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“Sylve said that?” She was shocked.

“Well, not directly. But it’s obvious to all of us. And Greft said that even though no one could figure out why you’d chosen Rapskal, that was how it was and no one was to interfere. It made me angry at first. I didn’t think you’d ‘chosen’ him. But I was, well, I was with Jerd when he said it. So I couldn’t very well say…” He let his words trickle away, took a breath, and tried again. “And everyone respected what he said. No one tried to come between you two. But Rapskal is gone now. I hope he’ll turn up, but if he doesn’t, I wanted you to know that I was, well, waiting and hoping.”

She decided to put an end to all of it, immediately. “Tats. I like you. A lot. We’ve been friends for a long time. And I’m sure that if anyone can understand me, it’s you. But I’m not ‘choosing’ you or anyone else. Not now, and maybe not ever.”

“But…not ever? Why?”

Her annoyance blossomed. “Because. That’s why. Because it’s up to me, not Greft, not you, not anyone else. I won’t be told I have to ‘choose’ as if there is some time limit and after that, it will not be my choice anymore. I want you and Greft and everyone else to know that perhaps not choosing one of you is a possible choice for me.”

“Thymara!” he protested.

“No,” she said flatly, forbidding whatever it was he was going to say. “No. And that’s the end of it. You can tell Greft that, or he can come and talk to me and I’ll tell him.”

“Thymara, that’s not—”

Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by a distant sound. At first, Thymara thought it was a horn. She’d heard that Carson was going to look for other survivors, but wasn’t sure if he’d left already or was going to go in the morning. Then she heard the sound again and realized it was not a horn but a dragon calling.

From the mucky shallows, first Mercor and then Fente replied. Kalo chimed in with his bull’s roar, and Sestican echoed him.

“Who is it?” Tats demanded of the darkness.

Thymara’s heart leaped in sudden hope. She strained her ears, listening to the distant dragon’s response. Then she shook her head in disappointment. “Not Heeby. Heeby is shriller than that.”

Arbuc suddenly trumpeted, a clear and long call. Silver-green, he moved out of the shallows and into the current. The moonlight touched him, and he seemed to gleam with joy. He swam steadily down the current, toward the unseen dragon. When he lifted his voice again, his thoughts rode loud on it. “Alum! Alum, I come for you!”

Tats and Thymara leaned on the railing, craning and trying to force their eyes to see farther into the blackness. The other keepers were joining them, and she heard Captain Leftrin’s bellow, “Who is it? Has anyone sighted it yet?”

“It’s the silver!” someone on the stern yelled suddenly. “It’s the little silver dragon! And Alum is with him! They’re both alive.”

“Silver! You’re alive!” There was no mistaking the joy in Sylve’s shout of greeting to the dragon. He turned his head toward her and, for a moment, looked almost intelligent.

“I’m so glad!” Tats exclaimed, and Thymara nodded silently. She watched the homecoming, sick with envy. Alum tried to embrace his dragon, but Arbuc had grown too large. He transferred from the little silver’s back to Arbuc’s broad one and then leaned forward against his dragon as if by pressing his heart against him, he might become one with him.

What was wrong with her? Why didn’t she have that sort of a bond with Sintara? Or with anyone? She glanced at Tats surreptitiously. He leaned far out on the railing, grinning. Why didn’t she announce she’d chosen him? Why couldn’t she be like Jerd and charge into things? Jerd had obviously sampled a number of males. Now Greft had proclaimed she was his, and she didn’t seem displeased with that. Would it be so hard? To just take what was offered, without making a commitment?

The silver, obviously pleased with himself, lashed river water to a froth with his tail and then, spreading his wings, “flew” in a series of splashes to join the other dragons in the shallows. The other keepers crowded the aft railings, laughing and shouting and pointing. She began to drift in that direction.

Without warning, Tats took her hand again. He tugged at her until she turned back to face him. “Don’t be so sad. Rapskal and Heeby might still be alive. We won’t give up hope just yet.”

She looked up at him. He wasn’t that much taller than she was, but the expedition had changed him. He’d muscled out, his shoulders and chest built up by the paddling in a way that was very different from the muscles of a tree-climbing gatherer. She rather liked it. Her eyes moved over his face. The small tattoo of a horse, legacy of the slavery of his infancy, was only an unevenness against his windburned skin in the fading light. The spiderweb was nearly gone. This close to him, she could smell him, and that, too, was not unpleasant. Her eyes met his and she realized how dark they were. His smell suddenly changed, and she realized she was sucking on her own lower lip as she studied his face. She saw him take a breath and dare himself.

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