In Which Travis Gets a Thick Ear (But only Half Deserves It)
Although Travis had never consciously thought about it, Tag had never once struck him in earnest. He watched his elder's face now and slowly came to realize the fact in that one sidelong glance. If he had ever studied irony at all, he might have placed the word in this situation, now that the 'never' looked like it would soon be broken. Over something as trivial as a stupid hero, he couldn't help adding bitterly to himself. He wasn't sorry for drawing a sword on the heroeven though he'd said he wasn't one. Travis trusted few sources without question, the most dependable were Tag, of course, and his own eyes. He saw a hero, there was a hero. Discussion ended.
Except the discussion was still ongoing. Tag wouldn't let it go. Their first hour out of the town, and he had refused to speak, a sign that he was livid. He'd calmed down to absolutely furious by the second hour, which still included the silent treatment, although he'd slowed his pace to a speed Travis could match. Travis hated being in trouble like this, and it was always harder when he wasn't sorry, but it was easier to bear when he could at least walk with Tag. But the angry silence hurt immensely.
If he'd been sorry, then he could have apologized, but Travis never lied to Tag. He just couldn't bring himself to even want to do it. "Um, the guy was okay, at least, right?"
Tag stopped so suddenly that he nearly knocked himself over. Then he whirled on Travis with a bewildered glare. "You mean the prince you threatened with a blasted sword?!" His voice, which was usually just barely deeper than a young tenor's had transformed into an aspiring squeaky door sound. "Darkness's sake, Travis, I know you're smarter than that! Why can't you just behave?"
The whipping start of a lecture stung, but the sting was almost entirely lifted away. Travis stood still in front of Tag, just staring. "You think I'm smart?" Travis didn't even think he was smart, he had never realized that anyone else did.
"Darkness's sake," Tag said again, this time in a voice much more like his usual one, albeit it tired and overwhelmed. "You're not an idiot. You read just fine, you can write a littlethat's more than most people we meet, and you know it."
His apparent blunder with the hero nearly forgotten, Travis pulled his toes in towards each other and inclined his head. "I guess, but"
"Oh forget it. I can't keep up being mad at you
" Sighing, Tag started walking again, at a sedate pace that could be easily matched. "I just wish that you'd be more careful when you deal with people. Heroes are all jerks, I agree with you. But that doesn't give you the right to cut down every one you meet."
Travis was a bit slow to follow his example, but once he had, they quickly fell into a companionable march. "But I thought he was gonna hurt you."
"Two things, little man: one, you didn't have a single good reason to think that, and two, I can take care of myself." Tag chuckled and shook his head. "You know human men are terrified of advances from other men. Elves, too, if it comes to that, although they're changing lately. Anyway, all I'd have to do to get rid of a belligerent, kneejerk hero is get too close and smile like I'm after a lady." He demonstrated the smile only, and Travis laughed.
"Does that really scare them off?" he asked, after a moment of contemplation. "I thought everyone liked it." It was always their best bargaining point when they needed supplies and didn't have much money on hand.
"Works like a charm." Tag swung his head back to face the road ahead. "More effective than a sword in the stomach, and I wouldn't get arrested for it."
Travis laughed again, mostly because he was relieved that they were back on good terms. "I've never gotten arrested."
"Only because I can lift you and run really fast."
That wouldn't be the case for long, though, Travis knew. He was getting taller and heavier. It probably wasn't true now. The last time Tag had scooped him up to run had been at least five years ago, although Travis couldn't remember the circumstances. He rolled his eyes and started walking backwards, trusting Tag to warn him if he were about to collide with something. "Nobody's gonna arrest me."
Tag scoffed. "Pride comes before a fall, Trav. Don't be cocky."
"I'm not a chicken!"
you're kidding, right?"
Without turning around to walk properly, Travis sent him an icy glare to make it clear that he wasn't trying to be funny. It was difficult to look serious while facing the opposite of the direction he was going, but worth the look on Tag's face. Travis couldn't lie to him, but he loved making his acquired big brother nervous.
The path grew bumpier, but neither of them paid any notice as they stepped over stones and potholes, even though Travis was having a harder time of it. Tag adjusted the strap of the haversack slung over his back and held tight to it. "It's too easy to forget which words you don't know," he said. "I only meant that you shouldn't be reckless."
Travis snorted and skipped ahead in a sort of jig, nimbly avoiding deep grooves from heavy wagonloads, and only looking down half as much as he should have. "Aw, you're just jealous because you have to be responsible."
He lost his chance to find out how Tag would have responded to the jibe when he missed a step and tumbled headlong off to the side of the road. Too startled to make a sound, Travis fell in a tangle of limbs. He landed on his side, but as he hit the dirt, his ear smacked into his shoulder, hard enough to make the blood sing in his head.
Two concerned voices jarred him from his anger at his own clumsiness. He blinked away the red spots on his vision and looked up. Tag was kneeling beside him, clucking and scolding, but there was an extra face asking after his welfare.
"You're the guy from the village," he rasped, then coughed. He'd inhaled too much of the dirt he'd knocked about.
Damien handed him a water skin, an embarrassed flush masking his expression. "Yes. Are you alright? You landed right on a rock
"I'm fine," Travis snarled, then blenched when he caught the look on Tag's face. "That is
" He couldn't think of one polite word. Rather than accidentally saying something rude, he shut up and drank greedily from the water skin.
His clenching fist nearly squeezed out the rest of the water as he watched Tag chuckle and make eyes at the stupid hero. "Thank you for the water. I guess you really do like it." The way he was acting was nothing like how he seduced women. It was friendly and unassuming, like how he treated Travis. And no one else, until now. Travis decided that he did not like it one bit.
He handed the skin back roughly, then stared sulkily at his knees. He'd never had to make an effort to get Tag's attention before, and he wasn't sure how to do it now. "How did you get here?" he asked Damien, hoping that rudeness would speed the hero's departure.
"The same way you did. I was walking." His face was less red now, but Travis didn't like him any better for it. "I was a ways back," he pointed, "but then I saw you fall, and I thought I might offer some help.
I suppose we're headed in a similar direction."
"Zevan Blue," Tag said, apparently without thinking about it. Travis didn't blame him, they'd been trying to get there for almost a year now. They were much closer than they ever had been, even with all of the sidetracking they'd done recently. "And you?"
Travis ignored the answer, satisfied to realize that Tag was just being polite. He was shifting his weight subtly, getting ready to help Travis to stand. The resultant wave of relief helped Travis overlook the pain in his ear and shoulder.
It helped him, but it did nothing for Tag. He watched with eyes like a hawk as Travis took a few deep breaths and did his best to prove that he was okay to go ahead. Part of that was to roll his shoulders and grin, but as soon as he tried to move his sore shoulder, he was in no fit state to grin. He yelped and looked down at his arm. It didn't look right. It didn't hurt, rather, it felt numb, which was scarier.
Damien winced. "Looks like you dislocated your arm," he said grimly. Then he turned to Tag. "If you'll both let me, I can pop it back into place."
Tag was nodding before he was even finished. "He's never done this before," he said, sounding, Travis hoped, needlessly worried.
It was true, he had never 'dislocated' his arm. Broken it, sprained it, nearly lost it altogether a few times, but this looked almost as disgusting as a break. He couldn't stop staring at it. And he didn't like the sound of it getting 'popped' into anything. "Will it hurt?"
A hesitant nod that almost wasn't one. "You're a fighter, though, you'll be fine."
The words should have made him feel proud, but he was too frightened. Then he was annoyed, but only at himself. Damien was right, he would be fine. Travis gritted his teeth and shuffled forward. "Go on," he said. "I'm tough."
To his mild dismay and stronger comfort, Tag offered a hand to squeeze and a stick to bite down on. Travis frowned at the very idea of the stick until it was tossed away, then turned to watch Damien 'pop' his arm back.
In Which Tag Lets His Caring Show
Tag bit his lip in pain, both his own and sympathetic to Travis's suffering. Travis was squeezing his hand with unexpected strength, and didn't appear to realize. The boy had done some growing up while Tag's back had been turned, it seemed. He had an inexplicable urge to scold and make Travis promise to stop growing up immediately. Instead, he bit his lip harder and pretended everything was either fine, or going to be.
Damien was quick about his work, but in spite of how it appeared, it was probably more out of necessity than malice, or even mercy. The word 'pop' had been quite appropriate; the sound as Travis's arm was forcibly set made the boy cry out in something like terror while Tag found himself squeezing back quite hard. He loosened his grip as soon as he realized, then took a long look at his charge.
Travis had always looked eternally, enviably healthy, his sun-kissed face rarely showed signs of a fever even when he had one. But now his cheeks were unnaturally pale. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead in such number that a few of them had already begun sliding down the side of his face. His hair was drooping and beginning to matt itself down, proving once again that his head did not come to a point.
Still watching him, Tag reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. His hand was halfway there when he realized that Damien had beaten him to the gesture. The handkerchief he'd offered was one of the finest slips of cloth that Tag had ever seen outside of a high-ranking lady's boudoir. Not silk, certainly, silk handkerchiefs were singularly useless things. But it was definitely made of the best quality terrycloth. Travis stared at it in thick distress, then winced as a line of sweat ended its journey in his eye. With a resigned sigh that sounded painfully hoarse, he accepted the proffered handkerchief and dried his face as gruffly as if he'd been handed a towel.
This rough rudeness had little effect on Damien. He smiled rather shyly at both of them and stepped back in respectful deference. "You'll need a sling, or you'll have more trouble much sooner than you like," he said.
Caught up in a confusing arrangement of humble gratitude and still-crippling concern, Tag made Travis sit on the grass, but remained standing in spite of his own admittedly weakened knees. The phrase 'thank you for services rendered' twinkled in his brain like strong candlelight, and he very nearly laughed out loud. It would have been a hollow laugh, though. Travis clutched his arm and seemed to be pretending he was sitting completely alone, Tag forced himself to leave him to his isolation. He turned to face Damien in full. "Thank you," he said, keeping his tone carefully even, without the mountainous irregularities he felt.
" Damien put together his two best expressions, a shrug and a blushing smile. "I could make him a sling as well, it wouldn't be any trouble."
Sometimes, it was a very bothersome thing to be an incubus, in Tag's opinion. They were a very leisurely and unhurried race, and even after countless years of existence, not much about them had changed. Nearly everything ended with or translated into a 'roll in the hay', so to speak. But right now, he had nowhere to end and no translation. He sighed, annoyed with himself, and watched the scene before him with passiveand rather fakedisinterest. Travis didn't want comfort, which was never easy on Tag; with that avenue closed to him, he didn't really know what to do with himself.
It was amusing to see Travis make faces while Damien used strange things to make a rudimentary splint. The main bit appeared to be part of a pillowcase, and the cord he used to tie it looked like it had been cut from the kind of rope that was used to draw the curtains of an expensive canopy bed. Tag had seen plenty of them.
A runaway prince, then, he decided. A prince with a legitimate quest would have practical supplies, not items snagged from his bedroom. He wondered if there was a reward for Damien's capture and subsequent return, and made up his mind that it was worth checking out.
Tag waited until the sling was completely constructed, then winked conspiratorially at Travis and turned once more to face Damien. "Say, you're pretty useful to have around."
"Th-thank you, but it really isn't"
"Oh, but it is!" Of course, the sod wouldn't answer any direct questions if he was a runawaynot honestly, anyway, but if Tag could coax him into coming along, it would buy them time to get answers through more devious means. "Neither of us is very good at healing work," he lied, sending a minute wordless warning to Travis not to correct him. "But if you come along with us
The blush faded somewhat as Damien waved his arms and stumbled back a step, raising Tag's suspicions a notch. Damien's face was bright pink now, all the way down to his neck and disappearing into his tunic. "No, I couldn't go to Zevan Blue! It's much too far."
Or is it too close to your home? That might be our first clue, Tag mused. "Then come as far as
" But he couldn't remember where Damien had said he was going.
"Bonifane isn't anywhere near"
"It is if you go by way of the Ossef River," Travis supplied in a low, scratchy voice. "It runs through Cielan and Yaev, right past Bonifane, then on all the way to Zevan Blue."
Tag grinned at him, glowing with pride. Travis was better with maps than any living creature, Tag included. "Exactly," he said, unwilling to openly admit he hadn't known much of that himself. Not in front of Damien.
The prince was chewing his lip, looking cornered. "I suppose I could. But wouldn't I be a burden?"
Tag saw Travis glare and open his mouth, probably to make a snide remark, so he cut him off with a smooth, "Of course not. You'll just have to pull your weight, same as either of us." He glanced at his companion and realized with a confused jolt that Travis was sulking, a surly pout on his face.
It would have to wait until they had a chance to talk privately, though. Now, they were in the middle of setting up a profitable venture. Tag settled for sitting next to the little sulker, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Do you feel alright to travel?"
To his surprise, Travis ducked his head and mumbled, "I don't know. Why don't you ask the healer over there? He's the one who fixed it."
"Because it's your arm," Tag said quietly, grateful that Damien was pretending to arrange his things and not intruding. "And nobody knows better than you if you're alright to go ahead."
This seemed to placate Travis half out of whatever funk was making him act so petulant. His mouth curled up in a tiny grin. "I think I am." Then he glanced at Damien and the grin faded. "You should ask him, though. I don't really know what I did to my arm. Or what he did." This last was said with a distrustful scowl.
Tag patted his shoulder. "I'll ask." It couldn't be shyness that made Travis reluctant to speak to the prince, but Tag was beginning to think that the boy wasn't quite aware of his plans. They would definitely have to have a private talk, then. He raised his voice a bit and called out to Damien, who had seemed to be backing away, "How much rest does he need?"
"M-maybe an hour. Or half that." Damien pulled the drawstring on his haversack. "Whenever he feels ready, really."
In Which Damien Suspects The Wrong Conspiracy
He'd always been easy to cow into things. Heaven knew that Frojd had done it for years, but that had all been for childish amusements. Bullying Damien into playing a boring baby's game, or to share a favorite treat when Frojd had already had his. In recent years, it had faded into joining in reckless pursuits when he would have rather stayed in the library to read.
This was very different. Frojd was his brother, but these people were not only strangers, they were strangers of the strangest sort. An incubus with a moniker like a child's game, and an adolescent who openly disliked Damien, had, in fact, drawn a weapon on him. He should have run screaming from them
or failing that, made excuses and traveled in another direction.
His first mistakeor perhaps it was the fifthwas to say where he was going. The truth was, he didn't really have a destination in mind, Bonifane had just been the first city that had come to mind. After that, it was his 'story', and he knew that he had to stick with it. It was dangerously close to his home, although not as close to it as Zevan Blue.
They'd walked most of the day, Travis and Tag practically huddling together while Damien kept to his own. If there had been anyone to see them, it probably would have looked like two separate parties traveling in the same direction, rather than a motley group of three. With the sun's setting, Travis had announced with a whine that he wanted to stop.
Truthfully, it was less of a whine and more of a reluctant complaint, but Damien wasn't exactly feeling kindly disposed to the boy.
He hung back away from the fire, just watching the two companions laughing and talking in a language he didn't know. He was certain they were doing it on purpose, but couldn't bring himself to say something about it. There had seemed to be a rift between them during the day, but it was apparently well-repaired now. Every now and then, Tag passed a look his way, and Damien would anxiously turn away from it. He had never been on the receiving end of unrequited
attraction. It hadn't taken him long to decide he didn't like it.
Of the few things he'd read about incubi, he'd come to the disturbing conclusion that they were
rather indiscriminate. It would appear to explain Tag's choice of traveling companion, but it didn't actually look like that was the case. Damien refused to draw a conclusion on that matter. He pulled his knees to his chest and wondered if it was too late to sneak off.
It was, though. He knew it was. Sighing, he pulled his knees up to his chest and pressed his forehead onto them. Nights spent sleeping on the ground without even a mat had been harder on his body than he'd anticipated, but he was too proud and far too nervous to go to sleep before the others now.
A warm hand on his shoulder made him jump, kicking his feet out. "Huh?!"
He'd been too caught up in his thoughts to notice that Tag had moved to sit next to him. One eyebrow raised elegantly higher than the other, he inclined his head towards Damien'snot enough to be asked to move, but enough to make anyone discomfited. "I thought you'd fallen asleep. Bloody uncomfortable way to sleep, but what do I know? I'm not human." He winked. "Maybe that's the sort of position you like."
Damien felt as if a volcano had erupted inside him. For a second he just stared, expecting himself to start drooling lava. When he regained his senses enough to know that was just silly, he shook his head and tried to think of a way to get more space between them without being rude. He couldn't think of any, and so didn't move at all. "I
How is Travis?" It seemed a nice, safe question.
"See for yourself." Tag pointed back towards the fire. "Thanks to your help, he's fast asleep, without a care worrying enough to cause nightmares." Indeed, the boy was sleeping peacefully by the fire, tucked lovingly in a blanket pulled up under his chin.
"What is he to you?" Damien nearly covered his mouth, he hadn't meant to ask, at least not so plainly. "I mean, I remember you calling him your brother, but he doesn't
"No, he doesn't look like me." Tag took back his hand and leaned back to prop himself up on his elbows. Somehow this didn't seem to increase the distance at all. "He's not really one of mine, not in the usual sense, anyway. I found him, and took him in."
"What, do you want the long version?" He grinned, as though about to share a secret. "I'm afraid that one is full of anecdotes about reading lessons and learning that there are some things we do not put in our mouths."
The way he used the word 'we' made Damien think of his mother. He smiled timidly. "I like anecdotes
"I could tell you one then, if you like."
"Something funny, those are the best sort, after all." Tag pushed himself up and sat cross-legged. Alright, I've got one." The expression on his face was different from any other Damien had yet seen on him. It had nothing of the look of a predator in it, but there was an almost innocent happy glow settled behind Tag's eyes that was very pleasant. "When Trav was oh, maybe ten years old, he got a new swordmaster to instruct him. This one was an old manolder even than me, and
" His brow furrowed as his story came to a stop. "But no. He wouldn't like for me to tell you that. No, better to tell you an older story."
Damien said nothing, he was simply glad that the talk was focused on someone other than himself. He wanted to hug his knees again, but was afraid this would be seen as a sign of weakness or being tired.
"When I first found Travis, he was full of a lot of ideas," Tag began anew, "his parents read a bit too much, I think, or they read all of the wrong things. They kicked him out due to misunderstandings, you see."
"Misunderstandings? Of what kind?"
"The idiot peasant kind. They thought he was destined to be a hero, or some other such rot." Tag pinched a bit of cloth at his knee. It was a well-worn area in need of patching.
"Is that why he hates them?"
"No, I don't think he cares about them anymore. Wait, d'you mean heroes? I suppose it might be part of it, but most of it is much more recent than all that."
"Oh, I see." Damien looked again at the sleeping boy, a sight that began to resemble a partially full potato sack as the night grew darker. "But that isn't the story you meant to tell, is it?"
"No, you distracted me," Tag said, grinning in good humor that seemed a bit wicked. "Don't do it again, please."
Although he had no idea what the man was talking about, Damien nodded and promised that he would do his best not to 'distract' again. "Go on, then."
Tag shifted his weight, as though he were trying to dislodge a rock from under his leg. "As I was saying, when I met Travis, he was full of ideas. And very willful. One day I asked him to stay at a hostel and finish his lessons while I got some food." He shifted around a bit more. "Most of what I've learned of humans has come from him. So now I know that one cannot trust an eight-year-old to stay in the same place for long."
Damien thought of what he himself had been like at that age, but it felt so long past him. All he could remember was that he had often been chided for being very noisy. It didn't really fit with who he was now. "What happened?"
"Would you believe it? The little bugger ran off on me." Tag finally found the rock, a sizeable pebble, and was now rolling it between his thin fingers. "I went sick with worryI'd only been caring for him for a short time, but I suppose I already fancied myself his parent or something like that. I just about tore apart that town looking for him."
A twinge of guilt that felt like a badly played violin sonata shook through Damien's heart as he only half listened to the further details. His parents might have been doing the very same at that moment, looking for him. He ought, at the very least, to have left a note explaining himself, he thought, hanging his head.
"After all that, you might think he'd at least act guilty when I finally found him," Tag continued. "Naughty as anything, he was. He laughed his head off, seemed to think it was dreadfully funny." He shook his head and in amused disbelief. "He isn't much better now, the rascal."
Damien tried to laugh, but he felt too sick with guilt. 'Naughty rascal' was not what his parents would call him if they found him. No, they would call him a 'disgraceful traitor' and clap him in irons. Forgiveness was not one of the qualities that had made King Edinburgh Vainglorious a successful ruler, nor was leniency. If anything, his successful qualities were bloody-minded determination and making certain he was always obeyed.
It took Damien a moment to realize that Tag's hand was on his shoulder again. This time it wasn't quite so jarring, even a little comforting. He attempted a polite smile, but was afraid it must have come out wrong.
"Homesick?" Tag asked, looking suspiciously understanding. Perhaps something else.
Damien meant to nod, but instead, he blurted, "Can you keep a secret?"
In Which Orah Stumbles Upon Someone
Her travels were proving pathetically boring. She hadn't met a single interesting person since the young cobbler and his sister. Most likely, this had to do with the fact that instead of walking, buying a horse and learning to ride, or even waiting for a caravan of wagons, she'd taken the quickest mode of transportation. It would have taken her straight to Cielan if she hadn't asked them to drop her off short of the destination.
A flying horse had sounded like an exciting idea, and it wasn't so impractical that she could have talked herself out of it. Now she wished she had. While she hadn't actually thrown up, being airsick wasn't fun. It wasn't boring either, but in that respect, boredom was preferable.
The rolling green countryside spanned out before her as she walked. There were a few hillocks drenched in soft green grass, aspiring to be mountains with such a desperate will that the flowers growing on them seemed to reach amazing height out of sympathy. Patches of the same flowers, as well as others, dotted the landscape like splatters off a loaded paintbrush that had been dipped in jeweled paint. Above it all, the sun shone proudly, beaming like a great fat lord.
Orah dropped her gaze back to the ground and moaned. It was so disgustingly picturesque, she felt airsick again. Not a single browning blade of grass in sight, nor any other sign of nature's regular falls to accompany the rises. There seemed no chance of the beauty peaking and then curling back so it could peak again later. Just endlessly nice countryside.
There wasn't a decent village in sight, either. "How do these people live?!" she shouted at a daisy sprouting next to the road. The air was bothering her as well. The sun was warm enough, but every time the wind picked up, it was freezing with no thought to the actual weather.
According to her large map, she would be passing into a crossroads soon. For a second, she toyed with the idea of resting there, just to see if there was truth in the stories about the devilish sort of deepling that lived under crossroads. But then she decided against it, reasoning that with that kind of experiment, she had better have some protection.
She had brought a small knife given her by some patient or another, she'd forgotten the circumstances. However, it didn't follow that she actually knew how to use it. If called upon, she could hack artlessly away, but there was no reliable skill in that. It was too bad that she couldn't have brought Mandenry along.
Or hired a good bodyguard.
These thoughts were thrown from her head as she stumbled feet over head, landing painfully in the dirt.
"Ow! Watch where you're walking, you" the voice was young, but deep enough to belong to a young man.
Orah rolled onto her side and dragged herself to her feet, fuming. "You lousy littleyou tripped me!"
"I never did!" The young man, a tall, gangly piece of work, was apparently just as angry. His small nose twitched like a rabbit's. "Don't try to pin it on me." He was dressed like an adventurer, two or perhaps even three layers of shirt and tunic, terribly shabby pants and boots that looked older than he could possibly be.
She didn't care what he was, only that he owed an apology and would give it. Like her, he was alone, but there was a campsite nearby that hinted at his having absent companions. "I'm not pinning anything to you that you don't deserve," she said, glaring up at him. He wasn't that much taller than she was, but just the fact that she had to look up to meet his eye was irksome and made her feel short.
"It isn't my faulty you weren't paying attention to your own legs," the youth huffed.
"What were you doing with yours?" she poked his chest.
He staggered back as if she had punched him. "Same as you. Walking. Er, pacing."
"Why on earth were you pacing in the middle of the road?" Her tone was exasperated, and she certainly felt that, but she was also a little bit satisfied. That could explain how she'd managed to trip over his ridiculous skinny legs, she might not have seen him before if he'd been pacing from one end of the wide road to the one they occupied now. Not when she'd spent most of the time looking down.
For some reason, he blushed. "I'm waiting for my friend to come back. He's taking too long, I got worried."
This annoyed her because it officially ended her right to be annoyed. And she hadn't even gotten an apology. "Oh. Do you think something happened?"
"No." He wandered over to one of the hillocks and sat against the side of it. "I'm sorry you fell, by the way. Are you hurt?"
This mollified the part of her that was angry, and she shook her head. "It's nothing I can't take care of when I've the time." Perhaps he wasn't so bad. Just stupid and clumsy.
A grunt like that of a waking person who wasn't ready to do so snagged her attention. A lump that she had previously taken for supplies covered in a blanket was moving. "What's that?" she asked, wondering for a moment if the youth had a dog. He looked the type to have a dog. Or to have been one once.
He sneered, though not at her. "Damien Veer. Or maybe he lied and he's a prince. I don't know. And I don't really care."
Intrigued, Orah decided she'd finally met someone else interesting. "Why don't you care?"
"Because he's a big stupid hero either way." He rubbed his neck and stared at his scuffed-up boots. "And I don't like the ways he looks at Tag. Not one of them."
She turned this over in her head. Tag was a deepling name, she knew, but that didn't tell her very much. He could have been anything from a talking horse to questing beast, perhaps even a cambion. "Who is Tag?" she prodded gently. This was actually a bit fun for her; she hoped it wouldn't go sour. "And for that matter, who are you?" It would help to have something proper to call this person.
Blushing, he slid down the hillock to rest at its base. "I'm Travis. Travis Shortshot."
"Is that an archer family name?"
He shook his head, his cheeks growing redder. "No, my family's full of shepherds. I think my name has to do with slings, not bows or arrows."
"Speaking of slings," she said, nearly smacking herself for not paying it notice sooner, "your arm."
"It's fine. Damien fixed it." Travis sighed. "That's probably why Tag likes him now."
He looked so despondent that she couldn't help nudging his foot with hers. "Hey there," she said, feeling that by now she quite forgave him for tripping her, "you haven't even said who Tag is."
"And you haven't said who you are."
She blinked. Even after all the tromping around she'd done in the city, it still felt strange to be somewhere she wasn't known. "Of course, pardon me. My name is Orah Wickenfen."
"Did you come from a swamp?"
The idea made her want to laugh, but she didn't. "No, I didn't."
She nudged his foot again, a bit more impatiently this time. "Go on and tell me about Tag. That's a deepling name, right?"
Smiling broadly and looking much better for it, Travis nodded. "A strav, he says."
It must have been a deepling word, because it struck no chord of recognition for Orah. However, she didn't want to admit it, so she just scratched her head and pushed a few stray hairs back into her braid.
It worked, either as a stall tactic or an unspoken urge for further explanation, because Travis leaned back against the hillock and continued, "I don't really know what a strav is, but he's one. The kind that's an incubus."
Orah had met women who'd come across incubi. She hadn't really known what to make of the stories, nevertheless, she had been raised to fear most types of deeplings. It was difficult not to feel it now, but she was very careful not to show it. "Then what are you?"
"Just a boring old human. I'm adopted, so I'm not really a deepling, am I?" Travis didn't seem to be distressed about the idea either way.
She couldn't help laughing then. "I don't think adoption can change what you were born as."
"Too bad." He grinned and said up. "I'd make a good deepling. The kind that skulks around at night and has tons and tons of swords." The way his eyes gleamed as he said this, which made her feel a bit uneasy, but she wrote it off as her own prejudice influencing her.
The waking lump sat up, and as the blanket fell away, she found herself agreeing with Travis's assumption that Damien was a prince. Even from this distance, it was easy to see. He was remarkably clean, although he probably had grass in his hair from sleeping on the ground, and his clothes were rumpled. It helped that she had seen hundreds of princes in her line of work. She also recognized the device on his tunic.
"Why are you traveling with a prince anyway?" she asked. "Odd company for a deepling and a half to keep." Especially when the deepling was an incubus. A princess would have made a bit more sense.
For the first time, Travis was less than forthcoming. He scratched his arm in its sling, then started to get up. "I shouldn't tell you. Tag wouldn't like it."
"Then I'll ask him myself when he gets back." Now that she knew enough to be suspicious, she couldn't in good conscience walk away and leave them all. Travis stared at her in disbelief, but she paid it no mind. "You said he's been gone too long, but how long is that?"
"In that case, he'll have to be back soon, whatever he's gone to do." She stood up as well, then began walking to the camp where Damien was still waking up. "I'll just find my own place then, shall I?" It wasn't really a question, as she intended to do what she liked.