It happened that Rolli did have belongings. He’d left them with his edlak, Bramble, and had been too drunk to retrieve them the night before or to see to her stabling. Luckily, she was smarter than her owner and had stayed near the inn, happily grazing.
Essenin shook their head in disgust as they watched Rolli try to catch her trailing reins, which she kept jerking out of his hands. All right. It was a little funny. But they were impatient to be on their way.
When they finally ran out of patience, they took a tash root from their pouch, held it out, and called, “Bramble!”
Her ears pricked forward. Ah, she remembers me. She picked her head up and trotted over eagerly to accept the treat while Essenin caught her reins.
Rolli heaved a sigh and snatched the reins. “You don’t have to be so perfect all the time.”
“You need to say that where my aunties can hear you.” Essenin backed Sidle up so Rolli had room to mount. “Are you ready? Will there be angry people chasing us out of town?”
“Not this time.” Rolle squinted in the sunlight, his expression uncertain. “At least I don’t think so.”
No one did shout, chase or throw things after them as they rode off, something of a small miracle. They both rode in silence for an entire mile, but neither of them were naturally taciturn people, and Essenin realized they weren’t that annoyed with Rolli.
Curiosity finally got the better of them. “Why were you trying to drink yourself to death?”
“Not to death. Goddesses no. Just to kill the pain.” Rolli let out a tragic sigh and Essenin kept quiet to give him space for his story.
“I’d found the most wonderful situation with a titled landowner. In exchange for music when he required it and several nights a week in his bed—not a chore since he wasn’t bad looking—I had a lovely room of my own, food whenever I was hungry, and a comfortable stipend. Perfect. Everything was perfect. I thought my wandering days were finally over.”
Essenin knew the pause for a spot where they were supposed to say something. “And then?”
“And then Loric’s mother badgered him into getting married.”
“That should’ve been good? Two patrons instead of one?” Essenin puzzled this through for a moment. “Is this one of those one exclusive partner human things?”
“I could’ve lived with being kicked out of his bed. We enjoyed each other’s company but we weren’t desperately in love.” Rolli slumped, the picture of abject dejection. “But she didn’t like me.”
“Imagine that.” Essenin’s voice was devoid of expression.
“I could’ve been an asset to the household! Entertained guests. Played for the ladies at their sewing. Taught the children.”
“There were children?”
“Well, eventually. One assumes there would be.” Rolli gave a dismissive wave. “But no. Loric told me to pack up and get out. Kicked me out of my cozy, sunny room and my safe, easy life. To keep the peace, he said. Sorry, my dear, you understand. I cracking well did not. But he wouldn’t hear any arguments, so I got tossed out on my lovely ass.”
Essenin did not fall for the shameless compliment fishing. “I see.”
“There. I’ve told my story.” Rolli turned his sewa around on its strap and began tuning it. “Now let’s hear yours.”
Careful to leave out bits that Zie might feel were too personal, Essenin told the tale, from first spotting Zie at the inn to them splitting up to confound the Shadows and find an elder mahk. By the time they’d finished, Rolli was staring at him in horror.
“These monsters are following you?”
“No. Rolli, you don’t listen. The monsters are following Zie. He went the other way so he wouldn’t lead them to the sylvas.”
“Oh.” Rolli put a hand to his chest and blew out a slow breath. “Yes. Sorry. I got stuck on the formless unstoppable monsters part.”
“Sorry.” Essenin cringed inwardly. It’s a lot to take in and I dumped it on him all at once, someone who’s never even held a weapon in his life. “But none of that will get near you, Rolls. You take me to the sylvas and then you can head in the opposite direction.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to run away with me?” Rolli sighed when Essenin glared at him. “No, no, I wasn’t serious. Mostly. But this does seem like a sylvas problem, doesn’t it? Generally ignoring humans, possessing but not otherwise harming selaks. Shouldn’t they be solving this?”
“The one that survived is trying his best to do just that.” Essenin shot him another dark look and Rolli flushed. “I’m not asking you to approve and I’m not asking you to be even a little bit of a hero.”
“Right.” Rolli’s laugh had a pained, brittle quality. “That would be absurd.”
“Now we’re all caught up and everything’s been explained. Where do you suggest we start?”
“Oh, probably best to start at the Tzak compound.” Rolli pointed up the valley to the east. “They’re centrally located and talk to most of the clans here.”
“And they’re still speaking to you.”
Rolli nodded. “And most importantly, they’re still speaking to me.”
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.