understood the message, the dragon and boy had flown off. It had taken the combined efforts of Tarman and the full crew to battle their way across the river and work their way along a shore where the water ran deep and swift. The village side of the river had offered slower and more shallow water, and a wide and sandy bank for the ship to wedge itself against. Here, they had only the makeshift new dock and a strong deep current pushing against them. Leftrin was aware of how stubbornly his liveship paddled against that rush, how his hidden tail thrashed as his crew pulled valiantly at their oars, steering him toward the dock.

The keepers had come down to greet them. Wisely, most of them remained on the shore. Carson was on the dock, ready to catch a line as soon as it was thrown to him. Harrikin was with him, and, to Leftrins amazement, so was Sedric, looking more muscular and fit than when Leftrin had last seen him. Harrikin and Sedric were clad in bright clothing, as were the rest of the keepers; evidently the city had yielded up a bit of its treasure to them. His brow furrowed as he wondered how Alise felt about that.

The tethered logs of the dock moved with the current, rising and falling steadily. On the crumbling street behind the docks, the other keepers were massed. Much as he longed to scan that crowd for Alises face, he knew that his ship required all his attention just now. He kept his place on top of the deckhouse, bellowing course corrections as Tarman fought the seething current as they moved toward the dock and pushed steadily upstream until they were past it.

Drop anchor! Hennesey roared and Big Eider obeyed, deploying a kedge anchor first on the port side and then another on the starboard side of the barge. Chain and then line played out swiftly as the crew continued to fight the current. Then the anchors caught and the liveship curtseyed to the water as the lines took the ships weight. A moment later, there was a lurch as the port anchor dragged a short distance before lodging firmly on the bottom.

Even them out! Leftrin bellowed to Hennesey, but the mate was already in motion, assisting Big Eider in that very task. As the ship came into alignment, they began the careful process of paying out line to let the current carry them downstream to a position parallel to the docks.

Leftrin prayed there were no concealed pilings from the old dock hiding beneath the rivers rush. The space between Tarman and the dock narrowed and still the ships unseen legs and tail fought to gain a place alongside the dock and hold there. Plainly, Tarman did not trust the kedge anchors completely. It made the task of docking him more difficult, but Leftrin allowed the liveship to follow his own instincts. Finally, they were close enough for lines to be flung. Sedric caught the first one and quickly wrapped it around one of the few remaining stone supports from the fallen dock. Carson caught the next, and quickly wrapped it around a wooden upright. It groaned, swayed slightly and then held. Other lines were tossed, caught, and tied. As soon as Tarman was somewhat secured, longer lines were run out, past the dock and up onto dry land. With a fine disrespect for the citys antiquity, one was tied off around an Elderling statue, while another was taken in through the window of a small stone structure and then out of the door before being made fast. It was a sloppy tie-up, as if an immense spider had trapped the liveship in a web. Leftrin waited, but the lines held. He breathed out.

It will do for now, he told Hennesey. But I dont like it and neither does Tarman. I want you or me on board at all times, and I dont want the crew to go far. At least three hands on board at every moment. Once we get off-loaded, then well head back across the river and beach Tarman there. Jaunting back and forth in the ships boats from the village to Kelsingra wont be fun but at least hell be safe there.

Hennesey nodded grimly.

Lets unload right away, then, said Leftrin. As soon as we see our passengers safely ashore. Get it started. I want a word with the ship.

Hennesey jerked his head in a nod and was gone. In a moment, he was shouting the orders that would get the cargo moving onto the deck for off-loading. A chorus of greetings rose from the waiting crowd on shore. Leftrin gave a single wave as he made his way forward. He saw Hennesey leaning over the side, exchanging words with Carson. The big hunter could move with alacrity when he needed to, and as if by magic, the keepers were suddenly lining up like ants as they readied themselves to act as stevedores. Big Eider was personally assisting Malta across the deck and down onto the wobbly dock. She clutched her baby, refusing to surrender him to anyone, while Reyn followed closely behind her, looking anxious. Leftrin noticed that Hennesey was waiting to perform the same service for Tillamon. He folded his lips, and then decided that it was up to Reyn to intervene if he thought anything improper was going on. And perhaps not even Reyn, given that Tillamon was a woman grown.

He reached the foredeck and leaned on the wizardwood railing. Ship. You going to talk to me?

He felt the familiar thrumming of a liveships awareness. Tarman was eldest of the liveships, built long before anyone had any idea that wizardwood was anything other than finely grained and excellent-quality timber. Hed been built as a barge, with the traditional painted eyes for watching the rivers current, but no figurehead such as the other liveships boasted. While his painted eyes had become ever more expressive over the years, he had no carved mouth with which to speak. Usually Leftrin shared his ships feelings on an intuitive level, or when Tarman intruded directly into his dreams. Only rarely did the captain have the sensation that the ship was speaking to him in actual words. He had always respected however little or much Tarman chose to share with him. Only rarely, when he felt there was a direct threat to his vessel, did he make such a request. Now he leaned on the railing and waited, hoping.

He felt the ships uneasiness, but he would have had to be stone to be unaware of that. Every one of the crew was moving with a quick nervousness that said that at any moment they could spring into action to save the ship if the anchors dragged or the dock gave way. Not safe here, is it, Tarman? We need a better place than this to tie up on this side of the river if we want you to be here for any length of time. But once were unloaded, well get you out of here and across and onto the beach. It will be good to rest, wont it?

As he spoke, Leftrin glanced up at the sky. Working with experienced longshoremen on sturdy docks at Trehaug, it had taken most of a day to get supplies aboard. Now crates were being wrestled down a gangplank and onto a rickety, bobbing dock, and then hauled from the dock to the shore. At a quick glance, it appeared to Leftrin that about ten of the keepers were present, and all seemed frantically engaged with the unloading. He saw that Reyn and Malta had made it ashore and that Tillamon was standing with them. And there, in a familiar gown, her red hair an unruly cascade down her shoulders, was his Alise, taking charge of them. He gave a small groan, longing to be there, to pick her up and hold her against him and smell again her sweet scent.

Not yet.

I know, ship. Not yet. My duty is here. And Ill stay aboard you until youre safe on the other side.

He glanced up at the sky, calculating time, and realized that he might have to spend the night tied up here. He wondered if Alise would join him, and smiled, guessing that she might be very willing. The ships anxiety pulled his attention back.

Not yet. The child is not yet safe.

Alise will help them. Shell get them to a dragon, perhaps Mercor. Maybe Heeby. One of them will certainly be willing to help the baby.

Maybe. If they can. I have done what I could.

If they can? Leftrin didnt like the feel of that thought. He had believed that bringing the baby here for one of the dragons to treat would solve everything. Persuading a dragon to take it on had been the only obstacle he had foreseen. Do you think all the dragons will refuse us?

The right one must be there and must agree. The response was slow and Leftrin sensed that his ship struggled to convey something. He decided to let it go. Mercor had been the most communicative among the dragons in the past. Perhaps he would be willing to shed more light on the creation of Elderlings and what the baby might actually need. Yet he was heavy-hearted at the thought of breaking this news to Malta. He ventured another query to his ship. Would the baby be better off if it remained on board for now? Could you continue to help him?

The response was reluctant. As much as could be done, I have done.

And our thanks to you, Tarman.

He felt no acknowledgement from the ship, and no further touch upon his mind. It was Tarmans way, and for himself, Leftrin was grateful that his liveship was more taciturn than most. He did not think he could have enjoyed a chatterbox like the Ophelia or a moody and dramatic ship like the Paragon. But there, it was probably like it was for children. Each parent thought his or hers was the best and doubtless every captain would prefer his own liveship to any other.

That brought a tiny nudge from Tarman.

I am the best. Eldest, wisest, best.

Of course you are. Ive always known that.

And again, there was no acknowledgement of Leftrins remark. But that was what hed expected.

Malta looked around her in a daze. A long corridor led off into gently lit dimness. At intervals, doors opened off it, most closed but a few ajar. Any open door? she asked wearily.

Any open door, Alise Finbok affirmed. If a keeper has already claimed a room, then the door is closed. And most of them were long ago locked by their previous owners and we havent found any way to open them. Id suggest one of those last three at the end of the hall. They are larger with several chambers and beds. We think that perhaps they were for visiting delegations from other cities. Of course, we have no basis for that theory, other than it was the only one any of us could imagine.

Thank you. The two words were almost more than Malta could manage. Her body was still flushed from a hot bath and her hair was damp on her shoulders. They had been the only inhabitants of the dragon baths. Malta vaguely appreciated that at any other time she would have been awed by the immense chamber with the distant ceilings and the magic of the hot flowing water. But sorrow and weariness had driven all wonder from her heart. In a daze, she had rubbed days of salty sweat from her body. The hot water had drained away the aches from her bones, but also the last of her stubborn strength.

Alise had been so kind as to hold the wailing Phron while Malta bathed and washed her hair. He was quiet now in her arms, but Malta could feel that his little body was slack with weariness, not sleepy and content. He had cried himself out in Alises arms and come back to his mother as limp as a rag doll. He had seemed to be asleep when she had gently lowered his little body into the water. But his eyes had opened at its embrace, and she had been pleased to see him stretch out in the steaming bath and wave his little arms and legs about in it. He had patted the waters surface and looked first startled and then pleased at the splashes he made. She had smiled to see him behave so much like an ordinary child. But as the coloured scales on his body had flushed and then deepened in hue, she had known a wave of uneasiness. Something is happening to him!

That happened to the keepers, too, Alise had assured her. She had waited at the edge of the immense tub, a drying cloth open and ready to receive the baby. Malta had smiled up at her. The Bingtown woman had not changed nearly as much as the other members of the expedition. It took a discerning eye to notice the scaling behind her eyebrows and on the backs of her hands. Her words still held the intonation of the scholar. The hot water made the dragons grow quite a bit and seemed to ease their aching. We could literally see the colours spreading on their wings and then deepening. They stretched, and their bodies seemed to take on a new alignment. And they grew, some startlingly. Tinder went from pale lavender to a deep purple with gold tracery. Spit had always had a rather stubby tail. Now it seems the appropriate length for his body. After a day or two of access to the water and warmth, almost all the dragons could take flight from the ground. And now, of course, they all can. The keepers experienced similar changes: brighter colours, lengthening limbs. Thymaras wings are astonishing now.

Wings?

The older woman nodded. Wings. And Sylve may be growing a crest on her brow.

Did I change? Malta had asked her immediately.

Well, you seem to shimmer more brightly to me. But perhaps that is a question better asked of your husband, who knows best how you usually look.

Politeness ruled Alise. She would not say what Malta knew was true. She had been so unkempt from her constant vigilance over little Ephron during the journey that Alise could not tell if the changes in her scaling were merely that she was clean now, or if her dragon characteristics had advanced. Malta found she didnt care and smiled wearily. Look what it had taken to erode girlish vanity, she thought to herself. Merely threaten my sons life and none of it mattered any more.

She looked down into his little face. He was silent but not asleep. His face did not look like the face of any baby she had ever seen before. His little mouth was pinched up as if he were in pain, and his breath whispered through his narrow nostrils. She tried to see him impartially; was he an ugly child, doomed to be rejected by other children as he grew? She had found she could not tell. He was Ephron, her little boy, and his differences were part of who he was, not points to be compared with others. With a forefinger, Malta had traced the fine scaling that outlined his brows, and he closed his eyes. She had handed him to Alise who wrapped him in the waiting towel, while she waded wearily out of the water.

Her skin had dried quickly in the warm chamber, and Alise had supplied her with an Elderling gown of shimmering pink. The gleaming colour reminded Malta of the inside of a conch shell. At another time, she would have longed to see herself in a mirror, to admire the supple fall of the soft fabric. But at the pools edge all she had wanted was her child back in her arms.

Now she stared numbly down the hall of closed and opened doors. Choices, some she might make and others closed forever to her. How did one ever know how one small choice might forever change the course of ones life?

Let me show you a chamber I think youll like and settle you there for the night. In the morning, after youve rested, if you dont like it, you can change it.

Malta realized that she hadnt moved nor spoken in several minutes. Had she fallen asleep standing up? Please, she said faintly, and did not mind when Alise took her arm and guided her down the hall. It was a relief to be away from the keepers noisy and joyous welcome. When they had introduced themselves, several had seemed stunned. The King and the Queen of the Elderlings! someone had whispered.

Malta had shaken her head, but it had not seemed to affect their awe. They had pelted them with hundreds of questions and Reyn, knowing her exhaustion, had tried to answer them. The girls had seemed entranced by her baby and even the boys had come to look on him in amazement.

Like Greft, one of them had exclaimed as he stared at her boy. A taller keeper on the verge of manhood had bade him hush and pulled the scarlet-scaled boy aside. Reyn had read her anguished look and drawn the keepers off, while suggesting strongly that Alise help her find a place to bathe and rest. Now here she was, barely able to make sense of things as the evening drew to a close. She had come all this way, hoping to be greeted by dragons. None had appeared. Now all she wanted was Reyn back, wanted her little family close at hand again.

At the end of the hall Alise escorted her through a door that swung wide at her touch. The room had been dark but it lit as they entered, gaining sourceless light slowly until a warm glow suffused the room. There was no hearth, Malta noticed with dismay, and almost as if Alise heard her, she said, The rooms stay comfortably warm. We dont know how. The chairs and the beds soften as you sit on them, and we dont know how that works either. There is still so much to learn about Kelsingra. There is no bedding either. Perhaps the Elderlings had no need for it when the rooms stayed warm. Some of the closets had clothing in them, and a few of the shelves and cupboards held personal items. Some things were of obvious use, such as brushes and necklaces, and others we didnt understand at all. Ive urged all the keepers to leave non-essential items in place until we can learn more. But, a small sigh, they do not listen to me very well. Jerd is the worst, treasure-hunting from building to building and amassing more jewellery than one woman could wear in a lifetime, with no thought as to where it came from or who wore it before her. Goblets made of gold, as if we had wine worthy of them. A mirror that shows what it should have reflected the moment before, so she can examine the back of her head. And useful items as well. A pot that warms whatever is put into it. Stockings with sturdy soles that adjust to the wearers foot Oh. Im sorry. Im chattering away while you stand there. Come. This room only has a table and chairs, as if for a gathering of people, as you can see. But here is a bedchamber, and those other two doors also go to bedchambers. As soon as you sit down on one of the beds, it will start to soften to your form.

Malta nodded dumbly. Reyn? she asked wearily, and Alise promised, Ill see that he knows where you are. You are exhausted, my dear. Go to bed right away, for the sake of your child, if not yourself.

Alise patted the bed and Malta carefully set Phron down on it. He squirmed and with a sinking heart, she knew he was going to wail again. Then, as the bed softened around his tiny form, his cross expression eased. As she watched him, his eyes sagged slowly closed. Reflexively, she leaned down, putting her cheek and ear near to his face, to assure herself he was breathing. She so wanted to follow him into slumber, but not yet. Not yet. A sad smile twisted her mouth as she recalled how her own mother had always seen to her childrens needs before she allowed herself to rest.

His things, she said, turning to Alise. Will my trunks be brought here? There is a blue case that has all Phrons things in it, his extra napkins, his little robes and soft blankets She let her voice trail away as she wondered what was wrong with her, to be so stupid as to leave such things behind. She could not seem to focus her thoughts; her mind seemed to buzz with a thousand half-remembered ideas

Malta! Alises voice was almost sharp and the Bingtown woman gave her elbow a gentle shake. This city is full of Elderling memories. This building does not seem to be as heavy with them as some, but still, it is easy to let your mind drift here and lose track of what you were thinking and doing. Will you be all right sleeping here tonight? Do you think you should return to the ship?

The moment Alise mentioned it, Malta recognized it for what it was. Memory-stone, full of stored lives and thoughts. She squinted her eyes tight and opened them again. Ill be fine, now that Im aware of it. Ive been around it before. The first time was when I went into the buried part of Trehaug, to try to find Tintaglia and plead with her to leave Reyn alone.

Alise looked intrigued and Malta had to smile. Its a long tale, but if you wish, Ill tell it to you. But not now. Im exhausted.

Of course you are. And I heard Tarmans crew say that everything on board would be off-loaded tonight so that they could move him to a safer place across the river. Ill go and make sure your things are brought here. Now. Before I leave, is there anything else you need?

Only Reyn, Malta replied honestly.

Alise laughed, the sort of laugh that women share. Of course. It was so clever of him to keep the keepers occupied. All of them are buzzing with curiosity about why you are here and all you can teach them of Elderling ways. The King and the Queen of the Elderlings. Did you ever think those titles would come to mean so much? For here, they do. I heard the youngsters talking.

Malta stared at her. Alise smiled and spoke more softly. They think youve come to lead them. To use your power and stature to establish Kelsingra. I heard Rapskal say, They will call us the Dragon Traders, and we will stand on an even footing with Bingtown or the Pirate Isles or even Jamaillia. Theyll respect us now that our king and queen are here. Alise dropped her voice. I know it isnt why you came. But you need to know that. Every word you speak here carries weight with these young Elderlings. Theyll be gathered around Reyn now, hanging on his every word. But Ill free him from them and send him up to you. And Ill let them know that their queen wishes her trunks delivered tonight. And it will happen.

Alise, I cant deal with this, Malta replied feebly. I never thought Words failed her. Useless things. She was so tired. Stupidly tired. Shed forgotten all about Tillamon. Reyns sister will you help her find us here? She must be as tired as I am, and I just left her there at the docks. So rude, but Im just so tired.

Alise looked a bit surprised. Well, I thought Tillamon said that she wanted to stay on board Tarman tonight, and help take him across to the village tomorrow. But if you wish, Ill ask after her.

Sleep aboard Tarman? Well, as she wishes. I thought she might want to join us here where things are so comfortable. But perhaps the memory-noise would bother her. Malta was suddenly too tired to think about it any more. Please, just ask Reyn to come up. And goodnight to you, and many, many thanks for your welcome here.

Goodnight. And by tomorrow morning, I am sure we can persuade one of the dragons to speak to you. Ill ask every keeper to summon his dragon, to speak with the King and Queen of the Elderlings. Surely one will be able to help your babe.

King and Queen. It made her ridiculously sad. The dreams of Malta the girl might come true even as the longings of Phrons mother were destroyed. She had no words for it. Alise, you have been too kind. I have been thoughtless

You are just tired, Alise replied firmly, with a smile. Get some rest. Ill free Reyn from the keepers and send him up.

Alise slipped from the room, pulling the door closed quietly behind her. It was a relief to let the false smile fade from her face. Tragedy. She had never seen such a bony baby. And despite what the keepers said, Malta the Elderling Queen was gone, replaced by a grieving mother with a lined face. The hot water had brightened her scale colours, but her once-golden hair reminded Alise of the dead straw after harvest, and her hands were claw-like. Beauty had fled before lifes harshness. She wondered if it would ever return.

She hurried down the hall and then down the spiralling stair. The dragon baths, with its hot water and comfortable lodgings, were a popular gathering place for the keepers. At the back of the entry hall, behind the stairs, a door led to a gathering space. A long table and chairs and benches that became comfortable after one sat on them filled that room. Beyond it, there was a kitchen area. It illuminated when one entered, and the cupboards and work-tables reminded Alise of the cooking space in many a Bingtown mansion. But there was no hearth, only stone ovens and several mysterious work-benches. There was a large basin with a drain in it, and a mechanism that possibly should have furnished water, but no one had deduced how to make it work.

So cooking took place in an alley behind the building. It had pained her heart to see the keepers build a large hearth of rubble where they cooked game meat on spits over driftwood hauled up from the riverbank. She knew it was a necessity, but the mess it created in the formerly pristine city shamed her. In this, Rapskal was right. There was a way to use this city, and the sooner they learned it, the better for both city and keepers. For now, she felt as if she were part of a barbarian invasion rather than a group of settlers reclaiming a beautiful place.

She opened the door to conversation and the smell of cooked food and almost swooned when she smelled hot tea. She had not tasted tea for months! And bread, there were rounds of hard bread in baskets on the table. It seemed no less than a miracle. She made her way to the table, past a jumble of stacked crates and barrels, the foodstuffs unloaded from Tarman. With relief, she saw a number of large trunks and cases that probably belonged to Malta.

She went to where Reyn sat at the head of the long table. Six keepers clustered about him, and Lecter was telling the tale of how they had treated the dragons for rasp snakes on their way to Kelsingra. Reyn was leaning forward on the table, the picture of a rapt listener, or a very weary man who might otherwise collapse. Alise spoke crisply. Enough! Its time to let this man join his wife and child in some well-earned rest after such a journey. There will be plenty of time to exchange news and tales tomorrow.

After you summon the dragons for us, Reyn ventured.

The smiles around the table faded a bit. Ill try, Sylve volunteered quickly. The others exchanged glances. Their thoughts were plain to Alise. Their King and Queen wished to speak with their dragons, but no one could promise the dragons would come.

Let the poor man get some rest! she insisted again, and Reyn seized the opportunity to stand up.

The gathered keepers groaned at losing him. He gave them a weary smile. I would greatly welcome a bit of assistance with our trunks, he said gently, and the response was overwhelming.

Alise took the opportunity to slip out of the gathering. Her heart beat faster at the thought of her own reunion. She paused only to get her cloak and then hastened out of the door.

It was raining yet she wasnt cold. She pulled up the hood of her midnight-blue Elderling cloak. It was spangled with yellow stars at the hem. Her feet and legs were warmly covered in Elderling garb as well. Sylve had been the one to bring it to her, telling her that everyone thought it ridiculous that she went clad in leaking boots and a ragged cloak while they walked in warmth and finery. But I am not a true Elderling like the rest of you, she had said. It was as close as she had come to admitting to anyone how much of an outsider she had become.

Sylve had scowled, her scaled brow wrinkling, first in puzzlement and then in annoyance. Rapskal, she sighed in disgust. Think of all the peculiar things that boy says, and then tell me why any of them should be taken seriously. Not an Elderling Oh. I suppose that technically he was right. But only in that you have no dragon to demand ridiculous tasks on a moments notice. Not that Sintara would hesitate to do so! But, Alise, please, you have come all this way with us, done so much for us. Without you, do you think we would be here? Would we ever have dared believe this place existed? Look. I chose these for you, the colours will suit you. Ive seen you wear the Elderling robe that Leftrin gave you, so why not dress as one of us?

Alise had had no response to that. Not sure if she felt humbled or honoured, she had taken the garments from Sylves hands. And worn them the next day.

Now she pulled her Elderling cloak tighter around her as she strode through the windy streets and it was like wrapping herself in Sylves friendship. Winter had loosened its harsh grip on the land, and the last few days had seemed almost spring-like, but every evening the chill settled again and wind swept through the city.

The streets of Kelsingra were like the streets of no other city in the world. She hurried alone, the sole living figure on a thoroughfare wide enough for two dragons to pass one another. The buildings soared on either side of her, structure after structure with steps, porticos and entries scaled to dragons. Empty and dark, the broad streets still teemed with remembered Elderlings and occasional dragons, all bathed in an imaginary light. To that remembered illumination was added the light that spilled from the awakened city windows, now white, now golden, now a muted blue. A few of the larger buildings gently glowed in the darkness, acting as beacons within the city. She turned her face toward the waterfront.

She had seen Leftrin from the shore, shouted a greeting to him, and saw on his face all that she longed to hear him say. He had glanced around, agonized by the conflict between duty and longing, and she had suddenly known that she did not want to be something that required that sort of decision. He had to think only of his ship now, not arrange to have her board and become a distraction.

She remembered how the voice of Malta the Elderling had broken into her dilemma. Alise? Alise Finbok? Is that you? She had felt startled and honoured that the Elderlings had seen fit to come to Kelsingra. Until she had seen the womans haggard face and skeletal child, and then a very different emotion had filled her. She had glanced back only once at Leftrin as she had taken charge of them, and had been proud to see the relief on his face. She had lifted a hand, waved a reluctant farewell and seen him echo the gesture. And then she had left the docks to escort Malta, Reyn and their child to what comforts she could offer them.

She and Leftrin had needed no words. Now there was a novelty; a man who assumed she knew what she was doing, and was willing to wait for her. A smile broke out on her face. She was willing to wait no longer.

She crested one of Kelsingras rolling hills and suddenly saw the riverbank scene before her as if it were a Jamaillian puppet play. The keepers had borrowed tethered light globes that graced some of the more elaborate gardens. The spheres gleamed golden and scarlet and their light ran away in spills across the streaming river water. She stood staring; never had she beheld anything like it. The yellow light bounced off Tarmans deck and then faded into a halo around the ship against the black night. Men still moved there as shadowed silhouettes. The crew called to one another as they worked, the sound carrying oddly over the water. She saw squat and bulky Swarge moving across the deck, graceful for a man of his size. A moment later, she realized she had become accustomed to the slender silhouettes of the keepers. Ordinary folk looked strange to her now.

A hastily rigged tripod lifted and swung crates from the ships deck to the rudimentary dock where men grunted and swore as they caught them and guided them down. She spotted Carsons silhouette, and Lecters, and then saw Sedric among those dragging the crates from the dock to the shore. That made her smile. Alum was there, working alongside Tats, and she suspected she knew why he had volunteered to stay and help with the last of the unloading. Once the crates were off the dock, they were loaded onto barrows and shuttled off to their temporary warehouse. The work proceeded in a steady, orderly fashion, the deck and shore crews moving in their concerted efforts as if in a careful dance.

She caught sight of Thymara working alongside the men, and Nortel. There was Tats, shouting to Davvie to come lend a hand with the final crate he was struggling to shift. It came to her to wonder when a ship had last unloaded supplies for this city. What had this river port looked like in the days of the Elderlings? Too careless a thought. She knew a dizzying moment of double vision and saw a sprawling dock system and a score of vessels moored to it. Lights on tall poles streamed golden rays down on the broad-beamed brightly painted vessels, and all manner of people came and went on the wharves. Some were Elderling by their dress and tall silhouettes, but others seemed to be foreigners to these shores. They wore tall hats and were garbed in long furs. She blinked and then squinted her eyes, willing herself back to the present. The Elderlings faded and the ships became fog until only Tarman rode at anchor on the rivers tugging current.

And thats the last of it, boys! Hennesey shouted as four netted casks landed with a thump on the dock. A ragged cheer went up from the crew and the keepers. Still got to get it all under cover, so dont think the work is all done yet! the mate reminded them.

Alise had to agree. It looked like so much cargo, crates and kegs stacked in rows in the street as the keepers struggled to move it to shelter. But when she thought of the long months that remained and all the work that must be done before the keepers could create their own food supplies, her heart sank. Food from Trehaug would still have to be managed carefully, and wild game and forest greens would remain the bulk of their diet.

So much to do, such a long distance to go before the city would function as a real city. Kelsingra needed seed for crops, ploughs to break the meadow soil and horses to draw those ploughs. Most difficult of all was that the keepers would have to learn how to provide for themselves. Sons and daughters of hunters and gatherers, merchants and traders, former residents of a city that had never been able to feed itself, would they adapt to tilling fields and raising kine?

And even if they did, were there enough of them to sustain it? The male-to-female ratio was worrisome and had been from the beginning.

Resolutely, she pushed it all from her thoughts. Not tonight. Tonight was hers, finally. She reached the bottom of the hill and threaded her way through the crates and boxes and out onto the dock. Watch your step! Carson cautioned her with a grin. Weve given these timbers a real test tonight, and some are starting to split. One of the hazards of building with green logs.

Ill be careful, she promised him.

The emptied Tarman rode high, and the taut anchor lines hummed a quiet song of vigilance. She eyed the makeshift gangplank, steep and worn. No. She wouldnt ask for help. She started up it, her Elderling shoes surprisingly sure on the wet wood, but was scarcely three steps up before Leftrin came leaping down to her. Heedless of the treacherous surface, he seized her in a hug that lifted her off her feet. Close by her ear, his unshaven cheek prickling hers, he told her, I have missed you like Id miss air in my lungs. I cant leave you again. Just cant, my lady.

You wont, she promised him, and in the next gasped breath, demanded, Put me down before we both go overboard!

Not a chance! As casually as if she were a child, he swung her up into his arms and in two steps thudded her down on Tarmans deck. He set her on her feet but did not release her. His embrace warmed her as nothing else could. Perhaps her days in the Elderling city had sensitized her, but she felt Tarmans welcome of her as a warmth that flowed up from where her feet touched his deck to engulf her whole body.

Thats amazing, she murmured into Leftrins shoulder. She lifted her face slightly to ask him, How do I let him know that its mutual?

Oh, he knows, trust me. He knows it just as I know it.

She could smell his scent. Not cologne such as Hest had often worn, but the scent of a man and the work he had done that day. His hands held her firmly against him; she surrendered to the rush of arousal that suffused her and turned her face up to his to be kissed.

Sir. Captain Leftrin.

What? His bark was more demand than question. Alise turned her head to find Skelly stifling a grin. Her hair gleamed from being freshly brushed, and she had abandoned her trousers and tunic for a flowered skirt and a pale-yellow blouse and looked, Alise thought to herself, more like a girl than she ever had before.

Everything is tidied away, and the mate says he has no more tasks for me. Permission to go ashore for the night, sir?

Leftrin straightened. Skelly. As your captain, Ill grant you a nights leave. But you are to be back here by dawns light, to help take Tarman across the water. Be late, and you wont see this city again for a month. Are we clear on that?

Yes, sir. Ill be here, I promise.

As she spun excitedly away, he cleared his throat. Skelly halted to look back at him.

As your uncle, Ill remind you that we had no opportunity to speak to your parents or your fianc'e. They all still have assumptions about commitments from you. You are not free. Even if I thought it were wise to do so, I couldnt give you that sort of permission. You know what Im talking about. Im responsible for you. But even more so, you are responsible for yourself. Dont risk either of us.

Skellys cheeks had gone red. The smile flattened from her face. I know, she said sharply, and then added, Sir, as if fearful he would revoke her shore time.

Leftrin shook his head, then shrugged. Go see your friends. Wander the city. Sa knows, Im as curious as you are about this place. And if I were a deckhand instead of the captain of this vessel, Id want to get off and take a good look. But Im not. So Ill be staying aboard, and Ill expect to find you at the galley table when dawn breaks, ready for a days work.

Sir, she agreed and spun on her heel. In a twinkling, she was down on the dock and hurrying up the street. As they watched, Alum waved a farewell to Tats and Sedric and hurried after her.

Are you sure that was wise? Alise asked, and then wondered at her own temerity.

I am sure it was not, he told her. Come.

Together they began the slow circuit of Tarmans deck that always presaged bed and rest for them. Bed. No rest tonight, and a sudden shiver of desire rushed through her. A moment later, Leftrin smiled. Thats an odd reaction for a lady to have to a poor sailor checking his knots.

This ship keeps none of my secrets from you, she laughed, and walked to the next cleat to inspect the lines for herself. As Leftrin came to join her, she said more quietly, I fear for your niece. While you have been gone, I have watched this place change all the young keepers. Alum is no exception. Skelly may not find him the same young man she left behind.

Leftrin smiled wryly. That is ever the fate of sailors! And if you are correct, the sooner she discovers it, the better. And then she may be glad that she did not break her engagement with her beau in Trehaug. He shook his head and in response to her unasked question, added, There were many things I did not get done there. Did Malta and Reyn tell you the full tale of how the Council received me, and of the dastardly attack on Malta and her babe?

I had the bones of it. I do not think Malta wanted to relive it, and Reyn strikes me as a man who always speaks less than he knows.

Leftrin made a wry face. They are private people. Despite their beauty, I think they have lived a life apart. Perhaps because of it. Or it may be caution. They may fear treachery still. Who would ever have imagined Malta the Elderling attacked by Chalcedeans in a Rain Wild city? It speaks to me of a duke who is very determined to get what he wants, and Traders corrupt enough to help him in that insanity. Alise, I know you have feared for the city. But the treasure that seems to be sought most at this time is not Elderling artefacts but dragon flesh. The rewards for it must be very high indeed if two men were willing to murder a woman and a newborn child in the hope of passing off their bodies as dragon meat. The dragons have shown already that they can drive off approaching ships. But what I fear is what will eventually happen if they feel they must continue to defend themselves. Sooner or later, human lives will be lost. Possibly many of them. And if there is war between humans and dragons, where will the Elderlings stand?

Alise walked with him in silence as they checked the last three lines. She heard the low murmur of voices and glanced up. On the roof of the deckhouse, Hennesey was standing, a wide smile on his face as he told some sailor story to a strange woman. Her scaled face reflected light from the tethered globes. So. That must be Tillamon, Reyns sister. She seemed captured by the mates tale. The Rain Wild woman was well bundled against the nights damp chill. Someone had thought to bring her an Elderling gown. Probably Sylve, Alise thought to herself. In the reflected light of the failing torches, it glimmered copper and bronze. She was smiling up at Hennesey as he concluded his story, and they both laughed aloud at the finish of it. Much as she wanted to meet Reyns sister, Alise knew that now would not be a good time for pleasantries.

Leftrin halted beside her. His eyes were narrowed and a slight scowl bent his lips. She took his arm and drew him along with her as she approached the galley door. They do as we do, my dear. They take what joy they may find in life as they can. As you well know that Skelly has run off to do tonight, also. The shadows of harsh times creep over us. For in a battle between dragons and men, my love, it is not only the Elderlings who must decide where they stand, but you and me as well.

They stepped into the cramped little galley of the ship. The room was deserted. A single mug, half full of coffee, graced the table. The small room smelled of coffee and cooking grease, tar and people living in close quarters. Alise felt her heart lift. Its so good to be home, she said.

He folded her into his arms, his hand sleeking her Elderling robe to her body. His mouth found hers and he kissed her, slowly and gently, as if all the time in the world belonged to them. When he finally lifted his mouth from hers, she was breathless. Words came in a whisper. Now is all we really have, isnt it?

He tucked her against him, his chin resting on top of her head as if she were an instrument he was preparing to play. Now is enough, he murmured. Now is enough for me.

Day the 2nd of the Plough Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders


From Reyall, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug, and Erek


Standard message tube, wax applied.


I am sure you are aware of the unhappiness of many of our patrons. The Bingtown Traders Council has now filed a formal petition asking that the Guild accept a Committee of Traders to look into allegations of corruption, spying and the selling of secrets. Messages and even birds have gone missing now. I think it likely we can blame some of the missing birds on the unwieldy message tubes and attachments that we are now being required to use!

Three of our apprentices have reported being approached by Trader families wishing to breed and use birds of their own to establish private message flocks. I do not need to explain to you how this would undermine the Guild. A whole way of life and livelihood will be lost if this comes to pass.

We have been directed here to adhere strictly to all rules about messages between bird keepers. Appending an additional message to an official message sent by a client is now cause for dismissal from the Guild. We must do bird counts three times a day, including eggs and fledglings, and any bad eggs or young birds that die in the nest must be witnessed by three bird keepers of journey level or higher before they can be disposed of. Bird keepers in Bingtown are allowed only to touch birds specifically registered to their own coops. Informally helping one another, allowed in the past, is now forbidden.

Have these measures also been enacted in Trehaug or Cassarick or the lesser settlements? I will tell you that there are rumours that the Guild is sending out testers, but the gossip does not tell if these are men attempting to bribe bird keepers, or if they are messages designed to tempt those who tamper and spy. It saddens me that I rise to being a full Keeper of the Birds in these distrustful times.

In happier news, Erek, your Swift Birds appear to be breeding true. Two of the offspring set records this last week in a race back to Bingtown after being released from a ship that was four days out of port. I have submitted the breeding records to the Guild Masters, noting that you were the one who saw the potential and began specifically breeding this line. I hope they will recognize your expertise.


With respect and affection,

Reyall


CHAPTER SEVEN City Dwellers | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER NINE Passing Ships