It's been three days - nights - they've slept three times at The Dim's Inn under the cloak of eternal fucking darkness and everything has been going strangely well. Strange for them.
No instant fuck-up that got them evicted from the capital within the first day.
No surprise amputation of a sleazy guy.
No theft of any massively important artefacts or possessions of one of the highest members of the society.
'The Nein is on the straight and narrow,' Fjord decides loudly over brunch. 'That's what I think we need. To be real thoughtful. Considerate, like. Really weigh our options before we commit to anything.'
Beau remembers that only the night before he had suggested to the innkeeper that the Bright Queen herself wanted them to have scented baths and their boots polished and washing done while they slept, and wonders if they've gone so far off course that some light racketeering is no longer considered a bad thing.
'This coming from the man who popped himself into a dragon's lair.' Nott—Veth—peeks up over the top of her crossbow, lovingly shining the metal. Yeza is examining the contents of her bag, rifling through the phials and foul-smelling compounds she's tucked away in various pockets.
Beau gets a whiff of something she thinks is sulphur—must have borrowed or stolen it from Caleb—and leans away, wraps a protective arm around her breakfast.
'Ah, well.' Fjord scratches at the short hair above his ear. Grins a little crookedly. The white of his tusks is barely peeking through above his lips now and it gives his smile a dangerous leaning, even without his meaning to. 'Yeah, I guess it is. Reckon with so much on the line we have to...grow up. Wise up. And fast.'
Nott's—Veth's—eyes widen. She seems impressed by his statement. Nods slowly. 'Very wise. Caleb probably said that earlier,' she murmurs to her husband, who nods distractedly. 'He's very clever, very wise.'
Fjord looks like he wants to argue but gives up after a moment. When his gaze slides over her, Beau grins. Too wide, and with way too much food in her mouth, and Fjord pretends to barf.
The table choruses a good morning for Jester, who takes her place between Beau and Fjord. For an instant, Beau is struck by the similarity of the first morning they'd met and it's strange how much they've changed since. Fjord is a warlock bound to a creepy sea-snake, Beau is an Empire human in a violently anti-Empire-human nation, and Jester is...still Jester. But, like, ten times more powerful now.
'You seen Caleb?'
'He's in the Firmaments still. Dude doesn't sleep.'
'Beau. You aren't supposed to leave him there!'
'He wanted to read and I was bored.' Beau shrugs. Shovels another mouthful of hopefully-bacon into her mouth. 'Speaking of, gotta dash.'
Packing up the hunk of paper that the Shadow-hand had delivered for Caleb, Beau makes for the door. The rest of the dining room is largely empty—one drow woman at the bar looking to get drunk—so her friends' conversation follows her and Beau can't help but shake her head.
'Have you ordered something?'
'No, not yet.'
'Oh my god, Fjord, are you still being considerate and measured?' Jester mocks.
'There ain't nothin' wrong with it.'
'Uh, yuh, for like important stuff. But breakfast is breakfast—just pick something before I go crazy.'
'But what if I don't like it? Look at that bowl - it's just mush. What is that? An' I don't even recognise the vegetables they gave Ducey-'
'I'm going to murder you,' Jester moans. 'I'm going to murder you and get locked up in that prison and it's going to be not very good because I'm pretty sure they won't let me get pastries. Not even these not good ones and definitely not the ones from Nicodranas.'
Beau turns onto the street and she catches a glimpse out of the corner of her eye of the pair of them bickering where she left them. Fjord grinning down at the moping Jester and waving to catch the innkeepers attention. Then the door closes and she's on her own, stepping from street corner to street corner and trying to balance the difference between not being seen and looking like someone trying not to be seen. She makes her way toward the Firmaments, and the library within.
On their second day, Shadow-hand Essik had taken them to the library.
It's fucking amazing.
Beau has spent year in the library of the Cobalt Soul and she thought that was the best library there could be. Aside from the whole...being kidnapped thing. Like, she got to punch people all the time and sneak out, though admittedly that wasn't strictly a library-coded activity. And the library was organic and handsome and filled to the brim with fascinating stories and information Beau had spent long nights reading—which is nothing that she would ever admit, especially not to someone like Caleb.
In the privacy of her own mind—again, never to admit to anyone—Beau can also admit that the Cobalt's library is nothing compared to this.
It's vast, it's incredibly well organised, it's beautiful. That's a trifecta right there.
The marble—it's in the name of the Marble Tomes Conservatory, she knew there would be marble, but there is some god. damn. marble in this place—is a dusk-purple but faint, like the colour is washed through the crystal. She sounds nothing like herself but it's...stunning.
The marble also looks weirdly thin. Almost gossamer thin, fragile, like one knock could send the whole structure shattering to the ground. She knows it's not because—and this is way more up her alley than stunning interior design or whatever the fuck she let herself think about for a hot second—it's not thin, can't be, because the walls are at least a foot wide and often wider. She knows this because that's the kind of thing she looks for. Caleb had disappeared into the library with hungry eyes only for the books; Beau touched on them for a while, and eyed the other denizens, before she turned to an old game and began to look for the doors, and the stairways, and the service tunnels to connect the halls in her mind. Puzzles are kind of her thing, so today when she finds a hall that seems to end in nothing, she is confused at first until she remembers the freaky magic shit these drow are into and looks up to find her suspicion confirmed—the hallway continues, but vertically. Otherwise, it is unchanged: straight walls, the ceiling with a slight arch to it, the glowing green lanterns lending an eerie set to the whole place but also gentle, the dim cast softening any harsh edges.
The whole impossible, impassable passage would keep some people out, Beau knows. But she’s a monk, and awesome as fuck, and also what some people might call infuriatingly nosy and what others might call determined. Beau likes infuriating, and she likes determined; she thinks of herself as infuriatingly determined.
Makes it sound like people have things to hide—which they always do—and that she’s digging them up—which she is.
Beau unwraps the bindings on her hands as she considers the obstacle before her. Methodically, she re-wraps her hands and wrists and tests them out, closes her hands into fists before bending the fingers back as far as they will go. Satisfied with the wraps, she begins to stretch.
The walls are smooth. Too smooth to find a handhold, definitely. She can make the leap from the wall to the ceiling easily but not too many times. If the walls were closer together she could shimmy up them like she did with the well or that gnoll pit, but in this case there is too great of a distance between the walls. And leaping, well. Momentum will only get her so far. And if she were to get some way up, then what? She can't see any doorways in the hall where she could hang, or sconces, or anywhere that she could rest and recuperate. She can, however, see where the hall splits off forty or fifty feet above her head and she frowns. Momentum won't get her that far.
She's still going to try.
Beau backs up fifteen feet. Squints at the wall and backs up an extra five feet. Then she runs right at the wall. A second before impact, she jumps as high as she can and plants both feet on the wall, propels herself up and back to what would be the ceiling of this new hallway. It’s not ideal; the ceiling is probably nine or ten feet high and Beau can feel her momentum slipping. She does her best—hits the ceiling and pushes off—but when she hits the opposite wall again, she immediately begins to slip. No amount of scratching or slapping at the wall—floor, technically—will keep her up and she falls.
Landing with just a light tap of boot on floor, Beau stays there a moment in a crouch.
Just as she’d thought. Too smooth. Maybe if she had some adhesive material. Or if she found where the hall connects? But no, they wouldn’t have the hall here for no reason if she could simply find another way around. This is the barrier—at least the first one.
Touching the smooth stone again, Beauregard taps her fingers against it.
The sound carries, bounces off the walls better than she had.
There’s a spell, isn’t there? One that could help her stick to walls, let her climb something like this? Maybe Caleb knows it. There haven’t been any express instructions to not cast anything and with the Queen’s medallion in hand, Beau thinks there isn’t a whole lot she can’t get away with.
One more attempt, maybe two. Okay, three more tries, and then she’ll find Caleb.
Beau slips into the chair opposite Caleb. As different as the two empires are, she finds it’s funny that all libraries that she’s been to have almost identical reading rooms: the long tables, the benches, the little nooks, the faint lanterns. True, the lcolours are all strange and true the other students are largely drow, but the essence remains the same.
Frumpkin flicks his tail in her direction, which Beau takes as a silent ‘fuck off’ but she could kick him into another dimension—not that she ever would—so she’s not going to listen to him.
‘Caleb. Caleb. Caleb. Caleb. Caleb. Cale-’
‘What is it, Beauregard?’
‘Can you make me walk up walls?’
He pauses a moment, then resumes flicking through one of the tome in front of him. The paper in this book is weirdly red and at first Beau had been freaked out, but she thinks it’s just left over colouration of the purple-red wood things here are largely built from. The script is jagged and unfamiliar. Undercommon, probably, and Caleb’s eyes have that peculiar sheen to them that comes from his Comprehend Language ritual, black soot buried under the nails of his right hand.
‘No, Beauregard, it is not bullshit.' Finally, he pulls his attention away from his book and the magic over his eyes flickers and fades back to his normal ice-blue. ‘We are deep within the capital of a foreign empire, surrounded on all sides by strangers and magic that we do not understand. Forgive me,’ he says, tone implying he doesn’t actually care if she forgives him or not, ‘if I do not wish to take the risk of casting magic on you.’ He fixes her with a keen look. ‘Especially not one that will let you go poking and prying.’
Beau feigns offence. ‘I am offended, Caleb.’ She doesn’t feign it well. ‘How dare you? Making me out to be some kind of -’
Caleb just stares.
‘Okay, fine. But, c’mon man, you know what they always say—better to ask forgiveness than permission. Right?’
‘Caleb. You’re killin’ me, man.’ Beau drops her head onto the table with a loud thunk. Lifts her hand in a vague sorry cross fuck off to any of the other readers in the room, a hold-over from getting too raucous at the Cobalt Soul.
‘In fact, I am not. Your saying does not apply. Not when you could be arrested and thrown into that prison. I am sorry, Beauregard,’ he says, and that soft Zemnian accent sounds weirdly earnest. Probably because he’s scared she’ll hate him for not doing it or whatever. Twitchy little snot. ‘I will not.’
Beau knocks her head on the table again. ‘You,’ knock ‘are,’ knock ‘so,’ knock ‘boring, Caleb.’
‘I prefer the term cautious. Please stop, you will hurt yourself.’
‘You’re hurting me! I’m curious! I have needs!’
‘Ja, I don’t wish to know about your needs, Beaureg—okay, ja, goodbye to you as well,’ he grumbles when she glares at him and leaves. ‘Don’t do anything stupid!’
She flips him off with both hands and slips out into the halls again, headed for the Professor’s workshop.
The Professor isn’t there now and Beau rifles through some things she knows are permitted to be rifled through because all the important things are well hidden. She knows; she’s looked.
There isn’t much in the way of adhesives. There’s wax - useless - and some kind of tar-like substance but it’s mostly goop - also useless. Beau doesn’t want to carve the marble either—first, because it seems like it would take a really long time to do that and would largely be a waste of time, and second because she suspects it would be at least a little disrespectful.
She could find another hallway to explore—and does—but something always draws her back. Curiosity, maybe.
‘My people tell me you come here often.’
Beau looks over from where she’s sitting on the floor. She’s actually been trying—and succeeding—to meditate at the junction of these corridors and so she’s unprepared to look up and find the Bright Queen looking down at her. Her face is angular and lovely; the green lantern light makes her look like she's glowing, rather than wan or sickly like it does for Beau.
‘Do not stand on my account,’ the Bright Queen says and, with a look of something that might be amusement, she reaches out and turns her hand over from palm down to palm up. Faint lines of translucent grey follow the tips of her fingers as she does and an energy ripples out with the Queen as its epicentre.
Beauregard feels her stomach lurch. For a split second, she feels strange: her hair weird and prickly on her head and arms, her body weightless, and then she’s flying—falling—through the air.
Above—below?—her, she can see the ground rushing up to meet her. Her instincts—and, okay, a small, very marginal amount of kick-ass monk training—kick in to flip Beau in mid-air so she lands lightly on her feet on the roof.
Which is now the floor.
Her head hurts.
Beside her, the Queen moves a few steps forward and then lifts her hand again. The same grey light gathers in her palm and she turns it over, flipping them again.
As soon as Beau sees the gesture, she jumps toward the Queen; she has to move fast or else be sent back down the same fifty feet. The drop wouldn’t hurt much but knowing that she had come so close to finding out what is up here and lost? That would hurt.
Grabbing onto the corner where the corridors meet, Beau adjusts herself so she can pull into the hall. When the the atmosphere shifts, returning them the right way up, there she is—laying flat on her back like an idiot, yes, but successful. And also beside the Queen, who stands there looking unruffled and unfazed. Somehow, rather than landing on her head, the Queen had managed to control her own shift during the flip.
‘Impressive,’ the Queen says, the same as she had that day in her Court. Her attention is a palpable force where it settles on Beau, lingering on her face. It’s a strange dichotomy—the light, almost disinterested tone, and the intense pressure of her attention.
It isn’t until the Queen looks away that Beau manages to suck in a breath; she feels dizzy, and only some of that can be attributed to that gravity-bending shit.
‘Forgive me,’ the Queen says, glancing down the long corridor. 'In the...rush of securing the beacon, many formalities were overlooked. Introductions, for example.’
The Queen looks at her again and she’s smiling. ‘What are you called?’ she prompts, and it sounds like she’s trying not to laugh.
‘Oh! Right!’ Beau scrambles to her feet to stand with all the proper posture she can muster. Spine straight, hands loose at her sides, chin deferential. The neat clothes, the pretty hair...all those things that matter to people like this are missing, and Beau is just going to have to suffer her displeasure or ridicule. She feels doubly exposed without the Nein around her, and especially without her bo, but, well, she’s leapt into plenty of situations feet first without looking and this is no different. Right?
Except that it is.
Except that this is the Queen of another Empire, one that is at war with Beau’s own.
Except that this is probably the most powerful person Beau has ever met...and she’s alone. Fuck up, antagonistic, abrasive Beau.
‘Beau,’ she blurts out when the seconds stretch too long. ‘Beauregard.’
‘Beauregard.’ The Queen nods slowly. ‘I am Empress Leylas Kryn.’ She gives no indication of what exactly Beau should call her.
‘No shit.’ Oh shit. ‘I mean - uh - yes. We’ve gathered that.’ Beau sketches an awkward bow. She doesn’t lower her eyes all the way—that would just be begging to be attacked—but she thinks it’s sort of maybe halfway to a respectable bow.
The Queen makes no sign of pleasure or otherwise before she turns and walks away.
Watching her, Beau notes that the Queen isn't wearing her armour anymore but instead a long robe similar to the one the Shadowhand had been wearing but where his had been a dark grey hers is pure white. The heavy fabric is still and it makes her look like she's floating down the hall.
Beau doesn’t know this woman, or what potential dangers there are, or if she’s tricking her into going to the prison or something like that but...she really wants to know what there is up here.
She follows, mentally kicking her own ass the entire time.
‘Uh, I'm sorry if I was loitering somewhere I shouldn’t have been.’
‘No, you’re not.’
No, I’m not, Beau privately agrees.
‘Yes, I am,’ she says, just to be contrary. And then, because it’s true, she adds, ‘I don’t want to do anything that makes us look suspicious or ... ungrateful of your hospitality. Everyone is happy to be here and alive and you’re letting Caleb learn his wizard shi - er, stuff - so he’s thrilled. We’re grateful to have our freedom and some small measure of trust. I don’t want to do anything that might cast doubt on that. I’m just - curious,’ Beau tells her with a small shrug and the kind of grin she knows makes her look sheepish, exasperated with herself.
The Queen doesn’t quite falter in her step but, for an instant, Beau thinks she slows. ‘How many times did you attempt to make your way up here?’
A silver brow lifts in, like, a perfect arch. Hot.
‘... Nineteen times.’
There’s that smile again. The Queen shakes her head. ‘Persistent.’
‘That’s a nice word for it.’
The Queen laughs at that.
It’s a pretty laugh, Beau thinks, and gives her brain an extra kick.
The hall doesn’t continue for very long. The strange pair walk together around one corner to a set of plain doors that the Queen opens. Physically, Beau notes, and she doesn’t know why it seems strange to her but for some reason she thought that Queens didn’t open their own doors or hold their own cups or do mundane things like that.
‘My, what could you be thinking about? You look so concerned.’
Beau’s eyes flash up to the Queen’s face, seeing her watching Beau with that same intent expression from before. When Beau just shakes her head, shrugs, there is a flash of something across her eyes and then just as quickly it is gone.
Annoyance? No. Disappointment?
‘This is as far as you are permitted to go, I’m afraid,’ the Queen tells her, and she gestures for Beau to take a seat.
Feeling like an idiot for getting distracted, Beau looks around them.
She has been brought into a small antechamber, very much like the one that had been connected to the Court but more comfortable by far. In the place of stone benches are cushioned seats, and there are windows dotting the walls that show the night sky and a splash of stars, and the fountain in the centre of the room is small and provides a quiet source of white-noise, strangely comforting.
To the side of the doors, the Queen has hung her cloak. She stands now in a simple dress. True, it’s made of beautiful material but she isn't dripping in jewels and rings to show her station. She doesn't need to. She's not a small lady by any degree but out of her armour she is smaller than she had first appeared, and doesn't look nearly as fierce lacking the horns and spikes of her silvered chain and scale. Though she looks softer—the dress simple, easing the set and breadth of her shoulders, her hair tied back in a loose braid, no helmet—she is in no way less imposing. It is a different kind of imposing, Beau allows. There is an authority, a confidence, that doesn't leave her even in common clothes outside of all her queenly shit.
It makes Beau want to fidget.
Instead, she stills herself. Steels her spine, feels her chin jut out. She’s a contradictory little shit, even in her own mind.
The Queen smiles. Nods.
Beau moves over to one of the seats by the window to gain some distance. She's surprised to find that the Queen follows her and sits on the same seat.
There isn’t much space between them. A foot, maybe less. As a drow, she doesn’t run particularly hot but Beau can feel—or imagines she can, at least—the energy that crackles off her. She’s a powerful woman and Beau thinks it’s more than likely that her possessions alone would be formidable.
For a short time, they sit in silence. Beau's tongue feels like it's swelling and she makes a note to ask Jester later if it's possible to be allergic to small talk or uncomfortable silences. Then, the Queen shifts in place, turns to face Beau a little more directly.
‘A rumour came to me that you and your...team are leaving the city.’
Beau nods. This, thankfully, is something she can answer. ‘We’re headed further east.’
‘The Ghostlands?’ The Queen sounds genuinely disturbed by the notion and now Beau is doubly glad that they had acquired passage via the tunnels. The Queen relaxes when Beau tells her as much. ‘Ah. Yes. This is to find the kiln your companion mentioned.’ It’s more statement than question but Beau nods anyway. ‘Fascinating. I had my people make inquiries. Shadow-hand Theylas will give over what little we have gleaned.’
Surprised, Beau turns to look directly at her. ‘Thank you!’
The Queen looks strangely at her, eyes dipping to her lips.
Beau realises that she’s smiling and immediately stops. It really must be a shit smile to garner that reaction; she should practice more. Or, better yet, just never do it again.
‘You’re very welcome.’
Out of the corner of her eye, Beau sees the dark hand reaching out and she stays very still as it settles over the top of her own.
The instant before they touch, a hundred and one questions are running through her mind. What the fuck is this? What does it mean? Does the Queen like me? Does she think I’m hot? Or does she just realise that I’m the weakest link? Is she using me? Of course she’s using me but for what purpose?
The instant after they touch, Beau’s mind is empty.
A spark seems to jump between the Queen’s hand and Beau’s. For a moment, she’s afraid it’s like Jester’s trick where she fucks people up with a brush of her finger. But it’s not. It’s not like that at all. It’s more like lightning, if lightning didn’t hurt. Lightning crackling through her skin, and blood, and through her brain and back and forward in that doubled - tripled - hundred-fold sensation that settled in her mind whenever she took a hit of the beacon.
‘What -’ Beau manages to get out, a little garbled.
It felt like it had taken an hour to crawl and crackle and burn through her body but the Queen hasn’t even finished settling her hand on Beau’s by the time it passes.
Beau throws her hand off, jumps to her feet, backing up toward the door. She gets there, has a hand on the door to shove it open when a fraction of that energy buzzes in her head, below her ear.
There’s a door behind her. She’s leaning tiredly against it, feeling the light hum of the wood and magic as it snicks closed and locked. The room she has entered is opulent, almost indecently comfortable. She gives into its lure, begins to strip off the silver armour. A part of her knows she’ll be displeased in the morning to find the armour carelessly discarded, will have to take it to her room to clean each link of the silver chain oh so carefully, but a much much larger part of her wants it gone. Wants the weight of it off her shoulders, just for an hour or two. Wants to be free of the reminder of what waits for her outside of these walls.
‘If you are an assassin, I’ll have you know that I’m in a terrible mood and you’ve come at a bad time.’
‘And why is that?’ Beau says, feels her mouth moving, feels the words hiss from her tongue in a beautiful but entirely foreign language. Feels the amusement that bubbles up from her own belly. Feels all of this...and the uncanny, unhappy separation that is the knowledge that this is not her own body.
She looks down at her hands when they come up to remove her helm. Long, tapered fingers of dark, dark blue. Silver scars now faint across the fingers—a fighters hands, yes, but ones that belong to the sword at her hip.
‘My wife has been gone for a very long time and I’m furious with her, that’s why.’
‘Perhaps she can make it up to you.’
‘She will have to try,’ the stranger laughs from deeper within the chamber and Beau-not-Beau toes off her boots and kicks them to the side, moving further in.
‘ - not the way this should be done,’ the Queen is saying when Beau blinks out of...whatever the fuck that had been. Her face is blank but her eyes... Her eyes are like twin flames, searing hot, and Beauregard isn’t sure if she wants to back up or not. ‘It is supposed to come to you naturally but I thought perhaps you wouldn't know the signs, and with you leaving,’ she says. Snarls. In someone less regal, it would be a snarl. She masters herself again quickly and her tone evens out. 'I was afraid of what might happen if you had no notion of it. This hasn’t been documented in someone so distinct from us, someone so wholly uninformed.’
‘Pardon my common, but what the fuck are you talking about?’
Stillness settles over the room, like they’re both shocked by her outburst.
Across the room, a coy smile tucks into the corners of the Queen’s mouth. Very slight, almost unnoticeable.
‘You remind me so much of her. Her mannerisms. Charm.’ The smile grows into something more familiar. She’s teasing Beau. The Queen seems to realise it at the same moment because her smile disappears entirely and her expression grows more severe. She draws herself back, sits straighter. She hasn’t moved from the seat, which Beau appreciates. ‘In the weeks and months to come, you may experience some confusion. You may close your eyes for but a moment and open them to find some foreign view before you—a city street you have never walked, a dark cavern, a home. Even a land beneath the waves. It may feel strange, definitely confusing. You may be frightened,’
‘I’m not scared of shit,’ Beau bites out.
The Queen arches a brow.
Again, Beau is woman enough to admit it’s hot.
‘You may forget your name for a time, as though it doesn’t belong to you. You may not recognise the people around you. It is different for everyone but you may feel the sensation of tearing or compression. Perhaps itching or burning all over your skin.’
‘Burn? What did you do to me?’ Beau rubs her hand where the Queen had touched her.
The Queen follows the movement. ‘I did nothing,’ she says firmly enough that Beau actually believes her. ‘That is a surprise to me as well. I merely wanted to talk.’
‘What is a surprise? Talk about what?’ Even as she asks, Beau knows. Compression. Memories. Confusion. Forgetting her name. Her legs feel weird. Weak, like they're filled with water. ‘You think I’m one of them. One of your soul people. Your consecuted.’
She knows she doesn’t imagine the surprise in the Queen’s eyes. There’s a softened edge to it—it isn’t the harsh surprise of someone finding out Beau isn’t someone to be taken advantage of. Nor the surprise of a friend or parent seeing something new in her. This is the surprise of a stranger in front of another who sees something familiar, something of home, where she wasn’t expecting it.
‘I am your queen! You do as i command!’
‘I am a venerated member of my den, Leylas - you do not command me!’
Beau finds herself slipping again into a—her mind rebels against calling it a memory but it is kin to that. She knows that, even if she doesn't like it. In the memory, the vision, the whatever it is, she is striding forward. Someone is striding forward. And it feels like Beau’s eyes are behind their eyes, like she’s piggy-backing on them. In them.
In the vision, the Bright Queen is standing in front of her just as she is standing in front of Beau in the antechamber but she’s younger. The armour is less ornate and the Court behind her looks ever so slightly different. The decorations on the den thrones are shifted and the space is entirely empty save for the two of them. She takes a step forward and then another, and there is a moment when she isn’t sure whether she is moving or her double.
Her eyes are the same, Beauregard notices, her mind swimming. White and fierce.
‘You may be my wife and Consort, but you do not have the power to disobey me. If I order the blackhands to the front lines then you must obey!’
‘That is not a decision that you can make on your own. All of the dens must agree—and I think you will find that Theylas at least disapproves of such action. It’s aggressive and dangerous,’ Beau hisses. ‘Do you wish to put all our fighters in the line of fire at once? Reveal our hand to our enemy at such an early stage?’
‘I wish to win this before it consumes us! This war may very well be the death of all that we have worked so hard to achieve. My love,’ Leylas says, and her voice softens. She touches Beau’s cheek, cupping it. ‘I have seen it.’
‘You have seen things like it,’ Beau disagrees. She takes Leylas's wrist and pulls her hand from her face.‘We live and we live, I know because you tell me time and again. But I fear you forget that we change too. That circumstances do not last forever. What good is living again if we cannot change our minds about what has been done? Or are we doomed to live the same life over?’
The vision of the younger Bright Queen folds in on itself. A white-hot ache starts behind Beau’s eyes and it’s like a burning paper curling in at the edges, the memory cracking and breaking and Beauregard scrambles to hold onto it, to follow it to something else she can reach, but it’s gone.
Beauregard sways on her feet, staggers. She reaches out for something to catch her balance on but she’s standing in the centre of the antechamber. Before she falls, two cool hands catch Beauregard under the elbows and the Bright Queen herself is holding her up.
‘What did you see?’
‘You tell me,’ Beauregard snaps. Well, tries to. Infuriatingly, the pain of the migraine makes her words weaker than she’d like. Breathless. Her skin prickles but she think that might have something to do with the fact that a super strong, mysterious, terrifying, beautiful woman is holding her. A shiver goes down her spine as she stares over the Queen’s shoulder; Leylas’s hand shifts on Beau’s elbow, sliding ever so slightly up so she’s...holding Beau instead of holding her up.
There is a moment where Beau feels her body sinking into the hold, where it feels not just good but right, the most familiar thing to her. But then she catches herself and her whole body tenses. The Queen’s fingers tighten for a moment before she pulls away, steps back.
‘Disorienting, isn’t it?’ Her eyes are like molten silver, soft. Inviting. Dangerous. ‘I don’t envy your position. In each of my lives, I’ve had guides to teach me what to do, to centre me. People who have walked the same path before me who could teach me how to control the amnenesis.’
‘You really are talking about that. You really think,’ Beau stops, folds her arms over her chest. If she rubs at her skin, it’s just because the whole thing was weird, not because she’s tingly all over. ‘You really think I’m one of you. I’m not.’
For a moment, it looks as though the Queen is going to argue. Then, she simply bows her head.
‘I have further business here.’ She waves her hand toward a door on the far side of the chamber. ‘Have you any further curiosities?’
‘No.’ She recognises a dismissal when she hears one.
‘Then here we must part.’ The Queen heads for the other door. It opens untouched and she begins to walk through it. In the frame, she stops. She doesn’t look back, but her voice carries—soft, likely magically enhanced so that it reaches Beauregard unchanged, or perhaps to Beauregard alone. ‘Stay safe...Beauregard. Come back when you need our help.’ Now, she turns very slightly. Enough that Beauregard can see that faint smile again that warms her steeled expression. ‘You don’t have to call it help. I know you’ve never liked that.’
And then she is gone.
It’s a long time before Beau can muster the thought to say, ‘You don’t know me,’ and by that time, the Queen is long gone.
‘This isn’t so bad,’ Caleb decides three days into the journey. ‘Much nicer than our tunnel here, ja? Cleaner and safer. The lights are a nice touch, eh?’ It’s weird; he’s been oddly optimistic, and Beau has tried to figure out whether it’s because he’s genuinely optimistic (hard no), whether he feels bad for shifting the whole conversation giving over the luxon and is trying to compensate for that (definite maybe), or if he’s been mind-addled. The last one is unlikely but just to be safe, Beau winds back her hand and punches him hard in the shoulder. ‘Ow!’
‘Sorry, dude.’ Insincerity is a skill she’s proficient in and she applies it liberally. ‘Thought you might be charmed again.’
‘I am not.’
‘Had to check.’
‘No, you did not.’
‘Yeah I did. I’m not gonna wait for you to roast us—wall of fire would totally fuck us up in a tunnel like this.’ She knows as soon as she says it that it’s a step too far; everyone around them grows very quiet and Caleb—already pale—loses colour he can’t afford to lose. It makes him look bleached; deathly, even, with the glow of the green lanterns hanging every twenty feet down the tunnel. ‘Fuck. Caleb - ‘
‘You are correct. It would not be good.’ His tone is more wooden than ever and he turns jerkily away, strides ahead.
Nott throws her a nasty look and scurries to join him. Beau can’t hear what she says but after a few seconds, his hand seems to fall from his pocket and Nott takes it in her own.
‘That was not very nice.’
Beau scowls down to her feet, pretending not to hear Jester’s reprimand. She knows it wasn’t nice. She’s not going to admit it. Except maybe to Caleb when she apologises later.
‘Beau.’ Jester waits for another minute before she sighs. Beau can just imagine the disappointment on her face when she speaks again, and it digs into Beau’s chest like a miniature version of that ice-shard thing Jes does. ‘Even if the tunnel are super duper awful and everything is kind of weird right now, I really thought you weren’t making fun of Caleb anymore. And I think it’s not nice to make fun of something really awful like nearly turning us all into,’
Jester is scowling at her. Beau can feel it, even if she isn’t looking. ‘I was going to say roasted ducks.’
‘Sure, ‘cause euphemisms are always better,’ she says with enough of an edge that it’s clear Beau isn’t exactly being nice.
In the silence that follows, the others throw unsubtle looks at one another. They think she can’t see it happening, but she knows them well enough by now to know who and what they’re thinking, more or less: Fjord to Jester—he’d be worried about Jester’s feelings; Nott to Yasha—she thinks Yasha is her weak spot and she’s not entirely wrong, but Beau is pretty sure Nott also thinks Yasha is big enough to restrain her if things got ugly; Caleb looks straight ahead, he’s in his own head now, which sends another pang of guilt through Beau; Yasha is watching Beau - she thinks more or less the same as Nott, Beau is pretty sure, and she wouldn’t be surprised if Yasha were reaching for rope or her sword in case it is magical; and Cad…well, Beau isn’t sure whether the whole exchange has gone right over his head and he’s looking for moss, or if he’s fought with his mysterious siblings enough to have figured out everything that’s going on and ignored it to look for moss.
And Jester. She’ll be looking to Cad for a second opinion but Beau is sad to say that’s how she is: bad to the bone.
Jester must reach the same conclusion because in a small, hurt voice, she asks, ’Why are you being so mean today?’
You really think I’m one of you. I’m not. I'm not. I'm not. Her own voice reverberates around her aching skull and she fixes her eyes on the ground and doesn't answer Jester.
‘Wow, Beau.’ Jester laughs, not at all happily. She waits a moment more, then, ’Okay, very fun. The silent treatment. Well.’ Her tail lashes behind her, clearly agitated, and then Jester bites out like it’s a devastating threat, ‘You’re not the only one who can do that you know.’
Jester hasn’t spoken to her all day. Each time Beau looks to her, she turns sharply away and ignores everything she says, even going so far as to repeat exactly what Beau had said like she’s the one that came up with it.
Even more annoyingly, everyone else goes along with it.
The sole exception is Yasha, though she takes her sweet time about it.
Yasha passes over a hunk of bread and some of the oddly sweet-smelling meat that Nott is roasting over the campfire. She takes a seat next to Beau, crossing her legs and setting her sword flat over her knees, which she uses like a platter.
‘Not afraid it’ll dirty it or something?’
‘The sword?’ Yasha shakes her head. ‘I clean it often.’
‘Cool. Me too. My bo, I mean.’ Beau grimaces. That’s a massive lie—she doesn’t remember exactly the last time she cleaned the staff—but Yasha isn’t looking at her so Beau hopes she doesn’t notice.
She might. She actually laughs a little. ‘Right.’
They eat in silence. The meat is greasy and delicious and Beau feels warm and full and she hates it; somehow, it’s easier to deal with the strange discomfort that’s following her like a stray pup when she’s cold and miserable and alone. It’s less…confronting, less striking, that way.
Maybe that’s why she snapped at Caleb and Jester.
Maybe that’s introspection she can handle, like, four days from now.
Yasha hunches a little. ‘I don’t know,’ she mutters, in that quiet voice of hers that always gets Beau’s attention. She’s not a small woman, and Beau is fascinated by the disparity. Makes her wonder. Has she always been quiet? What would her laugh sound like if she really let go? Full-bellied? Or is that chuckle as raucous as she gets? Will she ever ease into the group—and how badly is Beau fucking that up by being her usual abrasive self? It’s some piece of heaven each time Yasha flies into that rage of hers and lets loose; hearing her roar her rage into the sky gets Beau’s blood buzzing, every single time. ‘You’re staring.’
‘What? No I’m not.’ Beau shoves the bread into her mouth and finds herself fascinated by the opposite wall of the tunnel. It’s…grey. That’s interesting.
‘It’s…okay if you are.’ Before Beau can register that, Yasha continues. ‘It’s not like you to ignore Jester.’
‘She is ignoring me.’
‘I…think she would talk, if you did. The ball is in your court, I think the saying is?’
‘Yeah,’ Beau mutters. Then, to make sure Yasha knows she’s right about that and not about the whole Jester thing, because she’s not, she adds, ‘The saying, yeah. That’s right.’
‘Mm.’ Yasha finishes her meal. Leans back against the wall, stretching her legs out in front of her.
‘Tired? Talked an awful lot just then.’
The comment makes Yasha blink and she turns toward her, looking uncomfortable. It’s a strange expression and it makes Beau feel sick—like Yasha has seen something rotten in her.
About time, Beau thinks. Only been telling them forever.
‘That is what I mean. You haven’t been…uh…abrasive like this for a long time.’ Beau shrugs and Yasha watches the gesture closely. Her expression grows more troubled. ’You can talk to me, if…if you want.’
For an instant, Beau is keenly aware of what she’s doing. Looking out over their small campsite, the dome over them, the crackling fire, the somewhat stilted conversation that sounds feigned and awkward because she’s been such a bitch today and knocked everyone off kilter, she knows she’s fraying the still-delicate trust that they’ve been building like a web between each of them. Strong, sure, but delicate. Like a fucking spider-web or whatever. And she’s thrashing around like a bull, snapping it to pieces.
‘Thank you.’ Beau knows her expressions lean toward fierce, harsh, and she consciously tries to soften it when she nods her thanks to Yasha—who leans away, surprised. Beau lets her gentleness fall. It looks weird. Of course it looks weird. She shouldn’t have tried. ‘I’m figuring some shit out, I guess. And I…appreciate the offer, honest. But I’m not ready.’
‘Sometimes,’ Yasha says, slowly, like she’s feeling ahead of her for hidden traps or potholes in the path, ‘you aren’t ready for everything. Or never. Especially for the hard things.’
‘Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth.’
Yasha grins. ‘Well. When you are ready, I am here.’ She taps her fingers on the metal of her sword. ‘And she might be mad now, but so is Jester. And all the others.’
‘Yeah.’ Beau sneaks a look over to the campsite. Hidden behind Yasha’s bulk, she can see Jester is watching the two of them, worry stamped on her forehead, and she’s worrying at her lip with sharp teeth. She cares. Fuck. ’Hey, Yasha?’
The world and the sky is dark, and it feels like coming home.
She doesn’t know where she’s been exactly but there is an ache in her bones, weariness so profound she aches with it. Like she’s been marching on worn feet for far longer than she imagined she could walk; like her skin has burned and peeled and burned beneath a foreign and violent sun and now the dark sky is a balm, a welcome cool, the gentlest touch against her skin.
The lantern light blooms ahead of her. Dark, angular faces peer out from under silver helms and at first she thinks she’s going to collapse. Relief saps the strength from her legs and she staggers.
‘Commander?’ The voice is familiar, and then unfamiliar.
She shakes her head hard and tries not to cry. This is home - these are her people! Why does this feel so strange to her, then? Why does it feel like she is wearing someone else’s skin? Why does her name stopper in her throat? Where that information should be—that vital information, that necessary information—is blank. Flat and entirely blocked from her like black glass, impenetrable, opaque, and it hurts to knock against it again and again and feel her thoughts slip away from it.
‘Yes,’ she grunts, and it feels right. Commander? Yes, that’s her. ‘I - ‘ It hurts to speak. This she knows: she has been screaming. ‘I am here. I am here.’
There are shadows moving in the darkness, a swarm of them, and she reaches for a weapon that isn’t there but when they reach her, they aren’t attacking.
A woman with silver eyes is crying.
‘Commander,’ she says. ‘It is good to see you safe.’
For some reason, that strikes her as hilarious and she collapses to her knees before the woman and laughs and laughs and laughs and -
Beau wakes up laughing.
‘He-ey, Beau,’ Jester sing-songs, sounding incredibly nervous. ‘You’re laughing in your sleep which is new and kind of creepy and I guess I’m not so mad at you anymore but I’m going to touch you so please don’t punch me okay thank you,’ she says all in a rush and then two cool hands touch to Beau’s shoulders and a pulse of magic bursts through her. It’s light and soft and buzzes behind her teeth like too much sugar, the familiar touch of Jester’s magic. It lingers—in her head, in her chest—and it feels…it feels like the magic is searching for something to do before it fizzles out entirely.
Jester’s hand strokes her forehead, her hair. She has Beau’s head in her lap and the cool air makes Beau shiver, pull at the woollen blanket someone has dropped over her. Something about the whole situation strikes her as odd and it takes a moment for her tired mind to put it together but when she does, she sits bolt upright. Caleb’s bubble doesn’t let cold air in, doesn’t change temperature, keeps everything ever so dimly light. But here she is in the pitch dark and cold.
‘Where—‘ Beau fumbles for her goggles but they’re not on her head. She reaches to the side to where they should be on her pack but - nothing. ‘Jester, where’s all my shit? Where are we?’
‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’ Jester touches her hands, moves slowly up to her shoulders so Beau doesn’t freak out when she can’t see her hands. ‘You just went on a little sleep walk. It’s okay—Frumpkin saw you and woke me up. And Yasha. Say hello Yasha.’
Beau flicks her useless human eyes in the direction of her voice and for the briefest moment, there is a lurch of loss. She could see in the dark, once. It was familiar to her—nothing could hide, not even in the deepest dark of night. It was her domain. And now she’s useless without her goggles. Beau feels her expression twist and forgets that though she cannot see them, the other women can see her.
‘Jes,’ she breathes, and leans into the hold Jester has on her. ‘Sorry I was such a shitbag today.’
‘That’s okay! I’m used to it.’ She says it so sweetly that Beau can’t help but laugh.
‘Ah. I deserved that.’
‘Maybe,’ Jester says, softening already. ‘But not when you just had what must have been a super creepy dream. I’ll be mad at you later.’
‘Maybe,’ Yasha suggests, ‘you want to tell us what is going on now?’
Beau scratches at her head. Sighs. ‘I probably should.’
‘Everyone? You can tell us first, if you want,’ Jester suggests.
‘No. No, I think is is an everyone kind of thing.’
‘Okay, Beau. If you’re sure.’
The kiss to her forehead comes from nowhere and Beau crinkles her face up, totally exaggerating her annoyance.
Jester stands and makes her way back to the bubble. When she moves, Beau can see that it isn’t far; there is a dull orange glow against the walls of the tunnel, faint around the bend only twenty or thirty paces.
‘You scared me,’ Yasha says. For such a large woman, she walks quietly and Beau jumps. ‘Ah. Sorry.’
‘It’s - fine. I scared you?’
‘Yah. You had your eyes open and you walked right out of Caleb’s…bubble thing.’
‘Hut,’ Beau corrects absently, scratching at her forehead.
‘Hut. Yah. We thought perhaps you were charmed. So I tackled you.’
‘Yeah? Wish I’d been awake for that.’
Yasha chuckles. ‘Another time, maybe.’
‘You’re just saying that to cheer me up.’
‘I mean, it works,’ Beau admits. ‘It works.’
They walk the rest of the way in silence. Beau drags her feet the closer they get to the hut, which she knows is totally obvious to all of them but for a few long moments she can pretend. And then she’s passing through Caleb’s magic, which buzzes over her smelling of orange peel and paper, and everyone—everyone—is staring at her.
‘Welcome to the hut,’ Jester says too-loudly to be casual. ‘We are so happy to have you here.’
Beau snorts. Takes a seat. ‘Thanks.’
For one moment, and then a second, no one speaks. It’s a relief when Fjord clears his throat.
‘I think I speak for everyone,’ he begins in a slightly-off drawl, clearly barely awake, ‘when I say what the fuck, Beau?’
‘What! I think that’s valid!’
‘No, he’s right,’ Nott nods. She looks disgusted to be saying it. ‘I agree with Fjord. What the fuck!’
Beau settles into a comfortable position. It’s close to meditation, her legs crossed beneath her and back straight, fingers in her lap. But instead of being lose, her hands are drawn together like lodestones and she starts to twist and pull and tug at her fingers until it almost hurts.
‘Beau.’ Jester sets her hand right over both of Beau’s. ‘It’s okay. We are right here! We’re your family,’ she says, oh so sweetly, and Beau just about fucking breaks.
‘I spoke to the Bright Queen.’
‘Yeah, we all did.’
‘No, I mean, I spoke to her. Just me.’
‘You…went to see her?’
‘No.’ Beau shakes her head. ‘She…found me.’ Now that she’s saying it, it sounds weird, and she can see the others exchange quick glances. ‘I know, it sounds weird, but there was this hallway in the Conservatory that was like—‘ She lifts her hand so it’s flat and then bends her fingers perpendicular. ‘And I wanted to find out what was up the top,’
‘That is what you wanted the spider-climb spell for,’ Caleb interrupts, voice gentle. His eyes are keen on her and when she turns toward him, his fingers twitch ever so slightly like he wants to reach out toward her.
‘Anyway, I was trying to figure out some kind of glue or whatever when I heard this lady come up behind me,’ Beau says like she hadn’t been snuck up on, ‘and it was her. Leylas.’
‘You’re callin’ her Leylas now?’ Fjord asks. His voice is gentle, but Beau doesn’t miss the hint of accusation.
She scrapes her fingers through her hair. ‘No. Yeah. No—it’ll all make sense in a second. Just let me talk.’
‘Of course!’ Jester squeezes her hand. ‘That is what we are doing!’
In the dim light, Beau sees Fjord raise his hands in surrender. ’Ease up, Jes, you don’t need to glare at me. It was just a question.’
Beau squeezes her hand back. ‘It’s fine. Really.’ She frowns down at their joined hands, not truly seeing them. Dark—dark blue, almost purple—hands replace them and it shocks her enough to jolt. She blinks, and the hands are her own again. Tan, dark brown skin. Scrapes, callouses aplenty. Her own. ‘She can do that magic stuff. The gravity shifting magic. She flipped us up onto the roof—‘
‘Both of you? She took you with her?’
‘—and into the hallway there. Asked me what my name was. She had this weird look in her eyes like she was trying to…understand me, I guess?’ Beau stops. ‘That’s not true,’ she admits. ‘It was like she was trying to place me. Like she’d met me before.’
‘But that’s crazy!’ Jester blurts out. ‘You’ve never been here before!’
Beau nods. ‘Yeah. I never have.’
Across from her, bright as ever, Caleb makes a curious sound. A whistle, almost, as the surprise leaves him all in a gust. Beau looks up and his eyes are wide, shining with the light of his conjured magic and understanding. After a moment, he tips his head in a nod. Go on, the gesture says. Tell us.
‘We talked a bit. I was nervous as fuck because she’s a queen and I’m…me.’
‘Sure,’ Nott agrees. ‘Understandable.’
‘Fuck you.’ The words don’t hold any heat to them and Nott’s many teeth gleam when she bares them in a grin. ‘I talked a bit. Told her we were happy to be there and learn or whatever. And then she was walking away and…’
‘You followed her,’ they chorus.
Beau scowls. ‘Yeah, I guess. Shut up.’
‘Is it because she’s pretty?’ Jester coos.
‘I mean,' she lets a rakish smile cross her face. 'That doesn’t hurt. But I really wanted to see what they were hiding up there and, like, if I had made it up by myself that would’ve been cool but it might have been super illegal. I figured, if I went with her then it was like, express permission. You know?’
They all nod like they’re appeasing her.
‘What was up there? An armoury? Or more magic stuff?’ Fjord leans in. His hands are folded together and Beau watches as the thumb of his left hand rubs over the palm of his right. He doesn’t seem to notice he’s doing it at all; Beau wonders idly when he’d picked up the habit.
‘No. None of that. Not that I saw, anyway.’ Beau frowns. ‘It was just a room. She…told me to sit.’
‘Maybe now is not the time. Just let her tell the story.’
‘Okay, okay.’ Jester rolls her eyes. ‘I’m just saying.’
‘And we all heard you,’ Fjord nods. ‘Keep goin’, Beau.’
‘She knew we were leaving. Confirmed the whole they’re watching us thing.’ Beau frees one hand from under Jester’s and scratches at her cheek. ‘Said Essik would tell us what he knew about the kiln.’
‘Aw yeah. He was really helpful,’ Cad says, speaking for the first time.
Beau nods. Scratches at her forehead. Shifts in place. There’s a tension running through her body. A lot like when she was being forced to meditate and couldn’t; it’s like all the adrenaline, all the energy that is normally running through her is squashed smaller and denser and is zinging all over the place through her, insistent that she notices. That she does something about it.
‘Did she hurt you?’ Yasha asks very carefully when Beau doesn’t say anything.
‘No. No. I don’t think so. It was—she touched me.’ The word is shaky, uncertain, and for once Jester doesn’t make a joke about it. ‘My hand, just my hand, and it was like—‘
How to explain it?
‘It was like polymorph. It felt the way polymorph felt, like my whole body was changing—but it was my mind. But it didn’t feel like that at all because it wasn’t magic, she didn’t do anything to me.’ Beau scrubs her hand through her hair. Strings of hair fall loose as she messes with it, the ribbon coming largely undone, but she doesn’t care. ‘It was like opening a door. Fuck. I don’t know.’
‘Like a haze clearing from your mind,’ Caleb offers.
Beau’s head snaps up and she remembers, clear as day. Him, shaking as he told her about breaking. About a head full of cotton and grey clouds. About them parting and knowing, knowing, the truth.
‘And what did you find?’ His voice is strained and for an instant, Beau thinks she sees the magic of the hut flicker. But it holds.
‘A memory. Just one, but it felt like there were others behind it. Waiting. Like they were crowding into my head. My head,’ Beau whispers, ‘hurts all the time. There are all these voices, all these thoughts, crowding in there and distracting me and I’m scared—‘
‘Of the voices?’
‘Of the distraction. I don’t want to get in a fight and forget who I’m supposed to be fighting. Or forget where I am.’
Caleb and Yasha both freeze.
Yasha bows her head. ‘Yah. It is not good.’
Caleb says nothing.
‘I - pardon me,’ Fjord interjects. ‘I don’t understand. What do you mean, you saw memories? They were crowding you? Did she mess with your mind?’
Beau glances up at Jester, surprised. Her friend is staring at her with something like wonder in her eyes—fearful, yes, but wonder all the same.
‘No? You’re sure? You sound sure, Jes, and…I think you’re right but I’m not sure.’
‘I’m sure.’ She squeezes Beau’s hand again. ‘I cast some pretty powerful stuff on you to make sure you weren’t being charmed or poisoned or messed up or memory shifted or anything like that, and there was nothing. I can do it again if you want,’ she offers excitedly, wiggling her fingers in Beau’s face. ‘Blam!’
Magic—green so light it looks white—bursts from her finger tips and the sparks shower over Beau’s head, sinking into her skin. They pop and fizzle and feel warm for a second, but Beau doesn’t feel anything change.
‘Nope!’ Jester pops the p in the word with relish. ‘Nothing at all. Normal Beau.’
Beau sees everyone in the circle relax. Hells, she feels herself relax. She clutches more tightly at Jester’s hand as well.
‘That’s good,’ Fjord nods, and there’s a softening in his eyes when he looks at Beau now. An apology, maybe, or as much as he will give. Beau gets it; he’s making sure she’s not compromised, making sure that everyone is safe, and it makes her feel a little better that she’s passed his test. ‘What, uh, what kind of memories then?’
‘I was in a room. It was dark and…my wife was waiting for me.’ Across the circle, Yasha twitches. ‘I was tired and dirty. I was wearing, like, chain armour and I had a sword. That was weird.’ Jester nods fervent agreement. ‘It’s more of a feeling, most of it, than seeing anything but it felt so real.’ Beau hesitates. She looks toward Nott, a little nervously. ‘I looked down at my hands,’ she says, ‘and I was drow.’
‘Oh fuck,’ Nott screeches. ‘You’re reincarnated.’
Everything falls into what Cad calls a “hullabaloo” then: on one end of the spectrum are Caleb and Yasha, who sit very still and quiet and blank, like they’ve been petrified; then there is Jester and Fjord who are talking a mile a minute over one another, words overlapping and getting lost in the ruckus until nothing they are saying makes sense; Nott is losing her little goblin mind marching into and out of the hut and screeching about how reincarnation is her thing and Beau can't - or shouldn't? - have it, and Beau can't decide if she's angry that Beau shares something with her or that it has happened to Beau; and weirdly enough Beau places Cad on the other end of the spectrum. He’s sitting still and quiet, yeah, but instead of blankly staring into space, he is watching Beau with such intense focus that it makes the hairs on the back of her neck and her arms stand on end.
‘Well,' he says, slow and steady. 'How about that?’
‘How long have you known!’ Nott shrieks, pointing a crooked green finger up in Beau’s nose. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me sooner!’
‘Whoa, dude! I found out literally four days ago.’
‘Four days!’ Nott blinks. ‘Oh. Oh, four days. Okay.’ She takes her spot next to Caleb again. ‘Well, that’s fine. Sorry you have to go through that, or whatever.’
‘It’s not reincarnation anyway. She just thinks I’m one of her,' Beau flaps a hand dismissively, spits the next words. 'Precious consecuted souls. Whatever that really means. It's not the same thing.'
‘Also, it’s total bullshit, of course,’ Beau says.
No one nods.
‘That,’ Jester says after a while, when everything has calmed down and no one is yelling anymore, ‘is kind of a lot.’
‘Sorry I called you a bitch yesterday.’
‘No, I did. You just didn’t hear me, obviously.’
‘Sure, Jes. That’s fine.’
Jester pats her hand. ‘Maybe, if you try to sleep everything will be easier in the morning and we can figure something out.’
‘I think that sounds like a capital idea,’ Cad agrees and he takes up the suggestion like a call to arms. Or a call to tea, anyway, and he mulls about setting up his kettle and the cups and pouring everyone a bit of a musky, deep-flavoured tea that sits at the back of their tongues and makes the whole world seem a little quieter. ‘Shouldn’t have any problems with dreams,’ he tells Beau as she drinks it. ‘Let me know if you do.’
Caleb finds her before she falls asleep. Sets a cautious finger on her shoulder and calls her name, rouses her from the half sleep.
He plays with his silver wire. It falls into a cradle through his weaving fingers like it remembers the form. Before her eyes, the cradle looks to shift into the sign of the Bright Queen’s medallion—the infinity of souls. Then it is gone.
’I am sorry, Beauregard. To wake you. And… I am sorry that you are going through this. It must be very difficult.’
Beau shrugs. ‘It’s a trip, man. Hey, maybe someone drugged me and it’s really nothing.’
‘We live in hope,’ Caleb says tonelessly. The sharp corners of his mouth dart upwards for an instant, then flat once more. ‘I…wished to follow you.’
‘Tonight. I felt you leave the Hut, and I wished to follow.’ He is watching her expression closely, eyes flicking from her eyes to her brows to her nose and mouth and back to her eyes, trying to read her like a book. He looks frustrated, and Beau doesn’t know if it’s because he can’t read her mind or because whatever he does read isn’t what he wants to see. ‘Ja, well, goodnight. Sleep well.’
‘Yeah. Sleep well.’
The morning doesn’t dawn, not in the tunnels and not under the permanent night, but when they all come to there is not a face free of dark circles under their eyes and Beau feels the attention firmly on her.
‘Onwards, hey? Maybe we’ll find the kiln today.’
‘Maybe,’ Cad agrees. ‘Maybe not.’
‘Are you looking forward to seeing what kind of plants they grow here?’ Beau asks him, which is one hundred per cent a cowards way to get him to talk and talk for two hours without end, instead of having to deal with the silence and awkward attempts to talk to her about what she had shared the night before.
Cad’s eyes brighten and he nods. ‘Oh yeah. Absolutely. There’s gotta be something really interesting in a place like this.’
‘Tell me all about it, Cad. Spare no detail.’
‘Aw, that’s great.’
‘Wimp,’ Jester hisses in her ear. She has to stand on tip-toe to do it, and Beau feels a surge of affection for this girl. This wonderful, silly, protective, fierce blue girl who lies almost as well as Beau does. She wraps an arm around Jester’s shoulders and tugs her in for a hug, and after a moment Jester returns the hug. Slips an arm around her waist. They walk in lock step for a long time like that, listening to Cad and sometimes tripping over each others feet—either by accident or because Jester tried to trip her with her tail and Beau retaliated with a sly foot—and something about it, whether it be the contact or the distraction, keeps Beau from thinking too long or too hard about her dreams and the ghosts of memories that flit across her mind.
Jester waits for a fraction of a second before she says again, louder and more insistently cheerful, ‘Good morning!’ into each of their faces until they say it back.
Beau calls this underhanded tactic “coercive cheer” and she is sad to report that it works.
Jester lays her full weight on top of Beau, who gives a token struggle even though she could easily remove her pinned hands. It becomes a little more real when Nugget slams down on top of Jester as well, crushing her spine into the solid rock floor. Jester holds Beau’s face between her hands, smiling down at her sweetly, and then pinches her cheeks until it hurts, thumbs dragging Beau’s lips up into a smile that turns feral, warning.
‘Good mor-ning,’ she sings, eyes twinkling. She’s so close that their foreheads are pressed together and, without a flicker of unease or a moment to think about whether this is something Beau wants to talk about, she launches right into, ‘Did you dream anymore about your super cool past lives?’
‘Get off me before I straight up murder you,’ Beau says, voice flat and eyes glaring as well as they can at the ass crack of dawn. ‘I love you or whatever,’ she adds to soften the exchange a little—because, hello, threats of murder is maybe a tad too far—and then immediately follows it up with, ‘but I will kill you.’ Because she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s actually soft.
Jester has the audacity to laugh. But she does roll off her, and then slaps her in the face with the spade of her tail.
‘Fuck—Jes—stop that—bloody fuckin’—enough!’ Beau flails wildly, slapping Jester’s tail away from where it is trying to tickle her. She scoots her and her bedroll like a caterpillar over to the relative protection of Caleb, who at least she knows won’t ask her uncomfortable questions.
‘Fuck you! Wait,’ Beau sighs, holds her hands up in surrender. ’I’m sorry. That was harsh, you don’t deserve that. I meant get fucked.’
Caleb frown heavily at her, a gesture that by now she can only assume is affectionate. ‘Did you have any more, ah, dreams?’
So much for not asking uncomfortable questions. Beau scowls. Her reputation must be trash now because Caleb doesn’t even flinch. ’Is everyone going to ask me that every day for the rest of forever?’
‘Ja, most likely.’
‘Fuck.’ Caleb just stares at her. ‘No, okay? No. No more dreams.’
‘Ah. Very good.’ His accent is heavier in the mornings, turning the d into a sharp t.
Beau drags her hands down her face. ‘I’m cured,’ she mumbles. ‘Okay? I’m cured.’
There is a moment of silence and then, ’Ja, I’m sure you are.’
She rubs at her eyes. Picks the eye-boogers from the corners of her eyes and flicks them toward the sleeping Nott. ‘Send - ‘ She yawns. ‘Send Frumpie - make Frumpkin wake up Fjord.’
Caleb scratches at his beard. Laughs that incredibly awkward two-burst laugh of his and nods to Frumpkin. The cat wriggles out from the blankets—with a side venture to Beau to get his ears scritched—and trots over to Fjord. Jumps lightly up onto his chest and begins to purr mightily, rubbing his cheek against Fjord’s cheeks and mouth and nose.
‘Aw. That’s really sweet,’ Cad says from where he’s setting up breakfast.
‘Ja,’ Caleb agrees. It’s hard to tell from beneath the scruff, but Beau is pretty sure he’s smirking. ‘It is very sweet.’
For all that feeding them and keeping them from attacking people in the city is laborious sometimes, the moor-bounders come in incredibly useful when the Nein exited the tunnels after the fourth day of travelling to find the path ahead disappears up into the jagged landscape of looming, inhospitable mountains. With a little direction and a lot of unasked-for praise from resident cat-man Caleb Widoghast, the moor-bounders leap from ledge to ledge with barely the tap of paw against stone, terrifyingly quiet for the size and weight of the creatures. It’s a bumpy ride, but none of them get dislodged and only one of them—Nott—pukes. Even after three days of the jumping and the riding and more jumping, she still hasn’t gotten used to the swaying motion of the moor-bounders. Or maybe it’s being way taller than usual that has her so fucked up, but she’s ridden horses before so it’s probably just the one-buck-chuck she chose to fill her flask with way back when. Combined with the swaying.
‘It’s like seasickness but so much worse,’ she groans, and swigs from her flask. ‘Blegh.’
‘Perhaps,’ Caleb suggests carefully, ‘this would be easier if you are not drunk.’
‘Proof?’ Nott demands.
‘None of us are drunk, and none of us have puked?’
‘Inconclusive. Correlation,’ she hiccoughs, ‘is not causation.’
‘Hey, Nott. Nott!’ Beau calls.
‘Are you scared of heights and water? That’s rough, man,’
‘Are you - Are you fucking the Queen?’ Not shoots back at Beau. ‘Maybe shut the fuck up!’
Beau pats Caleb hard on the shoulder. ‘Get me over there. Get Yannic - what a stupid name, Caleb, honestly - get him over there so I can fuck up Nott.’
‘No, I’m not going -‘
‘Go, Caleb,’ Beau demands, kicking her heels ineffectually on Yannic’s sides and glaring at Nott, who has freed herself from the saddle so she can make obscene gestures at Beau. ‘Get me closer.’
‘I’m not going to do that,’ he tells her, calm as ever.
‘I think we all need to just calm down,’ Fjord interrupts, speaking over the lot of them. It sounds strange, though, with his nose and throat all closed up and red—‘I fink we all need to jutht calm down,’—and he frowns when Caleb and Beau muffle their laughter on their moor-bounder behind him. Holding onto the pommel with one hand, Fjord twists in place so that he can glare at them. ‘So,’ he says, and it comes out “Tho”. ‘Any idea where we’re headed, Cadutheuth?’
‘Huh? Oh, you’re talking about me. Yeah,’ Cad says, slow and easy. ‘East.’
Fjord sighs. ‘Pleathe tell me we have more information than that.’
‘We do not. Don’t worry. I’ll know it when I see it.’
‘That ith not a good approach to thith!’
‘It’s faith, Mister Fjord. The Wildmother has a plan—she’ll let me know about it when she wants to.’ Cad reigns in Clarabell when they reach the top of the cliff so he can lean over and pat Fjord on the shoulder. There’s that burst of light from the touch—that flurry of spices and strange biting winter cold—that always comes with Cad’s magic.
Fjord sneezes what looks like two red chunks of moss out of his nose. ‘Oh gods,’ he groans and he pats his nose and cheeks below his eyes apprehensively, like he expects more to grow there any second now. ‘That’s really gross, Cad. Moss? In my nose?’
‘But you can breathe again, can’t you?’ He gives Fjord a dopey smile, head tilted and eyes pressed closed, and Fjord is powerless to do anything but agree. ‘This is an adventure, Mister Fjord. More than that—we’re on the path of a sacred duty. We are on our way.’
‘That’s all you need to know, huh?’
Fjord sighs. ‘Alright. East, I guess.’
Another week passes, in which Caduceus receives a vision from his goddess, they find his kiln and a message from one of the mysterious and consistently under-mentioned Clay siblings, and the Nein teleport back to the chamber within the Lucid Bastion. A week in which Beau is free of any troubling visions or dreams.
One of Den Theylas pokes their head into the teleportation chamber—a grey-skinned dwarf with a broad stern face—and mutters a quick count of the lot of them aloud.
‘Oh, ah, I am sorry,’ Caleb apologises, brushing sparks from his hair and hands and robes. ‘I hope we did not intrude on anything…’
‘No,’ the dwarf grunts. In a heavy brogue, they continue. ‘Ah’m just they one on duty. Interesting tae see ye come back here.’ They tug at the puff of red beard that grows at the point of their chin. ‘Interesting indeed.’
‘Interesting?’ Fjord asks.
‘Tha’s what I said, innit? Allies o’ the Bright Queen, ay? Ye be wantin’ to see her, then?’
‘No, not really.’ Beau struggles to rearrange Caleb’s arm over her shoulders and not fall over under his full weight. For such a stick of a man, he isn’t light. Probably the weight of his full-blown depression, or something. ‘Gallimaufry District. You know the way?’
‘Aye, I know it.’ They seem offended by the suggestion they might not.
‘Great. Get us there.’
‘Get us there, please.’
‘A pleasure,’ the dwarf says, tone suggesting it is anything but.
Jester beams at Beau, pats her shoulder. ‘Are you having a nice time at work?’ she asks the dwarf, following them out of the teleportation chamber into the main halls of the Bastion.
‘Aye, it’s not been bad ’t’all. Nought to it, really, guarding tha’ chamber—ye the first ah’ve seen today.’ The dwarf leads them out from the room. Their armour clanks as they trot down the hall, soon followed by the squelch and slip of the slime the Nein are covered in, and the panting and drooling of their moor-bounders. More guards approach at a trot; several of them with distraught faces and heavy padding wrapped about their limbs step cautiously forward as if to take the beasts and lead them away.
’S’fine,’ Fjord tells them. ‘We’ve got them.’ He puts a hand toward Yarnball, who snarls, and Fjord smiles as though that was meant to happen all along.
‘Are you sure, sah?’ the drow leader asks Fjord.
‘Absolutely. Thank you.’
‘Very well.’ The drow exchanges a look with her second. Nods. ‘Why don’t we escort the guests of the Queen safely.’
‘Ah’ve got it!’ their dwarf argues. ‘Ah’ve got it!’
‘Yeah,’ Beau tells them. ‘Pthorvik’s got it.’
Between Fjord’s polite farewells and Jester stroking the snarling Yarnball and the dwarf staring with faint confusion at Beau, and Beau and Caleb leaning shakily against one another, and a hallway slowly filling with the grime and slime dripping from all of them, the squad of guards let them go without too much argument, though they do watch to make sure that the group of them leave the premises.
‘Hey, psst. Pthorvik,’ Beau calls to the dwarf. ‘Any chance we can get there faster? Shortcuts or something? Some of us,’ here she cuts a glare at Caleb, who is barely standing even with her help and barely not bleeding out anymore, ‘need to rest.’
The dwarf stares at her from under bristling brows. Then nods. ‘Aye, human. Quick step. Ah can do that.’
The Nein follow Pthorvik through the District, past the Firmaments and past the wall into the Gallimaufry. Beau takes great care to memorise the streets and the monuments they pass; she tries not to feel surprised when a street divides where she’s not expecting it to, or when she sees a monument where once long ago there had been only a pedestal, and when she does, she puts it down to the unfamiliarity of a new city. Finally, they are back at The Dim’s Inn, much to the owner’s visibly fake delight.
‘Welcome, welcome,’ he greets them. ‘The same rooms as before?’
‘If it ain’t any trouble,’ Fjord agrees with a big smile. His tusks are coming through and Beau admires the way the whole set-up makes the owner quail.
‘Certainly. I’ll just…have those set up for you fine folk.’
‘’Preciate it.’ Fjord leans against the desk and keeps his smile up until the gentleman has gone. Then, he turns toward the others. ‘Meeting in Beau and Jester’s room?’
‘Aw, c’mon man, why ours?’
‘Yeah! Why not yours and Cay-leb’s?’ Jester asks. ‘He’s, like, really close to passing out so I think that is probably best.’
Fjord looks to Caleb, surprised. ‘Oh, shit. Yeah, alright. Meetin’ in me and Caleb’s room. Uh—is there somethin’ you or Cad - Cad? Is there somethin’ you can do about Caleb?’
‘It ist fine, Fjord,’ Caleb says, and definitely doesn’t spit blood into his bandaged palm. ‘I will sleep this off.’
‘Cool. Cool. Definitely not worrying at all. Great.’
The girls cluster onto Beau and Jester’s room after putting Caleb to bed.
Beau accepts Nott’s flask—their argument had been long forgotten after Beau sucker punched a ghost for her, and Nott shot a bat-like entity that had tried to make off with the monk—and swigs. The whiskey burns all the way down her throat.
‘Hoo boy.’ Beau sucks in a breath through her teeth. It makes the burn worse. She drinks again, and it weirdly seems to soothe it. ‘That’s bad. Ah. Gah. Yuck. Yasha! Want some?’
‘Oh.’ She takes the offered flask carefully. Beau pretends not to notice that she arranges herself so their fingers don’t touch when she takes the small flask. ‘Yah, thank you, Beauregard.’
‘…Yeah. Yeah, you’re welcome. Sure.’
‘Offering my whiskey to people?’ Nott huffs. ‘Rude.’
‘Oh—I am sorry, here,’ Yasha tries to hand it back, only to be met with a fond smile.
‘Joking, joking. It’s an endless flask! Never runs out! Drink as much as you want! We all just nearly died!’
‘Yah… Maybe…just a sip.’
‘Good thinking,’ Beau nods, taking the flask back. She isn’t careful, and touches most of Yasha’s hand. ’More for me and Nott.’
‘Yah, I don’t think that is how endless flasks work.’
‘We’ll have to rigorously test it some more,’ Nott suggest, eyes big and gleaming yellow and innocent in the dark.
‘Agreed,’ Jester cheers from her place curled up on the bed.
It’s a strange suggestion coming from her - especially since she has no intention of joining in the drinking - but Beau is already three swigs deep and piled on top of some severe blood loss, thats enough to make her head pleasantly fuzzy.
‘I have a fun idea,’ Jester trills, and the blankets shift as her tail lashes underneath it. That means something, but Beau can’t for the life of her remember what.
‘I like fun,’ Nott agrees.
‘Great! It’s a really fun game I just made up, it’s called Truth! It’s like Truth or Dare but it’s just Truth and I get to ask people questions and then they have to tell me the Truth. Okay?’
Beau squints over at her best friend. ‘Are you casting that truth spell on us?’
Her tail lashes again. ‘No.’
‘Oh. Sick, yeah, sounds stupid but I’m game. Nott?’
‘Uh—no.’ She scuttles out of the room, pausing only long enough to filch the flask back from Beau.
‘Oh thank you, I think no as well.’ She awkwardly looks around for an excuse before cupping a hand around her ear. ‘I think—is that a storm? Yes, I have to, uh, go outside.’
‘I don’t hear anything.’
‘It’s still far off,’ Yasha tells Beau, sounding more uncomfortable than usual. She heads for the window and climbs out of it. ‘Have a good night.’
‘Yeah - what - okay, stay safe?’ Beau calls after her. She shakes her head. ‘Man. What a bummer. No one wants to play your cool game. Sorry, Jes.’
‘We can play with just the two of us.’
‘Weird.’ Beau arranges herself on the bed, loose-limbed and warm. Rolls her head back on her neck and hums. ‘Kinda sounds like it would be just you…asking me questions. Kind of like an interrogation.’
Jester’s tail stills. She squints suspiciously across at Beau and pouts. ‘You’re not drunk, are you?’
Beau grins. ‘Not quite.’ She scratches at her eyebrow and a skin-deep scrape there. She’ll probably kick herself in the morning but she’s feeling good and alive and yeah, a little tipsy, and she loves Jester or whatever so she shrugs and says, ‘Y’know, if you want to ask me something, you can just ask. You don’t have to ply me with alcohol. And if you do want to do that, at least get me better shit than Nott’s endless flask.’ Seeing Jester’s shoulders slump, Beau sighs. ‘What is it, Jes? C’mon. Talk to me.’ After a moment of no response, she pats the space next to her invitingly. Mimicking her friend, she sing-songs, ’Jes-ter.’
Jester shuffles out of her blankets and hurries to jump into Beau’s bed, curling up into her. ‘Hi.’
‘Okay, I do have some questions for you and you have to promise not to be mad because I know it’s weird for you but I just want to help. Okay?’
‘Sure,’ Beau shrugs. She tucks a hand under her head lazily, crossing her legs at the ankles. All the blood in her body rushes up toward her head like the tide crashing over her, and recedes a moment later, dragging hurt and energy away with it, and the world is slow and warm around her and she is laying in a bed for the first time in over a week and it’s nice.
Beau snuffles a little. Scratches at her scalp. ‘Yup.’
‘…Have you had more of those dreams? Or visions? Voices in your head?’ Beau feels the bed move and cracks an eyelid to see Jester lean up, watching her face very closely.
‘Are you lying to me?’
‘I’m not lying.’
‘I can cast my truth spell.’
‘Then cast it.’
‘Maybe I will!’
Jester narrows her eyes to the point where it’s honestly debatable whether she can see at all. Then, with a laugh, she leans back. ‘No, I won’t do that. I believe you, Beau! That’s super weird though, right? That you had, like, three visions in a couple days and then nothing? Hey, maybe the Queen did something to you like cast a spell on you or something. You didn’t eat anything she gave you, right?’ Beau shakes her head. ‘But maybe when she touched you!’
‘But,’ Jester shrugs, still smiling. ‘Maybe not. I’ll ask Caleb in the morning.’
‘You do that.’
Beau has been on the verge of sleep for a while before Jester shifts.
‘How did you know the dwarf’s name?’
‘The dwarf’s name. You knew it was Pthorvik before they told us.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Yes, you did. I just realised.’ Beau had taken off her dark-vision goggles before going to sleep so she can’t see Jester’s face, but her voice is soft and a little sad. ‘Do you think you knew them from before?’
‘…I don’t know.’
Jester settles. Her head is heavy on Beau’s shoulder and when she turns over, one of her horns scrapes along Beau’s chin. ‘Sorry,’ she whispers.
She sighs. ‘Yeah, Jes?’
‘Are you scared?’
‘Okay.’ Jester curls an arm around Beau’s waist and snuggles in tight. ‘I’ll protect you,’ she mumbles, and her breath smells of sweets and sugar and cinnamon, somehow, even months from Nicodranas.
Perhaps the universe has a sense of humour, a delicate sense of timing. Perhaps it's just coincidence. But that night - after so many days and nights of no signs of change or alteration to her mind, nothing to hint to the idea of consecution as anything but a mistake - that night, as Beau drifts off to sleep, deep within the Shadowshire a beacon gives an extra little thrum. Just one. It is identical in every way to the other beacons, twelve-sided and thrumming with a dull grey light, but this one is new. Returned to its place on its pedestal, watched over by the Shadowspurn Keepers, the returned beacon thrums again. Too fast to notice. And across the city, wrapped up snug in a cocoon of blankets and her friends arms, a sleeping girl remembers just a little bit more.
The sky is dark with the cover of night, but it is crisp and cool and bright and she likes to think that the world knows. Tonight is a good night. She walks a little faster, ducking down the promenade of crimson trees and blooming trumpet flowers, their white petals open to the moon. She ducks down as she passes a flower bed and plucks one of the flowers from its place, snapping the stem between her fingers. Lifting it to her nose, she can’t help the smile that curls across her lips; the sweet, subtle scent of the nectar is familiar and recalls pleasant evenings and silver curls falling over her pillows. She tucks the flower into the clasp of her brooch and hurries on.
Finally, she arrives at a simple door and pushes into the Bastion. Any guard that sees her simply nods or looks away. All save for Imhefet, who smirks as she passes by.
‘Matters to discuss with the Lady tonight, Commander?’
Her stride slows and stops; Imhefet, annoyingly, doesn’t so much as flinch when she sends a glare back down the hall.
‘Yes, as a matter of fact. Not that it is any business of yours - being a lowly Captain.’
Amusement burns in her second’s eyes for a second before she banks it, affects an expression of deep respect. ‘I should be glad of it, I think. You’re being run off your feet, Commander. First the war room this morning, now late night calls to her personal chambers?’ Imhefet clicks her tongue with mock sympathy. ’A Commander’s work is never done.’
‘Shall I pretend not to have seen you?’
‘Understood.’ Her Captain salutes—perfectly, with no sign of the deep disrespect she can feel rolling off of her—and returns her hand to her weapon. ‘Better not keep her waiting, Commander.’
For a moment, she thinks about saying something, but she can’t think of a single clever thing that will put Imhefet in her place so instead she turns on her heels and hurries on, trying not to listen to the cackling laughter that follows her down the hall.
By the time she reaches Leylas’s chambers, she’s clean forgotten about Imhefet. Pressing a hand to the door, she enters and has to step back when a line of crackling white energy bursts across the entrace.
‘You know, I can’t do anything if I’m charred into little specks of ash.’
A head peeks up from behind a stack of papers. Bright eyes narrow to slits. ‘Perhaps you should take it as a warning.’
‘Perhaps you should remove the trap before I come in anyway.’
‘Perhaps you should realise that it really would kill you and I’m not in any mood to call my Healers so late at night and explain - I really am going to kill you,’ Leylas snarls as she jumps over the threshold. The white flame roars behind her and licks at the back of her shoulders and calves but whatever spell it was hadn’t had time to regenerate its full power, so she only needs to pat at the little sparks on her cloak. Leylas’s chair scrapes on the stone as she stands, pushing it back. ‘You really are an idiot, aren’t you?’
‘I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound familiar. They call me - now what was it, there was a very good name the other day - oh yes. War-Commander in Chief, Chief Protector of the Realm, Battle Strategim Supreme. I rather liked that. A bit long to put on a plaque but - ‘ She stops talking when Leylas steps into her space, arms folded, a hint of a true glare in her expression. ‘My love?’
‘Ah, sweet talking me now?’
‘I thought it prudent. I am the Battle Strategim Supreme, after all.’
Try as she might, Leylas can’t fight the smile that curls at the very corner of her lips. ‘Stop it. I’m angry with you.’ The Queen’s breath catches audibly when she steps forward, into Leylas’s space. ‘I have work to do.’
‘Leave it for tomorrow,’ she suggests,voice low and tempting. Settling her hands on Leylas’s waist, she backs her up a step; shifts with the subtle look Leylas throws her desk, turning them both so that her love can’t see the stacks of papers, the blinking missive that wants her attention. ‘Leave them to their own devices for an hour,’ she whispers, and brushes her lips over Leylas’s cheek, at the sharp jut of her jaw, down her neck.The smell of the white-trumpet flowers is strong here where she applies her perfume and she lets her nose skim down to the collar of her dress. ‘They’re all very clever,’ she says, pressing a kiss to the pulse point that thrums under her lips, ‘capable,’ and another kiss to the underside of Leylas’s jaw, her fingers sinking into a mane of silver hair and tilting her head back, ‘which is why you appointed all of us.’
‘Not you,’ Leylas sighs.
She can’t help but grin. ‘No. You appointed me for my devilishly good looks, I’m well aware.’
‘Even a Queen has a weakness,’ Leylas mutters, eyes gleaming with good humour, and she glances over to her desk where another blinking missive has arrived and her shoulders slump. She’s making ready to let Leylas go when Leylas instead moves closer, winds her arms around her Commander’s shoulders. ‘You have one hour.’
‘Just the one?’
‘I’m a busy woman. You will have to be very convincing.’
‘I think you’ll like my kind of negotiations,’ she assures her Queen, backing her up toward the chamber beyond, where she knows a sea of lilac sheets await them.
Leylas clicks her fingers and lights bloom all around the room, dim and glowing with a soft green light, but enough for them to see by as they strip down eagerly and in the Commander’s case with an efficiency that has Leylas laughing; in a woman less regal, the sound might be called a cackle.
‘Eager, are we?’
‘You said I had an hour—I want to make the most of it.’
For all her words of speed, she kisses Leylas slowly. Doesn’t touch her anywhere except for her chin, tilting her head up so that she can press the most feather-light kiss to her lips. And another, at the corner of her mouth. ‘One might think,’ Leylas murmurs, eyelashes fluttering against high cheekbones, ‘that you’re teasing me.’
‘So kiss me.’
‘As my lady commands, so I obey.’ She kisses Leylas again, a little firmer but much more slowly, and she can’t help but smile when Leylas growls. A little sting bites at the Commander’s neck as the queen scrapes her nails up and around her neck, pressing her hand to the back of her head and tugging her. ‘Whatever my Queen desires of me,’ the Commander vows, voice heavy with reverence. She doesn’t finish the oath - both of them know it in its entirety and it makes her shiver when the queen hums her satisfaction, either at the forceful kiss she’s given now or at the dedication, dragging her nails over the sensitive skin at her hairline.
‘Galanneth,’ she says, coaxing her toward the bed.
The Commander stills. Blinks. ‘What?’
‘Galanneth. Don’t waste anymore time, please,’
‘That’s - not my name,’ she says, and the words feel clumsy on her tongue like they’re melting from it half-formed and unwieldy, unfamiliar. ‘I’m - that’s,’ The room spins around her and a dull pain stabs at the backsides of her eyes; she gasps, squeezes them tightly shut and blinks a few times fast. Each time she blinks, the room loses more and more of its detail until all she can see is grey around her and Leylas laying on the bed. ‘Leylas - I’m - ‘
‘Galanneth,’ she says again, but not to anything that is being said. She’s sighing it, as though the memory is continuing with or without the Commander’s participation, and something about it clicks in Galanneth’s mind.
‘Oh. I’m Beau. I’m Galanneth. Oh fucking shit-'
She awakes with a start, sweat-drenched and panting as though she'd been running for miles. Her human eyes search the room for any sign of a disturbance but there is nothing; the night is dark beyond the window, stars blinking high above, and a chill wind whistles through the city battering at the glass panes that fog over ever so slightly. Jester grumbles in her sleep and turns over, hugging a pillow to her belly.
Filled with a restless energy, Beau swings her legs out of the bed and stands. Makes her way over to the window. It's hard to see from here but the Lucid Bastion is enormous and Beau thinks that if she tries, she can just make out the dome of its roof. She leans her forehead against the cold window, enjoying the temperature against too-warm skin. The contrast of it makes more heat rise to Beau's cheeks as she thinks about the dream and she knocks her head on the window with a dull thunk, thunk, thunk and groans. 'I've seen the Bright Queen naked. Gods, help me.'
‘I can feel ‘em lookin’ at us,’ Fjord grumbles unhappily.
Beau notes that the feeling doesn’t show in his expression or in his confident strut; she wishes that she had the same talent but she doesn’t, never has, and she can feel the glower that has long since settled on her face. Her only consolation is that she’s always frowning so maybe folk will think this isn’t about anything in particular. She scratches at her sternum. Shrugs to Fjord, and tries to match his lazy swagger. Keeping her voice low, she says, ‘Yeah, and why not? We’re just a half-human crew of maybe mercenaries who know shit all about this place but swept in anyway with tokens from the queen, we ride around on these fucking weird fish-cat things, reignited the kiln in the mountains, freed the steelwork mine from giants,’ she ticks off on her fingers, ‘embarrassed the foreman,’
‘Oh well, hey now, that was mostly you,’ he interrupts, head tilted, eyes wide and guileless. Beau slogs him hard on the arm. ‘Ow, fuck.’
As Fjord massages feeling back into his dead arm, Beau continues. ‘We embarrassed the foreman, got given a house in one of the richest districts next to a Lord by one of the three most prominent dens that we still don’t know shit about, grew a tree immediately out of the top of the damn tower, Cad started wandering the streets telling folk that he’s growing food and they’re welcome ‘round any time, Caleb sent a hand-written invitation to Waccoh, we started a firefight— literally—with an Empire shit-head and our back up was the Bright Queen’s most elite fighters and that Shadowfist floaty dude—‘
‘Now hang on - you don’t honestly expect me to believe you don’t remember his name?’
‘I only ever remember women’s names,’ Beau shrugs, grinning. ‘What can I say? That’s just how I roll.’
Fjord chuckles, shaking his head. ‘You’re such a liar.’
Beau is halfway to flinching before she hears the fondness in his words, and she forces herself to smile wider instead. Crossing her arms, she scratches over her collarbone and down to her sternum.
‘That’s wild. You can remember codes and all kinds of tricky things, but you don’t remember one guys name?’
‘Eh. I know what it sounded like.’ She screws up her face, looks up at the ever-night sky. ‘Pukeby.’
‘Was that his name? Pukeby.’
‘…No it was not.’
‘Ruffel. Twirlsdee. Runsoh.’
‘Now what the hell are you talkin’ about? Where are you getting all these names from?’
Beau smiles to herself. Shrugs. ’Essik, right?’
‘Attagirl. Got it in seven.’
‘Anyway, the point is that I reckon we’ve earned a couple looks for ourselves.’
‘When you put it that way…’ Fjord scrubs at the back of his head. Grimaces. ’Still doesn’t mean I like it.’
‘Eh. It’s the same everywhere, man. It just feels like something different here because we don’t know what they want. Back in the,’ Beau coughs awkwardly, lowers her voice, ‘ire-empray we got all kinds of looks but we didn’t give a shit—okay, most of us didn’t give a shit—because we knew what they wanted. Money, power, whatever. We knew the kinds of people they didn’t like. We knew that there was common folk and Lords and vaguely what the hierarchies looked like and how they worked. Here we don’t know shit, which is why it feels like we’re walking the plank right now.’
‘On the contrary, I feel right at home,’ Fjord drawls. His grin softens a fraction and he tilts his head toward Beau. ‘How can I not? Got my first mate with me, don’t I?’ He holds out his fist and Beau bumps it. ‘Hell yeah.’
There are indeed several eyes on them. Beau can’t help but notice that as they walk the streets toward the Marble Tomes Conservatory—and no doubt more besides that she doesn’t see. The road to the library is well trodden by them and it makes Beau nervous. She rolls out her shoulders, rubs at her sternum for a second before dropping her hand to her side. She should talk to the others about switching up their routines. Maybe using disguises sometimes. It isn’t good to be so visible when they don’t know who their enemies are.
She listens with half an ear to Fjord’s grumbling—how much it sucks taking the moor-bounders out for “walkies” every morning and evening, how “Yarnball” is slowly warming up to him but that seems to involve drooling down his neck whenever he’s close, how the shutters squeak when he opens them and he’ll have to hunt down Caleb if the man ever pokes his head out from the library again for some oil or something he can use.
‘Maybe Nott is better to ask. Or Yeza.’
‘Hey, yeah, two chemists in the group,’ Fjord agrees, brightening. ‘Great idea - hadn’t thought of that.’
As the towers of the Conservatory loom up into the clouded night sky, Beau slows her pace. The others are inside already, talking with Waccoh about what else might need doing—because apparently stopping the abyss doors from opening within the city isn’t sign enough of their good faith—and Beau…well. She wants to talk to her friend a moment longer.
‘No,’ she lies reflexively. Fjord lifts his brows but doesn’t say anything. She feels a spark of relief in her chest when he just slows his walk as well. ‘I had another dream.’
‘Another…one of those dreams?’
‘Wanna…talk about it?’
This time, Beau stops the natural no from being spat out. She rubs at her forehead, the dry patch between her eyebrows. Scratches at the skin flaking there.
‘You’re gross.’ Beau slaps his chest. Feels a little better hearing him grunt. ‘Okay so I’m some dark elf lady Commander the hottest goddamned bitch in town—‘
‘Is this a hypothetical or - ‘
‘This is the dream.’
Beau scans left and right around them but she doesn’t see any obvious watching eyes or listening ears; even so, she taps Fjord and walks him off into a small side-street to one of the benches. The courtyard is closed off so they can see anyone coming in and a lush red-leaved tree takes up the grand majority of the square. Beau checks up into the branches, knowing where she would go if she wanted to eavesdrop, but the place is empty.
‘So I’m this dark elf lady and I’m strutting through the town and I head up to the Bastion and there’s door and I’m in - ‘ She lowers her voice, leans in. ‘I’m in the right-bay een-quay’s room and we’re talking and then she calls me by this name and I woke up drenched in sweat -‘
Beau stops. Glares. ‘Coming from a guy who spits up sea-water?’
Fjord takes that with pure southern grace; a humble nod and a chuckle. ‘Point. Proceed.’
‘Anyway - what do you think?’
‘That was it? That’s the whole dream?’
‘I mean, shit Beau - that could just be you being worried about it...or wanting to get with her. That’s not much of a dream.’ He holds his hands up when he sees her glare—it’s not angry this time, more thoughtful and he better not dare say it but a little bit afraid too. ‘I’m sorry—that’s not helpful. Tell me - what weirded you out the most about it?’
‘It felt…real. Like, when you dream about someone and in the dream you know it’s a different face but you know it’s your best friend or whatever?’ Fjord nods. ‘I wasn’t…watching this person walk around. I was that person. I was walking around. And,’ she rubs at her chest again. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she growls and spins to kick at a shrub. It shivers, leaves rustling, but none of the twigs snap or break and only a single leaf flutters to the ground.
‘That’s real sad,’ Fjord says, leaning around her to assess the damage.
Beau stares down at the single, pitiful leaf and she leans back, tilts her head up to the sky and yells. ’Fuck!’
For a long minute, Beau just breathes and Fjord lets her. When she turns to face him, he lifts his brows.
‘Feel better?’ She shrugs. ‘Okay. Look - I get if you don’t want to talk to everyone about this, but I think we should talk to Caleb. I don’t remember everything he was mumbling about, but he’s mentioned dreams before. I think.’ A strange expression crosses Fjord’s face and he chuckles, a little uneasily. ‘Maybe it wasn’t Caleb. But I think wizards can make dreams and send them to people.’
Beau frowns. ‘Like, in the post?’
‘What? The p- no, not in the post.’
‘Well - they just - they go to sleep and - I don’t know. But Caleb would. Might. Or he would know where to find out. Probably. We don’t have to ask him,’ Fjord says, changing his tune, and when Beau looks up, he’s watching her with concern.
‘No,’ she says, nodding. ‘It’s a good idea. We should.’
‘Are you sure? If you say it’s a real - uh - memory, I’ll believe you.’
‘I can’t say that. I have no fucking clue. I don’t know how to tell, I don’t have magic, I don’t know how to tell.’
‘Yeah, I get that. I don’t know what I’m doin’ half the time,’ Fjord confesses, looking down at the empty palm of his right hand. He closes it slowly into a fist and nods firmly. ‘We ask Caleb. If he doesn’t know, we bring in Jester and Cad. And if they don’t know… I guess we read some books and figure it out.’ He settles a broad palm onto her shoulder and squeezes. ‘You’re not alone,’ he tells her, stooped slightly so they’re at eye level, and Beau feels a weight lift off her shoulders, one she didn’t know she’d been carrying.
Beau clenches her jaw tight. Clears her throat. ‘Cool. Thanks man. Good talk.’
‘Anytime,’ Fjord says as she strides quickly away in the direction of the Conservatory, and there’s a fondness to the laughter that follows that makes Beau’s eyes sting.
‘Y’all think whoever is spying on us thinks it’s weird that we’re all sittin’ in this bubble?’
‘No,’ Caleb says, short and direct as always.
‘Why not? I’d find it mighty suspicious if some cowpokes from the ire-empray sat around in my library all day in a secret bubble and I couldn’t hear shit.’
‘Ire-empray? What does that mean?’
‘I do not think they would be suspicious,’ Caleb says in his quick, muted mutter.
‘It’s a code,’ Nott-Veth explains to her husband. ‘Empire.’
‘It’s a very sophisticated code. Eaubay uckssay, for example,’
‘Beau sucks! Oh - sorry, Miss Beauregard.’
‘Fuck you, Nott,’ Beau grumbles lazily from her place laying on top of the cold wooden table, head hanging over the edge. ‘Yeza - you’re on thin fuckin’ ice.’
He coughs. ‘Noted.’
Caleb hasn’t stopped explaining, though no one seems to be listening. ‘ - abjurative qualities, to be precise, but I am sure that they have the ability to detect if I were to cast anything within the bubble, even something so minor as a message to my little friend, even if they are not capable of casting through it.’
Nott leans over when she thinks Beau isn’t listening - which would be hard to do in a bubble this size - and whispers, ‘Don’t worry, she’s a big softie.’
‘No, she isn’t,’ Beau snaps. ‘My abs are rock. Hard.’
‘ - were to be wishing to listen in on a conversation, however,’ Caleb continues, ‘that would be a different matter unless there were an item that had been pre-given to a member of our group that had been enchanted with a property that would allow them to listen to us. Nott - we should test that at some point, when we are able.’
‘If the bubble would cancel out a transmitting field like that?’ Nott wonders aloud. Apparently she had been listening. ‘Alright. Sounds like fun!’
‘Ja, ja, I think so. But no, Fjord, to cut a long explanation short - ‘
‘This is short?'
‘Ja, Beauregard. I do not think they would be suspicious, only slightly - ah - peeved that they are not capable of eavesdropping upon our conversation. Which is how I like spies to feel.’ He looks up from his book finally, directly at Beau.
Beau rolls her eyes. ‘I’m not a spy.’
‘Expositor, then,’ Nott shrugs. ‘Secret double agent for the monks,’ she says, again to her husband, whose eyes are round with confusion and surprise and interest. ‘It’s very cool.’
Beau grins over at her where Nott is pouring over a tattered old book on alchemy, making notes in the margins and in a little flip book that Jester made for her. Jester has a matching one and they keep them in their breast pockets to pull out dramatically whenever they find a clue. It’s…endearing is one word for it, and super fucking annoying after the ninth time is another seven words for it.
‘Ah, Beauregard - where are you with your research?’
She drops her head to the table. ‘Done.’
Caleb hums. ‘Anything interesting?’
‘Perhaps,’ Caleb suggests, and she hates how much he seems to be enjoying this, ‘if you opened the book…?’
She groans, sitting up and picking the closed book off her middle.
Fjord tries for a third time to probe at exactly how much someone might be able to hear. ‘Can anyone hear us through it?’ he asks, delicately. Not suspiciously at all.
‘Can they scry through it?’
This time, Caleb pauses for a long time before he flicks a page in his book. ‘No.’
‘Perhaps you would like to ask whatever question it is that you don’t want people to hear.’
‘Right.’ Fjord scratches at his chin, just shy of one of the budding tusks. ‘In that case, Caleb - can wizards make people dream somethin’…specific?’
Caleb looks up in surprise. Whatever he had thought Fjord was going it ask, it wasn’t that. ‘Mm.’ A frown digs in between his brows, eyes going distant and thoughtful, lips moving as he thinks to himself. ‘Ja.’
‘Ja, ja,’ various members of the Nein chorus from around the bubble, grinning.
Caleb ignores them all, focusing his attention on Fjord. ’Ja, I think so. I have read of spells that can do such a thing, but I don’t know how to cast it myself. It is taxing, magically, I know that but I do not know what the components would be. And I do not think that they will let me into the stacks that contain magics,’ he confesses. The “they” are the elves who run the Conservatory and they’re happy for the Nein to browse these shelves on history and natural sciences and religion but anything that might be useful for any reason largely is locked away behind metal doors that gleam powerfully with wards, even to Beau. ‘At a guess,’ he almost groans, looking pained at the idea of guessing, ‘Sand, akin to my sleep spell. Some kind of writing implement—a scroll or a pen perhaps. I will think on it. Why?’ He sits up straighter, blue eyes going icy. ‘Are you having your seaman dreams again?’
There comes the expected round of chuckles from all but Fjord…and Beau.
‘Actually, I was askin’ for Beau.’
Caleb’s lips purse in a small ‘oh’. He looks thoughtfully over to Beau. ‘Another dream?’
Beau hears the shifting behind her as all of them turn to look. So much for only asking Caleb and maybe Jester and Cad. Fjord pretends not to feel her glaring at him.
‘May I?’ Caleb extends his hand toward her; Beau takes it. There is the faintest burst of orange—orange light, ever so faint, around his hand, warm to the touch, and the scent, of orange peel in Beau’s nose and hanging in the air for a brief second before it fades—and then a sheen ripples over his eyes, like a film of water or the shine off the back of a pearl. He retrieves his hand. ‘There is no spell on you currently. I…do not know if I could identify if one had been used on you—if your memory had been altered, perhaps, but not whether you dreamed a gifted dream. Was it - frightening?’
Beau feels a faint heat creep up her neck. She wills it down. ‘Nah.’
‘What kind of dream was it?’ Jester asks, waggling her brows at Beau. The heat bursts into full flame up Beau’s neck and over her cheeks now that the question has been asked, and by Jester whose laughing eyes can spot these things from a mile away, and true to form Jester gasps, eyes going wide, and she slaps the table as she leans her whole body forward toward Beau. ‘You’re joking!’
‘You got a sexy dream from a past life?’ Jester looks really impressed and without even looking down at the pages in her journal she flips to a new page and starts writing in jagged letters—Infernal, Beau guesses at a glance.
‘Do you have to tell the Traveller that?’
‘I tell him everything.’
‘Could you not tell him that?’ Beau ignores the way everyone else in the group is still staring at her, waiting for more information or a break in the conversation to make fun of her or change the topic or dig for more information probably, and she folds her arms over her chest and scowls at Jester. ‘C’mon, man.’
‘Okay fine. I won’t tell him about your sexy dream.’ She bites down on a smile, cheeks round with a growing smile, and she tucks the journal away.
Beau narrows her eyes. ‘Promise me.’
Jester’s smile drops. Behind her, her tail droops as well. Sulkily, she takes Beau’s pinky with her own and mutters, ’Promise.’
‘It’s been a while since the last dream you told us about,’ Cad rumbles from over at the end of the table. He’s leafing through a familiar book—one heavy with images of mushrooms and cooking—but he seems eager to abandon it in favour of staring at Beau like she’s a particularly fascinating puzzle of nature.
‘Because it’s been a while since the last dream,’ Beau agrees. Cad smiles sweetly, easily. Nods like he believes her. ’I don’t know how fast it’s supposed to work. Maybe this is how fast it normally happens.’
‘Yeah! Totally!’ Jester nods quickly. ‘Or maybe, you know, you should ask someone who knows!’
‘No!’ Beau twists in place, points a warning finger at her friend. ‘No - it’s fine. It was just a dream!’
‘If Beau says it was just a dream, it was just a dream.’ The note of support, oddly enough, comes from Nott. She stares up at Beau with unblinking golden eyes and, in a tone Beau recognises but can’t place, she asks, ‘What do you want to do?’
‘This is your brain, your…soul? What do you want to do? Research more? Talk to-‘
Nott doesn’t comment on the quickness of that; she just nods. ‘Go on then. Whatever you want to do - we’ll support you. Right, guys?’
There’s an immediate wash of agreement and no hesitation at all and Beau fixes her attention on Nott so she doesn’t do something embarrassing like burst into tears or whatever. It’s not her typical course of action but everything is a jumble at the moment and who knows, maybe past Beau was a crier.
‘I wanna get out of here.’ Her voice is strange—raspy, strained—and Beau shifts off the table so that she’s standing and folds her arms across her chest. Hunches a little. ‘I wanna go and do something and not think about this for a while. I wanna get some gold so Yasha can get her bracers and not get decked every fight,’
‘That would be appreciated.’
Beau cocks a grin, winks. ‘I gotchu.’ The look just makes Yasha laugh very quietly, shaking her head. It makes Nott roll her eyes, the tail-end of which Beau catches when she looks at her little friend.
‘To clarify, Beauregard,’ Caleb says, ‘do you want to leave for now, or for good?’ He must be stressed, or tired, because his accent is thick.
He nods. ‘Very good. We should make preparations, then,’ he says without a whisper of complaint about leaving his research behind, and he closes up his book with a satisfied nod and slips it away into his holster. ‘I suggest we speak to the good Professor again and see what we can do for her. Perhaps she has more items to peruse.’
‘I like that plan,’ Fjord nods. ‘Jes? Nott? Cad? Yasha? Any ob-jec-shuns,’ he says, mangling the word on purpose with a wink to Beau when she laughs, ‘to this course of action?’
The ladies shake their head no. Cad strokes the tuft of pink fur on his chin and hums.
‘No objections. But I feel it should be said—you asked about destiny, Miss Beauregard,’ he says, and several sets of eyes look curiously to Beau, not having been privy to that discussion. ‘This one is nipping at your heels and you can run all you like but at some point the dog must come down to the water.’
The bubble parts around his form like a waterfall as he ducks outside, staff in hand. Beau stares after him, frowning slightly.
‘Does anyone else know that saying? He has a lot of sayings I don’t recognise.’
‘Cad is Cad.’ Fjord claps Beau on the shoulder as he makes to leave as well. Much quieter, so only the two of them can hear, he adds, ’And he’s usually right, y’know.’
‘Jobs? Sure, I’ve got jobs. Lots of jobs all over Xhorhas. Too far for the beasties you’ve got—heard about them, never met one myself, would love to meet one soon, very curious creatures, read a lot about them. Some jobs are closer of course, there’s always work to be done—no one else to do it so there’s a lot of little cockroaches who come out to crawl over the scraps.’ She doesn’t pause long enough for them to be offended. ‘I have jobs in the Range, I have jobs in the caverns to the west, I have jobs in the forest, I have jobs right here in town. Lots of different jobs. What kind of jobs are you after? More of the same work? Clearing out infestations? Collecting items from the Ghostlands? Purifying land beyond the walls? That’s not really my deal—I’m more interested in the artefacts you know—but I can get you in touch with someone, I can do that. Big job or small job? Big purse or small? Risking life and limb or just limb?’ She cackles.
‘Beyond the city,’ Fjord says, eyes scouting across the others faces to make sure everyone is still on board. ‘Something that’ll keep us busy for a little while. A week or so.’
‘Curious, very curious, never had a time request on the side of the person fulfilling the contract before, that’s very curious. I can do that, sure.’ She turns, rifles through a stack of papers on her desk. Scrolls roll and clatter away and she whips a hand out to catch them before they can go too far, never taking her eyes from the papers she’s reading. ‘Infestation, acquisition, infestation, infestation, investigation,’
They take on two jobs—an acquisition she says is ‘Very peculiar, very peculiar indeed. No information the item at all except that it was supposedly lost in a ruin at the base of the Penumbra’ and a simple infestation.
‘Now with the last job you did, we managed to get several interesting items I think you’ll like,’ Waccoh hints, and Beau knows she isn’t the only one eyeing the new set-up at the back of this room of her laboratory, and the crate of what looks like diamond dust next to it. ‘Or the deal with the gems still stands, of course.’
‘Two magical items of our choice and three thousand gold in gems. Per job.’
‘One magical item and three.’
‘Two magical items and two and a half.’
‘One and three.’
‘You’re not very good at haggling,’ Jester accuses Waccoh, frowning. ‘Cay-leb,’ she huffs and waves a hand toward Waccoh like do something about this.
‘Ja, Professor, I think what my blue friend is trying to say here is that you are sending us into a very dangerous situation and, with all due respect, we would like to get a payment befitting the work. There is no one else who will do this—you said it yourself, so, you see, in a way,’ he crooks a small smile that looks weirdly threatening, ‘you need us. Two magical items and two thousand in gems.’
Waccoh narrows her eyes. ‘…Deal.’ They shake on it and Waccoh laughs - cackles - and rubs her hands together. Claps loudly. ’Aha! Excellent, excellent - I’ve been looking forward to someone getting me this stuff for a long time - after the last crew I sent, no one’s been interested in heading into the caves. What luck you cockroaches are here, huh? Ha! A pleasure to do business with you all again! Pleasure!’ Waccoh hooked tusk keeping her permanent half-grin in place as she looks over Caleb with keen attention, tripled by the magnifier that hangs over her eye. ‘Make sure to send word when the job is done and I’ll start the preparations for payment - unless,’ she chuckles, a little darkly, ‘unless you die in the Ghostlands, in which case I don’t have to.’
Yasha barks a laugh with zero humour. ‘Funny.’
‘Oh, well thank you. The rest of them - no appreciation for humour.’
‘Yah. They don’t much like jokes that sound like threats,’ Yasha explains, and laughs again, tone flat, eyes unblinking. ‘Weird.’
‘Yeah.’ Waccoh seems content to keep up the annoying game of back-and-forth, but Beau is quickly running out of patience so she turns on her heel and leaves.
It takes a week for them to score the “special item” from the depths of the cavern system Waccoh had directed them into. A suspiciously simple journey into the caves led them to what turned out to be some pre- or near-Divergence tech: a cube of shifting, mesmerising runes and bars of metal and material none of them recognise. The cube shines with an unsettling green glow and had thrown Caleb—squishy, vulnerable Caleb—twenty feet back and into a stalagmite when he had tried to touch it. They’d bundled it into a cloak—and discovered part of what the device did. Namely, keep enemies at bay.
They’d fought—and mostly ran—out of the tunnels to their moor-bounders and make camp a few hours after the sun slinks below the Range so that Caleb can look over the device. And because he’s swaying more than usual on the back of his moor-bounder and looks terribly pale.
Jester physically helps Caleb down and Fjord puts down a bedroll for him so that Jester can look him over. She’s still out of spells after the several encounters they’d struggled through but she whips out her trusty healer’s kit she still carries at her side and with Cad’s help they start to put together something that might help, even as Caleb ignores them and focuses his crossed eyes on his spellbook, muttering the incantation for their protective hut.
Nott drops the cube in the centre of the hut and scurries away from it, perching next to Caleb’s bedroll to watch over her boy.
Beau stands next to the cube. Taps it with her foot. It buzzes very faintly but otherwise does nothing.
Fjord comes to join her. He crosses his arms, frowns down at it.
’Why do you think she wants it?’
‘Why do any of them want anything?’ Beau snaps. ‘To win the war.’ She glares down at the strange thing. ‘…We could tell her we didn’t find it.’ A sidelong look at Fjord shows her nothing but curiosity and a listening ear. No reproach, no confusion. ‘Tell her we fucked up, lost it. Or that it just wasn’t there.’
‘I do not think -that any of us are capable of lying to that woman. Ow,’ Caleb adds, deadpan.
‘It is fine,’ he tells Jester. Then, louder, he continues, ‘The professor is far more clever than she appears.’
‘She seems plenty clever for an orc,’ Nott shrugs.
‘Ja. For an orc. That is, I think, what she wants us to believe.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘Orcs aren’t considered the brightest stars in the sky,’ Beau explains. ‘To be a smart orc, it doesn’t seem that hard. A really smart orc is still probably dumber than Caleb by a long shot.’
Caleb looks up from his book, impressed, maybe, or surprised. ’Ja, precisely. That is the image of an orc. I do not believe it is so for our Professor. I believe that she is very smart. Smarter than I am.’
‘Nott,’ Caleb chides.
Beau slinks away from their conversation, away from the cube, and over to Yasha and Cad. There is Jester’s mug waiting for her and a fourth mug by the fire that Yasha picks up and hands to Beau. Yasha's fingers don’t brush against Beau’s when she takes the mug, so it’s a surprise when her hand settles fully on top of one of Beau’s; Yasha’s hand is calloused and scarred and rough, in a way that feels solid and real, and Beau’s tired brain lets her get out, ‘Hng-what?’ before a wave of something—like the heat off a campfire—burns from Yasha’s fingers and into the knuckles she’s covering up. The torn skin heals over, the bruising and faint ache from a cracked bone easing somewhat.
‘Oh.’ Beau shifts her mug to her other hand. Clenches and unclenches the healed fist before she looks up to Yasha. Embarrassingly stammers a, ‘Thanks. You didn’t have to do that.’
‘You punched a—well—I am…not sure what they were,’ Yasha shrugs. ‘You punched it for me. Consider it a thank you.’
‘I don’t—you don’t need to thank me. Iv’mieshta ohdrin duvesk.’
Yasha blinks. ‘I don’t know what that means. Ah. Mister Clay says that this tea is good for bruises.’
‘Real good,’ he agrees, and pauses stirring his cooking pot. ‘Oh. Jester, were you counting?’
‘You’re at twenty-six.’
For some time, they wait for Caleb to look over the device and his notes. Exhaustion creeps over all of them as aches and pains from the fight make themselves felt and good food settles warm and heavy in their bellies. Beau rubs at her sternum, wonders when she’d been struck there. It hurts, feels tender as she prods at it, but there is no sign of an injury. Finally, as yawns crack their jaws and true night slinks over the sky, Caleb looks up and shakes his head.
‘I do not know what it is or what it does. I can extract glimpses - the capability to repel, for one,’ he reminds them and rubs at a cracked rib. ‘But other than that, I do not know. Perhaps in the morning. I am sorry.’
‘Don’t be, we all watched you get punted like Frumpkin away from this thing. That’s an excuse if ever I’ve heard one,’ Fjord tells him. ‘Get some sleep.’
‘I can hold the hut in my sleep,’ Caleb reminds them.
‘I’ll take first watch,’ Beau says at the same time. ‘I’m the least hurt and all of you are out of spells,’ she says before anyone can complain.
‘I will watch with you.’ Yasha pulls out her greatsword, sets it flat across her knees, and ignores Beau when she tries to convince her it isn’t necessary. ‘I will watch,’ she repeats in a tone that brooks no disagreement. Taking up their places on either side of the hut, watching out across the dark fields that grow rocky and heavy with roots and crawling plants up toward the Penumbra, they settle into a comfortable rhythm, moving occasionally to keep awake and chatting a little. Before their watch comes to a close, Beau feels Yasha’s eyes on her several times. Curious, scrutinising, not a small bit apprehensive.
She wakes Fjord for the second shift and crawls happily into her bedroll, kicking off the blanket when it becomes sweltering and constrictive. Beau turns onto her back, tucks her hands under her head, and stares up at the sky. The stars shine bright - brighter than they do in the city, eternal night or no - and she casts her mind over the stories of the constellations and their formations, their names and meanings.
'Are you alright?' Yasha asks, very quietly.
Beau lets her head loll to the side to see the woman's eyes glinting with a spark of reflected firelight. Aside from where the light hits the edges of her silhouette, Beau can't see much more. She nods. 'Fine. Just trying to get to sleep.'
'Are you nervous? To go back to the city?' When Beau doesn't answer for a long moment, there is a shift and Yasha is laying down again. 'Sorry. I - sorry. I should not pry.'
'No - no, it's fine. You're fine,' she breathes, but she doesn't offer an answer and Yasha doesn't press for one. Later, she whispers, 'Yasha?'
The woman grunts.
'Yes?' Beau waits until she stirs, comes awake, and Yasha gives her a little, 'Oh.'
'Good night. Sleep well.'
There is another sound of movement and then a large shadow looms over her. Beau recognises Yasha, even in the dark, even with sleep clouding her mind, and she just smiles when the woman settles next to her, warm and solid.
It is a hard ride back to Rosohna and harder still after the fight beneath the mountains. Even after rest and healing, exhaustion has leeched into their very bones—cold and draining—and when they finally grow near to the Ghostlands, it is unanimous to press on. The promise of a sound sleep, under heavy blankets and within the safety of stone walls, is a lure they can’t resist.
And so the day of riding becomes a day and night, as the shades of the Ghostlands watch them ride by, past the crumbled ruins, past the gates, past the tight press of the Coronas, and to their gifted home.
Caleb wakes first the following morning. He has barely laid his head down on his bed before he wakes, the bells in his head ringing morning. Ringing, arise, arise, morning. The man is all ritual so early in the morning and he follows them precisely, not needing to open his eyes for these: swings his legs from the bed where he was laying, fully dressed over the covers; taps first the book under his left arm and then his spellbook under his right to ensure they are there; exchanges his shirt for an identical one that had been laid out for him on the back of his study chair. He smiles faintly when he sees it; a memory plays out in his mind, crystal clear once the fog of sleep parts from around it.
The alarm had roused him trilling a high, sweet bell sometime that morning and he had half-woken by the chime that spelled Nott. Lavender and citrus meets his nose sharply as he tugs the shirt over his head; it smells of Nott, the acrid burn of chemicals very faint beneath the other scents. He remembers her worried stare that eased as she watched him sleep. The sharp prick of her fingernails as she gently pat his hand, the way she had very carefully folded the shirt and hung it over the back of the chair.
He remembers that she also took a moment to search through his components pouch and he chuckles quietly to himself in the dim light of his room.
The laughter fades as the rest of his memory plays out. It is the detriment of a perfect memory, Caleb knows, that his dreams stay with him. This one is not so bad. Smoke thick around his nose, stinging his eyes. Flashes of orange light. And right when he thinks it will be a very bad dream indeed, it is appeased somewhat by the glow of two wide, yellow eyes.
Ja, he thinks, nearly collapsing with the relief that comes from a nightmare that does not end how it should, though his own memory leaps to fill in the missing details. Not so bad.
Pulling his new coat over his shoulders and slipping his amulet beneath his shirt, tapping the cold metal against his collarbone, Caleb takes a moment to scrawl a note and leaves it in the kitchen where he knows at least Mister Clay will see it.
Fjord wakes from a dreamless sleep to a dry bed and the image of a tiny bird fluttering in his hand, pecking for seeds. He’s started to check now, a not wholly unfamiliar anxiety scratching in his throat that today will be the day that it’s all gone.
He slips from his room, headed for the bathroom, and as quietly as he can he fills a bucket with hot water and carries it back to his room. There was no time for it when they returned the night before but this morning he scrubs his room from ceiling to floor, brushes up any sign of dust that had gathered while they were away, and checks that the shutters on his windows are hanging straight and holding tight. The work is good and he nods, satisfied.
When he’s done, he’s still itching for more work so he heads out, averting his eyes as he passes through Jester and Beau’s though there is a thin paper divider set up to form a little corridor. Invariably, Fjord trips over the now-awake Nugget, who yips at him and falls over his puppy-big paws.
‘Shush, Nugget,’ he whispers, chances a look into the girl’s room. He can still see Jester in her bed, shoulders rising and falling evenly, and hear Beau snoring like she’s gonna lift off the damn roof, so he kneels, scratches Nugget’s belly. ‘You gotta go on a walk, buddy?’
Nugget wriggles under his attention, chews on his fingers.
‘Ow, ow, alrighty now, settle down,’ Fjord laughs, and he stands, pats his thigh for Nugget to follow. He lets the dog out into their backyard and watches him run around in circles for a little while, blinking here and there to follow the green-butted fireflies that flit through the dark. Propping the door open so Nugget can bring himself in when he’s tired—or when he smells food—Fjord moves into the kitchen to start the ovens. He’s not half the cook Cad is, but he can chop vegetables and peel potatoes with the best of them, and he starts on that as the rest of the house begins to stir.
Nott wakes with a gasp, clutching at her chest and sucking in another and another greedily, like she’s afraid the next breath won’t come. Cold and wet squeezes all around her, inside her lungs, and there is a merciless hand on her head that keeps her from coming up no matter how much she struggles. Nott lashes out, fighting off a new pair of hands touching her shoulders, until she realises that the warm, small hands are those of her husband.
He’s at a distance now, but even from a quick glance Nott knows he’s not afraid. Just sitting on the edge of the bed, brown eyes wide and worried. His hair is all flat on one side, pressed against his head, and sticks up on the back of his head like he’s been electrocuted.
‘You look like a mess,’ she croaks, and Yeza laughs. ‘Did I - hurt you?’
‘No, no.’ He holds his hand out for her to examine and she can see the red lines where she must have scratched him but they’re not bleeding, she didn’t even break the skin. He holds his hand carefully above hers by an inch or so and doesn’t touch her until she nods. ‘You must’ve been having a terrible dream,’ he says, not pressing for more information.
Her lovely, lovely husband.
Her hands shake a little, and she glances over to her bag where her flask is stowed.
‘It wasn’t my best,’ she croaks.
‘Well.’ His face crumples a little in deep thought. ‘Let’s get you something to eat. Get you settled,’ he suggests. ‘Maybe you’ll feel a little bit better.’
‘Yes. Yes, alright,’ Nott agrees. ‘That sounds very nice. You - you go on ahead to the kitchen. I’ll just wash my face.’ The words come out hollow and flat and Yeza looks at her with concern before he nods and makes his way out of their bedroom. Any of the others would know, but they’re not here, and she takes her pack and slinks into the bathroom. Back pressed against the door, she carefully unscrews the cap of her flask - winces when it squeals, metal turning against metal - and takes a large, reassuring gulp. It burns hot, which is better than the burning cold in her lungs, and she sighs. Looks into the mirror—finds the horribly familiar face of a goblin staring back at her, every day a little less strange, every day a little less surprising.
Caduceus curls deeper into his bed. It’s a nest, almost, of dirt carried up into his tower so cleverly by Mister Caleb and the use of his arcane cat. He shaped it himself, and built the wooden lean-to over the top with Miss Beauregard’s help, who turned out to be surprisingly good at carpentry, though she had vehemently denied that what he was doing could be classified as carpentry and had gone onto a rant that mostly, Caduceus can admit, he didn’t listen to. He stirs beneath the heavy fur blankets, pokes his nose out of the warmth and watches as a faint mist forms in the air.
The branches of the tree groan as the wind whips through them. It isn’t an unhappy sound. The tree - the garden - is as happy as a garden can be. It is solid and fragile all at once, a delicate balance Caduceus is pleased to think they’re managing to maintain a little better every day. His newest invention drips water through the garden thanks to truly excessive lengths of Mister Caleb’s silver string. It makes his hair frizz something awful, but he doesn’t mind.
Miss Nott—Mrs Brenatto—might like to braid flowers into it again. That’d be nice.
Caduceus’s nose twitches. From a few stories below, the scent of burning catches his nose, and that is either Mister Caleb or breakfast. He sighs. Pulls himself out of his blankets.
Shadows writhe across a field of wildflowers.
With it comes the stench of death—musty in her nose and heavy, thick, like centuries of bone dust sitting in a layer over her tongue and down her throat and it chokes her up, her dinner threatening to climb up her throat. Yasha can’t tell if the stench is from her dream or if it is actually with her in her room, and she hates the idea that the dream might be real enough, tangible enough, to follow her here.
She rolls out of bed, grabbing up her sword, and nearly breaks through the balcony door in her haste to leave. It takes a moment to force her hand to unclench from its fist and the harder it becomes, the more frustrated she gets, to the point of tears and finally she just slams her shoulder against the door and it cracks at the handle and swings open. Relief and regret hit her simultaneously. The relief is far stronger, the cold night air hitting her face and filling her nose with cold and the promise of rain. It makes whatever power is fuelling the writhing shadows, those fetid wings, to falter, stutter. Her wings finally collapse with a creak of bone, inky tattered leather sliding ghostly and insubstantial over her shoulders, before they fold away to wherever it is that they go.
The door creaks behind her, swinging on its hinges.
Yasha ignores it.
She takes a step forward, leans her great sword against the railing and curls her hands on either side of the wood. It is slick with water and she wonders if there was a storm last night, wonders if it brought the nightmare with it on its dark clouds or if it was trying to chase it away.
The wind picks up. Batters at the broken door. She stands there a while longer. Hears movement in Fjord’s bedroom—the creak of floorboards, footsteps. The mesmerising scratch of a brush against the walls and floor as he starts, apparently, to clean. And, when he door finally opens, she can hear Beau snoring.
Yasha smiles very faintly, shakes her head.
A particularly strong breeze whips past her and slams the door back on its hinges, cracking against the stone wall, and Yasha rouses herself from her comfortable lean.
‘Alright, alright,’ she murmurs to the door, patting it as she steps back inside. ‘I will…see if Caduceus has some planks left over. How is that?’
The door doesn’t answer.
Yasha shakes her head. With her toe, she prods a wedge of the broken wood underneath the door to keep it closed.
‘Okay,’ she breathes. ‘Maybe…before the others wake up,’ she tells herself, and hurries to the stairwell of the tower.
At some point during the night, Jester had dragged her bed closer to Beau’s, because no matter what Fjord says her snoring isn’t that loud and it is comforting to have the sound. It reminds her that she isn’t alone, you know? It would not be so much fun to be alone on what is such a beautiful morning—the stars are brightly shining, the air is cold and damp, and the permanent night strikes Jester as very funny all of a sudden. Smiling up at the ceiling, she stretches her hands over her head and wriggles her tail—just the tip of it—out from under her blankets because she’s almost overheating underneath them.
Jester slept very, very well. She wonders if anyone else dreamed—and whether they would tell her if they had. She intends to tell Beau immediately that she dreamed of so many things, but a quick look to her left shows her that Beau is still curled up into a tight little ball, her back against the wall, and sleeping, so instead Jester turns over onto her stomach and pulls her diary out from under the pillow. The ink bottle she had stashed under there has leaked, its stopper falling out or—a distant voice chuckles into her ear and Jester pouts.
‘Hey, you motherfucker, how am I supposed to worship you and draw you cool shit if you spill all my ink? Not cool, dude!’
Grumbling, Jester pulls herself to the edge of the bed and lets her top half spill over so she can reach the pack she stowed underneath. The blood starts rushing to her head and her curls brush on the wooden floor but finally her fingers snag the strap of her haversack.
‘I only have…black and green ink left because you spilled my red,’ she grumbles. The green ink seems to glow for a moment and Jester beams. ‘Well, okay. It is kind of fitting,’ she allows, and the first thing she draws is the green cloak of the Traveller and herself, telling him off. The image shimmers in front of her eyes so that the two figures are dancing and that is what Jester draws next. She starts to fill out the spaces in between with instances from her dream, going back and forth as she remembers more—there were hamsters eating Fjord’s shorts—and oh my gosh, Traveller, he was wearing shorts and he had the cutest, knobbly knees—and also Nott was trying to catch them all I think so she could eat them and—
‘Jessie,’ Beau grumbles from her cocoon. ‘Could you keep it down?’
Jester bites her lip. Smiles as brilliantly as she can at what little she can see of her best friend—a loose strand of hair, two grumpy eyes, the tip of her nose. ‘Sorry,’ she whispers. ‘Are you awake?’
‘Should I…go downstairs?’ Jester asks.
For a moment, she thinks Beau is going to say yes, and then the other girl just grumbles and stuffs herself tighter into the cocoon. It wasn’t a yes, and Jester feels the sudden tightening to her chest ease instantly.
‘I am going to go downstairs,’ she trills, ‘because you’re being grumpy.’ She flounces out of bed, changes into a cute dress that smells of lavender and lemon, and makes a mental note to hide some of her drawings and jewellery around for Nott to find. She doesn’t mean for that to sound so much like she’s entertaining a cat, but also it isn’t her fault that it’s just what Nott likes to do. ‘Go back to sleep,’ she sing-songs, realising belatedly that her skipping around the room probably wasn’t helpful.
It’s dark all around her, which can’t be right. She’s sure she hasn’t been asleep a full day—right, Rosohna, permanent nighty-night, she reminds herself. Shakes her head hard to clear the haze of sleep. When it feels like her brain slams into her own skull, Beau thinks maybe that was a mistake.
The cocoon she has made for herself is far, far too hot and she kicks the blankets off, groaning when the movement feels like it makes her brain wobble. She takes the hint and moves slowly, carefully, to gather up her things. A cold, quick bath helps with the heat and clearing her mind. The throb in her head recedes until it is a faint hum at the base of her skull where it meets her neck; not ideal, but she’ll survive. More concerning is the itching ache in her chest—she examines it in the mirror and prods at the skin there, smooth and brown, but it doesn’t hurt any worse when she touches it like a bruise would and she can’t see anything. Shrugging away the feeling of unease, Beau makes her way down to the kitchen.
It’s hot from the ovens and the steam of whatever is close to boiling over on the stove, and the squash of everyone—almost everyone, save Caleb—makes her feel jittery and too-hot. She pulls at her vestments, pins some more of the wayward hairs up into the top-knot so they aren’t tickling her neck. Pours herself a cup of cold water and then another. None of it is helping so she just does her best, keeps to the outside of the group. She drags her chair back so she’s sitting nearly in the doorway, a faint draft providing some much needed respite from the heat, and she kicks her feet up onto the bench.
No one seems to notice her discomfort, provided she sits and grunts and glares, all of which she mastered many years ago.
The rest of the Nein chatter and scrape at their bowls and talk amongst themselves—again, not Caleb, and Beau thinks that is what is written on the note someone shoves into her hand but her eyes are blurry and refuse to focus long enough to read the words. Nott doesn’t realise that, of course, but she still shrieks the information to everyone at her highest fucking decibel.
‘Nott, shut the fuck up,’ Beau snaps. ‘Take it down a notch or twenty.’
‘I’ll take you down a notch—‘
‘I’d like to see you fucking try—‘
‘Alright, alright.’ Caduceus’s voice cuts through their argument, and for a moment he brandishes his ladle like a weapon. ‘No need for any of that, you two.’
‘And also, that was not a very good comeback, Nott,’ Jester chides.
Nott settles onto the bench she was standing on, next to her husband and across from Jester. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says primly—to Jester, not to Beau. ‘Heat of the moment.’
Beau picks at the food Cad puts in front of her and she does feel a little better. Still not enough to read the note but she throws it down onto the table and shrugs a shoulder.
‘Let’s follow him,’ she says, guessing enough from what Nott was screeching about that Caleb went to the library.
‘Bet ten gold he’s in trouble,’ Fjord drawls.
‘He’s a very clever and capable man,’ Nott disagrees,
‘Well, if yer a coward,’ Fjord says, ‘then don’t you worry ‘bout meeting the bet. I’ll just keep my money right where it is.’
‘I’ll take your money! I’ll take your fucking guts for garters—I’m sorry,’ Nott says again, sitting back, hands raised. ‘I got carried away, sorry. I’ll match your bet. Yeza?’
‘Ah - ten gold - that’s a little rich for my tastes,’ the halfling man says. Beau scowls across at him and he gulps. ‘I’m - sorry?’
‘Just take money from the party fund,’ she tells him, almost in a growl. ‘That’s what you were doing, right? Or did you fuckin’ starve the whole time we were gone?’
‘No, I - I used it. But I don’t think that I should really be using it for a bet,’
‘She is just teasing you, Yeza,’ Nott explains. ‘I think. It’s hard, because she has a truly awful face. I thought you were working on that with Fjordy.’
Beau’s scowl deepens. ‘Hold on, let me get something out for the bet.’ She rifles in her pocket for a moment and pulls out her hand, middle finger raised.
‘Very funny, Beau.’
‘I’ll take that,’ Fjord jokes, and Beau flashes it at him next. ‘Trouble or not in trouble?’
She grunts. ‘Not. Dude was so tired I don’t think he was even driving Yannic.’
‘Bet.’ Fjord dries his plate, sets it carefully back into one of the cupboards. ‘We fixin’ to head out now, or…?’
‘I’m alright with that,’ Caduceus hums, smiling, and the others are quick to agree. Even Yeza.
Fjord stops her at the door with a hand on her shoulder, which Beau shrugs off immediately. It hurts, almost, and the grossest image—and the first one that comes to her mind—is someone pressing an overripe fruit, the skin tearing with the faintest pressure.
‘What?’ she snarls.
‘Whoa there. Just wondering if you really wanna be taking your bo—good friendly neighbourhood heroes, and all?’
‘It’s a walking stick,’ she tells him, and pretends to lean heavily on it. ‘Also, you always have your sword in your stomach or whatever so fuck off.’
He lifts his hands in surrender, backing off, but Beau can feel his attention uncomfortably on her during their walk toward the Conservatory.
The ache in her sternum that had been faint that morning—a mere itch, easily ignored—becomes bothersome by the time she reach the library. Bothersome, but not painful. By that afternoon, after collecting Caleb and moving up to the professor’s workshop, the ache had begun to feel like a cracking pressure behind her bones, trying to pry her open. It is not very comfortable.
Beau hides behind one of the stacks, sweat pouring down her face. She’s braced against one wall—the cold stone doing fuck all to cool her down—and her hand clutches at the shelf next to her in a white-knuckled grip. It’s taking all of her concentration not to fall and not to give the game away, keeping her breathing shallow and slow. Everyone is scattered around the laboratory, poking at shit and asking questions, so she’s alone near to the front, near to the door, hidden for the time being, but she needs to get it the fuck together, she tells herself, before anyone comes looking for her.
She can hear the questions now. When did this start? and Why didn’t you say something? and Hey, could this possibly be another sign of the consecution just like the Queen said that day when you hung out together, Beau, like how she said you might feel pressure or pain as a precursor to amnesis? and since all of that is bullshit and not at all what is happening, Beau hunkers down in place and curls around her knees. She’s just got to breathe. Breathe, and the pain will end like it always has before. Just fucking breathe, Beauregard, don’t be weak now. Soon, she’ll recover and she make make a break for the door but for now, just breathe.
Her pulse is pounding in her ears and the voice is soft enough that for a moment, Beau isn’t sure who it is that has found her.
‘Oh, Beau,’ she says, all quiet like, and big hands hover nervously at her shoulders. ‘Are you - did you touch something? Is it a curse?’ Yasha asks, a current of nervous energy zinging through her voice.
Beau grunts. Her jaw feels locked tight in place, painfully so, and she tucks her face tighter against her knee when it makes her whimper.
A deep rumble growls through Yasha’s chest—in reaction, maybe—and her hands settle firmly on Beau’s shoulders. They’re so warm and Beau tries to shove her away but Yasha just lets the kick hit her in the thigh with a little grunt the only sign that it hit. Where she is holding Beau, a sensation of warmth, of fire-light and the warm waters of a hot bath, seems to pulse out from the point of contact, soaking into Beau’s muscles and running through her veins. It helps a little in that the tension in Beau’s muscles seems to ease somewhat, but she hasn’t been wounded so it does nothing at all for the clawing, cracking pain. Beau rocks forward, plants her head into Yasha’s shoulder. She hadn’t realised until that moment how much she had been hoping that the healing would help; that it doesn’t makes her shiver, and sweat, and she presses the base of her palm hard to her sternum and drags in a crackling breath.
‘Okay, okay,’ Yasha soothes. ‘This is not good. Okay - I need to get Jester, we should - ’
Before she can move, before they can make it to Jester—though Beau does hear her quiet ‘hmm?’ and the tap of boots on stone as Jester begins to make her way over through the maze of the stacks—there is a gentle rap at the door to the laboratory and a gentle, familiar voice calls into the room. Beau freezes in Yasha’s arms, and the cracking feeling in her chest seems to grow tenfold as all of her begins to riot. There is a lodestone in her chest where her heart should be, it feels, and all of it is pulling toward the Queen.
‘Dear Professor,’ she calls from the doorway. ‘I like what you’ve done with the place.’
‘Eh? Oh—Leylas, yes, thank you, thank you. A little bit of a spruce now and again is all it needs to not smell like a wizards popped a handful of vindrifer beans and—‘
‘Indeed,’ Queen Leylas cuts her off.
‘Both ends at once.’
Beau isn’t sure what Waccoh might have said to end with that statement, her hazy mind not quite putting it together, but next to her, Yasha gags.
‘I can describe it in more detail -‘
‘Please, don’t,’ Leylas laughs, seemingly well aware of what Waccoh is trying to do in driving people away from her laboratory. ‘I won’t stay long, I was just hoping that I might borrow one of your assistants.’
‘Eh? An assistant? I - yes - I suppose. Not the wizard! We’re doing good work, him and I. Ah - take the runt. He’s not doing anything.’
‘I rather had a specific one in mind,’ the Queen tells her, and Beau holds herself impossibly still as, even through the stone wall that separates the two of them, their eyes meet. Beau strains to stand, to move toward her, everything in her demanding that she go to Leylas, but she can’t. It feels as though two thick, iron bands are clamped around her and she can’t move.
Distantly, Beau hears, ‘She’s not here,’ the sound of Jester cheerfully lying to the Queen.
‘Is she not?’
‘No,’ Caleb agrees fervently. Him, Beau can see when she lifts her head from Yasha’s shoulder. He’s standing not too far from her and his knuckles are bone-white where he clutches the book at his side. No other sign of distress shows. ‘She is not here.’
A cold sweat begins to prick at Beau’s temples. Slicks down her spine and pools at the small of her back, behind her knees. The full body ache returns, strongest in her joints and at the base of her neck like the worst kind of fever.
‘I see,’ the Queen says, very slowly, her tone cool and smooth. ‘Thank you. I will look elsewhere.’
The room is still and silent. Beau can hear her own breath harsh, puffing against Yasha’s shawl, and the creak of the laboratory door as it closes behind the Queen. Finally, after what feels like an age has passed, Yasha loosens her grip on Beau and helps her to stand.
Jester hurries around the corner, whirls around. She stops dead in her tracks, eyes flying wide. ‘You look like you’re about to spew,’ she accuses.
Beau moans. Jester has only a split second to leap back to avoid the mess, but she manages.
‘Do all humans do that?’ she can hear Waccoh inquire of Caleb in the background, and the scratch of pen on paper, but then Caduceus comes up beside Jester—who is asking dozens of questions so fast that Beau can’t fucking understand.
‘Ah. That’s alright, I’ve got it,’ he murmurs and he holds his hand out over the mess. It dries and turns to flakes and seems to disintegrate on an impossibly localised whirlwind. ‘There. Not a thing to worry about, Miss Beauregard,’ he soothes, voice deep and slow like ten hundred cicadas on a sweltering summer night, and he reaches out to touch her shoulder, her forehead, pushes her gently back into Yasha’s arms again. ‘I think you’d best carry her, Miss Yasha. She’s sweating and very warm. How did we miss this?’
‘We didn’t,’ Jester says, and now that she isn’t freaking out anymore she looks almost feral, eyes dark and canines pointed. Her tail lashes behind her. The world seems to tilt—angry Jester makes the world feel upside down, Beau thinks, until she realises that Yasha has picked her up. ‘She was hiding it,’ Jester tells him.
The room is dark when Beau wakes. She still feels wet all over, which is just the absolute worst, and weak as a kitten but she thinks the fever might have broken. Better than that, the ache behind her sternum is gone.
Feeling at the bedside table for water, Beau closes her fingers instinctually around the wooden cup that is pushed into her hand, squints into the dark up at the figure standing beside her bed. ‘Jes?’
In the very faint light that creeps in from underneath her bedroom door, Beau sees the figure shift. Then, a hand lifts and brushes over a pointed ear. Her eyes are blurry still but the hair - silver?
‘Not quite,’ Queen Leylas murmurs. She doesn’t say anything more for a long moment, until, ‘I assure you, it’s perfectly safe to drink. On my word, it is just water.’
Beau’s fingers tremble around the cup, but it isn’t because she’s afraid. Maybe she ought to be—no, she definitely ought to be, because this is the Queen of a whole-ass Dynasty, who has magic Beau can’t begin to comprehend, who wants every single fucking person in the Empire to die. It’s frightening that Beau isn’t afraid.
‘Do you need me to drink from it first?’ she asks Beau.
‘You might be immune to poison,’ Beau mutters. And then, to prove she isn’t afraid, she drinks. The water is blessedly cool and she gulps it down. The wooden cup clatters against the bedside when she sets it down and Leylas shifts, pours her another glass. Beau licks her lips; they’re cracked and dry and it stings when she prods at one with her tongue thoughtfully. ‘Do you,’ she clears her throat. ‘Do you always sit at people’s bedsides when they’re sick? Is that something royalty does here?’
The Queen ignores the question, either because it’s stupid—it very much is—or because she rightly figures that Beau is being sarcastic. Instead, she says, ‘I told you to come back when you needed help. I know you’re stubborn, but this really is ridiculous.’
Beau feels her eyelids start to close. She wills them open but knows she is fighting a lost battle already; it feels as though there are lead weights in her eyelids and it hurts to keep them open.
‘I don’t like being told what to do.’
‘You? No,’ Leylas says. Her tone is…snide. Teasing. The chair next to Beau’s bed scrapes an inch forward, and Beau hears the rustle of heavy fabric as she sits.
‘Do the others know you’re here?’ A long silence meets her question and Beau snorts. ‘You better have some kind of portal on you because if they come in here and find you hanging out, they’re going to kill you, Queen or not. Shit. Is that something I can say to a Queen? Probably not,’ she mumbles to herself, forgetting for the moment that Leylas can hear her.
‘What you’re permitted to say to me has never much stopped you bef—‘
‘Stop,’ Beau snaps, and Leylas does. A shiver runs through her and Beau clutches at the blankets piled on top of her. For a moment, she thinks about not saying anything, about slipping back to sleep and waking up with this just being a dream, but she’s sick and exhausted and the filter that only ever runs at about a quarter capacity has been entirely discarded now as her body is running on necessary functions only. ‘You don’t know anything about me,’ she growls. ‘I’m a human from the Empire. You can drop all the little - ’ Beau stops to cough, sucks in a deep breath when she’s finished. ‘You can drop all the comments about me not doing what I’m told and, and being a cool fucking soldier or whatever but it doesn’t mean shit. I’m not whoever you think I am—and I’m certainly not whatever you want me to be. Those memories you’ve put in my head? Fucked up. Leaving your Court to follow me around like some kind of stalker? Fucked. Up. Is that even allowed?’ Beau stops again, this time seemingly to hack up a lung. ‘Aren’t you - god dammit it - aren’t you running a dynasty or something? How do you have time for this shit?’ she rasps.
‘If you stop getting worked up, you’ll stop coughing. Drink some water.’
Beau ignores her. ‘Even if,’ she tells her, trying in vain to look the woman in the eyes even though she cannot see in this fucking dark, ‘Even if by some unfathomable coincidence I am some kind of reincarnation—’
‘Whatever. Even if I am, that person is gone. They’re my history, in the past. I am alive,’ she tells the Queen. ‘I am real, I’m the one walking and talking and yelling at you—me! My memories—the ones you’ve given me - ’
‘They are yours, Beauregard,’
‘ - they’re just that. Memories. I don’t have to do shit about them except survive it and if I decide to leave and never come back then you’re just going to have to accept that, Leylas!’
And then, because her life is one disaster after another, Beau leans to the side so she’s half hanging off her bed and she pukes again.
There is a glint of grey magic and the smell of something sweet—flowers, Beau thinks, and she wonders if Caduceus is standing in one of the corners but even as she thinks it, she remembers a garden bed light by the finest of golden lights, each of the flowers a perfect white bloom in the darkness, and she remembers the sweet scent of it on her fingers as she plucked it and knows it is Leylas’s magic that swirls around the room.
Her hands are cool on Beau’s fever-hot shoulders as she leans her back against the pillows. Helps her to drink out of the wooden cup and takes it from her when she’s had enough, sets it back on the table.
‘For yelling at you so hard I puked?’ Beau waves her hand. ‘Any time, I guess.’
‘For speaking to me at all. You seem to be under the impression that I don’t understand, that I don’t realise this must be difficult for you, but I do. Truly, I understand. Much in this world is uncertain and you and your friends,' she says, tone thoughtful, 'seem to be at the crux of it all. Change sweeps behind you like a storm, and ahead of you, and that alone must be confusing and a terrible weight to bear. To add this…’ Beau can’t see the Queen’s face but she hears the quiet confidence trail away with her words. Not entirely, never entirely—this is a woman who has seen many lifetimes and faced them all and emerged as Queen, there would be very little indeed that could truly shake her. But for a moment, she is shifted, at the very least. ‘I do understand,’ she says again, softly, a little of her coolness stripped away. ‘It is wrong of me to speak so much. To take advantage of this. You are sick and you won’t remember this.’
‘I’ll remember,’ Beau tells her.
Laughter glints in her voice. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I will. Fuck you.’
‘You have been very sick,’ Leylas says again, still amused. ‘I know that’s why you speak so candidly now—I hoped that might be the case. I've... I hadn't realised how much I came to depend upon it until it was gone. And you have been very careful around me now,’ she says softly. Sadly.
Beau sighs. Tries not to fall asleep. There is something important she has to say, has to remind her of. It's just out of reach, until it isn't, and in her relief she doesn't attempt to soften it at all or make it something less abrupt. '
You’re trying to kill everyone.’
Leylas says nothing to that. A cool finger touches Beau’s hand; Leylas doesn’t chase her when Beau flinches and pulls her hand away. There is no trace of hurt or disappointment in Leila’s words, either, when she says, ‘I am glad to see you are better. If for no other reason than tonight. It has been…a very long time since someone spoke to me as you do. It’s…refreshing.’
She stands to leave and Beau feels her heart lurch. It’s disturbing and weird and she doesn’t like it one bit.
Beau ignores that. It does feel right—perfect—to call the Queen by her name, which means that she can’t. Shouldn’t. Right? She barrels right past that dilemma to ask, ‘Can I—When did they—How long ago they die? Whoever you think I am?’
‘Nearly two centuries ago.’
‘And—you’ve been waiting? All that time? For them?’
Leylas is so quiet that Beau thinks she has gone. She sighs, leans back heavily into the pillows behind her and settles her arm over her face, covering her eyes. There’s no light in here but it still feels too bright.
When Leylas finally speaks, it makes Beau jolt and swear.
‘For you, Beauregard,’ she says, ‘no matter how you try to run from it.’
There is a whisper of energy that swirls around the floor—grey light encircling the base of a grey robe and climbing up—and Beau watches until the light hits her face and their eyes meet for only an instant before the light reaches the top of her uncrowned head and she is gone.