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Probably another night here. The dragons can use a bit more rest, and there is still dead fish for them to feed on. If they are going to take rest, they may as well have it while there is food. Even if it is rank food.

“Will they sicken on it?”

Dragons are not such a feeble race as humans. Carrion displeases the palate and eating too much of it can bring on a bellyache. But dragons can eat what they must, and when dead fish is all that is to be had, then they will eat it. And go on.

“As shall we, then,” Leftrin affirmed.

As was agreed, the barge reminded him.

“As was agreed,” the captain concurred. For he had not been quite honest with Alise in that small matter. The fact was that even before he had docked in Cassarick, he had known that he and Tarman would be escorting the dragons up the river. It was why he had been able to load so swiftly and depart. The fact that it dovetailed so completely with Alise’s plans had seemed like fate to him, as if he were predestined to enjoy her company. It had been a wonder and a pleasure to see her shine at that meeting.

She’s not asleep. She’s in the sneaking whiner’s chamber.

“I think I might just go check on that. See if she’s having trouble sleeping.”

Think you might have the cure for such wakefulness? the ship asked him in amusement.

“Perhaps some quiet talk with a friend,” Leftrin returned with what dignity he could muster.

Didn’t know you’d already introduced her to your “friend.” You go along. I’ll keep watch here.

“Watch your words!” Leftrin rebuked his ship, but felt only Tarman’s amusement in response. “You’re chatty tonight.” He made the comment not just to divert the ship’s attention but because he had seldom experienced such clarity of thought from Tarman. It was much more common for him to have an unusual dream, or to sense emotions through his connection to the ship. Direct conversation with Tarman was highly unusual and he wondered at it.

Sometimes, the ship agreed. Sometimes, when the river is right and the dragons are close by, it all seems easier and clearer. There was a time of stillness and then Tarman added, Sometimes you are more willing to hear me. When our thoughts align. When we agree on what we want. We both know what you want right now.

He lifted his hands from the railing and went in search of Alise. Despite his attempt at rebuking the barge, a small smile crept across his face. Tarman knew him far too well.

He stood for a time on the dark deck outside Sedric’s door. Tarman was right. A very faint glow was visible at the crack at the bottom of the door. He tapped lightly and waited. For a time, all was silence. Then he heard the scuff of feet on the deck and the door opened a crack. Alise peered out, limned against a faint candle glow.

“Oh!” She sounded surprised.

“I saw the light coming out from under the door. Thought I’d best check on who was in here.”

“It’s only me.” She sounded disheartened.

“I see that. May I come in?”

“I’m…I’m in my nightrobe. I came here from my cabin when I couldn’t sleep.”

He could see that also. Her nightrobe was long and white and rather plain, the simple lines of it interrupted only by the complex curves of the woman inside it. Her red hair had been brushed and plaited into two long braids. It took years away from her face. Her little bare feet peeped out the bottom of the robe. If she’d had any idea of how desirable it made her look, she’d never have dared open the door to anyone!

But her eyes and the end of her nose were reddened from crying. And it was that more than anything else that made him step into the room, close the door firmly behind him, and take her into his arms. She stiffened slightly but did not resist him, even when he pulled her close and kissed the top of her hair. How could she smell like flowers still? He closed his eyes as he embraced her and heaved a heavy sigh. “You mustn’t cry,” he told her. “We haven’t given up hope yet. You mustn’t cry and you mustn’t torment yourself like this. It doesn’t do a bit of good for anyone.”

He refused to think anymore. He stooped and kissed her left eye. She gasped.

When he kissed her other eye, her arms rose and linked tight around his neck. He put his mouth on hers, and her lips opened so softly and easily to his that his heart shook. She was trembling, pressed hard against him. He held the kiss, feeling and tasting the warmth of her mouth. He straightened up and still she clung to him, not letting him break the kiss. He lifted her easily and she hooked her knees over his hips with no pretense of keeping her legs together.

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