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“I won’t be pushed,” she said aloud to the night. “If they fight one another, that’s their problem, not mine. If any one of them thinks that somehow they can claim me that way, he’s going to find out he’s wrong.”

She had not been aware of Sintara on the edge of her thoughts until the dragon responded sleepily, Now you are thinking like a queen. There may be hope for you yet.

Day the 21st of the Prayer Moon

Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

To Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

Enclosed, from the Rain Wild Traders’ Council at Cassarick and from the Rain Wild Traders’ Council at Trehaug, a list of those confirmed dead from the calamitous quake, flood, and collapses in the excavation cities, said scroll to be posted in the Traders’ Concourse at Bingtown and to become part of the Traders’ Records there.

Erek,

This is a substantial list. When you receive it, please take time to sit down with my nephew Reyall and tell him gently that there have been losses in our family. Two of his cousins were working in the excavation at the time of the flood. No trace of either has been found. These lads were his playmates as he was growing up. This news may be hard for him, and the family wishes that you may give him time to make a visit home and mourn with us. I know it is hard to spare your apprentice, but if you can comply with this request, you will have my everlasting gratitude.

Detozi

CHAPTER EIGHT

HORNS

The dragons woke her. Alise had heard nothing before their trumpeting calls jerked her from her slumbers. All around her in the crowded shelter, keepers were rolling to their knees. The raft shifted, and a wave of vertigo washed over her. She clenched her teeth. She missed her nights on the Tarman, when the barge was beached and the world was still beneath her. And she missed Leftrin, more than she dared think about.

The dragons trumpeted again, not in unison, but in a ragged response to a sound she hadn’t heard. She heard Sintara’s clear clarion call, and Mercor’s bull bellow. Fente’s note was a drawn-out shriek, while Nortel’s lavender dragon made a sound like a bow thrumming. “What is it?” she asked, but only heard her question echoed in half a dozen voices. A jam of bodies trying to exit the shelter plunged her back into dimness and tipped the crude raft. She waited where she was, looking up at the blue sky through the crude roof woven of leafy branches and wondering if some new disaster was about to befall them all.

By the time she could join the others outside, all the dragons were roused. Among their excited trumpeting, in a small gap of quiet, she heard both the winding of a long horn call and the cry of another dragon. “Veras! It’s Veras!” Jerd shrieked. She went scuttling over the packed logs, heading for the unstable edge of the floating debris pack, and Greft went scrambling after her. He caught her by the shoulders and held her back from falling in as Veras approached. In her wake, periodically blowing three short blasts on a horn, was one of the hunters from the Tarman. Alise’s heart leaped and then sank at the sight of him. It was Carson, Leftrin’s friend. But he was not Leftrin, and the barge was nowhere in sight.

A hail of questions peppered them both as they drew nearer. Carson didn’t even attempt to reply. He abandoned blowing his horn and applied his efforts to his paddle to swiftly approach the shore. By the time he could toss a line to one of the awaiting keepers, Veras had already thrust her way into the packed debris and was allowing a weeping Jerd to stroke her face. Alise crowded forward with the keepers to hear what tidings he might bring.

“Are you all here and safe?” was his first question, and when Greft shook his head, the hunter’s face fell into lines of disappointment.

“The Tarman and Captain Leftrin are just around the last bend. They should be showing any minute now. As soon as he’s here, he’ll take you on board and get a hot meal into you. Not much we can do for the dragons just yet, but the river’s been dropping fast since dawn. I hope that by this evening, there will be some shallows where they can at least stand and take some rest.”

Lecter had caught the rope and secured the small boat to their raft as Carson spoke. Now the hunter clambered nimbly from the boat to the raft and looked around at the gathered people, grinning. As he scanned the waiting faces, hope slowly died. “Who’s missing?” he asked.

“Who’s on board the Tarman?” Greft countered.

Carson looked annoyed with him but answered, “Captain Leftrin and the full crew came through just fine. Big Eider banged up his ribs some, but nothing’s broken so far as we can tell. My boy Davvie’s on board, too. We lost our other hunter, unless Jess is here with you. And what about Sedric? Is he here?”

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