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She acted before he could take the decision from her. She leaned in, turning her head slightly and putting her mouth on his. Was this how it was done? She had never kissed anyone on the mouth. Awkwardness and worry assaulted her. Tats’s arms suddenly moved up and around her, pulling her body against his. His lips moved on hers. He knows how to do this, she thought, and knew an instant of fury at where he’d learned it. Well, she wasn’t Jerd and whether she kissed the right way or not, he’d soon discover that she did things her own way. She shook her head slowly, moving her lips back and forth against his. Scale on softness, she thought, and briefly lost herself in that sensation. His hands wandered up her back and their touch on the tender area between her shoulder blades made her twitch with pain.

“What is that?” he demanded.

Embarrassment flooded her. “It’s nothing. I got cut in the river. It’s sore.”

“Oh. Sorry. It feels really swollen.”

“It’s sensitive.”

“I’ll be careful.”

He bent his head to kiss her again. She let him. Then, from somewhere else on the boat, she heard someone’s voice raised in a question. Someone replied. They weren’t alone here. Not really.

She pulled her mouth from his and bowed her head. He folded her in close to him and kissed the top of her head greedily. She felt his warm breath, and it sent a shiver down through her. He laughed softly at that. “Is this my answer?” he asked her, his voice deeper than she’d ever heard it.

“To what question?” she asked, sincerely puzzled.

“Are you choosing me?”

Almost, she wanted to lie to him. She didn’t. “I’m choosing to be free, Tats. To not have to choose, not now, not ever if I don’t want to.”

“Then, then what does this mean?” He hadn’t released her, but there was a stiffness to his embrace that hadn’t been there before.

“It means that I wanted to kiss you.”

“And that’s all?” He leaned back from her, and she looked up at his face.

“For now,” she admitted. “That’s all.”

She was meeting his gaze now. A trick of the light moved stars in his dark eyes. He nodded at her slowly.

“That’s enough. For now.”

Day the 22nd 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

In a sealed message cylinder, specific to his family and sealed with wax imprinted with his seal, a confidential message from Trader Sworkin to Trader Kellerby.


I am both saddened by the news that your father has been ill and relieved to know that you were not on our river when the world went mad. I wish to assure you of our family’s hospitality should you have the opportunity to come for a visit with us. If the other bird keepers could take charge of your flock and responsibilities for a time, perhaps you could accompany Reyall when he returns home to visit, if indeed that visit is possible. I would greatly enjoy finally meeting you after all these years of exchanged notes.





“No. Go away. Let me sleep.”


“I just want to sleep.”


“What?” He projected all his annoyance into the word. It hurt. He lifted his hand to his jaw, then gingerly explored the whole side of his face. It hurt. Of all the bruises that Jess had given him, this one hurt the worst. One of his eyes still wouldn’t open all the way.

“I’m hungry.” Her actual voice was a rumbling, gargling sort of sound. The meaning of it rode into his mind as a thought. No time to worry about his own pain. She pushed his own physical state aside with concerns about her own. She was hungry.

“Well, I don’t have any more hunters to feed you.”


“Never mind. I’m getting up. I’ll see what I can do for you.”

He was still trying to forget yesterday’s events and their bloody culmination.

The second time Relpda had surfaced, Jess’s lower half had been in her jaws. She’d treated Sedric to one more shocking glimpse of the sheared torso, then merrily tossed the remains into the air, caught them so that they aligned with her throat, and with a couple of jerking motions, swallowed the hunter’s hips and legs.

He’d turned his head away, retching hopelessly. When he heard a splash and felt the raft rock, he’d guessed it was safe to look back. She’d vanished under the water again. He’d taken a shuddering breath and curled forward over his belly. That left him looking at the pool of mingled blood and river water in the bottom of the boat. He’d scrabbled out of it and perched on the log beside it, trying to think what he must do next.

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