She peered down at it, and then looked up at him in surprise. “Yes, I see it now. Do you recognize this place?” Excitement coursed through her.
“No. It’s nowhere I’ve ever been. But it’s a river chart, one that focuses all on water and ignores land details. On that, I’d wager.”
“Will you sit with me and explain it?” Alise invited him. “What might these wavy lines here be?”
He shook his head regretfully. “Not now, I’m afraid. I only came in for a quick cup of coffee and to be out of the wind and rain for a time. It’s getting dark outside, but the dragons show no signs of settling for the night. I’d best be out there. Can’t have too many eyes on the river if you must run at night.”
“Do you still fear white water then?”
Leftrin scratched his beard, then shook his head. “I think the danger has passed. It’s hard to say. The rain is dirty and smells sooty. It’s black when it hits the deck. So, somewhere, something is happening. I’ve only seen a true white flood happen twice in my life, and each time it was only a day or so after the quake. It’s common enough to have the acid in the river vary. But my feeling is that if we were going to be hit with white water, it would have happened by now.”
“Well. That’s a relief then.” She groped for something more to say, words that would keep him in the galley, talking to her. But she knew he had his work, and she closed her mouth on such silliness.
“I’d best be about my work,” he said reluctantly, and with a girlish lurch of her heart, she was abruptly certain that he, too, wished he could stay. Such knowledge made it easier to let him go.
“Yes. Tarman needs you.”
“Well, some days I’m not sure Tarman needs any of us. But I’d best get out there and put my eyes on the river.” He paused and daringly added, “Though I’d just as soon be keeping them on you.”
She ducked her head, flustered by his compliment, and he laughed. Then he was out of the door, and the river wind banged it shut behind him. She sighed, and then smiled at how foolish she had become about him.
She went to dip her pen, then decided she needed the blue ink if she were to make a note on the page of Leftrin’s interpretation. Yes, she decided, she wanted blue, and she’d credit him for the theory as well. It pleased her to think that scores of years hence, scholars would read his name and know that a common river captain had deduced what had eluded others. She found the small ink bottle, uncorked it, and dipped her pen. It came up dry.
She held the bottle to the light. Had she written that much on her journey? She supposed she had. She’d seen so much that had given her ideas or made her revise old thoughts. She thought of adding water to the pigment that remained and scowled. No. That would be her last resort. Sedric, she recalled, had plenty of ink in his portable desk. And she hadn’t visited him since morning. It was as good an excuse to check on him as any.
SEDRIC CAME AWAKE, not suddenly, but as if he were surfacing from a deep dive into black water. Sleep sleeked away from his mind like water draining from his hair and skin. He opened his eyes to the familiar dimness of his cabin. But it was different. The air was slightly cooler and fresher. Someone had recently opened the door. And entered.
He became aware of a figure hunched on the deck by his pallet. He heard the stealthy pawing of thieving hands on his wardrobe chest. Moving by tiny increments, he shifted so he could peer over the edge of his bed. The compartment was dim. Outside the light was fading and he had not lit a lamp. The only illumination came from the small “windows” that also ventilated his room.
Yet the creature on the floor beside his bed gleamed a warm copper and seemed to cast back light that had not struck it. As he watched, it shifted and brilliance ran over a scaled back. She scrabbled at the wardrobe chest, seeking for the hidden drawer that held the vials of her stolen blood.
Terror flooded him and he nearly wet himself. “I’m sorry!” he cried aloud. “I’m so, so sorry. I did not know what you were. Please. Please, just let me be. Let go of my mind. Please.”
“Sedric?” The copper dragon reared up and abruptly took Alise’s shape. “Sedric! Are you all right? Do you have a fever or are you dreaming?” She put a warm hand on his damp brow. He pulled back from her touch convulsively. It was Alise. It was only Alise.
“Why are you wearing a dragon’s skin? And why are you rummaging through my possessions?” Shock made him both indignant and accusing.
“I’m…a dragon’s skin? Oh, no, it’s a robe. Captain Leftrin loaned it to me. It’s of Elderling make and completely lovely. And it doesn’t irritate my skin. Here. Feel the sleeve.” She offered her arm to him.