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Fish would be nice. Meat would be better. The sleepy thought from the dragon confirmed her impulse.

“Fish,” Thymara replied firmly, speaking aloud as she shared her thoughts with the dragon. “Unless I happen to encounter small game at the river’s edge. But I’m not going into the forest at the beginning of the day. I don’t want to be late when everyone else wakes up and is ready for travel.”

Are you sure that you don’t fear what you might see back there? The dragon’s question had a small barb to it.

“I don’t fear it. I just don’t want to see it,” Thymara retorted. She tried, with limited success, to close her mind to the dragon’s touch. She could refuse to hear Sintara’s words, but not evade her presence.

Thymara had had time to think of Sintara’s role in her discovery. She was sure that the dragon had deliberately sent her after Greft and Jerd, that she had been aware of what they were doing, and had used every means at her disposal to be sure that Thymara witnessed it. It still stung when she thought of how Sintara had used her glamour to compel her to follow Greft’s trail into the forest.

What she didn’t know was why the dragon had sent her after them, and she hadn’t asked directly. She’d already learned that the fastest way to make Sintara lie to her was to ask her a direct question. She’d learn more by waiting and listening. Not so different from dealing with my mother, she thought, and smiled grimly to herself.

She pushed the thought out of her mind and immersed herself in her hunting. She could find peace in this hour. Few of the other keepers roused so early. The dragons might stir but were not active, preferring to let the sun grow strong and warm them before they exerted themselves. She had the riverbank to herself as she quietly stalked the water’s edge, spear poised. She forgot everything else but herself and her prey as the world balanced perfectly around her. The sky was a blue stripe above the river’s wide channel. Along the river’s edge, knee-high reeds shivered in water that was almost clear. The smooth mudbank of the river had recorded every creature that had come and gone in the night. While the dragon keepers had slumbered, at least two swamp elk had come down to the water’s edge and then retreated. Something with webbed feet had clambered out on the bank, eaten freshwater clams and discarded the shells, and then slid back in.

She saw a large whiskered fish come groping into the shallows. He did not seem to see her. His barbels stirred the silt, and with a snap he gobbled some small creature he had ousted. He ventured closer to where she stood, spear poised, but the instant she jabbed with her weapon, he was gone with a flick of his tail, leaving only a haze of silt floating around her spear.

“Damn the luck,” she muttered and pulled her spear back out of the silt.

“That doesn’t sound like a prayer,” Alise rebuked her gently.

Thymara tried not to be startled. She brought her spear back to the ready, glanced at the woman over her shoulder, and resumed her slow patrol of the riverbank. “I’m hunting. I missed.”

“I know. I saw.”

Thymara kept walking, her eyes on the river, hoping the Bingtown woman would take the hint and leave her alone. She didn’t hear Alise following her, but from the corner of her eye, she was aware of Alise’s shadow keeping pace with her. After holding her silence for a time, Thymara defiantly decided she wasn’t afraid of the woman. She spoke to her. “It’s early for you to be out and about.”

“I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been up since before dawn. And I confess that a deserted riverbank can be lonely after an hour or so. I was relieved to see you.”

The comment was far friendlier than she had expected. Why was the woman even speaking to her? Could she truly be that lonely? Without pausing to think she said, “But you have Sedric to keep you company. How can you be lonely?”

“He still isn’t well. And, well, he has not been as friendly to me of late. Not without cause, I’m ashamed to say.”

Thymara stared into the river, glad that the Bingtown woman could not see her expression of astonishment. Was she confiding in her? Why? What could she possibly think they had in common? Curiosity dug its claws into her and hung on until she asked, in what she hoped was a casual voice, “What cause has he to be unfriendly to you?”

Alise sighed heavily. “Well, you know he hasn’t been well. Sedric usually has excellent health, so it would be hard for him to be ill at any time. But it is especially hard for him when he is in what he regards as very uncomfortable living circumstances. His bed is narrow and hard, he doesn’t like the smell of the boat or the river, the food either bores or disgusts him, his room is dim, there is no entertainment for him. He’s miserable. And it’s my fault that he’s here. He didn’t want to come to the Rain Wilds, let alone embark on this expedition.”

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