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“This has not been discussed!” Mercor objected.

“You gave him your blood?”

“How will you make him an Elderling?”

“What is she talking about?”

“SILENCE!” Ranculos blasted them with a roar. And when the other dragons fell into a stunned quiet, he rounded on the little copper female. “What have you done?” he demanded of her. “You, with less than half the proper wits of a dragon, you have given blood to a human? You have begun to change him? It is bad enough that so many have begun to change, simply from proximity to us. Do you not recall what was decided, ages ago? Have you forgotten the Abominations? Would you bring more of them into existence?”

“What are you talking about?” Sintara exploded. “Stop speaking in riddles! Is there a danger here for us? What has she done?”

“She’s eaten a hunter, for one thing. A hunter who was supposed to help provide food for us!” Ranculos sounded outraged.

Spit snorted. “Feed myself now. Don’t need hunter or keeper.”

“No human has brought us food of any kind for several days now,” Veras pointed out quietly.

“They haven’t needed to. There has been plenty of dead fish for us,” Sestican said.

As the long afternoon had approached evening, the dragons had returned to the vicinity of the barge. The river had continued to drop. Mud-laden bushes and clumps of grass were reappearing as the water continued to retreat. Tonight, at least, Sintara was looking forward to sleeping in a relatively dry spot. And tomorrow, they would resume their upriver journey. Life had almost seemed to be returning to normal before the copper reappeared.

“One of us should speak to her, not all of us, or we will get no sense at all out of her.” Sintara left the other dragons to approach the copper. She regarded her closely. Relpda had changed. She moved her body with more certainty, and she communicated more clearly. Something had happened to her. She focused herself on the little copper dragon. “Relpda. Why did you eat the hunter? Was he dead already?” she asked the smaller female.

Relpda considered the question as she waded out of the water and up the mud beach toward the gathered dragons. “No. But he wanted to kill me. And so my keeper attacked him. And then, when I saw that my keeper was trying to kill him, I took him for meat. It was a good kill for me.” The copper looked around. “There was fish?”

“The fish is eaten. Tomorrow we will have to move on.” Sintara tried to bring her back to the topic. She noticed that the other dragons had quietened to listen. “What do you mean, your keeper drank blood? And who do you claim as your keeper?”

Relpda bent her head to rub her muzzle against her front leg. It put more mud on her face than it cleaned off. “Sedric,” she said. “Sedric is my keeper now. He came to me and took my blood and drank it, to be closer to me. We think together now. All is clearer to me than it was. I shall make him my Elderling. That is my right to do.”

“You will make an Elderling?” Sestican was confused.

“I am trying to get sense out of her! Be quiet!” Sintara hissed.

“We cannot change humans unless we are willing to be changed by them.” Mercor spoke wearily, ignoring her request. His words stilled her. There was something there, something to be remembered.

“Cannot or should not?” Sestican demanded.

“I do not understand!” Fente lashed her tail.

“Then be quiet and listen!” Sintara opened her jaws on the smaller female, a threat that venom might follow. Fente slunk aside from her, then spun and hissed at her.

“Stop it!” Ranculos roared. “Both of you!”

Mercor looked around at them sadly. His eyes, black on black, whirled slowly. “So much has been lost. Even as we grow stronger and move closer to becoming true dragons, I am frightened every day by the holes in our memories. I know I should not assume that each of you remembers what I do, but I continue to make that mistake. It appears, Fente, that Relpda recalls that which some of the rest of you have forgotten. Elderlings can be created by dragons, deliberately. Sometimes, as is happening with our keepers, humans undergo changes simply by virtue of extensive contact with us. In the days when Elderlings and dragons shared cities and lives, Elderlings were shaped by the dragons who favored them, much as a human gardener might prune a tree. Deliberately and carefully, choosing well what they began with, a dragon created an Elderling. In the lifetimes that our kinds have been apart, many of the Rain Wilders have taken on some of the lesser aspects of Elderlings, with few of the benefits.”

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