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“It’s no bother.”

Again the man waited, as if there was something he expected Sedric to say. He was at a loss. He looked down at his “food” again. “I’m fine, then. Thank you.”

And still the man lingered, but now Sedric refused to look up from his bowl. He ate steadily in small bites, trying to seem as if it demanded all his attention. The hunter’s attention flustered him. When he rose from his seat across the table, Sedric repressed a sigh of relief. As Carson passed behind Sedric, he put a heavy hand on his shoulder and leaned down to speak right next to his ear. “We should talk some time,” he said quietly. “I suspect we have far more in common than you know. Perhaps we should trust each other.”

He knows. The thought sliced through Sedric’s aplomb and he nearly choked on his mouthful of sodden bread. “Perhaps,” he managed to say and felt the grip on his shoulder tighten briefly. The hunter chuckled as he lifted his hand and left the deckhouse. As the door shut firmly behind him, Sedric pushed the bowl away and cradled his head on his arms. Now what? He asked the enclosed darkness. Now what?

THE BROWN DRAGON looked dead. Thymara longed to go closer and have a better look at her, but the golden dragon standing over her intimidated her. Mercor had scarcely moved since the last time she had walked past them. His gleaming black eyes fixed on her now. He did not speak, but she felt the mental push he gave her. “I’m only worried about her,” she said aloud. Sylve had been dozing, leaned back against her dragon’s front leg. She opened her eyes at the sound of Thymara’s voice. She gave Mercor an apologetic glance and then came over to Thymara.

“He’s suspicious,” she said. “He thinks someone hurt the brown dragon on purpose. So he’s standing watch to protect her.”

“To protect her, or to be first to eat her when she dies?” Thymara managed to keep all accusation out of her voice.

Sylve did not take offense. “To protect her. He has seen too many of the dragons die since they came out of their cocoons. There are so few females that even one who is stunted and dull-witted must be protected.” She laughed in an odd way and added, “Rather like us.”

“What?”

“Like us keepers. Only four of us are females and all the rest males. Mercor says that no matter how deformed we are, the males must protect us.”

The statement left Thymara speechless. Without thinking, she lifted her hand to her face, touching the scales that traced her jawline and cheekbones. She considered the ramifications of it and then said bluntly, “We can’t marry or mate, Sylve. We all know the rules, even if Mercor does not. The Rain Wilds marked most of us from the day we were born, and we all know what it means. A shorter life span. If we do conceive, most of our children aren’t viable. By custom, most of us should have been exposed at birth. We all know why we were chosen for this expedition, and it wasn’t just so we could care for the dragons. It was to get rid of us as well.”

Sylve stared at her for a long moment. Then she said quietly, “What you say is true, or used to be true for us. But Greft says we can change the rules. He says that when we get to Kelsingra, it will become our city where we will live with our dragons. And we will make our own rules. About everything.”

Thymara was appalled at the girl’s gullibility. “Sylve, we don’t even know if Kelsingra still exists. It’s probably buried in the mud like the other Elderling cities. I never really believed we’d get to Kelsingra. I think the best we can really hope for is to find a place suitable for the dragons to live.”

“And then what?” Sylve demanded. “We leave them there and go back home, back to Trehaug? And do what? Go back to living in shadows and shame, apologizing for existing? I won’t do it, Thymara. A lot of the keepers have said they won’t do it. Wherever our dragons settle, that’s where we’re staying, too. So there will be a new place for us. And new rules.”

A loud snapping sound distracted Thymara. She and Sylve both turned to see Mercor stretching. He had lifted his golden wings and extended them to their full length. Thymara was surprised to see not only the size of them but that they were marked with eyes like a peacock’s feathers. As she watched, he flapped them again, sharply, gusting wind and the scent of dragon at her. She watched him refold them awkwardly, as if moving them were an unfamiliar task. He snugged them firmly to his back again and resumed his watchful stance over the brown dragon.

Thymara was suddenly aware that a communication had passed between Mercor and Sylve. The dragon had not made a sound, but Thymara had sensed something even if she was not a party to it. Sylve gave her an apologetic look and asked, “Are you going hunting today?”

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