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But somehow that thought had not spurred him to clean himself up, but to sit back on his bed and stare up into the darkness. It didn’t matter what Hest would think if he saw him like this, sweaty and unshaven, in a room littered with laundry. It was becoming more and more unlikely that Hest would ever see him again at all. And that was something that Hest had caused, with his stupid vengeance in sending him off to nursemaid Alise. Did Hest even think of him? Wonder what had delayed their return? He doubted it.

He had begun to doubt many things about Hest.

He’d crawled onto his pallet, a bed more fit for a dog than a man, and slept the rest of the day away.

Another bang on his door jerked his mind back to the present. “Sedric? Are you all right? Answer, or I’m coming in.”

“I’m fine.” Sedric took the one step he needed to cross the room and flipped the hook on the door clear. “You may come in, if you must.”

Either the man didn’t hear the lack of a welcome in his voice or he ignored it. Carson opened the door and looked about the dim cabin. “Seems to me that light and air might make you feel better than lying about in the close dark,” he observed.

“Neither light nor air will cure what ails me,” Sedric muttered. He glanced at the tall, bearded hunter and then away. Carson seemed to fill the small cabin with his presence. He had a broad forehead that sheltered wide dark eyes beneath heavy brows. His close-cropped beard was the same ginger as his rough hair. His cheeks were wind reddened, and his lips were ruddy and well-defined. He seemed to feel Sedric appraising him, for he smoothed his hair self-consciously.

“Did you need something?” Sedric asked. The words came out more abrupt than he intended. The friendliness in Carson’s eyes suddenly became more guarded.

“Actually, yes, yes I do.” He shut the door behind him, dimming the room again, cast about for something to sit down on, and perched, uninvited, on the end of the trunk. “Look, I’ll say this bluntly and then be out of your way. I think you’ll understand; well, I’ll make you understand, one way or another. Davvie is just a boy. I won’t have him hurt, and I won’t have him used. His dad and I were like brothers, and I could see the way Davvie was going a long time before his mother did. If she does even now, which I doubt.” The man gave a short bark of laughter and glanced over at Sedric as if expecting a response. When he said nothing, Carson looked back down at his big hands. He rubbed them together as if his knuckles pained him. “So, you take my drift?” he asked Sedric.

“You’re like a father to Davvie?” Sedric hazarded.

Carson barked another laugh at that. “As much as I’m ever likely to be a father to anyone!” he declared, and again, he looked at Sedric as if expecting some sort of response. Sedric just looked back at him.

“I see,” the hunter said, and his voice went softer and more serious. “I understand. It goes no further, I promise you that. I’ll speak my piece plain and then be gone. Davvie’s just a youngster. You’re probably the handsomest man he’s ever seen, and the boy is infatuated. I’ve tried to make him see that he’s much too young and that you’re way above his social class. But puppy love can blind a boy. I’ll be doing my best to keep him clear of you, and I’d appreciate it if you kept him at a distance. Once he realizes that there’s nothing here for him, he’ll get over it quick enough. Might even hate you a bit, but you know how that is. But if you mock him, or belittle him to the other men aboard, I’ll take issue with you.”

Sedric stared at him, his face like stone. His mind raced, filling in the meaning behind his words.

Carson met Sedric’s eyes flatly. “And if I’ve misjudged you, and you’re the kind who would take advantage of a boy, I’ll come after you. Do you understand me?”

“Very well,” Sedric replied. Carson’s meaning finally penetrated to his mind, and he was torn between shock and embarrassment. His cheeks burned; he was glad of the dimness of the room. The hunter’s eyes were still fixed on his. He looked aside. “What you said about belittling the boy to the crew. I would never do that. I ask the same of you. As for Davvie’s…infatuation, well.” He swallowed. “I didn’t even see it. Even if I had, I wouldn’t take advantage of it. He’s so young. Almost a child still.”

Carson was nodding. A sad smile edged his mouth. “I’m glad I didn’t read you wrong. You didn’t look the type to take advantage of a youngster, but you never know. Especially a boy like Davvie who seems to put himself in harm’s way. A few months ago, in Trehaug, he read a young man the wrong way and said the wrong thing. And just for the offer, the fellow hit him twice in the face before the boy could even stand up. And that left me no choice but to get involved, and I’ve a temper. I’m afraid that we won’t be welcome back in that tavern for a long time. It’s one reason I signed us up for this expedition. I thought to get him away from town and temptation for a few months. Let him grow a bit of discretion and self-control. Thought it might keep him out of trouble, but as soon as he set eyes on you, he was gone. And who could blame him? Well…” He stood up abruptly. “I’ll be going now. The boy won’t be bringing your meals anymore. I thought that was a bad idea from the start, but it was hard to give a reason why he shouldn’t. Now I’ll tell Leftrin that I need him up earlier and at my side if we’re to keep the dragons fed. I’ll be taking him out of here earlier than usual. You may have to fetch your own grub. Or maybe Alise will bring it to you.” He turned and put his hand on the door. “You work for her husband, right? That’s what she told us at dinner the first night I met her. That usually you go everywhere he does, and she can’t imagine why he sent you off with her, or how he’s managing without you. She feels real bad about that, you know? That you’re here and so unhappy about it.”

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