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“I know.”

“But my guess is that there’s a lot she doesn’t know, and another reason that you’re unhappy. Am I right?”

Sedric couldn’t quite get his breath. “I don’t think that’s any of your concern.”

Carson risked a glance over his shoulder. “Maybe not. But I’ve known Leftrin a long, long time. Never seen him gone on a woman like he is on Alise. And she looks pretty gone to me, too. Seems to me that if her husband has been able to find a bit of joy in his life, maybe she deserves the same. And maybe Leftrin does, too. They might find that, if she felt free to look for it.”

He lifted the catch and began to ease the door open. Sedric found his voice. “Are you going to tell her?”

The big man didn’t reply at first. He remained with the door ajar, staring out. Evening was deepening toward night. Finally he shook his bushy head. “No,” he said with a sigh. “It’s not my place. But I think you should.” He moved like a large cat as he slipped out of the door and shut it firmly behind him, leaving Sedric alone with his thoughts.

THEY HAD TRAVELED longer than usual that day, through a misty, dirty rain that made her skin gritty and itchy. For the latter half of the day, the banks of the river had been unwelcoming, thick with a prickly vine. The upper reaches of the dangling lianas, held up to the sunlight by the stretching tree branches, had been thick with scarlet fruit. The incessant rain jeweled the leaves and fruit and freckled the river’s face. Harrikin had pulled his boat in to shore to try to harvest some of the fruit but had got only scratches and mud for his efforts. Thymara hadn’t even attempted it. She knew from experience that the only way to win that fruit was to come at it from above, climbing down to it. Even then, it was a scratchy, precarious business. She decided that the time it would take her to find a pathway to the tops of the trees would put her and Rapskal far behind the other boats. “Perhaps tonight, when we stop,” she suggested to him in response to his longing glances at the dangling orbs.

But as the light faded from the sky and the shores continued to be inhospitable, she resigned herself to a night aboard the Tarman, with hard bread and a bit of salt fish as her only guaranteed meal. The dragons with their scaled skin could push close to the base of the trees and spend a drier but uncomfortable night if they must. She and the other keepers did not have that option. Her latest experience had proven that to her. The scaling on her skin might be increasing, but it was not the mail the dragons wore. Mercor’s teeth had left their marks despite his efforts to be gentle. It had been embarrassing to have Sylve see how scaled she had become as the girl helped her dress the scratches his fangs had left on her and the large scrape on her left arm. Most of her injuries had been superficial, but one score at the top of her back was still sore and hot to the touch. It ached and she longed to pull her boat in to shore and rest for the night. But the dragons plainly hoped to find a better landing, for they continued their migration, and the keepers had no choice but to follow.

The dragons were darker silhouettes against the gleaming water when she and Rapskal caught up with them that night. They were scattered on a long broad wash of silty mud that curved out into the river. The sandbar was a relatively young one, bereft of trees. A few bushes and scrolls of grass banks grew down its spine. It offered a plentiful supply of firewood in the form of an immense beached log and a tangle of lesser driftwood banked against it. It would do.

A hard push with her paddle drove the nose of her boat onto the muddy shore. Rapskal shipped his paddle and jumped out to seize the painter and drag the boat farther ashore. With a groan, Thymara stored her own paddle and unfolded herself stiffly. The constant paddling had strengthened her and built her endurance, but she was still weary and aching at the end of each day.

Rapskal seemed almost unscathed by the extralong exertion. “Time to get a fire going,” he announced cheerily. “And dry off. I hope the hunters got some meat. I’m awful sick of fish.”

“Meat would be good,” she agreed. “And a good fire.” All around her, the other keepers were pulling their boats ashore and climbing wearily out.

“Let’s hope,” he replied, and without a backward glance he scampered off into the darkness.

She sighed as she watched him go. His unfailing optimism and energy wearied her almost as much as they cheered her. With a sigh of annoyance, she busied herself with tidying Rapskal’s scattered gear from the bottom of the boat. She arranged her own pack so that her blanket and eating gear were on top and then followed him. A fire was being constructed in the lee of the big log. The log would provide fuel as well as trap and reflect the heat. Small flames were already starting to blossom. Rapskal excelled at setting fires and never seemed to tire of it. His fire-starting kit was always in a small pouch at his throat. The endless misting rain sizzled as it met the reaching flames.

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