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Alise had come out on the deck. She stood on the roof of the deckhouse with her sketchbook, capturing the moment. Thymara looked at her and scarcely recognized the fine Bingtown lady she had first seen at Cassarick. She had abandoned her wide-brimmed hats, and her smooth and gleaming hair was a thing of the past. The sun and wind had tanned her skin and multiplied her freckles. Her clothing showed plainly the hard use she had put it to. There were patches on the knees of her trousers, and the hems were frayed out. She wore the cuffs of her shirts rolled back now, and her hands and arms had browned in the sun. For all that, even during the days when she seemed quiet and sad, she seemed more alive and real than when Thymara had first met her. Her companion, Sedric, however, reminded Thymara of a bright bird in a molt. All his lovely colors and fine manners had dropped away from him. He said little to her anymore, but he cared for his new dragon with a clumsy sincerity that Thymara found touching. The little copper was blossoming under his care and had become something of a chatterbox when he was not around to occupy her. Her language and thoughts came clearer now, and cleansed of her parasites, she was growing as rapidly as her limited diet allowed.

She was not the only dragon who had changed since the big wave. The silver, Spit as he now called himself, was almost dangerous. Quick-tempered and fully venomed, he had already accidentally scalded Boxter. Boxter had not done anything to provoke him, except to be in the area when Spit became angry with one of the other dragons. Mercor had descended quickly, roaring at Spit. Luckily for Boxter, he had only received a drift rather than a direct spray of dragon venom. His arm was burned, but he’d torn his shirt off quickly enough that he’d avoided worse injury. Restraining his own dragon from going after Spit had demanded most of his effort. It was only later that the other keepers had treated and bound his arm for him. If he had not already been scaled, the damage would have been much greater.

Some of the dragons were discontented and weary of traveling, others as determined as when they had begun. Their attitudes to the journey varied as much as their attitudes toward their keepers. Some seemed to have grown very close to their keepers. Mercor and Sylve reminded Thymara of an old married couple. They knew each other well and were very content with each other’s company. She and Sintara had still not resolved their differences, and with every passing day, she wondered if they would. The dragon seemed angry with her, but she could not decide what the original basis for it was. Sintara still asserted the right to order her about, to command her to groom her or remove parasites from around her eyes. Thymara, true to her contract, cared for the dragon. Despite Sintara’s annoyance with her, she felt their bond had grown stronger; she was much more aware of the dragon’s needs, and when Sintara spoke to her, the meaning went far beyond words. Something stronger and deeper than affection bound them to each other. The linking was not always comfortable for either of them, but it was real. Why it existed was a conundrum. Alise still visited the dragon, but Sintara was even less attentive to her. Strange to say, Alise did not seem to take it to heart. Thymara sometimes wondered what had distracted her from the dragon, but most often took it to mean that Alise had realized, as she had, that she was simply not that important to the dragon.

Baliper was a lonely soul without Warken. The keepers took turns grooming him, but he spoke little to any of them and took small interest in any of the humans. Some of the other dragons seemed to understand his mourning; others seemed to find him weak because of it. Jerd’s Veras was not pleased with her keeper’s lack of attention to her and didn’t care who knew. Greft tended Kalo still, but in a perfunctory way, and Kalo had been in a period of black temper for almost a week. Something, Thymara felt, was brewing among the dragons, something they had not shared with their keepers. She dreaded what it might be. When she let her thoughts wander, she considered every possibility from the dragons simply abandoning them to the dragons turning on them and eating them. By day, such imaginings seemed silly. Not so in the dead of night.

“You! Thymara! Think you’re decorative? There’s a pole left. Get on the end of it.”

Hennesey’s order jarred her from her daydreaming. She felt a blush rise as she hurried forward to pick up the last available pole. Jerd still stood to one side, a hand on her belly. Sylve stood near her, arms folded, mouth set in disapproval. Obviously she had expected to be part of the pole crew despite her diminutive size.

Hennesey was still barking orders. “I don’t expect you to know what you’re doing, but I expect you to help. It’s pretty simple. Shove the pole down into the mud. When I yell, everyone pushes. It shouldn’t take much to get us off. Once we’re clear of the mud, bring your poles back on board without braining each other, and let the crew take over. Ready?”

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