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“How did you get here?” he greeted him. “I thought I was the only one left alive.” He began immediately to make his way toward the man.

“By water,” Jess said and laughed sourly. His voice was harsh and raspy. “And I shared your cheery thought about survival. Looks like that little quake we had a few days ago saved a second surprise for us.”

“Does something like this happen often?” Sedric asked, already feeling his anger rise that no one had warned him.

Slipping. Distress was plain in the dragon’s rumbled call and in the thought she pushed at him.

“A change in the water, yes. A flood like this, no. This is a new one for me, but not entirely ill fortune for either of us.”

“What do you mean?”

Jess grinned. “Just that fate seems to have not only saved us, but thrown us together with everything we need for a most profitable partnership. For one thing, when I finally kicked my way to the surface, I found a boat caught in the same current that I was. Not my boat, unfortunately, but one that belonged to someone sensible enough to stow his gear tightly.” He coughed harshly and then tried to clear his throat. It didn’t help his rough voice. “It has a couple of blankets, some fishing gear, even a fire-making kit and a pot. Greft’s, probably, but I’ll wager that he’ll never have need of it again. That wave hit so hard and so suddenly that it’s hard to believe any of us survived. It almost makes me believe in fate. Maybe the gods threw us together to see how smart we were. Because if you’re a clever fellow, we have everything we need for a very comfortable new life.”

As Jess had croaked out his words, he’d dismounted from the tree’s trunk and stepped onto a log. It bobbed beneath him as it took his weight. For a large man, he was graceful enough as he trod swiftly along its length. In the crook of one arm, he carried several round red fruit. Sedric wasn’t familiar with what they were, but at the sight of them, both his hunger and thirst roared.

“Do you have water?” he asked the man, advancing cautiously across the packed debris toward him. Jess ignored him. It looked as if he reached the end of the large log and then clambered down into the water. Then Sedric realized that the boat was moored out of sight behind the big driftwood snag. Jess disappeared for a moment and when he stood up, he no longer held the fruit. Obviously he had stowed it in the boat he was standing in. A curl of uneasiness moved in Sedric’s belly. The situation seemed plain to him. The hunter had climbed the tree, eaten fruit, and what he had brought down was his surplus that he intended to save. For himself. He must see how serious Sedric’s situation was. Yet he stood there, in his boat, in his dried clothes, with his food, and made no offer of aid to him.

Jess leaned his elbows on the log that floated between him and Sedric and looked over at him. Sedric halted where he was, trying to make sense of the situation. When Sedric just returned his gaze, Jess cocked his head and wheezed, “I notice you aren’t saying what you’ll bring to our new partnership.”

Sedric goggled at him. They were alone on a raft of ever-shifting flotsam in the middle of the forest, weeks from anywhere, and the man was trying to wring money out of him? It made no sense. Behind him, he heard the dragon thrash, felt a wave of anxiety from her, and then felt her calm as she realized the log was still partially under her. Hungry. His own thoughts about food had stimulated hers. Or perhaps it was her hunger he was feeling. He didn’t know. He couldn’t completely sort himself out from her anymore. Afraid. The thought came to him without a sound from her. Careful. Did she sense something he didn’t?

He tried to focus his thoughts on the man’s ridiculous statement. “What do you want from me? Look at me, man. I don’t have anything to offer you. Not here. I suppose if somehow we got back to Bingtown…” He let the words trail off. It wouldn’t be constructive to let him know that if they got back to Bingtown, he’d still have nothing. He tried to imagine facing Hest and admitting that he’d somehow lost Alise and with her Hest’s hope of creating an heir who would assure his inheritance. He dared not think what his own family would think of him, let alone what Alise’s might say. He’d been sent as her protector. What sort of a protector survived when his ward did not? If he went back to Bingtown alone, he’d have no career and no support from his family. He had nothing to offer this pirate.

“Nothing here, hey? Looks to me like you’ve got plenty here. Do I have to spell it out for you? Or are you still thinking that perhaps you can keep it all for yourself?”

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