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.
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.