Chapter 69: Not Nervous
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I took the last watch before morning. Back in human form, I sat up, stitching around the two extra holes I’d made in my last shirt earlier that day. I could probably have shifted and tucked my arms in, but that would have ruined the effect. Ruined it for me, at least.

I wanted to leave the holes, reasoning that I’d make them again. Seyari had relented, and I’d spent most of my watch making alterations to the battered top. I wondered if there was a time where I would have been nervous to sit on watch alone, sewing, and with only trousers and underclothes on.

I finished one of the sleeves and shifted my form back to normal to test whether my alteration had worked. Amateurish, but serviceable.

I stopped to look at the symbol above my sternum. The six-pointed starburst looked like a tattoo, except for the vortex in the center and its interwoven intricacies. In the dark, the center almost had a green tint to it. My symbol hadn’t glowed in a long time. Was this Abby’s influence? Is this green on my symbol all that’s left of her?

I thought I’d done my mourning. Maybe I’d never really get over her death, despite the promise I’d made her. I brushed my fingers over the symbol. The center was slightly raised, and I felt the intricate facets of my gemstone embedded in the center. Was the red stone greener than before? It could have been a trick of the night shadows.

I looked over to our tent where Seyari was asleep inside. Salvador had his own egalitarian bedroll nearby and Taava slept leaned up against a tree. She had our blanket, and I watched her ears twitch in her sleep. Her hand clutched her lute tightly.

She didn’t look like a former assassin when she was like this—not that she usually did. But right now, she looked especially innocent. I wondered what kind of pain her own past hid. I also wondered whether we might go our separate ways and I’d never learn; I had to be okay with that.

The sun was rising by the time I finished the other sleeve.

***

“Hey Renna, what’s it like havin’ four arms?” Taava asked. She skipped beside me, her palms intertwined behind her head, arms spread to either side.

Seyari and Salvador walked ahead of us. Seyari spared a glance back at me then returned to watching the road. Now that we knew Taava’s presence would bring us to the bad side of an order of assassins, we were going to stay watchful. That included walking in pairs, and since I was the most likely to react fast enough to block a strike (and to survive it), I walked next to the Taava. That was what we had told the bard, anyway. I knew it was because Seyari didn’t want the woman who was clearly a gossip finding out we were lovers.

Taava had taken the opportunity to pepper me with questions. While the rest of us were on edge, the former assassin seemed the picture of casual comfort. She’d slid herself into our motley group like she’d always been there. I missed Nelys and Aretan. And Lorelei.

I realized I should answer Taava’s question. “Honestly? I can’t really imagine not having them—”

“How? You don’t have ‘em right now!”

“—even though I don’t while I’m in human form,” I finished my sentence with a sigh. “I keep holding something with a couple hands, then trying to use another to grab something else.”

“Weird. Seems useful though, but don’t your claws get in the way?” Taava looked at her own neatly trimmed nails.

I looked at my human-looking hand and shifted it back for a moment, tracing one claw along another. “They do, but I’m used to it. I can also dull their edges with magic so I don’t shred everything.”

“Neat! Do you dull your horns, too? How about your teeth? Do you bite through the bone when ya eat meat? Do ya cook it with fire magic? Do ya cook it at all?”

I turned and gave a pleading look to the short kazzel.

She stuck her tongue out at me.

“You know what you’re doing.” I didn’t phrase it like a question.

“I do!” Taava answered it like one anyway. She smiled, then frowned. “I wish my teeth were all as sharp as yours—I can’t do a creepy smile anywhere near as creepy.” She poked at her pronounced canine with a finger.

“Why?” I asked exasperatedly.

“Because!” Taava moved in front of me. “You need ta relax!” She smiled wide, turned, and jumped up between Salvador and Seyari, hanging one arm around each of them to support herself. “All of ya do!”

Seyari flinched. “Get. Off.”

Salvador grunted.

Taava bounced off the pair, knocking their shoulders together. “Really! They’ll be watchin’ for me, I’d bet, and if we all look nervous, it’ll let ‘em know you know about my past. And that means they’ll know I’ve found allies. Then, they’ll take some time to prepare and spy and try to take all of us out instead!”

Seyari turned and glared at a smiling Taava. “You could have just said that.”

“Yep! But now you’re not actin’ so nervous!”

“You’d rather have me be murderous?” Seyari raised an eyebrow. She managed, somehow, to both frown mightily and look aloof.

“The big strong demon’ll protect me!” Taava ran over and grabbed my arm.

“Not from Sey I won’t,” I replied candidly.

Taava looked between us. Seyari turned her glare toward me, anger softly pulsing. My girlfriend’s emotion was a comfortable sort of heat, a kind of controlled frustration that wouldn’t boil over into something dangerous—or so I hoped.

“Wait—” Taava’s head shook back and forth. “You’re—You’re a couple!” Her eyes went wide. “Do ya make your claws dull not to shred the sheets? And you’re a big, strong demon so how do ya not—”

“Taava.” I warned.

“When ya—”

“Taava!” I shouted.

Taava snapped her jaw shut. The corners of her lips rose in a smile and her ears quivered all the way to their tips.

I decided it was best to tell the talkative kazzel. “Yes, we are a couple—”

“Renna.” Seyari took the same tone with me that I’d just taken with Taava. That comfortable boiling frustration was getting hotter. Figuratively, because heat for me… well, yeah.

I looked to Salvador for help. He, in turn, found a most interesting tree to inspect.

“She was going to find out, Sey! And I want to walk next to you, and hold hands and stuff!” I pouted.

Seyari smiled, then frowned, then marched up to me, yanked my head down, and pulled me into a kiss. With tongue.

After a short tongue duel (I cheated), Seyari broke the kiss and turned to a beaming Taava. “Happy?”

“Very!”

“Pervert.” Seyari smirked.

“Hiya, Pot! I’m Kettle!” Taava tilted her head back and forth, manic smile stretching her cheeks.

For my part, I contented myself to continue to stand there and blush while the two devolved into a shouting match. Taava really had gotten us to stop being nervous in her own… unique way.

I looked toward Salvador. Was he laughing?

The Cavenish man hid his expression once again, and motioned on down the road. Ahead of us, the last vestiges of forest shifted into rolling plains. Small farms dotted the hills, and somewhere ahead was the coast.

I tugged on Seyari’s shoulder, and she and her partner-in-shouting toned their battle down enough to follow us. I wasn’t too worried it would come to blows since I couldn’t feel much anger from either of them. An odd way to bond, certainly, but if it helped either of them vent their anxiety, who was I to tell them to stop: my ears? Nah, that was a fringe benefit of reduced human form hearing.

Seyari’s swearing sounded as colorful as ever, while Taava used some metaphors that I was quite certain didn’t make any real sense. Wet behind the ears like a what?

***

We arrived at the coast that evening. Cresting a hill, the water glittered in the late afternoon sun; a thin ribbon stretched under a mottled sky. There was a moderately-sized fishing town hugging a half-moon shaped bay. A rocky quay stretched out into the water like a too-thin limb.

We approached and entered the town as a group. Whoever was looking for Taava—if they existed and if they would bother with a town like this—would know we were together. Unless we stayed so far apart as to be useless in a fight. All we had to hope for was that they didn’t suspect us of knowing Taava’s secret, or suspect my or Seyari’s nature.

Grayport was the town’s name. Eminently forgettable, perhaps unfair for such a charming place. Sure, it stank of fish with a hint of tar, but the people were nice. Some asked after my height, I gave the usual excuse, and they seemed satisfied. Good folk.

Taava laughed at my “ogre blood” excuse.

Seyari glared at Taava.

Salvador tried his best to stay impassive, but a smile had crept up on his features by the time we’d settled on a suitable inn for the night.

We chose one close to the waterfront, and I was, not so silently, thankful to be in a town large enough for there to be a choice. The inside, surprisingly, smelled of pine more than fish. Pleasant for most, but I’d had about enough of pine scent the last month.

The inn was busy, close to a major road, and should have a lot of witnesses nearby at night. In short, a place where it would be more difficult to ambush us, especially without causing a scene. Seyari seemed to think that meant any pursuers would wait for a better opportunity. Taava disagreed vehemently.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed a triple portion at dinner—embracing my recent love of fish. The taste, not so much the smell. I looked forward to being home, settling somewhere, and sleeping in a bed every night. Now if only I could figure out how to grow durians in Linthel.

After eating, we retreated to our room. We’d gotten only one both to save on money (Taava was about broke, and the rest of us were running low) and to keep close. We’d take turns on watch once night fell, and I would be denied my chance to cuddle Seyari.

Stupid potential assassins ruining my skinship time.

For now, however, we acted the part of a group of broke friends holed up in an inn room. Salvador had a set of dice and Taava had cards. Soon, we’d settled on a betting card game that also managed to use dice. I’d learned to cheat a bit from Aarsh before his death, and some more from Nelys after, but I’d never managed to get proficient at it. And, Aretan’s mercenaries had been far more interested in winning than teaching me.

This meant I had to play honestly. I suspected Salvador was playing honestly as well, but he was savvier with his bets. Seyari and Taava were locked in a contest of who could cheat the hardest. I’d swear the kazzel was flaunting her rule breaking.

“Hey Taava,” I asked while the former assassin was dealing for the next round. She hummed in acknowledgement and my sharp eyes caught a shifting of the cards as she altered Salvador’s hand. “I’m not familiar with Raavia—do you mind telling me about it?”

“Oh, sure.” Taava finished dealing and snuck the extra card in her hand faster than a normal eye could catch. “It’s west of Cavenze. There’s a buncha pretty empty plains before ya get there, though. Us kazzel are from there, but we—some of us—migrate over, usually by boat.”

“How’d you come over?” I asked, looking at my hand of cards. Solid, but I knew I wouldn’t win. That was probably why Taava had bothered to give me anything good—the decent cards had to go somewhere and I’d lost the last hands playing them out.

“Took a boat,” Taava replied easily, raising the pot. “I figured there’d be a market for foreign bards over in insular Ordia. Not my smartest choice, but I like the cooler weather.”

I looked at my hand, then the pot. I shrugged and called before the dice rolling phase, which I enjoyed and also didn’t suck at. “I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Raavia if that’s the case. I didn’t hear any talk of the region when I was up north.”

“Their boats suck on the open ocean, so they stick ta the coast. Both Cavenze and the TQC have a history of plunderin’ their vessels,” Seyari added, calling the bet.

“I’ve seen their ships in Inolza quite often.” Salvador surprised me by speaking up. The fact that he folded, however, did not surprise me. “I don’t think Cavenze has gone after Raavian ships in at least a decade.”

“They definitely didn’t go after my ship.” Taava shrugged and started the dice rolling phase. “But the fact Raavia’s been fightin’ itself since before I was born doesn’t help.”

“Wait, is Raavia in a civil war?” I frowned, but the frown turned into a smile after I saw the results of my own roll—better than Taava’s by a long shot (and she couldn’t cheat with the dice in the open). I could almost hear my pitiful coin pile begging for mercy. It would find no mercy from this demon.

“Yeah, a long and bloody one, if I recall correctly.” Seyari took one look at the two of us smiling and folded. “And I know when I’m beat.”

Taava looked to me and raised. She put just enough coin in that I’d have enough for at least one more round if I lost. How kind. “The war sucks, but I made it out okay, and the fightin’s not across the whole region. At least it wasn’t when I left.”

I looked to the smiling kazzel who looked absolutely nothing like someone talking about their war-ravaged homeland should look. I met her gaze and called, leaving myself with only a scant few coins. I had to hope that she didn’t know my exact cards. “I’m glad you made it out, Taava.”

“Yeah, me too.” Taava looked at my pitiful coin pile. “You wanna just run through the rest of the cards and see who won?”

“Sure.” I shrugged, trying and failing not to look nervous.

Salvador kindly turned the last few cards, eliciting a hiss from Taava. Unfortunately, when we tallied our hands, I lost by a slim margin. Oh well, we weren’t playing for keeps anyway.

We played another few games, but turned in early. I think all of us were anxious to be up and on the road the next day. Plus, those of us who were on first watch and sleeping later (me included) wanted to start the rotation sooner so we could sleep.

I recalled that not all demons slept. Honestly, the ones who didn’t were missing out. I had no idea what I’d do with all that time. Would I go crazy if I couldn’t rest my mind? Find some other way to reset myself? I let my thoughts drift, but kept myself from going too deep while I leaned against the foot of the bed, watching the doors and windows both through lidded eyes.

Salvador had graciously taken the floor with his bedroll. On one of the beds—not the one I was leaning against—Seyari was drifting to sleep. I wanted to be next to her. Stupid potential assassins.

Complex background activities happening during conversation are fun to write, but also hard! I think I did an okay job of it.

Also, imagine finally getting to an inn after days on the road and you have to stay up all night leaning up against the foot of the bed. Stupid potential assassins indeed!

 

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