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Sintara was drawing breath. Her jaws were still wide, and Thymara stood rooted before her, watching her poison sacs swell. If the dragon chose to breathe venom on her, there would be no escape. She stood her ground, frozen with terror and fury.

“Sintara!” The bellow came from Mercor. “Close your jaws and fold your wings! Do not harm your keeper for speaking truth to you!”

“Fight! Fight! Fight!” Spit was trumpeting joyously.

“Quiet, pest!” Ranculos roared at him.

“Do not spray here! The drift will burn me! Blast your own keeper if you wish, Sintara, but spray me and I swear I will burn your wings as full of holes as rotting canvas!” This from small green Fente. The dragon reared onto her hind legs and spread her own wings in challenge.

“Stop this madness!” Mercor bellowed again. “Sintara, hurt not your keeper!”

“She is mine, and I’ll do as I wish!” Sintara’s trumpet was a shrill whistle of anger.

Despite herself, Thymara clapped her hands over her ears. Terror made her reckless. “I don’t care what you do to me! Look what you’ve already done! You want to kill me? Go ahead, you stupid lizard. Someone else can clear the sucking insects from your eyes, take the leeches off your useless, beautiful wings. Go ahead, kill me!”

Sintara reared up, her wings spread wide, glorious, and potentially deadly. The gleaming spikes that tipped each rib of her wing could, if the dragon willed it, ooze toxins with which she could slash a rival in sky battle. Thymara had a brief moment in which to wonder how she suddenly knew such a thing. Then Sintara screamed like a storm wind. She swept her wings closed, and then as she opened them again, she turned slightly. The wing struck Thymara and sent her flying.

She hit the hard, hard water on her back, felt the agonizing pain as her new wings absorbed that slap. She sank, breathed water, and then her feet found the bottom. She stood up, choking and gasping, her eyes running with silty water and tears. She heard screams from the barge, and Tats shouting, deep, hoarse, and angry, “Thymara! Thymara! Damn you, dragon! Damn you!”

His words did not stall Sintara. She came stalking toward Thymara, her head low now and weaving. “Is that what you wanted, worthless girl? Shall I make you fly again?”

“I warn you, Sintara!” Mercor was bearing down on her. His golden wings were spread, and the light bouncing from them seemed brighter than the sun. Their false eyes seemed to glare.

Choking and coughing, Thymara was backing up as fast as the deepening water would let her, while the angry dragon came on. Sintara’s eyes spun with relentless fury.

Overhead, a hunting hawk screamed. And screamed again. Every dragon looked skyward. The hawk was diving down at them, blasting through the air.

“Tintaglia?” Mercor spoke the name in wonder.

“It’s red!” someone shouted.

The dragons froze, looking at the sky. Thymara seized her shirt, floating on the water near her. She wiped grit and silt from her eyes and stared upward. A bird had broken free of the clouds. The red hawk was growing larger, larger, larger.

“HEEBY!” she screamed suddenly. “RAPSKAL!”

The scarlet dragon trumpeted a triumphant response. Her folded wings suddenly cracked wide, braking her wild dive. She made three tight, impossible circles over the gawking dragons and the grounded barge. Then, with a beat, beat, beat of her wings, Heeby cut in the other direction, enlarged her orbit, and flew a loop around Tarman and the excited dragons. Her ruby wings seemed as wide as a ship’s sails as she slowed gracefully. She flew low, the tips of her wings stirring the standing reeds and rushes. And on her back, a slender scarlet man laughed joyously.

“I’ve found you!” he shouted, and it was Rapskal’s voice, gone a bit deeper but no less wild with optimism. “I’ve found you, and Heeby found Kelsingra! Come on. Follow us! It’s not far! No more than half a day’s flight east of here. Follow us! Follow us to Kelsingra!”

Day the 10th of the Browning Moon

Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

A message from the parents of Erek Dunwarrow, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown, to the parents of Detozi Dushank, sealed in wax and marked with the seal of the Dunwarrow Trader family.

Detozi,

Obliterate this note before you deliver this scroll to your parents. I fear I know what is in it. I have spoken of you perhaps too often to my family, and they have listened to many stories about you from your nephew Reyall, my apprentice. Their proposal may be precipitate, when we have not even met yet, but as Trader for our family, my father still has the authority to act independently in such negotiations. I fear this may offend you and your parents. In truth, I fear even more that it will lead you to refuse an offer that I had hoped to make myself, in person, when perhaps you had had the chance to meet and know me better.

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