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“Why would Jess even talk to you, let alone confide such things in you?” He heard the small doubts piling up in her mind. Detail might convince her.

“Believe it or not, he thought I might help him get close to the dragons. Because of how I go among them with you. He knew you had given me that red scale to draw. He actually stole it from my cabin while I was sick. He said it alone was worth a small fortune. He thought that if we could get a scale from a dragon, perhaps we could get more things. Enough to make us all rich.”

She stared at him through the gloom. He could hear her breathing. “Leftrin would not be a party to such a low scheme.”

“He was. I fear he is. And I fear that if you bring it up to him, he may become violent. Or find a way to get rid of both of us. Alise, I’m telling you the truth. And you have to ask yourself, if you don’t know this about him, what else do you not know?”

“I think I do know him. I think I know him better than you might suspect.”

She flung those words at him and he knew. The depth of the lurch he felt surprised him. She’d slept with the man. Slept with that smelly, ignorant riverman. Alise, the sweet little girl he had known since her childhood, the respected Bingtown lady, had gone to the bed of that man. For a moment, he was wordless with dismay. Then he knew he had to do it. Deploy his final weapon against her blind infatuation.

“Alise, you think you know him. You thought you knew me, and Hest. But we deceived you for years and you never suspected us. I’m sorry for that, truly sorry. And that’s why I’m trying to keep you from falling prey to that type of trickery again. Leftrin isn’t worthy of you, Alise. You need to stay away from him.”

In the dim light of the galley, he could see the motion of her shoulders as they rose and fell. She was fighting back sobs. She caught her breath. Her voice went shrill with the tightness of her throat. “Did I say I didn’t hate you, Sedric? I think I was mistaken.”

“Hate me, then,” he replied. “I probably deserve it. I’ll accept it as the price I pay, as what I owe you for how I deceived you for years. But don’t waste yourself on that lout, Alise. You deserve better.”

She made no reply to that, only shut the door firmly behind her as she left.

He sat a long time, alone in the dark. It was a reflex to lift the mug and finish off the last mouthful of cold, bitter coffee. He stood to leave and then looked back at the dishes on the table. He should tidy up after himself, stop being the spoiled Bingtown do-nothing he was accused of being. Tomorrow, maybe. Not tonight. His scene with Alise had exhausted him. The bleakness of his spirits weighed him down with a weariness that had nothing to do with sleepiness or tiredness. He just wished he could make everything stop, just for a while. He sighed and scratched his cheek. Tomorrow, there would be more wash water on board. He’d be able to heat some and shave. He’d never worn a beard before, never realized how itchy it could be. He scratched again, more vigorously.

Hair came off under his nails. When he shook his hand, the falling hairs glinted briefly in the moonlight from the window before falling. What was this? He’d never lost hair before! He scratched his head, pulled his hand free, and found a number of long strands dangling from his nails.

Stress and worry, he told himself. The effects of the acidic river water. That was all. He scratched more slowly along his jawline. His fingernail caught under something, lifted it. No. He moved his finger carefully, found the edge of the next scale. He caught the edge of it, lifted until it pulled painfully against his skin. Not a fleck of dirt, not dry skin. A scale growing on his face. A line of scales on his jaw. He felt dizzy and sick.

He walked his fingers up the nape of his neck, feeling the thin line of scales that followed his spine there. They were fine and flat now, like the scales on a trout. There were little scales growing on his scalp, loosening his hair as the scales replaced the hair. He felt his chapped lips with his fingertips. Not there yet. His breath came faster. But soon there would be, and the scales on his jaw and brows and on the nape of his neck would grow thick and curved and horny as a hoof.

You are unhappy?

He slammed his thoughts shut and ignored the floating sense of confusion that followed his exclusion of Relpda. His heart was thudding in his ears. Could this be real? It was an awful dream. He dared himself, then scratched his head violently with both hands. When he lowered them, strands of hair clotted his fingers. He shook them free and then hastily left the galley, letting the door bang shut behind him.

He started to head for his room, but halted halfway there. What was he going to do? Go inside his glorified packing crate, curl up on his pallet of rags, and whimper to himself? Hadn’t he done enough of that lately? Hadn’t he learned it did nothing?

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