“I do not understand,” Peottre broke in. “I knew there had been resistance in your group to killing the dragon. But what is this talk of ‘sensing' him?”
“You are not the only one with secrets, and this I will reserve to myself for now. Just as you reserve the secret of how the Pale Woman has been in contact with you. She prompted you to poison Fit—Tom with the cake you brought to us, did she not?”
Peottre sat up very straight, lips folded. Dutiful gave a sharp nod to himself. “Yes. Secrets. If you had not seen fit to hold yours so tightly, we might have acted as one from the beginning, not against the dragon, but against the Pale Woman. If only you had spoken to me . . .”
The Narcheska suddenly collapsed. She fell onto her side, moaning, and then shuddered into stillness.
Blackwater knelt by her. “We could not!” he exclaimed bitterly. “You cannot even guess what price this little one has paid tonight to speak this plainly to you. Her tongue has been sealed, and mine, too.” He looked suddenly at Burrich. “Old soldier, if you have a thread of mercy left in you, will you fetch snow for me?”
“I will,” I said quietly, not knowing how much or how little Burrich could see. But he had already risen, taking up an empty cooking pot and going out of the tent. Blackwater rolled Elliania onto her belly and, without ceremony, dragged up her tunic. The Prince gasped at what was revealed and I turned aside, sickened. The dragon and serpent tattoos on her back were inflamed, some oozing droplets of blood, others puffed and wet like freshly burst burns. Peottre spoke through clenched teeth. “She went for a walk one day with Henja, her trusted handmaid. Two days later, Henja brought her stumbling home to us, with these marks on her back and the Pale Woman's cruel bargain for us. Henja spoke it, for Elliania cannot say anything of what befell her without the dragons punishing her. Even the mention of the Pale Woman's name does this to her.”
Burrich came back with his pot of snow. He set it down beside the prone woman and peered at her in horror, trying to discern what it was. “An infection of the skin?” he asked hesitantly.
“A poisoning of the soul,” Peottre said bitterly. He lifted a handful of the clean snow Burrich had brought and smoothed it across Elliania's back. She stirred slightly. Her eyelids fluttered. I thought she had hovered at the edge of consciousness, but she did not make a sound.
“I free you from all agreements between us,” Dutiful said quietly.
Peottre looked at him, stricken. But the Prince spoke on.
“She will not be held by me to any promises she made under duress. Yet I will still kill your dragon,” the Prince said quietly. “Tonight. And after we have won clean death for our people, when no one but myself is at risk, then I will do all within my power to finish the Pale Woman's evil forever.” He took a great breath, and as if fearing mockery, said, “And if any of us survive, then I will stand before Elliania and ask her if she will have me.”
Elliania spoke. Her voice was faint and she did not lift her head. “I will. Freely.” The second utterance she added more strongly. I do not think Peottre or Chade approved, but they held their tongues. She motioned away the handful of snow that Peottre held. Instead, she took his hand and managed to sit up. She was still in pain. She looked as if she had taken a death wound.
Chade swung his gaze to me.
“Then we act. Tonight.” He looked around at each of us in turn, then almost visibly threw caution to the wind. “We dare not wait, for who among us knows how swift a dragon can fly? If we act together and quickly, then perhaps the deed can be done and we can be gone from here before this Tintaglia even arrives.” A flush, almost a blush, suffused the old man's face suddenly. He could not keep down the small smile that came as he announced, “It is true. I have created a powder that has the force of a bolt of lightning. I brought some of it with me, when I came here. I do not have as much of it as I had hoped to apply to this task. Most of my supply remained behind on the beach. But perhaps what I have is enough. When cast into a fire in a sealed container, it explodes violently, like a lightning strike. If we placed it down our tunnel and set it off, it would definitely blow up much ice. By itself, it may kill the dragon. Even if it doesn't, it will give us swifter access to him.”
I heaved myself to my feet. “Have you a cloak I can use?” I asked Burrich.
He ignored me, looking only at Chade. “Is this like what you did the night Shrewd died? Whatever you treated the candles with, it did not behave as reliably as you had expected. What do we risk here?”