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All of them moved with ponderous grace. Kalo and Sestican followed behind Mercor. Their heads wove back and forth as they moved, and as she watched them, Sestican darted his head into the water and brought up a fat, dangling river snake. He gave his head a sharp shake and the writhing creature suddenly hung limp in his jaws. He ate it as he walked, tilting his head back and swallowing it as if he were a bird with a worm.

“I hope my little Heeby finds something to eat on the way. She’s hungry. I can feel it.”

“If she doesn’t, we’ll do our best tonight to come up with something for her.” She spoke the words almost without thinking. She was becoming resigned, she suddenly realized, to sharing whatever she could bring back from her evening hunt. Most often it went to whichever dragon was hungriest. That did not endear her to Sintara, but the blue queen had not been exactly generous with Thymara. Let her find out that loyalty was supposed to run both ways.

The rest of that day, Thymara expected to feel echoing quakes, but if they came, they were so small that she didn’t notice them. When they camped that night on a mud bank, the main topic of discussion had been the quake, and whether a rush of acid water would follow it. After spending the meal hour chewing over the potential threat to all of them, Greft had suddenly stood and dismissed the topic. “Whatever will happen is going to happen,” he said sternly as if expecting them to argue. “It’s useless to worry and impossible to prepare. So just be ready.”

He stalked away from their firelit circle into the darkness. No one spoke for a few minutes after he left. Thymara sensed awkwardness; doubtless Greft was still smarting from his misspoken words about the copper dragon. His pronouncement of the obvious seemed a feeble attempt to assert his leadership over them. Even his closest followers had seemed embarrassed for him. Neither Kase nor Boxter followed him or even looked in the direction he had gone. Thymara had kept her eyes on the flames, but from the corner of her eyes, she marked how shortly after that Jerd stood up, made a show of stretching, and then likewise wandered away from their company. As she passed behind Thymara, she bid her “Good night” in a small catty voice. Thymara gritted her teeth and made no response.

“What’s bothering her lately?” Rapskal, to Thymara’s right, wondered aloud.

“She’s just like that,” Tats said in a low, sour voice.

“I’m sure I don’t know what’s bothering her. And I’m off to bed now,” Thymara replied. She wanted to get away from the firelight, lest anyone notice how embarrassed she was.

“Good night, then,” Tats muttered, a bit stiffly, as if her brusque reply was a rebuke to him.

“I’ll be along shortly,” Rapskal informed her cheerfully. She had not found a way to tell him that she didn’t really want him to sleep against her back each night. Once, when she’d gently told him that she didn’t need anyone to guard her, he’d replied cheerfully that he liked sleeping against her back.

“It’s warmer, and if danger does come, I think you’ll probably wake up faster than me. And you’ve got a bigger knife, too.” And so, to the veiled amusement of the others, he had become her constant night companion as well as her boat partner by day. In a way, she was fond of him but could not help but be annoyed by his constant presence. Ever since she had observed Greft and Jerd, she’d been troubled. She’d pondered it deeply on her own and found no satisfying answers to her questions.

Could Greft just make new rules for himself? Could Jerd? If they could, what about the rest of them? She desperately wanted to find a quiet time to talk with Tats, but Rapskal was almost always present. And when he wasn’t following her about, Sylve was trailing after Tats. She wasn’t sure that she would actually tell Tats what she had seen, but she knew she did want to talk with someone about it.

When she had first returned to camp that night, she’d actually wondered if she should go to Captain Leftrin and let him know what was going on, as captain of the vessel that supported their expedition. Yet the more she thought about it, the more reluctant she felt to go to him. It would, she decided, fall somewhere between tattling and betrayal. No. What Jerd and Greft were doing was a matter that concerned the dragon keepers, and no others. They were the ones who had always been bound by those rules. It was a rule that had been imposed on them by others, others like Captain Leftrin, ones who were marked but did not restrict their own lives because of it. Was that fair? Was it right that someone else could make a decision like that and bind her and the other keepers with it?

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