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The bow of the ship was nosed up on the stream’s delta of sand. It overlooked the bonfire and the dragons and the keepers eating and talking together. He turned the other way, toward the stern and walked aft. Here he had a view of the glinting river as it flowed swiftly past the ship. Overhead, the moon was nearly full in a field of twinkling stars. He could look out and see no sign of humanity at all. The sounds of the keepers living their lives came from behind him to reach his ears. They were merry tonight. Plenty of fresh water and baked fish. All was well in their simple world. Not for him.

“I have nothing left,” he said to the night. He counted off his losses to himself. No Hest. No home in Bingtown. No fortune. His friendship with Alise was in shreds. No face. If he returned to Bingtown, people would turn away from him in disgust, some because Hest had cast him off and some because his beauty was gone. Among his circle, to befriend someone whom Hest had cut off was rather dangerous. No respectability, no prospects. So what was there for him?

Nothing. Years of nothing ahead of him.

For three heartbeats, he considered Alise’s solution. Stay in the Rain Wilds. Never go home. But she had someone who would take her in and care for her. He had no one, save a dragon. A dragon who was devoted to him. But how long would that last, if she discovered why he had first come to the Rain Wilds? He dared not think too much about it lest she discover his thoughts. He did not understand how she could not remember that he had come by darkness, to pluck scales from her and fill vials with her blood. Did she not recall it? How could she know that about him and still care for him?

Some day, she would realize it.

He thought of what that would mean. For the first time in his life, when Relpda touched minds with him, he had actually been able to feel the love that another creature had for him. Daily her mind developed, her thoughts grew clearer and stronger. What would she feel for him when she realized that he had come to her, not as a friend but as a butcher?

And would she share that feeling with him, as she had shared her love? What would it actually be like to experience the hatred and loathing she would feel for him?

A shudder ran over him. He realized abruptly that he had not lost everything. He still had the love and regard of a simple creature. He could think of no way to avoid eventually losing that. He could not imagine enduring it. With sick certainty, he saw his only exit from his problems.

Don’t think about what he was about to do. Don’t let the dragon pick up on his thoughts and thwart him. Even warning himself brought her attention back to him. He wanted to say good-bye to her, to tell her it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t. She’d done her best by him, saved him time after time. He felt a surprisingly sharp pang of sorrow at the thought of hurting her. He had an impulse to take off his boots and jacket. How silly was that? What difference could it make?

Sedric? Sedric?

Not right now, dear.

You are scared? Something hunts you, something comes to hurt you?

No. No, I’m fine. Everything is going to be all right.

No, you are frightened. Sad. Something is bad.

As gently as he could, he pushed her away from his thoughts. No time to waste. He could feel her clamoring outside his walls, raising an alarm with herself. Time to get it done before she could puzzle out what he was up to. He studied the water off the stern of the barge and chose a place where he could see the current running. He climbed up on the aft railing and judged the shining black water below him. Would it be deep enough and swift enough? It wouldn’t take much. He’d never been a swimmer. Jump. Just jump and don’t struggle. That was all. He deliberately exhaled, crouched, and sprang.

He hit hard, slamming on his side. His head slapped something that burst into light. He thought he’d breathed out, but a weight on top of him forced a gasp from his lungs. No water. Nothing made sense…“Can’t…breathe…” he wheezed out.

The weight rolled off him. Sedric sucked in a breath, and for a dazed minute could not make sense of where he was or what had just happened. His eyes focused. He lay face-to-face with the hunter, Carson, on the Tarman’s deck.

“I knew you’d try something,” Carson panted by his ear. “Saw it in your eyes when you left the galley earlier today. I told your dragon to let me know if she was worried. And she did.” Carson dragged in a breath. “I had to run all the way up from the bonfire. You’re lucky I got here in time.”

Sedric’s body was demanding air, and all he could do was wheeze. Funny. He wanted so badly to die, but when his body wanted air, it didn’t care what his intentions were. All his thoughts stopped until he had air. When he’d had three full breaths, he asked bitterly, “Lucky?”

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