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If anything befell him, Carson would come looking for him.

Carson.

A smile relaxed his face. It was true and he knew it. Carson would come for him.

He was still trying to reconcile the man with his concept of life. He’d never met a man like Carson, never known anyone who schooled his strength to such gentleness. He was not educated or cultured. He knew nothing of wines, had never traveled beyond the Rain Wilds, and had read fewer than a dozen books in his life. The framework that supported Sedric’s self-respect was missing from Carson’s life. Without an appreciation for such things, how could he appreciate who and what Sedric was? Why did the hunter like him? It mystified him.

Carson’s life was framed by this forest-and-water world. He knew the ways of animals and spoke of them with great fondness and respect. But he killed them, too. Sedric had watched him butcher, seen his strength as he cut into an animal’s hip joint and then used his hands to lever the bone out of the socket. “Once you know how an animal is put together, it’s a lot easier to take it apart,” Carson had explained to Sedric as he finished his bloody chore and made the meat ready for cooking.

Sedric had watched his hands, the blood on his wrists, the bits of flesh caught under his nails as he worked, and thought of those strong hands on his own body. It had put a shiver up his spine, a thrill of erotic dread. Yet Carson was gentle, almost tentative in his moments with Sedric, and several times Sedric had found himself moving into the role of aggressor. The sensation of being in control had been heady and in some ways freeing. He had watched Carson’s eyes and mouth in the dim light of his small room and seen no fear in his face, no resentment that, for that time, Sedric was in charge. He contrasted it sometimes to how Hest would react to such a thing. “Don’t try to tell me what you want,” Hest had once commanded him disdainfully. “I’ll tell you what you’re getting.”

He thought of Hest less frequently than he once had, and in the last few days when he had contrasted his old lover to Carson, Hest seemed like a fading ghost. Thoughts of him triggered regret, but not in the way they once had. Sedric regretted not that he had lost Hest, but that he had ever found him.

The two girls had fallen into a rhythm in their paddling, one that sped them along but was not closing the gap between them and the dragons, barge, and other keepers’ boats. As they passed a low-hanging tree, an explosion of orange parrots startled them. The birds burst from the branches, shrieking and squawking before the flock re-formed and abruptly landed in a taller tree. All three of them startled, and then laughed. It broke a tension of silence that Sedric hadn’t been aware of. Suddenly he didn’t want to be alone and lost in his thoughts.

“I’ll be happy to take a turn paddling,” he offered.

“I’m fine,” Sylve said, turning her head to shoot him a smile. The light caught briefly in her eyes as she did so, showing him a pale blue gleam. As she turned back, he could not help but note how the sunlight also moved on the pink scaling of her scalp. She had less hair than when they had started out. Her worn shirt was torn slightly at the shoulder seam and scaling flashed on the flesh that was revealed there with every stroke of her paddle.

“I may take you up on that, in a little while,” Thymara admitted. That surprised him. He had thought her the tougher of the two girls.

Sylve spoke over her shoulder, keeping her eyes on the river. “Is your back still bothering you? Where you hurt it in the river that day?”

Thymara was quiet for a time and then admitted grudgingly, “Yes. It’s never healed up all the way. The second dunking I got in that wave only made it worse.”

The boat traveled on. They passed a backwater spattered with huge flat leaves and floating orange flowers. The fragrance, rich to the point of rottenness, reached Sedric.

Sylve spoke. “Have you ever asked your dragon about that?” Her voice was hesitant and yet determined.

“About what?” Thymara replied, equally determined.

“Your back. And the way your scaling is getting heavier.”

Silence like a block of stone fell on the boat and filled it perfectly. Sedric felt as if he was unable to breathe for the heaviness of it.

When Thymara spoke, she could not hide the lie in her words. “I don’t think my back has anything to do with my scaling.”

Sylve kept on paddling. She didn’t turn back to look at the other girl. She might have been speaking to the river when she said, “You forget. I saw it. I know what it is now.”

“Because you are changing in the same way.” Thymara flung the words back at her.

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