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“Commendable of you,” Sintara said, waiting.

Thymara held the first one up and then asked suddenly, “What are you doing to me?”

“I’m waiting for my fish,” the dragon pointed out acerbically.

Thymara didn’t give it to her. “I’m changing faster than I ever have in my life. My skin itches with the scales. My back hurts all the time. Even my teeth feel sharper. Are you doing this to me?”

“The fish,” Sintara insisted, and Thymara tossed the first one. Sintara caught it in her jaws, tossed it up, caught it again, and gulped it down.

“You’re changing, too. You’ve grown. You’re bigger and stronger, and you’re not just blue anymore. You’re sapphire and azure and every color of blue that there is. Your tail is longer. And yesterday, I saw you shake water off your wings. They’re more beautiful than ever, with a silver web on them as if you’d embroidered them. They’ve grown, too.”

“I’d grow even faster if I were offered more food and less talk,” Sintara interjected, but she could not keep the pleasure out of her voice, despite her words. Sapphire and azure. One thing she had to say for humans, they had descriptive words. “Cobalt, cerulean, indigo,” she said as Thymara unfastened the second fish.

The girl looked up. “Yes. All of those colors, too.”

“And black. And silver, if you look carefully.”

“Yes. And there are greens on your wings when you unfold them, like a pattern of lace over the silver. I noticed that your markings have become much sharper.”

“The fish,” Sintara reminded her, and with a sigh, Thymara complied.

“Are you doing something to me, or is this just happening?” she asked after the dragon had swallowed.

Sintara wasn’t certain. She replied, “No human can be around dragons for long without experiencing some changes. Accept them.”

“And no dragon can be around humans constantly without being changed by them.” This was Mercor, strolling up to interrupt their conversation, and probably to see if any fish were left. There weren’t any, so Sintara minded slightly less that he was intruding. But then he offended her gravely by lowering his head and carefully sniffing her keeper. “Are you in pain, girl?” he asked her quietly.

“A bit.” She turned away, uncomfortable with his attention.

The gold dragon turned his gaze on Sintara. His eyes, black on black, spun accusingly. “It isn’t something you can ignore,” he warned her. “The bond goes both ways. What affects one affects all. You could cause great discontent among the keepers.”

“What does he mean?” Thymara broke in anxiously.

“The concerns of dragons are the concerns of dragons,” Sintara said crushingly.

Mercor did not reply to the girl. “It will be like your name, Sintara,” he said flatly. “I will let it go so far, and then I will take charge of it. And perhaps I will take charge of your keeper as well.”

Sintara opened her wings and stretched her neck. She felt what would one day be the frilled spines of her neck stand out. Even so, Mercor was still larger than she was. A glint of amusement in his black eyes only incensed her more. “You will never take charge of my keeper,” she hissed. The barest threat of venom floated on her words. “What is mine, I keep.” Thymara lifted her arms to shield her face and eyes and retreated a few steps.

“See that you do,” Mercor replied affably. “Keep your keeper as you should, and you have nothing to fret about, little queen.”

The diminutive infuriated her beyond reason. She shot her neck out, jaws wide. Mercor whirled, and a snap of his larger wing slammed the bony joint knob of it against her ribs. She slapped ineffectually at him with her smaller wings as she staggered back. Thymara let out a shriek. All around them on the muddy delta, dragons were lifting heads and opening wings, staring toward the altercation. Keepers darted about like ants in a disturbed nest, squawking at one another.

“Do you require help, Sintara?” Sestican asked. The large blue advanced a step toward them, his own wings lifting and the frill on his neck standing out in challenge.

“Sestican, no!” his keeper shouted, but the dragon paid no attention to Lecter. His spinning eyes were fixed only on Mercor. The two dragons, wings lifted, heads swaying, regarded one another balefully.

“I am a queen! I require no help from anyone,” Sintara replied disdainfully. “Keeper! I wish to go to the freshwater river to be cleaned. Get your tools and follow me there.”

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