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Tymothy Zahn

Dragon and Thief

To my sister Carol, who pointed Jack and Draycos in the right direction

Chapter 1

'Draycos? Come on, symby, shake a scale.'

Draycos looked up from the systems monitor he'd been watching, his ears swiveling upward toward the voice. Polphir, his Shontine host, was halfway up the ladder to the Havenseeker's main navigation bubble, looking quizzically down at him. 'Come on where?' Draycos called back. 'We're here. We've arrived. Our job is over.'

'Hardly, my good but lazy K'da,' Polphir said dryly. 'All the long-range navigation may be finished, but we still have to double-check the location of that planet down there. Come on, let's go.'

'Very well, my good but slave-driving Shontin,' Draycos replied. Crouching low, gathering all four paws under him, he leaped over the bank of monitors—and, incidentally, the two Shontine working at them—and landed precisely at the foot of the ladder. He would have preferred to jump directly to the navigation bubble and skip the climb entirely, but there was another K'da crouched at the monitor station on the lower bubble deck, and there wasn't enough room for Draycos to land there without bowling her over. Wrapping his paws around the ladder's side rails—only the Shontine used the ladder's rungs—he started up.

The Havenseeker was alive with activity and quiet commotion today. Small wonder: after nearly two years in space, the four bulky ships of the Shontine/K'da advance team had finally reached their goal, the world known as Iota Klestis, and everyone aboard was excited. Several times as Draycos made his way upward, one or the other of his pointed ears twitched around as an odd noise or fragment of conversation caught his attention.

Polphir was already in his seat at the wraparound control board, working busily, when Draycos reached the bubble. For a moment he paused at the top of the ladder, gazing out at the blue-green planet turning slowly beneath them. An uninhabited world, or so their contacts in this region of space had assured them. Uninhabited, and unwanted. Exactly what they needed.

'Twas night and blackness all around: K'da and Shontine held their ground...

'You just going to sit there and daydream?' Polphir called over his shoulder. 'Or were you taking a moment to admire yourself?'

'And why not?' Draycos countered, arching his long neck as he pretended to pose. 'Have you ever seen a more handsome representative of the K'da people?'

'If you think I'm going to answer a question like that in here, you're crazy,' Polphir told him, his voice rippling with good humor. 'Wait till we get down to the planet where I've got room to duck, then ask me again.'

'Never mind,' Draycos said. In truth, he hadn't even noticed his reflection in the smoothly curved plastic of the bubble until Polphir made his comment. Now, though, he took a moment to focus on the image.

It wasn't a bad face, really, he decided. The long, triangular head was mostly proportioned right, the glowing green eyes beneath the bony protective ridges properly spaced. The spiny crest extending from between the eyes over the top of his head and down his long back was just about right, though perhaps a bit too narrow. His long muzzle with its razor-sharp teeth was well shaped, though some of the teeth themselves were a little crooked and his forked tongue stuck out a little too far whenever he tasted the air. His scales were a decent enough color, bright gold with red edges, though as a child he'd secretly wished they'd been gray instead. The rest of his body wasn't visible in the reflection, but he could picture it in his mind's eye: the body long and sleek, as befit a K'da warrior, the whip-like tail a little too short as it restlessly beat the air.

After two years, he decided, it would be good to feel ground beneath his paws again. Turning to face Polphir's broad back, he crouched and leaped.

His outstretched front paws touched the Shontin's bare shoulders and flattened out, sliding along the skin in both directions along his arms. As the rest of his body reached Polphir's, each part altered from three-dimensional to two-dimensional form as it flowed onto his host's body. A split second later the transformation was complete, leaving Draycos stretched like a living tattoo across Polphir's back and legs and arms.

'Anyway, I'm not sure I'd trust you to judge K'da beauty,' he added, sliding his now flat head along the skin of Polphir's shoulder and around to his chest so that he could see the indicator lights better. 'And just for the record, I was neither daydreaming nor admiring myself. If you must know, I was composing an epic poem about our journey here, and the beginning of new hope for our peoples.'

'Were you, now,' Polphir said, working at his control board.

'Yes, indeed,' Draycos assured him. He stretched his front legs out and away from Polphir's arms, the limbs becoming three-dimensional again as they left the Shontin's skin, and began punching in code on his own set of control panels. 'I was going to give you a good part in it, too.'

'I'm flattered,' Polphir said. 'Really. Okay, here we go. Can you get the anterior star-fix going?'

'Already on it.'

'Thanks,' Polphir said. 'If I were you, though, I wouldn't go writing up this voyage as a success just yet. I notice that no one seems willing to give us a straight answer as to whether we're going to be welcome here.'

Draycos lifted his head from Polphir's shoulder, letting it become three-dimensional again, for a better look at the proximity display. Was that something flicking in and out at the very edge of the nav sensor's range? 'You worry too much,' he said soothingly, laying his head flat against Polphir's skin again and continuing to key in his star-scan. 'Why would anyone object to our using a planet no one else seems to want? Especially when we're willing to pay for it.'

'There are all sorts of reasons they might object,' Polphir said. 'Refugees in general aren't always welcome, you know. They're even less welcome when they've got enemies as dangerous as the Valahgua.'

'The Valahgua will never find us,' Draycos said firmly. 'Not here.'

Polphir shook his head. 'I hope you're right.'

'Spacecraft approaching,' a Shontine voice called across the control complex.

'Recognition signals,' another voice put in, this one a K'da. 'It's our contact.'

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