“I wasn’t about to fall. Let go.”
He didn’t. They were frozen in a tableau, looking at each other. A struggle would almost certainly mean that one or both of them would fall. The smile on his face was warm, the look in his eyes inviting.
“I’m getting angry. Let go now.”
The warmth faded from his eyes, and he granted her request. But he slid his hand down her arm before he lifted it away. She hopped past him, resisting the urge to give him a slight shove as she did so.
“I didn’t mean to make you angry,” he said. “It’s just…well, Rapskal is gone. And I know you’re alone now. So am I.”
“I’ve always been alone,” she told him furiously and then strode off along the branch. She wasn’t fleeing, she reminded herself, only leaving him behind. When she reached the next trunk, she went up it more quickly than a lizard and refused to look back to see if he was watching her climb. Instead, she concentrated on climbing higher, heading for the upper reaches of the canopy where more sunlight increased the chances of finding fruit.
Fortune favored her. She found a bread leaf vine parasitizing a handprint tree. The fat yellow leaves didn’t offer much flavor, but they were filling and crisp with moisture as well. For a time, she perched and ate her fill, then tore several trailing strings of leaves from it. She wound the vines into a loose wreath and put them around her neck hanging down her back.
She started back down and on the way saw a sour pear tree only a few trunks away. She crossed to it. The fruit was past its prime and slightly wrinkly, but she doubted her friends would be fussy. With no other way to carry it, she filled the front of her shirt and then went more slowly, trying to avoid crushing the food she carried. When she reached the tree by the river’s edge and climbed down to the flotsam raft, she was surprised to find that many of the keepers were still sleeping. Tats was awake; he and Greft were trying to kindle a small fire at the root end of one of the big snags. A thin tendril of smoke wound up into the morning air. As she approached, she saw Sylve and Harrikin crouched at the edge of the packed driftwood. She watched as Sylve reached out with a long stick and then dragged something closer. It wasn’t until she was near that she realized they were pulling dead fish from the river. Harrikin was cleaning them, sticking a claw in each belly, slitting it open, and scooping out the guts before adding it to the row of fish beside him.
“Where are the dragons?” she called anxiously to them.
Sylve turned to her and gave her a weary smile. “There you are! I thought I’d dreamed you telling me you were going hunting, but then you were gone when I woke all the way. The acid run killed a lot of fish and other creatures. The dragons have moved upriver. They’ve discovered an eddy full of carrion and are eating their fill. I’m glad there’s something for them. They’re tired from treading water and so much swimming, but at least they won’t be hungry after this. Even Mercor was beginning to be bad-tempered, and I was afraid a couple of the bigger males were going to fight this morning.”
“Did Sintara go with them?”
“They all went, each more jealous than the next, to be sure of getting a fair share. What did you bring?”
“Bread leaf and sour pear. My shirt is full of sour pear. I couldn’t think of any other way to carry them.”
Sylve laughed. “We’ll be glad to have them, no matter how you got them here. Greft and Tats are trying to get enough of a fire going that we can cook the fish. If it doesn’t work, I suppose raw will have to do.”
“Better than nothing, certainly.”
Harrikin had been quiet through their conversation. He was never much of a talker. The first time she had seen him, he had reminded her of a lizard. He was long and slender, and much older than Sylve, but she seemed very comfortable with him. Thymara had not realized that he, too, had claws, until she watched him using them. He looked up from his task, caught her eyes on his hands, and nodded an acknowledgment to her.
A little silence fell over the group. Unanswered questions were answered by it. No one spoke of Rapskal, and in the distance, she heard Alum’s dragon give a long, anxious cry. Arbuc still called for his missing keeper. Warken’s red dragon, Baliper, held his mourning silence. The remaining keepers were still marooned on a raft of floating debris. Nothing had changed. Thymara wondered in passing what would become of them if their dragons abandoned them here. Would they? Did the dragons need them any longer? What if they decided to travel on without them?
She looked up to see Tats coming toward them and wondered if she looked as bad as he did. His skin was scalded red from the river water, and his hair stuck up in tufts. The water had attacked his clothing as well, mottling the already-worn shirt and trousers. He looked haggard, but he still managed to put on a smile for her. “What are you wearing?” he asked her.