Plans for the next day had been set. The keepers, dragons, and the barge would remain where they were for the next two days while Carson traveled a full day down the river and back up again, looking for survivors or bodies. Davvie had wanted to go with him and been refused. “I can’t load the boat up with passengers here, lad. I need room to ferry back anyone I find.”
Kase had offered to accompany him in one of the other boats, but with the makeshift paddles they had, Carson had said he would only slow him down. “Use the time while I’m gone to see what you can do about carving out some decent paddles. Davvie and I have some extra spear-and arrowheads. Jess had a good stock of hunting equipment in his chest on board, but don’t raid that just yet. I’ve still got hopes that we’ll find him alive. He’s a pretty savvy riverman. It would take more than a big wave to do him in, I’ll wager.”
Everything had been decided, and some of the keepers were already settling for the night when the dragons had waded out to surround the barge and Baliper had made his outrageous demand.
Now Mercor spoke. “You are free to eat or not eat whatever you desire. As are we. We do devour our dead. It is Baliper’s right to feed on the body of his keeper. Warken should be given to him before his meat rots any more.” The dragon turned his head to look at his own keeper. “Are my words not clear? What is the delay?”
“Mercor, mirror of both the sun and the moon, what you ask is against our custom.” Sylve seemed calm, but her voice trembled a bit. Thymara suspected that she did not often defy her dragon.
The great dragon spun his eyes at her. “I am not asking. To reach Warken’s body, Baliper may have to damage your boat. This, we think, would distress all of you. So, to aid you, we suggest you put his body over the side.”
“It’s what we’d have to do soon in any case,” Captain Leftrin pointed out in a low voice. “We’ve nowhere to bury him. So, the river will have him in any case, and moments after he’s in the river, the dragons will have him. It’s what they do, my friends.”
If he was seeking to console them, Thymara thought, he was doing it in an odd way. There was not a one of them who could look at Warken’s draped form and not imagine herself or himself lying there.
Sintara picked up the image from Thymara’s mind and agilely turned it against her. “If you died tomorrow, which would you wish? To rot in the river, eaten by fishes? Or be devoured by me, and your memories live on in me?”
“I’d be dead and thus I wouldn’t care either way,” Thymara replied brusquely. She felt the dragon was using her against the rest of the keepers and was not entirely comfortable with that.
“Exactly my point,” Sintara purred. “Warken is dead. He no longer cares about anything. Baliper does. Give him to Baliper.”
Harrikin suddenly spoke up. “I wouldn’t want to just sink down in the muck of the river bottom. I’d give myself to Ranculos. I want everyone here to know that now. If something does befall me, give my body to my dragon.”
“Same for me,” Kase said, and predictably Boxter echoed him with a, “Same.”
“And I,” Sylve chimed. “I am Mercor’s, in life or death.”
“Of course,” Jerd conceded, and Greft added, “For me, also.”
The assents rounded the circle of gathered keepers. When it came back to her, Thymara bit her lip and held her silence. Sintara reared up out of the water, standing briefly on her hind legs to look down on her. “What?” she demanded of the girl.
Thymara looked up at her. “I belong to myself,” she said quietly. “To get, you must give, Sintara.”
“I saved you from the river!” The dragon’s outraged trumpeting split the darkening sky.
“And I have served you from the day I met you,” Thymara replied. “But I do not feel that our bond is complete. So I will hold my thoughts until such time as a decision must be made. And then I will leave it up to my fellow keepers.”
“Insolent human! Do you think that you—”
“Another time.” Mercor cut into their quarrel. “Render to Baliper what is his.”
“Warken wouldn’t have had a problem with it,” Lecter said decidedly. He straightened from where he’d been leaning on the railing. “I’ll do it.”
“I’ll help,” Tats said quietly.
“Keepers’ decision,” Leftrin announced, as if they had waited for his permission. “Swarge will show you how to use a plank to slide his body over the side. If you want words said, I’ll say them.”