First glance at the little fellow standing in the tavern door, I wondered why he hadn’t blown away in a head-strong wind. He didn’t stand much taller than my shoulder and looked to be all hard points and edges. His spiky cap of hair shone whiter than the bleached bones of a spiny kraken.
“Don’t be certain he’s as old or brittle as he seems.”
Eken’s whisper tickled at my ear. The mage remained aboard Blessèd, but Stern charged him to serve as my protector on my travels. Witness and informant, too. So his magic let him see what I saw, hear what I heard, over any distance.
And whisper words into my ear no one else could hear.
I took a second look and recognized the truth in Eken’s words. There was nothing flyaway about this fellow’s manner. He stood his place in the double doorway, one eyebrow cocked, studying us all, as if he’d shined a light into our minds and knew every sorry secret in the joint.
Conversations at the other tables died. The piano player gave up on Hey, Jude.
The fellow stalked toward me, stood stiff-legged with one hand on the hilt of a broad-leaf hunting knife. A big-bore scattergun hung by a leather strap slung forward over his left shoulder. A hand’s-length of barrel and its’ stock had been sawed away.
“You the young’un looking for a tracker?” His voice grated on my ears and mind, coarse and rough as sea salt.
I threw back a question. “You a tracker?”
I pointed to a second chair. “Sit. We’ll talk.”
He settled into the seat with a sense of possession. Not perched on the edge the way some folks sit, as if they aren’t certain they plan to stay. Then he planted those wicked sharp elbows on the table; laying his claim to that surface, too.
“He has presence,” Eken whispered. “There’s something else about him, though. Something I can’t read.”
“The name’s Del Benè,” the little fellow said.
“He’s wearing some sort of charm.” Eken sounded excited.
I saw right off this little man was I had sought since Blessèd sailed into Safe Harbor’s Campbell Sound six days ago. I pulled Soon’s hand-drawn map from my belt pouch and spread it on the table between us. The vinegar smell of new vellum, mixed with fish-bladder ink, pinched my nostrils.
“I want to go here.” I tapped at the map.
The edge of my little finger grazed Del’s hand as he touched the map. A shiver shimmied up my arm and down my spine. In that instant, I longed to lick the taste of ink and vellum from his fingertips, do a thousand wicked things with him until he begged that I must stop.
The notion sucked my breath away.
Could it be my feelings when Tuck kissed me hadn’t been a passing whim? God in Heaven, might I be a posy boy?
I stuttered silent thanks again that Eken’s Second Sight only allowed him at the edges of my mind.
“Fee’s one hundred, every day.” Del sounded rattled, too.
“How long?” I asked.
He cleared his throat. “A day over the mountains, a night and day in Edgerton. Five nights to track the Furnace and two days crossing cattle country. Long as your business takes, once we’re there. Another eight days back.”
I did a quick mental calculation. I had enough, with a goodly share left over. “All right,” I said.
Del studied me. I could almost feel his eyes slide across my face.
“We’ll use my horses over the mountains,” he said. “And my skitter to cross the Furnace. Food and water, all the gear, will be included in the fee.”
He studied me, trying to determine if I planned to dicker, I suppose. I had no taste for that. Tuck’s share would cover the demands and I didn’t want to spend a moment more than needed with Del Benè. I wanted done with this sorry business. Done with my wicked notions, too. I wanted back aboard my ship.
“How soon before we leave?” I asked.
“First light tomorrow,” Del said.
“I can be ready.”
Del nodded. “I expect half the payment now.”
I reached to my belt. Del’s eyes widened. I heard a shush, what must have been the sound of everybody in the joint turning to stare at us.
“Foolish boy!” Eken hissed. “Flashing gold in front of the whole heathen town. He didn’t mean this instant. Where are your brains?”
The clatter of Tuck’s gold on the tabletop echoed through the joint. Del scooped up the coins, made it look as if he had planned the move, but I saw plain he wasn’t real happy with me, either. Eken had the right of it.
“Where are you staying?” he asked.
I gave him the name of an inn not two streets away, where I had stayed the past five nights. He stood, made a production of adjusting the cant of his scattergun. Those folks still eyeing us turned back to their business.
“I’ll be there at sunup,” he said. “Watch your back tonight.”
I nodded. First night off Blessèd, Eken whispered a ward of warning to cast upon the door, so my back wasn’t the body part that worried me. Over those five days, Eken taught me other simple spells, as well, and I found none of them were all that difficult. That seemed to please Eken no end. “Told you,” he said.
He might have seen a thread of white, but I was surprised. Who would have thought there was a wizard in me?
Next: Beyond Degani Pass