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The little red dragon dug her feet in. As Alise watched, the muscles in her short thick neck bulged. She made a rumbling noise of great effort, and suddenly Relpda began to move. She gave a squeal of pain, but both Mercor and Heeby ignored it. Pushing and grunting, they turned her onto her back. Her legs waved feebly in the air. “Hold her there, Heeby. That’s my girl. Hold her there!” And in response to Rapskal’s cries, the small red dragon braced herself and stood with her head butted up against the copper. Her neck muscles bulged, but her golden eyes spun in pleasure to her keeper’s loud praises.

“Look there!” Mercor said, and Alise stared in horror. The copper dragon’s muddy belly was studded with snake tails. There were at least a dozen, the exposed stubs twitching and writhing because their victim had been moved. Sylve covered her mouth with both her hands and stepped back. She rocked her head from side to side and spoke breathlessly through her fingers.

“She never let me groom her belly. I tried. I did try! She always pulled away from me and rubbed it in the mud. She was trying to get rid of them, wasn’t she, Mercor? She wouldn’t let me groom her belly because it hurt.”

“Her mind was not clear enough for her to know that you could help her,” Mercor said heavily. “No one blames you, Sylve. You did what you could for her.”

“Is she dead?” The call reached them, and all heads turned. Thymara and Tats were coming at a trot. Captain Leftrin was close behind them. Sintara was following at a more dignified pace. Behind them, half a dozen other keepers and dragons were converging.

“No! But she’s infested with them. I don’t know if we can save her.” Sylve’s voice broke on the words.

“Try,” Mercor commanded her sternly, but then he leaned over the girl and gently blew his breath down on her. At most, it could have been a gentle breeze, but Sylve swayed in it. To Alise, the sudden change in the girl’s countenance was stunning. And frightening. Sylve went from a near-hysterical child to a calm woman. She drew herself up taller, glanced up at her dragon, and smiled at him.

“We will.” She looked over at Alise and said, “First, we will use our reed brushes to clean away as much of the mud as we can. Heeby, you will have to hold her in this position, on her back. She will not like what we do, but I think we must clear the mud from her injuries before we can treat them.”

“That makes sense to me,” Alise concurred, and wondered where the poise had come from. Was she seeing Sylve as she was when her own doubts didn’t taunt her, or was this, somehow, an overlay of the dragon Mercor? Alise took up her reed scrubber and turned it to a fresh spot. She approached the dragon cautiously. The copper might be small and weak for a dragon, but a kick from any of her gently waving legs would send a human flying. And if she struggled and rolled over onto a keeper, serious injuries would result.

THYMARA HALTED AND stared at Alise. For a moment, the Bingtown woman looked like a different person. She was scrubbing away at the belly of the copper dragon, heedless of dust and mud that cascaded onto her trousers and boots. Dust coated her face, and her blouse was filthy to the elbows. Even her pale eyelashes were laden with dust. Yet her expression was one of determination, and almost pleasure in her task. When had she changed from being an elegant Bingtown lady, impeccably dressed and with manners to match? A grudging admiration stirred in Thymara.

Heeby stood, her scarlet head lowered and braced against the copper dragon, pinning her in an ungainly belly-up posture. Rapskal stood at her shoulder, proudly patting his dragon and murmuring praise of her. Mercor hovered over the group, while Sylve appeared to be in charge of the operation. The girl also looked different, Thymara thought, though she could not quite put her finger on what it was.

She took two steps closer and felt ill. Barely exposed snake tails dotted the dragon’s belly. She swallowed hard. It had been awful to watch the writhing parasite exit from Sintara’s body. The snake had not been in her long, and most of its body had still been outside the dragon’s. Once Leftrin had daubed the strong smelling tereben oil around the injury, the snake had gone limp, and then suddenly began to lash wildly. The dragon had trumpeted her distress. Thymara had stepped forward hastily and seized the lashing snake by the tail. “Hold on. I’m applying more oil!” Leftrin had warned her.

At the second application, the snake had become frantic. It had begun to writhe backward out of the dragon, and as the length of bloody snake emerged, Thymara had forced herself to seize it and hold on lest it try to reenter the dragon. It had slithered and slipped in her grip. Sintara had blasted news of her pain and the other dragons and keepers had begun to gather around her. As the final length of the snake had emerged, the animal had whipped its head about, splattering Thymara’s face with blood as it tried to attack the creature who gripped it. She had shrieked as the blood hit her and flung the animal to the ground. Tats had been ready and waiting with a hatchet. It hadn’t got far. She’d stood numbly, shaking with her dragon’s shared pain. She’d dragged her sleeve across her face, but it only smeared the thick blood more. It had smelled and tasted of dragon, and even now, after she’d washed it off, the clinging scent of it filled her nose, and she could not be rid of the taste of it. Afterward, Leftrin had swabbed the injury with rum and then sealed it over with a daub of tar lest the acid river water ulcerate it. The captain spoke as he worked. “After this, you’ll have to do nightly checks of your dragons. Those snakes got something in their mouths that numbs the flesh. You don’t even feel one burrowing in. I got a little one in my leg once, didn’t even know it was there until I got out of the water.”

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