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She swallowed her own shock at that and hurried on. When she came to Sylve and the golden dragon guarding the dirty brown one, she had to pause and rebuild her courage for a moment. She did not want to confront him;she wanted nothing more than to turn and hasten away. It took her a moment to convince herself that what she felt was not her own cowardice, but the dragon’s efforts to repulse her. She squared her shoulders and marched up to him and his keeper.

“I’m here to check the brown dragon for parasites. Some of the other dragons have been attacked by rasp snakes. Your keeper should check you over while I look at the brown dragon.”

For a time the gold just stared at her. How could solid black eyes glitter so bleakly?

“Rasp snakes?”

“A parasitic burrowing creature. Thymara says she knows of them from the canopy. But these, she thinks, come from the river. They are much larger. It’s a snake that bites and eats its way in, to live off your flesh.”

“Disgusting!” Mercor declared. The gold immediately stood and spread his wings. “It makes me itch to think of it. Sylve, check me for those creatures immediately.”

“I groomed you completely today, Mercor. I do not think I would have missed such a thing. But I will check you.”

“And I must look at the brown dragon to see if she has any,” Alise asserted firmly.

She had expected Mercor to oppose her. Instead, he seemed completely distracted by the thought that he himself might have such a parasite.

Alise ventured toward the impassive copper dragon. She was crumpled on the ground in a way that was going to make inspecting her underbelly difficult if not impossible. And Sylve was right. The coating of mud on the dragon was so even that it almost looked deliberate. It was going to have to come off before she could tell much of anything about the creature.

She glanced helplessly toward Sylve, but the small girl had her hands full with Mercor. An instant later, her first impulse shamed her. What had she thought to do? Summon the Rain Wild child to have her clean the dragon so that Alise could inspect her without getting her hands dirty? How arrogant a thought was that? For years, she had been claiming she was an expert on dragons, yet at her first opportunity to tend to one, she quailed at a bit of mud? No. Not Alise Kincarron.

Not far from where the copper dragon sprawled, part of a bank of coarse reeds remained untrampled, their tasseled heads standing half as tall as Alise. She drew her little belt knife, cut half a dozen of them, folded them into a coarse cushion of reeds, and, returning to the dragon, began to give her a good scrubbing with it, starting at the creature’s upper shoulder.

The dried mud was river silt and it came away surprisingly easily. Alise’s coarse brush bared coppery scales that quickly took on a lovely sheen as she worked on the poor creature. Relpda did not make a sound, yet Alise thought she sensed a dim gratitude from the prostrate dragon. She redoubled her efforts, moving her scrubbing rushes down the dragon’s spine. As she worked, the size of a dragon was forcibly impressed on, not just her mind, but her muscles. The area of skin to be cleaned suddenly reminded her of the routine work of the crew scrubbing the barge’s deck. And this was a small dragon. She glanced over her shoulder at the gleaming gold of Mercor’s scaled hide and mentally compared it to the small pink-scalped girl who tended him. How much of each evening did the girl devote to her task?

As if Sylve had sensed her gaze, she turned to Alise. “He’s clean, every inch of him. No snakes on him. I’ll help you with Relpda now.”

Her pride made Alise want to say she had her task well in hand. Instead she heard herself say “Thank you” with utter gratitude. The girl smiled at her, and for an instant her lips caught a glint of light from the sun. Was her mouth scaled, too? Alise jerked her stare away and renewed her scrubbing efforts, sending a cascade of fine silt from Relpda’s hip to the damp earth below her. Sylve had not seemed so scaly when she’d first seen the girl. Was she changing as much as the dragons were?

Sylve came to join her, carrying a coarse reed “brush” of her own. “This is a really good idea. I’ve been using evergreen boughs when I can get them, and handfuls of leaves when I can’t. But this works much better.”

“If I’d had the time to weave the stems and leaves together, I think it would work even better. But this will get the job done, I think.” Alise had a hard time speaking and scrubbing at the same time. Her years in Hest’s house had softened her. As a girl, she’d always helped with the household cleaning;her family had not been able to afford many servants. Now she could feel sweat damping her back and blisters starting to form on her hands. Her shoulder already ached. Well, so be it! A little hard work never hurt anyone. And when she looked back over the area of dragon that she had cleaned, she felt a rush of pride.

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