The Showman

by Tsuki Akari (月あかり)
illustrated by halcyonjazz

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/46028.html)

She had wandered too close to the road. Lettie knew the instant she’d heard the beat of hooves at her back. Her father had warned her, of course. It was a ways to the next town, and the roads were rife with vagrants and highwaymen. For that reason they had camped a safe distance from the dirt path, seared into the plains ages ago. For that reason she had been advised to stay with the troupe, and let her brothers do the wood gathering. Lettie had not listened. Lettie had a terrible sense of direction and a tendency to lose her head to silly fancies. So now, she fancied herself about to be robbed. She knelt in the grass and plucked the topmost stick off of her bundle. Angling it upwards, she readied herself for a fight.

The shadow of the horse blanketed her. It was a dun palfrey, gnawing tiredly at its bit. Dust from the dry season patterned up its chest, but it was well adorned, and did not look half-starved or poorly bred. Its rider held as much quality. An older gentleman, it looked, bracers glinting and cape wavering in the feeble summer’s breeze. Lettie let her stick drop a few inches in surprise. Robbers and rapists, these she had considered, but she had not expected a knight.

“Oi, girl,” said the man, working his jaw in a manner similar to the horse. His whiskers were thin over his upper lip and thick at the chin. His eyes were deep set and large, larger still as he regarded her with some question. “Girl,” he said again, she stood up in surprise. “That’s better. Are you on these roads alone?”

“No sir,” said Lettie, gathering her wood under one arm. She raised a hand and pointed behind her. “My father and his crew are just over that ridge, sir. He will be here in the moment if I am gone too long. I should be returning soon.” She felt it a good idea to say as much. He looked a knight, to be sure, but a stranger on the road was a stranger on the road, and Lettie was no fool. The knight followed her finger over the grasses. The palfrey gave a bored shake of its head. He patted the side of its neck, absently.

“Your father has good sense,” he said, “I have a girl of your years. A child of sweet and tender disposition. I would not be so keen to let her stray too far. Too many men of poor character and poor sense on the road these days. Have been, ever since the war.” He smacked his lips in reminiscence.

Lettie could not contain some curiosity. “Did you fight in the war, sir?”

“I did.”

“Did you kill anyone, sir?”

The knight chuckled. “Such a bloody-minded question from a maid. That too,” he confirmed, staring down at her once more. One of his eyes narrowed more than the other. There was a scar at the corner of his mouth that creased with the turning of his lips into a thin smile. “That’s a pretty bauble. Gift from a gentleman?”

He meant the necklace about her neck. A small polished stone, red and gold, in a pewter set. “Gift from my sister. Before she left the troupe to marry.”

The knight nodded in approval, the adornments of his armor and packs jangled. The tassels off his sword hilt bounced. “A fine gift,” he said. “My daughter would love one like it.”

“Sir?”

He reached down and seized her by the neck.

The chain pulled tight on her skin. Lettie gasped. Lettie fumbled, felt her toes leave the ground, and grasped at the one long stick that didn’t go tumbling. She struck him on the underside of his arm. The first blow clanked uselessly against his bracers, the second she drove hard enough to jam into his elbow. He threw her down with angry oath, her necklace dangling from his fist. Lettie looked up, wheezing, and the knight looked back down at her, nostrils flared in offense. Broken bits of wood stuck out of his joint. His good hand tightened on the rein. He meant to trample her, she realized suddenly. She had offended him, and now he meant to dash her head out on the road side. Rolling herself over, she attempted to crawl away as the shadow swung ‘round…

A streak of flame grazed his mount’s muzzle. The palfrey startled, and reared back several steps, tossing its head in plain, hysterical fright and nearly throwing its rider. The knight hauled at the reins, demanding its calm, and by the time he had wrestled the horse into at least a less mobile measure of fear it was no longer him and Lettie alone on the roadside. Rather, it was him, Lettie, and a man stepping out of the grasses. He was tall, of indeterminate age, and wore a cloak of the brightest colors. His eyes were blue and serene. His smile empty as the skies above. The fingers of his left hand were smoking.

Lettie was closer; she could smell the aftermath of magic wafting off of his gloves. She nearly cried with relief. It was Fortnum. Fortnum, the troupe minstrel. Fortnum, her father’s friend. Fortnum, who had joined up nearly two years ago for reasons none could guess. She’d never been gladder to see that strange man and or hear his strange accent, as he ground up soot between his index finger and thumb and addressed the knight in his calm, musical voice.

“Before the war they taught men like you manners.” He rubbed his fingers together until another spark began to crackle. He let it hover between the pads. He turned his head to the side, watching the knight out of the corner of his vision. “That was awfully ungallant of you,” he said, frowning faintly.

The knight straightened in his saddle with a dangerous rumble, pulling wood out of his arm. “I was taking payment for my services to these people. The girl stabbed me.” He threw the splinters down and spat. “Who are you to judge.”

“Who am I to judge? Who am I to… oh, I am not another knight. Or a lord. That is what you are saying.” Fortnum weaved the spark between his fingers. “That is true, I’ll grant you. It has been some time since I have been of the knightly disposition. But…” He paused with it resting in his palm. “I am really not sure being poked with a stick warrants running someone over with a horse. It seems one of those basic lessons our mothers teach us. Did your mother ever explain that it is not polite to run children over? No? Oh, that is a pity…” The knight fumbled for his sword, and Fortnum sighed. “Lettie, come over here.”

Lettie caught her breath and stumbled to his side.

“Let us not speak of misconduct on such a lovely day. Go rejoin your fellows, they must wonder at what keeps you for so long,” murmured Fortnum. He flicked another bolt of fire across the horse’s haunches. It tore down the road at a full gallop, ‘till its bellowing rider was little more than a speck in the distance. The knight had kindly left his sword. It lay in the dust where it had been dropped. Fortnum picked it up, flipped it over a few times. He thought of tiger lilies in full, fiery bloom. The business end promptly melted, red hot droplets spattered the ground.

Lettie stared. “Have you always known how to do that?”

“A shame,” said Fortnum, dropping the empty hilt. He shook out his hand distastefully. “They do not make those so well any more. My dear, we should be getting back.”

“Right,” said Lettie. She didn’t ask again.

“…and he took my necklace!” cried Lettie, cradling her hand over her bereft collarbone. On the trip back she had developed a proper sense of outrage about the whole affair, and by the time she and the minstrel had crossed into camp her language had grown quite strong.

Wellman regarded his daughter with a tired sternness, born of a man who’d had too many children. It was wrought in his face, which had a drooping quality much like an old bloodhound. “He took that, and not your life,” he reminded her. Lettie went quiet after that.

Meriwell was not so quiet. Heeding not his father’s eyes or his sister’s tears, he kicked dirt into the fire. It crackled and flared up, much to everyone’s alarm. No one wanted a high blaze in the plains. It would invite company, and company was the very thing that concerned them now. Meriwell crossed his arms. They were broad arms. He did his job for the troupe via heavy lifting, both on and off the stage, and his preferred companion was a very large cross beam he liked to say had belonged to the church where he was born, before it had been wrecked by religious separatists.

“For now,” he said, furiously. “Who’s to say what’ll be come morning? You can’t go antagonizing errant knights on the road without expecting retribution. We should leave, Father. We should leave as soon as we can.”

“He may not have been a knight,” said Bartlebrett, cool and reasonable as always. The length of her sleeves shivered as she repositioned her hands over her lap. She never seemed bothered by the heat, even under the blazing dry sun and wearing a black cowl that left her eyes perpetually shadowed. She told fortunes, and many men believed her act. “He may have been a bandit wearing a knight’s skin to seem respectable.”

“Then fine chance he found indeed,” said Fortnum, “To wear the colors of one of the King’s Men.”

For a moment, all that could be heard was the crackle of grass in the flames.

“A King’s Man,” said Meriwell.

“Peace,” warned Brett.

“A King’s Man,” said Meriwell, standing. “You went free spelling at a King’s Man.”

Fortnum turned his hand to examine his glove. The front of it was thoroughly black and seared. He frowned, and looked up. “Yes?”

“…and that answers the question of whether or not he was alone. Fool of a minstrel. King’s Men. Did you want us all killed?”

The musician sighed and peeled off the thin, damaged cloth, dangling it between his fingers as though its condition might be contagious. “Come,” he said, shaking it out. Flakes fell to the ground. It was not looking salvageable. “They’ve quite gone out of fashion, last I checked. Boring men. No sense of humor. They’re not that formidable.”

“They’re the crown’s errand boys!”

“Which makes one wonder what they are doing so far from the capital,” murmured Bartlebrett. “They’ve hardly any business in the middle of nowhere.”

“Besides us, you mean?”

“I doubt a band of bawdy players is of that much personal interest to His Majesty.”

“You mean minus when they roast their arses?”

“I did not roast anyone,” said Fortnum, in an injured tone.

“And he was very brave,” added Lettie.

Meriwell showed his full arm span. Always an impressive maneuver, since he tore off his sleeves, to show the corded muscle beneath. “This is what we get when we start hiring outside the family, you know,” he said to Wellman. Bartlebrett breathed out and brought a hand across her temple. This old argument again. “We get loony bastards who just don’t seem to think. And what sort of minstrel’s that liberal with fire magics anyway?!”

Fortnum threw his glove into the campfire. “The ‘bastard’ part, I might agree with. Technically.”

“And that is beside the point, Meri,” said Wellman.

Meriwell settled some at this rebuke. “Yet my first point still stands, Father. They will be back. We should break camp immediately. They’re probably heading towards the city. We’ll need to alter course. We’ll need to…”

“Might it help if I mentioned they were going the other way?”

Brett peered at him from under her hand, the shadows rendering her face especially fox like that evening. “That might, yes,” she said, as Meriwell purpled in the cheeks.

“…how did you figure this, Fortnum?” said Wellmen, his impressively creased brow adding one more to its crew.

“The road showed sign of recent wear and the shoes were point the direction from whence we came.”

“That’d do it,” said Bartlebrett. “They would be returning to the town, then.”

“Oh, you’re joking,” breathed Meriwell.

“We’ll keep our course,” decided Wellman, “But we’ll leave immediately. I don’t trust our King’s dawdler not to dawdle further. Meriwell. Bartlebrett. Come. We’ll speak further of this as we gather up the group.”

He stood and strode off, his elder children in his wake. Meriwell’s voice still rising in agitation and Brett’s still lowered in the onset of a terrible headache. Quite forgotten, Fortnum sat alone, watching the flames take the white cloth of his glove, debating already where he might find a replacement. The city had some fine tailors who’d ask few questions, but his intelligence in that regard was an unfortunate number of years out of date.

“How tiring,” he said.

“He still has my necklace,” Lettie muttered, rubbing her throat. Fortnum glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and found himself struck by the most delightful of ideas.

It was not that Fortnum found his current company to be burdensome. He was just a man who grew tired of playing one role for too long. So, before dawn, and before the troupe had managed to pull itself together to leave, Fortnum took his pack, slipped in some bread and a few herbs, strapped his lute over his back, and stole off into the night. To say he snuck away was unfair. There was little sneaking involved; he simply strolled off whistling in full view. No one had remarked on it. A lesser man might have been hurt by this lack of regard. In this case, Fortnum found it for the best. Goodbyes could be terribly difficult. Some cried. Some pretended to show regret when in reality they were overjoyed. Some hemmed and hawed awkwardly. It was an overly complicated business.

Anyway, he’d be back with them by noon. He was running an errand. It would be a quick thing; inconsequential, like a trip to the apocathary. A lesson in manners, he felt, was a necessary business. He so disliked it when people were impolite, much more so when it was people who claimed to come from a position where upbringing was no excuse. Fortnum thought he might be forgiven if things got a little messy. He followed the marks in the road. They had begun to fade as the morning breeze pushed the dry, dry earth over the prints.

It wasn’t long before he saw the smoke.

“Ah,” said Fortnum. “So that’s why you were here.”

The town was still smoldering by the time the sun had climbed to a full round disk midway across the sky. The trail the knights had left had dwindled in the midst of the destruction. The wind blew the smoke westwards, and it would soon spread to the grasses. Fortnum kept a distance, covering his mouth against the blowing soot.

It had been the largest town in the immediate region. A farming community, made up of only a dozen buildings, the largest structure had been the church, located centrally in the town. The bells had been ringing when the troupe had passed through, counterpoint to the hush that had occupied every other aspect of the place. The roads were empty. The few residents who’d witnessed the passing of the colorful theatre wagons had been dressed in black. The ladies wore veils. The men had covered their faces with cloth. Crosses had hung on the doors. The air was sticky with the ill stench of rotting things. Wellman, sitting at the reins of the lead wagon, had taken one glance around and urged the horses on. They would find a place of rest elsewhere that night. This town was a place of a more eternal rest.

The church had been the first to burn. The flames still crept around the joints of the spidery frame that, on one side, still stood higher than any other wrecked rooftop. The other side had folded inwards, pouring streaming black beams into the pulpit. The doors, a hand length thick and once carved with the crude images of Judgement, stood dark and blasted. Someone had hammered a plank into it, bolting them shut.

The knights had been thorough. Fortnum knew the extra sour smell the wind carried overhead. The bodies that had not burned would lie crumpled in the streets, would lie piled in the well; dead by smoke, dead by sword.

“Or otherwise by plague and pestilence,” said the minstrel, surveying the damage from the safe edge, through the haze. “Pray, good citizens, worry not! His Majesty’s mercy is at hand! And such a mercy, swift and sweet. A momentary discomfort. ‘tis all. ‘tis al–nrgh.” The filthy air caught in his breath.

“And that will have to be it,” he muttered. Curving his arm under his chest, he bowed to the ruins. “Adieu, my unfortunates.” He turned and strode away. If he moved at a brisk pace, he could be rejoined with the troupe by sunset. They would not take to the roads with the recent encounters in mind, and the wagons would not take easily to the harsh bumps of the untended grasslands. A wheel would break. A plains beast would decide they’d make a good snack. He didn’t doubt his capability of catching them. He’d known these lands well as a boy. “Believe me, there was a time when men were more honest about their horrible massacres. Cleaner too. Burnings. Hmph. Such an ugly means. There’ll be no finding my dear Lettie’s necklace through this–”

Something groaned.

“—mess,” finished Fortnum, fixing the ties of his mantel. The sound had come from a nearby corpse. One of the few who’d made it past the town border. It lay in a blackened, smoldering heap. Bulky and oddly shaped, but Fortnum had just chalked that up to it being horribly misshapen from the blaze. Examination yielded a true cause: it was not a single body. One of them recognizable as a young boy wearing what would’ve once been the white cloth of a young acolyte. His burns were not extensive. Seared hair, some peeling in his skin, but the greatest extent of damage seemed to belong to the smears of a fever rash, vibrant against the pale cast of death. If it wasn’t the smoke that had done the deed, Fortnum guessed, the illness would have done it well enough.

The fire had spared him. It had not been so kind to his companion. He lay slumped over on his side, as though he had succumbed in the midst of a crouch. His burnt hat lay skittering in the breeze several feet away. His hair, whatever color it had originally been, was now a brittle, charcoal fall. It blew over his face. It may have been the plains’ idea of kindness; his skin had blistered on its blisters, and only his basic shape suggested he had even once been a man. His arms were still wrapped around the child.

Fortnum knelt next to him. “My friend,” he said, reaching to touch his shoulder. “I commend you. It was quite futile, I’m afraid.”

The body gurgled in reply. Fortnum started, his hand paused an inch away. Oh, goodness. And it was still smoking. “So that was you.” The body hissed and shuddered, its head turning as though it could hear his voice. Its lips were twisted up from the teeth, but it sucked in a greedy, painful gulp of air. It wouldn’t have been comfortable. Within couldn’t be in much better condition than without. “This is awkward for me.”

The corpse, resting its black cheek back in the dirt, seemed to agree.

“No, no. You see. This is very awkward for me.” Fortnum leaned over his knee. “While I’m impressed at your apparent insistence to cling to existence as one giant burn wound, I’m not sure as a gentleman I can allow you to continue as you are. Your physical state is rather a bad one, and I can’t imagine having witnessed the horrible sacking and burning of your home leaves much for the mind. Mental health is physical health, and all that. Prolonging it… I’m just not sure I’d be doing you any favors. You understand, don’t you?”

“Guh,” said the corpse.

Fortnum shook his head. “Too much to ask. On the other hand, I’m a decent turn at magic. I could probably fix you up nearly as good as new.” It occurred to him some modesty might be more appropriate, given the circumstances. “Nearly.”

He sat troubling over this. The corpse shuddered again, the remains of its tongue looked to be flapping in its jaws. He reached across its shoulder and touched the shivering strands that lay over what had once been its nose. He lifted them between two fingers. They seemed very fine, like they would break in a stronger wind. Sure, it was likely due to the fact they had been seared to nearly nothing, but they could have once been like silk.

“And on the other hand,” mused Fortnum. “You might have been handsome.”

He set his hand on the man’s face and thought of daisies.

“Explain to me again why you came back stinking like a pipe, Fortnum,” said Meriwell.

“Because the town was on fire.”

“Explain to me again why there is a boy lying half dead in the props cart, Fortnum.”

“Because the town was on fire.”

“That’s the same answer.”

“Yes. It’s versatile, isn’t it?”

“Well, then. For the sake of versatility. I am going to ask again,” Meriwell took deep a breathe, “When someone thought of ‘minstrel’ who the hell came up with you?

“Meri,” said Wellman.

“Aren’t you supposed to be joyous and singing?”

“Meri,” said Wellman.

“How is spelling knights and bringing back moldering refuse part of that, exactly?”

“That’s what I’d like to ask him if you’re done,” said Wellman. Meriwell closed his mouth and lowered his head, stepping back. Elsa, the bird tamer, dipped the ladle into the dented pot they had hanging on a makeshift spit over the campfire. She sloshed stew into a bowl and shoved it at him. Meriwell held it as though he had difficulty processing its shape and function. Then he took his loaf of bread and pressed it in, grumbling excessively. It had been three days and no one had wanted to talk about this new revelation. It had been three days and he had had enough. The noise and the space their newcomer occupied had become impossible to ignore.
“Well,” said the troupe leader. “Will you explain yourself, Fortnum?”

Fortnum had returned smelling as much of magics as he did of soot. The second clung longer and the first lingered in his eyes. One could always tell a man who’d indulged in even a minor cantrip by the faint glassiness of his gaze, and Fortnum had returned glassier than a cathedral; his words had come a little too fast, the movement of his fingertips too frenetic. He was as hung-over as anything. Some of it still lingered, even three days past. He smiled like the flowers were still in his head. Like he’d only just lugged the boy in over his shoulder.

“I don’t think he’s so much with the moldering,” he said, lightly. “Or the refuse. He’s been cleaned and bandaged. And he has quite a lot of skin left on him now.”

“…I don’t even want to begin to guess what that is supposed to mean,” breathed Bartlebrett.

Wellman was equally incurious. “Fortnum.”

“Are you saying I was to abandon my fellow man? Poor fellow wanderer, in poor state of dress and health?”

“No. But why did you double back like that?”

“I am sorry I could not find your necklace, Lettie,” said Fortnum, with sincere regret in his eyes. Lettie, who was young enough to be used to exclusion in these meetings and old enough to be slightly bored by it, looked up in surprise. Fortnum stood and took the bowl from Meriwell’s hands. Meri had just taken a second spoon’s worth. “My colleagues, you needn’t trouble yourself. I promise you, I will feed him and clean up for him. And I will have a new song by the time we’ve reached the city.” He took his leave from the circle.

“I really hate that man,” said Meriwell.

“Mm,” said his father. He stared into the dingy flank of the pot. He looked grim.

The young man’s hair was dark, even minus the previous aid of being seared to the point of falling off. It was brown, and it still hung in his face. This was still merciful, as his eyes were sunken and dark with pain. Much of his body required a continual change of bandages. The burns needed to be kept clean, lest they grow infected. He required a constant supply of drink, most of which Fortnum provided from his personal wages. He’d always chosen extra rations over coin, and now it served him well. He’d given the troupe no reason to complain of a wounded extra sifting off of their main supplies.

He was young. Younger than Fortnum had expected, based on the weight he’d come to with the flesh returned to his frame. His face had at one point still had the remnants of a boyish roundness, though now that roundness was due more to swelling and the thick patch of gauze necessary to cover the damaged tissues on his jaw. His shoulders were broad, and his feet matched with the rest of him in proportion. No child, then; but Fortnum still wouldn’t have placed him any older than twenty.

The majority of his conversation in the first few days of their acquaintance had been spoken in half-conscious groans; much like the tongue he had exercised upon their first encounter. He was in a state of constant half-waking. His body pained him too much to allow for true sleep, but by that token his mind stayed in an aching blur. Sometimes he’d crack open an eye as the minstrel spooned some hot liquid edibles through the part of his lips that were not blistered shut. His iris was dark and filmy, and didn’t follow Fortnum’s movements. He may as well have been alone in the wagon, lying on an old mat and a pillow of torn costume. Fortnum left the bowl on a stool next to this makeshift sickbed and ducked out momentarily to fetch his herbs.

When he returned, the spoon and a few chunks of meat and broth struck the wall next to his head.

The hell are you,” hissed his patient. Through half a mouth, it sounded more like, “Hew aa ell ah yew” but Fortnum had a skill for language. He could get the gist of it. The young man had levered himself off of the costume pile. Resting on one elbow over the stool, where he’d presumably used it to launch the spoon at the minstrel’s face. His hair hung over one of his eyes, but the one exposed glared in a hateful awareness. Not aware enough, though. He leaned forward a bit too far on his arm, and his bandages pulled tight over his shoulders. The eye went wide at what had to feel like a knife in the back. Heedless of further projectiles, Fortnum took him by his wrists and eased him down.

“He wakes,” he said. “And I had begun to wonder if looks weren’t everything.”

“Who the hell are you,” wheezed his charge. He gave a decidedly unmanly cry, and changed tacks. “Where’s he? Where’s Henley? Where’re you keeping him?”

“Henry?”

Henley.”

“And Henry is…oh, that boy. Well. Well.” Fortnum twittered his fingers against his temple. He frowned. “How should I say this…?” The young man made a noise that came out somewhere between a howl and a croak. Fortnum pressed him down onto the bed, dragging the blanket over him. “There, there. There was nothing to be done for him, you know. The boy was much more dead than you. But worry not for his state. I built him a pyre. I said a little prayer, as well. You’d gone through the trouble of carrying him out; I did not think it would be fair to leave him unattended–”

The spoon had missed him by an inch. The bowl struck him full in the face.

Later, after some curatives and a change of tunics, Fortnum set the lamp down a good distance away from him and uncapped a flask of salve. “I suppose I deserved that,” he said. The young man turned haltingly towards the light. “One asks for forgiveness, in those circumstances, don’t they?” He sat next to him. “I am very familiar with death. I forget that others are not. I am sorry for your loss… this is what I should have said, isn’t it?”

The young man rumbled low in his throat. The lantern light teased his features, drawing out every sunken flaw. It played in the streaks of wetness that had leaked out of his eyes. It was the tears that gave Fortnum some pause. He leaned in to peer at them. His charge turned his head away in disgust, and then gave another small gasp of pain.

“Ah.” That reminded Fortnum. “It’s time to change your bandages. I have some medicine.” He held the flask up. “A balm. I found it in my travels, some time ago. The southern coast has quite an interesting array of imports. It’s good for cuts. It’s good for burns.”

“What’s an ‘array’?”

“I’m Fortnum,” said the minstrel. “What is your name?”

“Mason.”

“Mashon?”

“Mason.”

“Ah, Mason.” Mason wormed away as hands reached for the pins holding his gauze together. Fortnum clucked at him, tapping some of the clean skin of his stomach in admonishment. “We have not had the fondest of introductions, but I can’t imagine that you have grown any fonder of those wounds.”

Mason slurred unintelligibly out of the bad side of his mouth. It was probably very vulgar. Fortnum said, “Thank you” anyway, and got to work.

The story came out in pieces, over brief visits and a countless number of objects that Mason somehow managed to lob in his very specific direction. Mason was not interested in Fortnum’s overtures of friendship. Mason was not interested in speaking to Fortnum. Mason wanted nothing to do with him, and every day when Fortnum came, when Fortnum unwound the bindings on his back, smoothed salve over the angry red and white skin over his shoulders and jaw, he gripped his bedding and scowled in distaste. He bit the inside of his lip as those long fingers combed over the marks on his face, the corner of his lip. Mason thought the man talked too much. Mason thought the man talked funny. Mason wished he would shut up and leave him alone. Mason said as much, repeatedly.

Mason was also tired, in pain, had a great deal on his mind and very few people to speak to it about. Eventually, fell on Fortnum. Eventually, it had to. The bastard was just there.

“Was my brother,” he said, resting his undamaged cheek against the undamaged skin of his less injured arm. Fortnum was working ointment into the other one. It burned to the point of tears upon initial application, but a few strokes and it smoothed over like ice.

“Was he?” asked Fortnum. He worked his hands to a rhythm. He did everything to a rhythm. Even the way he spoke had a cadence to it, light and annoyingly soothing for it. Mason turned his head and glared at him. “Ah. I suppose that much should have been obvious.”

“You have a brother?”

“A brother…” Fortnum’s lips quirked. He shook his head wistfully. “Not in the same sense, no.”

Mason laughed, bitterly. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt.

They’d been farmers, he explained. They’d live on a plot of land a half a day’s walk from the town, which had been called Storeway for obvious reasons. The farm had once done well. The land had been good. Yield had been good. More than enough to pay the local lords, with plenty left over for barter, for living. It had been Mason, Mason’s brother, Mason’s parent’s, uncles, cousins, and countless other farmhands. They’d only come to town on errands. They’d order new equipment, and sometimes Mason’d find the priests handing out ‘papers ‘bout God.’ Mason couldn’t read a word of it, more interested in the latest in hunting gear that the shops stocked, but nothing made Henley happier than some new reading material. His brother had wanted to join the church. Had wanted to be something. Had been smart enough for it, too. When the farm had begun to fail, when the boy had gotten sick (a cough. like mother, like father, like everyone) he’d carried him to town on his back. Sanctuary for the poor, the priests had said. Sanctuary for the sick, the priests had said. Come to His house, they said. You shall be saved. So he brought Henley, and hoped he’d be saved.

Then the knights had boarded up the doors and set God’s house ablaze.

“Government policy,” said Fortnum. “Plague is a serious public concern. No doubt they’d hoped to stem the contagion. Never mind a few extra lives, here and there.”

Policy,” spat Mason. “An excuse for murder, you mean?”

“A common definition of the term, yes.”

“Don’t smile when you say that.”

The corner of his lips turned down. “I’m sorry. Is this better?”

“Pah,” said Mason. “‘Contagion’?” Mason took issue with Fortnum’s choice of words. What did that even mean? Who talked like that?

“Men who make policy,” said Fortnum, simply.

Bartlebrett held out the thin dried flower between her fingers. She thought of incense. A spark caught the petals, and they began to burn. She scattered the ashes across a white scarf. One corner was folded over the other, and the other, until it made a small, neat triangle. She took it, shook it, and unfolded it for all to view. The ashes had scattered like stars. She observed them for a time, cocked her head, and folded the cloth back over. Under her hood, her fellows caught the rare flash of her eyes as she looked up.

“Fortnum is good for business,” she whispered. “He is skilled. His songs draw crowds.”

“But what of the boy?” asked Wellman.

Brett’s eyes vanished once more under her cowl. Only her nose and her lips remained, pursed reluctantly. “He came from that town. It rested under a black banner. It can only be bad for us, to take that banner along.”

“As I thought,” said Wellman, with regret.

Lettie had been told to give Fortnum a wide berth. Fortnum was a strange man. Fortnum had strange habits. What else could one expect? He wasn’t family, after all. Lettie had been told to give distance to ‘the boy in the props wagon’, too. She’d failed at this once, already. She’d wanted a peek. Of course she’d wanted a peek, but the groan in the shadows had been enough for her, and she’d fled before more than the barest glimpses of a tousled head and a thick determined set of eyebrows.

“Who is he?” she asked Fortnum. The minstrel tuned his lute. The light of the low sun raced up and down the strings under the pressure of his ministrations. “What’s he do? Think he does tricks? Think he’ll be joining us? How old is he?”

“He is a man of few words. A farmer’s son and if he knows any tricks it would be some very interesting uses for a backhoe,” Lettie giggled, “But why do you ask?”

“He’s the replacement for my necklace, isn’t he? You couldn’t find it. You found him instead.”

“That is a way to look at it.” She was so young. So silly. A smile came easily, in the face of such greater powers. “My dear, by that token, I bequeath him to thee.”

Lettie plopped down beside him, tugging her skirts over her boots. “S’okay,” she said, “S’fine. You can have him.”

“Can I?”

“As a gift for saving my life.”

She spoke so solemnly, that Fortnum laughed. It was a surprisingly pleasant thing, he found. “I am honored,” he told her, once regained. The lifting of the lute caught her eye; he caught the hint. “I shall sing a song of thanks. Whichever one you request.”

“I would like that very much,” she bobbed her shoulders, t’was the second cousin of a curtsy. “I would like to hear the song ’bout the miller girls. How is he doing, by and by? My thank you gift, I mean.”

“Walking soon and after my head.” Fortnum struck the first chords of song.

“A bard, eh?” said Mason. He’d graduated to a sitting position and solid food. He sat on folded knees, glad to relieve his back of some of the sting, but gladder for the jerky. He tore it with the good side of his mouth and a roll of his head.

“Quite the carnivore, aren’t we.”

“What?”

“Minstrel, actually. Most of what I do for a living is folktales and filthy jokes set to song. Though I’m partial to some true verse now and again.” Fortnum laced his fingers together. They had reached the river. The cart was left on the bank, and outside men conversed quietly. Fortnum watched their shadows through the canvases out of the corner of his eye. “Epic poetry. Tragic ballads. Passionate romance.”

“Written shit.”

“…yeeees,” began Fortnum, frowning. “It’s–”

“Bloody bard,” concluded Mason, through his teeth.

Fortnum sighed, sliding his unlaced fingers over the arms of the prop throne. A wooden crown rested next to his foot. He nudged it aside. “Sometimes I feel there is something lacking in our conversations. Not vulgarities, certainly. I wonder…” He kept wondering. Someone knocked their knuckles against the wagon frame. Mason grabbed a torn petticoat and threw it over himself as he dropped back down. Fortnum was standing when Wellman stuck his head in. The man pressed the back of his wrist over his jaw, thought better of it, and dropped it.
“A word.”

“Just one?” asked Fortnum.

“Not with you,” said Wellman.

The decision was simple: if the boy could walk, the boy would leave. He was a bad omen. He would be nothing but trouble. They’d give him food. They’d give him an extra pair of clothes. They weren’t uncivilized. They wouldn’t abandon him to the elements. It was not his fault the town had been ill. It was not his fault that rumor of the plague still ran rampant years after the war. Superstition took to the breast like maggots to a dying horse, and this was a corpse they would not allow to fester long. Some corners of group already talked of devils’ works. To his credit, Wellman only thought the boy unfortunate.

“…boots, and a map,” he said. “Least we can do for the sorry bastard.”

“Fair enough,” agreed Meriwell, “We’ll spare it. As long as he is gone.”

“He would best not say much of his origins,” sighed Brett.

“Not much to be done with a face like that.”

“Meri, be kind,” warned Wellman. “He’ll be rid of us by dawn.”

Dawn came. Fire red. It figured, to Mason. He looked at the color and shuddered. Prolonged bed rest had left his legs stiff and stubborn, in spite of all the best of his lunatic caretaker’s tending. He leaned on a stick, and limped his way towards the road. Red skies, ready to set the plains ablaze. Seemed all his life would be fire, from then on. Mason was ready to accept it. One did. The stick caught a dip in the grasses where an animal had burrowed, and he stumbled. Swearing, Mason yanked it up and took two awkward strides without its assistance. It went flying. He didn’t need it anyway. Didn’t need much.

Surprised the hell out of him to find it flying back. It struck the grass to the left of him and stuck, knobby end out.

“There is a bountiful land to the east,” said Fortnum. His shadow brushed the young man’s heels. He shortened its distance in five steps. He hadn’t been very far behind him. Mason stared. “I am certain the men there would enjoy any extra hands. Although truthfully I am not much for farm work. I tried it, some time ago. Did not have the hands.”

“Been following me all along, have you.”

“Only since camp,” said Fortnum. Mason glared, opened his mouth, and shut it again. It did not close all the way where the skin had scarred. He gave his head an irritated shake, as though meaning to clear the buzz of the bard’s strangeness from his ear.

“Land doesn’t want much more to do with me,” he said, thickly. “I don’t want much more to do with the land. Was going to head to town. Hedge my bets on the want of a good arm. M’not bad with a bow. Used to pot bandits, back when.”

“You flicked that pin at me with a shockingly keen aim.”

The corner of his mouth still capable of it turned up in the barest smirk. “With one eye all swollen shut, too.”

“So you think you could make a good go at becoming a hunter? Of man? Of beast? Plenty of both available. It’s a trade I know. Ah. He stares in question. No doubt the romance of the blade for hire has reached your ear … the country’s crawling with them these days and it is rubbish as a secure income. Plenty do their killings for free. Have you considered entertainment? No? I think we could make a killing if we started there, pardon my turn of phrase. Well, I could. You my friend, are a little drab …what?”

“We?” asked Mason.

“Why, yes.”

“Weren’t you…” He craned his head back, and soon discovered that staring over the bard’s shoulder was a little bit difficult when the bard had come up next to him and stood taller than a bloody beanpole. “You already had a job, I thought?”

“I’ve left it,” said Fortnum, shaking a long scarf out of his sleeve, “We had creative differences. They seemed to think letting a plain thing like you go was a marvelous idea. I thought it seemed rather silly. I’ve listened to you speak. No one as boring as you could ever make it alone.”

“Boring?”

Fortnum draped the scarf over Mason’s shoulders. He fingered the edges. “Yes. Absolutely boring. You do not read. You know no interesting swear words. And you react to things so simply that I, even in my long study of typical human reactions, cannot seem to place the way you breathe the world and what it deals you.” He crossed the cloth across Mason’s chin. The fabric was thick, but woven fine enough that it didn’t scrape against the edges of his injuries. He could feel Fortnum’s thumb press along his jaw through the fibers. His eyes crossed. “I would like to come with you. Someone like you… How could I let such an opportunity pass me by? I’ve traveled with many sorts, but not one like you.”

Why?” The bard’s head had bent near. Mason pulled away. Hands stayed roped around the ends of the scarf.

“You ought to keep those marks covered. No sense searing them in the sun when they’re not healed.”

The guy was really good at missing the point. “That’s not what I mean.”

“I have more salve.”

“Entertainment, huh.”

Fortnum’s eyes lit up. “Yes,” he said. He hooked an arm over his, mindful not to drape it over his shoulders. Mason rested his hand on his wrist, holding tight in lieu of a walking stick and saying nothing of it. “I am so glad we agree. I think this partnership will be beneficial to us both.”

illustrated by halcyonjazz

“Y’do know I only understand ’bout every other word you say, right?”

“A language barrier that can be overcome.”

“Y’do know you’re sort of a pouf, right?”

“A bit of one, yes,” Fortnum eyed him curiously, “Have we issue with this?”

Mason went quiet. “Huh,” he said. “Not really.” They found the road. Mason took a grateful breath for the flatter, harder earth beneath his boots. “Still, don’t know what you’re on about. No one’s going to miss you, back there?”

“Oh,” Fortnum blinked. “I hadn’t considered that. Do you think so?”

“How should I know.”

“I suppose someone might…” The song about the miller’s girls came to mind. The strains of it rambled through his head. “I suppose someone will.” He brightened. “There’s nothing for it now, though. The basilisk’s out of the cock’s egg now. Morgaine’s not far. We won’t make it in good time, but we’ll make it.”

“Basilisk…” started Mason.

“Talk normally,” growled Mason.

“Thanks,” he eventually muttered into the scarf Fortnum had given him.

And then the bard sang all the goddamn way to the city.

Their first order of business was to find Mason a longbow and a full quiver of arrows. Their second was to find a good safe clearing where no bystanders could accidentally be shot. The third was to discover that the boy could hit a single coin right smack over the king’s long nose. The fourth was to spend a half a night in the steady routine of tossing small objects into the air and watching the streak of the arrows take them down.

“Potted bandits, hm.”

“People tried to take me father’s cows,” Mason shrugged. “Sometimes I’d knock off rats for a laugh.”

“And how…large were these rats?”

“Long as my hand, why?”

Fortnum shuddered, “No reason, no reason.”

Mason looked wistful, and shot an arrow right down the neck of an empty wine bottle. “Henley used to like it when I sniped the leaves off trees.”

“I had relations that were a little bit the sniping types.”

“What?”

Fortnum waved a hand, finger’s spread. “We can work with this.”

Generally, stray dogs had never been a problem when Arthur Randall waited on company supplies.

Generally, stray dogs did not take to growing as tall as a man at the shoulders, or wearing coats black as sin. They didn’t breath mist over the water to muck up the boat routes, and they certainly didn’t begin devouring the shadows of travelers caught in these fogs, leaving them chilled and empty-eyed for days.

He’d really never had any issue with dogs before this one.

Arthur Randall was a business man, and business had been bad for nearly two weeks now. He had none of the ingredients he needed. He was down to his last centrifuge. The jars that had once populated his shelves en masse had begun to dwindle. His supplements would be gone in another week if this kept up. What’s more, the blockage to the eastern supply routes had led to a dwindling number of eager hunters, those brave enough and ignorant enough of the local superstitions to take on the case in the first place.

He had just left the shop, feeling ruined, when he witnessed the strangest commotion on the town square. A man stood on the edge of the well. There didn’t seem much sense to it, he already seemed quite tall. He was a slick fellow, could’ve been anywhere between twenty and thirty, with pale hair and eyes and a cloak that shone in bright colors even against the grey skies of the rainy season. He played a lute, and sang a song to match, and Arthur was no expert at traveling minstrels, but from his limited experience this one was not bad. He played with a clever gleam in his eye, as though he knew something others did not. The shop owner slowed at the edge of the crowd to listen. Someone shouldered past him. A young man; handsome, with rough dark hair, and a ragged shawl curled several times over around his throat, thoroughly obscuring the lower part of his face. The upper part was nearly lost in his shaggy bangs. It seemed odd to Arthur to see a man in such heavy dress so early in the season. T’was odder for the way his eyes fixed on the bard. The young man sighed, muttered a thick curse under his bindings, un-slung the bow from his back and aimed a clear, clean shot right at the minstrel’s head.

The minstrel caught it between his fingers with a laugh. He hadn’t even looked, had just stepped back. “Hark!” he cried. “I cannot please everyone, it seems.”

The archer scoffed gruffly, and stormed forward through the parting crowd. Arthur watched in amazement. The minstrel caught his next volley in a jar, in a pillow, in a thick book, all produced mysteriously from the depths of his cape. The people moved from shocked gasps to laughter. Arthur found himself no longer at a loss. He approached the archer after the show.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

” ‘Sir’?” The young man eyed him blankly a moment. He spoke with an odd lisp, presumably an effect of his obscured mouth. “You’re calling me ‘sir’.”

“Yes,” said the minstrel, hopping down from his perch. He clapped a hand down on the archer’s shoulder. The young man gave an audible hiss. “Yes, I believe he is. It is a manner of respectful greeting, something in which my associate here is somewhat remiss. May I help you? May we help you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur Randall, staring at the archer helplessly. The archer stared only at the minstrel. The words came quickly, rolling against each other in an unpracticed manner that made him wince: “Yes. There is a matter of a hound. I mean to inquire as to the availability your assistance. Specifically that of your bow. It could do me a great service, and there would be generous compensation for your cares. It’s urgent. And I… ”

The archer said nothing.

The minstrel hooked a finger over the edge of his scarf, and bent his head over. “There is a beast he’d like killed and he’ll pay us for it.”

“We’ll do it,” said Mason.

The creature was banished without too much of a fuss. Mason even got his arrows back. Something he thought was a nice perk. Fortnum leaned against one of the trees of the grove. His head was awhirl the memory of the brightest dandelions. Lightning was still crackling in the sodden earth.

“Plains drakes’re worse,” noted Mason. He’d lost a sleeve and there was a gouge in one of his braces. A look at this and he snorted, loudly. The remains of the beast–a small, doleful eyed creature with a patch of white in its black fur, whined as though it meant to apologize. Mason ruffled the dog’s head absently. “They don’t teach bards that,” he said to Fortnum.

“No,” agreed his companion. “They don’t. A previous vocation however… It did come in very handy during Greenwitch, though.”

“Vocation.”

“My last job.”

“Greenwitch.”

“Yes.”

“Like the battle.”

“Yes.”

“During the war.”

“Generally when battles take place, yes.”

The fog had begun to clear. Mason pulled his scarf down as though that might afford him some new angle on this. He squinted. “I was two during the battle of Greenwitch.” He tipped his head sideways. “And you were…”

“It’s getting dark.” It was three hours before sunset. “We should be going now. Let us not dawdle. Our client has the right to know of our success. And our gentleman here has the right to be reintroduced to his master.”

The dog barked helpfully, and trotted with him, eager to fall in with a good jaunty step.

“Bloody bard,” growled Mason. He followed, glowering.

They were driven out of a small town in the north. Winter had come, and times had grown lean for the people on the coast. The seas had not allowed for steady trade, and the first glimpse they had gotten of the strange archer when the wind had blown the coverings from his face had been enough to have them wondering if some devil didn’t have a hand in it. It began with that. It turned to active suspicion. It turned to shady figures with crosses loitering outside of their inn, and then the unfortunate matter of an angry mob. They’d taken an early leave of the place. Mason wasn’t too interested in being burned again.

“Be warmer than it is now, though.” They were on the road. Snow had begun to fall.

“We’ll find shelter,” said Fortnum. “And I will rub some ointment on your jaw. You’ll feel less bitter about it after that, I promise you.”

“Cold’ll still be bitter.”

“Cold is allowed its own troubles.”

“S’troubles are going up my nose.”

Fortnum stuck a finger under his bangs and gave it a gentle toss. “You are ever the charmer.” Mason pulled his hat down. “But no demon.”

“I know that.”

“Yes, and I know you can be sensitive.”

“Sensitive.”

“That means–”

“Not daft. Know that one,” snapped Mason. “Anyway, they didn’t call me a demon. They called me marked. Called me ungodly. And they’re sure as bloody hell not wrong about those last two.”

“They make you look rakish.”

Mason didn’t know exactly what that last word meant, but he could get the meaning well enough from the tone, and he flashed Fortnum a frigid stare. “To be Godly you’d have to still believe in all that.”

Fortnum let him take a few paces ahead of him. He crossed the bridge over the stream, head angled low against the wind. It wasn’t long before the minstrel draped his cape over his shoulders. Mason went stiff, but didn’t throw him off. “I’ve never understood it myself. My childhood did not precipitate many visits to church. It is something that men are complicated about. I know that.”

“You don’t know much about men.”

“I know how men die,” said Fortnum, in a tone so empty that Mason looked up at him with an arch in his brow close to concern—except that he was smiling. He was staring up at the pale sky and he was smiling. “I’m less certain about how they live. I’d like to learn about it. Men. Women. Children. They’re more interesting, when they live. There are more stories to be told. They are more pleasant that way.”

“I’m pleasant?”

“Yes.” Snow caught in Fortnum’s eyelashes, he blinked rapidly, turning his head from one side to the other like a beast that had just remembered his own stripes. “You are pleasant.” He pressed his palm into Mason’s upper arm, and rubbed. There was no ointment on his fingers. “You are very pleasing to me.”

“Huh,” said Mason. “There’s a farmhouse up ahead.”

They negotiated a night’s stay. They had money, and the owners had a room; their business lay less in growing wheat and more in taking in travelers like them. The place was warm in the face of the early freeze. Fortnum had offered to take up their things. Mason, who’d taken the brunt of the last week’s exertion, opted for a bath. It was not a common request, but the girls of the establishment had been sneaking peeks at the face that they could see under the hair and over the scarf and, giggling, had been more than happy to help him find the means.

Mason hung the lantern off a hook buried in one of the beams. It afforded a dim, yellow glow that only extended about as far as the main floor, where the washbasin sat. The walls creaked at all corners, and gaps in the ceiling showed patches of grey outside. It smelled of rotting hay and damp wood. It wasn’t bad, as far as old barns went. He’d seen worse. He’d lived in worse. He hooked a thumb into his arm guards and began to unbuckle.

His clothes were stiff with wear and mud from the road. Mason stripped carelessly. Hat, scarf, cloak, shirt, britches; he kicked the pile off to the side. It lay limp and obedient. The air ran sharply up his back and down his thighs, gathering in coldest report between his nipples and groin. The basin had obviously been used for washing clothes in the immediate past, its sides were high and the metal had the first blushes of rust close to the bottom. Mason stuck his hand in to the wrist. The water was warm, almost hot. Throwing a leg gratefully over the side, Mason lowered himself into a crouch. To his hip in water, resting on the balls of his feet, he bent over, sunk his hands, and threw two broad handfuls over his head and shoulders. His hair hung damp, pressing into the deep pockets that framed the bridge of his nose, sticking in his eyes. A second toss of water followed the battered strands down the contour of his face. It passed over his lips. It snaked through the shiny, twisted grooves of scar tissue. It felt good pouring off of his rough jaw, and backwards over the ruined skin of his shoulders.

Mason pressed his face into the next handful. The next he slapped against his chest. He scrubbed the important bits: chest, stomach, under his arms. There was three days worth of sweat and grime to scratch off. He did it his nails and his calloused palms. Three day’s worth of solid travel to work through and he was going to be thorough about it.

The fifth handful slipped out through the gaps between his fingers. He braced a hand against the rim of the basin, the other against his knee. A third hand rested on his hip, thumbing the rise of bone, and Mason was fairly certain it didn’t belong to him. It prickled from the winds outside. Those winds rocked the rafters above, sliding through the walls of the barn at a high hiss. The water wouldn’t be warm for much longer. Mason exhaled in a wordless mutter, muscles jumping in his legs as he shifted.

“Hush,” whispered Fortnum, pressing his mouth to the scars of his back. “Hush, now. I can be pleasing, you know. I can be pleasant. I can be very…”

“Shut up,” said Mason, and the hand slid over his hip and down. He hooked his arm over the rim and sat back. Water sloshed over the edge. “Bloody bard. Bloody fucking…”

Fortnum followed the knots of skin to the place where his neck and shoulder met. He mouthed the rough patches, his tongue obsessing over every twist and contour. Mason let him do this, let his hand slip under the water, watched through half lidded eyes the darkening of his wet sleeves, the dim blur of those fingers working around his cock. He shut his eyes and dropped his head ’till it fell back against the warm body behind him. He should have guessed he’d know what he was doing. Should’ve guessed those hands would get all fancy, like the rest of him. Mason groaned, and Fortnum pressed dragged his ‘hush’ up his neck to the point just behind his ear.

“Now, now,” he hummed, counterpoint to the circling of his thumb. “It will be all right. I promise you. Shall I tell you what character I find in your form? Shall I write out the verse in your skin?”

“What?” Mason opened his eyes. “What are you even saying?” He grabbed his hand, and closed his fingers tighter around his cock. “Stop talking so damn much. You talk too damn much.” He shoved his hips forward. Another splash of water escaped over the edge.

Fortnum chuckled and obliged. He obliged so cleverly that Mason’s knee hit the side of the basin, and he husked out a harsh swear, pushing helplessly. “My dear,” Fortnum murmured, brushing against his harsher cheek, “If I am your ‘bloody fucking bard’, that is what I do.”

It didn’t take very long. It didn’t take very long at all. Fortnum’s mouth was hot and warm and wet, and Fortnum’s hands were experts at their craft, and it’d been a long time since Mason had had anything even a little like it. Too long for it to be anything but abrupt and rough as he came, gasping through his teeth. Fortnum kept touching him, kept whispering into his hair and against his neck and scars, and when the beat of it faded Mason shoved his wrists off and clambered around. Mason grabbed his belt and pulled. Fortnum took the hint.

The air was a cold slap on his back, but the hands on his shoulders were anything but. They weren’t warm like fire, weren’t warm like an angry, burning, hungry sting, but rather something heavy and alive. Fortnum’s hips were harder than Mason would’ve guessed, and he had to tilt his head to one side to account for scarred side of his mouth, but the bard gasped quietly, and ran his palms down his back and up again. It was one of the best damn things Mason had ever heard. He thought it was pretty passable, as far as these things went.

“I believe that at this juncture it would be best if we retire.”

“Eh?”

“I mean: I would like to go to bed with you.”

“To sleep?”

“…eventually. Yes.”

“In a bed? Really?”

“Yes.”

“…was just thinking. There’s a haystack right over there.”

“In a haystack? Truly?”

“Sod off. Help me find my trousers and I’ll give your bed a go.”

“You know. I’d been under the impression you weren’t too fond of me.”

Mason stomped the snow down with a bloody minded vengeance. The sun was cracking through the clouds, and the loud gleam of it off the drifts was beginning to wear on his nerves. The wind was mild, and he’d not bothered to wrap his face. One would think there would be some wonder from a boy who had grown up in grasslands, a boy who’d never seen a proper snowfall. One would think wrong. Fortnum thought of the rose bushes that had once grown in the gardens of the capital. A lick of flame cleared a wet path a good few paces ahead of them. Mason jumped with a genuine yelp, and stumbled back into the minstrel, who saw no problem with throwing an arm under his to steady him. He saw no problem with keeping it there, even when his companion began to glare.

“Warn me. Warn me before you ever do that that again.” In retrospect, Fortnum realized, the flames had not been the best of ideas. He murmured a quiet apology. Mason grabbed him by the arm and didn’t quite remember to follow through with the motion to shove him off. “Had the impression you thought I was boring.”

“Oh, I did.”

Mason’s eyebrows did a jump into his bangs. “Still thinking that?”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Fortnum, excitedly. “There is still no other more startlingly drab.” The archer elbows him in the side. Fortnum hardly seemed hampered by this. Mason trudged forward again, the bard nearly skipped to keep pace with him. “Not that you do not have some interesting qualities. You have a bizarre attitude. Your predilection for bathing is oddly refreshing. You do interesting things with your tongue.”

“Predi– eh,” Mason stopped. “Liked that, did you?”

“Among other things.” Fortnum curled a hand around his armguard, and held tight. “You have an interesting life. I would like to see where it goes.”

“Right. Figured out what you are. A stalker, is what you are.”

Fortnum blinked. “Would you like me to leave?”

“No.”

“Oh, good.” Out of the corner of his eye, Mason saw the minstrel smile. “I have an idea for our next act. It would be a great tragedy to have it go unheard.”

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