Hello, everyone! I'm pleased to finally post the fic I wrote for my friend, Vox! I've been working on this for a little while, and I'm really excited to actually have it completed so that I can share it.
Thank you so much for your amazing fic idea, Vox! The Last Knight by Hilari Bell was an engaging novel that lent itself to some great Nezushi content. The relationship between Michael and Fisk is definitely similar to Shion and Nezumi's constant banter, and it was so much fun to come up with ideas for this one-shot.
I hope you all enjoy it!
THE PALADIN & THE RAT
"Knighthood lies above eternity; it doesn't live off fame, but rather deeds."
— Dejan Stojanovic, The Sun Watches the Sun
The midafternoon sun beat down on Nezumi's shoulders, frying his skin through the thin cloth of his black tunic. A more enlightened man might have argued that black wasn't the wisest choice for the harsh summer months of Kronos, when midday temperatures ranged from boiling to scorching.
Nezumi, in turn, would have told that man to take his opinion and shove it the one place the sun was guaranteed not to shine. Discomfort, dehydration, and possible heatstroke were small prices to pay for aesthetic.
Nezumi huffed. He hated spending time in the middle of the markets. Without any trees nearby or awnings to tuck himself in—he'd already attempted, and the stocky woman behind the counter shooed him away because he "clearly wasn't a customer"—he was forced to sizzle in the sunlight. Worse than the heat was the smell of the market. The stench of meat, not quite rotten by quickly turning, singed his nose; the stink of bodies, drenched in sweat from a long morning of toiling in the fields, crushed around him like a stone weight.
The low thrum of human voices swelled around him, and Nezumi flinched. Aggravation curled in the pit of his stomach like a serpent; if he'd been given the choice, he wouldn't have wasted his time being burnt to a crisp in the middle of some random village on the outskirts of Kronos. He'd find some cool corner to curl up in and wait until the shops began to close for the evening. During the final sweep, Nezumi would flutter by the stalls and snatch loose items from the unsuspecting merchants, lining his pockets with paper bills, coins, and trinkets to sell.
Too bad his employer wouldn't tolerate pickpocketing anymore.
Nezumi leaned back and thumped his head against the wooden door frame. He'd opted to stay outside, simply because he couldn't stand the way the old woman inside snorted when she spoke. How Shion could manage it was nothing short of a miracle. Then again, Shion had always had a higher threshold for annoyance than Nezumi. If one of them had to sit inside that stuffy little hut and listen to the old woman gush about her hardships, Nezumi was grateful his employer had volunteered for the opportunity.
It was by no means an exceptional job. The old woman had approached them, whining of her pet pig that had escaped its stable a few nights ago and fled into the forests early one morning. A job such as that would have been better left to the local authorities, Nezumi began to tell her—but Shion had taken one look at the tears in the old woman's big brown eyes, the quiver of her lower lip, and he'd immediately agreed to listen to her plight.
Searching for a lost pig.
Nezumi pressed his lips together in an agitated scowl.
What in all the hells had his life come to?
A job such as this wouldn't be worth three coppers—though, if the pig meant as much to the old woman as Nezumi expected it did, due to her reaction, he supposed they might be able to weasel a silver out of her. Overall, a ridiculous request to ask of two men decked to the nines in armor and leather. Hells, had the woman even seen the sword strapped across Shion's back? What about either of them made her think for a moment that either of them would lower themselves to hunting down a lost pig?
Nezumi wouldn't have taken the job, had he been traveling alone. Squandering through the forest, tiptoeing around in the muck, and dealing with whatever nonsense thrived out there wasn't worth the miniscule funds the old woman had set aside for such a pointless request. No fool in the world would have looked at Nezumi with his black cloak and severe silver eyes and mistaken him for a pig catcher.
But after toiling away for a year alongside Shion, Nezumi knew him well enough to know that Shion would take the task, for he had no real need of coppers and silvers.
Nezumi fiddled with the hem of his tunic. The sweltering heat could be defeated by a long soak in a river or, if Shion were successful in procuring a job, a warm bath. Perhaps the old woman would even throw in a bar of soap for their troubles. Having spent much of his life on the roads, Nezumi had learned to appreciate soap when it came his way; he'd also learned how to ration it properly and make it last. He didn't think the old woman would miss a single bar of soap from her stash, and he suspected his employer wouldn't notice if Nezumi's agile fingers liberated a bar or two from the old woman's custody.
He wondered what the conversation between Shion and the old woman was like. The old woman was of a lower caste than Shon, so Nezumi suspected a small language barrier might arise between them. He'd spent enough of his time playing pretend to understand how to communicate clearly with members of the nobility, but Shion hadn't spent much time around peasants. He tried his best to ensure that he kept his words simple and calm when seeking work from folks in need. Nezumi found it almost endearing in a way.
Shion was the clumsier of the two. He spoke in a high, educated manner that would have ordinarily put off those in the lower class, but unlike the armored soldiers and silk-covered dukes that breezed through town like errant butterflies, Shion was genuine in his kindness. He smiled a lot and put people at ease with his interest in their lives and their hobbies. Whatever rumors the lower class had heard about nobles disappeared under Shion's heartfelt praise for their handiwork.
As annoying as Nezumi found the constant distractions, he had to admit it was... nice to be wrong about a member of the nobility for once. Born and raised in a world that knew nothing of starvation and hardship, one could have easily expected Shion to be a snide little brat who looked down at the unwashed masses. Nezumi had met plenty of that type in his travels. Hells, he'd robbed plenty of that type, too.
In Nezumi's defense, Shion did look the part. Shion was a short, lithe thing when stripped down to the skin—as an "honorary squire", Nezumi had seen far more of the kid's bare form than he suspected even his family doctor had—and the armor he chose to attire himself in made his head and unadorned hands seem far too small in comparison to the rest of his body. The complete image was far more laughable than respectable, and Nezumi made it a point to inform him of that fact every time Shion pulled the silver breastplate together and snapped it in place over his tunic.
The paladin never took heed of his invaluable advice, but Nezumi kept repeating it, all the same. If he said it enough, perhaps it would worm its way into the paladin's thick skull and settle there.
Shion's dark brown hair was usually wild and unruly, which often gave folks pause. Nobles had access to expensive tonics and brushes for their hair, but Shion hardly utilized them. His hair reacted to the summer humidity by frizzing up and becoming an untamable mess. His eyes were the same color, always wide with excitement and curiosity. Overall, he seemed fairly plain, but that only added to the initial image that he was a simple-minded nobleman. Nezumi supposed the over-sized armor was Shion's way of combatting that stereotype at first glance, but it just made him seem like a child playing dress-up rather than an actual knight errant.
Nezumi closed his eyes at the thought and huffed through his nose. Shion would frown if he heard Nezumi use the term "knight errant" when referring to him. He'd been adamant about not being called such things when he first explained to Nezumi what he intended to do.
In his own words, Shion preferred the word "paladin" simply for the fact that no one ever questioned it. Everyone across the land knew the term "knight errant"; when Shion had first begun calling himself that, he confided in Nezumi one evening, folks laughed in his face at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Shion had shouldered their laughter until it became too difficult to be taken seriously. Who would ever seek the help of a soldier whose very title spurred folks to laugh themselves sick and accuse him of being a madman?
Not many knew the term "paladin", but no one wanted to admit to their lack of knowledge. Instead, they simply responded with a casual hmm when Shion introduced himself as a paladin, or a reverent ah if they were trying to get into his good graces. "Paladin" had an elegant sound to it, a quick assemblage of syllables that sounded regal and superior in their utterance. Even if folks didn't know what in the name of the seven gods the title meant, they knew it meant something prestigious and responded accordingly.
Nezumi, by extension, wished Shion had picked a better term for him than "squire". Just the thought of the word made his mouth twist into a frustrated scowl. It sounded gross rolling off his tongue; hells, it sounded gross rolling off everyone's tongue.
He'd tried pitching a few terms to Shion during their trek through the woods—associate, compatriot, unwilling travel companion—but Shion brushed them all aside and simply remarked, "If you serve a knight errant, that makes you a squire. I don't make the rules."
"Well, if you're allowed to make up ridiculous titles simply to keep people from laughing at you," Nezumi argued, "then I should be offered the same respect."
Shion had raised a delicate brown eyebrow at him. The dancing fire cast flecks of gold across his dark irises, glinting and catching like their own form of magic. "You're being dramatic. No one's ever laughed at you for being a squire."
"That you know of!"
Shion had rolled his eyes and dismissed Nezumi's perfectly reasonable concerns. No matter how many times Nezumi broached the subject with him, Shion waved away his concerns and laughed when he tried explaining that no one would take him seriously if they knew he was a "squire".
It seemed a perfectly valid argument. People would respect an assassin or a rogue. If Nezumi went under the term "squire", it didn't matter that he dressed like a god of death and swept into villages with barely a sound. It didn't matter if he were armed to the teeth with blades so sharp he could slice through a man's throat before the victim even knew he was being attacked. It didn't matter if he'd once been so feared in his local town that rumors began to circulate that he was a silver-eyed demigod sent by a vengeful goddess to punish humanity for their mistreatment and lack of respect for nature. Who in all the hells would hear the word "squire" and not laugh?
The door to the inn opened, and Nezumi turned to see Shion stepping out into the heat. The main room inside the inn must have been a bit more protected from the summer heat that the area outside her front door, for when Shion stepped outside and closed the wooden slab behind him, he seemed almost taken aback by the wall of humidity that struck him in the face.
He looked to Nezumi and remarked, "You didn't want to come inside?"
Nezumi shrugged a shoulder, though he doubted Shion could see it beneath the thick layers of his cloak. It didn't matter how warm the air around him became. Nezumi felt uneasy without his cloak, as it meant he couldn't conceal himself from the prying eyes of men and women who looked at him like a piece of meat to be snapped up at the right price. "Have you managed to procure employment for us, Your Majesty?"
Shion wrinkled his nose at the nickname. The first time Nezumi had called him that a year ago, Shion cocked his head and said, confused, "I'm not a king."
He'd looked so stunned and confused in that moment that Nezumi couldn't help but laugh. He'd meant it as a snide insult, a way to make Shion ashamed of the luck he'd been born into. Instead, the noble had been too dense to recognize it as an insult and simply thought it a misguided attempt at flattery. Nezumi had found the aspect so amusing that the nickname had stuck even after he'd been bound to Shion against his better judgment. It was worth it to see the look that crossed Shion's face when he said it; he didn't look disgusted or bothered, simply aggravated in a way that made Nezumi want to keep picking at it until it gave way.
"I did," he replied. "Miss Shizuko—she's our new client—has requested that we look for her pet pig in the surrounding areas. I have agreed to take on the job."
Nezumi figured as much, but he couldn't deny that he was a bit disappointed at the prospect of such a minimal job. "Ah, well," he remarked, pushing away from the door frame. "As long as the job pays well."
Shion blinked at him. "Pay?"
"You did discuss payment with her, right?"
"Of course I did." Shion pointed over his shoulder to the closed door at his back. "Miss Shizuko and I came to an agreement that, in exchange for us looking for Scout, she would allow us to stay in her inn during our search."
Nezumi stared at his employer. He opened his mouth to say... something, but no words came out. He felt a low throbbing begin to form in the back of his skull, as he often did when Shion began to lay out his plans and agreements. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath to steady his nerves, and said, "Well, at least we won't have to spend money on food for a little while."
"The rooms are free," Shion specified. "Meals are not."
Nezumi opened his eyes and glared at Shion's innocent smile. "...Please tell me you're joking."
"We're going to find Scout, Nezumi. That's our job."
"Oh, for the love of—" Nezumi sucked in a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. As much as he hated wasting time listening to people whine about their issues, now he found himself wishing he'd dealt with it this one time. Only Shion would let someone who'd come to him with a problem walk all over him.
"Come on," Shion said, a bit too cheerfully for someone who'd fallen victim to an old woman's trap, hook, line, and sinker. "Miss Shizuko says we can tether the horses in the stables outback and set out in the morning."
Nezumi rolled his eyes as Shion headed toward the posts outside the inn where Hamlet and Tsukiyo were kept. The two horses—one black and sturdy, the other white and flighty—lifted their heads in greeting as Shion approached them, reaching for their reins and undoing them from the quick knots Nezumi had tied to keep them from being stolen by some street urchin without any semblance of common decency.
He closed his eyes and thought, Well, at least we'll have a few comfortable beds for the next few days. Considering that, it didn't seem all that bad.
"I can't believe you're making us do this for free," Nezumi spat the next evening, stripping out of his muddy leather boots and hurling them into the corner of the room.
Shion frowned at the imprint the soles of Nezumi's boot made against the wooden wall. He picked up a damp cloth, intent on scrubbing the mark away, but though it better to clean himself up first, lest he track more mud around the room. He'd already stripped out of his heavy armor and left it downstairs to clean after a bath—Shizuko, seeing their mud-soaked clothes and hair, had immediately agreed to heat some water for them to clean off with in the clean trough behind the inn—but his tunic and slacks were damp and soiled from their earlier journey through the forest.
They had spent the entirety of the following day, from sun up until sun down, trudging through the muddy forests surrounding the village. Shizuko had insisted that she'd seen her Scout charge into that section of the woods when she escaped, and due to her love of mud, it made sense that if she were anywhere, she would be there.
Shion hadn't expected to run into any trouble during their search, but being a paladin, had worn his armor anyway. All it took was a single moment for things to take a sour turn. Nezumi thought he looked completely ridiculous, marching off into the woods in search of a tiny white pig while wearing battle armor, but Shion was as stubborn as a mule and refused to be swayed.
"Technically it's not for free," Shion muttered. Inns weren't expensive, especially not in villages such as this, but trading room and board for a job technically meant they were exchanging services.
"Right," Nezumi scoffed, scraping his hands through his hair. He'd gotten mud caught in the long, dark strands, so running his hands through it and yanking the rope that held it in a high ponytail loose didn't appear to bother him. "Because spending several nights in the world's most uncomfortable beds is worth running around in the mud after some pig."
"Miss Shizuko will hear you if you're too loud."
"Who gives a damn?" Nezumi spat, but when he spoke again, his voice was considerably lower. "How do we know that pig's even still alive? Did you see the size of that forest? Plenty of predators would have gobbled that thing up the minute it crossed their path."
Shion pressed his lips together. It was a possibility. He'd tried avoiding the topic when Shizuko had requested his help, but even Shion could tell that the thought was on her mind.
"I think she's just looking for closure," Shion said. He folded the rag and placed it gently on the table wedged between the two beds in the small room. He'd scrub the floors and the walls after their bath, preferably with some better-suited supplies. He thought Shizuko would gladly hand it over if it meant she wouldn't have to clean it herself later. "If we can't bring Scout home alive, at least she'll know what became of her so she can mourn properly."
Nezumi dragged his bangs out of his face, as he often did when he was agitated. They were much longer than Shion had seen on someone from the lower class. Only nobles could afford to take care of long hair, so most of the lower class chopped theirs short. When Shion had first met Nezumi, his first instinct had been that he was a noble, too—but Nezumi had quickly and violently dispelled that theory.
"Can't believe we're doing all this for a pig," he huffed. He gave Shion a disgusted look and announced, "I'm going downstairs. She better have heated the water up by now."
Nezumi stormed out into the hall, but Shion didn't worry about him being rude to Shizuko. For all his venom, Nezumi was remarkably good at putting on a pleasant smile and pretending to be amused when the mood required it. His sour attitude had initially worried Shion when he'd brought him on board, but since the brunt of that attitude was only ever directed toward him, Shion had learned to find it somewhat endearing.
He cleaned himself up as best as he could with the few cloths Shizuko had provided for them, then went downstairs to bathe properly. He hoped Nezumi would be a bit less annoyed after having spent a few moments on his own.
Shizuko had set a trough outside and out back, and as Shion stepped outside into the evening air, he could spot steam rising from the water Shizuko had poured inside. His body ached at the thought of sinking into the water and letting the stress and heat of the stressful day bleed out of his bones.
Nezumi had already stripped down and settled into the water. The trough was deep and long, far large enough for two adult men to comfortably fit inside. Nezumi's eyes were closed, his hair down and damp. He opened one eye as Shion closed the door to the inn behind him, but if he was still aggravated by Shion's decision to take the job from Shizuko, he didn't voice it. Instead, he pulled his legs up to make a bit more room for Shion to fit in, too.
This was by no means the first time they'd bathed together, and Shion suspected it wouldn't be the last, either. As paladin and squire, Shion had explained that bathing together would be routine. Nezumi, for his part, didn't seem bothered by the prospect of bathing near another man. In fact, he laughed at Shion's flushed cheeks when he brought it up, chiding him on being a "blushing virgin". Shion swatted at him in response but kept silent, because there was an unfortunate amount of truth behind Nezumi's words.
Shion climbed into the trough, leaving his clothes in a neat pile on the floor beside the basin. He groaned as the warm water made him aware of aches in his muscles, primarily around his legs and forearms. The thick puddles of mud around the village had been difficult enough to navigate through, his boots getting stuck and his armor weighing him down as he moved through the fields in search of a piglet who very well could have been eaten by any number of predators.
He and Nezumi bathed in silence for a few moments, letting the summer evening air and the steam from the water trough drift around them. Shizuko must have kept it scrubbed clean for her few customers to use, and Shion was grateful for her thoughtfulness. He didn't know that it was appropriate to avoid offering her payment for these accommodations, but he avoided bringing it up to Nezumi. The rogue was already frustrated enough with their lack of monetary compensation.
"It's been a year now," Nezumi murmured. His voice was too loud in the wake of the relaxing calm that had settled around them; Shion started, a bit of the warm water sloshing over the side and dampening his discarded clothes. He hoped Shizuko would let him hang them out to dry after he'd dunked them in the water to scrub the mud free.
Shion furrowed his brow, trying to remember what had happened a year ago. As soon as the memory returned to him, he felt a wave of frustration curl in the pit of his stomach. How could he have forgotten such an important date?
"It has," he agreed, trying not to sound as if he'd completely let the date slip by. He suspected Nezumi would see right through it, but if the rogue were offended by it, he didn't let Shion know. He simply brushed his hand through the water and stared off into the distance.
It didn't seem real sometimes. A year ago, Nezumi had broken into Shion's home with intent to rob him and his family of their riches and vanish into the forests.
Having scouted their manor for over a week, Nezumi believed he recognized the traps Shion's family had placed around the property. Shion himself thought it was overkill to lay traps and barbs simply for the purpose of warding off thieves, but he was a young noble and his thoughts were dismissed by the Lord of the Manor.
Nezumi, a talented rogue who'd believed himself well-learned when it came to trap placement, had managed to avoid immediate capture, but not injury.
When the rogue stumbled into Shion's room in search of a place to hide, rather than immediately calling the guards, Shion had helped Nezumi bandage the wounds on his shoulder. The barbed traps had bitten into his flesh, leaving a groove in his shoulder so deep that blood loss might have claimed his life if he hadn't found Shion when he did.
When the guards finally tracked him to Shion's room, following the blood trail, Nezumi's wounds had been bandaged enough to prevent death from claiming him. Nezumi was placed in chains and brought to the manor's dungeon, while Shion was brought before his father and forced to explain why he'd assisted a common criminal.
Through some mercy—which Shion attributed to his mother's kindness and ability to manipulate her husband into surrendering—Shion managed to strike a deal with the Lord of the Manor. He would take Nezumi on as his employee, his squire, and this would ensure that Nezumi wouldn't be able to keep committing crimes.
A lesser rogue might have taken the opportunity to flee. Any crimes committed under Shion's watch would be reflected on the paladin. Shion would take the punishments as a sign of his own failures and accept the law's judgments. A lesser rogue might have immediately fled upon being offered such a deal, disappearing into the woods and leaving their employer to flounder. What fool would risk working with a proven criminal?
But Nezumi was not a lesser criminal. When the judgment fell upon him, he grit his teeth against the humiliation and followed Shion on his ridiculous venture around the lands of Kronos, humoring Shion's whims and aiding the needy in their tasks.
Shion leaned back against the lip of the trough and hummed. "I didn't realize a year had passed already," he mused aloud. "I thought it would have been raining like it was that night, too."
"We should be lucky it isn't," Nezumi remarked with a scoff. "Or else there will be more mud for us to wade through tomorrow."
Shion chuckled, unable to help himself. A comfortable silence welled up between the two as they sat in the warm water, letting the stress of the day drift around them. As the night leached on, paladin and rogue lingered beside each other, staring out into the darkness, and remembering the day fate had brought them together.
Shion and Nezumi spent another day searching uselessly for Scout. When their search yielded nothing aside from another romp through deep mud puddles, they spent a final short, stuffy night at the old woman's inn before gathering their belongings, wrapping their clothes in hide, and preparing to travel deep into the forests in search of Scout.
There was no telling how long their trip would take them if the pig had, in fact, fled far from the village. Shion had assured Shizuko that he would journey as long as it took until he found Scout and brought him her home. He did not mention picking up other jobs along the way, but Nezumi knew him well enough to know that if someone in need crossed their path, Shion would take on their burden, too.
Though there weren't many villages between this one and the edge of the Western territory, Shion seemed forever positive that there would be someone in need along the way. The Western territory was far too large for there to be no one in some manner of plight, and the sooner they set out, the sooner Shion could liberate them of their earthly troubles.
The sun burned high above their heads that morning as Shion plopped a few copper coins into the old innkeeper's hands—two more than necessary, as thanks for her decent upkeep of their rooms and care to their horses—and the wind had picked up enough to tousle Nezumi's hair and throw his ponytail into his eyes. He grumpily dragged it away from his face, muttering under his breath that he was certain a storm would burden them soon enough.
Shion smiled, but promised to set up camp if the sky darkened. Nezumi's skill at predicting storms had kept them from getting caught in a downpour on several notable occasions. The first time Nezumi casually commented that it would rain, Shion had wrinkled his nose and brushed it off as paranoid pessimism; as the dark clouds overtook the sky and thunder began to creep toward them, as if the gods themselves had conjured it, Shion counted himself lucky that Nezumi understood the forests well enough to find them an unoccupied cave to set up camp in for the evening. Had Shion been traveling alone, he would have been soaked to the bone, trudging aimlessly through the woods until the sun rose and he could find his way back to a manmade road.
They rode carefully down the dirt pathways, Shion keeping a careful eye on the skies. The endless blue stretched above them like a sheet of glass, not a single cloud in sight. Shion pressed his lips together, logically certain that a storm was nowhere on the horizon, but trusting Nezumi's judgment all the same.
Nezumi's Gifts were simple yet powerful. Shion's own skill for sensing living energy in the world around him did little to prepare him for the onset of storms, but Shion was learning to trust Nezumi's word above the presentation of logic. If the rogue believed it would storm that night, then it didn't matter that there hadn't been a cloud in the sky for the better part of three days. Rain would overtake them in a matter of hours, and Shion had little else to do except have faith that Nezumi would find them somewhere dry to camp before it struck.
Shion and Nezumi wandered carefully into the forests on the backs of their horses, navigating down the pathway and scanning the tree line as they slowly went into the trees. They moved at a much slower speed of travel than they normally would, searching for any signs of Scout moving through the bushes.
In between searching, Shion and Nezumi talked quietly amongst themselves. Nezumi was a suitable companion for travel, as he knew when to talk and when to keep quiet. They rode for an hour, not traveling quickly, looking through the trees and making soft sounds to lure the pig out into the open. It was a gentle trip that would have caused them to spend days on the road, but Shion was determined to find some trace of the pig.
After a few long hours on the road—at their decreased pace, they had realistically only traveled about twenty-five minutes from the village in a semi-circle—Nezumi lifted his head and stared straight up at the sky. There were no clouds, but Shion understood that it meant Nezumi sensed a storm coming.
Shion pulled Hamlet to a halt and searched around the trees. His own Gifts allowed him to sense that there was a small cave embedded in a cliffside not too far away from them. He relayed this information to Nezumi, and they both quickly went toward the cave well before the sky opened and dumped droplets of freezing rain down around them.
Beneath the shelter of the cave's massive dome, Shion and Nezumi sat down at the edge and watched the heavy rainfall pock the ground. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder, staring out as the darkness bled across the land and obscured the daylight around them. Shion shifted and folded his gloved hands together, the knife at his side digging its hilt into his hip.
"I'll never understand how you know," Shion murmured.
"It's a Gift," Nezumi replied with an indifferent shrug.
Shion's lips tugged upward in a gentle smile. He understood all too well the benefit of Gifts. His own sensing ability allowed him to sense when things were amiss, but it also allowed him to find areas to camp where the two of them would be safe from all possible threats. He exhaled and angled his head up to see the raindrops splattering through the thick trees surrounding them.
The remainder of the day passed quickly, and still the rain did not let up. Shion and Nezumi took turns sitting at the edge of the cave and watching for a break in the storm clouds; as soon as it became clear that the storm wouldn't let up anytime soon, they agreed to make camp in the mouth of the cave and wait to see if the storm released them in the morning.
Nezumi busied himself with making a small fire, while Shion took watch at the mouth of the cave. The sword strapped across his back felt heavy and uncomfortable, but Shion shifted his shoulders to make room for it. As a self-proclaimed paladin, the sword had become as much a part of his own body as his fingers and his arms. He listened to the sounds of Nezumi clicking two pieces of flint together to get a spark going; he'd gathered a few pieces of dry grass from within the cave mouth and piled them together to make a small flame.
Shion listened to the sound of Nezumi making a fire, the nickering of the two horses, and beneath it, an odd sound caught his ear.
He turned and peered out into the shadows surrounding him. The heavy rain made it difficult to make out any other sounds, and yet… There. Just beneath the roaring of the rain, Shion could hear something snuffling through the underbrush.
Nezumi must have sensed his discomfort; he lifted his head and looked over at Shion. "What's wrong?"
"I… thought I heard something." Shion looked out into the darkness of the stormy evening and narrowed his eyes to peer through the heavy downpour. "There's an animal out there."
Nezumi went back to making the fire. He'd already gotten a small spark, but no actual flame. His sharp features caught in the very faint light, his silver eyes like blades of their own. "There's several species that live in these woods. We don't have anything to worry about."
Shion knew Nezumi meant it, for his Gifts with nature would have alerted him if there was anything dangerous in proximity to them. He looked back out into the darkness. He strained to listen to the sound again, catching the soft snuffling of the animal once again. He closed his eyes and focused outward, his sensing Gift reaching out for the movement in the shadows. His heart pounded, and he willed it to be silent as he strained to listen to the sounds of the forest, willing them to reveal to him the true nature of the sounds he thought he'd heard out beyond.
Nezumi made a pleased sound as he finally got a spark going. Shion started to turn his head to look, and then something snapped through him like an arrow bolt.
He whirled around as a startled squeal burst through the forest. It carried itself on the ends of Shion's sensing Gift. He grabbed the hilt of his knife and plunged out into the storm.
Behind him, he heard Nezumi sputter, "Shion, what the hell?" His boots thumped against the wet forest floor as Shion plunged into the heart of the forest, following the tether that connected him to the source of his discomfort. He could feel a tightening as he approached the creature lingering on the other end of his sensing Gift. He could just make out the small shape of its four little legs, the tiny hooves on the ends of its feet.
Shion banked around one of the large trees, his foot plunging into a puddle. He sank up to his calf and stumbled; righting himself, Shion continued to sprint through the forest, fingers tight around the knife clutched in his hand. His muscles tightened as the frozen water droplets struck against him, sliding into the gaps of his armor. How the weather had turned so cold in the middle of summer was beyond him.
He sprinted a few more feet into the middle of a clearing. Exhaustion collapsed around him like a heavy curtain. Shion looked around the clearing, squinting through the shadows and searching desperately for the weight at the end of the tether. His sensing Gift pulled tight, his skull hammering at the strain it was placing on him. The clearing dipped off at the side where a sudden cliff edge went down into a dark abyss that Shion suspected was full of mud and broken rocks and filthy rainwater.
Behind him, a few branches snapped. Shion's anxiety spiked until Nezumi shoved himself out of the shadows and came to rest at Shion's side. His long, damp hair plastered to his forehead, the hood of his cloak knocked back from the heavy wind. His silver eyes locked with Shion's.
"What the hell—" he started, but Shion held his hand up and shushed him. He looked out at the darkness again, following the tether as its anchor shuffled through the bushes and stepped out into the heart of the clearing.
Nezumi went silent as the tiny piglet hunkered its way into the middle of the wet grass. Its tiny pink snout snuffled at the ground, nosing at the mud. Shion released the tether as soon the piglet appeared, for it had been her that had caught his attention. He exhaled, relieved that it had been Scout and nothing else.
"Huh," Nezumi said as Shion quickly crossed the clearing and plucked the piglet off the ground. She squirmed at the sudden appearance of an intruder, but she calmed down as soon as she sensed that he was tied to her home. Perhaps it was the scent of the inn clinging to Shion's armor, or her own internal abilities to sense which humans meant her harm and which ones promised comfort. Perhaps she was cold from the sudden frozen rain and Shion's armor, while made of metal and cold, assured her that he had access to a warm place for her to hunker down and wait out the storm.
Nezumi wandered toward them, pulling his cloak back up over his hair. The fabric weighed it down; Shion wondered why he even bothered with it. The cloak, too, was soaked, so he couldn't imagine that it would do anything other than soak his hair and make him even more frustrated.
"Well," he said, pulling his cloak tighter around his body. "How about that? I'm sure Shizuko's going to be—"
Shion felt the spike of adrenaline lance through him well before he saw the wolf. He shoved Scout forward, into Nezumi's arms, and said, "Get back."
Nezumi reeled back, alerted by the presence of the wolf at the same moment Shion turned and drew his sword out of its sheath. He hadn't had much need of it during his time as a paladin, but he kept it nearby on the off chance it became a necessity. He held the blade in front of him like a threat as the wolf lumbered its way out of the forest. Its muzzle drew back as it stared Shion down, taking in the sight of his sword and armor and correctly assessing him as a threat.
Most townsfolk left wolves alone, no longer hunting them. Packs of wolves thrived in the hearts of the forests surrounding Kronos, howling in the dead of night. Hunters learned to avoid stalking through the darkest sections of the woods once the sun had dipped down. Legends of a bloodthirsty god who'd transformed himself into a mangy gray wolf plagued Shion's nightmares in his youth. The creatures were beautiful and otherworldly, and rightfully feared.
"Nezumi, don't move," Shion whispered, his voice so tight that it was a wonder Nezumi could hear him at all. The warning proved unnecessary—a man of the forests himself, Nezumi understood that wolves were not to be taken lightly. He stood still, arms clutching Scout, who had also gone hauntingly silent.
Without a sound or a twitch to warn them, the wolf launched itself forward. Nezumi made a sound that might have been a warning or a curse, but Shion intercepted the strike and slashed at the wolf's long legs.
The sword's edge glanced off the beast's matted gray fur as it banked to avoid the strike. Its wild golden eyes sought out Shion's face, lancing him with its hatred.
Shion inhaled as realization slammed around him. Magica. The wolf wasn't normal in the slightest.
The wolf turned and charged again, lips drawn back over its massive teeth. Shion didn't have time to dodge the strike this time; he brought his arms up and grunted as the wolf's massive weight collided with him and took him to the ground.
For a moment, Shion felt as if he were flying. The ground beneath him gave way to a freefall he hadn't been expecting. The wet mud sprayed against his face, the sensation of sharp twigs grasping for his arms and bare hands. The hilt of his sword slipped out of his palm and disappeared somewhere beneath him as Shion's mind desperately tried to grasp what had become of him—
His back struck the ground, and Shion saw stars. A cliff edge. The short one he'd spotted a moment ago when Scout appeared. The wolf had pushed him over it. Shion tumbled down the side of the cliff, drawing his hands up over his head in a last-ditch effort to avoid getting impaled by the rocks and sharp branches.
A thunderous sound echoed around him. Shion wondered if that was what one heard when death came to greet them.
He hit the ground again, his wrist bending painfully beneath him. With an agonized groan, Shion rolled onto his side and struck a rock. The thing kept him from continuing to roll forward, but something heavy and warm twisted beneath him. The scent of iron mingled with the stench of the pouring rain and rotten leaves at the base of the hill.
Shion lay in the darkness for a moment, curled on his side. Beneath him, the heavy weight gave a sharp heave and went still. He couldn't feel it beneath his armor, but it felt disjointed and odd.
Magica. The damned wolf had been magica. Shion's body burned with the realization that the inhuman creature could still be alive—could still come after Nezumi if he didn't do something to stop it.
Something rustled in front of him, and Shion's eyes snapped open. He needed to find his sword. His hand scrambled wildly for the hilt, remembering too late that it'd flown off somewhere during his descent down the side of the cliff. His heart hammered in his throat as he lifted his head to stare his death in the face.
Nezumi's horrified silver eyes peered back at him as he scrambled the last few feet down the cliff and scampered over toward Shion. Through the heavy rain and the shadows, Shion could make out the small lump of pink tucked in the crook of Nezumi's arm, silent and terrified from the monstrous display that had presented itself before her.
"Shion," Nezumi said, just a bit breathless. His silver eyes flickered downward. "It's dead. You killed it."
"I… huh?" Shion rolled onto his side and found the wolf's face an inch from his own. He jumped to his feet and scrambled away, the aches and pains prickling through his body lighting up each nerve ending and nearly sending him to his knees.
It didn't take long to notice that the wolf was dead. The heavy weight beneath Shion's body had been the wolf's form hitting the ground and cushioning Shion's descent at the cost of its own life. In its desperate attempt to knock Shion over the cliff, the wolf had set itself up for an unfortunate end. Shion's heart clenched, sad for the beast despite its animosity toward him.
Nezumi took a step toward Shion, and all at once, the reality of the situation came crashing down around him. Shion threw his hands up and cried, "Don't come near me!"
Magica animals were stronger than regular animals. As such, their deaths came with a price. A blood price, to be exact. Those foolish enough to take the life of an animal blessed with magica would find themselves cursed unless a ritual was performed to pay tribute to them. Savants, men of the forests, offered guidance on these rituals and ensured that those unfortunate hunters would live to see another day, their curse affecting no one around them.
Shion's hands shook. He'd killed a magica animal. It had been an accident, but death was death. He looked up at Nezumi, taking in the sight of his terrified silver eyes and slack expression, and understood that if he did nothing, his time in this world was limited.
Shion insisted that Shizuko would know a way to contact a Savant, since no village existed without one. Her methods for calling him might be a bit unorthodox, but Shion seemed sure enough of her success that Nezumi mutely nodded, wrapped Scout in his soaked cloak, went back to the cave to corral the horses who'd patiently waited for him to return, and then guided Shion and the horses through the woods and back toward the village.
In truth, their journey had only brought them a twenty-five minute ride from the village before the storm was due to strike, but the ride back seemed to take far too long. Despite the rain, Nezumi could feel the creeping of the Creature Moon approaching. His body burned with terror; he quelled it, focusing on the trembling of the tiny white creature tucked in his cloak to steady his nerves. He wished he'd bought some mint leaves before setting out. He'd eaten through his last few before entering this village. He'd needed it to deal with frequent headaches.
Nezumi knew frighteningly little about Savants. He'd personally had no experience with them, except for in a secondhand way. In his youth, Nezumi's father had set fire to a small hornet's nest that'd lodged itself beside their house. After the third time Nezumi had stumbled into the house, wailing from an assault the wasps had launched against him, Nezumi's father had seized a torch and lit the whole thing up in smoke.
The sparks, however, had set fire to a nest of magica mice that'd made their home nearby. Most of the mice managed to flee, but two had been caught in the flames. Realizing immediately that they were magica, Nezumi's father cursed and poured water from the small flowerpots set near the porch over them, but the damage had been done.
The most frightening aspect of magica was that one could never tell when the punishment would strike. After someone killed a magica creature—whether intentionally or by accident—some blood price was expected to be paid. But the manner in which that blood price was taken varied greatly. It could be the killer themselves, their wives, their children, or an unfortunate stranger who happened to wander far too close.
Fearing the consequences of his actions, Nezumi's father had fled to the nearest Savant, ordering his wife and frightened son to keep their distance from him. Nezumi's mother had wrapped Nezumi in a warm blanket, whispering to him that everything would be all right. The trembling of her voice made it sound as though she didn't believe the words that left her lips.
After an hour, Nezumi's father had returned to the house with a stocky man dressed in deep brown robes lumbering at his side. Nezumi hadn't witnessed the ritual that needed to take place in order to satisfy the blood sacrifice, but twenty minutes later, his father had come back inside, hands covered in scratches and mud, announcing that the Savant had declared the ritual successful and the blood price paid in full.
Nezumi didn't understand how the blood sacrifice worked, but he understood that Savants could make it right.
He and Shion hurried their way through the forest, and only once they'd reached Shizuko's inn did Shion jerk to a stop and put some distance between himself and Nezumi. Horror flashed across his face, and at Nezumi's startled look, Shion whispered, "I—I can't go in. What if something happens to Miss Shizuko because—"
"I'll take care of it," Nezumi murmured. He shifted Scout's warm little body in his arms; she'd been remarkably calm throughout their journey, as if she suspected the severity of their situation. She gave a gentle shroink as Nezumi moved her into the crook of his arm and hurried to knock on the front door.
It took longer than Nezumi would have liked for old Shizuko to hobble her way across the foyer and reach the door, but he tried to be understanding. Shizuko's bones were much more painful than his own, and she moved with much less ease. She pulled the door open a crack, peering out into the rain, but when she spotted Nezumi standing there in the rain, clutching a tiny white lump against his chest, she unlocked the door with a swiftness that would have impressed a master thief and wrenched it open with a pleased cry.
"Scout!" she cried, reaching out to take the little pig from Nezumi's arms. He let her pull the tiny creature close; in her master's arms, the pig gave a soft sound of contentment. "Oh, you silly thing, where did you go? This is wonderful; you boys actually—"
Nezumi interrupted her celebration and explained, "Shion needs to see a Savant. We—we ran into a magica wolf that was chasing her in the woods, and Shion—"
Shizuko's warm expression flashed with concern, and then with understanding. She peered over Nezumi's shoulder, spotting Shion standing a comfortable distance away from her inn. She shifted Scout to sit in the crook of one of her arms and pointed a finger into the darkness. "The Savant lives not too far from here. If you knock on the log in the center of the town and wait a moment, he'll come. I don't know how he does it, but he always knows when we knock."
Nezumi peered into the darkness and spotted the gnarled log in the center of town. It seemed an easy enough trip, and hopefully the Savant would sense their urgency and try to arrive before something terrible happened.
He thanked Shizuko for the information and turned to head that way, but Shizuko reached out and caught his wrist.
"I know you're in a hurry," she murmured. "But the Savant will expect payment for his services. Tell him to get the payment from me in the morning. I don't have much, but it's the least I can do for you boys. My inn is also open to you when you've completed the ritual. I'll even throw in meals. You two have more than earned it."
Nezumi didn't bother to thank her; he suspected she would forgive the rudeness, given the circumstances. He didn't think he needed to explain that he was worried for his employer, just as he was worried for himself. The curse that befell those who killed magica animals, accidental or not, could stretch to any number of folks. Nezumi had traveled close to Shion after the death, even knowing the risks. The wolf had come after him and Scout, and Shion had put himself between them and knocked the wolf aside, rolling down the hill and keeping it from mauling Nezumi and the little piglet in the middle of the rain-drenched forest.
The trip to the center of town took longer than Nezumi would have liked, but he was grateful that Shion stayed on the outskirts of Shizuko's property line instead of trying to come along with him. One look at the determination on Nezumi's face had assured Shion that everything would be all right, and he'd stood outside the property line with his hands clasped together.
The center of the town was covered in old cobblestones. The log in the middle of the town looked foreboding and dark as Nezumi raced up to it and pounded his fist against it. Thud-thud-thud. The sound radiated through his bones, but it was too soft in the midst of the pouring rain. Nezumi slammed his damp fist against the wood again, desperation grasping his heart.
A moment later, a gentle hand reached out from the rain and brushed against Nezumi's forearm. He wrenched his arm back with a muted cry of surprise, spinning around to face the presence before him.
Standing before him in the pouring rain was a short man, far shorter than even old Shizuko with her curved back. Long, dark red hair spilled down his shoulders like a cup of expensive wine, tangled with twigs and bones and a few decaying flowers. His clothes were a deep green, bound together with fraying rope and patches of brown. A thick red beard obscured the majority of his face, which displayed a bulbous nose and a pair of piercing blue eyes.
A man of the forests himself, Nezumi recognized the Savant for what he was and immediately lowered his head in some faint display of respect. Townsfolk were kind to the Savants that lived nearby. The weight of a magica curse were strong, and keeping the Savants happy and safe ensured that no one passed from the misery of a magica curse. These odd men had no magic themselves, but somehow, they knew how to appropriately speak to the trees and perform the rituals to appease enraged spirits and quell curses without consequences.
The Savant peered back at Nezumi with a gentle, understanding smile. His eyes glimmered with just a faint hint of madness, but Nezumi didn't worry about him the way he might someone else afflicted with insanity. The ribbons of stress and terror coursing their way through his veins diminished beneath the Savant's soft gaze.
"Is it you?" he murmured.
His voice was soft as the brush of a feather. Nezumi shook his head and opened his mouth to explain that it wasn't him, but the Savant shook his head and compelled Nezumi to be silent. He gestured vaguely with his head, and Nezumi guided him back toward Shizuko's inn.
Shion stood at the fence, drenched to the bone. He shifted from one foot to the other as Nezumi and the Savant came out of the pouring rain. The Savant continued onward even as Nezumi hesitated, frightened about the outcome of the curse but too anxious to be away from Shion at the same time. He wrung his wrists as the Savant wandered toward Shion without fear.
"What was it?" the Savant whispered. Nezumi didn't know how he heard the Savant over the pouring rain, but he did, all the same.
"A wolf," Shion explained. "We were in the woods, and a wolf was chasing Miss Shizuko's pet pig. It went after my companion and—"
The Savant lifted his hand, and Nezumi understood at the same moment Shion did. It didn't matter what type of animal it was or why the death had occurred. When it came to magic and nature and the gods that commanded it, the results were all that mattered in the end. A magica wolf was dead and Shion had been the cause for its death. That was the end of the matter.
The Savant gestured to Shion and began to wander into the woods. Shion turned to follow him, and Nezumi began to pursue them into the darkness. His boots squelched through the mud, and Shion looked over at him. Horror skittered across his expression as he realized his proximity to Nezumi and the potential consequences that could arise if the ritual wasn't performed in time.
Shion threw his hands up and quickly distanced himself from Nezumi. "Stay there!"
"Just—just stay with Miss Shizuko!" Shion's voice pierced through the pouring rain. The Savant hadn't bothered to look back at either of them, slowly swaying into the woods as he continued on his way toward the site of the wolf's death. "I don't want anything to happen to you."
Nezumi's body burned with the need to keep moving forward, but he obeyed Shion's request. Shion turned and hurried after the Savant, stopping only once to ensure that Nezumi wasn't following them. He disappeared after the Savant into the dark row of trees standing on the outskirts of the little village, the damned place where Shion and Nezumi had wandered into half a day ago before the sudden onset of the storm had stopped them and forced them to set up camp for the evening.
With nowhere to go, Nezumi slowly wandered toward Shizuko's front door and crouched down on the front step. He sank down onto the damp stones and stared out into the darkness. It took him only a moment to notice that Shizuko had taken both of their horses and put them up in the little stable behind her inn. Tsukiyo and Hamlet nickered to each other in the warmth and protection of the enclosure, freed of their heavy saddles and their saddle bags filled with supplies, which Shizuko had likely brought inside.
Behind him, the door slowly swung open and Shizuko hobbled outside to stand beside him. The slope of the roof protected them both from the rain for a moment. Her long hair was damp from the rain from when she'd gone out to take the horses inside during Nezumi's trip to find the Savant. Nezumi wondered if Shion had sprinted away from the fence when Shizuko arrived to take the horses out of the rain. He hoped Shizuko didn't take it as an insult; he suspected the old woman would understand.
"He'll be all right," Shizuko murmured to him.
Nezumi didn't make a sound. He just stared out into the darkness of the forests and hoped beyond hope that the Savant might be able to help his employer outsmart the magica curse.
After an hour of sitting in the darkness, the rainwater settling on his skin, Nezumi grew tired of waiting. He informed Shizuko that he would be right back and then slipped into the darkness surrounding them. His own internal Gifts allowed him to navigate through the woods with precision, avoiding the jutting roots and sharp stones that would have broken the legs of other men.
It took far longer than Nezumi would like for him to find the cliff edge where the wolf had tumbled down and broken its neck beneath Shion's body. He recognized the sudden dip in the side, his own Gifts guiding him safely down the side to the area where, if he squinted, he could see Shion and the Savant crouched on the ground.
His boot crunched down on a twig, snapping it in half. Shion lifted his head at the sound. At the sight of Nezumi approaching, horror plastered itself across Shion's face, but the body of the wolf was no where to be found. Nezumi's heart hammered as he realized that the ritual had been completed and the curse was undone.
Nezumi hurried over to Shion as the Savant announced, "The price is paid."
Shion exhaled and bent forward, pressing his forehead against the dirt. In the darkness, Nezumi hadn't noticed it, but as he approached, he realized that the fresh mound must have been dug in order to properly bury the wolf and offer it tribute for its unnecessary death. Nezumi felt sorrowful for the beast, in some distant way, but he closed his eyes and crouched down at Shion's side.
The Savant didn't ask for payment. Nezumi suspected he must have known, in his infinite wisdom, that their payment had been handled by their client. He smiled down at them both and, without a word or a glance backward, walked into the trees and disappeared.
Nezumi brushed his hands across Shion's shoulders, feeling the damp metal of his armor under his fingertips. Shion flinched at the pressure of Nezumi's hands against his body, but he didn't fight. He seemed grateful for the presence of the other boy, now that there was no longer a threat to Nezumi's safety due to their proximity.
Nezumi shifted his arms under Shion's arms and guided him upright. Together, they slowly made their way up the side of the cliff and back onto the main road, using Nezumi's Gifts to guide them safely back toward Shizuko's inn.
The moon had dipped partway down the sky when they approached the gate. Shizuko stood on the porch, peering out into the shadows. She waved at them as they approached, holding the door open and ushering them inside.
Nezumi drew in a sharp breath as soon as they were safely out from the rain. His heart pounded in his chest, his body singing with adrenaline. He and Shion hadn't spoken the whole way toward the inn, and while Nezumi was worried about what had happened during the ritual, he felt it was best not to ask any questions until Shion was ready to speak of it on his own.
Shizuko guided them toward one of the back rooms in her inn. She explained that she'd stripped the sheets and blankets from their beds after they left earlier that morning, and the rain had made them unusable for the night. She did, however, have an additional room at the back of the inn that she was more than willing to surrender to them for the evening.
Shion nodded in appreciation, and Nezumi didn't have the words or the energy to thank her. By the way Shizuko clutched Scout in her arms, as if a piece of her had finally returned, he suspected she knew.
The room at the back of the inn had only a single bed. Nezumi helped Shion strip slowly out of his soaked armor and leave it in a neat pile on the floor. Shizuko vanished around the corner and returned with a fresh pair of warm linens and clothing for Shion to change into. Where it had come from, Nezumi didn't bother asking, especially when Shizuko brought a pair for him and a towel to let him dry his hair off.
Shion's bones were stiff from the Savant's ritual, and he was soaked to the bone. Nezumi helped him dry off and step into the borrowed clothing. Shion winced as the sleeve went over his hand; he'd sprained his wrist in the fall.
Nezumi bandaged the injury and stabilized his wrist as best he could with his own understanding of medicinal practices. Once that task had been completed and Shion was dry enough not to destroy the linens on the bed, Nezumi instructed him to lay down. He quickly dried himself off, stripped out of his own clothes and replaced them with the loose spares, then gathered the damp clothes and armor from the floor and brought them outside without a look back.
In the main room, Shizuko fed a roaring fire in the little hearth. She'd set a cushion close to its grate, and Scout lay coiled on top of it. She, too, had been dried from the pouring rain. She snuffled at Nezumi in appreciation as he walked by.
Nezumi slipped into the room and closed the door behind him, cutting out most of the light and plunging the room into shadow. A thin beam of gold came in from beneath the door itself, casting just enough of a glow for Nezumi's advanced eyesight to easily pick through.
Shion lay tucked beneath a thick blanket, stretched out on the most comfortable bed in the inn Shizuko could offer. Nezumi ignored the fact that there was only the singular bed; he'd spent years on the road, sleeping in tree branches, small grass nooks, and hard stones. Sleeping on the floor wasn't new to him.
Shion shifted on the mattress. "Why are you down there?" His voice cracked just a bit, and Nezumi flinched at the sound of it.
"You should have the bed tonight," he replied. "You're injured."
"Mm, not badly." Shion shifted and pulled his bandaged arm out from beneath the blankets. "It's just my wrist, I think."
Nezumi clicked his tongue. "Just your wrist. As if you didn't go tumbling down a hill a few hours ago." He shook his head. "I can't believe you put yourself in front of that thing. You could have gotten yourself killed, you know."
Shion's eyelashes fluttered, dark as spider's legs against his cheekbones. "You would have done the same for me."
"No, I—" The words caught in Nezumi's throat like flies and died there. No, I wouldn't have. I would have left you to perish in the maw of that wolf. The thoughts swirled around in Nezumi's skull, searching desperately but finding no outlet. Years ago, he would have meant it. Hells, even a year ago he would have taken the opportunity to leave.
Severing himself from Shion meant his own freedom. Nezumi was a marked criminal whose prison sentence had been erased due only to his ties with Shion as his employer, but if something were to happen to Shion beyond Nezumi's control, no court in the world could find him accountable. Nezumi would be free to go on his way without fear of consequences from the law. He would be able to live his life without taking on pointless tasks that paid nothing, squandering away to the whims of some noble who thought he had what it took to be a paladin and save folks from their misery. He would be able to be on his own again.
So why did the thought of that terrify him?
Frustration swelled inside him, and with a sharp huff that might have been aggravation or defeat, Nezumi flopped back against the bedframe and looked up at the wooden ceiling.
There was no point in denying it. It was an outright lie that Nezumi would have left Shion to face the wolf alone. Had their situations been reversed—had the wolf set its feral sights on Shion instead of Nezumi at first—Nezumi would have done whatever it took to sway the wolf's sinister focus and lure it away from his paladin.
Their roles would have been reversed—Nezumi would have been the one to roll down the hill, sprain his wrist, and suffer through the grueling ritual of placating the magica curse while the Sachem stood guard and instructed him on the next steps to take—but Shion would have been safe, at least. Shion would have been the one left on the hill in the heavy rainfall, gawking like an idiot, clutching the pig as it squealed in terror.
But Shion wouldn't have let Nezumi battle the wolf alone. Shion wouldn't have stood by, taken by shock and staring at the quick chaos that unfurled before him. Shion wouldn't have stumbled like a fool down the slope of the hill and tried to think of some way to help long after the worst of the fighting had subsided.
Nezumi closed his eyes, feeling useless, and decided to stop dwelling on it. The back of his head rested against the side of Shion's leg, buried beneath the thickest blankets Shizuko could find in her inn. Warmth radiated from the hearth downstairs, so much so that even the wooden floorboards were sort of comfortable.
Beneath the heavy blankets, Shion exhaled. The fabric shifted, and Nezumi flinched as something soft and gentle, like the delicate wings of a bird, brushed against the top of his head.
Shion's hand ran softly over Nezumi's hair, smoothing the strands down. Nezumi didn't usually like leaving his hair down, but it dried quicker this way. He shivered as Shion carded his fingers through it, gently undoing the few knots he encountered there. Nezumi sat, perfectly still, until Shion had finished his task and simply left the palm of his hand resting down near Nezumi's shoulder. His fingers sat just inches from Nezumi's throat; had he been anyone else, Nezumi would have thrown his hand off and put distance between them.
"I'm glad you're safe," Shion's sleepy voice murmured. In the palm of his hand, Nezumi could feel the faint, rhythmic thumping of his heartbeat. It was calm and easy, no longer racing as it had been in the woods. Nezumi felt that was a good sign.
He slowly lifted his hand and placed it over Shion's. His skin was cold from the rain and the mud, but it was steadily growing warmer. That was a good sign, too.
"Yeah," he whispered. "I'm glad you're safe, too."
Shion made a quiet sound behind him, and it took Nezumi only a moment to realize that Shion had already fallen asleep. He clicked his tongue; it never failed to amaze him how Shion could fall asleep so quickly, especially after everything that had happened tonight. He supposed it was a good thing. More sleep meant a speedier recovery.
Nezumi closed his eyes and leaned back against the bed, lulled by the sounds of the rain beating down against the windowpane. His neck would ache in the morning, but he'd suffered worse. Downstairs, curled in front of the gently crackling fireplace, Scout snored softly in her makeshift bed on top of a little cushion.