Hest was trapped in someone else’s life. This was not the existence of the heir son of a Bingtown trader! He had never lived in such miserable conditions, let alone travelled in them. He’d lost count of the days he’d been confined below decks. He still wore the same garments he had been wearing when the Chalcedean had abducted him. Now they hung on him, their tailoring a victim of his greatly reduced diet and heavy labour. He knew he stank, but his only option for washing himself was cold river water, and he knew the dangers of using it. The chores the Chalcedean gave him put him out on the deck in the weather as often as not. His hands and face were chapped and sore from exposure to rain and chill and sun; his clothes were fading and tattering. He could not remember the last time his feet had been dry. He was starting to develop sores under his toes, and the wind-reddened skin on his face and hands stung constantly.
He still had nightmares about disposing of Redding’s body. Dragging Arich’s body out along the narrow walkways in the dark and rain and eventually shoving him over the edge had been disgusting and unpleasant work. They had heard his falling body crashing through branches but there had been no final sound. It had made Hest queasy but it paled in comparison to his final parting with Redding. The Chalcedean had made him carry Redding’s body, and they had gone quite a distance, choosing always the tree paths that seemed least used. Eventually they had been balancing along a limb that had no safety ropes at all. Redding’s body was slung across Hest’s shoulders as if he were a hunter bearing home a deer. The familiar fragrance of Redding’s pomade mingled with the smell of the blood that dribbled down Hest’s neck. With every step, his limp burden had grown heavier and more horrific. Yet he had no choice but to lurch along in front of the man with the knife at his back. He suspected that if he had fallen while carrying the body, the man would have thought it of little consequence. The Chalcedean had finally chosen a spot where the narrowing limb of their tree crossed branches with another. Hest had propped Redding there and left him for the scavengers to find.
‘Ants and such will take him down to bones in just a few days,’ said the Chalcedean. ‘If he is found, which I doubt, no one will be able to tell who he was. Now we go back to your room and obscure all sign that you were ever in Cassarick.’
He had meant it quite literally. He’d burned the children’s hands in the pottery hearth and destroyed the elaborate boxes that had held them. Redding’s cloak became a sack to hold the precious stones he’d salvaged from the boxes. He’d departed briefly, warning Hest not to leave. Hest suspected that he went to murder the woman who had rented him the room. If he did, he accomplished it very quietly. Perhaps, Hest told himself as he gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering, he had only bribed her well. But he was gone a very long time, leaving Hest alone in the room that smelled of burnt flesh and spilled blood. Sitting in the dimness, he could not shake the image of Redding’s ruined face peering back at him from the crook of the tree. The Chalcedean had slashed it repeatedly, cross-hatching it with cuts until his familiar features were eradicated. Redding’s eyes had stared out from the dangling tatters of his once-handsome face.
Hest had always thought of himself as a ruthless Trader. Deception, spying, sharp deals that bordered on theft; he had never seen any advantage to being fair, let alone ethical. Trade was a rough game and ‘every Trader needs to watch his own back’, as his father often said. It had pleased him to think of himself as rough-and-tumble, a man hardened to everything. But never had he been a party to murder. He hadn’t loved Redding, not as Sedric over-used that tired word. But Redding had been an adept lover and a jolly companion. And his death had left Hest alone in this mess. ‘I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,’ he had told the dying flames. ‘It’s not my fault. If Sedric had never made his insane bargain, I wouldn’t be here now. It’s all Sedric’s fault.’
He had not heard the door open, but he had felt the draught and seen the hearth flames flicker. The Chalcedean was a black shadow against the blackness beyond. He pulled the door quietly closed. ‘Now, you will write a few letters for me. Then, we shall deliver them.’
Hest had been beyond questioning what was happening to him. He wrote the letters as he was told, to names he did not recognize, signing his own name to them. In the notes he bragged of his reputation as a clever Trader and directed them to meet him before dawn at the impervious boat that was tied up at the docks. Every letter was identical, stressing discretion and hinting that a great fortune awaited them now that ‘our plans have come to fruition’, and citing names of Traders that Hest had never even met.
Each letter was neatly rolled, tied with twine, and sealed with a drop of wax. Then the Chalcedean smothered the fire in the hearth and they left the stripped room, carrying the missives with them.
The long night had become endless as they moved through Cassarick. The Chalcedean was spry but not absolutely certain of their way. More than once, they retraced their steps. But eventually, the six scrolls had been delivered, tied to door-handles or wedged into door-frames. Hest had been almost grateful to follow the assassin down the endless stairs to the muddy road at the bottom of the city. His well-appointed stateroom, a clean warm bed and dry garments awaited him on the impervious ship. Once he was there and alone, surely he could put the night’s events into focus and decide what he must do next. Once there, he would be Hest again and this evil adventure would become no more than an episode in his past. But when they reached the vessel, the Chalcedean had prodded him along at knifepoint, forcing him into a cargo compartment below decks, and then dropping the hatch shut behind him.
The indignity had astonished him. He’d stood, arms crossed sternly on his chest, and waited in silence, certain that the Chalcedean would return at any moment. As time passed, the discomfort had infuriated him. He groped his way around the freight compartment but found only rough timber walls with no hope of egress. The hatch was just out of his reach and when he climbed the short ladder to push at it, he found it secured. He pounded on the hatch but could achieve no real force, and his shouting roused no one. He had paced, cursing and roaring until he was exhausted. Eventually he had sat down to wait for the Chalcedean, but awakened to darkness. How long he had been held there, he did not know.
Time passed. Hunger and thirst afflicted him. When the hatch was finally lifted, the wan daylight flooded down and blinded him. He immediately started up the ladder.
‘Out of the way!’ someone shouted at him. And other men were pushed pell-mell down the hatch. Three landed well, cursing and trying to fight their way back to the ladder even as others were being forced down. Hest recognized some of them as his fellow passengers from the trip up the river, and others as members of the ship’s crew. Some were Jamaillians who had invested in the boat’s construction, the last a pair of Bingtown Traders. The men who looked down at them, mocking and threatening, were unmistakably Chalcedeans, with their embroidered vests and the curved knives they favoured.
‘What’s going on?’ Hest demanded, and one Trader shouted, ‘It’s a mutiny!’ while another said, ‘There were Chalcedeans hiding below decks for the whole voyage. They’ve taken over the ship!’ The cargo hold was crowded with men, at least ten of them. One was holding his shoulder and blood seeped between his fingers. Several of the frightened and confused merchants bore signs of a struggle.
‘Where’s the captain?’ Hest asked through the shouting and taunts.
‘In on it!’ someone shouted at him, as angry as if it were his fault. ‘Well paid to let these bastards on board and hide them. Claims they invested just as much as we did, and paid him more on the side!’
The hatch cover began to slide shut. Men surged toward the ladder, shouting defiance and pleas, but in moments, the light was gone.
If being alone and locked below deck was bad, then being crowded in with two dozen strangers in the dark was worse. Some were irrational with anger or fear. Others argued heatedly about exactly what had happened and who was at fault. Some of them were not former passengers but Rain Wild Traders ‘tricked into coming down to the ship by a false message’. Hest kept his mouth shut and was grateful for the darkness that kept him anonymous.
The Chalcedeans who now commanded the ship had apparently killed at least three crewmen in taking over the vessel, and possibly four, as a woman who had come aboard had been flung over the side bleeding but still alive. Hest suddenly grasped the full ruthlessness of the assassin and the gravity of his own situation. When one of his fellow prisoners speculated that they’d probably all be dead before long, someone roared at him to shut up but no one contradicted him. Two of the men climbed the ladder and exhausted themselves trying to force the heavy hatch open while the others shouted encouragement and suggestions. Hest had retreated to a corner of the compartment and put his back to the wall.
While they were pounding, a new motion started. It took Hest a moment to deduce what it was and in that second, one of the crewmen shouted, ‘You feel that? They’re shoving off. We’re under way. Those bastards are kidnapping us!’
A roar of voices rose, the angry cries underscored with wild wailing from one man. The victims pounded on the walls and shouted, but the rhythmic rocking of the ship only increased as it picked up speed in its battle with the current.
‘Where are they taking us?’ Hest demanded of everyone and no one.
‘Upriver,’ someone responded. ‘Feel how she fights the current.’
‘Why? What do they want from us?’
His question was drowned in the outcry the others raised as they realized they were being carried away from any hope of outside aid.
The swearing and the shouting went on for a long time, to be replaced gradually by angry discussion and then muttering and the sound of someone weeping harshly. Hest felt dazed by his situation. He crouched in his spot in the darkness, smelling sweat and piss. As time trudged by and moving water whispered past the sides of the vessel, he wondered what had become of his organized and genteel life. None of this seemed possible, let alone real. How furious his mother would be when she heard of this outrage to her son!
If she ever heard of it. And in that moment, Hest suddenly realized how completely he had been severed from his old life. His name, his family’s money, his roguish reputation, his mother’s love for him meant nothing here. All shields, all protections, had fallen away. In a caught breath, he could become a body, his face slashed beyond recognition, food for ants or fish. He gasped, his chest hurting. He subsided onto the deck and sat in the darkness, his face resting on his knees. The thunder of his heart filled his ears. Time passed, or perhaps it did not. He could not tell.
When the hatch was finally slid open, it admitted a yellow slice of lantern light. Night reigned. A voice Hest recognized warned them, ‘Stand back! If any man starts up the ladder, he’ll fall back with a knife in his heart. Hest Finbok! Come to where I can see you. Yes. There you are. You. Come up. Now.’
Back in the corner of the hold, someone bellowed, ‘Hest Finbok? Is that Hest Finbok? He is here? He’s the traitor that lured me here with a note left on my doorstep, even signed his own name to it! Finbok, you deserve to die! You’re a traitor to Bingtown and the Rain Wilds!’
By the time Hest reached the top of the short ladder, he was fleeing the ugliness below as much as reaching toward space and air. As he scrambled out onto the deck on all fours, curses and threats followed him. Two sailors slid the hatch shut, cutting off the cries of those trapped below. He found himself at the feet of the Chalcedean. The assassin was holding a lantern and looked very weary. ‘Follow me,’ he barked and did not wait to see if Hest obeyed. He trailed behind him to the door of his erstwhile stateroom.
The scattered contents of Hest’s plundered wardrobe littered the floor of his erstwhile stateroom, his garments mingled carelessly with Redding’s. The chest of wine, cheese, sausages and delicacies that Redding had so carefully packed stood open, and the sticky table attested to the enjoyment of its contents. Obviously the Chalcedean had settled in and availed himself of all the room’s comforts. The bedding on Hest’s bunk was rumpled, half dragged to the floor. Redding’s was undisturbed. The shock and loss of his friend’s death swept through him again and he drew a breath, but before he could speak, the Chalcedean spun to confront him. The look on his face drove the breath from Hest’s lungs and he stumbled back a step. ‘Clean it up!’ he barked, and then flung himself, boots and all, onto Redding’s bed and reclined there, eyes half-lidded, face lined with weariness. When Hest just stood, staring at him, he spoke quietly. His scarred lips bulged and stretched with the words. ‘I don’t really have a need for you any more. If you are useful, I may keep you alive. If not …’ His hand lifted and one of his little knives had appeared. He waggled it at Hest and smiled.
Ever since that moment, Hest had lived as the Chalcedean’s slave. He served, not only the assassin, but any Chalcedean who barked an order at him. He was given the lowliest and most disgusting tasks: from emptying chamber-pots overboard to clearing the galley table and washing the dishes. As Hest had scrubbed the blood of slain crewmen off the deck, he had decided he would offer no resistance. He lived hour to hour. Of his fellow prisoners he saw no sign, and heard only their angry shouts and pleas that weakened daily. He ate the leavings from his masters’ meals, and slept below decks in a locker full of spare line and shackles. He was glad not to be lodged with the other prisoners, for he knew that they blamed him for their predicament and would tear him to pieces if they could. His was a solitary existence, despised by the Chalcedeans and reviled by the Traders.
He learned little that he didn’t already know. The ‘impervious’ ships were being built in Jamaillia, and the shipbuilders cared little who paid for them, as long as they paid well. Chalcedeans might be prohibited by the Traders from the Rain Wild River, but their obsession with slaughtering dragons conquered all concerns they might have had. The Chalcedean ‘investors’ had remained hidden on the very ship on which he had travelled up the river. And now, a bribed captain and a Chalcedean crew were taking the vessel up the Rain Wild River, into unexplored territory in the hopes of finding Kelsingra and dragons to butcher.
It was insane. Just because the ship would not be eaten by the river, it could not be assumed that the forgotten city could be found or that the malformed dragons were actually there. And if they did find Kelsingra and the dragons were there, what then? Had any of them ever witnessed the fury of an enraged dragon? When Hest had dared to voice that question, the Chalcedean had stared him down with cold, still eyes. Dread had uncoiled in Hest’s belly and he had steeled himself not to scream as he died. But the man had only said, ‘You have never witnessed the fury of our duke when thwarted. Insanity and impossible missions are to be preferred to disappointing him.’ He cocked his head. ‘Do you think a jewelled box with my son’s hand in it is the worst thing I can imagine?’ He shook his head slowly. ‘You have no idea.’ Falling silent, the assassin had stared out of the window at the passing view of the forested riverbank and Hest had been relieved to resume his menial duties.
Hest knew little about the dragons and even less of Alise’s theories about lost Elderling cities. Time and again he had been interrogated, with stern warnings that lies would bring great pain. He had never lied, being too convinced of the Chalcedean’s utter willingness to punish him for any falsehood. It had been hard to stand and repeat, ‘I do not know,’ to the man’s whispered or shouted questions, but from the beginning, he had known that the truth was his only protection. Any lie he might have invented to please him would surely have tangled around his tongue later.
Over and over, the Chalcedean came back to one thing. ‘Was not this the mission your father sent you on? To retrieve your runaway wife? And did not you tell me she had run off with your slave? So. How were you going to do that? You must know something of how to find the city and the dragons?’
‘No. NO! I don’t. He said I must go to the Rain Wilds, and so I went. I know no more than you do, and probably less. The people I would have spoken to are back in Trehaug, or maybe in the cargo hold of this ship! You should ask them, not me!’
So although the Chalcedean had several times slapped him hard enough to bloody the inside of his cheek, and once back-handed him off a chair, Hest had not suffered any extreme physical hurt or damage. Unlike some of the Trader captives in the hold of the ship. But there was no good to be had of dwelling on that. It was none of his doing, and solely their misfortune. Confined to his gear locker, he had blocked his ears against the sounds of torture. And when he had been ordered to clean up the aftermath, he did only what he was told.
And assured himself that despite his hardships, he hadn’t really been hurt. Some bruises and cuts. Some hunger. He had suffered only the utter humiliation of living at the man’s beck and call. Only the complete destruction of his good name among those Traders imprisoned aboard the vessel. Only the death of his lover and his forced participation in concealing the murder. He tried not to let his thoughts dwell on the greater impact of the terrible things that had befallen him. Sometimes, his thoughts strayed to his father and mother; did they yet know he was missing? Had they taken action, offered rewards, sent out birds hiring searchers? Or would his father grumpily assume that Hest was deliberately out of contact, having taken his lover along on his trip to the Rain Wilds? Probably the latter, he admitted to himself. He could not even dream of escaping and returning to Bingtown. This would follow him for the rest of his life unless he could find some way to redeem himself.
Hest gritted his teeth and wrung out the shirt. It was a chill and blustery day. He had started the washing with hot water, but the wind had quickly cooled it. It was one of his own shirts, he’d noted with grim silence, appropriated by the Chalcedean, as had been most of his possessions. He wore Hest’s fur-lined cloak out onto the deck even in pouring rain, while Hest shivered in his shirt-sleeves as he went about his tasks. He had never so hated a man as he hated the Chalcedean. He hated, too, the moments in which he wondered if this was how Sedric had sometimes felt about him, when he had indulged in utter domination of the younger man. As the boat bore him on, ever closer to a possible reunion with Sedric, he found his feelings about him were in turmoil. When he slept on the wooden planks that floored his cargo compartment, it was hard not to recall how the young man had once been eager to assure every aspect of Hest’s comfort. He would have gently rubbed Hest’s aching shoulders and back, and exclaimed in horror over Hest’s ruined hands. Sedric’s devotion to him had actually begun to grate on Hest toward the end of their relationship. He recalled now how deliberately he had challenged his affection, trampling on Sedric’s sentimental gestures, turning his tender advances into rough encounters and mocking his efforts to discover how he had displeased his lover. At the time, it had all been so amusing, and Redding’s suggestions as to how he might test his lover’s ardour had resulted in many anecdotes that he had later used to regale Redding and stimulate his rivalry with Sedric. How they had laughed together during their early assignations. With his clever tongue, how Redding had mocked Sedric’s gullibility and trusting nature!
And yet, despite all of Sedric’s declarations of devotion, he was responsible for this disaster. It was all Sedric’s fault that he had been reduced to scrubbing out someone else’s laundry, his life daily endangered and his reputation as a Bingtown Trader in tatters. In the dark hold at night, during the hours when he had the most leisure to pity himself, Hest sometimes imagined the poignancy of a possible reunion. When Sedric looked at his friend and benefactor and saw him bruised and thin, worn with hardship and unjust imprisonment, would he then realize how badly he had wronged Hest? Would he grasp the magnitude of the evil he had done with his pathetic efforts to become a Trader in his own right? Would he, perhaps, risk his own life to save Hest’s? Or would he turn aside selfishly and leave him to his fate?
Sometimes Hest played through the possible outcomes in his mind. Sedric risking his life to save him, and Hest magnanimously welcoming him back into his life. Sometimes he ground his teeth in fury as he imagined Sedric rejoicing at the mischief he had done. But perhaps Sedric himself was already dead, the victim of his own foolishness. It was certainly the fate he hoped had befallen Alise!
At other times, when bitterness and desolation weighed him down most heavily, he simply hoped he would die quickly. He had no illusions as to why the Chalcedean had preserved his life and those of the other Bingtown Traders. ‘Having a few valuable hostages is always a nice bit of security,’ the man had told him as Hest waited for him to finish eating one evening. ‘We’ve no idea what we’ll encounter when we come back past Trehaug. Hostages may buy us safe passage. The only ones we have taken are those with the misfortune to have been on board our ship, and those Traders who had agreed to help us obtain dragon parts for the Duke. Since they broke their word to us, they deserved to come with us and aid us however they may in getting what they promised us. But even if they are useless at that, hostages can be offered for ransom from Chalced once we are home again. Waste not, want not.’
And then, just as Hest was reflecting that his mother, at least, would pay handsomely for his return, the man added, ‘But don’t think of becoming more trouble than you’re worth. Right now, you are useful. Continue in that role, and I’ll continue to spare your life. Become any sort of a nuisance, and I won’t.’
Hest wrung the shirt out a final time, feeling the mild sting of the acidic water on his hands. The fabric was a paler blue than when he had begun; the river was only mildly acid right now, but given enough exposure, it would eat the shirt to a rag. Too bad. It had been one of Hest’s favourites. Sedric, he recalled bitterly, had chosen the fabric and the tailor for it.
He gave the wet shirt a shake, snapping it out in the crisp breeze. Clean enough. He carried the bucket to the side to dump it overboard. He sighted the other vessel at the same moment as one of the Chalcedean deckhands. ‘There’s a boat headed toward us!’ the lookout shouted. ‘It’s an impervious vessel, twin to our own!’
Hest watched it come toward them, carried on the river’s swift current and pushed by the wind against its single square sail. He stood as he was, holding the rail, listening to the shouts from the other ship, and the round of orders issued by both captains. Each appeared surprised to see the other vessel. Hest thought of calling out and warning him that there had been a mutiny, that Chalcedean pirates now held the ship, but in the end he chose caution and silence. The captain and crew of the sister ship were Jamaillian, and as the vessels manoeuvred closer to one another, it was obvious to him that they had already faced some sort of trouble.
‘Dragons!’ someone on the other ship shouted. ‘We were attacked by dragons! Have you a surgeon aboard? We have need of one.’
There were gouges in the ship’s hull, and part of one deck railing was completely gone. The lookout who shouted carried one arm in a sling and his head was bandaged in a turban. Hest craned his neck, trying to see more, but suddenly the Chalcedean was at his elbow. ‘Go below. Now.’
And Hest went, like a beaten dog, followed by his master, to be shoved down into the storage compartment again. The hatch closed and he heard it secured. He went and sat down in the corner of the locker and leaned his head back against the bulwark. Sound, he had discovered, carried oddly throughout the ship. He listened. He could not make out individual words, but there was some sort of a shouted conversation, and then, as he had dreaded, running feet on the deck above him and loud commands, heavy thuds and men yelling in anger or fear, and one clear scream of agony that was cut short. The thunder of pounding feet on the deck and the shouting went on for some time and he sat hunched in suspense, wondering what was happening and how it would affect his chances of survival.
A brief quiet fell, and then noises resumed. He heard the cover of the other hatch being dragged open. The prisoners there no longer shouted and pounded on the walls as they once had; he suspected they were given enough food and water to keep them alive, but little more than that. But now the sounds he heard made him suspect the Chalcedeans had just added fresh specimens to their collection of ransomable captives. Did that mean they had captured the other vessel, or simply taken prisoners in some sort of skirmish? And why, in Sa’s name, would they do that?
He drew his knees up to his chest and huddled onto his side, shivering in the chill. His mind raced, trying to think as they would. Of course. The other ship had shouted a warning to them about dragons. The other captain had found the way to wherever the dragons were. And now the Chalcedeans would use his knowledge to go where they must. To where dragons had attacked them. And Hest would go with them into that danger.
Tintaglia flew again. Not gracefully, not easily, but she flew. With every flap of her wings, fluid pulsed in a slow dribble from her toxic wound. Pain echoed each beat. The infection was spreading, taking a toll on her whole body. All around the wound area, her scales were beginning to slip, leaving the bared area of skin soft and painful. When she slept long, she awoke with her eyes gummed shut and had to snort mucus from her nostrils. She was hungry constantly, but no matter how much she ate, she took no strength from her food. Everything was a task; all pleasure had fled from her life.
Her landing in Trehaug had been disastrous. She had exhausted her strength quickly, and foolishly stooped to attack a herd of river pigs in the shallows. She caught one, but it was small, and she had eaten it standing in the fast-flowing water. Her efforts to take to the air after that had failed. Three times she had beaten her wings furiously, and each time she had fallen back into the icy river. She’d been forced to spend a night in the cold water.
By daylight’s dawning, she’d been scarcely able to stand. The thick canopy of trees leaning out over the river had made it impossible for her to take flight from the shallows. It had taken all her will to force herself to wade upriver. Only luck had delivered a basking tusker to her jaws that evening, after which she had slept on a narrow strip of reeds and mud. Two more days of sluggishly toiling up the river, eating whatever she could find, carrion included, had taken a toll on her. On the night she found a broad sandbar to sleep on, one that protruded beyond the over-reaching trees, she had wondered if she would wake the following day.
But she had. Lightened by privation, driven by desperation, knowing it was her final chance, she had leapt, beating her wings. And flown again.
It took all her concentration to keep to her path. Each stroke of her wings now demanded a conscious effort and an iron will as she defied both pain and weariness to drive herself on. Soon she would have to divert from her course and find something to kill and eat. Only then would she allow herself to sleep. Already her body nagged her with weariness. She wanted to stop now but every day she flew less and rested more. One day she would not be able to rouse herself and make the immense effort to rise once more to the skies. If that day came before she reached Kelsingra, then she would die. And dragonkind would die with her, her immature eggs never laid. Ever since she had seen the incompetent weaklings that had emerged from the last serpents’ cases, she had known that she was the sole hope of her race.
Until, that was, the single arrow of a treacherous human had doomed her dreams. Sometimes, as now, when the pain blossomed brighter and brighter in her side and made every muscle in her body ache with its echoes, she took refuge in hatred. She fed it with plans and dreams of how she would take vengeance on those humans, how she would return to Chalced when she had her strength back, to sear their paltry cities with dragon fire and dragon might. She would kill hundreds, thousands of them in her revenge, and teach them forever-more to fear the wrath of a dragon.
With every downward stroke of her wings she renewed her vow to fill the streets of those cities with screaming humans.
Kelsingra. Not far now, she promised herself. Much farther than Trehaug, true, but she could make it. She could because she must. Sometimes, just as sleep claimed her, she heard the distant dragons. They had found Kelsingra, and created Elderlings for themselves and wakened the city. Awake, she could not reach their minds. It was only when she was on the verge of exhaustion that their distant thoughts intersected with hers. Once she had even thought that Malta reached out to her, her thoughts full of anxiety and reproach. She had tried to respond to her Elderling, tried to command her to be ready to serve her dragon. But awake, the pain fogged her mind and made tasks as simple as flying and hunting challenges for her. Still, that their thoughts could brush hers meant that it could not be much farther.
At least the rain had stopped for a time. At least she was not flying against the wind. Such small comforts were all she had. She beat her wings steadily but flew lower over the river, watching for game, and thus heard the cacophony of sound before she saw the source. When she saw the two boats below her, she knew a moment of fury. The two vessels were locked together, their crews shouting at one another and throwing each other into the river. Not a hunt for meat, just killing each other, as usual. Noisy, useless, smelly humans! Their uproar would have driven all game from the area. Just when she needed her hunting to be effortless, they had complicated it. No game of any size would venture within earshot of their useless squabbling. If she could have spared the energy, she would have circled back and spat venom at them for the trouble they had caused her. She flew low over them, hearing their cries as the wind of her passage rocked both vessels. As she did so, she caught a scent that lifted her hearts.
Grunting with the effort, she banked her wings and circled back. Yes. There were acid runs and scorches on the deck of one of the vessels. It was clearly the work of an angry dragon. Or dragons? She took a long snuff of the air as she passed over the ship. Possibly more than one. Certainly it was not the work of IceFyre. She knew his rank musk well. No, the vengeance below did not reflect his temperament either. The boat still floated and the crew had been allowed to escape. Not IceFyre, then. Other dragons. Other dragons that could fly! Fly, and spit acid fire. Real dragons. Hope blazed up within her and she resumed her course, her will to ignore the pain and live reinforced. Other dragons. Her dreams had steered her true. Other dragons lived and flew in the sky over Kelsingra. A future awaited her.
She followed the river, leaving the humans and their noise behind, around a lazy bend and then on, until she came to a long muddy spit covered in winter-dead rushes. Fortune favoured her in the form of a herd of river pigs that had emerged from the water to snout and dig in the rushes. Some ancient memory or perhaps a more recent experience alarmed them as her shadow swept over them, for they squealed and began to rush back toward the water. She answered their squeals with a scream of her own, expelling pain and hunger as she banked far too sharply on her injured side. She more fell than dived on the herd, coming down with every taloned foot extended wide. Her chest hit a large pig, pinning him to the muddy bank, and her left claws raked another wide open. With her right she convulsively seized an animal, pulling it in close to her body and uniting its squeals to the cries of the one trapped under her chest. Her eyes spun with red fury at the pain it had cost her to make her kill, and she savaged the two trapped pigs to a messy death, tearing them into pieces.
When their dying squeals faded, she remained as she was, sprawled upon her kills, trying to draw breath. Stillness was her only hope of making the pain subside. And after a time, it did, but not to its previous level. It was something she had noticed: every day it hurt more and every day the sudden spikes of agony that a wrong movement could deliver became more debilitating. Yet the spilled blood smelled so good, and the warmth of the freshly-killed prey beckoned her. As cautious as if she were woven of glass strands, she extended her neck to pick up a chunk of pig. She gulped it down, waking her hunger. Need warred with pain. She could scarcely stand, but managed to manoeuvre herself over the mucky ground to reach her kills.
As soon as the last piece was swallowed, lethargy rose up to claim her. It was still early in the afternoon. There was plenty of light to fly by still, but she had no strength for it. Pain still ruled her but the muddy bank was chill and damp. She dragged herself to slightly higher ground, to where the rushes had not been crushed and dirtied by her battle. She considered, regretfully, that if she slept now, she would be here all through the night. She would not wake in time to fly more today. It was as it was, she decided. She settled, gently arranging her body in the position that hurt least and closing her eyes.
Day the 3rd 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
Enclosed, a transcription of a hand-carried message from Wintrow Vestrit Haven, captain of the liveship Vivacia and Consort to the Pirate Queen Etta Ludluck.
Please note that dates indicate this message has been delayed by several months, through no fault of the Bird Keepers’ Guild. It is addressed to the Khuprus household, but appears intended for Reyn and Malta Khuprus.
To my sister, Malta Vestrit Khuprus and her husband, Reyn Khuprus of the Rain Wild Traders:
Sister, Brother, if you can summon that dragon of yours, there was never a better time for you to do so. My efforts to locate Selden have been fruitless. I wish he had contacted me before he undertook a journey in this direction, for I would have made sure that a suitable escort was provided to an Elderling lord and dragon-poet such as he. For now, I am heartsick to tell you that I have received tidings of a ‘Dragon-Boy’ that somewhat matches a description of Selden since his Elderling changes. I both hope and fear that this is indeed our little brother. My hope is that at least he was alive when this gossip reached me and my fear is that he is in dire need of help, as he has been taken as a slave of sorts, displayed as a wonder for the ignorant gawker. I pray to Sa to keep him safe wherever he may be, but I have also offered a substantial reward if he is brought safely to me. I regretfully add that I have promised a reward also for reliable news of his demise, with evidence, for I would know what has become of him, no matter how much sorrow it brings me.
What was our mother thinking, to let him go off on his own like this? Did no one there think of how valuable a hostage he was to any that cared to take him?
Vivacia sends greetings to Althea and Brashen, if you should see them. Etta earnestly desires them to know that our Paragon wishes to see the ship whose name he bears. I myself think he is still young to hear of that part of his heritage, for doubtless the Paragon would disagree and would impart far more information than a boy of his years needs to understand just yet.
Please remember you are always welcome here and that we all most earnestly desire to see you again.
And if Selden has since wandered home, in the name of Sa herself, send me word by the swiftest means possible.
When I think of him, I still imagine him as a boy with his front teeth just beginning to grow in.
My love to both of you, and my hope that this finds you both in good health.
Your loving brother,