He’d already seen signs of it. Bellin had come to him, uncomfortable and shy, to tell him that she’d had a talk with Skelly about Alum. “Neither one of them means any harm. But the attraction is there, they are young, and routine demands that they see each other almost every day. I’ve cautioned her. You’d be wise to speak to the young man before any hopes are raised or damage done.”
He’d hated that task. But it had been his, both as captain and as her uncle. Skelly had avoided him for the last few days, and Alum, proud but respectful, had gone out every day since then in Greft’s boat. Greft was grateful for Alum’s help, but the older keeper would not have been Leftrin’s choice of a companion for Alum. It was more and more clear to him that Greft did not respect his authority and was not above stirring rebellion. But there it was. Greft had reclaimed the boat that Carson and Sedric had brought back. Leftrin thought it was shortsighted of the keepers to let him assert ownership to it; surely all the boats had been owned in common when they set out. But he would not interfere in keeper matters. He had more than enough on his own plate to keep him busy. Greft had assumed Jess’s mantle as a hunter, and everyone seemed content to let him do so.
Tarman had let him know about the major tributary before he saw it. No change in the river took him unawares. Tarman had felt it early in the day, when he had tasted a change in the water and had informed him. Tarman always preferred a shallow channel, and as the river began to deepen, he had once more hugged the eastern bank. Hours before they reached the junction of the tributaries, long before he actually saw it, Leftrin began to hear it and feel it with Tarman’s senses. When they finally arrived at the merging of the two rivers that fed the Rain Wild River, it was clear which one of them had been the source of both the acid and the wave that had nearly destroyed all of them. The western tributary presented a wide open channel that was littered with debris to either side. Down that chute had rushed the deadly wave, destroying all in its path and leaving the trees and vegetation on its banks festooned with all manner of torn and broken branches and grasses. Sunlight sparkled on the grayish river, and it presented a welcoming vista of straight open waterway.
A lush delta of tall reeds and bulrushes separated it from the more sedate eastern tributary, a meandering shallow river overhung with vines, the edges choked with coarse grasses and rushes. Without hesitation, the dragons had followed the open channel, staying as close to the shore as they could. They were well ahead of the barge, as always, but the straight river allowed Leftrin to see them, strung out in a long line as they paced on. The hunters had proceeded ahead of them. There in the open waters, the sunlight glittered on the dragons. Golden Mercor led, with immense Kalo right behind him. The other dragons, green and scarlet, lavender and orange and blue, trailed him in a brilliant parade. Relpda the copper dragon and the aptly named Spit brought up the tail end of the dragon’s procession. The straight open channel was sunny and inviting. Easy sailing ahead, and Leftrin suddenly had the feeling that Kelsingra was not that far away. If an ancient Elderling city was to be found, surely it would be up that sunstruck waterway.
He was anticipating a long afternoon of easy travel when, with a sudden lurch, Tarman veered toward the delta and ran aground. Leftrin stumbled and caught at the railing to keep from falling. A chorus of startled shouts rose from the throats of everyone aboard. “Damn it, Swarge!” Leftrin shouted, and “Wasn’t me!” the tillerman shouted back at him, a tinge of anger in his voice.
Leftrin leaned over the railing and looked down. There was almost always a sandbar whenever two bodies of moving water met—always a delta of some sort. Tarman knew that, as did every riverman aboard him. Tarman knew it, and Tarman never ran aground. Hadn’t for years, even before Leftrin had had the opportunity to modify him. Yet there they were, stuck fast in mud, with the ship making no effort at all to free himself. It made no sense.
He leaned on the railing, growled deep in his throat. “Tarman. What are you doing?”
He felt no response from the ship that he could decipher. He was well and truly wedged on the muddy bottom.
“Captain?” It was Hennesey, confusion all over his face.
“I don’t know,” he replied quietly to the mate’s unvoiced question. He gave an exasperated sigh. “Get the extra poles out. The keepers may as well earn their keep today. Let’s get off this mudbank and back on our way.”
“Aye, sir,” Hennesey responded and began to shout his relay of the orders. Leftrin gave the ship’s railing a brief squeeze. “We’ll have you off this bar and under way again soon enough,” he promised Tarman quietly. But as he lifted his hands away, he wondered if he felt assent or amusement from his ship.