Davitts pulled Essenin by the arm so they walked behind the cart on the way back. “What in blazing, thunderous weather were you thinking?”
“I didn’t say yes.” Essenin didn’t look at all contrite. They looked surprised that he was angry.
“The one thing you promised me about working together, Ess. The one thing.”
Ess dropped his voice to a stricken whisper, “I didn’t say yes.”
“You didn’t say it, but you...the way you…” Davitts ran down, his anger draining. He couldn’t really tell Ess he’d missed the hope in Zie’s eyes when they didn’t say no. It wasn’t something he could prove and it wasn’t even his business. “Just consult next time.”
“I’ll just let you speak for me, is that it?” Ess narrowed their eyes, braids clicking like an accusation as they swung to face Davitts.
“Like you did for me?”
Davitts might have huffed. Possibly. It was an old argument about Ess being impulsive and Davitts being too cautious, but he also knew he was more concerned than angry.
Something he couldn’t see yet was worrying at the back of his mind, something that tasted like danger and change.
Being a real seer would’ve been nice sometimes. He knew that the gift drove some humans mad, but he could’ve inherited something better from his taur ancestry than vague, ominous feelings.
Ess still frowned, but their shoulders slumped. “Right. Sorry. Consult first.”
“Would you want to…?”
“I’m not sure yet.” The frown smoothed, though puzzlement clouded those beautiful dark eyes. “Keeping our paths open for now seems best.”
“Fair. Not like it takes us long to pack for any job.”
By the time they’d gotten Bluey unharnessed and fed, and the cart put away—in the same condition as they’d found it that morning, thank you very much—Zie had vanished.
Aunt Lana nodded to the stairs from where she was setting a log on the fire. “He hobbled up to his room.” She straightened and stretched her back. “Why don’t you boys take lunch up?”
“Excellent suggestion!” Ess bounded to the kitchen before Davitts could open his mouth to agree, Aunt Lana watching them with that too-placid expression that meant she was trying not to laugh.
Davitts shot her a mock glare and followed Ess to make up a tray of the wonderfully rich smelling mushroom soup Aunt Lana had simmering over the fire and some of the new baked bread. He took the tray, Ess snagged a water pitcher and cups, and they made their way up to the second floor, one of them at a dignified pace. That person wasn’t Ess, their kilt flying and showing enticing glimpses of strong thighs as they bounded up the steps.
The room to the right overlooking the stableyard was one of the better ones—bigger bed, windows protected from cold winds—and this was where Aunt Lana had installed Zie. She really had felt bad for him, though it didn’t hurt that this was a slow season and the inn was nearly empty.
Zie sat cross-legged in a nest of blankets coming out his black hair. It shimmered, more iridescent with each stroke of the carved antler comb. Beautiful. Davitts blinked and forced himself to stop staring.
“Um, lunch. We brought...lunch,” he managed to force out through a closing throat.
“Kind of you.” Zie put down the comb, his voice dry as salt as he went on, “Though even the smell of that wonderful soup can’t cover the scent of why you really came upstairs.”
“I should’ve realized you can scent interest.” Ess flipped their braids over their shoulder with a cascading clatter of beads as he settled on the edge of the mattress. “I want to be clear, it’s just interest. If you’re not also interested right now, please say.”
Zie gave him a sideways glance, but he was smiling. “Lunch first, I think. Before it gets cold. Then we’ll see how active all of our other interests might be.”
“All...you’d want me to stay?” Davitts’ voice squeaked and he was certain his face would burst into flames.
“Yes.” Zie’s brows drew together, concern in his eyes. “I didn’t make that clear before? Both of you. As a set.”
Yes, he’d implied it, but Davitts hadn’t been certain. Most people tended to be interested in Ess, not that Ess had more than an occasional fling and never without both of them discussing it first. They had no secrets, but it was still unusual for them to share the same fling.
“I find you both…” Zie stared at his hands. He’d taken his gloves off and was flexing and retracting his claws. “Achingly attractive.”
Nothing coherent or clever was going to come out of his mouth, so Davitts said nothing and handed out food instead while Ess leaned in to stage whisper to Zie, “That’s how Davs flirts. Giving you food. Bringing you blankets. Stuff like that.”
Though Zie offered a smile in response, he scooted away from them to the far end of the bed as soon as he had his lunch, curled over it while he ate as if he feared someone would steal his food. It was a telling response, one that made Davitts heart ache. What little he knew about the sylvas could fill a teacup, but he did know they lived in close-knit clans. How long had Zie been alone?
Ess gave him space and didn’t rush through their own food. Good. They were being patient and weren’t pushing. Yet.
Finally, Zie set his bowl and cup aside on the bedside table, scrupulously picking the last remaining crumbs off his black wool shirt one by one. “Please reiterate to your aunt that her food is wonderful. I’ve told her so, but it bears repeating.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her.” Davitts couldn’t help a smile as he said it. Aunt Lana took great pride in her cooking. Her own children, her siblings’ children, all said she should have help, but she refused. Not in the kitchen. She didn’t trust anyone else to do things right.
Suddenly and not subtly, Zie’s body language shifted. He stretched, arms behind his head, shirt riding up enough to hint at the dark trail of hair on his stomach. The sweep of his lashes nearly covered his eyes as he let his gaze sweep over First Davitts, then Ess. “Are we still...interested?”
Ess looked over and Davitts gave a short nod since he couldn’t remember how words worked just then. With a bright grin, Ess crawled up the bed and sprawled on their side next to Zie. “Oh, yes. So very much interested.”
They make such a gorgeous picture together. And as soon as I figure out how my legs work, I’ll join them.
Essenin didn't need to see the expression under the broad-brimmed hat to understand that Zie had gone rigid. His fingers clutched the seat tight enough to leave dents in the leather cushion. They stopped the gossta with a hand on her harness and crouched beside the cart.
"Have you spotted someone you'd rather not?"
"I…" Zie shook his head, fingers twitching. "No. Nothing like that. I simply don't know…there are so many."
Davitts leaned on the other side of the cart. "Where do you want to go? Tissia Islands? Cau Senis? That'll help narrow it down."
"Across." Zie waved a hand at the harbor. "It doesn't matter so much where as long as it's across the sea."
That was disturbing. Essenin shot Davitts a look, but he just shrugged. They cleared their throat. "All right, we'll say Cau Senis, since that's all the way across. Captains are going to look a bit sideways at you if your destination's just away from here."
"We don't want them thinking you’re a fugitive criminal," Davitts added, leaving a clear and unambiguous opening for Zie to say, I'm not, or something of the sort.
Zie only nodded, murmuring, "Of course."
It had been a long time since Essenin had exchanged so many looks with Davitts in a single morning. Still, Davitts trotted off to the harbormaster's office to check on ships departing soon for Cau Senis, leaving Essenin to stand about awkwardly and try not to blurt out things like, so, just out of curiosity, what are you running from?
Instead Essenin sniffed at the chill in the wind whipping off the water. Snow soon. "Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, it's fine. I'm used to much colder." Zie tipped his hat back to meet Essenin's eyes, his expression weary to the bone. "If this is awkward for you… Maybe you have suspicions. Maybe you regret the offer. I won't hold you to your promises if this feels wrong to you."
The old cart gossta turned her head and honked loudly. Essenin couldn't help a laugh. "Bluey says don't be absurd and I agree. We promised we'd help you and keep you company. As long as you don't intend to hurt the people I love, I don't need to hear about where you've been or what's behind you."
Something in their words caused Zie to wince, but he covered it quickly. "Thank you. Though you may, at some point, reconsider." He might have followed that with a muttered and no one would blame you, but Essenin couldn't be certain.
They settled for a brief squeeze to Zie's shoulder and waved to Davitts as he came trotting back.
“The Golden Runner leaves for Cau Senis in two days.” Davitts pointed out into the harbor where the larger ships anchored. “That’s the soonest. You want to talk to the captain?”
Zie’s brow furrowed. “Do we have to row out to the ship?”
“No, no.” Essenin did their best not to laugh. They really did. “The officers come to shore when they’re in port.”
“Captain’s working out of The Hollow Anchor, harbormaster said.” Davitts pointed down the quay toward a section of inns and warehouses. “Said we could speak to her there.”
Davitts took hold of Bluey’s headstall and got her moving in the right direction, toward the inn with the crisply painted sign of an anchor made of glass. The Anchor was one of the better harborside inns, owned by one of Davitts’ second or third cousins—Essenin had difficulty keeping track of his sprawling family. The common room was well-kept, polished dark woods and brass, with wonderful scents of fresh-baked bread and roasting meat competing with the scents of kelver and liquor.
A quick exchange of hand signs between Davitts and the owner behind the bar had them seated at a table with cups and a pot of tea while Davitts’ cousin tromped up the stairs, probably to tell the captain she had company or petitioners or whatever one told a captain.
Typical. No words spoken. The family was mostly like that. For the Damils, Auntie Lana was positively chatty.
Essenin stretched their legs out under the table, settled their long knives more comfortably at their waist and leaned back to wait while Davitts glowered at the stairs and Zie sat perfectly, quiveringly still. A predatory stillness, maybe. More anticipatory than anxious.
Not five minutes later, the captain appeared at the top of the stairs wearing crisp gray trousers with mirror-shined boots and an equally crisp white shirt. Even without her captain’s coat, the way she held herself and scanned the room as if she could set everyone on fire with her eyes all screamed captain.
That, and Essenin recognized her. They’d worked for Captain Unav before, though they hadn’t heard she’d taken command of the Runner.
“Ah, you two.” Captain Unav adjusted her cuffs and strode down the steps. “At least this won’t be completely irresponsible nonsense.”
“No nonsense, Captain.” Davitts stood to offer her a polite bow. “We’ve brought you someone who needs passage and who may be helpful to you.”
“And congratulations on the new commission,” Essenin offered a smile as they poured everyone tea. “The last we saw you was in command of Wave Sprite.”
“A good little ship she was.” Captain Unav raised her teacup in acknowledgment and took the seat to Davitt’s left. “Went down in a late winter storm off the coast. Most of the crew were saved, but there was no saving her, my poor little Sprite. The company had the need to replace a retiring captain and I was available. So. What brings you to me toda—”
She cut off as Zie removed his hat, purple eyes meeting storm gray. In his soft, even voice, Zie said, “I hoped you might have need of a sail impeller.”
“How are you…” The captain shook her head, her long, white braid waving behind her. “No. No, that would be a rude and stupid question. You are here and not a revenant. Were you away from home when the disaster occurred?”
Zie’s gaze slid sideways, his gloved hands curling into fists. “I was at home. I outran the catastrophe.”
“Did you?” Captain Unav drummed her fingers on the table, her gaze speculative. Then she let out a huff. “As it happens, the Golden Runner does not have a sail impeller, and I’d prefer one going across. A calm of a few days will kill a ship out there as surely as a tempest. Is your goal to run farther, young sir?”
“That’s not really fair, Captain,” Davitts broke in before Zie could answer. “Do you ask all your sailors why they want to go to sea?”
Captain Unav let out a dark chuckle. “The ones who look like trouble, yes. But never mind. Davitts apparently vouches for you. Show me.”
“You claim you can control wind. Show me, without making a mess of the place, how fine your control of the wind is.”
The nervous tension running through Zie slowly bled out of him and he sagged back in his chair. Essenin wasn’t certain if he was that confident or if he was giving into despair.
Zie pulled off his gloves, flexed his fingers to unsheath and retract his claws, then raised both hands. A soft breeze riffled through Essenin’s braids, rattling his beads. The wind toyed with the carved wood and whalebone before moving on to Davitts to ruffle his finger-length, brown hair. After tugging at his collar, the breeze whipped around the table and nudged Captain Unav’s braid, first over her right shoulder, then over her left.
Her laugh this time was all delighted surprise and she held up a hand. “Enough. You’re very good. We sail morning after next with the early tide. You make your way out to the ship at least two hours before that. I don’t have men to spare to lower a launch and come fetch you. If you’re there, you’re hired.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Zie drew his gloves back on, though not before Essenin had a good glimpse at the scars on the backs of his hands.
“Excellent.” Captain Unav smacked the table with both palms as she rose. “If you boys want to come along, you’d be welcome. I’m always in need of a couple more swords.”
“We’ll consider it, Captain,” Essenin rushed to answer before Davitts could say no.
She took her leave and the three of them sat quietly sipping their tea after she’d gone back upstairs. Zie finally broke the silence.
“Why would a seafaring ship need fighters?”
“Pirates, mostly. Not that every voyage is plagued by pirates, of course.” Essenin considered a moment. “And sometimes things go wrong in a foreign port.”
“Ah.” Zie hissed in a breath, hunching in on himself. “Our river boats had...different issues. But you won’t accept her offer, will you?”
“Eh. It’s not like we have another job lined up right now.” Essenin shrugged, ignoring the glares from Davitts. Mostly ignoring. “We’ll talk about it.”
Davitts muttered something into his teacup that sounded like you’d best believe we will and Essenin blew him a kiss across the table.
They were both downstairs in the common room at breakfast, as promised. Reliable mercenaries. What was the world coming to? Zie wasn't certain what he'd been thinking accepting their offer, either.
He hadn't had any real contact with anyone—barring business transactions and theft—for so long. The tall, graceful one had called him lovely. The compact, beautifully muscled one had stared and stammered like a youngster on his first assignation. The attention, while initially alarming, had warmed abandoned places inside. A bit of comfort while he recovered? Maybe it was an indulgence, but he could afford it. He had time. A little. Even if nothing happened in the bedroom, being admired, touched, perhaps held—these things would shore up his reserves, keep his mind from sliding so quickly into the dark.
This is fine. A good thing. The first in a long while.
The half selak—Zie could see it now in the not-quite human ear shape, the faint opalescent sheen on dark skin when they turned in the light—was laughing with the innkeeper while their companion rolled his eyes. They both seemed quite familiar with her. Old friends, maybe. No. The mostly human one, Davitts, was a relation. They shared the same long nose and the same river clay hue to their skin.
He'd presumed Essenin and Davitts were lovers, and this morning confirmed it. The little touches between them, the way Essenin kissed Davitts' forehead to smooth away his frown. Deliciously tender. Zie allowed himself a moment to wonder whether they would prefer their liaisons with him together or separately. Either way would suit him.
That entire thought process amazed him. He hadn't… Well. He hadn't had the space in his head to think about it for some time. A good meal, a good bed, and safety finally within his grasp had improved his outlook enormously.
Essenin turned and spotted Zie making his careful way down the steps. "There you are!"
Before Zie could respond, Essenin had bounded up the remaining stairs, offered their arm to support him, and assisted him into a chair near the warmth of the kitchen.
"Auntie Lana, should I—?" Davitts hooked a thumb toward the doorway.
"Thank you, Davs, yes. Go fetch breakfast for all of us." She gave him a fond smile. Ah. Nephew. Perhaps favorite nephew. Her smile turned to envelop Zie. "How are you feeling this morning? You looked three steps from death last night."
From somewhere in his memories, Zie dredged up a charming smile. He hoped it was charming instead of ghastly. "I apologize for causing concern, madam. And yes, I feel much more alive today."
"Good. We'll rewrap your ankle before my young bravos drag you down to the docks."
Essenin claimed the chair on Zie's left. "Could we have the cart, Lana? So Zie won't need to walk."
She gave them an odd look. "You may. But return it the way you found it this time."
The smile dropped from Essenin's face. "That wasn't my fault."
"Debatable," Davitts muttered as he returned from the kitchen balancing a platter of bread and cut fruit on one arm, and an earthenware pot on the other.
The pot contained a grain porridge, well sweetened and spiced, that caused Zie's stomach to growl in hollow outrage, while the fruit was perfectly ripe, scarlet oarpods with some sear berries sprinkled about.
The bread was slathered with—oh wonders of earth—butter, something Zie hadn't tasted in several months.
His breakfast company remained soft-spoken, mainly engaged in eating. He couldn't complain about that. Small talk had become a foreign concept and he certainly didn't want to discuss anything important to him. These warm, wholesome people should be kept away from his problems. Probably away from him as well, but he'd botched that entirely.
The cart ended up being a small trap, only large enough for two small people or one Zie-sized person, pulled by an elderly town gossta no taller than Zie's shoulder and as blue as his coat. She fussed with her wings and pecked at Essenin while they got her in harness, but settled into contented honk mutters once all the buckling and adjusting were complete.
In what seemed an out of character moment, Essenin stood back, hands twisted together, while Davitts settled Zie onto the padded seat of the cart. Once accomplished, Davitts turned a pointed look on his lover and an even more pointed, "Well?"
Essenin cleared their throat. "I behaved badly last evening. I put my hands on you when you said no and didn't listen when you said stop. I'm truly, terribly sorry."
The polite fiction of it's fine, it's of no matter didn't feel right in the face of such earnest self-recrimination. "You won't do it again?"
"I won't." Hopeful and earnest. Difficult to resist.
"Then I accept your apology." Zie reached out to pat their arm. "Your intentions weren't toward harm. I forgive you."
A second sun rose in Essenin's smile and Zie didn't miss the fond and heated gaze Davitts settled on him. How much of the apology had been Essenin’s idea originally? Though perhaps he hadn’t needed much of a shove. They did fit well together. So well. Blossoming thoughts of seduction had to be set aside, though, when Davitts whistled to the gossta and jogged out of the courtyard. The cart jerked into motion and Zie had to concentrate on keeping his seat over the cobbled streets as the old cart bird hurried after the mercenary pair.
Not mercenaries. Guards. The thought was wryly amused, though more of Zie's attention focused on the two figures jogging in front of the cart and their wonderfully muscular backsides. He was so thoroughly distracted, he didn't notice that the streets had opened up until they had entered the harbor. Ships. So many ships. A forest of masts. Large and small, sleek and ponderous. Wonder turned to overwhelmed anxiety. How was he to find an appropriate one in such a dizzying crowd of vessels?
Davitts narrowed his eyes at the newcomer who'd charmed Aunt Lana into giving him the corner booth for dinner and bringing him a cushion to prop his foot up on the bench.
Leaned back against the wall, hiding their grin behind a sip of kelver, Essenin nudged him with their elbow. "You'll set your aunt's new guest on fire if you glare any harder."
"Not sure I like him," Davitts muttered, though he turned to his dinner, which did deserve his attention. Nothing was as good as Aunt Lana's marsh hare stew.
"Oh?" Essenin had dropped the grin, though their dark eyes danced with amusement. "What don't you like? How charming he is? How interesting? How very pretty?"
Davitts shoved at two of Essenin's many black braids so the beads clacked together. "Stop thinking with your nethers. He looks shabby, but paid up front for four days. No luggage. No pack, Auntie said. I think he's on the run."
"As long as he pays, how's that your business, Davs?"
"Don't want any trouble coming here, is all. And I'll keep an eye out for my family so long's I'm in town, thanks much."
"Fair." Essenin's gaze had hardened to something more considering. "Best that we make sure of him, then."
Davitts stared in horror as Essenin picked up their plate and mug, and meandered toward the stranger's table. "What? Ess, wait!"
He knew better than to think Ess would listen, of course. With a sigh, he gathered up his own dinner and followed, plunking himself down opposite while Essenin cozied up next to the stranger, who neither glanced up nor took off his hat.
"Pardon, but I didn't ask for company." The stranger's voice held the soft consonants of the northlands, polite, measured, but definitely not pleased.
"You didn't." Essenin nodded cheerfully. "But you looked like you needed it. I'm Essenin ky Soll na Reabis and my friend here is Davitts ky Antris na Damil, security for hire."
"Mercenaries," the stranger said, tone flat and even less pleased.
"Oh, not usually. We mostly take jobs as caravan guards and private bodyguards. That sort of thing." Essenin leaned closer, probably trying to see under the hat. "Now you're supposed to give us your name."
"Am I?" The stranger let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. I'm Zie."
They both waited for the rest of the name. There had to be more. Essenin broke first. "Just Zie?"
"Yes. Now please go away."
Instead of leaving, Essenin pointed to the propped up, stocking foot. "You've injured yourself, have you? I'll have a look, if you don't mind? Pretty good with this sort of thing."
"I do mind." Zie's head came up far enough to show the horror in his purple eyes—huh, those were pretty—as Essenin strode around the table to the other side and began working off Zie's sock. "Don't…stop that! Let go! Leave that on!"
While it was amusing to watch Essenin steamroll someone who wasn't him, Davitts couldn't help a small internal cringe at how desperate Zie sounded. Frightened instead of annoyed. "Ess, maybe you shouldn't—"
But the sock was already off and Davitts found himself staring at the delicate, though rather swollen foot so suddenly revealed. There were no toenails. Not that they'd been ripped out or anything horrid. They just didn't exist. The bottom of the foot appeared to have pads, like a feline's would. Essenin let out a surprised hiss and released his grip, which allowed Zie to yank his leg away and hide his foot under the table.
"You're sylvas," Essenin said softly. "We'd heard something terrible happened up north. That you were all wiped out."
"Go away," Zie whispered with his eyes squeezed shut as if that might make them vanish.
Davitts blurted out, "Were there other survivors? What happened?"
"You don't have to tell us if you don't want to talk about it," Essenin hastened to add.
"There might be others." Zie shook his head slowly. "I couldn't say."
Essenin shared a stricken look with Davitts, both of them obviously at a loss.
"Now that I've answered all your burning and necessary questions, please give me my sock back and leave me alone."
Essenin had enough sense to look sheepish as they relinquished the sock, but they persisted. "You don't have to hide here, you know. No one cares that you're not human. Not like those bigots in those human towns inland." They pulled down their shirt collar to show their gill slits. "I'm half selak, myself. Davitts' granda was a taur. That's where he gets those big hands."
They accompanied that last bit with an eyebrow waggle and Davitts' face heated. "Ess. Not the time."
Zie heaved another little sigh, removed his hat, placed it carefully on the bench, and went back to his dinner, apparently bent on ignoring them if he couldn't get rid of them. His ears…Davitts hated to admit it, but they were adorable. Set just a bit higher than human ears, pointed at the top with little tufts of fuzz at the very tip, they twitched and turned in reaction to sound. He'd kept his gloves on, but Davitts surmised his hands also had no nails and more than likely had retractable claws instead.
In a silent show of solidarity or maybe just not wanting to frighten Zie off, Davitts started eating again. He felt terrible now for his suspicions, mistaking a tired refugee for a possible criminal. He hoped Essenin would get the hint.
They did not.
"That ankle looks painful. I could wrap it for you. You really should have it wrapped."
For the first time, Zie met Essenin's eyes, and though wariness and exhaustion were topmost, Davitts thought he saw something else. Relief, maybe. "All right. Thank you."
With a smile that looked a shade too triumphant, Essenin hurried off, probably to wheedle medical supplies out of Aunt Lana. They returned quickly with a damp cloth, soaked in teo root extract for the inflammation by the sharp smell, and a length of linen wrap. Gently, and no one knew better than Davitts how gentle their hands could be, Essenin laid the teo cloth on the worst of the bruising and wrapped Zie's ankle securely and efficiently.
In their line of work, they both certainly had practice enough with that sort of thing to do it well.
"How long are you here for?" Essenin asked as he placed Zie's foot back on the cushion and gave it a final pat.
Zie regarded his foot with a frown, then Essenin, and finally Davitts. "No more than four or five days. I need… I'd like to find a ship that will take me."
"I'm asking out of concern, but can you afford ship's passage?" Davitts inquired softly.
"Perhaps." Zie spun his fork in his gloved fingers. "But I can do wind work. I'd hoped someone would need a sail impeller."
"We can help you with that." Essenin patted his knee. "We know people at the harbor."
"Why—?" Zie stopped himself and shook his head. "What do you want for this?"
Davitts opened his mouth to say nothing, they would help someone who needed it without demands, but Essenin spoke before he could, with a bright smile. "Nothing but your company, lovely sir. As much of it as you're willing to give."
But Zie held up a hand and caught Davitts' gaze hard. He couldn't have looked away if he'd tried. "The offer applies to you both?"
The first noise out of Davitts' mouth was a rusty-hinge squeak. How did Essenin just proposition people so…so brazenly? "Ye… Yes?" He cleared his throat. "Yes."
"Done, then." Zie rapped the table three times. "But tonight, I'm going to finish my dinner and go back to sleep."
"And we'll meet you here for breakfast," Essenin suggested, though it didn't sound like a suggestion.
After Zie had limped upstairs to bed, Davitts dropped his head in his hands. "Ess, what in all screaming pits?"
"Oh, come on." They shoved Davitt's shoulder. "He needs help and it'll be interesting."
That was something Davitt couldn’t argue with, not at all.
(Author's note: Welcome to the inaugural episode of "Shadow Run", a serialized high fantasy story about... Well. You'll have to see. Short episodes update every Monday. Until we're done.)
Sunrise bled into the field of snow daisies, painting their petals scarlet, forcing the shadows to bow in submission. Normal, everyday morning shadows. With any luck, his pursuers would be more than two days behind him.
From his perch atop a jagged fencepost, Zie had an excellent view of the northern horizon where his way through the field was no more than a suggestion of passage by now. Not that it mattered how few plants he'd broken as he ran. The wind rose, biting and insistent, whipping his leather coat about his ankles in restless waves of deep blue. His favorite coat…
Lucky thing, that, since it's your only coat now.
Only boots, rather worse for wear. Only shirt. Only… He crouched atop the fencepost, squinting toward the south. How much farther now? What if he was entirely, stupidly wrong? And did it truly matter any longer? He was tired, so cursed exhausted.
The question really is, am I ready to die? Do I deserve to?
A spirit crow let out her laughing cry from three fence posts over and Zie took it as an answer. He was too much of a coward for the first answer to be yes, and too self-involved for the second. Craven panic and narcissism had gotten him this far, why stop now?
When he squinted, smoky haze was just visible in the distance—usually the sign of a sizeable human community. That would do for a few days if he was careful since his pursuers seemed confounded by human towns. A tiny spark of guilt twinged under his breastbone as he considered endangering an entire community, but he never stayed long enough for his hunters to overcome their wariness. The humans had been safe so far. Generally safe. Mostly safe.
He leaped down from the post and ran, his steps light and nearly silent, any sounds covered by the wind rustling through the fields. If he recalled his geography of the region correctly, there would be another river between him and the town.
His pursuers didn't like running water, either, which had been an unexpected blessing.
Yes, there. The shining ribbon of a river appeared as he crested the next hill. Ancient, meandering and wide, he nearly wept to see it. He raced down the slope with his coattails flying behind him, gathering the notion of weightlessness in his mind, the feeling of buoyancy like invisible wings. The toes of his boots just skimmed the current as he stepped out onto the water, never slowing his pace.
Hest had always laughed at him, telling him he didn't have to take it at a sprint. Fine for him, as he stood calmly in the middle of a waterway trying to convince Zie that he wouldn't sink if he slowed down. He never got the knack and running full out over wavelets and white water was more exhilarating, in any case, and Hest was dead--
No. Don't think about that now. Concentrate.
He nearly made it. The horrible images he'd been fighting to suppress caught up with him at the last few steps and he splashed into the shallows, soaking his boots and turning his left ankle on a stone. Cursing and hissing, he limped onto the bank and headed for a cart path up ahead.
"That's fine. It's fine."
He'd made it across and put another obstacle between him and the nightmares behind him. That was the important thing. Never mind that he couldn't run now even if he had to. The cart path became a gravel track which soon joined a smooth, graded road. He spotted the first cart ahead of him—a box wagon pulled by a single draft edlak plodding along with unending patience on half-moon hooves the size of Zie's head.
Now was the perfect time for caution. He pulled his hat lower to shade the non-human purple of his eyes and cover the tips of his ears. His gloves would have to stay on until he gauged the town's atmosphere and no one would see his feet. Come to think of it, he hoped his ankle wouldn't swell so much that he couldn't get the boot off that evening.
Another carter, with an open wagon of hay pulled by a team of placid gosstas, took pity on Zie and let him ride to the town's gate with the hay. Itchy, and the gosstas occasional honking made his ears ache, but better than trying to walk on an ankle that complained more bitterly with each step.
The town, apparently called Pellienport since it was built around the natural harbor where the Pellien River met the sea, bustled with more than human activity, to Zie's relief. No one like him, of course, but he wouldn't be such an oddity in a place where taurs and merfolk openly walked the streets.
A bit of discreet pickpocketing shored up his funds enough to afford food and lodging. Not his finest hour, perhaps, but not his worst, either. He only took from those who could obviously afford it and preferred to steal from people who were arrogant and unpleasant.
Keep telling yourself that makes it better. Go on.
Closer to the center of town, since staying at inns near the gate was always a bad idea, he found The Blue Goblet, a tidy establishment tucked between a hostelry and a potter's shop.
With the last of his energy, he negotiated with the landlady for a private room, dragged his bedraggled backside up the stairs, locked the door, dragged his boots off—the left was a struggle—and collapsed onto the bed for the first real sleep he'd had in weeks.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.