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Sedric felt trapped between them. Why on earth would Sylve bring up such a topic, so private and specific to the keepers, while he was in the boat?

Then dread dropped the bottom out of his stomach.

Thymara wasn’t the target of her words. He was. His hand shot up to the back of his neck and covered the line of scales that had started down his spine. Carson had assured him that they were barely noticeable yet. He’d said they didn’t even seem to have a color yet, unlike the pink of Sylve’s and the silvery glints on Carson’s own scaling. Sedric didn’t say a word.

“I am changing,” Sylve admitted. “But I was given the choice, and I chose this. And I trust Mercor.”

“But he left you today,” Thymara pointed out. Sedric wondered if she were relentless or just tactless.

“I’ve thought it over, and what Sedric said, too. If, tonight, I were not there when we gathered, then Mercor would go back for me. I know that. But I will be there, and I will have got myself there. It is what he expects of me. I am neither a pet nor a child. He believes I am not only capable of taking care of myself, but that I am worthy of the attention of a dragon, and that I can survive without him.”

When Thymara asked her question, she sounded half strangled. “Why does he believe that of you? How did you convince him?”

Sylve glanced back at them, and an otherworldly smile flitted across her face. “I am not sure. But he offered me a chance and I took it. I am not an Elderling yet. But I will be.”

“What?” Thymara and Sedric chorused the word together.

Then Thymara added another one. “How?”

“A little bit of blood,” Sylve said in a near whisper, and Sedric went cold. A little bit? How much was a little bit? He tried to remember how much blood he’d taken in that night, and wondered how much it took.

“Mercor gave you some of his blood?” Thymara was incredulous. “What did you do with it?”

Sylve’s voice was very quiet, as if she spoke of something sacred. Or horrifying. “He told me to pull a small scale from his face. I did. A drop or two of blood welled out. He told me to catch it on the scale. And then to eat it.” Her breath caught, and the rhythm of her paddling broke. “It was…delicious. No. It wasn’t a taste. It was a feeling. It was magical. It changed me.”

With two strong strokes of her paddle, Thymara drove them out of the current and into the shallows. She reached up and caught a branch and held them all in place.

“Why?” The question exploded out of her. It sounded as if she asked it of the universe in general, as if it were almost a cry of despair at an unfair fate, but it was Sylve who answered her.

“You know what we are, Thymara. You know why some of us are discarded at birth. Why those of us who change too much too soon are denied mates and children. If they discover us when we are born, we are denied any future at all. It’s because we change in ways that make us monstrous. And make us die, sooner rather than later, after giving birth to monsters who cannot live. Mercor believes those changes happen to any humans who are around dragons for any length of time.”

“That makes no sense! Rain Wilders were changing from the very first generation who settled here. Long before dragons came back into this world, children were developing scales, and pregnant women were giving birth to monsters!”

“Long before dragons came back, we were living where they had lived, and digging into the places where the Elderlings had dwelt. We were plundering their treasures, wearing their jewelry, making timber out of dragon cases. There may not have been dragons walking among us, but we were walking among them.”

A silence held as Thymara digested those words. The water rushed past their canoe. Sedric felt cold and still inside. Blood. Blood from a dragon was changing Sylve. Two drops and one small scale was all it had taken. How much had he taken in? What changes had he triggered in himself? Monsters, they had said. Monsters who didn’t live long, monsters denied any future. Something in the middle of him had gone tight and was twisting, twisting so hard it hurt. He bent forward slightly over his belly. Neither of them appeared to notice.

“But the blood he gave you will change you more?”

“It was his blood. He says he will shape my change. He warned me that it doesn’t always work, and that he does not remember all of what a dragon should do to facilitate such a change. But he said the Elderlings did not just happen. Every Elderling who existed was once the companion of a dragon. Well, almost everyone. Sometimes humans started to change and even unguided, the changes didn’t kill them. They noticed it in the humans who tended the dragons while they were in their cases and the ones who were present at the hatchings. Some became beautiful and lived a long time, but most didn’t. But the ones the dragons chose as worthy and guided carefully, they became extraordinary and some lived for generations.”

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