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She ran out of words for a moment.

“I don’t understand.”

“Art, Thymara. Elderlings were a form of art for the dragons of that time. They found humans they thought had potential and developed them. That was why they cherished them. Everyone cherishes what they create. Even dragons.”

“And my changes? I was born with the sort of changes one usually sees only in very old women. And since we left Trehaug, I’ve continued to change. The changes are progressing faster than they ever have before.”

“I’ve noticed. That’s why I asked Mercor if Sintara was changing you. He said he would ask her.”

“I asked her already,” Thymara admitted. “I suspected she had something to do with it. From something I heard Harrikin say. Is his dragon changing him, too?”

“Yes. And Sintara is changing you.”

A silence. Then Thymara admitted. “No. She said she wasn’t, and Mercor said that if she didn’t take charge of my changes, he would.”

“What?”

What was in that incredulous question from Sylve? A touch of jealousy? Disbelief?

Thymara seemed to hear it, too. Her reply was glum. “Don’t worry. He won’t. Sintara said she would never allow anyone to take over her keeper. I’m doomed to belong to her, even if she doesn’t want me. And doomed to change however I change, for better or worse.” She took a deep breath. “We’d better get moving. I can’t even see the other boats now.”

“You want me to paddle for a while?” Sedric offered.

“No. Thank you.” Quietly she added, “I think I just want to work for a while.”

Sedric cleared his throat, forced the difficult words out. “I’m changing, too.”

A silence. Then Sylve said delicately, “Yes, we noticed.”

He phrased his next statement a dozen ways before he found one that avoided the issue of blood and how he had tasted it. “Sometimes I’m afraid that Relpda doesn’t know how to control the changes.”

“I think we’re all a bit afraid of that,” Sylve commiserated. And he could think of no response.

Thymara’s paddle dug in, pushing them out into the river. They moved on, battling the slow current.

Day the 9th of the Gold Moon

Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

Contents: a legally registered notice from Hest Finbok, to the merchants, inns, and suppliers of Trehaug and Cassarick, to be duplicated and distributed freely. Please be advised that as of the first day of the Gold Moon, Hest Finbok will not be responsible for any debts incurred by either Sedric Meldar or Alise Kincarron.

Detozi,

The swift pigeons arrived a full day and a half before the regular carriers. As the weather was both rainy with the wind against them, I am even more impressed with their speed. Clearly, the breeding program is working, and working well. I shall sit down and try to work out a system of bands for the birds that we can use to establish which of them are fastest, so that we may breed more accurately for this trait.

Erek

Day the 10th of the Gold Moon

Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

Enclosed, a notice from Trader family Meldar and Trader family Kincarron, offering a substantial reward for any information as to the location and well-being of Sedric Meldar and Alise Kincarron Finbok. To be duplicated and distributed freely, and a copy sent on swiftly to the Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick, all fees having been paid in advance for such service.

Detozi,

You are not alone in wishing that you could make a journey between our cities as swiftly as our pigeons do. I have puzzled for several hours over the markings I could use to designate swiftness of flight on the birds I wish to band. Somehow I am sure that if we could but spend an afternoon together, we could devise such a marking system. I have been curious as to how you manage your coops and flocks in such a dangerous place as the Rain Wilds. I think it would be in the best interests of all the bird keepers if I could take time to come for a visit to study your flock management. As soon as Reyall is able to return to handle my duties in my absence, I intend to apply for such a leave, if a visit from me would not be too great an inconvenience to you.

Erek

Day the 12th of the Gold Moon

Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

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