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“I need to talk to you.”

Thymara startled and then felt angry she had done so. Greft had ghosted up behind her; she hadn’t even felt the raft rock as he approached her. It hadn’t been an accident that she’d been unaware of him; he’d wanted to surprise her. She glanced up at him, keeping her face expressionless, and asked, “Do you?”

“Yes. For the good of us all, I need some answers from you. We all do.” He hunkered down beside her, closer than she wanted him to be. “I’ll put it simply. Is it to be Tats?”

“Is what to be Tats?” The question irritated her and she let him hear it in her voice. If he wanted to be mysterious and officious, then she could be obtuse.

His scaled face, always a study in flat planes, hardened. His lips were so narrow, it was hard to tell if he clenched his jaw or not. She suspected so. He crouched down beside her and spoke in a low growl. “Look. No one understood why you chose Rapskal, but I told them all that it didn’t matter. You’d made your choice and we had to respect that. A few wanted to challenge him. I forbade it. You should appreciate that. I respected your first choice and kept the peace for you.

“But Rapskal is gone now. And for all our sakes, the sooner the matter is settled, the better it is for all of us. So choose and make it clear.”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to say. But I think I prefer not to know. This is my watch and I’m doing my task. Go away.” She spoke flatly, torn between anger and fear. Greft seemed somehow inevitable tonight, a force she must deal with, and a force she seemed unlikely to defeat. His words were either mysterious, or made a horrible sense. She didn’t want to know which.

But he wouldn’t spare her ignorance. “Don’t pretend,” he said harshly. “You aren’t good at it. You heard me warn Nortel earlier today. If you’ve chosen Tats, well, then, you’ve chosen him. Make that choice plain to the others and there won’t be any problems. I’ll see to that. Tats isn’t what I would have picked for you, but even in a time and place of new rules, I respect some of our oldest traditions. I was largely raised by my mother, and she kept the old rules, the rules from when the Rain Wilds were first settled. Back then the Traders agreed that a woman could stand on an equal footing with her husband and make her own choices. That I am alive today is due to my mother’s choice. She kept me, and she demanded that others respect her right to do so. And so I see the wisdom of letting women have a say in their lives, and I’m willing to respect it. And to demand that others respect it also.”

“And who made you the king?” she demanded. She was afraid now. Had she been blind to this, as well? Did the others accept him as leader, and beyond leader, as someone to set the rules and dictate their lives to them?

“I put myself in charge when it became plain to me that no one else was equal to the task. Someone has to make the decisions, Thymara. We can’t all blithely go our own ways, letting things fall out as they may. Not if we hope to survive.” He annoyed her by picking up wood and putting it on her fire. It caught almost immediately. She retaliated by poking it off the fire into the river, where it hissed and then bobbed next to the fire raft. He got her message.

“Fine. You can defy me. Well, you can try. But life and fate are what you can’t defy. Fate has given us a bad balance here. Even with three males out of the picture, the ratio of keepers is still badly skewed. Do you want men to fight over you? Do you want to see our fellows injure one another, create lifelong vendettas with one another, so that you can feel valuable?” He turned his head and looked at her, his eyes dark and unreadable in the night. “Or are you waiting to be raped? Does that sort of thing excite you?”

“I don’t want that! That’s despicable!”

“Then you need to choose who you will accept as a partner. Now. Before all the males start competing for you. We are a small company. We can’t afford to have boys hurting one another over you. Nor can we allow anyone to force you. Where that would lead, I can imagine only too well. Choose a mate and have it be over.”

“Jerd didn’t choose. She mated where she wanted.” She flung it at him as the only weapon she could find. “Or didn’t you know that?”

“I know that all too well!” he snarled back. “Why do you think I had to step in and take charge of her? She was being foolish, setting the men against one another. A black eye here, a bruised face there. It was starting to escalate. So I took her and made her mine, to keep the others from quarreling. She wasn’t my first choice, if you want to hear me say that. I don’t think she’s as intelligent as you are. Nor as competent to survive. I let you know of my interest from the very beginning, but you preferred Rapskal the no-wit to me. I forced myself to accept that decision, even though I thought it was a poor one. Well, he’s gone now. And I’m with Jerd, for better or worse, at least until the child is born. Because that is the only way I could force the others to stop striving to win her regard. I can’t very well claim you as well. So before the rivalry and competition for your attention become violent, you’d best make a choice and stick to it.”

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