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She tried to imagine Thymara as an Elderling, but it was impossible. Her young keeper lacked the proper attitude toward dragons. She was disrespectful, sullen, and far too fascinated with her own firefly existence. She had spirit but employed it poorly. Her older keeper, Alise, was even more unsuitable. Even now, she could sense the woman’s underlying uncertainty and misery. An Elderling female had to share something of a dragon queen’s decisiveness and fire. Did either of her tenders have the potential for them? she wondered. What would it take to put spurs to them, to test their mettle? Was it worth the effort of challenging them to see what they were made of?

Something was poking her. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and lifted her head. She rolled to her feet, shook herself, and then lay down again. As she began to lower her head, movement in the tall rushes caught her eyes. Game? She fixed her gaze. No. Nothing more than two of the keepers leaving the beach and heading into the forest. She recognized them. One was a female, Jerd, keeper to Veras. The green dragon’s keeper was tall for a human female, with a brush of blond hair cresting her head. Thymara didn’t like her. Sintara knew that without precisely knowing why. With her was Greft. She blew out softly through her nostrils. She had little use for Kalo’s keeper. Greft might tend the huge blue-black dragon and keep him gleaming, but not even Kalo trusted him. All of the dragons had misgivings about him. Thymara regarded him with both interest and fear. He fascinated her, and Thymara resented that fascination.

Sintara snuffed the wind, caught the scents of the retreating keepers, and half closed her eyes. She knew where they were bound.

An intriguing thought came to her. She suddenly glimpsed a way to measure her keeper, but would it be worth the effort? Perhaps. Perhaps not. She stretched out on the warmed rocks again, vainly wishing they were sun-scorched banks of sand. She waited.

Day the 5th of the Prayer 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 missive from Trader Polon Meldar to Sedric Meldar, to ascertain that all is well and ask his date of return.

Detozi,

There seems to be some concern over the well-being of some Bingtown residents who were scheduled to visit Cassarick, but now seem to have moved beyond it. Two anxious parents have separately visited me today, promising a bonus if news returns swiftly. I know you are not on the best of terms with the Keeper of the Birds in Cassarick, but perhaps this once, you might use that connection to see if there are any tidings of either Sedric Meldar or Alise Kincarron Finbok. The Finbok woman comes from a wealthy family. Good tidings of reassurance might be amply rewarded.

Erek

CHAPTER ONE

POISONED

The sucking gray mud pulled at her boots and slowed her down. Alise watched Leftrin walking away from her toward the huddled dragon keepers as she struggled to break free of the earth’s grip and go after him. “Metaphor for my life,” she muttered savagely and resolutely stepped up her pace. A moment later, it occurred to her that just a few weeks ago, she would have regarded crossing the riverbank as not only a bit adventurous but as a taxing walk. Today, it was only a muddy patch to get across, and one that was not particularly difficult. “I’m changing,” she said to herself, and was jolted when she sensed Skymaw’s assent.

Do you listen in on all my thoughts? She queried the dragon and received no acknowledgment at all. She wondered uneasily if the dragon was aware of her attraction to Leftrin and of the details of her unhappy marriage. Almost immediately, she resolved to protect her privacy by not thinking of such things. And then recognized the futility of that. No wonder dragons think so poorly of us, if they are privy to every one of our thoughts.

I assure you, most of what you think about we find so uninteresting that we don’t even bother having opinions about it. Skymaw’s response floated into her mind. Bitterly, the dragon added, My true name is Sintara. You may as well have it;all the others know it now that Mercor has flung it to the wind.

It was exciting to communicate, mind to mind, with such a fabulous creature. Alise ventured a compliment. I am overjoyed to finally hear your true name. Sintara. Its glory is fitting to your beauty.

A stony silence met her thought. Sintara did not ignore her;she offered her only emptiness. Alise attempted to smooth things over with a question. What happened to the brown dragon? Is he ill?

The copper dragon hatched from her case as she is, and she has survived too long, Sintara replied callously.

She?

Stop thinking at me!

Alise stopped herself before she could think an apology. She judged it would only annoy the dragon more. And she had nearly caught up to Leftrin. The crowd of keepers that had clustered around the brown dragon was dispersing. The big gold dragon and his small pink-scaled keeper were the lone guardians by the time she arrived at Leftrin’s side. As she approached, the gold dragon lifted his head and fixed his gleaming black eyes on her. She felt the “push” of his regard. Leftrin abruptly turned to her.

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