The hunter stooped out of sight again and then brought up a gear bag from the boat. “Because from where I’m standing, man, if you decide to be greedy, I think you just die.” He opened the gear bag, dug through it, and smiled, immensely pleased. “I’m sure this was Greft’s boat now. Look at this. Knife and whet-stone, all bundled nicely together. Could be a bigger tool, but it will still get the job done.” As he spoke, he took out both items and began to lay the knife against the stone in slow, leisurely licks, as if they both had all the time in the world.
Sedric stood very still. What was the man asking of him? Was the gleaming blade a threat? What did he mean, “you’ve got plenty”? Was he making a sexual proposition? He’d shown nothing but disdain for Sedric before this. But Jess would not be the first man he’d encountered who publicly despised him and privately desired him. He took a breath. He was hungry and thirsty and the dragon’s nagging anxiety scraped at his nerves and begged his attention. What was he willing to give Jess to ensure his survival? What would he give him to get him to help with Relpda?
Anything he wanted.
The thought chilled him, but he accepted it. “Just say what you want,” he said brusquely, the words tumbling out more abruptly than he intended.
Jess stopped whetting the knife and stared at him. Sedric drew himself up tall and crossed his arms on his chest. He met his gaze levelly. Jess cocked his head at him, and then brayed out a coarse laugh. “Not that. No. Not interested one bit in that. Are you stupid or stubborn?”
He waited for Sedric to respond. When he didn’t, Jess shook his head, his smile growing colder. He reached into his shirt, drew out a pouch, and opened it. As he tugged at the strings, he said, “Leftrin was stupid to think I was a fool. I know what happened. He saw a chance for money, and he thought that if he brought in his own people, he could make his deal direct and keep more of the split for himself. Well, I don’t work that way. No one cuts out Jess Torkef.” From the pouch, he took something the size of his palm. It was scarlet and ruby. He held it up between his thumb and forefinger and turned it to catch the light. It flashed in the sunlight. “Look familiar?” he asked Sedric mockingly and then laughed as first disbelief and then fury flushed Sedric’s face.
It was the scarlet dragon scale that Rapskal had given Alise. Alise had entrusted it to Sedric, asking him to make a detailed drawing of it. Then she’d forgotten he had it, and he’d added it to his trove. “That’s mine,” he said flatly. “You stole it out of my room.”
Jess smiled. “It’s an interesting question. Is it possible to steal from a thief?” He turned the scale again, flashing it in the sun. “I’ve had it for days. If you missed it, you covered your anxiety well. I suspect you didn’t even know it was gone. You’re not quite as good at hiding things as you think you are. Most of what I found was disgusting trash, but not this bit. So I took it. Just for safekeeping, of course, to be sure I’d have something to show for this wild goose chase. Looks like it was a good thing I did. Everything else you had is probably at the bottom now.”
Sedric had still not said a word. The hunter took his time putting the red dragon’s scale back in the pouch, closing it, and slipping it back inside his shirt. “So,” he said. “Looks like we each know what the other is about. And it’s time to consider a new alliance. Leftrin was supposed to be a part of my deal with Sinad Arich. He was supposed to smooth the way and make it easy. But he didn’t. Doesn’t matter. He’s gone now. And it’s down to us. So you have two choices. You can step up and take his place in the deal, and we’ll share. Or don’t.”
“Leftrin had a deal with you?” Sedric’s mind was scrambling to put all the pieces together. What sort of a deal? To rob his passengers?
Tired, the dragon pleaded in the back of his mind. Not safe.
Hush. Let me think. Her heavy head was drooping on her weary neck. He appraised her and knew that if he didn’t act, soon her muzzle would be touching the water. Take care of the most pressing issue first. Then puzzle out the rest. To Jess, he said, “Set all this aside for a moment. Can you help me with the dragon? She’s tired and she’s going to sink and drown if I can’t help her float and rest somehow.”
A slow smile spread across the hunter’s face. “Now we’re coming to terms, boy. Of course I’ll help you with the dragon.” He lifted the knife and turned it, making the blade flash in the sunlight.
“I don’t understand you,” Sedric said in a shaking voice. But abruptly he did.