- April 23, 2023
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 43)
“For now, we’ll be the only two people in the world.”
Quintus Lato Equitus, 448 A.C.A.
The walk from the ship to the road wasn’t long. The walk from the road to Shadetown, on the other hand, redefined the word.
At least three separate times, Astrid cursed Solicki, not for murdering Lapis, but in her own words, “Being a little bitch,” because it was simply too hot.
Not once was Malum asked how he was doing while dressed in all black as they walked.
To be blunt, they did nothing but bitch, at least until they came over the final hill.
It wasn’t a large hill, but the trees surrounding them restrained their ability to look ahead. When the forest line broke, they had a decent view of at least a fourth of Shadetown.
From the distance they were at, the town surrounding Cloudtower looked like any other. The streets were busier than either Andy or Jack had ever seen, but other than that nothing could draw their eyes from Cloudtower.
The magnificent tower rose into the sky, the tallest building in all of Raydorn. Unlike the Silver Spires, Cloudtower was filled with people from top to bottom. After a few floors, the castle began to taper off and focus to a point. With two stories above the top floor, the tower is only wide enough for a spiral staircase and a tube allowing the watchtower to send down messages.
Knowing this, Andy found herself looking upon Cloudtower with only a modicum of pride. If not for its gold, not even its beauty could compare to the Silver Spires. Then she tilted her head as she really focused her eyes on it. But, to say it doesn’t have its own beauty would be bullshit.
Astrid and Jack were far more starstruck. Neither could tear their gaze away as they walked towards the town’s entrance.
“I didn’t know there was anything that tall in Raydorn,” Astrid muttered, nearly tripping over a rock as she tried to walk and stare.
“Oh yeah,” Jack agreed, “Castle Raydorn is trying to live up to the challenge, but who knows? Right now, Cloudtower is the tallest manmade building in Raydorn, maybe even Gronicka.”
If he only knew.
“It looks like a giant golden penis.”
Andy and Jack both break their gaze from the tower to look at Astrid, who continued to stare at it without a second thought.
“I’m sorry?” Andy asked, dipping her head down with an open mouth.
“It’s gold, it’s pointy, and the tower’s top is 100% shaped like a penis.”
“No, it’s…” Andy muttered as Jack muttered the same thing.
They trailed off as they inspected the shape of the top of Cloudtower. They couldn’t tear their eyes away from how the stem stayed constant up until the top, where it expanded, rounded out, and then repeated the process to make a smooth point on top.
“Oh my god, it’s a penis,” Jack said, “how did I miss that?”
“You should have been the first one to notice,” Andy said as she began to see what Astrid was talking about. “You’re the only one here who likes sucking dick, you should be the expert, how could you miss this?”
“Would you fuck off?” Jack told her, as they continued down the path, Jack and Andy rightly annoyed with Astrid’s discovery.
They almost reached the entrance of Shadetown before Jack noticed he only heard three pairs of feet, including his own. Jack turned around, to find that the assassin was gone.
“Where the fuck did Malum go?!” he asked as they began to enter the town.
“He snuck away while we were looking at the golden dick,” Astrid told him.
“Probably for the better,” Andy said, “his black cloak would stick out like a…”
As she turned around, she was flabbergasted by just how busy the town was. There were rows of people running around each other, carrying meats and produce in every which direction. People were practically trampling over each other, and Andy looked on at a loss for why.
This place can get pretty busy, but never this busy. People were shoving, pushing, and rushing to get where they needed to be. Since the three legionnaires had nowhere to be, they quickly found themselves being pushed around. We need a place to go.
“Let’s find a bar!” Andy shouted, already having a vague idea of where they could go.
She was met by groans, but no alternatives. Before she could start leading them away, she felt a hand grab her own, and she looked down to find Astrid clutching onto her. She even held Jack’s hand in her other hand.
God, she’s small enough that we might lose her in the crowd.
She kept that thought to herself before she started moving.
As she tried to find the bar she went to a few years back, when she was still a lady of House Stella, she couldn’t help but notice the growing crowd. The side streets were getting more and more packed with all the people and their food. Andy considered trying their luck with the main road so she decided to pull her compatriots along.
What’s with all the produce? Doesn’t anyone know property alley cat etiquette? You can’t just keep knocking people in the head with your baskets, your watermelons, whatever. Not unless you want to lose it.
She nodded over her shoulder to ask Jack, “Is this annoying you too?”
“Yeah,” Jack complained right before receiving a thump on his head. As he rubbed the spot where he was hit, he said, “I think that may be the fifth time I hit my head today. What the fuck is going on?”
Astrid looked up between Andy and Jack like she was their child, not their older co-worker. “Shortness for the win,” she muttered, which drew the eyes of both her companions.
They looked away as she pretended not to notice them glaring.
It was as Andy was turning around that they made it to the main street. As they did, they walked in on dozens of vendors lining the street. Jack noticed the kids eating what looked like meat with its blood on their lips. Astrid looked up and noticed the many griffins flying in circles over their heads.
By then both Jack had an idea of what was going on in Shadetown, but Andy knew it immediately.
“It’s Gronicka week, oh my god,” Andy said as she looked at the sign that said, ‘Happy Gronicka,’ clear as day.
Couldn’t get any clearer.
“How the… it can’t be?” Andy muttered as Jack stepped up to stare at the sign with her. Then Astrid snaked her arms between them to get in front and stare up at the sign.
“Yeah, I got no idea what that says,” she admitted.
“You don’t know Gronicka? It’s a holiday if that weren’t obvious,” Jack said with a gesture to the people around them, preparing for the festival ahead.
“Yeah, don’t you have Gronicka in Susanna? How do you pay your respects to Gronin?”
“I pay my respects to his son.”
“No,” Andy shook her head in frustration as she corrected Astrid, “I mean your country, your people, don’t you make offerings to Gronin?”
“I don’t know.” Astrid began to pick at her ear as she explained rather nonchalantly, “I grew up in the Pantherlands, the Raze, we didn’t do holidays, or praying, or anything.”
“But, you and Lapis…?” Jack muttered as he tried to wrap his head around what she was saying.
“Yeah, I found Lapis after I immigrated to the Ragnar, not when I lived in Susanna, so yeah, no idea what the fuck Gronicka is about.”
Andy rolled her eyes and threw her hands at everyone around her. “Really?! You can’t piece together what Gronicka is about? The god’s name is literally in the title, he’s worshipped across the world. Even the Krones do some shit for him or something.”
“The way you two talk about it, it doesn’t sound like you believe in it,” Astrid pointed out.
“I don’t, but I still like the party,” Andy said, already dancing a little at the thought of celebrating the holiday.
“I can’t believe we almost missed it, Andy,” Jack said as he started walking towards the main road before a cart nearly ran him over.
Rather than curse the cart driver out, he marveled at all the young trees he was moving. Then came all the paintings and murals the children were painting on the walls, then the women braiding vines into their hair, and shop owners closing down early with baskets of deer antlers and bull horns.
“At… at the plateau, Andy,” Jack muttered as he started patting in her direction to check if she was still there rather than just looking.
“I didn’t go anywhere, Jack.”
“Remember when your father would take us through the town, the fish necklaces fishermen would make with the bones of tuna, and the smoke shrimp sticks that were given out on every corner?”
“Yeah,” Andy nodded, “it was the only time of the year your parents let us take your cart.” What she didn’t say out loud was, My parents were your babysitters when yours didn’t want to leave the house. Someone from House Starshield needed to make an appearance.
But you only remember the fish sticks.
Andy watched as people began draping vines between the buildings. They were just high enough that a horse could rear up into it and no one could jump up and pull them down. Neighbors who lived across the street from each other coordinated to make it worth fifty times over. This place is a big step up from the celebrations at the Golden Plateau.
“God, I always wanted to see what Gronicka looked like in Shadetown. Everyone always said it looked spectacular.”
Yeah, distractingly so.
Andy looked around, looking for the sign of a specific establishment, and grinned from ear to ear when she found it.
Bessie’s Lass. Joke is, the ‘L’ is usually silent.
Andy hooked her arm in Jack’s to start pulling him along. Before she could turn to Astrid, the woman had already grabbed hold of Andy herself.
As she began to pull them through the crowd, she couldn’t help but notice how tightly Astrid held onto her. I can’t imagine she’s used to densely populated places like this. Then she had a second thought. Would a battlefield qualify as densely populated? Probably not, when the population is always falling.
“So like, is it like this everywhere in Raydorn?” Astrid asked as she leaned away from someone and the meat platter they were moving. She stared at it with wide eyes and the top row of her teeth.
“Kinda,” Andy told her, “most places aren’t so well off.”
“What do they do?”
“Here, we abstain from using plants in our food, or anything really for like the whole week.”
Astrid looked up at her in absolute shock. “Uh, really? What about vegetarians?”
“What about vegetarians?” Jack asked.
“It’s not a rule, but you won’t find anything but meat at local businesses. The poorer towns usually only do it for the first and last day, I think, it’s not exactly affordable for places that aren’t like… I don’t know, places that aren’t this.”
Jack and Astrid continued to let Andy lead them as they looked all around them with differing faces.
There was this big cart that had a tarp over it, and some blood dripping from it. As the driver called out, “Make way for dinner!” the tarp flapped in the wind, revealing some feathers.
“Oh,” Astrid nearly cried, “the poor birdy-cat, do people eat griffins here?”
“On occasion I’m sure, they breed a lot of them, kind of House Skyhold’s thing.”
As Astrid seemed to whine at the idea, Jack even leaned close to Andy and Astrid to joke, “If you’re worried about the birds, you should hear about what they do in Krone. I heard the fuckers eat their most popular cattle.”
“So?” Astrid said without a second thought.
“Krone’s most popular cattle is of the scaly variety.”
It took a moment for Astrid’s expression to become a deep-seated frown.
They were coming up on the doors Andy had targeted just as she called Jack out on his crude joke. “That’s a pile of horseshit.”
“What? No, you prove it, you said it.”
Jack let go of her to open the door for himself. “I made a joke, you took it seriously.”
Astrid let go of Andy’s and nearly rushed in to get away from the crowd. It took two steps each for them to stop and realize where Andy had brought them.
A bar, and one with inn rooms. That meant only one thing.
“Why Andy?” Jack groaned as his arms slumped down to his eyes, he looked back towards her with this painful hunch in his back.
Andy grinned as she told them, “It’s a holiday, might as well celebrate while we’re here.”
“Give me your gold,” Jack said as he held out his hand.
“Not in a million years.” Andy clutched her empty hands to herself as she started to back away towards the bar, missing the rather sad dullards at the tables.
“You’re not spending a fortune on beer and prostitutes again!”
She clicked her tongue as she assured her, “Please, we don’t have a fortune, at best we have some chump change we gotta get around to burying.”
Then she took off towards the bar, speedwalking past people sitting at tables, mainly lonely-looking men, courtesans picking at their food, and barely anyone talking.
Save for one man.
Andy approached the bar as this man sat there with his head in his hands, crying full-on crocodile tears. She was more than a little put off by the loud obnoxious sobs, but that didn’t stop her from waving down the bartender with bags under his eyes.
“I need mead, and I needed it yesterday,” she said, which only garnered the longest roll of eyes she’s ever seen. Andy’s neck pulled back a bit but remained undeterred. She reached into her pockets and pulled out a gold coin, one she placed on the counter, and slid over the bartender’s way.
The bartender looked at it, put his finger on it, and pushed it back.
“Okay, what’s your problem, fucker?” Andy snapped.
Rather than be answered by the bartender, the crying man mumbled an answer at her.
He picked up his head, revealing the snot rolling down into his sharp mustache, goatee, and tear-streaked cheeks. He’s having a bad time.
“They can’t serve you, the place is… is… celebrating Gronicka…”
“Uh, yeah, everyone is,” she said giving the guy a shrug.
Andy barely noticed Jack and Astrid walking up behind her until Astrid tapped Andy on the shoulder. “Um, Andy, you said you can’t make or sell anything that uses plants, right?”
“Uh, yeeeaaahhhh.” Andy was more than a little condescending as this deep, dark sinking feeling began to form in her stomach.
Jack asked her, “What do you think mead is made with?”
Andy’s lips slowly formed an ‘o’ as her eyes narrowed and everything began to fall out of her mind. All thoughts began to make way for the only one that mattered.
“No… no mead…?” Andy whispered in a voice that sounded like a whistle.
“No alcohol at all!” the crying man howled, throwing his arms up into the air in anguish.
“No, no, no… no, no, no, no…” Andy kept muttering to herself as she gripped her head. Jack and Astrid tried to catch her as she fell back into the bar and stumbled into a seat, right next to the crying man. “No mead…”
Slowly, but surely, as his head fell face forward into his arms, grief-stricken by his fate, Andy found her own eyes welling with tears. Just as the water began to fall down her face, Andy threw up her arms into the air as she screamed out in raw pain, “WHY GODS! WHY?!!!”
Then she slammed her head into the countertop and began to sob.
Jack complained, “Andy, you have a real problem.”
The chill that came every morning on the Icy Pearl Isles was not for everyone, but it was for Quintus. While most of the islanders and Hotun had been working from the crack of dawn regularly, they still walked each morning staggered. Quintus took each step with pep.
He was all smiles and waves as others yawned and struggled to return the same.
Maybe I should expect Lucy to be less than enthused to see me, he thought as he made his way toward her tent.
Then he heard the magic word, “Quintus!”
Just as he had Lucy’s tent in eyesight someone was calling his name, and asking for his help. A pair of islanders came up to him to speak in their broken Rayne, asking him, “Help us cut tree, we need more wood for the new boat dock?”
“Sorry for the trouble,” the other man said.
Quintus but waved his hand. “There’s no reason to apologize, lead away.”
The two men spoke in the Icee language Quintus had still yet to grasp, and began pointing towards the farther isles. Then it dawned on Quintus that there weren’t any trees on the surrounding isles in his line of sight, which meant only one thing.
I may have just signed up for hike.
And a hike it was, with Quintus and the two men taking until nearly the end of breakfast just to get the farthest isles among the Icy Pearl Isles. There was a whole other forest to their home, but rather than bask in it, Quintus was quick to take the axe to the tree.
The two men were quick to tell Quintus to slow down and take his time, or else the axe’s shaft may break or worse. It was easy for Quintus to wave and smile them away when he didn’t understand most of what they were saying.
He chopped away until the large oak came down, felling it within a dozen strokes, much to the men’s shock.
Could have done it faster, but I’m not alone.
Turned out, a dock strong enough to hold the S.S. Lappy needed more than one island spruce to build it. So Quintus held in his sigh and went to work on the next one.
This time he felled it in eight chops, impressing everyone but himself.
Need to check on Lucy, he reminded himself.
But one more tree needed to be chopped down, and he rushed to it, ignoring the crack in the axe. With his first chop, he sank halfway through the tree, and something cracked. The men with him heard it, and called his name as he reeled back his axe for a second time.
The tree came down, and the axe snapped in half. Quintus couldn’t react in time as the blade went flying. All he felt was a slice, and the tool evaporating in his hands.
The men cutting the trees into pieces all stopped to rush to Quintus as blood ran from his bicep toward the ground.
Quintus tried to calm down as they brought out first aid kicks, and started pulling on his arm to wipe away the blood. They waved off his words as they searched for the wound. They cleaned his arm of blood, and just as Quintus heard no words, they found no wound.
Quintus shrug his shoulder and stretched it out to show everyone he was just fine, but they only stared in shock. “All good, can you handle moving the wood?” At the sight of dropped jaws and quiet mouths, Quintus took it as confirmation. “Thanks again! Let me know if you need more help!”
Then he booked it.
He started a light jog to get away from them, beginning the decent trek back to the people of the isles. He looked to his bicep, where the blade had cut a wide gash through, and ignored the scar that wasn’t there.
It took him some time to get back. By the time he did, he had just missed breakfast. He was lucky that Sigma had been there with her mask and cloak on with a mermaid sandwich for him.
“You are a blessing from the gods,” he told her right as he began to dig in.
“The gods couldn’t create something so great,” she said, garnering a laugh from him, despite his mouth being full. “I’m sure you’d like to know that Captain Lucilla skipped breakfast, you can find her in her tent after you’re done.”
“Thank you,” he said and began scarfing down his sandwich even faster. He gave the assassin a thumbs up and started walking as she returned it.
Lucy, Lucy, Lucy… he thought as he shook his head.
This time he got to the bottom of the path leading to her tent, when someone called the magic word, once again. “Quintus!”
Quintus didn’t tense up, he didn’t sigh, he didn’t even look to the sky. He looked towards the sailors who were running up to him for help.
“We need your help beaching Lappy while the dock’s being built!” One of Lucy’s sailors called to him until he was looking straight up at the man from Seca.
“Beach a boat?” Quintus asked with a tilt of his head.
“It’ll float away with the current into mermaid waters, and there’s no dock to tie it to,” the man said with a nod. “We’re trying to pull it in slowly for the last few feet, don’t want to rough up the hull too bad.”
I don’t know anything about boats, but this makes sense.
Without skipping a beat, Quintus shrugged. “Point the way, we’ll get it done.” Quintus shook his head when men gave a little cheer.
As they started moving, he looked back at Lucy’s tent and thought, Just a little longer.
Quintus was thankful that they had already tied the ropes to the boat, and were waiting for the extra help to pull it. He was a bit concerned that they seemed to be waiting for him. “I hope you weren’t waiting long.”
The S.S. Lappy’s quartermaster didn’t miss a beat. “We’ll wait as long as we need to for the man with the strength of ten men.”
Quintus nearly blushed.
Quickly, they got together with the ropes, and thirty men began to pull. Thirty men made slow progress, and after just as many minutes of trying to get the ship over onto the sea ledge… Quintus… for lack of a better word… flexed his muscles.
He dug his feet in, let the veins begin to bulge from his arms, and started walking back. He let loose some rope as he did so he could get behind everyone else, and hide from those who might see him.
Then he pulled the ship over the sea ledge and into the sand. The sudden pull sent a couple of men to the ground, and Quintus fell to look like the rest of them. Few caught that he fell after the others, but none spoke of it. They hurried back to their feet, emboldened by the sudden progress, and began pulling again.
This time some looked back, as Quintus gripped the rope and pulled. The others tugged, they had to when the rope was attached to a ship.
The rope that connected him to the ship grew thinner and thinner, so Quintus pulled faster, leading to more and more watching.
No one will believe them. Who believes what their eyes tell them?
Who would believe a man could do such a thing?
The sound of the boat hitting the sand as quickly as it did lead to uproarious applause, but many watched the truth silently.
They began to turn to invite Quintus into their festivities, but he was already flashing them his pearly wipes, waving, and jogging away.
The climb up the plateau was faster than the job across the Isles, but it felt longer. The whole boat ordeal had Quintus sniffing for lunch after his late breakfast, but no one was making food.
The first time that day, he frowned, but the sight of Lucy’s tent made him perk up. His body didn’t change, only his expression as he walked up to the tent. As he was halfway up the path, he heard the pitter-patter sound of feet behind him.
He didn’t sigh.
He did not sigh.
Quintus turned to find the tops of two heads and then looked down to find a few more. He faced half a dozen kids from the Raze, and one of the Pennies, led by one short girl in a new dress.
Hana held up a book towards him, with the biggest puppy eyes and quivering lip she could muster. “Can you read this for us? Pwease?”
Quintus stared down at her, his eyes alone glancing up at the sheepish kids behind the tiny but brave child.
Quintus squatted down she still had to look up at him. “I thought you could read?” he asked her.
“Not Kronish,” she said with a shake of her head.
The lone Penance Prim found her voice, “The rest of the cult are busy, but Astrid said we should be reading.”
Quintus took the book and quickly realized it was a translation tome. “Hmph,” he chuckled to himself. He undid the bindings and knew what Astrid had done from the first page. “She wants you to learn Krone, it shows how to read Rayne from Krone.”
Several kids groaned, knowing that it was a book of lessons and not of action.
“Well, we better get started on the first chapter if you’re going to learn anything, you want to impress Astrid when she gets back.”
Penny was the first to try and get out if, gesturing over her shoulder as she said, “Actually, I think I can hear-”
“Penance,” Quintus said with his hands on his hips, “you wouldn’t be trying to get out of reading would you? But you love reading time!”
Hana brought her little hands to her cheeks and grinned from ear to ear as she said, “No we would not.”
Well, at least somebody likes learning.
“Then we better start, I know just where we can sit and get out of everyone’s way.”
Penance managed to hold in her groan, while other children were not so stealthy. It brought a smirk that seemed a bit cruel on Quintus’s face, but it did little more than make the shoulders of each child slump as he walked between them. Hana, on the other hand, was bouncing up and down, right on his tail.
Despite their groans though, the older kids were rather silent listening to Quintus teach Hana and the other small kids hanging onto him how to read.
“App-le,” he sounded out with them.
“App-le,” they said back… more or less.
“Now in Kronish, po-mum, po-mum.”
“Want to hear something funny?” Once he said that everyone’s eyes lit up. “There’s a second way to say apple in Kronish.”
A dozen voices asked what it was.
As smaller kids giggled, Penny Prim said, “No way.”
“Call him ‘apple,’ and I promise he will groan.”
By the time they were done, they still weren’t finished with the letter ‘a,’ but it was a start and a new tradition. Best they learn how to read now, this way they can learn something that will set them up for life.
Quintus let them take their break to go play or whatever else it was that kids did when there weren’t any toys to play with and less work than bodies to go around. Jack’s training could only fill so much of the day.
But Quintus had something he had to do. Sadly, this time, Lucy’s tent wasn’t even in his sightline when someone called the magic word. “Quintus!”
Still, he did not sigh.
This time it was one of the Hotun freewoman and her small granddaughter asking for help with getting water. They begged as Quintus tried to calm them down. As if he wouldn’t help them. Their eyes lit up when he came back with more buckets of water for their tent than the old woman and small child asked for.
The next time he was within earshot of Lucy’s tent, it was a young Black Legion recruit who called, “Quintus!”
He came up with a story of two men fighting over a mermaid they killed, who could not agree who would get the spoils.
This time Quintus huffed. He followed the young soldier to the two men fighting over who would get the fins and the scales when they were cast in Quintus’s shadow. They stepped out of his way in deference.
Then he picked up the mermaid carcass, told them, “The meat is for the village,” and took the mermaid himself.
When he dropped it off to the men, women, boys, and girls in charge of dinner that night, they thanked him, and he told them the names of the two men who caught it.
As he went to take his leave, several of them called the magic word at one time. “Quintus!”
He turned and found several people looking at him with nervous smiles.
He nodded his head, took a butcher knife, and showed the tribe’s future chefs how to hack the meat off mermaid’s bones.
He was a bloody mess by the time he was done and joined the kitchen for a bath in one of the pools. As he washed, he found himself being splashed and immediately splashed back the kids who got him twice as hard.
Once the water fight erupted, it wouldn’t stop, embroiling everyone involved, and giving Quintus the opportunity he needed.
As soon as he was out of sight from the pool, he heard the magic word, “Quintus!”
Still, he did not sigh. He simply turned to the legionnaires running towards him, who would ask him to help bring the training staffs to the training grounds. The training grounds were his idea, how could he say no?
So he didn’t.
Before he was even done setting them down, the other Penny, the pale and thin one named Penelope Tweed, called the magic word and tossed him a stick. He caught it without even looking.
“Train with me,” she said and smirked.
If she wanted to be stronger, who was I to deny her?
Like most logical people, she likely assumed Quintus, as a giant, lacked speed and flexibility. By the fourth time he gave her head a light tap, leaving it throbbing, her mistake set in.
But she still went at him with the staff… for a few more minutes.
After that, she was covered in bruises but knew that Quintus would also dodge her when she swung for his ankles. He deflected everything else.
Quintus left her with the other recruits who were practicing on their own. It was well past lunch, and he had yet to talk to Lucy, and she had yet to leave her tent. He did not get there, as others called the magic word at least half a dozen times.
Quintus was helping the blacksmiths move their tools when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Let me do that,” Sigma said, and Quintus turned around to the assassin’s much more inviting mask. The two crescent moons swirling together beckoned Quintus’s eyes, where Malum’s mask of Eritusi refused to let him go.
“It’s not a problem for me,” Quintus assured her, but she stole them from his arms.
“But it is, you just won’t admit it,” she said as she nodded her head and beckoned him onward. “Go, others will do what people think they need you for.”
“Go see her.”
The assassin turned off and followed the blacksmith who had walked ahead of them, leaving Quintus alone. Rather than stand there stupified, he turned down the path towards Lucy’s tent without a second thought. He could argue with Sigma for hours if she had given him the chance, but arguing with need and desire was another mountain entirely.
As the start of the dusk was close at hand, and the smell of cooked mermaid meat was filtering through the camp, each step Quintus took was heavier and heavier. Each way he looked, there was someone he helped directly or indirectly today, save for the one he stayed behind for.
How do they call me a good friend?
Every time shoes and feet dredged through the mud around him, he expected to turn and find someone looking for his help. All he turned and saw were shadows, none that were his own.
Thank you, Sigma.
The final trek towards Lucy’s tent didn’t last long, and time didn’t drag it out for him. It moved like a blur as he approached and no one stopped him. He had to slow himself down, so he would be sure he could disturb her in the most polite way possible.
He spoke her name softly, “Lucy, it’s nearly time for dinner,” receiving no response. He was hesitant to peak, to make sure she was clothed before he tried to wake her.
It wasn’t until he opened the tent flap only a smidge that he could her pain-filled groans. “Lucy?” He slowly opened the flap with less trepidation as he could hear Lucy’s groans turn to whines and back again, her body shaking.
There was a moment where Quintus considered it might be something else when his eyes first peered into the tent, but then he saw her hands grasp her head. The way her body tightened into the fetal position, becoming as defenseless as a toddler, made him rush in.
In the wake of her nightmare, she and her blankets were drenched in sweat, and the scent made Quintus hesitate. It reminded him of rotting cheese, something that decayed twice. As soon as he smelled it, he saw the consequences of being a beast-woman firsthand in her sheets. The black ink of an octopus had been sweating out of her into a habitat completely unnatural to its form.
Quintus’s hands hovered over her, looking for her shoulders to shake, avoiding any other parts of her form he would need special permission to touch.
He did his best and began to lightly shake her as she turned into herself, squealing in fear, weakly slapping at his arms, until his voice rose and wormed into her head. He told her nothing more than that she needed to wake, that he was there, but in her head, it was no different than Krera herself, threatening to turn her to ash.
When Lucy’s eyes opened, Quintus was a being of ash, drawing such terror from her that she silenced her own screams. It was his embrace that she recognized as her heart began to hurt with every beat. It was her skin that she wanted to tear off as it touched him. Her fingernails dug into his arms as she was wrapped up in him. It was her best attempt to fend off the urge to start clawing at her right arm, and the bandages around its maliferous form.
Quintus’s voice calmly shushrf her, repeatedly lies that she was alright and that she was safe.
First, she was able to stop clutching to him and then clung to him, letting herself be encapsulated by him. He offered to be her shield and she would take him up on it. Better he risk it.
He held her for several minutes, long enough that she could see the sun begin to fall, and smell the wood being burned in fires across the Isles.
Quintus would have held her all night and until morning if she didn’t move away herself. The way her sweaty skin was clinging to him was making her nauseous in body and mind.
As she pushed away and her skin peeled off his, she couldn’t look him in the eye.
Lucy slowly turned to see the look in his eyes and see what he thought of her soiled form. When she noticed how he was awkwardly looking away, looking for everywhere to look at but her, she… she had reason to smile.
Oh god, I must seem like a pervert, he thought to himself.
Lucy said nothing of the sort to him. She made only one request. “Hand me a robe…” and he was quick to shuffle around the grounds of her tent for one.
When he handed her one, holding it nearly out of her reach, she assured him, “Quint, you don’t have to turn away, I know I’m not your type, that you don’t have any type.”
He nearly turned back to her as she chose not to cover her breasts, not that she had been doing so at all at that point.
Still, he looked away.
“Well, I… I can still admire your figure, I guess, but that would still seem…”
She listened to him as she pulled on the robe, but stopped halfway through an armhole to laugh. Nothing too loud, a quiet chuckle that went on long enough to be a laugh. “Well, I’m glad you can still admire me in some way, makes me feel more like a painting though.”
“Honestly, that’s not a bad comparison.”
His words made Lucy look at her bandaged hand, seeing the black skin between the folds. The bandages weren’t holding, and bandages were not something in endless supply. As she looked at it, the cursed mark of her sins, she muttered, “Paintings are still beautiful.”
Quintus’s hand moved slowly, but it felt so swift as it was just the two of them. He took her hand, holding it like it were a prized egg he was scared to break. She watched their hands until her bandaged fingers reached his lips.
“So are you,” he said, his eyes still closed, his lips moving away from her fingers. He knew how long it had been since someone had kissed her hand like that. “Another thing of beauty, to me, would be the sun at dusk, like it is now.
“Is that so?”
“Yes, making it the perfect time for you to help me with something.”
Lucy tilted her head as she looked at him. “What do you need my help with?”
“I need company,” he answered so simply.
There was a moment’s hesitation before she went in search of her pants, and he made to wait outside the tent. I don’t need to see more of her than I already have. It’s… it’s… it sends a message that I don’t mean to send, it would be cruel in a way.
When she joined him, he half expected her to punch him in the shoulder, or shove him for wasting her time. Instead, she did what she had been doing, standing close, but not touching. She was always close enough that nothing could get to her without going through him, but she dare not touch him.
Quintus couldn’t help but feel cold as they walked down to the beach that faced the setting sun. He rarely felt cold when he was walking across the sands with another person.
As they walked the beach together, they spoke of nothing. With Jack, the lad broke down and collapsed in a matter of moments. He spoke almost immediately, and that was all Quintus needed, but Lucy was different.
Lucy may have been a noble lady before her time as a swashbuckling pirate, but her noble life was in the service from what Quintus could tell. Where Jack frowned because he could not hide his mood, Lucy smiled and smiled because she could hide it so well.
The nobles of Rayne drank and bitched and fucked their life away. The noble of Krone held it deep, deep down, waiting for her time to die.
But Quintus had this thing about him, that even Lucy felt, that even Lucy felt opened up by.
But opening up took strength, it took integrity, and Lucy’s legs had neither.
When Lucy stopped, Quintus had turned towards her with his next step. He turned to look at her as she looked down at her hands.
The bandage was coming undone. It was always coming undone and she was always pulling it back and re-bandaging it, but what was the point of redoing something that never stuck?
She raised her hand before her face, and Quintus’s heart nearly wrenched itself from his chest seeing how her hand made her lip twist and quiver.
Lucy’s hands clenched but wouldn’t close, twitching under her eyes, but she was not quite cold enough for that. She slowly loosened her hand, let it go slack, let it die, and then let the bandages fall away.
The wind came and stole the unwanted bands of papyrus. It revealed the molten black color that stretched from the tips of her fingers, up her forearm, and deep into her shirt’s sleeve.
Every move Lucy made was slow, and every part of her shook. She brought her left hand to cover her mouth, as she struggled to look away from what had happened to her, from what she shared with no one.
Quintus dare not touch before she beckoned before she needed someone’s embrace to let her know she was not alone.
But Quintus was one who dared to do a lot of things when reality snapped and reminded him that some things called for a change of rules.
When Lucy let out a shrill cry of grief, her knees gave out as well.
They didn’t hit the sand. She was landing in Quintus’s chest, and she was wrapped up in his arms. Her whole body tensed at his touch, forgetting what it meant to be touched with such care. She proceeded to melt into him at the feeling.
Lucy sobbed against Quintus’s breast, unable to hold it, but attempting to hide how ugly it all felt. He did not stop her from letting tears, snot, and saliva touch him. He only held her by her shoulders, and kept a gentle hand behind her head, cradling her as she sobbed.
Her crying lasted for an hour, and Quintus made no move to stop her, or to calm her. He only held her, and let her let it all out. Any who peered over the cliff met a glare from a man they had never seen glare, and soon all on the edge of the plateau were quiet save for Lucy.
It took her time to release all the pent up grief, to let it air around her and become a fog, rather a sinking weight.
It was not gone, such things don’t leave, but they become more manageable in a haze, and hazes could be cleared in a way stones couldn’t always be moved.
Then her crying began to calm down, and her fluids made her stick to Quintus, in a way that made her stomach churn and broil once again.
She pushed away a bit from him. His hand left her head but she sat her cheek in his palm. She felt his warmth and that brought her tears back, though the second time their arrival was quite silent.
“I’m…” she began with a gulp, “I’m a bad person.”
“No, you’re not,” he said without hesitation.
Her face twisted as she shook her hand and held onto his hand like it would be ripped from her at any moment. When she tried to speak, her voice cracked and threatened the isles with more of her sobs. “You don’t know the things I’ve done.”
“I… I bet I’ve done worse.”
Lucy’s fist hit his chest. Quintus’s skin barely felt a thing, but it was a punch to his heart. “No, Quint, you haven’t,” she gasped, her voice trembling, fighting back the urge to cry once more, “you… you’re good in ways the rest of us will never be. You’re… quite possibly… the closest thing to pure…”
He took her face in his hand and made her look up at him. Her eyes were glazed over, but they still found themselves looking into his deep brown eyes.
“There is no such thing,” he said.
“Then pretend, please,” she begged, “please hold me, and pretend, just for me, just for tonight, just right now.”
Quintus pulled her back to him, and this time she wrapped her arms around him, embracing him back.
As they held each other, Quintus promised to abide by her wish. “For now, we’ll be the only two people in the world.”
If only that were true.