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“We’re being left behind. Come on!” She had been the one clutching at Sedric. But now he shrugged free of her hold on his arm, caught her by the hand. Her free hand snagged the still-staring Sylve. “Run!” he told them. “Come on!”

They pelted down the beach toward the shore. Shouts of both anger and dismay from Tarman’s deck told her that there was nothing that the crew or keepers could do to detain the barge. She wondered briefly about the hunters. As was their wont, they had set out before dawn to look for meat, and they had doubtless headed up the other tributary of the river. How long would it take them to realize that the barge and the dragons had gone off in a different direction?

They were not the only keepers left onshore. All of them were converging on the three small boats that remained onshore. Kase and Boxter had claimed Greft’s boat, but they stood by to see if they’d have to make room for another keeper. Alum was in one of the other boats, and as she watched, Harrikin spoke with him. The third boat was empty. “Go!” Thymara shouted at them. “We’ll take the other boat.”

“Right!” Alum shouted back to her, and in moments they were launched. The barge was moving with swift certainty up the waterway. The dragons split and went around the small boats, waded out into the water, and followed. They would soon pass the barge. Kase and Boxter had taken up their paddles and were moving out into the river.

By the time Thymara, Sylve, and Sedric reached the final boat, they were alone on the shore. Thymara glanced back at the campsite. No, nothing left behind. A fire smoldered on the wet muddy flat. Nothing remained to show they had been there but trampled ground and the rising smoke.

“Will it hold three?” Sedric asked worriedly.

“It won’t be comfortable, but we’ll be fine. Besides, there’s no choice. You can turn your bucket upside down and perch on that. I suspect we’ll come alongside Tarman before too long, and we can ask them to take you up then, if you’d like.” She turned to a strangely quiet Sylve. The girl looked stricken. “What’s the matter?”

Sylve shook her head slowly. “He just went with the others. Mercor didn’t even wait to see if I had a way to follow. He just left.” She blinked her eyes and one pink-tinged tear trickled down her cheek.

“Oh, Sylve.” Thymara felt sorry for her, but also impatient. Now was not the time for indulging in emotion. They had to catch up with the ship.

“MERCOR’S NO FOOL. He knew there were boats on the shore, and that you’ve taken care of yourself in the past. He had to get the dragons moving before any of them had second thoughts. He hasn’t abandoned you; he just thinks you’re capable. Let’s prove he’s right.” Sedric spoke hastily, smoothing the quarrel before it could start. He was tired of conflict.

He upended his bucket to make a seat for himself in the middle of the boat, and it gave him a slightly higher perch and a different view of the river. Thymara pushed them off, and Sylve dug in her paddle with a will, and they devoted themselves to creating as much speed as they could. There was no discussion; all knew they’d make better time with the girls at the oars.

This was Sedric’s first opportunity to observe the river and the surrounding jungle from this perspective. The last time he’d been in one of the small boats, he’d been so busy trying to keep up with Carson that he hadn’t had time to look around. Now he stared at the lushest forest he’d ever seen. Trees, both deciduous and evergreen, leaned out over the water. Vines draped some of them. Undergrowth was thick, and reeds and rushes populated the mossy banks of the river.

“It’s so alive,” Sylve said in a voice full of wonder.

So he hadn’t been imagining the difference.

“It even smells different. Just, well, green. Alise and I walked a short way up here yesterday, and we both noticed it. There’s no acid in the water, no whiteness to it at all. And there’s a lot more life. I saw frogs swimming in the water yesterday. Right in the water.”

“Frogs usually swim in the water,” Sedric suggested.

“Maybe near Bingtown they do. But in the Rain Wilds, we find frogs up in the trees. Not in the river.”

He thought about that for a bit. Every time he thought he had grasped how much his life had changed, some new awareness doused him. He nodded quietly.

This tributary was completely unlike the main channel. It wound gently through the forest, and the trees leaned in over the water, seeking sunlight and blocking the view upstream. For a time, they pursued the dragons and the barge, but then the river rounded a gentle bend and they lost sight of everything except the other two small boats. They were at the tail end of the procession. If they capsized now, or if they came upon a pod of gallators on the riverbank…for a moment, tension tightened his gut. Then a peculiar thought came to him.

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