Arc Two: Side Jobs
Jen leaned against the wall and listened to the muffled conversation going on behind the door. He couldn't make out what was being said, but Dhaymin's voice had a definite touch of enthusiasm, which was more than enough to fill Jen with dread.
They'd ended up in the town of Raketi after several days on the south road, during which the weather had remained frosty at best, the dirt frozen solid each morning, thawing throughout the day, only to freeze again overnight. The promise of civilisation, though, held little after the events surrounding Koiski's town. Word had been exchanged. "I'm not doing the thing," Jen had said. "You are not making me do the thing. I'm fed up of doing the thing."
"Served us well so far," Dhaymin had said.
"Why do we have to do the thing, anyway? Oh, I know someone always wants a monster dealing with, but there can't be monsters everywhere? Why can't we go somewhere and get money in a way that doesn't involve monsters?"
The last question was the one he never asked. Why did they have to be beast-hunters? It was true that if you were going to travel, it paid to be one, or know one, but why did that have to apply all the time? Jen could only describe his situation in the wake of his father's death as being cut loose, and yet not noticing. He suddenly found himself faced with the possibility that he didn't have to be a beast-hunter, that he could put it all aside and there was nobody to stop him.. and do what? He didn't know, but he thought again of Sinak Island. He was, after all, only doing it until he got there.
But it would be nice to do something else on the way, too.
He was pulled out of his contemplation by the door being flung open, and a very pleased Dhaymin striding through. "Jen!" he said. "Good news. I've found us something to do, and it isn't the thing!"
Jen sprung forward, to where Dhaymin stood. "No monsters?"
"No monsters, promise!"
Jen laughed and pulled his brother into a hug. "Not at all?"
"None at... well." Dhaymin pulled away. "Does talking about monsters count?"
"Now, this is why I'm telling you the woods are dangerous." Dhaymin paused in striding back and forth and pulled up a trouser leg to reveal his scar, a knot of pale, ragged flesh. "If you want to go into the woods, you have to be a warrior. You have to think like a warrior. You have to know the forest, and what's in there, and you must never, ever let your guard down. Understood?"
The assembled children stared back at him with rapt expressions.
All things considered, Jen thought as he watched from the corner, this hadn't gone as badly as he'd thought. Dhaymin had assured him everything would work. "Children love bloody stories! Helps them remember things better, if there's a bit of gore. Just like how you were always good at midwinter because of the fingernail monster, right?" At least it was a chance to see the longstanding Toxiliviti traditions of knowledge being passed on, even if the knowledge was distinctly Dhaymin-flavoured, and the proceedings occasionally got interrupted by a hand shooting up and an accompanying cry of "But I have to pee..."
That aside, the children seemed to be enjoying it. They all sat cross-legged on the woven mats that covered the classroom floor, watching Dhaymin talk. "Did it have really big teeth?" one of them said.
"Big as your hand!" said Dhaymin. Well, Jen thought, if they ever gave up on beast-hunting, maybe they'd make good teachers.
"And big claws?"
"Really, really big?"
"Really, really, really big!" Dhaymin leaned over the little group and flexed his fingers, bending them into claw-shapes. "And then it came for me, and do you know what else it did?" He straightened back up, and pointed to his face. "Now this, this is why you really don't want to go into the woods. Because I was lucky, see, It took a swipe at my head, and if I'd just been a little further forward, or it had reached a bit more, it would have smashed my skull open, and then all my brains would have come out."
Dhaymin's audience didn't move or make a sound. This was probably not something anyone wanted to risk missing.
"So it took my eyes out instead," Dhaymin said. "Slashed them both open!"
"Did it hurt?"
"It did sting a bit. But I was lucky again, see, because I had the best brother on Sena and he took me all the way home through the forest!" Dhaymin pointed to Jen, still sitting in the corner and watching. Jen gave them a wave (noting, as he did, that he was conveniently leaving out the part about their father), and Dhaymin went on. "That's the other thing about being a warrior. You don't just have to be able to fight. You have to help people who get hurt. And it's not all finished even when you get home. If you get hurt, you have to keep it clean, or it'll get infected."/p>
Oh no. He's not going to talk about that. Jen had managed to blank the whole thing from his mind, after running off to find something to vomit in and leave Kejik, who for all her nervous disposition had a healer's stomach, to do the work. Even then, there were moments, late at night, when the sight of Dhaymin's eyes afterwards had come back, and no matter how hard he tried, he'd probably never forget the... the green stuff. "Dhaymin," he whispered, I don't think this is a good-"
But Dhaymin wasn't listening. "So anyway," he went on, "that's what happened to my eyes. Now we had a good healer back home, but she knew she'd never save my sight anyway, so she took them out." By now he had his audience at total attention, the children all perfectly still. "Now, do you all want to see what it looks like now?" He reached around the back of his head, to where he'd tied his blindfold under his hair.
"Dhaymin!" hissed Jen.
There was a swish of fabric, as the blindfold came away.
And then there was a lot of noise.
"I'm really, really, really sorry," Jen said. "Look, if there's anything I can do to help-"
"I could have you for another session," said the teacher. "Aren't you going to drink your tea?"
"Oh," said Jen, remembering she'd poured him a cup. "Sorry." It had a cool, piney taste to it, in sharp contrast to the hot water. "It's very nice."
"We've been having so many problems with children trying to play in the woods," she went on, "especially after summer, when they forget how dangerous it is. I don't think we'll have any trouble for a while, now. I think your brother... made an impression."
"What did I tell you?" said Dhaymin. "Children love bloody stories!" He leaned against the wall, while all three of them sat around the low table. "It's winter soon. Do they have the fingernail monster down here?"
"Dhaymin, you are not telling them about the fingernail monster!"
"That's an old Rhusavi children's story, isn't it?" said the teacher. "I'd be very interested in hearing it. At least to tell the children something about the world outside. It's very rare we find someone so willing to talk as you and your..."
"Brother," Jen said. He finished off the last of his tea and leaned back, knowing he was beaten. "If anything," he said, "I'm surprised to see a school here at all. We've not seen one like this before."
"It's difficult," said the teacher. "But I suppose it's our way of surviving. If some of the children are good students, we might be able to send them away to one of the bigger cities, somewhere south. It's safer there, and a lot of the southern lords still want scholars, not hunters. They could even take their families!"
"Hah!" said Jen. "You see, Dhaymin? The south's holding! Because of knowledge! I told you learning things was good too!"
"Nothing wrong with knowledge," said Dhaymin. "Especially if it's the sort about how to survive."
"I should never have doubted you were brothers."
There was a sudden thump, as something slammed into the wall outside, causing the teapots to shake and spill all over the table. Jen and Dhaymin were instantly on their feet, but the teacher simply got up, walked over to the window, and called out "I told you to be careful! The wall is not for playing with!"
"Sorry!" chorused a couple of children. Jen looked over the teacher's shoulder, to see the two of them turn away and back to each other. "Right!" one of them said. "Why don't you be Dhaymin this time, and I'll be the monster! I want to be the monster!"
"See?" said Dhaymin. "They love me."
Jen awoke at first to the golden light of dawn in his eyes, streaming in through the angled attic window. A stiff ache ran through his legs, the product of several days walking, and he stretched, letting out a quiet groan of satisfaction. In the background he could hear the low sound of Dhaymin's breathing, his brother doubtless still asleep. A little while longer, could it hurt so much? No. Why ruin a perfect morning, where he didn't even have to do anything?
He drifted off back to sleep, his dreams a half-remembered blur of light and colour, and he didn't wake again until he heard Dhaymin calling him. "Jen, come on! If I'm awake and you're not, then that's got to be something new."
"..weren't sleeping..." Jen said, throwing aside the covers.
"You were doing a very good impression of it, then."
"Shut up," Jen pulled the last of the covers away and got to his feet. Though there were no spare beds available, they'd been given an old attic above the classrooms to sleep in, which was at least warm and dry, and a generous if not worn and faded pile of blankets. The wooden floors creaked like old stage boards, the sun, warmed by its passage through the window, still shone bright even though the golden dawn-light had passed. "Is there water?" His lips were dry again.
"Don't know, why don't you have a look? Pass me some if we still have any. Dream well?"
"Nothing much, it's all blurry now. Felt a bit like I was running, though." Jen looked back over at Dhaymin, who was rummaging through his own pack. "Or flying, maybe. You?"
"Ugh," Dhaymin shuddered. "Well, least you weren't on a boat. I think I got killed again. I'm getting used to it now. Bracing, really."
Jen shrugged and walked over to where he remembered leaving his pack. "What was it this time?" He shivered, not through Dhaymin's dream-fate, but the chill that permeated the attic even with the weak sun. Where had he left them? It must have been the other corner, after all.
"I'm not sure," Dhaymin went on. "I think it was bears. How uncreative is bears? The ice-bear was ages ago, you'd think-"
"Dhaymin, what have you done with my clothes?"
"What would I want to do with your clothes?"
Jen peered into the darkest corners, where the roof slanted down to the floor and the beams created little caverns of dust and darkness, perfect for hiding things away, but he came up with nothing more than a few disturbed spiders and silverfish. "Shut up. Just tell me where you've put them!"
"I told you, I haven't see- I don't know where they are. Mine are right here. Should teach you to go to sleep after slinging them into a corner, shouldn't it?"
"Dhaymin, this isn't funny!" Jen backed into the centre of the attic, the only spot where he could stand upright, and cast a glance around, but there was no sign of his pack anyway. "I think we've been robbed."
Jen huddled down, wearing nothing but his underclothes and a pile of blankets that he'd wrapped around himself to ward off the cold. A creak somewhere in the distance told him someone was coming, and he could only hope it was Dhaymin. He'd tried to get his brother to lend him his clothes, so he could find help, but Dhaymin had another touchy moment and insisted he could find his way perfectly well on his own. It seemed he'd been right, at least. The trapdoor flung open, and Dhaymin emerged into the attic, closely followed by the familiar sight of Vesin, the teacher they'd been speaking to yesterday. "Dhaymin told me what happened," she said. "I'm so sorry!"
"You didn't have anything to do with it," he said.
"It's my schoolhouse, and you are my guests," she said. "I should take responsibility. At least let me find you something to wear."
"That's going to be a bit difficult," said Dhaymin. "I don't think he's stopped growing yet."
"I'm really sorry," said Vesin.
"Don't be," Jen said. The clothes that Vesin had managed to dig up were pinching in places he didn't want to think of, but true to Dhaymin's words, he'd had trouble with well fitting clothes for much of his adult life. "Don't even get what I had that was worth stealing. Didn't see anyone tall enough."
"Don't ask me," said Dhaymin. "I'm just the short one."
"I don't know anyone who would." Vesin stood close by Dhaymin's side. "Sometimes people have reasons� maybe it was something else you had on you."
"I was always under the impression nobody would dare steal from a beast hunter." Dhaymin strode over to Jen, who was trying to keep his own movements to a minimum. "Situation's obvious." He smiled. "We're dealing with an idiot."
"Vesin's got no more clue than I have," said Dhaymin, He took a gulp of the pine tea and continued. "There's only two people around here who'd ever think of leaving town with your clothes. Or leaving town at all, come to think of it."
"Us. Are you going to eat the rest of that?" Dhaymin's attempts at finding breakfast had come up with the usual fare of nuts and dried fruits, though there was a little precious meat too (also dried, but Dhaymin wasn't picky), and plenty of pine tea. He'd have thought Jen would have been more grateful. As the morning wore on and the town of Raketi came to life, the world became more and more of a blur of sound, to the point where he'd been running on memory alone to get from the schoolhouse to Vesin's home. If Jen would just get off his backside and out of the attic, life could be a lot easier.
"You can have what you want," said Jen.
"You do know you can't stay here forever," said Dhaymin, tearing off a slice of dried meat. He couldn't identify the animal, and perhaps he didn't want to, but there was at least a pleasant smoked flavour.
"Why?" Jen said. "There's going to be a monster involved. There's always a monster involved. Everywhere we go, there's a monster. It's probably wearing my clothes right now and waiting for me to show up and fight it."
"So go out and fight it!"
"Yes, well what if I don't want to? I didn't exactly ask to be a beast-hunter!"
"I didn't ask to be blind. Life shits on you like that."
There was no reply from Jen, but Dhaymin heard the scrape and creak of wood as he stood up, and then a hollow thunk, the attic shaking in time. "Ow! Stupid roof!"
"I did warn you, you'd have to stop growing someday. You might want to make a start."
"Oh, be quiet."
There was another creak as Jen sat back down, muttering in pain. Dhaymin poured out another mug of pine tea, the cool scent wafting afresh through the air, and offered it to him. "Come on," he said. "We're not going to get much done by sitting here."
Jen took it from his hands. "Dhaymin?"
"Everything that happened to us - how did you get over it so easily?"
"Get over it?" Dhaymin spoke the words as though they were in some unfamiliar language. He picked up his own cup of pine tea, running his fingers over the rapidly cooling, smooth surface. "Over it? Jen, I'm not even close to over it! Going to be a long time before I ever am. It doesn't just go away like that, it's just... this is how I am, don't you remember? Just because I know what happened to us... I don't know. Jen, I'm not the word-person, you are! But do you know how it is? You ever feel like we both spat on our names? You ever feel like you can still remember Mother calling you useless? Well I do!" Getting to his feet, with a little more caution than Jen had, he strode across the attic, stopping to lean against a beam, the sun warm against his back. "Every time I can't do something. She's there, telling me I should just die. But I don't want to! Wouldn't even if I did! I just have to stay alive. Keep spitting on my name." He sank back to the floor and sat cross-legged in the shade. "Sometimes I'm jealous of you. You can sit there and mope all you want. I don't even know how."
"Yes, well, it's me she blames for it all. Father'd do the same if he were still alive, you know."
"At least your little blood problem's going to take time to kick in!"
"At least you're not going to lose your mind!"
That stalled the entire conversation. A silence descended across the attic, the brothers daring one another to break it, neither one willing to cave in. Jen would be watching him, curled up in a tangle of lanky limbs, gold eyes glaring in his direction. Dhaymin didn't need to see to know that. He leaned back again, until he lay flat out on the floor, one arm tucked under his head. The air felt still and smelt of dust and dryness.
Eventually, Jen gave up. "I'm going outside. Think I need some fresh air." Dhaymin heard him get up again, the slam of the trapdoor, the careful, regular creaks as he descended the ladder.
For a brief moment, there was silence. Dhaymin's breath dislodged an ancient spider's web, which brushed against his nose. He pushed it aside. There he went again, moping. He'd been this close to asking someone for directions when he'd gone for background, but no, he'd trusted to memory, not caving in to the memory of his mother. That had been something, hadn't it? And he'd only been here a day. Just because Mother would claim it wasn't enough, just like she'd claimed his ability to get around the holding wasn't enough...
Jen darted into the alley by Vesin's home, barely more than a narrow gap, enclosed on all sides but the exit by wooden walls. He looked down at the wall beside him, on which someone had scratched "Teskin Is A-" followed by a set of symbols Jen couldn't decipher. Nevertheless, some things do not require translation, and right now, he could imagine a fleeting kinship with this unknown Teskin person.
Not that it excused anything he'd said to Dhaymin. Ugh. There he went again, letting the hidden depth voice go shouting. Wasn't the world simple enough? There were monsters, and there were people who wanted to be saved from monsters. Moping and contemplating it wasn't going to get anything done. Now-
"-should make him happy. He's always looking for something normal to do."
It was Dhaymin's voice, coming from a nearby window. Jen edged closer, pressing against the wall again, his breath as quiet as he could manage.
"I can't imagine I'd want to be you." That was Vesin.
"You talk as if you don't do good yourself."
How had Dhaymin gotten there before him? Well, of course - because he didn't have to hide every time someone saw him before they asked why he was wearing a dress. He inched a little closer. Dhaymin clearly had something planned for him, but "make him happy" had an ominous ring.
"You'd say that?"
"Would do. Now.. tonight. After your lessons. Think we could talk a little more?"
Jen knew exactly what that meant, and pulled away from the window before he had to hear any more. Going to teach me to eavesdrop, he thought, as he walked around to the front, checking nobody was there. Thankfully the road outside was empty again, and it was the work of a moment to slip inside, just in time to hear Dhaymin say: "Jen? I don't think he's attracted to anything. Except maybe books, and I don't want to imagine how that works."
"Hello, Dhaymin," Jen said. "Hello Vesin." He ignored them for a moment, taking in his surroundings. This was the first time he'd been inside Vesin's home, and the first thing to strike him was how small everything was - the whole place was little more than one little room, bits of it partitioned off by screens and thick, woven curtains. Light from the window he'd been listening through earlier illuminated low furniture, ancient chairs worn down by many bodies over the years, shelves and hooks, and a corner set aside for cooking. A faint yet rich aroma in the air indicated there'd been breakfast not a few hours ago - presumably the same breakfast he and Dhaymin had shared.
"Please, sit down." Vesin pulled out a chair for him, and he sank into it, running a hand over the faded, yet still soft fabric. He leaned back, watching as Dhaymin hovered over them. "And you," Vesin went on. "I have lessons later on, but I need you for something else."
"No monsters," said Dhaymin. "I made sure of that."
"Or children," added Vesin.
"So what is it?"
Vesin pointed to another corner, where Jen could just about make out a ladder, reaching up into the shadowy ceiling. "My attic. Needs a good clean. I'm sure you're up for the task!"
"Do you think this is what normal life is like? I mean cleaning out someone else's things?"
"What normal life?" Jen pulled open another crate, a cloud of dust rising into his face. It rose up like thick grey smoke, weaving its way into his nostrils and causing him to double over with a few explosive sneezes before he could continue. "Nobody gets one of those unless they're in a story." He remembered the library at home. It hadn't been much bigger than this attic, and nobody except himself read the books. There'd been a few novels tucked in there, the sort with descriptions he hadn't understood until he was about twelve, and even then only because Dhaymin had explained a few to him. "And I don't think those are very realistic, anyway."
The other thing Jen remembered about the library was how Father kept it because the books had belonged to his family (the novels, in particular, had been his little sister's favourite). There'd been a terrible winter, worse even than normal, when Jen was about eight, one where they'd barely been able to eat, and all they could do was sit holed up and hope for spring. Mother had suggested they burn the library's stocks, because they were no use to anyone now. Jen had already been looking for an excuse to slip away and say his goodbyes, without anyone suspecting. But to his surprise Father had stood up and stated, in a voice Jen still remembered with perfect clarity "Not those. They stay." And that had been the end of it.
Perhaps this explained why Vesin kept an attic stuffed with personal treasures. But her reasons for wanting a cleanout edged toward the practical end. "I told you about why I bothered to set up a school in the first place," she'd said. "I received word a few days before you arrived that one of my students had been accepted in a city to the south. She won't be able to travel until spring, of course, but I have so much old junk. I thought I should give her something useful, to remember us by."
"Yes, well, I'm still doing my best to find out," said Dhaymin. "I just wish it were a bit easier, you see? Like I could grab say, this-" and here he snatched up an object from the stack he'd been standing by, "and say there, this, this is the answer to all our problems! Don't work like that, but I'm still trying. What am I holding, anyway?" He turned the item over and over in his hands, running his fingers over the smooth edges. "Watch, I think. Would that be a good gift?"
It was indeed a watch, as Jen found out when he came closer for a look. "I don't know," he said. "Don't they think funny about time here? They'll start talking about Kroakani's domain if we hand that over." It fitted neatly in the palm of Dhaymin's hand, glinting golden in the shafts of afternoon sun that lanced through the attic. "Though that is the seal of Rakaros, on the outside," he added, noting the engraved rabbit-and-sun design.
"Must be a ward," said Dhaymin. "Rubbish idea anyway. It doesn't even work, it's not ticking."
"Sounds like it to me," said Jen.
"No. Hold it. It's dead." Dhaymin passed it over to Jen, who clasped it tight in his hands. True to Dhaymin's word, there was no telltale twitch to indicate any working mechanism. Flipping it open, he noticed that the hands held still.
"Then there's another one," he said. There was, indeed, a sound in the air, rather like the tick of a clock, but, now that he listened carefully, more like a humming, an insectoid buzz. He felt a rush run through his body, a cold grip. "Dhaymin. Get away from the wall."
Dhaymin did as he was told, turning to stand by Jen's side. "You're right," he said. "Doesn't sound like any clock I've ever heard."
Jen took a few cautious steps forward, toward the shadowed eaves. Something stirred in the dark, something he'd taken for a pile of clothes, or an empty sack, or maybe an old child's toy. A low chittering, just at the edge of hearing, rang out as the creatures, their rest disturbed, inched their way toward him on jointed insect-legs. "Fuck," he muttered. "And I thought I'd have one day without any monsters!"
"Hah! We have defeated you! Get out of that, monster!" Dhaymin held the bag at arm's length, all the better to avoid the furious creature inside. The fabric twisted and bulged with its struggles, an angry buzz emanating from within. "Now. What do we actually do with this thing?"
Jen sighed. "That's not what I'm worried about." The creature hadn't put up much of a fight - to Jen's eyes it was more angry at having its resting place disturbed. But it had let out a nasty hissing sound as he'd thrown the bag over it, and he wasn't about to take chances. "We don't know if it's dangerous."
"I've never seen one of those before!" said Vesin. "But I suppose it makes sense that not all monsters are dangerous. I suppose you only ever pay attention to the ones that are."
"It's life," said Jen. "Some days you get things with teeth, other days you get... bees."
"Didn't know the bees ever got so big in Rhusav."
"They don't. That's the problem." Jen looked back at the twitching bag, and an idea came to mind. "Vesin, do you have any spare fruit? Fresh? I... I can go and find more afterwards if you need me to. Dhaymin, give me that bag."
"What kind of nonsense are you planning now?" said Dhaymin. He handed it over anyway. "You get stung, it's on your ground!"
"I don't think it's got a sting, actually," said Jen. He took hold of the bag in both hands, slowly pulling it open just enough to get a glimpse of the thing inside. It looked about cat-sized, just big enough to fit in both hands. In the darkness, he saw soft, dust-grey hair, spiny legs, and a pair of large eyes looking up at him. The tiny wings twitched in a warning buzz, and then there was a crackling noise, a brief flash of light, and Jen felt the hair on his body stand on end as though he'd pulled off a dogswool shirt. He closed the bag with a snap, letting the creature return to its struggles. "Well, it's got something. Wouldn't touch it."
"Do you think there are more of them?" Vesin had found what he wanted - a handful of juicy black berries, the last of the autumn's crop.
Jen took one and pushed the bag open with a finger. "Maybe. Let me see what it does here." With his free hand, he offered a berry through the gap. He heard scrabbling and scratching, but now he had the thing's attention, and was satisfied to see it pluck it from his hand, mandibles working away at the soft flesh. "I thought so! Bees drink from flowers, right? This one has jaws, which bees don't, but I thought then it might like fruit or something. I don't want to assume it's not dangerous, though."
"So we know what it eats," said Dhaymin. "That's wonderful. Now we can throw it a feast!"
"If it eats fruit, it won't have much to live on now," said Vesin, who was by now looking over Jen's shoulder at the creature. "Oh! I think I know now! That means they're looking for places to hibernate!"
"So in other words..." began Jen.
"...they could be anywhere!" finished Dhaymin.
"I see," said Vesin. "Well, I know what I'm setting you two to, now."
Jen sighed again, his shoulders falling into a slouch. At least the creature had calmed down, now he'd fed it.
Dhaymin, meanwhile, sided up to him with a grin. "Hey Jen. Let's take this separately. I bet I can catch more of these things than you."
"I think I'll save my money for later, what there is of it," said Vesin. "But I might favour Jen." She smiled, and drew up a bit closer to him.
"You got a problem with me?" Dhaymin drew himself up to his full height - still nowhere near Vesin or Jen's, but respectable nevertheless. "I can catch twenty by sunset!"
Jen looked from Dhaymin to Vesin, "You... I..." His face flickered through expressions, and settled on a grin to match Dhaymin's. "I can catch twenty five!"
"Fi-all of them!"
"I... you have it, Dhaymin! You take Vesin, I'll go alone, and I'll see you back here at sunset! And I've got one on you already, remember!" He turned, still with the bag in his hands, and strode toward the door - only to feel a tug as a fold of fabric caught in his leg, causing him to come crashing to the ground, still with the bag in his grasp. The creature inside let out another angry buzz at the impact, as Jen got back to his feet and brushed himself off, rubbing at a few stinging, grazed spots. "I think I forgot I can't move in these trousers."
"On second thoughts," said Vesin, "why don't all of us go together?"
Dhaymin ran his fingers over the bottle, tracing the smooth glassy curves before pulling out the stopper and pouring two glasses. "Been saving this one, haven't you?" The smell was rich and heavy with a strong aroma of fruit, enough to make Dhaymin feel as though he'd drunk by inhalation alone.
There was a clink as Vesin took her glass. "I don't get many reasons to take it out."
"Glad to give you an excuse," Dhaymin tried his, the heavy flavour lingering on his tongue, less of a taste than a warm feeling that spread down his throat and into his body, leaving a tingling sensation in his limbs. "Listen. You and me know I'm not staying." This was the worst part. Dhaymin hated explaining why he couldn't stay, and �Because you'll be eaten alive by a monster hound,' lacked a certain something. "I made a promise, and I have to uphold it," was what he settled for. "So this is just you and me, just tonight."
"I know." Her hand touched his shoulder, long fingers brushing gently over his neck. "And you know what that means."
"Until we find those clothes. I know. Fuck, that's the stupidest deadline I've ever had, I don't think-" His voice trailed off as her fingers reached his face, trailing over his jaw and resting over his lips, a gentle but firm indication for him to be quiet. Drawing a little closer, he ran the palm of his hand over her head, running his fingers through her thick curls, and she drew closer, pulling him into an embrace around her shoulders, her breath warm on his face. His hands lowered, tracing the curve of her spine. " I just know... Spent my entire life trying to-"
"Save people?" Her hands rested on his shoulders again, ready to pull away his shirt, but hesitating. "I think you're a little obsessed. So tell me, sulky man, you'd better not be here because you pity me."
"No! I don't do the lord of empathy thing, I don't think I'd bleed kittens if you cut me open or anything like that. You're just the first person who wanted to make life a little better rather than telling everyone we're all dead."
"Then let's stop complaining about the world and get off our feet."
"That's an invitation?"
"What do you think?"
He heard the clink and swish of curtains pulled aside as she stepped away from him, gently tugging him toward her and downward, until they lay together across her bed, pulling away each other's clothes until he felt the cool air against his skin, Vesin's warm body next to him. They pressed lower on the bed, brief moments of leg repositioning interrupting his rhythm. She took his left hand, then, and gently drew it along her chest, down her stomach- "You fine with a little guidance?"
"Wouldn't complain. I know what to do, but my aim-"
"You do, really?" His hand, with hers, slid lower, and they both gasped, briefly, and for quite probably different reasons.
"I have one of my own," he said after a few moments, and as she leaned in, delivering a brief, gentle kiss to his collarbone, he decided it didn't really matter. "I can manage."
"Shall we, then?"
Jen pushed another crate aside, noting as he did the tendency for any space occupied by children to resemble a spent battlefield within a day. The corner turned out to be empty, and he pushed it back. "No, nothing down here. I think I should try- are you actually listening to me?" He looked over to where Dhaymin and Vesin crouched down at the other end of the attic, checking under the eaves, caught a quick "Got you," from one of them, and turned back to his task.
Dhaymin didn't come back during the night. He'd warned Jen about that, but Jen hadn't thought he actually would. Instead, he'd wandered back as the warm morning light shone over the world, in a daze that, to Jen's mind, was worryingly similar to how people acted in those books with the... interesting descriptions.
The thing about Dhaymin was that whenever they did what he always termed "the thing", there'd usually be an interlude where he'd go off with a random woman and make a few agreements. Jen didn't inquire. Dhaymin making one of his agreements was just how the world worked. Dhaymin in love was an entirely different creature, and one he couldn't recall meeting before.
It must be nice, he thought, as he stepped over a small wooden dog lying legs-up on the floor (after a few chance encounters earlier, he'd learnt to step with caution), to be able to form that sort of bond without having to make a hurried explanation that there were some things you didn't want to do. But that didn't change the pressing issue. so he pushed aside another crate, releasing more clouds of soft, grey dust, and paused. "Vesin," he said, eventually, "you remember how the children used to pretend they were us?" Well, he thought, as he looked closer, they liked to pretend they were Dhaymin, anyway.
"Yes? Did they - oh no," she said, as he lifted the pack and started rummaging through it. "Listen, I'll talk with the family, I'm sure they didn't mean any harm!"
Jen, though, wasn't listening. "They didn't touch anything sharp," he said, as he looked through every last pocket. On closer inspection, it looked as if they hadn't touched anything, as though whoever had stolen it had been excited to get their hands on a real beast-hunter's pack, only to hesitate later. Given some of the rumours people spread, he didn't find it hard to imagine. He could picture a whole group of children in the attic, alternating between goading each other to open it and telling stories of what might lurk inside.
He couldn't help but think they'd have been disappointed if they ever got around to it, but at least the rumours had saved him this time, and all his food, money, weapons, tools and, much to his immense relief, clothes, were all there. "The didn't touch anything! I can-oh..."
Across the attic, amid crates, dust, and strewn toys, their hands linked, Dhaymin and Vesin stood in silence.
Jen hauled the last of the tins into place, before straightening up and taking a deep breath. After a quick detour to get back into his clothes (Rakaros be thanked, he could walk again!) and clearing out the last few attics, Jen had thought back to the scene when he'd found his pack. Dhaymin and Vesin had jumped back into the task after their moment of silence, but Jen couldn't forget it. "Let me get you something," he'd told Dhaymin. "Not supplies, we're good for that. Just something to say sorry."
Much to his surprise, Dhaymin already had an idea, and brought up the previous night. "We did discuss woodworking, once," he'd said.
"Woodworking?" Jen had replied. "That another of your euphemisms?"
After some clarification, a discussion with Vesin, and some negotiating with a local who was handy with a knife, Jen had sorted out the payment for his gift. It was unusual, and certainly not what he'd been expecting, but he was certain that this time, there would be absolutely no monsters.
He dipped his brush into the deep green paint, and smeared another streak over the fence. Dhaymin hung back, leaning against a dry spot. "Dhaymin," Jen said, "why are you here, anyway?"
"No real reason. Oh!" Dhaymin pointed. "You missed a spot."
"Where?" Jen looked over the fence. Most of the old, flaking, faded paint was by now covered by a fresh, gleaming coat. "I don't see any- Dhaymin! Why do you always need to do that?"
"It's too easy." Dhaymin stood up, making for the gates. "Well, I can't stay here forever. I've got another busy night ahead..."
"That should do it." There was a clink of coins as Jen handed them over. "Pass them on, that and the fence should do it."
Dhaymin was only half listening. He took a firm grip on the cane handle, letting his fingers press deep marks into the soft leather. "Perfect," he said.
"Yes, I don't have to listen to you complain about splinters anymore," said Jen.
"Oi, watch it!" Dhaymin waved the cane in front of him, and there was a scramble of boots as Jen ducked out of his way.
"You watch it!" Jen yelled. "That's not a weapon!"
"I wouldn't be too optimistic about that," put in Vesin. "It's what it'll end up used for."
"Listen to the lady," Dhaymin said. "Knows what she's talking about." He leaned his weight against her tall, thin frame, letting her wrap a slender arm around his waist. It had been her idea, mostly, in the long, warm night, while they lay together in happy exhaustion, and the conversation had turned toward their lives. Nobody told you how to be what you were, they'd both said. It wasn't surprising when the first person who cared about making life better did something for his own. He allowed himself a very quiet, barely audiable laugh. Two days. That was all it took to turn him this soft!
"Hey, I just wanted to say-" began Jen, until Dhaymin reached out and made one quick, fluid movement. "Ow! How did you manage to hit me in the nose?"
"Simple." Dhaymin leaned back against Vesin. "I aimed for just above the bit making too much noise."
Outside, winter continued to make its early presence known. Dhaymin had no doubt that the morning would leave the world covered in frost, the cold practically a taste in the air. But here, in his own private world beside Vesin, winter and morning were far away things. "Don't suppose you have any more of that drink, do you?"
"One thing at a time." She traced a finger along the muscles of his neck in a light, gentle stroke, and he let out a quiet, appreciative growl in response.
"I..." He paused, letting her linger, stroking the hollow at the base of his throat. "I could find something else to do. Any more fences want painting?"
"No." She withdrew her hand.
"You like telling me your sad backstory, don't you?" Her felt her weight shift, as she settled in beside him, her voice still close by. "What about me, then? You do know I didn't come from Raketi? I loved my family, but..."
"They kept thinking they had a son?" guessed Dhaymin. Vesin had attempted an explanation the prior night. The clothes she'd found for Jen had been too small, because they were once hers. Dhaymin had only partially understood, but he'd let her tell her story nevertheless. There were, he reasoned, many things in the world he didn't understand. The world was big, and complicated, and Vesin's situation had been an introduction into just how complicated. And none of it mattered, not when he felt so gleefully dizzy lying beside her. Not when this would be the last time, he thought, as he felt the dizziness fade and a knot of cold reality form in his stomach.
"Yes. I crossed the forest, came here, found people who didn't see what they thought I was. People tell you not to go into the forest, but if you have a reason, you will. So here's what I think. You told me about a promise last night, and I think anyone who says things like that and crosses the forest for so long had better have a very, very good reason."
"Fuck, you a mindreader?"
"Doesn't take a mindreader, Dhaymin." She shifted again, draping an arm over his chest. "Just a bit of reasoning."
"You telling me I can't reason?" Fuck, now she was running her finger along his collarbone, ever so gently. He shuddered. "Oi, careful there."
"Why, did I ruin your little sulk?" She shifted again, leaning in closer. "Do you think I want you to go? But I know what's going to happen if I give you something else to do. It'll be another fence, another lesson, another monster. Always another. And you'll forget why you crossed the forest in the first place."
She was right, and she didn't even know the promise. "How long until morning?"
She took his hand. "Long enough."