“No.” Zie said the word softly, but it resonated to the marrow of his bones. I just have you both back. We’re together now. Don’t do this.
Ess frowned and put their bowl of porridge down. “You’re not being sensible, sweetling. What other way is there?”
I know I’m not being sensible. I don’t want to be sensible right now. If you leave, I don’t know if you’re safe. I want you both with me. And I want you both to go. Zie couldn’t bear to say any of that and drew his hat farther down over his face as if he could hide, adding childish to the list of his faults.
“Let’s look at this piece by piece.” Davitts reached over to take his hand and didn’t let go when Zie hissed at him. “We have to assume the shadows will find a way off the island.”
“Yes.” Still hissing. Stop it.
Davitts gave their joined hands a little shake. “When they do, they’ll search for you, and if you go to the sylvas compounds, you’ll put them in danger.”
“Of course I can’t go there. Not now.” Zie managed to pry his hand away. “I have to think of something else.”
Ess rolled their eyes. “Like what? Feeding yourself to the Shadows? Your first plan was the best one. Find help from people who understand sylvas disciplines.”
I had thought of that. It might have worked before, simply letting them have me. But now, in a new land with more sylvas for them to destroy? No. I can’t just… And I’m too afraid to do it, in any case. “You should both go. Together.”
“Mother of storms,” Ess muttered and threw their hands up in a helpless gesture.
In the face of recalcitrance, Davitts only grew more patient. He pushed his last steamed bun toward Zie, knowing he couldn’t resist, and leaned in to speak softly. “That’s not up for negotiation, I’m afraid. We won’t leave you to face this alone, not if we can help it.”
“I managed alone well enough.”
“Up to a point. Though you could’ve drowned the night your wave walking failed you,” Davitts took the bun off the plate, put it in Zie’s hand, and waited until he started nibbling on it. “Sylvas are much more likely to talk to a selak they don’t know than a human. Ess gets the job of finding them and telling them what’s happened. And you need someone at your back. I’m really good at that.”
“I should never have involved you,” Zie whispered, wondering if he could crawl up into his hat.
Ess gave him a cheerful cuff on the shoulder. “Too late now. We’re involved so far in, you’ll never get us out.”
“That sounded…wrong somehow.” Davs rubbed the bridge of his nose with a weary sigh.
“You…” Zie tried one more, desperate tactic. “You don’t know where the sylvas are on this continent.”
“Oh?” Ess raised a dark eyebrow at him. “So you know, suddenly?”
“They’re…” I don’t know where, but I know where they would most likely be. I’m the sylvas here. But did he know where the mountain compounds were? “No.”
“It’ll be all right,” Davs broke in before they started truly arguing. “Ess is good at finding things out. They’ll head for the mountains and when they’re close enough, start asking people. Everyone wants to talk to Ess.”
“And we just wander about?” Zie waved his spoon in exasperation.
“No. We head in the opposite direction.” Davs sipped his juice, looking smug. “I know a place.”
“And how will Ess ever find us again?”
Ess waggled their eyebrows. “I also know this place.”
I could just drown myself in the porridge. “Wonderful. You two have everything solved and I’d lost the argument before I could say a word. When did you even talk about all of this?”
Davs had the grace to look chagrined. “You were sleeping really hard this morning.”
And there it is. I’ve dropped my guard so completely, just because I’ve had pleasant company. I’m going to get us all killed at some point. Even as he thought it, he knew he was lying to himself again. Pleasant company didn’t begin to cover it. Trust was only the half of it. He knew how he felt. No need to pretend.
“Zie?” Ess stroked his arm, concern all over their face.
“I’m fine. It’s fine. We’ll try this…this whatever it is you two have concocted.” Though I reserve the right to go facedown in porridge and drown myself in the future.
Having won their point, Ess did a little dance in their chair and returned to their breakfast. Zie did his best to maintain a displeased glower, but it was difficult to remain angry with Ess. By the time they’d finished breakfast and had packed up to leave, all his annoyance had transformed to sorrow.
He trudged into the courtyard behind Davs’ broad back, automatically relinquishing his pack when Davs reached for it. The reason didn’t occur to him until Ess cleared their throat.
“Where did you get enough money to hire mounts? Were you doing some work on the side before we got here?”
Davs snorted and stopped fastening a pack to one of the three edlaks’ harnesses. “Captain Unav paid us before I left the ship.”
“Uh-huh. And when were you planning on giving everyone their share?” Ess tapped a foot, hands on their hips.
“Here, Zie. She gave you a little extra beyond passage. For all your hard work.” Davs handed a bag of coins over for Zie before securing the next pack.
“Davs!” Ess spat out.
“You’re terrible with money.”
“You want me to starve.” Ess spread their hands and looked toward Zie in entreaty. “Do you hear this? He wants me to starve. Or have to beg for a place in an animal shed if it storms.”
Davs’ laugh was warm and, to Zie’s ears, tinged with sadness. Maybe they teased each other so they wouldn’t cry at partings. Sensible. He pulled a larger purse out and tossed it to Ess. “There. Your share. Try to be a responsible grownup person with it.”
Ess pocketed it with a sigh. “I’ll miss you. Even your too seriousness.”
“Don’t start.” Davs pulled him into a bone-creaking hug. “It won’t be long. Right?”
Unable to stand it a moment longer, Zie slammed into their embrace, trying to hug as much as he could. “Be safe. Be smart and swift.” He wiped at his eyes. “Don’t you dare come back not all right.”
“I’m a little concerned that I understood that.” Ess let go of Davs to hold Zie properly and tip his face up for a kiss. “I’ll be fine. You two watch out for each other. I don’t know when I’ll get back to you, but I will. Promise.”
Davitts pulled him back gently and kept a hand on his shoulder while Ess mounted the taller, red edlak. They rode away, turning once to offer a smile and a wave before a bend in the road obscured them from sight.
A shiver ran down Zie’s back and he hoped that wasn’t a rare spot of prescience. Ess would be all right. They had to be.
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.