Arc Ten: Lucky Man
A low mist blanketed the forest floor. The morning sun was still too weak to disperse it, so it remained, masking green shoots and leftover snow drifts alike. Rosa stepped with care, each foot wary of tangled undergrowth and rocks waiting to trip her up. Dhaymin, by her side, moved with the same caution, but also the easy and practiced step of one used to doing so every day. He was still holding her arm the way he and Jen had taught her, but sometimes she wondered who was leading who.
Cinn, nose to the ground and ears pricked, cared little for all that and bounded off ahead. With no command give, the hunting dog was as playful as a puppy in the sun. Though her breath turned to clouds in the still frigid air, she darted through the trees, her deep red coat catching the light as it broke through the tall pines. Even in the solemn forest silence, where snow still lay underfoot, spring had arrived.
It was a good thing that Cinn was there, too, else Rosa was not sure how she'd find last night's traps. She knew she'd found one when the dog started circling, sniffing at the ground, her tail wagging harder. "Cinn, back here!" she said. Her dog looked up with a pleading expression, the same Rosa had seen many times at the dinner table, but nevertheless she obeyed and trotted back to her master's side. Rosa petted her on the back, and clumps of hair, loose winter coat remnants, came away under her hand. "You need a comb."
"You mean the dog?" Dhaymin said, and laughed as he ran a hand through his pale hair.
"I should sell this." Rosa flicked the last of the stray dog hair from her fingers. "She's found something." She crouched where she'd seen the dog pawing at the ground. This close up, the thicket was visible through the white fog. A shining wire lay across a splash of blood. Unable to soak into the hard ground, it had pooled and dried, turning dark and dull. "Great. Something got there first."
"Don't touch," Dhaymin said.
"I wasn't going to."
Dhaymin touched the ground with his cane, trailing it under the loop and tugging it upward. "They didn't pull up the peg again," he said. "Nice that some of the rabbits aren't getting too clever here."
"Something else gets breakfast instead of us, then," she said, suddenly aware of how empty her stomach was.
"Ardea's city," Dhaymin said. "Made me soft. They'd have fresh breakfast there."
"Fresh breakfast was here," Rosa said. "Only something else got up earlier in the morning." She could picture a good Kastek breakfast table now, fresh or not, as her stomach tightened. But the problem there was not the city and not Ardea. The problem was that all the lords in the pinewood and the mountains, even the most kindly, ultimately answered to one person - her father. He knew she had gone and why, and Ardea knew not to tell, but she hadn't exactly asked permission for a few things. There might be words.
Better to run. Better to fear tarnished men and freezing cold, because then you could say you lived and loved and saw wonderful things on the road.
"Civilisation sounds good right now," Dhaymin said.
"Civilisation has food."
"Can't fault you there," Rosa said, getting back to her feet. She waited for Dhaymin to take her arm, but he hesitated.
"Something I never understood about you," he said.
He looked lost in thought, his face a little hazy through the mist and his eyeless expression difficult to pinpoint. "Met a lot of beast hunters," he said. "Most are in it for a reason. Maybe someone close died, maybe they wanted to protect some place, be useful, I don't know. Maybe they're like me and it's the closest they've got to a family trade. But you... you're the first person I ever met who's in it because they thought it was interesting."
"I can think of worse reasons."
"It's different. That's all. Let's go find some real breakfast." He took her arm, and Rosa led him off, calling for Cinn to follow. The dog bounded ahead in the sun, and, for a moment, all was forgotten again.
A town, Rosa felt, could be seen waking from winter just as the forests, but the change was different, more subtle and somewhat difficult to see at first, for those not accustomed to reading people. Someone better versed in that might see the difference on the townspeople's faces, or the way they walked. Such things were lost to her, but even she could see the hurried activity, people fetching and carrying bags of who knew what, or loading up small wagons of goods for those brave enough to try the roads again.
"Someone might be hiring a guard on the road," Jen said. "There's money in that."
"Yes, to go where they want to go and not where we want to go," said Dhaymin.
Rosa didn't know the town's name, but that was no bad thing - it meant it wasn't under the control of one of her father's lords. Not directly, anyway, and that was good enough for her. The three beast-hunters stood in a circle, huddled in a narrow back street just off the town square, enough to keep out the worst of the noise and let them go through what money remained. Dhaymin held the coins in the palm of his hand, poking them about with a finger. "Either we eat tonight or we sleep," he'd said, and it was no exaggeration.
Jen prodded at a leftover snowdrift, sheltered in the shadows, with a toe. "What else is there?"
"We do the thing?"
"Walk into town, kill a monster, and get paid?" Rosa slipped her hands into her pockets against a chilly spring breeze.
"I think you're both forgetting that the thing only works if there is a monster," Jen said.
Rosa looked out over the square. A market was open today, and even though it was still morning, the smells were delicious - fresh fish and cheese, spring vegetables and, as always, great pots of tea. The only thing even close to a monster was a small dog that weaved through the tables, avoiding the patron's steps on the lookout for rats. Cinn saw it too, and Rosa laid a hand on her harness "Stay," she said. Clumps of hair, soft, thick, and itchy, clung to her skin, and a thought arose.
"Can you get me a bag?" she said. "A big sack or something."
"What for?" said Jen.
"I wonder how much these people want to pay for dog's wool."
When she was younger, Rosa used to sneak out to help care for her family's kennel of hunting dogs. That was where, later on in life, she'd taken Cinn and her now lost sister to join her on her travels. She hadn't exactly had permission to do so, but that was a minor detail. Cinn was not a weapon, but a guide. She was there to keep Rosa warm, to give her company, to bring her back to the world when she forgot why she left. Without her, Rosa might have turned around and walked home at the first setback.
But despite her lifelong experience, Rosa had never gotten used to the amount of fur a single dog could produce in spring. It had taken at least an hour of combing to achieve, but the sack Jen and Dhaymin had scrounged up for her was now stuffed so full of red wool that it stood upright, and reached to over half Rosa's height. Even then, she couldn't help but feel Cinn had more to give, though she looked distinctly sleeker already.
It was while they were walking the market that Cinn herself drew Rosa's attention. The dog stopped and whined, her ears perked, and stared upwards.
"What is it?" Rosa said. She stopped and followed her dog's gaze, while Jen, who was carrying the sack, peered over the top. "Something on the roof," she said.
"A cat?" said Dhaymin.
It took a little looking around to find what had agitated her. At first Rosa thought she was looking at some strange fan-like mechanism perched on the roof of one of the buildings surrounding the square, its shape dark against the bright, sunny sky. Then she saw an ear twitch, and caught sight of a dappled coat as the creature moved. Strange appendages, like blades or insect wings, fanned the air, catching the sun, and she saw that they were green, like leaves sprouting from its back. As she watched, the creature yawned, and she caught sight of long teeth, just before it stretched like a cat and dropped out of view, behind the roof's sharp angle.
"No," she said. "Not a cat."
"Ah," Dhaymin said. "We do get to do the thing!"
"Is that a healer's shop?" Jen said.
"If you say it is," said Dhaymin. "Shall we have a look?"
"I hate healer's shops," said Rosa. She stepped back. There was no sign of the creature any more. The shop itself was a narrow building, wedged in as part of a row, with a low, round door. A tiny window, placed in what space remained in the front, revealed nothing of the interior. "You know," she said, realising the brothers were probably wondering. "Because of the smell."
"I know what you mean," said Jen.
"Right." Dhaymin rubbed his hands together, and to Rosa he seemed ready to jump up and down on the spot. "Jen? Stay back and listen out. If you hear anything wrong, come get us. Otherwise, flog that dogswool if you can. We still need beds tonight and you need to look like you're doing something. Rosa? Come on."
"In there?" Rosa said. Her hand strayed to Cinn's harness, and the comforting softness of her fur.
"I need eyes." He raised his arm, in a gesture that had by now become familiar to her. "Let's go."
She guided him over the low step by the entrance, and Cinn followed behind. She still didn't like to listen to either of the brothers, and Rosa wasn't willing to go without her. The door closed behind her with a slow groan and a sudden thump, and she jumped in place.
"Not used to it?" Dhaymin said.
"I told you. I hate healer's shops." She blinked, her eyes still adjusting to the low light. Strange, but it didn't smell. She'd been expecting that heavy, sweet scent, common to such places, but there was nothing except dry wood. Outside, she could make out the sounds of the market, all the voices and calls and carts rumbling by, but it was faint, muffled by the walls, and seemed so far away. She looked up at Dhaymin.
He didn't think she could do this. She needed to put it aside, to show him.
"Want to know something? I'm not fond of them either."
"Oh?" She remembered the stories Jen told her, of what had happened to drive them onto the road. I suppose you wouldn't be, then, she thought.
But there was no more time for reflection, because at that moment the door in front opened. Rosa had no time to see into its even darker interior before it closed again, behind a tall man - not as tall as the brothers, but everyone was tall for her. "You know," said the newcomer, folding his arms, "it is considered customary to ring the bell to get my attention. But I suppose you're not from around here." He looked them up and down, and Rosa knew that their dusty clothes must give them away in an instant. "I suppose it's about the tall one," he said, focusing at last on Dhaymin's scarred face. "I don't usually get it wrong, unless by some twist of fate you're actually wanting to me to see to the dog."
Rosa stroked Cinn's back. The hunting dog remained by her side, and Dhaymin spoke up. "It can wait, if you're busy," he said.
"That's just fortunate," said the stranger, "because it turns out I am. If you want to come back later, I'll see you."
"That will do nicely," said Dhaymin, smiling, his voice as pleasant as a friendly neighbour's. "Tomorrow?"
"Provided nobody cuts their heads off!" said the stranger, and he laughed, though it was a rather restrained one, such as Rosa might imagine a person would make if they had seen such a thing. She forced a smile too, and watched as he returned to his darkened back room.
"That's the first time anyone's called me the tall one," said Dhaymin, as the door slotted into place with a click. Though quiet, it echoed quite clearly in the little chamber.
Rosa nudged him in the side, and he nodded. She let go of his arm and flashed a quick hand signal to Cinn, a silent stay that prompted the dog to remain where she was while Rosa crept up to the interior door. Hardly daring to breathe, she moved closer, peering through the gap.
"...sorry about that," she heard the healer say. There was a sudden flash of warm light as he lifted a lantern, and slowly, as her eyes adjusted, she saw what lay inside. There was a bed, or perhaps a low couch, and a figure lying on top of it. They gasped a little as the healer crouched beside them and lifted their arm, and in the orange glow, she saw dark, glistening blood, spilling over the pale skin.
She moved in place a little, to give herself a more steady stance, and kept watching. Dhaymin stood beside her, listening.
"Won't be a moment," the healer said, laying the arm back down. He raised his own hand, and something moved, high above. She could not see it at first, but then she heard a low thump, like a cat landing from a tree branch, and then saw the creature, sitting at the top of the bed, fanning its fronds as the healer stroked it on the nose, and she knew it could only be the one she'd seen on the roof earlier.
She wanted to call out to Dhaymin, to tell him what was there, but she forced herself to remain quiet, and to watch what happened next. The creature dipped its head, sitting calm and still, and the healer did the same. Neither of them moved. The lamplight flickered, and when she looked again, the healer was wiping the blood away to reveal clean skin underneath, with no sign of a wound.
"Thankyou," she heard the patient say - a young women, who sat up as she spoke. The creature hopped to the floor, and vanished from sight, and the healer stood up and, likewise, walked away and out of Rosa's range.
She took Dhaymin's hand, a sign they were done, and together, they left the shop, Cinn in tow, and neither of them spoke a word.
As darkness fell, spring's tentative hold on the land gave way to the last remnants of winter. Though the nights had receded and the days grown longer, those nights were chilly affairs, marked by frost and even a little light snow.
It was for this reason that Rosa and the brothers found themselves huddled together under a blanket, though also because rooms were difficult to find once spring rolled around and the trade routes started up again. Most preferred to transport their wares across the lakes and rivers dotted through the pine forests, hoping to avoid things that lurked in the woods. There were rumours of things far worse under the water, but one thing remained constant - tarnished men, no matter what other abilities their state had given them, could hold their breath no longer than anyone else. Here, as with many other places Rosa had visited, the best place to find a room going spare was along the lakeshore - but that was if you could find one at all, once the boats arrived.
Besides, the money from Cinn's wool would only go so far. Cinn herself lay curled up on top of the bed, over Rosa's legs. She was thankful the brothers hadn't objected, though the dog usually kept a respectful distance from them when it wasn't so cold. To her, they were still strangers.
Right now, the sun had just set, and the sky outside was a deep shade of blue, blending to black at its highest point, while roofs and branches were stark cutouts against its backdrop. It was a little too early for the first stars to come out, but they would appear soon, Rosa was sure of that. She watched from out of the window, while a lantern burned inside, giving their room a little light and warmth. Jen lay by her side, in the middle, and Dhaymin on his other.
"I don't know what he is," Dhaymin said. "I know you're right, we can't go storming in. People know. They're seeing it happen! I don't know what he's doing, but we'll have to nail him some other way."
"Not by force," Jen said. "That's... tricky. What I want to know is what he's trying to gain."
And that was the odd part, because not a single one of them had ever seen such a thing. Rosa had even watched, after leaving the healer's shop, as the girl he'd been treating walked out without any indication of the injury she'd borne only a short while ago. She'd heard rumours in books, but that wasn't the same. Not even the brothers knew of such a thing - or at least, had not seen it displayed so openly.
Rosa thought she knew, but the thought was a difficult one, one of those that rose up in the back of the mind, where lurked things that proper people did not consider. She kept close to Jen, and took his hand, under the covers. He gave it a squeeze, whether out of habit, or whether he knew what she was thinking, he couldn't say.
"Maybe if someone discovered he could do it," she said, "he wanted to do something to help."
She didn't talk about the other things that sat at the back of her mind.
"Yes," Dhaymin said, "and I still don't like it. He's fine now, but what happens when it takes hold and-"
This, Rosa thought, was something she probably shouldn't intervene in, but she kept her hand wrapped around Jen's as he sat up, looming over his brother. "Don't do that," Jen said. "We.... we had a rule. Don't talk like that." His voice trembled a little as he spoke, and Rosa sat up to join him, letting go of his hand and draping her arm over his shoulder.
"I'm-" Dhaymin began.
"We can't ask him?" Rosa said. There was silence, and though it was impossible, Rosa felt as though Dhaymin were watching her, sizing her up. "Think about it. This place is full of people. Someone not from around here is bound to meet him, see what he's up to, and ask him what he's doing. Why can't that be us?"
"You say we walk in and ask friendly questions?" Dhaymin said.
"Father never asked questions."
"He did. You'd just be bleeding from all sorts of places first. If you were lucky. Got to say, though," Dhaymin said, his head propped up in one hand, "maybe that's why it never crossed my mind to do it. Tomorrow, though." He lay back down, and pulled the covers over his head. "Tonight's all fine, but I think less talk and more sleep."
"I'm sure he did think of it," Jen said. He smiled, his expression faint in the fading lamp light. "He won't admit to not having thought to say it- ow!" There was a thump, and the sheets rose and fell.
"I'll have the pair of you if you don't shut up!"
"But," said Jen, "I think he means that."
It wasn't only an excuse to avoid the argument he was sure was brewing that sent Jen out for a wash, though it was part of the reason. The time was right, as the washrooms were empty as the other patrons had long since headed off for their day's business, and so Jen had all the time he wanted under the cold stream. Most people preferred to run in and out, but Jen didn't mind the cold so much. He liked the way it felt after a long sleep. First there was the sudden shock as it woke him from the last of the haze, and then, as his body adjusted, he could feel the water run in little rivers over his skin, washing away the dirt and sweat from yesterday's travels. It was a place where he could be alone, shutting out the worries of the outside world with the calming, soft flow. But the world and its problems were still waiting when it was over, so he dried himself off, got dressed, and headed back up the stairs, in the knowledge that whatever argument he had to face, he was at least going to do it whilst clean.
Dhaymin and Rosa usually got along, but since they'd been released from Kastek and found themselves back on the road, things had grown tense. Maybe it was that all three of them had to face the dirty, blister-laden reality of being travelling beast-hunters after so long in the city, or perhaps it was that the returning spring stirred memories of how long it had been. Jen paused on the stairs to adjust the wrap that lay over his upper arm, At least that had stopped itching, but he couldn't ignore that he'd worn it for a whole year, and the reasons why.
The staircase creaked and groaned underfoot, so it took a whole before Jen heard the talking. He paused at the top, listening in - yes, it was rude, but it was not as if he wished to walk in in raised voices, so he waited. There had been many times when he'd listened in on his own father, for it did not do to interrupt him when he was in a dreadful mood, and the habit had stuck, rude or not.
"What do you want?" That was Rosa's voice, and with an edge that told Jen he'd chosen wisely to hang back.
"I need to talk," Dhaymin said. "Properly talk."
"I know you don't think it was a good idea-"
"No! I was going to say sorry!"
That, Jen hadn't been expecting. He edged a little closer, and the floorboard squeaked under his feet, but neither Dhaymin nor Rosa seemed to notice.
"I haven't been trusting you lately." Now the floor inside creaked a little, and Jen heard the old mattress let out a sigh as Dhaymin sat down. "Kept wanting to say I'm worried about you. Beast hunting's not happy and it's not fun. I met people who went into it to have fun. Didn't work. But you know why I still do it? Besides all the things with Jen? I think I'm having fun here. Shouldn't be telling you off for doing the same."
"You think so?"
"I know. And you'd better go find Jen." The floor creaked again, Dhaymin getting to his feet. "We've got work to do. All of us."
Jen hadn't seen the healer's shop from the inside before, having been too busy looking for someone willing to buy a sack of dog's wool. The dog responsible was by Rosa's side again, and already looking a lot slimmer for it. The sight of her reminded Jen that he'd better find another way to get money for today, if they wanted a bed tonight, but right now, there was a different job to be done.
The shop interior was much as Rosa had described it, curiously devoid of the usual smells and very sparse, lit only by a single window. A row of low, cushioned seats lined one wall, but beside that, there was none of the usual paraphernalia that Jen might have associated with a healer.
The only hint that there was any more to this shop was the second door, leading to the inside, and it was this door that opened to reveal the shop's owner. He looked a little older than Jen, probably older than Dhaymin, but not much more, and he looked up, sizing Jen up with a look that made him feel as if he wondered just what he wanted fixing. "Hello again," he said, to Dhaymin and Rosa, before turning his attention back on Jen. "D'you keep making them taller?"
It was Dhaymin who stepped forward to speak. "We'd like to talk to you now," he said.
"Ah." The healer folded his arms, and his gaze flicked to the ceiling. "So it's happened. No, don't tell me. You're here because one of you clever people saw what I do, aren't you? And let me guess, you're new here and have no idea who I am and you're probably beast-hunters or you fancy yourself as them. Close?"
Fine, Jen thought. So he's good.
"I heard your activities are a bit unusual. That's all," Dhaymin said.
"Unusual? Oh, here it comes. Three little concerned travellers. Oh no! Hide the children, everyone! There's a big bad monster about!" He glanced backwards, and whistled, a piercing sound that caught Jen on edge and rang through the tiny antechamber. The door behind him opened, and a creature stepped out, trotting to the healer's side, as obedient as Rosa's dog. It was a little smaller than her, but whatever it was, it was no dog. A spotted coat like a small forest cat covered a frame that reminded Jen of some sort of climbing reptile, cumulating in a heavy, tusked head that was neither one nor the other. It sat down, and spread what looked like wings at first, until Jen realised they were the fan-like protrusions on its back he'd seen before, furless and as green as leaves, as if the creature were half-plant. As he watched, it licked one of its odd, cross-shaped paws, and washed itself like a small cat, as if it had every right in the world to be there.
"Fact is," the healer went on, "there's more than a few people here who owe me plenty, and more than a few of those their lives. So if, maybe, you're still wondering if I'm some scaaaary monster that you've got to stop, I'd say the answer is no. Or no. Or no, no no, or just in case you didn't quite get it into your collective heads, nooooooo. Now unless you have some pressing matter that you really need me to look into and it isn't some sort of ploy to attack me, I suggest you leave. Oh. You seem to still be here. Any reason?"
Rosa looked up. "You have to admit," she said, "he's answered all our questions."
"Sorry to have bothered you," Jen said. He felt Dhaymin tug on his arm, and together, the three of them turned to leave, though Jen and Rosa kept an eye out behind them.
"Wait. Taller one."
"You mean me?" Jen said, and he didn't need to ask what he wanted.
"If you're insisting we talk," said the healer, "we should do."
Jen looked back over his shoulder at the healer, still standing with his arms folded and his bizarre little creature at his feet. "I don't know what you mean," he lied.
"Then you don't know what I can see."
Something gave him away. Nobody knew how to spot a tarnish in the early days, before it spread and overcame the person who was once there. Not even Father, not even Bala could do that, though Bala liked to say there was something in the way they walked, the way they looked at you, that you could spot if you were very, very good. Jen paused mid-step.
"They know," he said. "You don't need to dance around it."
"Jen..." Dhaymin said, tugging at his arm.
"I know," Jen said, quietly, so that only his brother and Rosa might hear, before looking back over his shoulder.
"I thought... perhaps someone like you might need someone to talk to."
Jen didn't speak for a moment. He could still remember the last time someone had wanted to talk to him and offer him safety, and all because he was like them. It stung like the memory of something dreadful and embarrassing, something that he felt he'd seen.
But there was more to this man than Jen could see, of that he was sure. Nobody walked into town, so blatantly tarnished, and set up shop, no matter how good their intentions. He must have known that, else why would he act so hostile before? And now he was holding the door open, revealing the dim chamber beyond.
Jen had to know. When his father forbade him to touch their library, he would sneak in at night and take a book or two, and nobody save Dhaymin knew that. The punishments for doing so were not worth thinking about, but he did it nevertheless. Just like now, curiosity overwhelmed him. "I'll come with you," he said, "but these two aren't going anywhere." He wrapped his hand around Dhaymin's arm, giving it a squeeze, and the same with Rosa's hand. "Any trouble, they'll come for me."
"We will," Rosa said.
"You-" Dhaymin began.
"Trust me," said Jen. "If he wants to talk, let him."
He let go of them both, though he imagined he could still feel their hands on his skin as he stepped through, to the inner chamber.
It took him some time for his eyes to adjust to the light, which grew even dimmer as the door closed behind him. Reminding himself that Dhaymin and Rosa were not far, he blinked as the healer lit a lamp and a light flared. "I'm sorry about the dark," he said. "I find people like it. Supposed to be calming. Sit down."
There was nowhere to sit, except for the low couch that Rosa had described, so Jen settled for that. It was firm, its cushions thin, and when the lamplight passed over them, he could see that they had become well worn. But he had taken far less comfortable seats in his time, and if anything, it told him how many people must have been this way before.
"If I were feeling dramatic, I'd say plenty of people have gotten up off that couch who had to be carried in," said the healer. The orange light swayed, shadows rising and falling as he set the lamp down on a small table and sat down. "I'm not going to tell you that. I thought you needed to know who you were dealing with. I'd like to say I'm surprised to see a beast-hunter with the wrong blood, but I'm not.
"It happened about two years ago. I was lucky, didn't have anything big or savage." As the healer spoke, Jen felt something brush against his legs, like a cat, and looked down to see the creature walk past. It sat in front of its master like a dog waiting for a treat, and he stroked its odd, sloping head. "Didn't have anywhere to go after that, but I was still me and still am. So I started finding out what I could do.
"Everyone wants to use them as weapons. I suppose that's what people do. Now I can't say I've ever wanted to help people, but I can't say I've wanted to tear them apart either. When I found out what I could do, I thought that's it, that's the point where you get something back. I wish I had more to say, but... fact is, when you find yourself with life pissing all over you like that, you have two choices. You can sit there and let it take you down with it, or you can make something of what you have."
"How does anyone know that's true?"
"How do I know you're not going to rip my throat out? Your friends out there trust you. Must be nice."
"I'm sorry," Jen said, despite himself.
"Don't be," said the healer, as he stroked the creature again, its ears lying flat against its skull. Jen could not be sure if it was a trick of the lamp, casting his features into stark light and shadow, but he looked older than he had in the antechamber. "As for you, I expect you'll be off in a few days to wherever it is you're going, and you'll be wanting money. I can't promise I can teach you what I do, but if you're after a few coins, I could use an assistant for a while."
Jen looked back at the door, outlined in a faint halo of light. He thought of Dhaymin and Rosa, each at odds, one pushing him on, the other telling him to hold back. But then, he thought of more practical concerns. They'd still need a bed for tonight, and food, and those things did not come free.
"You're right," he said. "Tell me some more."
There was a constant among the forests, and it was simple: that any cook, no matter where he found himself, must know how to prepare a good fish. No more so was this true than in the spring. The last of the past year's stores continued to dwindle, and this year's crops were only beginning to sprout, but the rivers and lakes would always provide, and the markets were always full of the day's catch.
Dhaymin liked them best in the early morning, when they were at their quietest. Later in the day, the crowds gathered, and that was when he found himself jostled by a multitude of bodies and lost amidst walls of sound. But in the morning, he could wander amongst the stalls and feel the early sun on his skin. Each day his picture of the town square grew a little more detailed, as he remembered where he was and the way back.
He hadn't meant to stay, but Jen had been doing well - better than Dhaymin wanted to admit. Well, he was happy, and that was what he wanted, wasn't it? Jen was sweeping floors, not learning strange arts, and the money was good - better than Dhaymin had thought, but he didn't want to turn down any amount of coin. It wasn't unusual for Dhaymin to wonder what their father would think. He didn't want to know what he'd say about all of this.
He wasn't sure he cared any more.
If only the solution was as simple as settling down. Dhaymin never thought much of what he wanted from the world. He'd given Jen a vague promise of... well, everything, once it was all over. That the boy wanted to go home when all this was over was plain even for Dhaymin to see. Rosa was less certain, but she was running just as they were, that much he knew. Then, what did he want?
He imagined it sometimes, on mornings like this, when he remembered how he never meant to stay that long. It was quiet and dry, with a cold wind in contrast to the warm sun. He could hear people walking around, conversing as they readied themselves for the day. The market was all sounds and smells, and he moved between the stalls from his own memory. There was always something a little different each day. Usually it was food, and Dhaymin was free to imagine what dish he'd make that night, but sometimes it was a little different. Only two days ago he'd risked the crowds to find a bookseller, and brought Jen and Rosa along to listen to their excited voices when they saw what was there. But no matter what he found, the stalls remained, all the same day by day. There was that one with the stray nail that made him step aside with caution lest his clothes catch (it was a good thing you didn't need eyes to sew) and there was the one with the splintery walls (that was not as simple to fix). And though the sounds varied, there was always that one constant - the smell of fish, fresh from the lake and waiting to be cooked.
The one he'd brought now was a fine thing, one of the fattest and heaviest he'd found all year, and already he could imagine what he'd do with it. It was a shame there was little he'd found to go with it, but then he'd found the cheese. It smelled enough to overpower even the fish, and it crumbled badly. He'd never buy it usually - it packed dreadfully, and the crumbs escaped and they'd get everywhere - but now, he thought, he could use it before he left. He could imagine how it would taste now - creamy fish, and the tangy cheese, half melted on its soft flesh, to set it off. Maybe Rosa would find something even better to go with it and make something perfect tonight.
He should find her later, and find out if she and that dog of hers had brought down any prey in the woods. Perhaps he'd even ask her about the other thing on his mind.
He should tell Jen. With any other thing, he'd tell Jen. But the memories of his father ran deep, and the idea of telling anyone of his blood stirred them into a strange unease.
It wasn't as if he minded what he was now, but the idea lurked at the back of his head, and whispered, and would not go away.
What if he could have eyes again?
The first night Dhaymin had tried cooking during their stay, he'd crept downstairs and requested, if it was not a problem, the use of their lodging's kitchen to make a quick meal.
By the second night, other people began to take interest, and a few coins ended up in his pocket for his trouble.
On the third night, he had an audience.
They held back as he gutted the fish and said a few words over its broken chest. A child, somewhere, shouted something about how he was touching its insides and how did he know where to cut them, and was swiftly shushed by an apologetic parent. Dhaymin didn't care, not even when the smell of fresh fish guts filled the room - he'd opened worse things in his time, and soon it would be replaced by something delicious.
As he worked, he could hear someone shuffling through the crowd, mumbling quiet little "excuse me"s every now and again. It wasn't a sound he'd associate with the daughter of one of the most powerful men in all Toxilivital, but if there was one thing he knew about Rosa... "Hey," he said. "Yes, I got the deer. It's in the pot." He waved a hand in the direction of a heavy cookpot, whose heat he could feel wafting upwards as he moved. Already the rich smell was starting to overpower the raw fish.
"Cinn brought it down," Rosa said. "You should say thanks to her sometime."
"Thanks to a dog?"
"I don't see why not. I got you some more of that cheese you like too." Dhaymin heard a soft wicker crunch as Rosa laid a basket on the workbench. "And there's some mushrooms coming up. I don't know what you'll do with them, but..."
"I always work something out," Dhaymin said, and turned toward his audience. "Isn't that right?" He was met with a few laughs, and turned back to his work. The fish now gutted, he began to slice, feeling the muscle under his fingertips and guiding the knife with care.
"Hey, when's it going to be done?" came a voice from behind him. A child's voice, possibly the one who'd called out earlier.
Dhaymin spoke up before the inevitable shushing. "When I know it's just right!" he said. He went back to his slicing, letting the worktop heat up and laying slices of fish over them, listening to each one sizzle as it touched the hot stone. "This is going to be perfect," he said to Rosa.
"You always say that."
"I always know it will be. Where's Jen?"
"With Levarin." Ah, the healer. "Late."
Dhaymin nodded, and went back to his work. It wasn't that bad, and not only because of the nagging feeling in his head that Jen's latest journey into himself might be... well, nevermind that. He should be thinking of Jen, and there was that little part of him that never stopped, pacing in his head like a restless guard dog. But Jen came back every night, and he was still Jen, and nobody knew that more than Dhaymin.
He got back to work, hands moving over the countertop and trusting his memory. His audience, left to its own devices, began to break away in bits and pieces with the knowledge that dinner would be soon. Amid wamth, quiet conversation, and the smell of food, Dhaymin couldn't resist a smile.
"Rosa?" he said.
"I was thinking of trying-"
"Hey, get out of there!"
The rest happened too quickly. Dhaymin was aware of footsteps by the cookpot and muffled giggles. He turned, but before he could even speak, it was too late.
There was a heavy metallic clong, a slosh of liquid, a terrible, high pitched scream...
"F-" Dhaymin began, and composed himself. He knealt, heedless of the rapidly cooling pot contents, and Rosa took his hand. She was already with the screaing child - no, children, Dhaymin realised. The same from before, no doubt. "It's fine," she was saying, "only need to get you to- Dhaymin!"
He nodded and looked over his shoulder. "Well? One of you's got to be family! Come on, we have to get them to Levarin!"
A few coughs and shuffles, and then a voice, possibly their mother. "We can't."
"The f- what do you mean, can't!"
"We don't have the money!" If you'd watched what you were doing-"
"If I'd watched... Dhaymin seethed, and felt a hand on his shoulder.
"I'll take this." There was an edge to Rosa's voice that he'd never heard before, steel admid wavering.
"It's fine," he said to the children, though he had no idea how, and he didn't understand their mother's words. "Let's get some water..."
Behind him, Rosa stood up. "We'll pay."
"Rosa? I don't think I-"
"Let's go," Rosa said, and Dhaymin felt her hand in his again.
Dhaymin followed, beckoning the children to do the same. "Son of a... fishmonger..." he muttered. Life was getting complicated. He'd work it out later.
Jen didn't admit it to anyone, but he enjoyed sweeping. Part of it was the rhythmic motion of the brush, part the feeling of having done something small and important, but mostly, for the silence and the time to reflect. It reminded him of his time in Kastek's library, the last time he'd felt he belonged somewhere.
This was not the same, but it would do for now.
"Is that how you knew?" he said, as he brushed out a dark corner, dislodging heavy balls of dust.
"How I knew?" Levarin looked up at him from over his shoulder, where he'd been sitting at his desk. He'd been writing something, but Jen couldn't see what in the dim light. "Listen, I don't even need to look for you. Ordinary people are like voices talking. You are standing right beside me, screaming in my ear and probably making me deaf in years to come."
"Oh. Sorry." Jen stepped back.
"Don't be. You didn't ask to get clawed up, none of us do." He turned back to his writing, and rubbed his forehead. "Same with all of you. It's as if some part of you's turned inside out and open to the world."
"Same for me. Yes."
Jen went back to his sweeping. Dhaymin would probably be horrified to know what he'd been listening to. Rosa would be fascinated. Given time, he'd decide what he felt about it. It was as though, inside his mind, someone were pushing a boulder off a cliff. They hadn't reached the edge yet, but the cliff edge trembled under the strain, tiny pebbles tumbling into the depths. Someday that boulder was going to come crashing down, but before it did, down came the pebbles, little echoes of what was to come.
But any learning, he knew, was just a curiosity, something to tide him over until he achieved his real objective. He hadn't forgotten Sinak Island, and he hadn't forgotten about going home.
Besides, there had been other things in his way.
"I could teach you," Levarin had said once, "but I don't know if you'd be any good."
"How am I not any good?"
"You care." Levarin had been sitting at his desk then, just as he did now. "You care too much."
Jen didn't pretend to understand that, not even after Levarin talked about distancing and getting too involved, though he supposed there must be some sense. Get too invested in what you were doing, and you ended up like... as much as it was strange to admit, Father. You could never stop, because the mission was all-encompassing, your only reason to do anything. Perhaps if he got too involved, he'd forget about going home.
He went back to his sweeping, and tried to forget it. Leverin was engrossed in his words again, and his creature lay curled up by his feet like a favourite dog.
The screaming was the first thing he heard, a high pitched sound that cut through him and nearly made him drop the broom, and the second was the banging on the door as it echoed throughout the little chamber.
Before he had time to turn to see what had happened, Rosa was there. Jen's first thought was of her or Dhaymin, and he ignored his usual instructions to stand back and watch, but Rosa just pushed past him, and Dhaymin was there next, leading a pair of children.
"What-" he began, but even he couldn't hear himself speak over the screams, while Dhaymin crouched down beside them and whispered wordless calm. Rosa, meanwhile, strode right up to Leverin and deposited a bag on his desk.
"Kitchen accident," she said, loud enough to be heard. He'd never heard her talk like that before. "Do something."
"Of course. Rest of you, stand back. That goes for the tall one as well," Levarin said, looking at Jen, who shuffled backwards. Once Dhaymin was likewise out of his way, the healer bent down, holding his lamp close by to examine the pair, who had now gone silent. He took one by the hand and led him to the bed, setting his lamp down beside it. The shadows ceased their dance as the flame inside settled.
It was clear to Jen, even from observation, that the boy was the worst affected. He could see the scald marks all over his skin, glistening in a way skin shouldn't.
But revulsion gave way to fascination as he watched Levarin sit there, the creature by his side, and the flesh heal over. He wondered about what he'd heard. There was energy in living things, Levarin said, and those who were tarnished had it all blown wide open for the world to see - for those who had been tarnished too. It was that open stare, so he claimed, that let him reach out of himself and feel the energies of others.
When he healed the second child, Jen looked a little closer, and, for a moment, supposed he saw it. The child barely registered, but for a second he saw Levarin and the creature enveloped in a cold white light that streamed from one to another... and then he blinked, and it was gone.
He didn't bother to ask if anyone else had seen it.
Dhaymin left first, to return the children to their waiting family, but Rosa wasn't so fast.
"I want a word with you," she said, when it was all over.
"I bet you do," Levarin said.
Jen had picked up enough of the story to understand what was happening, and he went back to his sweeping, pretending he wasn't listening.
"What would you have done if I hadn't paid?"
"Oh, how I knew you'd say that." Levarin laughed a little, and turned back to the desk, where the payment still lay in its bag. He took a few coins from it, and handed the rest back to Rosa. "I get this a lot. Hate to break it to you, love, but you just got scammed."
"It was an accident!"
"Yes. And that was why their mother juuuust happened to not be looking when it happened. So things didn't go quite her way and you kept the money instead of her, whoops, what a shame. Now I don't know where you're from or anything, so here's a word of advice - when you can do something not everyone can, people are going to milk you like the last goat in the world and often just as painfully."
Jen listened closer. "But if they didn't have money at all?" he said.
"I'd work something out. Besides, they're children."
"I didn't think you liked children," Jen said.
"I don't. But they usually find themselves hurt out of someone else's stupidity and not their own, so I can't say I dislike them either." Levarin looked back at Rosa. "As for you," he went on, "I suggest you take you coins back and think about what happened."
Rosa set out later with a lamp as the moon rose in the night sky, while Cinn trailed along at her heels.
She'd set the money back down on returning to her room, and counted it out. Levarin had given her the more generous share, almost all of what remained. But the other possibilities wouldn't go away, as she stacked up the coins. Of the four of them, she was the only one who had been there and been able to see what was happening. Someone was lying - even Levarin admitted that.
She talked it over with Jen and Dhaymin, but they wanted to leave any investigation until later. Rosa, meanwhile, knew that if what she was looking for existed, the owner wasn't going to let them walk in and take a look. So she left on her own, with only a dog, a gun, and what knowledge of locks she'd picked up from reading or Jen's instructions.
People didn't usually come out at night, even in towns like this with thick, strong walls. She loved the contrast, seeing something that had been so full of life turned dormant in the dark. Despite the fact that spring was here, her breath still fogged in the air, and she tasted the promise of another late frost. Here and there, in the most sheltered crannies and alleyways, a few snow drifts gleamed in the moonlight.
The front door to the healer's shop was always open, and she pushed it open with great care. It was not as if Levarin kept anything in there worth stealing. It was a relief for her, too, as it meant she could work at the inside in relative peace.
"Sit," she whispered, and Cinn did so, waiting for her. She would wait forever, if Rosa gave the command. Leaving her, Rosa turned her attention to the lock.
This one wasn't so difficult. Rosa had spent a lot of time at home reading about the theory, so to speak, though her family would never stock a book that said how to pick the things flat out. It had been enough for her to understand the principle and apply it later, when Jen had shown her how to do so. He joked that, if he'd been able to read the mechanism, he'd have escaped from his cell in Kastek in less than an hour. Whether or not he could, Rosa understood that it was one of those things that any good beast hunter should know how to do. She'd known that ever since she was a little girl and had written stories about when she'd grow up and become one (the same ones that she illustrated with a lot more red paint than was strictly necessary).
She felt the last pin side into place, and the inner door gave way.
"Stay," she whispered, placing her hand on Cinn's head. "Watch." She'd have to do the rest of this without the dog by her side. The thought made her shake a little, but beast-hunters had to be brave, just as she always reminded herself.
The inner chamber lay before her now, as familiar and yet unfamiliar as the street outside. It was not large, perhaps only a few paces across, and she held up the lamp to see better. She wasn't sure what she was looking for at the moment, but she'd know when she found it. The desk drawer seemed like a good place to start.
She set the lamp down and crouched beside it. The desk was good, solid wood, heavy and sturdy. She'd seen Levarin open and close the drawers when she'd been here before, and she'd seen him hard at work on those papers just before she'd paid him.
She crouched beside it and got to work on the lock. A few moments passed, her pace slowed as she remembered he was most certainly upstairs. She felt her hands tremble, and managed a few false starts before even the first pin was in place. Each little metallic sound, each creak of the floor as she repositioned her body to get in place, seemed to echo through the room like an explosion. The thought of it made her shift again, repositioning the heavy weight over her back and hope she wouldn't need that.
This one was tougher than the door, but the thought gave her hope throughout all the near misses. A well fitted lock meant something worth hiding, worth working through all those fiddly bits. At last, she was rewarded with an open drawer, and a stack of papers inside. She pulled them out, conscious of every little rustle, and read through the first few.
Well, she thought.
There was a cough.
"You know, it is considered polite to knock before breaking into somebody's home and rummaging through their things. But I suppose you people are beyond all that, so let's get down to the real business, shall we?"
Rosa said nothing, and turned around, gripping the papers tight to hide the shaking. She could do this. She was a beast-hunter. Beast hunters had to be brave.
"Or are we just going to stand here looking at one another all night?" Levarin said, standing in the doorframe that led to the stairway to his private rooms. "I can do that if you want."
"I saw your papers," Rosa said.
"Well done. So you can read. What do you want, a little present and a pat on the head before you go home?"
"I don't know. You can buy a lot, can't you? Tell me, how many people have you been charging so you can build your little stash? How many of them did you turn away because there wasn't a stranger to pay?"
"Yes, I can. Things I need. A new place to run to when the likes of you drive me out, to begin with! So if you know what's good for you, for the love of whoever's out there, go."
"I saw what happened," Rosa said. "It was a mistake anyone could have made. Do you know why I paid up? Because I was the only one who saw what happened!" The children had been out of their mother's sight for only a second, and clearly they thought all they'd do was manage a quick taste of dinner before heading back. "It was an accident. It was all an accident. I paid up because it was fair."
"Oh, dear, don't talk to me about fair. It wasn't fair when I got bitten."
She gripped tighter on the papers, the better to disguise her shaking hands and the icy sensation that shot through her body at his words. "No," she whispered, but at Levarin's feet, she could see something move. "Cinn!"
The dog was at her side before either of them could react. Snarling, she locked onto the creature as it stirred by Levarin's side. It reacted in turn, fanning its fins and leaping at her, but Cinn knew what she was doing and latched on, as the pair of them fell into a growing, snapping ball of red and green on the floor. "You were saying?" she said. Now let me tell you something. I've seen some horrible people out here, but you... you..." She reached behind her, to the reassuring weight on her back, and lifted it. The gun was smooth and cold in her hands. "You remind me of my father. Let me tell you something. You don't want to remind me of my father."
"You wouldn't shoot that in here!"
"I don't know," she said. "I mean, the best case is that you end up with huge splinters all over your face, the worst case is we all end up exploding." She raised it, so the muzzle was pointed right at his wide eyed face. "What do you think?"
Jen reached the top of the stairs and tested the door. It was unlocked, and Rosa sat on the bed, her back turned to him.
"Oh," she said, as he approached. "What happened?"
"It's out of my hands now." Jen sat down on the bed. There was a sigh of air as it escaped the old mattress. "He'll still work, but... I just hope he won't get away with that again."
She nodded. "I knew he wasn't just giving me the money back."
"I know." Jen had spent too much of the day talking to people and sharing notes, and though he could only take so much debate, it was clear Levarin had given back the money to throw off Rosa's suspicions. He did not want to think what would have happened if she had not been there to step in. "He had me for a while. This always happens. Suppose I should be getting used to it." He stared at the ceiling. Outside, the sun was setting, and the beams were tinted with golden light. "You know, I... told him about Kastek. That if anything went wrong, he might be welcome there."
"They'll lock him up!"
"Better than dying," Jen said, with a smile as he remembered exactly what being locked up in Kastek was like. "He knows that too. I thought maybe if he felt he had a place that might be safe, he wouldn't think he had to be so unfair." A thought stirred at the back of his mind, a thought that had come unbidden more and more over the last few months. "I suppose anyone can say life isn't fair, but it takes a bit more to make it be fair. Hah. Listen to me! I've turned into Dhaymin!"
"Where is Dhaymin?" Rosa said, and Jen noticed that she looked smaller than usual, hunched over the bed with her hands clasped in her lap, as she stared at the floor.
"He wanted to have a few more words. Said he'd be back later - why, what is it?"
When she spoke again, her voice was very quiet. "I don't know what I'd have done if he didn't come with me."
Rosa bent over to stroke Cinn, who lay at her feet. The dog responded with a lick. "I... I thought I'd do it. Inside. Right in his face. I was ready to, and he backed down, and... and I think I was disappointed! That I didn't get to blow his face off! I wanted to be a beast-hunter all my life and... and... what sort of beast-hunter am I, Jen?" She looked up, and, behind the hair that fell over her face, it was clear to Jen she'd barely slept since that previous night.
"One who knows when not to shoot," he said.
"Jen," she said, looking away. "Do you see that shelf up there?"
He looked up, following her gaze. There was one, narrow and empty, near the ceiling and easy to miss.
"I can't reach it," she said. "Can you do something for me?"
"Yes?" He made to stand up, one hand on the bed.
"The gun is over there," she said, pointing to the far wall, where it stood propped up. "Put it on the shelf for me. Don't ask why, I just... I need to know I can't reach it."
"I know," Jen said.
It was heavier than he expected, and nearly as long as Rosa was tall, and he'd never known how she even managed to lift it, but he slid it onto the high shelf with no difficulty, and pushed it to the back, out of sight.
He sat back down, and laid an arm over her shoulder, and she leaned against him, and closed her eyes.
Dhaymin let Levarin guide him back into the shop, over the low steps and into the quiet inner chamber. He sat on the edge of the bed, while the healer wandered off to whatever work he had in front of him. "You wanted to talk to me," he said.
"Yes." It had been a long day, too long for Dhaymin's liking. Words were for people like Jen, but even Jen must have been surprised at the outcome. It was enough to let an inkling of a thought creep back into his mind. So, when it was all over, and Levarin had been allowed to return, Dhaymin had asked if he might accompany him. They'd stayed too long here, and Jen was getting itchy to be back on the road, he could tell. Dhaymin might not have another chance.
The past spring had been milder than this, and it had edged his sense of time a little out of step with the rest of the world, but as he was walking back, when he felt the evening breeze and realised it was merely cool and not cold, he realised it had been a year since...
"I don't suppose I need to ask what about." Levarin's voice was closer now.
"Don't think you do."
"You want me to take a look?"
Dhaymin nodded, and felt hands at the back of his head, brushing aside his curls and working at the knot. A hand under his chin gently tilted his head upwards, and the blindfold fell away.
Levarin said nothing, and the seconds ticked away.
And at last, he spoke. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't help you."
Dhaymin felt the hand move away, and his shoulders fell, as if the healer had been holding him up.
"They're gone," he said. "I can't bring back what's gone and isn't coming back. Trust me. I'm sorry."
The stairs groaned as Dhaymin ascended, one hand on the wall to steady himself. The door was loose when he pushed it.
"Dhaymin?" There was the creak of an old mattress, and footsteps, and Jen took his hand. "Come on. Sit down."
He didn't protest, and let Jen guide him back to the bed, where he sat beside him and Rosa. Without thinking of it, he touched his face, feeling the rough scars and the cloth bound over them. Neither of them asked. Neither of them needed to.
"I know it's not fine," Jen said.
Dhaymin felt an arm over his shoulder, and held Jen's hand. "I know," he said. "Doesn't need to be. Not tonight."