City of Dragons

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  She rode the air currents easily, her legs sleeked tight against her body, her wings spread wide. On the undulating desert sands below, her rippling shadow showed her as a serpentine creature with batlike wings and a long, finned tail. Tintaglia thrummed deep in her throat, a purr of pleasure in the day. They had hunted at dawn and hunted well. They had made their separate kills, as they always did, and spent the morning in feasting and then sleep. Now, smeared still with the blood and offal of the hunt, the two dragons had another goal in mind.

  Ahead and slightly below her, Icefyre was a gleaming black shape. His long body flexed as he shifted his weight to catch and ride the wind. His torso was thicker and heavier than hers, his body longer. Her featherlike scaling glittered a scintillating blue, but he was an even black all over. His long encasement in ice had taken a toll on his body, one that was taking years to heal. His larger wings still had rents in the heavy webbing between the finger ribs. The smaller injuries to his body were long gone, but the tears in his wings would knit more slowly, and the welted scars of their healing would always be visible. Unlike her own azure perfection. Out of the corners of her eyes, Tintaglia admired her glittering wings.

  As if he sensed her lack of attention to him, Icefyre banked abruptly and began his circling descent. She knew their destination. Not too far away a rocky ridge erupted above the sand. Stunted trees and gray-green brush populated its jagged edges and rough gullies. Just before the brushy ridge was a hidden oasis, in a wide, sandy basin, surrounded by a scatter of trees. The water rose from the depths of the earth to form a wide, still pool. Even in winter, the depression cupped the day’s warmth. They would spend their early afternoon soaking in the sun-warmed waters of the oasis to cleanse the blood from their hides and then rolling luxuriantly in the rough sand to polish their scales. They knew the spot well. They varied their hunting grounds over a wide range, but every ten days or so, Icefyre led them back here. He claimed it was a place he remembered from his distant youth.

  Once, there had been a colony of Elderlings here that had tended the visiting dragons. Of their white stone buildings and carefully nurtured vineyards, nothing remained. The encroaching desert had devoured their settlement, but the oasis remained. Tintaglia would have preferred to fly much farther south, to the red sand deserts where winter never came, but Icefyre had refused. She, suspecting that he lacked the stamina for such a flight, had thought more than once of leaving him and going alone. But the terrible isolation of her long imprisonment in her cocoon had left its mark on her. Dragon companionship, even crotchety, critical companionship, was preferable to isolation.

  Icefyre flew low now, nearly skimming the baked sand. His wings moved in sporadic, powerful beats that drove his glide and stirred the sand. Tintaglia followed, emulating him as she honed her own flying skills. There was much she did not care for in her mate, but he was truly a lord of the air.

  They followed the contours of the land. She knew his plan. Their glide would carry them up to the lip of the basin, and then down in a wild slide that paralleled the slope of the dunes. It would end with both of them splashing, wings still spread, into the still, sun-warmed waters.

  They were halfway down the slope when the sand around the upper edges of the basin erupted. Canvas coverings were flung aside and archers rose in ranks. A phalanx of arrows flew toward them. As the first wave of missiles rattled bruisingly off her wings and flanks, a second arced toward them. They were too close to the ground to batter their way to altitude again. Icefyre skimmed and then slewed around as he hit the shallow waters of the pool. Tintaglia was too close behind him to stop or change her path. She crashed into him and as their wings and legs tangled in the warm shallow water, spearmen rose from their camouflaged nests and came at them like an army of attacking ants. Behind them more ranks of men rose and surged forward with weighted nets of stout rope and chain.

  Heedless of how he might injure her, Icefyre fought free of Tintaglia. He splashed from the shallow pool and charged into the men, trampling her into the water as he went. Some of the pike men ran; he crushed others under his powerful hind feet, then spun, and with a lash of his long tail knocked down a score of others. Dazed, mired in the water, she saw him work his throat and then open wide his mouth. Behind his rows of gleaming white pointed teeth, she glimpsed the scarlet and orange of Icefyre’s poison sacs. He spun toward his attackers, and his hissing roar carried with it a scarlet mist of venom. As the cloud enveloped the men before him, their screams rose to the blue cup of sky.

  The acid ate them. Armor of leather or metal slowed but did not stop it. The droplets fell from the air to the earth, incidentally passing through human bodies on the way. Skin, flesh, bone, and gut were holed by the passing venom. It hissed as it struck the sand. Some men died quickly, but most did not. Page 2


  Tintaglia had stared too long. A net thudded over her. At every junction of knot, the ropes had been weighted with dangling lumps of lead. Chains, some fine, some heavy, and some fitted with barbed hooks, were woven throughout the net. It trapped and tangled her wings, and when she clawed at it with her front legs, it wrapped them as well. She roared her fury and felt her own poison sacs swell as spearmen waded out into the shallow waters of the pond. She caught a glimpse of archers beginning a stumbling charge down the sandy slopes, arrows nocked to their bows. She jerked as a spear found a vulnerable spot between the scales behind her front leg, in the tender place between leg and chest. It did not penetrate deeply, but Tintaglia had never been stabbed with anything before. She turned, roaring out her pain and anger, and her venom misted out with her cry. The spearmen fell back in horror. As the venom settled on the net, the lines and chains weakened and then gave way to her struggles. Tangles of it still wrapped her, but she could move. Fury enveloped her. Humans dared to attack dragons?

  Tintaglia waded out of the water and into the midst of them, slashing with her claws and lashing with her tail, and every scream of rage she emitted carried a wave of acid toxin with it. Soon the shrill shrieks of dying humans filled the air. She did not need to spare a glance for Icefyre: she could hear the carnage he was wreaking.

  Arrows rattled off her body and thudded painfully against her entangled wings. She flapped them, tumbling a dozen men with them as she flung the last bits of netting free. But her opened wings had bared her vulnerability. She felt the hot bite of an arrow beneath her left wing. She clapped her wings closed, realizing too late that the humans had been trying to provoke her into opening them to expose the more tender flesh beneath. But closing her wing only pushed the arrow shaft in deeper. Tintaglia roared her pain and spun again, lashing with her tail. She caught a brief glimpse of Icefyre, a human clutched in his jaws and raised aloft. The dying man’s shriek rose above the other battle sounds as the dragon severed his body into two pieces. Cries of horror from more distant ranks of humans were sweet to hear, and she suddenly understood what her mate was doing.

  His thought reached her. Terror is as important as killing. They must be taught never even to think of attacking dragons. A few we must allow to escape, to carry the tale home. Grim and terse, he added, But only a few!

  A few, she agreed and waded out of the waters and in among the men who had gathered to slay her, batting them aside with her clawed front feet as easily as a cat would bat at a string. She snapped at them, clipping legs from bodies, arms from shoulders, maiming rather than killing quickly. She lifted her head high, and then flung it forward, hissing out a breath laden with a mist of acid venom. The human wall before her melted into bones and blood.

  As afternoon was venturing toward evening, the two dragons flew a final circle aro
und the basin of land. A straggle of warriors fled like disoriented ants toward the scrub-covered ridge. Let them spread the word! Icefyre suggested. We should return to the oasis before their meat begins to spoil. He banked his wings and turned away from their lazy pursuit, and Tintaglia followed.

  His suggestion was welcome. The spear had fallen out of the hole it had made in her hide, but the arrow on the other side had not. She had not meant to drive it deeper into herself. In a quiet moment after the first slaughter was over and while the mobile survivors were fleeing, she had tried to pull it out. Instead, it had broken off, and the remaining nub of wood that protruded was too short for her to grip with her teeth. Clawing at it had only pushed it deeper. She felt the unwelcome intrusion of the wooden shaft and metal head into her flesh with every beat of her wings.

  How many humans fought against us? she wondered.

  Hundreds. But what does it matter? They did not kill us, and those we allow to escape will carry the word to their kind that they were foolish to try.

  Why did they attack us?

  The attack did not fit with her experience with humans. The people she had encountered had always been in awe of her, more inclined to serve her than attack her. Some had squeaked defiance, but she had found ways to bring them into line. She had fought humans before, but not because they had ambushed her. She had killed Chalcedeans only because she had chosen to ally herself with the Bingtown Traders, killing their enemies in return for their help for the serpents that would, after metamorphosis, become dragons. Could this attack be related to that? It seemed unlikely. Humans were so short-lived. Were they capable of such reasoned vengeance?

  Icefyre’s rationale was simpler. They attack us because they are humans and we are dragons. Most humans hate us. Some pretend awe and bring gifts, but behind their flattery and cowering, there is hatred for us. Never forget that. In this part of the world, humans have hated us for a very long time. Once, before I emerged as a dragon, the humans here sought to destroy all dragons. They fed slow poison to their own herds to try to kill us. They captured and tortured our Elderling servants in the hope of finding secrets they might use against us. They destroyed our strongholds and the stone pillars by which our servants traveled in an attempt to weaken us. Those few of us they managed to kill, they butchered like cattle, using the flesh and blood of our bodies as medicines and tonics for their feeble bodies.

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  I do not recall any of this. Tintaglia searched her ancestral memories in vain.

  There is much you do not seem to recall. I think you were encased too long. It damaged your mind and left you ignorant of many things.

  She felt a spark of anger toward him. Icefyre often said such things to her. Usually after she had implied that his long entrapment in the ice had made him partially mad. She stifled her anger for now; she needed to know more. And the arrow in her side was pinching her.

  What happened? Back then?

  Icefyre turned his head on its long neck and gave her a baleful look. What happened? We destroyed them, of course. Humans are nuisance enough without letting them think they can defy our wishes.

  They were nearing the spring at the heart of the oasis. Human carcasses littered the sand; swooping down into the basin was like descending into a pool of blood scent. In the late afternoon sun the corpses were starting to bake into carrion.

  After we feed, we will leave here and find a cleaner place to sleep, the black dragon announced. We will have to abandon this spot for a time, until jackals and ravens clean it for us. There is too much meat here for us to consume at one time, and humans spoil quickly.

  He skidded to a landing in the pool where a few human bodies still bobbed. Tintaglia followed him in. The waves of their impact were still brushing the shore when he picked a body out of the water. Avoid the ones encased in metal, he counseled her. The archers will be your best choices. Usually they just wear leather.

  He sheared the body into two and caught one part of it before it could fall into the water. He tossed the half carcass up into the air, then caught it in his jaws, tipping his head back to swallow it. The other half fell with a splash and sank in the pool. Icefyre selected another one, engulfing it headfirst, crushing the body with his powerful jaws before swallowing it whole.

  Tintaglia waded out of the contaminated water and stood watching him.

  They will spoil rapidly. You should eat now.

  I’ve never eaten a human. She felt a mild revulsion. She’d killed many humans but eaten none of them. That seemed odd now.

  She thought of the humans she had befriended: Reyn and Malta and her young singer Selden. She’d set them on the path to being Elderlings and not given much thought to them since then. Selden. She felt a spark of pleasure at her memory of him. Now there was a singer who knew how to praise a dragon. Those three humans she had chosen as her own and made them her Elderlings. So they were different, perhaps. If she happened to be near one of them when they died, she’d eat the body, to preserve their memories.

  But eating other humans? Icefyre was right. They were only meat. She moved along the shore of the pool and chose a body that was fresh enough to still be leaking blood. She sheared him in two, her tongue writhing at the feel of cloth and leather, and then chewed him a few times before consigning him to the powerful crushing muscles at the back of her throat.

  The body went down. Meat was meat, she decided, and she was hungry after the battle.

  Icefyre ate where he was, wading a few steps and then stretching his neck out to reach for more dead. There was no lack of them. Tintaglia was more selective. He was right about how quickly humans spoiled. Some already stank of decay. She looked for those who had died most recently, nosing aside the ones who were stiffening.

  She was working her way through a pile of bodies when one gave a low cry and tried to crawl away from her. He was not large, and venom had eaten part of his legs away. He dragged himself along, whimpering, and when Icefyre, attracted by the sounds, approached, the boy found his tongue.

  “Please!” he cried, his voice breaking back to a child’s squeak on the word. “Please, let me live! We did not wish to attack you, my father and me. They made us! The Duke’s men took my father’s heir-son and my mother and my two sisters. They said that if we did not join the hunt for you, they would burn them all. That my father’s name would die with him, and our family line would be no more than dust. So we had to come. We didn’t want to harm you, most beautiful ones. Most clever dragons. ”

  “It’s a bit late to try to charm us with praise,” Icefyre observed with amusement.

  “Who took your family?” Tintaglia was curious. The bone was showing in the boy’s leg. He wouldn’t survive.

  “The Duke’s men. The Duke of Chalced. They said we had to bring back dragon parts for the Duke. He needs medicine made from dragon parts to live. If we brought back blood or scales or liver or a dragon’s eye, then the Duke would make us rich forever. But if we don’t . . . ” The boy looked down at his leg. He stared at it for a time, and then something in his face changed. He looked up at Tintaglia. “We’re already dead. All of us. ”

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  “Yes,” she said, but before the word settled in the boy’s mind, Icefyre had reached out and closed his jaws on the lad’s torso. It happened as quickly as serpent strike.

  Fresh meat. No sense letting him start to rot like the others.

  The black dragon threw back his head, engulfed the rest of the boy’s body, swallowed, and moved away to the next pile of carcasses.

  Day the 29th of the Still Moon

  Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  To Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick

  Greetings, Kim,

  I have been given the task of conveying to you a complaint that has been received from several of our clients. T
hey allege that confidential messages received show signs of tampering, even though the wax plugs of the message cylinders appear intact. In two cases, a sealing wax stamp was cracked on a highly confidential scroll, and in a third, the wax seal was found in pieces inside the message cylinder, and the message scroll appeared to have been spindled crookedly, as if someone had opened the cylinder, read the messages, and then replaced them, resealing the cylinders with bird keeper wax. These complaints come from three separate Traders and involve messages received from Trader Candral of Cassarick.

  No official investigation has been requested yet. I have begged them to allow me to contact you and request that you speak with Trader Candral and ask for a demonstration of the sort of sealing wax and impression stamp that he is using for his messages. It is my hope and the hope of my masters here in Bingtown that this is merely a matter of inferior, old, or brittle sealing wax being used rather than a case of a keeper tampering with messages. Nevertheless, we would request that you scrutinize any journeymen or apprentice keepers who have come into your employ in the last year.

  It is with great regret that we ask this and hope that you will not take it amiss. My master directs me to say that we have the greatest confidence in the integrity of the Cassarick bird keepers and look forward to putting this allegation to rest.

  The favor of a swift response is requested.

  Chapter One


  “There has been no word, imperial one. ” The messenger on his knees before the Duke fought to keep his voice steady.

  The Duke, cushioned and propped on his throne, watched him, waiting for the moment he would break. The best a bearer of bad tidings could expect was a flogging. But delayed bad news merited death.

  The man kept his eyes down, staring doggedly at the floor. So. This messenger had been flogged before. He knew he would survive it and he accepted it.

  The Duke made a small gesture with his finger. Large movements took so much energy. But his chancellor had learned to watch for small motions and to respond quickly to them. He, in turn, made a more eloquent motion to the guard, and the messenger was removed. The boots of the guards thudded, and the lighter sandals of the messenger pattered between them as they hurried him off. No one ventured a word. The chancellor turned back to the Duke and bowed low, his forehead touching his knees. Slowly he knelt, and then was bold enough to look at the Duke’s sandals.

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