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“Jess was one of the nastiest fellows I’d ever had to work alongside. He had a reputation for being a dirty fighter, the kind who didn’t stop even after the other fellow was willing to give in. And you stood up to him for your dragon?” He glanced over at Relpda. Nothing remained of the elk carcass. She’d eaten it all.

“I had to,” Sedric said quietly.

“And you won?”

Sedric just looked at him. “I’m not sure I’d describe it as winning.”

The comment surprised a guffaw out of Carson. Then Relpda intruded.

“And I ate him. Sedric fed him to me.” She seemed to savor the memory.

“That isn’t exactly what happened,” Sedric hastily interposed. “I never intended for that to happen. Though I’ll admit that at the time, what I mostly felt was relief. Because I wasn’t sure if anything else would have stopped him.”

“And Jess is what happened to your face, then?”

Sedric lifted a hand to his jaw. His cheekbone was still tender, and the swollen inside of his cheek kept snagging on his teeth. But he felt almost strangely proud of his injury now. “Yes, it was Jess. I’d never been hit in the face like that before.”

Carson gave a brief snort of laughter. “Wish I could say that! I’ve caught plenty of fists with my face. Though I’m truly sorry to see it happen to yours.”

Almost timidly, the hunter put out a large hand. The touch of his rough fingers on Sedric’s face was gentle. Sedric was shocked that such a slight brush against his cheek could send such a rush of feeling through him. The fingers pressed gently around his eyes socket and then the line of his cheekbones. He sat very still, wondering if there would be more, wondering how he would react if there was. But Carson dropped his hand and turned his face away, saying hoarsely, “Nothing’s broken, I don’t think. You should heal.” A moment later, he fed another stick to the firepot. “We should get some sleep soon if we’re going to get up early.”

“Jess said Leftrin was in on it.” Sedric blurted the statement out, letting it be its own question.

“In on what?”

“Killing dragons and selling off the parts. Teeth, blood, scales. He said that whoever had sent him had said that Leftrin would be willing to help him.”

Carson’s dark gaze grew troubled. “And did he?”

“No. That was part of Jess’s complaint. He seemed to feel Leftrin had cheated him.”

Carson’s expression lightened somewhat. “That seems likely to me. I’ve known Leftrin a long time. And over the years, once or twice, he’s been involved in a few things that I found, well, questionable. But slaughtering dragons and selling off their bodies? No. To Chalced? Never. There are a number of reasons why I couldn’t imagine him getting involved with something like that. Tarman being the big one.” His brow wrinkled as he stared into his fire. “Still, it would be interesting to know why Jess thought he would.”

He shook his head, then stood up slowly, rolling his shoulders as he did so. He was surprisingly graceful for his size, catching his balance easily as he stepped down into his small boat. His own blanket was neatly stowed, folded, and shoved high under the seat out of the damp. Sedric still clutched the damp and wrinkled blanket Carson had tossed at him. He looked at Carson’s boat, at every item in a precise location, and he suddenly felt childish and ashamed. Over in the other boat, a hatchet was probably rusting from its immersion in the bloody bilgewater. Carson had arrived and had seen to every need that he and the dragon had, without a single wasted movement. Sedric hadn’t even remembered to spread his blanket out to dry.

He wondered how Carson saw him. Incompetent? Self-indulgent? Rich and spoiled? I’m not truly any of those things, he thought. I’m just out of my place right now. If we were back in Bingtown, and he came to where I was helping Hest prepare to negotiate a trade, he’d see what I truly am. Carson would be the incompetent and useless one there. Then even that thought seemed self-indulgent and spoiled, a child’s wish to show off for someone he desired to impress. What did it matter what Carson thought of him? When had he begun to care what an ignorant Rain Wild hunter thought of him?

He shook out the smelly blanket and slung it around his shoulders. Within its shelter, he sat hugging himself. And thinking.

NIGHT WAS FULL dark around Tarman. Captain Leftrin walked his decks. The night sky was a black strip sprinkled with glittering stars. To one side of the barge, the river stretched out to an invisible distant shore. On the other side the forest loomed, making the barge small. At the foot of the forest, on a narrow muddy bank, the dragons slept. On the roof of the deckhouse, laid out in neat rows as if they were corpses, the keepers slept. And Leftrin was awake.

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