The sun was rude enough to wake Zie the next morning by shining directly into his eyes, which made him sneeze. Then he froze. There was a warm body in the bed at his back. He couldn’t recall what bed.
Slowly, slowly. Piece it back together.
“You’re awake,” a sleepy-soft voice murmured against his shoulder.
The voice conjured a face. Essenin. Falling asleep in a cradle of strong arms. The room at the Blue Goblet.
You’re safe. It’s fine.
He rolled over to meet half-lidded dark eyes. “Good morning.”
“Morning.” Essenin smiled for him and stretched, letting the covers slide to their waist, but seduction was apparently not the goal. “Are you hungry? I’m starved.”
“Where’s your Davitts?”
“Our Davitts is one of those horrible morning people, up at the crack of dawn.” Essenin rubbed both hands over their face. “Something about a list of supplies.”
Zie considered that, drawing one-fingered circles around one of Essenin’s dark nipples. Hope was dangerous and stupid. This sort of hope ember flickering in his chest was even worse. “You’ve taken a job, then?”
“Not officially.” Essenin stopped Zie’s wandering hand and kissed the tip of his finger. “We’re going to take Captain Unav up on her offer. It’s not a lot of work for good pay, and I get out on the waves for a bit.”
Several responses occurred to him, among them, No, you can’t. It still might not be safe, and Is this to look after me? Because I don’t need anyone to. He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth for a moment, cowardice keeping those words inside. “I suppose it’s no hardship to be able to have you both a little longer.”
“We hoped you’d say that.” The gentle kindness in Essenin’s smile squeezed at Zie’s heart—so beautiful, he came close to believing everything would be all right.
Zie poked them in the ribs, making them squirm. “You two were talking while I slept.”
“A bit, perhaps. A smidge. You wouldn’t have woken if the inn collapsed.”
A braver person would’ve told them no. A braver person would’ve recoiled at the thought of these two bright souls putting themselves at risk for someone who didn’t in any way deserve it. But all Zie felt was relief over not being quite so alone.
Boots clattered on the stairs, followed by Davitts shouldering the door open to drop sacks and a stack of crates on the floor. “Are you two sea slugs still in bed?”
“Some of us are civilized and don’t get up with the chockas.” Essenin burrowed against Zie’s side, pretending to go back to sleep.
“Some of us are responsible people who know how much work goes into getting ready for a journey.”
The teasing flowed around Zie, warm and comfortable in the way of people who loved each other and knew each other well. There wasn’t any anger in it, no real annoyance. They each knew perfectly well how the other handled any given situation. Zie wasn’t sure he wanted to face how much it all strengthened the illusion of safety.
Essenin suddenly bounced upright as if they’d remembered something. They scooted up to lean against the headboard and cocked their head at Zie. “Who’s Hest?”
Just like that, the illusion ripped at the seams. Heart hammering, Zie edged away, panicking as he cast about desperately for his pants. Who are they really? Who did they speak to? What do they know? The words snarled out of him, “Why would you ask that?”
“Ess…” Davitts hissed a warning, but Essenin seemed determined.
“You cried out in your sleep. Just that one word.” Essenin spoke gently, as if Zie were a feral kit. “I thought it sounded like a name. Is that who’s hunting you? And why do you think this person can’t cross the water?”
Davitts smacked Essenin’s foot. “Mother of storms, Ess! Shut. Up.”
Oh. With an effort that didn’t do anything to calm his racing heart, Zie stopped edging away. “I see… I…” He shook his head and finally spotted his pants across the room on the floor. Stop panicking. It was a question, not an accusation. Stop. Stop. “No. No, it’s nothing like that. Hest was…”
He caught the change in both their expressions as they interpreted that was. Perceptive, the pair of them.
“You don’t have to tell us,” Davitts said, as he had the first night. “If this isn’t about who’s after you, it doesn’t concern us.”
His voice hitched and broke as Zie allowed himself to say it. “He was my brother. My…” He hesitated again, certain that brother didn’t even explain it halfway. “Have you ever even met any sylvas?”
Davitts came to sit at the foot of the bed, mouth tugged down in a concerned frown. Essenin held a hand out and didn’t answer until Zie had let his fingers settle on their palm. “Only in trader situations. Met, yes, but not ever gotten to know any.”
“All right.” Zie nodded, eyes squeezed shut. “Sylvas children are multiple births. Two to five, usually. A solitary baby is considered a tragedy. Birthmates are...close. More than close. They have connections that I don’t have the words in your language to describe. Hest… We were a creche of two.”
“You lost him. It was something terrible. I’m sorry.” Davitts gave his ankle a gentle shake. “Ess won’t ask anything else about it.”
Essenin made a noise that sounded like dissent, but they snapped their mouth shut and nodded, giving Zie’s fingers a squeeze.
The remainder of the day. Zie made certain to focus on what was immediately in front of him—the extra clothes Davitts had picked up for him along with an extra pair of boots, a pack and a few necessities for living outdoors. Not that they would be aboard a ship, but there was no predicting what would happen after.
Acute embarrassment skirmished with gratitude in Zie’s head over these gifts, not only freely given, but thoughtfully since Davitts had quietly taken measurements of his worn clothes. He kept waiting for the terrible reveal, for his new friends to suddenly show their bad intentions, but aside from Essenin being too nosy and Davitts being too reticent, nothing happened to tweak Zie’s paranoia.
The whole day of sorting and packing, snacking and snuggling, had a hazy golden glow to it, as if it were a dream of a day, a cocoon of wishful thinking. They had dinner in the room again and turned in before the sun had even set. They needed to be up in the dark of the morning to make Captain Unav’s deadline.
When they did rise in the chill hours before dawn with Essenin grumbling pitiably about being shoved out of the lovely warm bed, Zie found himself seized by a strange energy where his limbs felt lighter, his chest unburdened. He was...cheerful. Imagine that. They would be on the water soon, and there had been no sign, no whiff at all, that his pursuers were near.
He was going to get away. Finally. A laugh nearly escaped him to have desperation exchanged for hope.
Essenin wrapped his ankle tight—much better that morning with the swelling receding—and they set off at a brisk pace for the spit of beach outside the harbor where a launch would be dragged up on the sand, waiting for them. Davitts whistled softly as he walked, the light from his lantern bobbing with each stride. The cozy yellow light reminded Zie of the day before and he smiled, watching the lantern cut through the shadows.
From one breath to the next, all his cheer vanished. Cold swept up his back in dreadful certainty. The beach was in sight now, the launch a dark lump a few hundred yards away, but Zie’s eyes were drawn to the copse of trees that crowded up close to the beach. The trees. Shifting in a wind that defied the direction of the sea breeze. The trees, with their restless, skittering shadows.
“No. Not now,” Zie whispered. He grabbed his companions by their arms, his heart banging against his chest. “Don’t talk, no questions. Just run.”
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.