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then tell me the way

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Every story her mother ever told her began with “once upon a time” and there was no phrase in all of known language that filled Beauregard with more anger than that one. Not only was it a lie, it was the worst kind, one that was told to children. And it was a lie she desperately wanted to believe.

If her life had happened once upon a time, then Beau would not have buried her mother at seven while she held her baby brother, would not have watched her father remarry twice more with no luck, would not have had to grieve over the three women beneath the earth in their small yard. She would not go to bed hungry so that her eight other siblings could sleep with something in their stomachs. Her father’s vineyards would not flourish and give them hope, only to wither like clockwork every year. She would not be so full of ever-aching sorrow.

Beau would not ask much if she lived a fairytale, not like some of the more foolish girls she grew up hearing stories of. She would just ask for her family to be fed, a someone to come home to, and to live anywhere but here.

Here is nestled in a valley the mountains, volcanic ash being a wonderful soil for the grapes to grow if some other natural disaster does not find a way to kill them like it always seems to be the case for the Lionetts. The cottage that serves as Beau’s childhood home has only three rooms, a small barn behind it to keep them with wool, eggs and other necessities as well as a room for distilling, and they sell all the wine they make down in the village in open market.

Thoreau works the vineyard, pays employees when he can afford them and is responsible for every ounce of wine they can squeeze from their land. Beau tends to all things of their home, balances their books and maintains order. TJ, her only sibling that shares a mother, is fifteen now and has taken over one of Beau’s previous jobs of selling the wine. He’s shrewd like their father but has the same look as their mother, making him something of a village sweetheart. It should be no surprise that TJ’s a good salesman, they’ve been told many times how impossible it was to say no to Clara Lionett.

It would be better if mother’s name could keep them fed. With ten to a house, it’s hard to keep food on the shelves and all of them well dressed. Hand-me-downs are their way of life, and Beau hopes that one day one of her siblings will discover a natural talent with the needle. Until then, she does her best to keep clothes on their backs. In all of this, Beau allows herself a single indulgence. An outfit of robes that vary in shades of blue that bring out her eyes. It was something that belong to her mother, and she knows her father’s throat catches when he sees her in it, so she limits it to the days she knows he’ll be gone for most if not all of her waking hours.

When she’s not teaching a sibling their numbers or mucking out the sheep paddock, Beau does her best to keep their father’s superstitions at bay. On any given day he’ll fret over broken mirrors and a tarot reading that happened three decades ago, and the next it will be about a horseshoe over the doorway and a black barn mouser.

He’s having one of these moments tonight as Beau tries to keep him calm during a storm. It’s a late fall Thursday, and the wind blows so terribly strong it threatens to tear the cottage apart. Their family is huddled around the fire and wrapped in every blanket they can find while she rubs her hand along her father’s back, a feeble attempt to regulate his breathing.

“Beauregard, something is tapping on the window.” Her father insists, attempting to pull out of her grasp.

Beau is strong from a life of labor, inside and outside the home. It’ll take more than a tug to break free from her. “Listen to the rain. It’s wild and rough we just need – “

Three taps on the windowpane cut her off. It sounds like a person is outside, and Beau is torn on whether to provide shelter or assume they’re a violent vagabond and leave them to the storm. This moment of hesitation and slow reflexes is what her father needs to break away from their huddle and throw open the front door.

A great big white bear stands on the other side. Beau springs to her feet and throws her arms outwards, an attempt to keep the clutch of her siblings behind her and protected from the beast. The clouds spin around it and chaos reigns in the background, but the bear seems unaffected, not even damp. It looks past her father, at her, then back to him.

And then, spirits be damned, the bear opens its mouth and speaks.

“Good evening to you.”

“The same to you!” Her father’s tone is rushed, stinking of fright.

“Join me outside?” The bear tilts its head, is if it is really asking and not a godsdamned bear that has found their house in the eye of a terrible storm that could rip them apart limb by limb if it so chose to.

Her father, ever the fool, obliges. He even shuts the door behind them.

Well, Beau’s not going to subject her siblings to their father’s screams while he gets devoured alive. “Bed, all of you, now.” Brenn is easily placed on her hip as she moves across the main room to their shared bedroom as her pack of siblings heard themselves off with little complaint.

Trond drags his feet, looking wistfully behind him. “But Beau, there’s a talking bear!”

As if that were not her entire point. “I said now, Trond.” He gives a longing sigh before obliging her, and she shuts the door so their little bedroom becomes dark, shapes only made present by the light of a single candle on the bunked bed shared by TJ, Kori, Brenn, and herself.

Sigrun and Asta are already lying down on their matts on the floor. Kori helps TJ up to their top bunk, as his hands are full with a spare quilt. Viggo has nestled into the last bed, leaving space for Leif to join him when he comes back from their chest of clothes with extra socks. Trond is left with a matt besides the girls but he knows it’s his own fault, so he saves Beau the trouble of complaining about it. She’s always slept with the youngest, for as long as they’d had to double up on beds, so Brenn’s baby blanket is already laying on their thin mattress for her to swaddle him in it. Beau hopes he can fall asleep before she finishes checking with everyone else, because then she might be able to get away with sneaking out and checking on their father.

No one needs anything at bedtime, which is incredibly unusual. Normally, Beau has to step out four times at least to go get some water or a forgotten toy or just give a kiss on the cheek. But the stress of the storm has worn them all ragged, and everyone who isn’t asleep yet is moments away from drifting off. When she makes her way back to the bunk, Kori’s dark eyes alone are waiting for her.

“Is dad going to be okay?” Kori has outgrown questions like these, she’s only a year younger than TJ, but Beau can’t but help indulge her. Let her be young for just a little longer.

She gives the most reassuring nod she can. “I think so. I’m more worried about the storm than the bear.” Beau winks at her sister, and the action seems to take away her some of worry. “Try to get some sleep, I’m sure were going to have to fix at least one part of the fence tomorrow.”

When she looks down to check on their youngest, Brenn has thankfully already fallen asleep. She doesn’t put any pressure on the mattress for fear of waking him, and instead waits for Kori’s light snoring to start and join TJ’s. There’s a reason the two of them have to sleep together. When it does, Beau weaves through her siblings in the dark, and makes her way back to the main room to rejoin her father.

He’s sitting at the table, dying fire forgotten. He waves his hand at the spot across from him, and not knowing any other way to get information out of the man but by complying, Beau sits as well.

“I think we are saved.” He’s full of disbelief, but not the bad kind. Like when a drunk given an open bar, her father can’t believe his luck.

And this makes her nervous, because there’s only one thing it could come from. “By the bear?”

“Beau, she will make us as rich as we are poor if you would just let her have you.”

The explicit implication of what her father says hangs in the air, and the three room cottage had never been filled with more tension then while he awaited her response.

“No!” The outright nature of her refusal surprises Beau more than anything. “I’m the only one left to care for us, and you would sell my hand away to a beast at the promise of fortune?”

“How dare you.” She’s struck a nerve with her father, just her luck. “What would you call what I do, breaking my back alone in the gardens, if not care?”

Beau pushes herself back from the table, drawing herself up to her full height so she can look her father in the eye. “You can’t care for us because all you do is tend to your grapes! I’m the one who cooks, who cleans, who keeps myself strong enough to fight off highwaymen. When Vanja got sick and died, I was the one cared for the twins until they could hold their own spoons! Them and every last one of your children. I know that Mom and Vanja and Traci did their best but even when they weren’t bedridden from pregnancy, I was the only one who treated all of us equally.”

At that last remark, her father swings for her. But Beau is too fast for him, she always has been, and she ducks effortlessly. “You will not speak ill of any of your mothers, after everything I’ve done to raise all of you-”

“You didn’t raise them dad, I did.” Beau wants to cry, but she’s so full of rage at her father she can’t divert her energy to any other outburst. “Now TJ’s old enough that he can help some with Brenn, but it was me who taught him his colors and shapes and numbers after we had to bury Traci. But since you raised us so well, what’s Trond’s favorite song? When did Viggo lose his last tooth? What words does Asta still struggle with her stutter? What’s the one fish that Leif refuses to eat? What’s the name of Kori’s doll that she swears she still doesn’t hold every night when she sleeps? How old was Sigrun when she finally started walking? What were TJ’s first words?“ Her father’s blank face fills her with dread, and she knows the answer, but she can’t stop herself from asking. “When’s my birthday?”

The silence that fills the room is ice-cold. The look Thoreau Lionett gives her is so empty, devoid of understanding and any desire to ever gain any that it shatters her anger into tiny pieces. He can’t possibly know these things because he has to work to keep them with any sort of coin. Beau just wishes he wouldn’t claim them. She does not go to back to the room that night, could not bear the looks she’d get from whoever her shouts had awoken, so she lays by the fire until it dies and sleeps in a curled ball. Beau is up before the sunrise and goes back to work as usual. Her brothers and sisters are kind enough to not mention it.

If she were the running type, Beau would have left long ago. But she has her sisters and her brothers to care for, so she can’t be that person. She has to stay, has to cook, make sure they keep on top of their chores, so the house is tidy and keep her siblings learning. Through hours poured over the few beaten books they have, she has done her best to give them an education but also to keep them dreaming, of a life beyond this three bedroom cottage and always hungry bellies. When she has this thought over a watery stew dinner, for the first time since that bear came, Beau feels a flash of guilt. Was that their chance out, has her refusal left her family in desolation for the rest of their lives? Beau does not speak to her father, and he doesn’t try to talk with her.

The best part of her last week is the dark morning Sigrun discovers a cat with kittens in their small barn. Sigrun is pushing eleven now, and she always has been the gentlest of them all and the first to fawn over baby animals. She brings Beau out to the barn tugging at her sleeve, hands shaking with such excitement that she spills suet from their homemade candles on the both of them, but Beau can’t bring herself to scold her in the midst of her joy. The mother cat is the black one her father had been cursing out earlier and is curled around four babies, all dark silver tabbies. They toss some names back and forth while the barn cat watches them, but they leave her and her kittens be. Sigrun already understands how protective mother animals can be, doesn’t want to make her feel like she needs to move the whole family. She’s in a good enough mood that she doesn’t protest when Beau makes her change and help wash out the dried animal fat from their shirts. It helps that Sigrun only needs to heat the water and fetch their precious tin box of lye. It’s Beau who spends the better part of twenty minutes bent over their small washing tub scrubbing the tallow stains out, so they don’t catch a scolding for them later. The house begins to stir as Beau hangs up their cleaned clothes, with Sigrun on her shoulders singing a harvest song as the sun begins to rise.

The worst of it comes on Wednesday, when their father returns from the vineyard with a terrible look on his face. It’s the middle of harvest season and the storm that blew through a week ago did nothing but provide some healthy rain. But, he tells them, the earth has gone dry like it had been licked with fire. They’re doing everything they can to save the grapes, but it isn’t looking promising. Beau hears what he isn’t saying. It’s worse than ever before. They’ll  starve for a year at best. At worst, one if not all of them will die as a result of this plague. Beau takes a breath and knows what she has to do.

“I’ll go with the bear.” She looks up, into her father’s shocked dark eyes. “She’s promised you riches if I leave with her? Let’s hope she’s being honest.”

Her father reaches out for her like she’s his salvation. “Oh, my daughter, Beauregard, my eldest…” She allows him to rub his fingers through her hair, tries not to flinch as the hesitate over the stubble of her shaved under half.  “Maybe we could have found some man for you if you had kept it long here, then –“

“Don’t.” Beau pulls away from him, feels herself go cold again and a want to explode in her chest. But she doesn’t, keeps herself calm for the other eight people in the cottage.

She allows herself a single hug from each of them, even Leif and Brenn who are still too little to really understand what’s happening and keep trying to come back for more. Beau changes into her mother’s blue robes, does the best to make herself look as presentable as possible. She takes a small leather bag that Kori had made from the pelt of a rabbit Beau’s snares had fed them with last spring and fills it with everything that is precious to her. Packing did not give her much trouble.

On Thursday evening, she leaves without ceremony, and strikes out on the trail away from the village. It takes her less than fifteen minutes before she is out of sight of the cottage and found by her target.

“Hello, Beauregard.” The bear is beautiful, in all the ways possible. She’s strong, clearly a fighter and yet her pelt is flawless, somehow whiter than winter snow. Her eyes are captivating, one light green-blue like the river that runs by the vineyard and the other purple as the flowers that bloom beside it in the spring.

Beau does her best to keep a modicum of decorum and dips her head to show respect to the seven hundred pound killing machine in front of her. “You have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid. Before I leave my family, will you at least tell me what your name is?”

The bear looks… regretful? “I’m afraid I cannot. I have been called many names by many people, though I do prefer White Bear if possible.” She dips down, extending an invitation for Beau to climb aboard.

Rejecting her isn’t an option now. Beau does just that, gripping to the shaggy fur so she can find purchase. The gait the White Bear sets as she begins to run with her new passenger isn’t intolerable, if still quick enough to make Beau’s stomach a little uneasy. And she will be calling this creature the White Bear, Beau reserves the right to be bitter about not being trusted with a name when she’s trusting her with everything.

They’ve been at their loping speed for a handful of minutes when Beau has a realization that causes her to jerk her head back. This sudden movement causes her partner to slow down to more of a trot and flicks her ears backwards.

“I can hear you thinking.”

She isn’t sure this a conversation they’re allowed to have. “I just… It’s not important.”

“I beg of you, speak. If you’re to be my wife,” The White Bear muses, and Beau would swear she sounds nervous which has to be impossible, “Then I ask that you tell me whatever your think, no matter how insignificant the thought may seem.”

Beau winds her fingers through the White Bear’s fur, holds it tight so she can “This is the farthest I’ve ever been from home. When we would go down to the village, we always went eastwards. I’ve never been this far west, but I’ve never gone further away from my home than our village market. My entire life has happened in just a handful of miles.”

The White Bear’s head bobs, nodding she realizes. “Are you afraid, Beauregard?”

For the first time, Beau thinks about herself. Not why she’s doing this, who she’s doing this for, what this White Bear beneath her is. Right now, she’s about to leave home for the first time in her life and for what may be forever. How does that make her feel? Is she afraid?

“No.” And she wasn’t.

The White Bear gives her a moment to change her mind, to turn back, to reject this journey. When she doesn’t take it, the White Bear nods again and says ever so gently, “Well, hold tight to my coat. There’s nothing to fear.”

And they take off, bounding down the mountainside and away from everything Beau has ever known.

Chapter Text

The White Bear takes Beau far beyond the valley and mountains of her childhood home, through dark bending forests and wide open prairies. They stop and rest just once, at a lake so large Beau would have thought it the sea had the water not been so sweet and refreshing on her dry throat.

She feels like she should be talking to the White Bear, trying to understand her, but Beau cannot summon an actual question to pass her lips. So instead, she contends herself with observing, getting a feel for her new companion through her behaviors.

Her care is the most obvious and yet shocking thing about her. The White Bear is cautious with Beau and well that doesn’t surprise her, she’s come all this way to abduct her, she’d better be careful with her. But the White Bear is gentle with the last of autumns flowers that cling to life by the lake, stopping to smell as many as she can but never allowing them to go underfoot. She rumbles out warnings of their approach to all the critters on the road, so they won’t be frightened by a massive white bear and her human rider. Every step they take is purposeful  too, like the White Bear has a map tattooed in her mind and she won’t be deterred from it. Even if the bear had never spoken a word to her, Beau thinks her intelligence would have come through in her actions alone.

Once they’re rested, Beau climbs again onto the strong, furry back of the White Bear. They race through the rest of the day, and Beau can just begin to feel her eyelids start to droop as they break from another forest out on to a beach of black sand.

In front of her is the ocean, and Beau doesn’t think she’s seen anything more beautiful. The sun’s last rays are creeping over the cliff on her left-hand side, and the sand glows shades of red and orange. The water rolls over the shore at an easy pace, and it just goes on forever. She takes a deep breath of air and the salt that kisses her lungs feels incredible, she feels like her head has begun to float. Beau’s familiar with water, from buckets spilt into animal troughs, the sensation of rain on her face in the early morning, washing her siblings’ hair in the river, but the eternity that exists beyond the horizon is something she’s never been able to imagine, not in any way that could have done it justice.

The White Bear hums beneath her and sinks to her belly so that Beau can slide off. “Take off your shoes, the feeling is like nothing else.”

She follows her instructions, and as the heat of the sun climbs up her skin from foot to torso, Beau has to agree. The air is bitingly cold so she takes what warmth she can find and lets the song of the waves pull her towards the ocean. She hesitates at the shoreline, just for a moment, before she braves a toe beneath the surface. Too late, she hears the tell-tale swell of water, and is swept up to nearly where her loose pants are bunched at the calf. The chill of the wave pulls a surprised laugh out of her, and she finds herself looking back up the shore to where the White Bear has stayed, ever watchful and calm. Beau fights the pull to wander further out, dive beneath the surface and makes her way back to where the sand is softer from lack of repeat abuse of waves.

When she had imagined sand, she had thought it might be like the fresher ash fields on the edge of the grapevines, could have never imagined the weight it gained from moisture, the way it sunk beneath her body and then became free again in the sea.

The memory of the vineyard reminded her. “I thought I lived further than a day’s ride from the ocean.”

“You do.” The White Bear is beginning to walk to the cliffside, and with nothing better to do Beau follows her. “But I am a fast runner and I have a little bit of magic to help me.”

“Magic. Right.” She’s talking to a bear; Beau should have come to expect this. “Where do you get it from? I’ve read stories of wizards and elves, the heavens and hells but the closest I ever came to seeing it was Hamfast, the halfling man who sold us potato sprouts.”

“I suppose I was born with it.” The White Bear looks up the cliff and quickens her pace. Beau follows her gaze, but can’t see anything other than the last of the day’s sunlight slip away. “Come, it’ll be time to sleep soon.”

They’re at the cliffside, smooth as rock that is constantly battered by the elements of air and water can be. A waterfall sings just to their left, its flow gentle enough that the noise it makes accompanies rather than clashes with the rolling waves. The White Bear stands on her hind legs rising to her full height, and Gods Beau thought she was massive before but now she’s over nine feet tall and rivals most of the farmhouses from back home.

With great care, the White Bear presses her front paw into the rock wall. A soft white glow comes from beneath, and Beau takes a step back as the outline of a door traces itself in the stone. The White Bear settles back on all fours and gently nudges her nose to open the doorway.

“Please, come in.” She says as she disappears into the darkness of the earthen wall.

Beau can do nothing but follow. She’s still barefoot, but isn’t particularly interested in cramming her wet, sandy feet in her socks and boots and besides, she hasn’t been told that she has to wear shoes. Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Inside, the rooms are alit with spectral flames. And yes, rooms, because it looks as if a castle has been hidden in these seaside cliffs. They’re currently in an entrance hall, but a dining room can be seen straight ahead through a cracked double door, as if someone had left in rush and forgotten to shut them all the way. The doorway is framed by two spiral staircases that lead to at least a second floor if not higher. There are four doors on either side of them, holding unknown other rooms that Beau is sure she’ll have ample time to explore in the coming days. The White Bear leads them down the hallway to the dining room, taking in the spectacle with little more than a glance. When they make it to their second room of the night, Beau realizes that nearly everything she has seen has been gleaming in silver and gold and the display of grand wealth really sinks in as she takes in the fully laid table in front of her, dozens of different dishes still warm on silver trays, piles of perfect breads, rolls and pastries, and bowls of fresh vegetables that were both in and out of season.

For everything in her, Beau cannot fight her first instinct. “You have all of this? And you keep it, all to yourself? How selfish – “

“It is not my choice.” The White Bear sounds mournful. “I may appear to have many things, but none of them are real. The food will sustain you, but the only things that will exists outside are those you have brought with you. If you were to try to send that candelabrum to your father, for example.” She nods her furry head at the glittering candlestick holder in the center of the table. “The second it leaves the threshold, it will melt.”

“It’s made of ice?” She knows that’s not the point, but Beau cannot hide her fascination as she leans closer. It does have a gleam to it, in fact everything seems to. It goes from the silver platters, to the table that holds them, down to the soft rug beneath her bare feet and the cool tiles below it. Same crystalline material, some reflecting the light differently, but definitely the same source.

The White Bear’s shoulders move, an effort to shrug. “I don’t entirely know. But everything here is magic, and the magic can only extend itself so far before it tires.”

That makes Beau pause, look back at her new companion. “If your magic is tied here, then tell me how you could journey so far to find my home.”

She looks sad; can bears express sorrow? “I wish I knew. The affliction on this palace is different from mine, I fear. ”

“So, it is one then.” Beau muses, more to herself than the White Bear. When she hears a grunt of confusion from behind, she adds in explanation, “A castle, I mean. Doesn’t look like much from the outside.”

An exhale that one might hear as a laugh comes from the White Bear. “Remind me to show you tomorrow. The glamor keeps us hidden from those who would cause us harm, but now that you’ve been inside you’ll be able to see it from the coast.” Those intelligent eyes have never left her once, but Beau suddenly feels like their intensity has doubled. “Please, sit and eat Beauregard, you must be starving.”

She’s not wrong, so Beau doesn’t waste the breath to appear to be defiant and correct her. She sits at the only made placemat, two seats down from the head of the table.

“You won’t be joining me?” Beau tries to sound casual instead of worried and slightly offended, if she’s being honest.

The White Bear shakes her head. “Forgive me, I tire when the sun sets and I fear I would fall asleep at the table. It would be a terrible first impression.”

That… that was a joke. Or, at the very least, an attempt at one. It’s enough to earn a snort from Beau and a barbed retort. “Well, I don’t think it could get much worse than knocking down my  door in the worst storm of the season to demand my hand in marriage from my father. Oh, and you’re also a bear.” She throws on a lazy grin at the end, hopes it softens the blow of her words.

It does get her the smallest smile of approval. Good, she hasn’t gone too far already. “Fair enough. Before I retire, two things for you to know. First, your chambers, when you desire rest, are behind the door closest to the right handed staircase, with the storm engraved in the railings. Second, if you can think of anything you may need, just ring that hand bell.” Her head dips towards the table, just to the right of where Beau is sitting.

The bell looks like a perfectly preserved tulip. The handle is thin and curved slightly like a stem, leaves sprouting from the crown and wrapping the waist. It makes no sound when Beau picks it up, and she’s surprised to see it has no clapper.

“You need only to speak of what you desire while you shake the bell, and it will come.” The White Bear says. “Within reason, of course.”

“I figured.” Beau says as she turns the bell over in her hand, rumbling stomach and food in front of her forgotten for the moment. “Magic can do many things, but I doubt it would bring my mother back to me.”

The White Bear falls silent. Beau looks over to her, realizing what she’s said a moment too late and rushes to apologize for dampening the mood.

“No offense taken, Beauregard.” She’s cut off before she can speak. Beau would accuse the White Bear of reading her mind, but she knows how plainly her face carries her emotions. “If magic could give us everything, we wouldn’t have any want for it. One final word, if you’ll allow it.”

Again, her stupid impulse to be a smart-ass gets the better of her. “I thought you said you only  had to tell me two things.”

By some divine grace, she has not driven her host into anger. “This is less of something I am telling and more asking of you.” The White Bear’s sudden shift to seriousness wards off any more clever responses. “When you put your lights out, a woman is going to come sleep with you, in your bed. She will do so every night for as long as you stay with me.”

So, they are not alone after all in this ice castle. That would explain the trays of food, the way the door was cracked open. A frightful thought passes her mind. “Will she…” Beau ducks her head away, timidity possessing her for what may be the first time in her life.

The White Bear presses her nose into Beau’s side, and damn that should not make her feel as comforted as it does. “Beauregard, again and always, I beg for your honesty.”

“Will she touch me?”

“No, oh no.” Whatever worry the White Bear had been expecting, it had not been that. “She will never do anything that you don’t ask for, and she will leave you before you wake. All you must do is not look at her.” The concern is gone, seriousness back. “I know the temptation will be there, but if you do nothing else Beauregard, please do this for me, or for your family if I am not worthy of such an ask.”

A stranger is going to crawl in her bed, share it with her, but never lay a finger on her. She just can’t look at her face. Beau thinks of holding Asta and Viggo while their father clutched to Vanja until the infection of her broken leg stole the last of her life. She has faced more impossible tasks.

She gives the White Bear a nod, and that’s the last of her she sees that night. The doors swing closed without assistance as she leaves, and Beau is alone in a room full of more food than she’s ever seen in her life.

 

Despite her impulse to try everything and eat until she can no longer move, Beau does her best to stick to the foods she recognizes. There’s finnbiff in a golden cream sauce, something they’d only be able to afford the ingredients for if an abundance of reindeer had taken refuge in their mountain valley that winter and the harvest season had been bountiful. Beau also allows herself boiled potatoes, mashed rutabaga, and even some of the wild mushrooms. There’s dried black meat that smells strongly of salt and a little brine, but Beau can’t identify it, so she places it back on the tray. The two cups besides her are full of malted beer and water, and as strong as her desire is to steal some liquid courage, Beau decides it safest to hold off on alcohol until she’s grown more accustomed to her surroundings.

It doesn’t take her long to eat and drink her fill but being one of nine had made it habit to never leave scraps on her plate. When Beau finished, she did her best to tidy her seat. If she’d any idea of where the kitchen was she would have cleaned her plate and covered the dozen other dishes that remained, but she was still a stranger here and the exhaustion from the full day’s journey was finally sinking in. She takes the silver flower bell with her, and Beau makes sure to close the door to the dining hall behind her before she makes her way up one of the staircases.

She’s halfway ascended when she remembers the White Bear’s instructions and looks at the railing. It’s here that the iced nature of the palace is perhaps most obvious, with the white-blue translucent scenes of flowers blossoming in full bloom reflecting her naïve expression back at Beau. When she makes it to the top of the flight, she crosses the threshold of some other unidentified room to inspect the other staircase. Here she can see the mosaic of thunderclouds the White Bear told her of, some even having bolts of lightning extending out to the steps, which are streaked with thin lines of gold like they had actually been electrified. Everything in this palace is cold yet somehow beautiful.

Her chambers lie in front of her, just a single door holding them. It’s the most unassuming one she’s seen yet, solid white with dark blue accents that match the some of the vestiges she wears now. Beau tries not to read too much into that as she slowly opens the door.

The bed is the center and spectacle of the room, a perfectly made four-poster with a beautiful white quilt thrown over the top that has frills sewn along it that gives the illusion of pilling snow or seafoam. There are countless silken pillows of all shapes and sizes and the curtains she can draw for darkness and privacy have a golden fringe that lines the bottom. Beau is comforted to see that this room is alit with actual candles, not the spectral flames that illuminated every other room in the castle. She closes the door and makes her way to the dresser, also white with dark blue detailing. Beau finds it full of dozens of garments that she cannot fully identify, but manages to pull out a long tunic shirt that nearly falls to her knees. She changes, pulls the tie loose so her wind-blown hair might have some relief for the night and folds her mother’s clothes and leaves them atop the dresser.

Beau snuffs the candles the same way she would back home, by licking her thumb and index finger and pinching out the flame. Seeing no need for surrounding herself in further darkness, Beau leaves the curtains to her bed open, burrows herself beneath the quilt and the number of blankets and sheets that lie below it, and waits.

Any other night she might have an easy time falling asleep, but the apprehension of the woman the White Bear warned her of is nearly enough to keep her up long into the night. It’s not until she’s truly begun to lose the fight between wakefulness and rest when she hears the door creak open. Soft, but purposeful footsteps draw near, and Beau can just feel the dip in the mattress as the newcomer lays themself down.  

She tenses for a touch that never comes. The person on the other side of the bed only goes under the topmost quilt, giving Beau not only space of the entire bed, but the privacy of several layers of blankets. Her new bedfellow appears to fall asleep fairly quickly, and the familiar sound of another’s sleepy breathing that Beau knows so well from sharing a room with eight others is what lulls her to rest. When she awakes the next morning, the stranger is gone, folded back corner of bedspread the only sign she was ever there.

Beau freshens herself up with the pitcher and basin on a stand, tucked away from the view of the bedroom from the doorway the by a wall, as well as the pot hidden below. She dresses in her mother’s clothes and ties her hair back, surprised to find her reflection looking back at her when she turns to look for footwear. Owning a mirror back home was a rare thing, they were a pain to maintain and outward appearance isn’t something most families were concerned with, especially ones as poor as her own. Beau had an idea of what she looked like from reflections in the water and the hand mirrors sold by traveling merchants that she would always hold but never be able to afford. Those sapphire eyes that belonged to her mother stare back at her as she takes in the dark color her skin still holds from last summer, the way her cheekbones have become more pronounced either from age or hunger, she can’t quite tell, and the length of her sable hair. She had shaved her own undercut the first time, but it was TJ who had kept it tidy after that. The last time he’d done it was just over a week ago.

It’s the thought of her brother’s steady hand and gentle barbs that makes her look away. She’s here for him, for all of them, Beau reminds herself as she continues to search for shoes besides her tall, weathered boots. She finds several options, hidden in an alcove behind a floor to ceiling length tapestry, and selects the lightweight boots that have ties just below where the curve of her calf starts.

The White Bear waits for her in the entry room. “Sleep well?” She asks once Beau descends the staircase and joins her walk to the front doors.

“All things considered.” Beau acquiesces. She doesn’t want to talk about dinner, the strangeness of the woman, admit how deeply she slept. She has a more important question. “Do you really want to marry me? You don’t suppose you need to be with one of your kind?”

“Need and want are different things.” The White Bear says as she shoulders the door open and the rising sun spilt out on the black sand and open ocean is something Beau doesn’t think she could ever grow accustomed to the beauty of. It isn’t enough to distract her from the non-answer, however.

“Is there going to be a ritual, or is this just it?” Beau gestures her hand between the two of them as they stride out on the beach, not entirely sure what she’s implying even as she says it.

“I have no one I’d want to invite.” The White Bear counters. “Besides,” She nods her head behind them. “You live with me here, what other ceremony could make it more official?”

Following her motion is how Beau gets her first real look at the castle. The front sticks outright from the rock, and some towers have rooms that peak beyond the grassy clifftop. Regarding coloration, it still blended into the rock, but parts had been smoothed out to give the clearer distinction of what was habitable. Every aspect of stone is carved with incredible care. It looks like the cliffside had grown around the structure, if such a thing were possible. Without question, it is the grandest building Beau has seen in her life. She has a fleeting thought that the White Bear must be some kind of princess, but dismisses it. The whole bear thing, after all.

“You might have a point.” She admits. Beau’s been taken from her three-room cottage to live alongside the White Bear in a castle in the cliffs by the sea. Unconventional it may be, it still sounds an awful lot like the end result of a wedding, one her father might have been proud to attend, were it to a man and not a bear. Mystery woman who took residence in Beau’s bed ignored in all of this, of course.

“If you are to stay with me,” The White Bear says that like it isn’t a given, like Beau could just walk out. “I won’t have you unhappy. Tell me, what do you like to do?”

There are dozens of things that fill her day that the list falls of Beau’s tongue with little effort. “I cook, clean, take care of the animals, teach my siblings how to read and write, do the laundry when needed, manage the family spending.”

“All of that sounds very nice.” The White Bear says. “But I asked what do you like to do.”

And that leaves Beau speechless, because she’s never been asked that. And Beau isn’t entirely sure she knows.

“I… I think I like to fight?” Her most exciting memories from back home are beating down home invaders and doing exercises to keep herself in shape. It’s the only thing she was really allowed to have outside caring for her family.

The White Bear shows her teeth with a smile. “We can make that work.”

They go back inside, completely pass over breakfast, and go upstairs. The White Bear sends Beau to fetch her bell and then meet her in the room between the staircases. When the doors are opened, a grand ballroom is revealed, beautiful etched spiral design in the floor and impossibly large stained glass windows that look out nowhere but still paint the floor with colored sunlight. The White Bear joins her in her warmup but refuses to actually engage. Beau wishes several fighting dummies into existence, but they are all made out of snow and provide her little challenge with their inability to doge and eagerness to explode into powder beneath her clenched fist. She’s working up a sweat and it’s the best she’s felt for longer than she can remember, so Beau isn’t willing to give up until she’s satisfied.

“It needs to be something that can think.” Beau insists, practically begs her companion. “Give me a fight, just one round c’mon.”

The White Bear looks skeptical, but eventually rises to her feet. “Just so you know, Beauregard, I refuse to fight you with my teeth or claws.”

“Sounds like I’ll be winning then.” Beau bites back, and lunges.

They trade blows for the better part of the hour. The White Bear is solid and has her strength to back her up, but Beau is fast and has always had a knack for finding the right nerves to strike. Beau eventually “loses” to the White Bear when she slips on the floor in an attempt to dodge Beau’s rapid fists and lands on top of her, forcing Beau to admit defeat so that the bear will return the use of her lungs back to her.

The pair lay on their backs in attempts to collect their breaths. Once Beau can draw herself upwards, she's surprised to see that the White Bear is still gathering herself with closed eyes and slow breaths out her nose. Is it possible she’s out of shape? Beau can’t stop the laugh that bubbles out of her chest, and refuses to draw it back in when a half-hearted swat flies her way.

The White Bear groans. “Stop laughing at me, Beauregard.”

“If you are to be my wife,” Beau says the last word slowly, testing for a negative reaction, but only finds hope in what she can read of bear facial expressions, “Then, for the love of the Gods, call me Beau. Beauregard is for my father, or if I’ve done something terrible and one syllable isn’t enough to express your disappointment.”

The White Bear gives her a long look, eyes of water and flowers searching for something. “Then, stop laughing at me, Beau.”

She doesn’t think her name has ever sounded better.

The day passes with a blur as Beau starts to become acquainted with the layout of the castle. Beau turns in early that night, but not to sleep. Nearly every aspect of the palace reminded her of one of her siblings, either something they’d like, somewhere they’d hide away from chores, something they’d have questions about, and Beau has been struck by utter homesickness and worry. She cries for a long time, cries out her grief, her fear of what will become of her siblings without her. She has no one to comfort her, so the darkness must make do. Beau has hidden her tears and stopped her sobs by the time the other woman joins her in bed.

She asks the next morning, over coarse bread and pickled fish. Watching the White Bear’s attempt at table manners would normally be humorous, as one can only be so graceful without thumbs, but the worry from last night still has not left Beau.

“My family. You promise me they are safe?”

The White Bear looks up from her too-small cup of honey wine. “Your sisters have all the soft silks they could ask for, and the bellies of your brothers will never be empty again. They are as rich as you once were poor. If you trust me for nothing else, trust this.”

She’s so genuine, even if she wanted to Beau couldn’t doubt her. The verbiage is familiar, though. “Hm. I think my father said the exact same thing, the night you came.”

“If you’ll forgive me,” The White Bear says through a snort, “But your father doesn’t strike me as the most original man.”

She’s right, but Beau has room for humor now that her worry has been soothed for the moment. “Oh, you have forever wounded me!” Beau clutches at her heart, falls until the back of the chair stops her. She opens one eye so she can send a wink to the White Bear. “I will have to fight you to the death now!”

The White Bear rises, and rumbles. “I suppose you’ve left me with no choice, Beau.” She races out of the dining room, towards the upstairs. Beau is more than happy to give chase, starting the day off with a fight has never sounded better.

 

The White Bear stays with her throughout most days for their first few months together, occasionally leaving to come home with fresh food. It always tastes so much better than anything magic could conjure, and it doesn’t hurt that the White Bear enjoys Beau’s cooking. No matter what, they find time to spar every day. On the beach, in the ballroom, racing down the winding towers and endless hallways, it doesn’t matter where.

“Surely, you enjoy things other than combat.” The White Bear pants one day in the frozen grass. They’d fought up a tower staircase, one of the ones that poked above the cliff. When they had finished, Beau had unlatched the window and now they are resting outside, high above the ocean. Winter is upon them, and it grows so cold that parts of the sea have even begun to freeze and snow sticks to the ground by the shore.

Beau rolls over to her side and can’t help but tease. “Is that your way of telling me I’m tiring you out, you great beast?” She’s freezing cold but that also makes the steam that rises from her skin help her feel even more alive and free.

“Maybe I’m sore today.” The White Bear concedes. “But maybe I’m also trying to learn more about you. I know how many push-ups you can do in a minute, how to dodge your flurry of blows that come when you think you’ve got me cornered, even which cooldown stretches you try to skip when you think I’m not watching, but you tell me so little outside of when we’re fighting.”

All of that is entirely a fair “I did love reading, especially when my mother would do it for me. But I can hardly remember the titles of the few books we did own, I don’t know how to ask for anything more than that.”

The White Bear twists her lips, just slightly showing her teeth. Confusion is a funny look on her. “Try ideas maybe? About history, gardening, a certain type of story?”

It’s not a bad idea, actually a good enough of one to chase them both back inside. It takes a while to find the bell, Beau truly has little use for it when she’s with the bear. She’s left it in a sitting room, the one with the massive fireplace and gilded mirrors. Next to it was the razor she had asked for, so she could keep her undercut shaved.

“I need a story about true love.” Beau picks up the silver bell and shakes it, and to her joy glowing white magic spirals around and a fully formed novel makes a slight thud as it lands on the desk. Then she’s hit with why is that your first instinct? Which is hardly an important  question, not when she has a new novel in front of her!

“Gods alive, you’re brilliant!” Beau presses a kiss right between the White Bear’s eyes.

By this point in their time together she’d given the White Bear many kisses, all resembling the brief ones she’d place on her siblings’ brows to provide them comfort. At the end of everything she’s a bear, not a human, even if she can speak.

But still, something between them shifts. Maybe she holds it for just a little too long, maybe it’s the way the White Bear seems to grow unusually warm beneath her lips, maybe it’s nothing. But it can’t be nothing, not the way she’s looking at Beau now.

“Would you mind reading it to me?” White Bear asks her, looking shy and hopeful.

“Of course.” Beau replies without hesitation, more eager then she’s been in a while. “It looks like a long one, we’ll need to find a room with a chair for my poor human body.”

White Bear settles down on the sprawling rug near the fireplace, half-curled but still leaving space at her side. “Use me.”

The softness of White Bear’s fur is something Beau will never stop being surprised by. The steady body is the perfect support, so Beau leans into it as she opens the book. The first four words make her laugh, before she’s even begun to start the story.

“Once upon a time…”

There was no way they could finish the novel in one sitting, but they make good progress. The gentle hammer of White Bear’s heartbeat is the greatest gift of the entire day, losing it when she rises to go off to bed is nearly enough to make Beau cry with want.

She hadn’t realized how much she’d miss being close with others until that day. In two acts of bravery, she draws closed the curtains around her bed for the first time since she’s started sleeping at the castle and waits up for the mystery woman. It takes some time, but she eventually joins her, even closing the canopy as she slides under the quilt.

“Will…” This is something Beauregard would have never known how to ask for back in the cottage, but time with White Bear had made her bolder, more willing to speak on her desires. “Will you touch me, just at the elbow? I… The White Bear is truly kind, but I miss other people.”

All that comes from behind her is a faint “Mm.” Beau worries she’s said the wrong thing, broken an unknown rule. But then the touch is given, stops the pounding in her chest and somehow makes it worse. Beau isn’t sure how she falls asleep that night, but she knows she’s never rested better.

 

The longer she spends time there, the more often White Bear will be gone before she wakes, leaving Beau to pace around the empty castle as she pages through her latest book. But she always comes back before sundown, sometimes bloody and sometimes drained, but ever happy to see that Beau has waited up for her. She’ll nuzzle her hair before scolding her for staying up so late and sending her off to bed. On the days she does stay, Beau reads to her as often as she can. White Bear’s favorite book so far was an almanac full of every flower on the continent.

In the darkness of her room, the woman that shares Beau’s bed slowly begins to grow bolder, laying her hand on her arm for longer and longer breaths. Beau does her best to be encouraging, always relaxing under this stranger’s touch until she’s eventually rewarded with being able to fall asleep to the rhythm of firm fingertips running along her arm and down her side. Even though White Bear knows the woman comes, it still somehow feels dark, forbidden, like Beau will be punished if she’s found out. So on days when the other woman doesn’t touch her, she tries her best to hide her sadness the next day so she isn’t asked about it.

White Bear had left her all day for month straight when Beau has her first nightmare since leaving home. The details are fuzzy, but she feels so cold, she can hear her brothers and sisters screaming, she’s digging them out of snow that turns to ash that turns to sand and when Beau looks behind her for help, White Bear is swallowed by the earth. It’s that strangled, half animal half human cry that wakes Beau up. She doesn’t jolt up, just has her eyes flash open accompanied with an unsteady throbbing in her throat.

It’s the arms around her that calm her first before Beau realizes who they must belong to. She doesn’t dare turn around and look back to the other woman’s face, even though the soft breath on her loose hair tells her the other woman is still sleeping. Beau lets herself feel held, feel safe and be pulled back to a dreamless sleep. She still wakes up alone, other side of the bed cold.

She starts to push herself to wake up earlier and earlier, trying to find herself in the other woman’s sleepy embrace once more. Some nights, she stays up late enough for the woman to become bold enough to wrap a single arm around her. If she’s lucky, she will wake up before sunrise and have the heat still behind her in bed, get to listen as the woman sneaks out before they run the risk of being caught. Most nights, it is nothing more than the comforts of all the other nights Beau does feel something to reassure that whatever is occurring between them in the darkness is in fact, real.

White Bear is still spending most of her days away, sometimes returning with prey and other times empty-handed but happy. One day she comes back before noon with a terrible wound on her shoulder that she either cannot or will not explain. Beau does her best to clean the wound when she can see clearly enough from behind her tears and makes White Bear to promise to rest until it has healed. She gives her that, and lets Beau read her short stories out of a filigree-covered book of fairytales.

That night, in a moment of loneliness, weakness, insecurity, Beau may never know what it was, her hand drops down to the arms around her waist. She pries the fingertips loose until she can hold the calloused hand in her own similarly abused one. Slowly, replacing asking for permission with time because she will certainly lose her nerve is she tries to speak now, Beau raises their clasped hands to her mouth, and presses the softest of kisses to back of her companion’s hand.

Pressed into her shoulder, the other woman’s heartbeat begins to hammer. It’s a rhythm Beau would recognize anywhere now, even exhausted and in total darkness.

 

They’re resting on the black sand the next day, doing nothing more than watching the sea birds couple off for the coming spring when Beau finds herself able to ask her. “The woman every night. It’s you, isn’t it?”

White Bear looked surprised, unsure what to say. Her head dips as her ears press back, a look Beau has learned to read as apologetic.

“It’s okay. I just…” She wants to trail off, dismiss her thoughts with a handwave like she was so used to doing. But if the White Bear has told her nothing else, it’s that she desires her honesty above everything.

“I wish you could tell me why.”

Remorse is an odd look on a bear, but she still tugs at Beau’s heartstrings. “I wish I could too.”

A lone gull cries out, as he is the last one left mateless in the pack nearest to them. Beau feels for him.

“I don’t think I can let you hold me again. “ Beau’s heart is breaking as she says it, but she knows how much more it will ache if she tries to lie and let her feelings fester. “Not until you can.”

White Bear nods, her mismatched eyes swelling with sadness but also acceptance. “I understand. I am trying, for what it’s worth.”

The funny thing is, Beau believes her. And, with a start and as she’s telling White Bear she needs space, Beau realizes she loves her.

When she imagined in her fairytale life of who she’d love, Beau would have never picked a free thing. If she’d ever been allowed to leave her family, Beau knew that she would have grown irrevocably untamed, some feral thing always bloody and looking for a fight.  She was to be the wild one, only tied down and made tame by the woman who loved her. And only for a woman, that’s been a revelation that was a long time coming but it is something so obviously a part of her that she can’t understand how Beau or her father missed it. If she had found a woman she loved, there was no life in that village they would have been allowed to live. They would have had to flee, live on the road and settle in some forgotten cave, but Beau would have been more than willing to go out and work for the both of them. They could have been happy; she would have been savage enough to sustain them.

And yet here she was instead, kept in a castle, loving this wild thing and always watching her leave. But White Bear always came back to her, so even though it could be unsteady and wasn’t a given thing, Beau felt safe with her.

 

But safety isn’t everything for her. Without that human touch to carry her to sleep at night, a deep sorrow begins to grow in Beau. The new spring flowers do nothing to chase off this heaviness, the chattering gulls don’t starve off the loneliness. Beau finds herself losing joy in things she once found pleasurable, baking fresh bread with grains brought to the castle just for her doesn’t even make her crack a smile. White Bear spends more and more time at her side again, attempting to lift her mood, but nothing seems to work.

They’re sitting in the room that has been transformed into a library, Beau curled up into the side of her White Bear and slowly leafing through a history text, one of the first books she had asked for. She hasn’t read to her wife in a long time.

“I can feel your unhappiness, I can hear it in your silence.” White Bear sounds tired, sounds as melancholy as Beau feels right now.

“White Bear, I miss my brothers and sisters.” She misses the arms that comforted her at night, the relief that came from being touched by another person and being reminded you’re real. But she can’t say that to her, not when Beau is the one who told her to stop.

She knows if she asked for her touch at night back, White Bear would be there in a moment. But Beau cannot live like that without being able to roll over and look into those mismatched eyes in the dead of night, while she’s in her vulnerable human body. Beau still loves her, fiercely so, but it feels so different to be touched and held in her bear form, like something is being kept from her.

“If I could help you cure your yearning by seeing them, would you want that?”

White Bear has given her so much, Beau would never have dared to ask for that. “Only if I can come back to you. You’ve promised they’re well and I trust you, I do, but I want to hold them so desperately.” She wants to hold her too, but that’s impossible right now. “But I can go without, if it means I wouldn’t be accepted by you.”

“This castle could fall into the sea, we could have nothing, and I will always welcome you back, if you’ll let me.” White Bear promises as she presses her wet nose to Beau’s cheek.

She doesn’t know how she was born so lucky to have this love, this trust. “If you’re certain.” Beau whispers in response.

They fall asleep there that night, pressed to one another tightly. When Beau wakes up alone in her bed in the morning, it feels like just the slightest bit of her sorrow has been let go.

Chapter Text

“You should come with me.”

Their trip to Beau’s birth village did not take them the same way they had gone to come to the cliffs on the black sand beach, but this was easily ascribed to White Bear’s strange magic. They had started that morning early and had made it all this way just before noon, so Beau wasn’t going to question their good fortune. Beau had grown nervous when White Bear told her that her family had moved houses, and the one she’d described Beau knew to be the largest in the main village. She didn’t know how to face her father alone and the asking of her companion to join her was entirely selfish. Still, Beau couldn’t resist.

White Bear shakes her head back and forth as Beau slides off her back. “You father would strike me down and sell my skin, given the chance.”

Beau laughs. White Bear does not.

That unsettles Beau, but she knows White Bear would never go out of her way to make her uncomfortable. It is something she truly believes. “Then why come all this way with me, if not to see them too? Do you have other business in the area?”

Her reply is so earnest. “I am attending to the happiness of my wife, what could be more important than that?”

It’s the first time White Bear has ever said that word to Beau since she’d come to live with her, and Gods if it doesn’t make her blush. She dips down and presses a quick kiss near White Bear’s little ear. Beau has these rules she’s set for herself, damnit, but if that doesn’t get her to beak them then nothing could. White Bear presses her head into Beau’s side, doing her best approximation of a hug in return. It’s almost enough.

Her White Bear sounds so small when she speaks next. “Please, will you do what I asked?”

“No going upstairs, for my father will take the chance to speak to me alone and it will make the two of us unlucky.” Beau repeats as she ruffles the fur on the top of her head. “And meet you here at sunup for the journey home.”

Even in the springtime the forests around Kamordah are thin, so White Bear didn’t dare to take her too close. Beau has to walk for a handful of miles before the sounds of an open market begin to clue her in that she’s drawn nearby. She’s dressed in her mother’s blues for the visit, an outfit she hadn’t donned in a while, but the only one that would survive leaving the castle. It also means she’d stand out, so Beau keeps to the shadows as best she can as she works her way towards the wealthier part of town. She rounds the wrong corner three times before she reaches her family’s new residence.

The sprawling mansion had always puzzled Beau, as there are very few people who could have afforded the purchase price, and none were interested in paying it. They were simple folk, farmers and small artisans for the most part, and while the style of the building reflected that the price tag attached had not. The house stands at two levels behind an arched gateway and has a stone path leading up to a front door made entirely out of one giant piece of lumber. A clapper in the shape of a bear’s head stares out at her. If her previous knowledge of the building hadn’t already give it away, Beau would have been able to identify it as something bought by the new owner by how the material didn’t match any of the hinges or other metals present on the house’s exterior.

She hesitates, just for a moment, then knocks it.

Two moments pass before the door is thrown open. In front of Beau stands her father, draped in more finery than she’d ever seen him, waistline on the heavier side for likely the first time in his life and the unibrow he’d fought for so long beginning to creep back on his face, with Brenn at his hip and looking completely unsurprised by her presence.

“Oh, good. Here, take him.”

Brenn is passed to her with very little care, like it’s something her father does often. He’s more than big enough to be walking on his own, has been for almost a year, but Thoreau holds him like he isn’t confident of that.

“B-Beau?” Brenn babbles, pressing his doughy hands to her cheeks.

“Hi sweetheart.” Beau nuzzles his nose with her own as she takes a deep breath. She had meant to greet him; Beau really had been excited to see all of them. But her father’s utter refusal to acknowledge her presence as something short of the work of magic stings too much for her to let it slide. “Still too busy to be a parent, I see.”

Her father never could ignore a barb. “Beauregard - “

“Really, Dad, what’s your excuse now?” Beau looks beyond Brenn’s head, tilts her own with blatantly false sympathy. “Your newfound wealth keeps you so busy, managing an estate and a vineyard?”

“Beau!” Asta’s joy breaks through the brewing storm, and she tackles Beau with enough force to almost require her to take a step back. Beau bends both her knees to be at her sister’s height, and can’t even pretend to be surprised when the slight twinned weight of Viggo is at her back.

“We missed you.” He mumbles into her ear, voice thick.

She turns, angling herself so that Viggo can be wrapped in her embrace too. “I missed you all so much.”

Beau could sit in their embrace for hours, but because they’re children and always full of energy, her siblings have begun to pull her back to her feet already.

“Can we give you a tour?” Viggo begs.

Beau shakes her head; a tour means going upstairs and that means her father will catch her alone. “Don’t worry about it, you all will show me what’s important. Where is everyone?”

“Around, come on we have to show you the music room!” Asta is dragging her at with impatience that pulls out joy, despite all the anger she feels for her father in the moment.

From her arms, Brenn insists, “TJ.”

“TJ went out earlier, to sell at the market.” Her father is behind them, closing the door. “Some of us still have to work, not that you would understand that Beauregard.”

“Of course.” Beau says, holding back as much sarcasm as she can, and more than happy to ignore his response and be taken in by her siblings excitement at her returned presence.

The house is grand inside, for its more humble exterior. The walls are dark mahogany lined with lighter woods, and they do not want for decoration. Especially antlers, which strikes Beau as odd because her father has never been a hunter. The floor is made of stone, an incredible upgrade from the packed dirt floor of their cottage further up the mountain. But the grandness of the estate could not wow Beau anymore, not after living in White Bear’s castle. Besides, what she’s come here for are the people who bring it to life.

The room she’s been brought to is about the size of their old bedroom and full of instruments, half of which Beau can’t even name. Asta has already saddled up next to the harp and begun to pluck a few strings in an effort to show off, which absolutely works. Brenn wanders out from her arms to go for his brother. Viggo sits next to an open case, massive reedpipe in his hand. He allows Brenn to blow into the embouchure several times while he trills his fingers, but eventually pulls it back with a sharp look from Asta. They nod their heads together begin to play.

It’s more of a show of Asta’s skill as she plays the main melody, but Viggo’s lower accompaniment gives him space to show off how quickly his fingering can go. It’s a short piece, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful to Beau’s untrained ears. They play more than well as is, let alone for a pair of eight year-olds. They’ve had time, safety in this house to grow new passions.

“I hope you all haven’t neglected your other studies.” Beau teases in place of praise.

“Of course not!” Viggo looks horrified at the thought. “We make the others practice too, but we don’t have enough passion and talent to form a troupe yet.”

Asta tilts her head to the side. “Well, Leif’s started to learn drums, he’s as good as he can be for someone so little.”

You’re still little, Beau thinks as she watches Asta’s serious gaze shift over her own shoulder and morph into a smile.

“Oh.” Sigrun is at the doorframe, then she’s at Beau’s side and nestled into her ribs. She returns her embrace, and is surprised to be met with a force that pulls her upwards.

“Enough hogging, I have something to show Beau!” Sigrun declares, and leads Beau away, ignoring the protests from Viggo and Asta that they’ve been left to babysit Brenn. “They’ll be fine, besides, I play with him all the time so they can practice more.”

She’s dragged her into the main room. A space in their old cottage that had been dedicated to cooking, eating, schoolwork and more was now just a place to communally gather, though it did appear empty at the moment.

“Here, here!” Her whispers are doing a terrible job of containing her excitement, and her voice makes Beau ache. Her sorrow had been from lack of touch, yes, but going so long without hearing her siblings’ voices had been part of that wound too. Beau’s struck with just how long she’s been away when she sees the source of Sigrun’s elation.

The kittens she’d found in the barn are nearly full grown now, silver and black hair long and well kept. The four of them are huddled on a cushion impossibly tangled together, and heads all turn with anticipation as Sigrun pulls Beau down to the floor with her.

“Meet Logi and Hler, Kari and Jord.” Sigrun pats each of their heads. “I’ve told them so much about you!”

The skinniest one, Jord, mewls when Beau strokes his back. “Where’d their mother go?”

“Oh, she went looking for her mate, she’ll be back.” Sigrun doesn’t sound worried so Beau sees no reason to inspire it in her. Besides, Beau couldn’t think of a better person to entrust the care of children to. Or, cat children, she supposed. She’d missed her birthday, TJ’s too Beau realized, and yet Sigrun had changed so little. She had always been the sweetest of them, maybe time just weathered kind people different. It was nice to take a break from thinking of the stress and hysteria of Beau’s sudden visit, and dote on the most affectionate cats she’d ever met.

A frazzled-looking woman sticks her head through the threshold. “Sigrun, lunch is abou– ” She cuts herself off when she sees Beau and dips into the deepest bow Beau has ever been on the receiving end of. “Fru Lionett, I hadn’t heard of your arrival.”

“Don’t apologize.” Beau shakes her head, mouth slightly agape in surprise. “No – don’t –  you really needn’t.” No one used titles in the mountains, they rarely spoke that formally about the King. Especially not Beau, not with her aged clothes, undercut, growing number of piercings and infamous bad temper when her family was harassed. New dwellings aside, Beau doesn’t want to already have become an outsider in her hometown.

Thankfully, the woman rises out of her bow at Beau’s first rejection. She looks relieved, greatly so. “Oh, please forgive me, Herr Lionett has his ways, I just assumed as the oldest you would prefer them as well.”

“Nothing to forgive, but let…” Beau is so caught off-guard by this entire display, she doesn’t even know how to ask for it to never occur again. “Just, anyone else who might care. Let them know it really isn’t necessary.” And after a moment. “Oh, and Sigrun and I will be right on our way, thank you for letting us know.”

The woman goes to bow, pauses as she thinks better of it, and gives them a nod instead, and half sprints out of the room as she begins to call out some of their other siblings’ names. If she hasn’t found Trond yet, tracking him down is going to be a nightmare for the poor thing.

“Sigrun, is that woman always like that?” Beau waits to whisper her question when she’s certain the woman is out of earshot.

“All of them are.” She says. “They know not to bother with us but –“

Beau cuts her off when she realizes what she’s said. “Sorry, all? How many is that?”

“I don’t…” She droops her head, ashamed. “I stopped trying to keep track. There’s been so many of them.”

Kamordah was populated enough to have earned the village a name, but nowhere near enough people lived here to have a constantly rotating staff  on hand. There could only be one reason as to why. “Dad?”

“Yeah, Dad.” Sigrun sounded defeated, like when another child had picked on her in the market when Beau had her back turned and she began to lose her faith in other people for a moment.

Beau couldn’t have that. “Well, thank you for reintroducing me to all these sweethearts.” She gives each of the cats a good stroke, slowly winning Sigrun’s smile back. “Let’s not keep the others waiting on us.”

She’s risen and has taken half a stride when her sister calls out. “Wait!” And then Sigrun is pressing something cool in her hand.

Beau looks to see a spiral earring made of flawless jade. There’s no hook, but it’s thin enough that Beau could pierce it through her own gauged earlobes until it reached a notch. It’s beautiful, unlike anything Beau had ever laid eyes on before, which right away catches her concern. “Sigrun, where did you get this?”

Sigrun wrings her hands together, something she does while she’s thinking rather than out of nerves like most people. “Logi brought it to me. Says she found it in the woods, that it would help you find someone important. But Jord says you can’t put it on until you leave, Hler’s worried Dad will take it.”

Beau narrows her eyes at her sister. “Your cats told you this?”  

With the confidence only possessed by eleven year old girls, Sigrun nods. “Kari even agrees, which isn’t usual for him. They want you to keep it. C’mon Beau,” She grabs Beau’s wrist and drags her out of the room with barely enough of a chance to tuck the earring in a pocket, “I think we’re having klubb and there should be cloudberry jam for dessert.”

 Dessert alone, jam or otherwise, is something the Lionetts would be treated to maybe twice a year. The casualness that Sigrun speaks of it now makes Beau’s heart nearly break with relief.

 

She’s greeted with shouts of glee from her siblings she hasn’t seen yet when they enter the dining room. Beau sits next to Trond at his insistence, Brenn at her other side so she can help him eat. Still, there is no sign of TJ.

There are more than enough potato dumplings for all of them, and boiled pork too. Their father never joins them, but his absence is easy to ignore. What’s more entertaining is the noise they make passing trays around, Asta and Viggo quarreling over the last of the soured milk, and Beau’s busy work of cutting up Brenn’s food and coaxing him into trying some brown cheese. Kori’s in disbelief when she manages it, complaining that she’d been trying to for months. Beau’s victory is short-lived when Brenn spits it back out, because he’s still just a toddler and he’s learning to like new things. The entire time at her side, Trond tells her many facts about bears he’s learned from both tutors and books, a majority of which sound made up. But his certainty with which he speaks makes Beau want to believe him. They don’t finish the serving trays, but not a single dining plate has a scrap of food left on it. Old habits die hard.

Kori and Beau are the last at the table, cleaning up after the little ones just like old times. Kori passes off the trays that still have klubb and other sides on them to the same frazzled woman, who’s really a girl, she’s not much younger than Beau.

“Awfully kind of you.” Beau remarks as they scrub off the last of the plates in the kitchen, which has been strategically deserted to give the two the illusion of privacy. Beau appreciates their efforts.

Kori towels off a cup, clearly in a rush. “I do what I can. Father doesn’t pay them nearly enough, not for what he puts them through.”

Beau gives her only a raised eyebrow as she withdraws the final plate out of the soapy tub. Kori lets out a heavy sigh. “Money has made him worse. We have all we could ever desire, and still he asks for more.”

“Kori, if you need me to say something…” Beau lets the offer hang out in the air as they dry their hands.

“Let’s just hope he ignores you for the rest of the day. Are you here for long?” She tries to keep her tone neutral, but they were poor for long enough that Beau knows what hope sounds like in her.

“Until sunup.” Beau apologizes.

Kori flashes her a smile, one that almost reaches her eyes. “Well then, I’ll just have to show you my new favorite place now, then.”

Her sister leads Beau to a narrow room by the imposing doors that could only hold their father’s new study. The room is cramped, only alit by candlelight, but has two massive cases of books along one wall. Kori’s grin is clearly illuminated as she takes one of the handheld candles, and pulls out a book she’s marked with a folded piece of paper, and passes it to Beau.

Her mother’s volume of fairytales. It’s the same version of the one the silver handbell had summoned into existence back at the castle, golden-painted cover long worn away to the elements and pages beaten from time. But it’s also real, Beau hasn’t held a handmade book in so long she’d forgotten the proper weight of pages as she fans through them. It smells of light smoke and earth, and there’s something else heavier and more damp that Beau doesn’t think is actually there, but a memory pulled at by holding this book specifically.

She knows this is a present, but she still has to ask. “Are you sure?”

“Father tried to throw it away, when we moved.” Kori’s free arm is wrapped around her waist, an attempt to make herself small. “But he’s scatterbrained, doesn’t take much to sneak something that small past him.”

“All for me then, huh?” Beau draws her sister to her chest, strokes her fawn brown hair while she presses a pair of kisses to her forehead. “A concert, an earring, a book. What, did you all plan to ambush me with gifts the moment I returned?”

Kori tilts her head up, doe eyes batting with false innocence. “Us? Whatever for? You only gave up everything in the worst harvest the vineyard has known for the chance that you could save us. Father won’t say it, but we all know that you’re the reason the vines overflow with bounty instead of withering and that the entire rainbow of Lionett Wine has been flying off the shelves around the nation.”

“I don’t think even I could do that.” Beau teases as her sister replaces the candle and walks them back to the front entryway so the earring and book can be stowed in her rabbit-furred bag.

“Whatever it was, magic, that bear that Trond still won’t shut up about, some harvest god, we it owe much good fortune.” Kori snorts, then stops when she sees the bag. “You’ve kept it, after all this time?”

Beau keeps that smile to herself, she’s glad to see Kori has taken her place as the residential cynic. “It’s only been two seasons, of course I have, and I’ll pass your thanks to White Bear.”

“It’ll be three by the end of the month.” And, because nothing slips her attention, “It really is the bear?”

They shouldn’t be speaking this freely, not out in the open like this. But Beau can’t go upstairs, she’s promised White Bear that, and even the room full of bookcases is next to their father’s office and Gods know how thin the walls are. “Yes. And she’s kind and beautiful and tells me that you’re all taken care of.”

“There’s nothing we could ask for.” Kori’s beginning to sound distant, distracted with her own thoughts instead of their conversation.

Beau tilts her head, trying to figure what’s really eating at her sister. “How is everyone? Really.”

Kori sucks in a breath, the same way she’s done since she was a toddler and trying not to cry over a stubbed toe. “We miss you. Well, I don’t know if Leif really does, but he’s four. He had his Mutti to hold him as a baby, he didn’t need you like Brenn did.”

“Hey now.” Beau reprimands, without malice of course, but she still wouldn’t allow any of their mothers to be spoken of like that. Traci had tried, but she was so different from the rest in her Zemnian ways, always favored the ones of their brood that came from her. She was also the only step-mother that Kori had known, which didn’t help matters.

“He’s looks to TJ like how we all looked to you.” Kori says. “How we still look, even if you’re away. Brenn comes to sleep with me every single night, and we talk about you.” She sniffles, and Beau pulls her into another squeeze. “It feels like Mamma all over again.”

“Oh, shhh.” Beau whispers, tries to ignore the pain in her chest. “I’m here right now.”

“But you’re going to go away again.” She’s near sobbing territory now.

Beau, for everything she’s terrible at, knows how to soothe her siblings. “Everyone goes away eventually Kori. But we all come back together, we always do.”

“And what if you can’t?” Kori’s really asking a question about death, one she’s still too young to fully grasp.

“Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but watch.” Beau admits, and then pulls away so she can say her next part to her sister’s face. “But, if I ever go somewhere I don’t want to, I’ll tell you. And then you’re going to wrangle up the wrath of all our siblings and come get me, understood?”

Kori gives a fierce nod, one with the determination of a little wildcat, and sniffles into a smile. She worries, more than most. She’s of that age. She just needs to learn what Beau did, that when you love one another like they do, no distance will ever be enough to keep them apart.

Harp music begins to float down the entryway, from the direction of the music room. Both girls turn their head to the sound. Asta, hard at work. Kori takes her hand with a squeeze and begins to pull Beau along with her to go spy on the practice session. They’ve made it halfway when a voice breaks Beau’s trancelike state.

 

“Come. Now.”

Her father’s tone says everything. Come, or I will throw you out of my house right now. Come, or now will be the last time you’ll ever see your brothers and sisters. Come, or I will chase you down because now I have the time, I have the means to do so. Come, now, or you will regret it.

She stops following Asta’s melody, turns into her father’s shiny new office and closes the door behind her with a faint nod to Kori that tells her to go. Beau stands at his side and prepares for inspection.

He starts by pulling at the skin around her waist, makes a face when he discovers it has a little give despite the very real presence of her abs just below the surface. She should have tightened them, would have been more than worth it to see her father’s expression. But he’s already moving on, huffing his disapproval as he feels her muscles around her legs and arms that have only grown stronger from sparring nearly daily with a seven-hundred pound bear. Very unladylike of her. He taps her side with two of his fingers. Beau closes her eyes as she bends at the middle so her face can be closer to his level and tugs on the nose ring Beau had given herself four months ago, half on a whim and half because of White Bear’s encouragement at the idea. It’s not terribly tender when he grabs at it, but it’s certainly unpleasant. Done critiquing her appearance, her father checks down her pants and sides of her clothes, making sure she’s carrying nothing with her.

It’s exactly how he used to pat her down for drugs or bad spirits when he was having one of his paranoid fits. Beau hasn’t missed it.

When he’s finally satisfied, her father leans back in his chair and Beau draws herself to her full height. He looks at her, really looks at her for the first time. He doesn’t look like he likes what he sees.

“Well, you’ve changed.”

White Bear has spent months drawing honesty out of Beau, and now it flows freely from her. “I should certainly hope so.”

Her father gives her a sharp look of disapproval. “That… thing has corrupted you, Beauregard.”

She doesn’t care for how he’s speaking of her wife; let alone the tone he’s using. “I’m happy living with White Bear, and she has given you all of this, how can you find it in your heart to judge her?”

The privacy they have makes him bold, speak what’s really on his mind. “Look at you, calling it a name.” He sneers. “How can you even know it’s a she? It could be a spirit for all we know, waiting for the right moment to devour you!” Her father waves his arms in an attempt to startle some sense into her, but all it does is make him look ridiculous.

“She wouldn’t.” It’s true.

“What proof do you have?” That look in his eyes reminds her of that night she told him no. The fury, his attempt to strike her. Beau knows him, but she knows that frightened fool that stepped out into the eye of a storm and arms of a bear. He’s the same but he’s also changed, the weight of his purse emboldens him, he thinks everyone owes him something. Money has made him worse.

He won’t stop, not until she gives him what he wants, and Beau is so tired of the tension that’s followed her visit. “She… she’s not really a bear.” Her father’s look has not shifted from its disbelief. “She’s come to me at night as a woman, she shares my bed. Every night. If she wanted to hurt me, she would have already.”

The air in the room grows cold, all heat from the argument sucked out and into her father’s lungs. “Beauregard, have you laid with this woman?”

His implication is clear, and it throws Beau on the defensive. “It would be none of your business if I had!”

“Gods be merciful.” He finally moves past from disbelief, but now he’s in some mistaken determination. “We can save you still. Stay home, you have no need to return to that monster.”

“She’s no monster, White Bear is the first kindness I’ve known in this world.” Which, that isn’t fair, she’s had her Eadni, siblings, mothers, the man her father used to be. But White Bear is different, the first of her kind that Beau’s ever known, and she’s given her something no member of Beau’s blood ever could.

“White Bear, that can’t be its name, no one names a child that. You tell me that thing’s name Beauregard, maybe we can curse it!” He’s grabbing at her now, forcing Beau to look at him and crowding her space.

She thinks about spitting in his face, just for a moment. But it’s not worth it, it never is with him. “Like I would tell you.”

“You don’t even know it, do you?” Damn her honest face for betraying her surprise. “Tell me, what does your bear look like when they’ve shed their fur?” He’s growing smug, shrewd as he is her father frequently can come to a realization before it’s even a thought in Beau’s mind.

“I… I don’t know.” She looks down, and Beau wishes she was anywhere but here right now. “I’m not allowed to look at her.”

He throws his hands up, looking both smug and vindicated. “That beast could be anything when it comes to sleep with you. Gods forbid, even a troll. You simple girl, didn’t your mother teach you better when she filled your head of those fanciful stories?”

Beau is not someone who is made to feel small easily, but if anyone has mastered the art it’s her father. “I… I can’t explain it. She wouldn’t Dad, I trust her… She wouldn’t.”

Her desperation is all too present, and he preys on it. “You need to look. Here.” He’s rising out of his seat, disappears into the back room and returns a moment later with a candle. They must have brought it when they moved from their cottage, it smells faintly of animal fat and is in the shape of their old molds. He’s bound it in loose linens, stripped sheets from their cottage Beau realizes, and presents it to her.

“Light it while they’re asleep, see who your white bear really is.” Her father is not asking, he’s giving her a command.

She’s refused him before, with every fiber of her being. It takes nothing of her this time. “No. Mother would never ask me to.”

He freezes, then turns away. “Get out of my house.”

Beau’s only regret is she can’t say goodbye to her siblings. Her father won’t let her, he can’t have tearful farewells to clash with the horrible things he’ll surely tell them later. Beau will admit, foolishly, that she hadn’t seen this outcome and hadn’t arranged an earlier meeting place. But if she knows her father, she knows a place where she can lay her head until morning.

 

It’s four miles back to their old house. Beau ignores the stares she receives, keeps her chin up until she’s out of direct eyeline to the village. Then, despite her best efforts, her head starts to droop. The buzzing of spring flies and bees do their best to distract her, but they cannot drown out the volume of her father’s critiques, and it takes much effort to not lose her nerve and turn back around.

But she makes it to that stone cottage. It’s empty, but it feels more like coming home than her father’s arms does. Beau walks through the door, left unlocked, and stops only to poke her head into her childhood bedroom and grab one of the threadbare abandoned mats. She goes out back, other side of the yard where the barn lies, and settles besides the scrawny tree that reaches over the gravestones of Traci, Vanja, and Clara Lionett.

Beau’s fingers trace the worn carvings of the one belonging to her mother, her Eadni. She searches for the right words to say, what to ask, but her mind comes up blank. She hasn’t longed for her mother’s voice since she was a child, but Beau would trade nearly anything for it now.

She cannot speak, so instead she reads. Beau reads her mother’s book until her eyes sting, from tears and from strain over the worn words. She throws herself on the mat, amending to find the question she needs to ask once her eyes are rested. The warmth of spring and fullness of her belly help turn that rest into something more like sleep.

It’s still dark when she wakes. Beau hasn’t slept alone in a very, very long time, so she blames her poor slumber on that and tries to ignore the part of her that’s whimpering for White Bear’s arms. She’ll need to go meet her soon, but it isn’t quite late enough yet. She closes her eyes, tries to find that one thought that will bring her wisdom to cope with the sense of longing that’s already building back up inside her.

The sound of a rock skittering across the hard earth pulls Beau’s head from the earth. At the threshold of the back door stands TJ, arms hanging limp at his sides and looking at her like he can’t believe she’s real.

“Hey Junior.” Beau’s voice sounds ragged as he begins to race to her. Her little brother damn near tackles her on the ground, presses a kiss to her cheek before he pulls back to sit on his feet.

TJ still looks a little star-struck by her. “I didn’t believe Dad, but when the rest said you had come, I figured they wouldn’t lie.”

“All of them?” Beau questions him. “Even Viggo?”

“Viggo was backed up by six other sources and I’m an optimist.” TJ contends, and manages to land a decent shove Beau’s shoulder when she’s distracted by laughing at his offended tone.

She lets him have it without retaliating. “So, how’s village life without me?”

“You wouldn’t believe what it’s like to be the center of gossip.” He laments.

“What are they saying?” Beau should know better, but she can’t help but ask.

“The sapphire-eyed Lionett kids,” TJ says as he waggles his head, utter bitterness in his voice. “I just can’t believe their father didn’t try to sell them off earlier. Wild things like their mother, bet getting rid of that girl broke a curse on their crops.”

The disgusted sound that comes from the back of her throat is enough to break his mood and draw out a laugh. “Why didn’t he?” Beau wonders. “We were certainly poor enough.”

“The second you figure Dad out, let me know.” He says as he leans back on his palms.

She turns her head to him. It’s easier to see now that he’s besides her how much TJ has grown in the past few months. He’s taller than her now, just barely. He has always been on the lanky side, but he’s starting to look like he’s going to eventually fill out. At their father’s demands, TJ has always kept his hair short but now he’s got his under-half shaved, just like Beau. It makes her eyes go misty.

“I didn’t think I’d get the chance to see you.” Beau knocks her shoulder into his.

TJ snorts. “Well, you’re the one who couldn’t spend more than a night under the new roof. Missing our humble beginnings?”

“Missing advice.” She doesn’t need to cast her gaze over to the tombstones for him to catch her meaning. “What do you think our Eadni would say to me, right now?”

“How should I know?” He’s not sad but at the same time his voice carries grief.

He was just a baby when their mother died, everything TJ knew of her was from Beau. She should have known better than to ask him, it’s not fair to either of them. “Sorry.” Besides, dead women shouldn’t be spoken for. She’s going to have to figure out how to carry this herself. “I forget.”

“I know.” He’s matter of fact, but not unkind. Still, eager to shift the subject. “But hey, new housemate treating you well?”

“Yeah.” Beau sounds dizzy, like she can’t believe her luck. Which, to be fair, she really can’t.

“What does she look like? When she’s not…” TJ waves his hand around for a moment, before it settles with curled in fingers like a claw and his lips turned downward in a fake silent growl.

His expression makes Beau huff out a small laugh. “I trust her.” She starts.

“Oh Gods, Dad was telling the truth.” TJ groans and smacks his own forehead.

“Hey!” She protests. “I’ve lived with her for two seasons, and never once has she made me think she has reason to eat me. She shares my bed...” Beau tries to get out an innocent sentence, she’s talking to her baby brother Gods above, but she trips over her own wording and can feel the heat rushing to her cheeks now.

This does nothing to deter TJ, but when their father went cold he is suddenly wild, full of feeling and terror for her. No one in the world cares for her quite like he does, other than White Bear. “What. What in the Nine Hells is she that you lay with her every night and can’t look at her? Beau, what if she’s a gorgon, a mara, a fury, shit she could be a bodak! ”

She shakes her head; he’s been filled with even more stories than her. “You sound worse than Dad.” Which speaking of… “What’d he do, send you over to spy?”

“Beau…” Her brother looks worried and it really doesn’t look right on him, it ages him too much. “He gave me this.”

In his hands is the slightly yellowed linen bundle. She doesn’t need to ask what it contains. “No.”

“We don’t need the money – “

That was once the reason, but not anymore. Besides, physical coin forgotten, what Beau had really traded herself away for that night was their safety. “There are always people who do here. Tell Kori to give it away, I know Dad’s not keeping track of it.”

TJ ignores her, something he excels at when he needs to make his point. “You can leave her, come home.”

But they’ve left Beau’s home, the house down in the village isn’t one she knows. “I can’t.” But that’s not the real reasons, what’s really keeping her in the castle on the black-sand beach. “I love her.”

The quiet of the long moment that passes between them isn’t uncomfortable, it’s needed. It allows a shift in both their understandings of one another. Beau sees him for how he’s grown, how he’s been molded in her absence even without taking on all of her many burdens. TJ sees her honesty, how for as blunt as she was when she lived with them, it wasn’t candor like he’d thought it to be, but a reflex to survive and to please. This is what she looks like, when she speaks with emotion and means it, then.

“Does she know?” He asks. “Have you told her?”

Her silence is all the answer he needs. “Why not Beau? Why did you come visit us?”

Beau wraps her hand around his, squeezes with such ferocity as she answers both questions at once. “I need to be able to see her.”

TJ pulls her into a hug, holds her even tighter than the night she left. After a long while, he releases one arm so he can feel around blindly for what he’s searching for.

“Take the candle Beau, give yourself the opportunity.” He presses the wrapped cloth into her hand. “I think that’s what Mom would say.”

She could refuse her father until it drove both of them underground. But she’s never been able to say no to her siblings, TJ least of all. So she takes the small bundle, tucks it underneath the wrappings around her chest and presses a final kiss to her brother’s brow as she rises. Then she’s off, back facing her childhood house and to find her White Bear so they can go home.

Chapter Text

She meets her exactly where they left, minutes after the sun’s first rays touch the ground. Without a word, Beau slides to her knees and wraps White Bear’s head in her arms and presses their foreheads together for a long beat.

“I take it,” her White Bear murmurs, “That it didn’t go too well.”

“I missed you.” Beau’s heartbreak is plain on her face, if it wasn’t already obvious in her voice. But she’s still being truthful.

“And I you.” She nudges Beau gently back to her feet so she can climb aboard her back. “Do you want me to kill him?” She sounds almost bored when she offers, like she’s suggesting lapskaus for dinner again.

Beau nearly loses her grip when her laughter takes her by surprise. “Tempting, but no. TJ and Kori aren’t quite old enough yet to handle that responsibility.” She pulls herself fully up, enough to throw her leg over as she adds. “Besides, I’m sure the intention will sail over him and he’ll end up feeling validated in his final moments.”

White Bear presses her ears back. “Did you go upstairs, Beau?” She asks nervously.

“No, he dragged me into his study and berated me, called both you and I plenty of nasty names.” Beau tries to sound reassuring as she strokes her shoulder. “He’s easy to ignore.”

It’s a good thing White Bear can’t look her in the eye, because she’s perceptive beyond any ability Beau has to hide her emotions. The lie slips out and flies off on the breeze, unchallenged.

White Bear begins to set off, much slower than their normal pace. “I’m sorry I doubted you, even if it was just for a moment.”

She tries not to think about the lump between her bandages.

Easier to keep the discussion on Beau’s source of misery. “He’s become unrecognizable.” She complains. “Kori said it best, money’s made him worse.”

“I wish there was another way in the world,” White Bear muses, “To give security without it being so tied up in coin.”

“They’re safe and I’m with you. I could give a damn about anything else.” Beau traces patterns through White Bear’s fur, with little intention of planning. Her ears flick backwards playfully,  like she’s silently laughing along with her. White Bear picks up the pace, and they begin to race back home.

Beau is still exhausted from her poor night’s rest that she nods off several times. White Bear always notices, always slows her pace so she can be more comfortable. It’s toothachingly sweet. The course they take is still unfamiliar to Beau, but it doesn’t bother her. White Bear will take her home, keep her safe. She always has.

It’s growing dark when they do make it back to the castle on the black-sand beach, but not late enough that they need to go to bed without dinner. It would be too warm outside to properly enjoy fiskesuppe, but the icy chill that lingers in the palace makes the heat from the stew pleasant. Travel has made both of them weary, so they don’t speak much, but Beau does press a kiss to her wife’s head before she retreats upstairs for the night.

The bundle of linen is tucked away in the second row of drawers, in the back left-hand corner. And there it’ll stay, Beau vows to herself. She strips, finds the usual style of oversized nightshirt she sleeps in, and lays her head to the pillow, still but unwilling to close her eyes. She’s still waiting for her.

She stirs only when White Bear joins her. While the light creak of the door and muffled footsteps are things Beau’s ears might have missed all those months ago, they’re sources of comfort now, even as they share opposite sides of the bed instead of meeting in the dark.

With the dip at the far end of the mattress, Beau allows herself a single weakness. She extends her arm behind her, lays her hand palm up in the center, offering clear. White Bear takes one unsteady breath, then another, before she laces her fingers between Beau’s.

As she drifts off to sleep, Beau traces a peculiar callous between her thumb and index finger. What kind of work would she have gotten that from?

 

Two days of lazing around full of sweaty fighting and half-hearted research inspired by Beau’s new earring, because White Bear knows that swirl, she really does she just can’t place it, are interrupted when White Bear bursts into the dining room as Beau is finishing off the last of her oatmeal.

She’s practically glowing with enthusiasm. “Come on Beau, we’re going outside!”

“I’m hardly wearing anything!” Beau protests but doesn’t fight the press of White Bear’s head as she directs her to the palace door. Beau usually dresses minimally when they spar, but she tries to have an overlayer when they do leave the privacy of their home. She hasn’t seen another soul in the area since she’d taken residency in the castle and modesty was never something that was terribly important to her, but it still feels like the right thing to do.

It’s easy to see the cause of White Bear’s excitement when her eyes adjust to the harsh light of the sun. The sea usually stirs with unexpected swells to make its pleasant melody, but today it is practically flat. It’s the first time the water has ever looked warm, inviting even.

Beau breaks out in a run without a word. White Bear is right on her heels, panting in a way that sounds like amusement. They tear down the soft black sand to the shallows they’ve both played and wrestled in countless times. Then they hit the drop off, and they’re finally swimming. There’s still a chill to the saltwater, but it isn’t unpleasant.

White Bear is so fast in the water. Her giant paws that make polite dining an impossibility serve as the perfect paddles as she takes them further from the shoreline. Even though the ocean is clearly somewhere she wasn’t born, she adapts to it with such ease that Beau could have been fooled. She doesn’t turn back to look at Beau until they’re well beyond a distance  to the shore that could be called cautious, and when she does, it’s with a playful challenge in her eye.

“Race you to the bottom?”

Beau lets out a short, confused laugh. “What, you expect me dive under and keep sense of direction while blind?”

White Bear blinks at her. “You know how to swim, and you’ve never once opened your eyes underwater to have a look around?”

Slightly embarrassed, Beau shakes her head. “Guess it never occurred  to me.”

The disbelief that White Bear is looking at her with doesn’t make her feel bad. She feels like she’s being marveled at, like White Bear can’t believe that she’s real and that they’re spending this lazy morning together. “Well, give it a try!” And she dives beneath the surface.

No time like the present to learn, Beau wagers. The burn takes her out of it, even as she’s marveling at the empty expanse and openness of the ocean that’s all around her. Her heart stutters for a moment, and she instinctually calls out, only for the air to escape her mouth.

Bubbles fly into her face from below, and Beau realizes that White Bear has snuck her massive  form beneath hers. She’s apparently having a laugh at Beau’s current state which does make two of them. All things considered, she must be quite the funny sight right now.

Gods alive, does that sting. Beau can’t kick herself towards the surface fast enough, spewing out a mouth half full of saltwater as she gasps for relief. White Bear joins her a moment later, serene and calm as anything, never even needing to blink her mismatched eyes.

“Don’t.” Beau pants before White Bear can get a word in edgewise. “Trond says bears have extra eyelids, that’s cheating!” The blank confusion she’s met with makes Beau hesitate. “Wait, do you?”

“You know I have no way of knowing that, I had no way to read before you.” White Bear retorts as she strokes both her forearms at the same time so she can keep her neck above water. She huffs out a growl, shaking with laughter. That’s all the invitation Beau needs to join her. Occasionally pressing against one another while they tread the water, soaking in the saltwater and sun. It’s nice, in a way that the word can’t do what she’s feeling justice.

A rumble of thunder catches them both off guard. Beau looks up to see grey storm clouds which have seemingly come from nowhere start to gather. They look heavy, threaten to break with rain any moment now.

“Hold on!” White Bear shouts, and Beau goes to grab at her fur more on instinct than thought. Once she’s got her fingers locked down, White Bear speeds them back to the shoreline. The rate at which she flies through the water shifts Beau so that she’s straddled flat over her spine, something she doesn’t realize until they hit the sand and her arms are wrapping around the furred neck like it’s second nature. The burden is of no bother to White Bear, as she bolts back towards the unspoken safety of their home. As she stumbles off her back, Beau risks a look behind them.

The ocean is still smooth as glass, but more and more clouds are gathering now, and White Bear is practically shoving her towards their front door with her head. There’s none of the gentle excitement of the morning, her fur is on edge which makes the hair on the nape of Beau’s neck go rigid.  

She bends at her knees as so their heads can be on level. “Let me help, whatever this is let me help.” She’s never seen her like this before, full of true bone-soaked terror.

“Stay inside.” White Bear orders as she presses the length of her snout across Beau’s cheek, an attempt to bring their foreheads together. “It will be fine, don’t let anyone in.” And then she’s drawn back and racing towards the gathering storm, and before Beau can even call out to her, the double doors have slammed shut.

Beau has to ask the bell for a towel and more water so she can scrub off the thin layer of salt that has dried to her skin. She waits on the floor of the entry hall wrapped in an impossibly large knitted gray blanket, too anxious for even a book to sooth her nerves. But White Bear never returns. Beau can sense sundown now, like a tug in her gut, and knows what it means. Dragging her feet, Beau ascends the staircase and falls into the bed.

 

She’s never been kept away long enough to not see Beau right before bedtime. Beau falls asleep while waiting for her, something she hadn’t done in many months, even before she knew that the woman and White Bear were one and the same. Beau’s sense of restlessness begins to bubble back up in her chest. The melancholy is there too, perhaps stronger than it had ever been before they’d tried to cure it with a visit to her family. All she can think about is the candle of tallow hidden in her dresser. On an intellectual level, Beau knows she shouldn’t, it’s the one thing that’s been asked of her. But nagging concern is hardest to ignore when it’s your only companion in the dark.

When White Bear does come back, her footsteps are so heavy Beau feels her exhaustion as if it were her own. She collapses into bed with a solid weight, and is asleep in record time. Beau deliberates well into the late hours of what to do. But really, she’s had no choice. Not ever since the idea had been planted in her.

Her father’s seed of doubt, her brother’s worry, her own selfish yearning. They’re all built beneath her breastbone, Beau can’t stand it anymore, she slides out of bed and goes for the dresser.

The bundle of linen is exactly where she hid it. Beau knows her room well enough now that she doesn’t want for light, she moves in silence from the dresser to the shelf that houses her band of embroidered leather that ties her hair, whatever book she’s currently reading, and the silver match holder with the textured side. She hasn’t lit the candles in her room for months, it was always bright in the mornings and she was more than content to be welcomed into a room of darkness in the evenings because that had meant White Bear would be close behind.

Beau sits just on the edge of the mattress, match holder in one hand, match in the other, and candle balanced upright between her knees. Beau gives the universe one last chance to stop her as she grips the match with nearly enough force to snap it. The odor of sulfur is faint, but it loses the struggle to overcome the scent of pinewood. No disturbance comes to shake her from her path.

In the darkness, her hands shake just once. Then, she lights the match against the striker and the candle is quick to follow. Before she can lose the nerve or think better of it, she grasps the light and turns around to illuminate the unknowable of darkness that has lived on the other side of her bed since Beau’s first night in the castle.

The body that lays beneath the seafoam quilt is that of a young woman. She’s barely older than Beau.

She is beautiful, because of course she is, of course she is, she was always going to be beautiful to her. Her skin is nearly as pale as her fur, her hair is dark, almost as endless as the sea and goes gray-white at the tips, woven in countless complicated braids. Even in peaceful sleep her strength is evident, seeing those arms that used to hold Beau, back when she allowed it, makes her want to be wrapped up in them again for every night until she is buried in the ground and even after that. A tattered dark shawl with a navy furred trim is wrapped around her for some reason that Beau cannot puzzle, the only thing that doesn’t make sense about her.

She’s drawn to her by some unknowable force. Finally laying eyes on her has only made Beau want to never look away. Her feet have left the floor and she’s slowly drawing nearer as she crosses the bed. There’s a blue tattoo that runs from lip to chin that keeps drawing Beau nearer and nearer. It takes her a moment, but Beau realizes that pull is a want to kiss her.

The impulse is there, and it won’t be beaten back now. The part of her that’s screaming how terrible an idea this is can be ignored with very little effort. Beau ghosts her fingertips along the other woman’s jawline and hopes her treacherous heart’s hammering isn’t loud enough to wake her. She dips down just the slightest, and presses the softest kiss she can to her wife’s mouth.

Despite the coolness of the night air, the heat under White Bear’s lips is nearly enough to burn. Beau’s head feels fuzzy as she pulls back, in a way she’s never felt before but somehow also addictive. She wants to go back down to steal another, but Beau knows anything else is unfair to them both.

Too late she realizes she’s bent the hand holding the candle, and it’s been burning long enough now to have collected a small pool of fatty wax just below the wick.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

White Bear’s eyes shoot open as she hisses in pain, hand immediately clutching at where the hot tallow has sunk into her cloak, near her bicep. Beau catches the fourth with her own hand, swallows a swear and steels herself for the anger that is surly to be unleashed on her as she looks back to White Bear.  But anger isn’t what she finds.

She’d never seen those river-green and wildflower-purple eyes look more afraid.

“Oh, oh no, what have I done White Bear?” Her free hand is going for the shawl in a fruitless attempt to rub out the tallow when White Bear catches it and brings it to her cheek. Beau still doesn’t understand why there is moisture beginning to form in the corner of her eyes, but she lets her, and tries not to melt at how soft the other woman’s skin is.

“Yasha. My name is Yasha.” She whispers.

The tears begin to flow, and Beau cannot wipe them away fast enough. “Yasha, Yasha.” Beau says her name like she’s worshipping, like it’s something holy she can’t believe she’s allowed to say. It feels like something in her always knew that was her name, but she didn’t realize until she was told. Which, speaking of. “Why now?”

Yasha closes her eyes, swallows thickly before she can manage to speak again. “Because everything is ruined.”

“Ruined?” All Beau seems capable of doing is repeating what Yasha says back to her and growing more fearful with each passing moment.

The other woman’s smile is fond, not matching her tear-streaked cheeks at all. “You’ve seen my face.”

Beau blows the candle out, like she can take back what she’s done with a puff of air. The darkness is only returned for a moment, a soft white glow comes from Yasha’s fingertips to chase it away. She sits herself up before touching the top of the headboard and the light sticks, as if it were something that could be affixed to any chosen point. Beau’s still trying to figure out how it’s staying there when Yasha’s arms are cocooning her and pulling her upright and tight to her chest. They do nothing more than share shaky breaths for a moment, drinking in the look of the other in the moonlight-like glow. Beau has missed her arms more than she’d realized, but she also fears she’s traded away everything to have them wrapped back around her.

“You must hate me.”

“Oh, no Beau.” Yasha presses a kiss to her hairline, the first one she’s truly been able to give Beau. “There’s nothing you could do to make me hate you, least of all this.”

Beau is finding it perfectly easy to hate herself. “Yasha… Why the bear? Why the rules?”

Yasha takes a shaky breath, heartbeat goes unsteady for a moment before she begins. “I’ve been cursed since I was a child. I’m bound to the form of the White Bear as long as the sun’s rays are out, only allowed to return to my body under the cover of darkness.” Her instance of always being in bed by sundown makes sense now. “My step-father placed it on me actually, my mother only married him because he promised to break it. He’s going to come for me now, once you fall asleep, and take me back. I’ll marry one of his children. That was to be my punishment if his terms for breaking my curse could not be met.”

“I ruined it.” That seed of doubt blossoms into horror, the scale of her miscalculation finally starting to catch up with Beau.

“No. He’s been cheating with his own terms since the start.” She’s heard her determined, but never like this. Never so confident. “Stormlord, he’s probably the one who gave your father the idea that I’m something that wants to hurt you. When I…” She nods her head towards the door. “Go away. It’s because of Obann. He’s tried to hurt your family, many times, tried to come here and hurt you even more.”

That’s a revelation Beau hadn’t been expecting, one that seizes her with true terror. For her siblings, of course, never for herself. “But they said everything was fine!”

“It is.” Yasha vows, and Beau thinks of the day Yasha came home wearing so much of her own blood and unable to tell her why, how late she’d been out tonight and the weariness she came back with. How many days, how often had she silently gone out to protect Beau and was content with her never knowing? What had ever Beau done to deserve this unspoken loyalty from another person?

“Why me, the daughter of a foolish man, in all of this?”

“I ran away when I was a teenager, not long after my mother passed. I had some help –“ A smile ghosts across her face at the memory. “But that’s not important. Obann caught them, found me, because he always does. Instead of dragging me back in chains he offered me a deal. Live in this castle by the sea with another, share a bed for a year and never let them see me as a woman.” Her voice grows distant and unlike herself, like Yasha is quoting someone. “Anyone fool enough to love such a beast deserves you.”

There’s nothing that Beau can say to take those words away, but she can take Yasha’s hand and press kisses to it while she takes a few shaky breaths. Beau pays special attention to spots where the skin is calloused.

“I lived alone before you, I couldn’t risk dragging someone down this curse with me.” Yasha sounds like she’s been able to return to her body, but not fully settle. “But then you came to me in my dreams, home in the mountains and eight noisy siblings. I thought it meant you were the one to free me. That you could grow to love me.”

She doesn’t understand. “But I do, I do love you. I loved you as White Bear and I love you now.”

“Not the way my step-father sees it. You’ve lit the candle before the end of the first year and thus I am unlovable; I will be taken away when you fall asleep.”

Easy enough solution to that, even if it might not work forever. “Then I won’t sleep, I’ll stay awake and keep you here.”

“It’s not something you can fight. Obann has magic, you’re growing tired already aren’t you?” Yasha sounds so full of despair at their oncoming separation that it’s enough to drive Beau to tears.

Beau wants to protest, prove her wrong, but she can’t. Her eyelids are heavy and if it had been any other circumstance, Beau would already have her head on the pillow. But she’s just found Yasha by ruining everything and now Yasha’s going to be taken from her. Her chest begins to shake as the consequence of everything really starts to settle in. She can’t accept this.

“Can I – Let – Take me with you.” Beau manages to get out through her sobs.

“If it worked that way, you wouldn’t need to ask.” Yasha is damningly calm through her misery as she brushes Beau’s loose hair back and out of her face, eyes never leaving hers.

“Tell me the way.” Beau begs, pushing herself up to fight the call back down to the pillow. “I’ll search for you, bring you back to me. Let me have this chance, please.”

“I would tell you where if it would do you any good. It lies east of the sun and west of the moon, and you’ll never find your way there, Beau.” Her name sounds like a prayer on Yasha’s lips, sent to Gods long abandoned. “Forget about me, go live your life with your family and be happy.”

Beau tries her hardest to push back up to protest again, but the pull is too strong. She falls back in the bed, still teary eyed. She takes what she has left of her strength and pulls Yasha to her so she can remember what the solid weight of the other woman’s arms around her feels like. She can’t go back to her family, not after the last two seasons. Beau would never be able to live with it, even if the White Bear had never told her name, never told her why she was trapped, that Beau had been the start of her end. All that mattered was that Yasha was going to a cage, and Beau couldn’t allow that. She loved her too much for that.

“I’ll find you.” She promises, and she means it.

Selfishly, she presses one last kiss to Yasha’s lips. Beau’s heart breaks as it’s reciprocated with such warmth as the heavy darkness finally overtakes her.

Chapter Text

When she awoke next morning, the first thing Beau became aware of was the hardness of the ground beneath her body. As she sluggishly raised her head from the earth, Beau took in the gloomy thick wood around her. The swell of waves was nowhere in earshot, she could barely see the sky from her place on the ground.

It wasn’t cold, even though the wood around the castle usually held in some of the chill that came off the sea. Beau had been wrapped in the outmost layer of her mother’s robe, an odd choice when a quilt would have been more appropriate. In a tightly folded bundle at her side were the rest of the vestiges and the rabbit-fur bag. She reached out for them, still half-laying on the ground, and felt the give from what could only be grass beneath her, though it did not to seem to extend beyond where she lay.

That was when she realized all she was wearing was the robe, which was odd to say the least. Beau had worn a long shirt to bed, hadn’t she? But she was outside, and she certainly hadn’t ever slept in the woods. There’s a terrible cloud over her thoughts, she can’t piece together any turn of events where this would make sense. Something in the back of her mind tickles her, the thought that anything that left the castle would melt. She wouldn’t have wandered the forest beyond the cliffs alone though, and even if she would’ve, the trees here are all wrong, much too dense to even be related to the thin pines whipped into their forms by the costal winds.

“Where am I?” Beau mumbles, or rather tries to. Her voice dies in throat, which was still ragged from crying. Why had she been crying?

Yasha. The fragmented memory of the night before hitting her like a wave with full force, knocking the air out of her lungs. For a moment, Beau feels nothing but pure despair. She’d ruined everything, looked when it was the only thing that had been asked of her, and now she was cast out, Yasha furious with her – but no, that couldn’t be right. The care she had been wrapped with her mother’s old outer layer didn’t match anger.

Which reminded her, she was still exposed in the middle of an unknown forest. Beau rapidly dressed herself, still struggling to piece together the exact turn of events from the last night. A heavy fog, not unlike the one that had pulled her to sleep, still weighed on her, practically taunting her.

White Bear had been a woman, and Beau wasn’t supposed to look at her. But she had, and they had cried about it because… Yasha’s step-father. Obann had magic, made Beau fall asleep so he could take her. Beau rubs her temples, trying to remember where because Yasha would have told her that. Somewhere impossible, she had warned, east of the sun and west of the moon. That’s something she can work with, the where but the why begins to creep on her and bother Beau more by each passing moment.

Married, had she said? Beau can’t imagine why Obann had deemed that a fitting punishment for being ‘unlovable’ so she dismissed it, tried to pretend that the thought didn’t make her stomach turn. The selfish thought of but she’s already my wife is there, but feeding it won’t help her right now. Why can’t matter now, Beau’s got to figure out what she’s got on her and start moving.

In her bag is her mother’s fairytale book, a bundle of linen that Beau can’t drop fast enough when she realizes what’s inside, and that jade earring that had vexed them the last few days. Beau’s gut tells her to put it on, even as her mind warns against it until they could better understand the swirl. But there was no endless library for her to search to bring any clarity. Sigrun had sworn it would help her find someone, and even if that person wasn’t Yasha, Beau wouldn’t say no to a little help right now.

No instant epiphany comes with affixing the earring into place, but that only steels Beau more. She may have ruined it, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t fix it. And maybe she’s just meant to fix this alone. Beau was going to find Yasha like she’d promised her she would. She just was going to have to figure out where to start.

“East of the sun, west of the moon.” She whispers, squinting between the endless branches above her in an attempt to find the rising sun. It took her longer than it probably should have, but Beau will forgive herself considering the sun was behind her back and it’s light was blocked from the flowering shrub that shielded her.

The white blossoms take her out for a moment. The flowers that Beau was used to seeing were the ones that would bloom around the longest days of summer, a gift for Beau’s birthday, TJ had always insisted so he wouldn’t need to get her anything. They would spring from the earth and be gone within days. These tufts of leaves looked sturdier, something that would live longer. She recognizes the flowers from drawings out of the book Yasha would frequently ask her to read, when she was still just White Bear. They’re six petaled white flowers, with a rust colored brown line, blooming from a cone at the end of each stalk. Beau could kick herself for not remembering the name, but she does know that the roots were supposed to settle a snakebite.

She wants Yasha to be here, to see them in full bloom instead of painted on a page. An idea strikes her. Beau pulls out the book from her pack, picks the most perfect flower after a moment’s deliberation, and settles it in the back pages of the book. She can show her after, when they’re together again. That thought also put Beau back on focus. She’s sitting upright now and there are branches close enough for what she needs. Beau drives the straightest one she can find into the ground facing the sun and where the shadow is shortest is the way she’s to go.

It was finally the time in spring where the days were starting to equal the nights, so Beau could trust that her approximation of directions was correct. She ignores the desire to travel northwest, the direction on the ocean the castle in the cliffs had faced. As badly as she wants to fall into her canopied bed and weep her misery out, Beau knows that it would bring her no closer to finding Yasha. And, if she was being honest with herself, Beau knows that the castle was gone. Without Yasha’s magic, nothing was there to tether it. So she sets out east and wonders how she was going to travel further than the sun.

 

Not with ease, was the answer. It takes two weeks of travel on foot for the trees to start to thin and Beau to feel like any progress had been made. She’s forced to travel in the day just to be certain that she’s going the right direction, and resources had been scarce. Food she could always go without, Beau had lived with hunger for so long that returning to it felt like welcoming an old friend on her journey. Water was a different story. It rains just twice, and she has no canteen on her. She gets moisture from the few berries she can recall as not being poisonous and from the brooks she’s lucky enough to stumble across. But when the choice comes down to heading east or following the water, she picks east every single time.

When she has the time and energy, Beau picks new flowers she sees along the way and presses them between the back pages of her mother’s book. Not often and not for every bud, but there was a lily with a dark maroon heart that fanned out into orange tips that looked like they were on fire and a daisy so perfect she knew Yasha would not believe her if she didn’t show her. These are her moments of respite, when the snares she sets at night are still empty the next dawn, when she finds a patch of mushrooms but has to go on because the cost of misidentification is too great.

Beau could use another distraction now, as she’s following the chattering of swallows on a crazy hunch. Her hunger is becoming something she can’t ignore, and the thought of fresh bird’s eggs is enough to draw her off course just for a moment. She rounds a particularly large trunk and finds an open rock face in the relatively flat woods. There’s nests made of mud all along the rock, squabbling of birds promising current residence. Beau’s all but broken into a run when a call brings her to a screeched halt.

“Hey!” A sharp, high voice cuts out from the direction of the crag. It’s a young voice, and the alarm does it more for her than the surprise of another’s presence.

If she had a moment to think clearly, Beau would have been able to peg the tone as more curious than dangerous. But she doesn’t have that, so Beau just upturns her palms as a peace offering instead. “Hey…” She tries to sound casual, but her throat is dry, and Beau is not expecting that voice to belong to a tiny thing with a scruff of light brown hair and such a round voice.

“If you want swallow eggs, go find them elsewhere!” The child, because Gods that little thing has to be a child even if he’s too small to be human, has his chest puffed out in an attempt to intimidate.

“Luc!”

A screech that Beau can’t place until something whizzes by her head, a fucking crossbow bolt, belongs to a halfling woman. She’s got the same round face of the child, probably her’s then, dark skin, brunette braided hair, and ears full of piercings. Beau would likely feel some kindred spirit to her if she wasn’t pointing a crossbow directly at Beau’s chest. That first shot did not miss by accident, if the way she’s holding it is any indication.

Beau does her best to keep her voice steady, but she knows if her legs are anything to go by, she’s trembling. “Look, I’m really sorry –“

“Oh, you’re just a little thing yourself.” The woman’s hard charcoal eyes go soft almost the moment Beau opens her mouth. She gives her a long once over, still clearly considering her gut instinct. “Well, for a human I suppose.”

“Mom, look.” The boy, Luc, he’s smaller than Brenn but acts older. He’s pointing at Beau’s side. “Her pouch. Is that hare?”

The woman gives her a final careful look, before a smile graces her face. “I’d wager it is. I was going to offer it already, but now you must come home with us. Young rabbits in the spring are a good omen. You’re clearly starving, look like you could use a decent bath too.”

Beau tries to turn her down, explain she’s got to be on her way. Her gut has a different idea, and speaks up so loudly she couldn’t excuse her way out of a meal. “I… Are you sure?”

“As much as I am of anything else.” She says it like it’s a joke, but doesn’t laugh. “I’m Veth, my little one is Luc, stay with him while I fetch the ponies.”

She’s gone in a flash, disappears into the underbrush like she’s been doing it all her life. With the ease she carries her weapon, Beau doesn’t doubt that she has.

Luc is still appraising her. “You’re old.”

“That’s fair.” Beau says. “But not as old as you probably think I am.”

“It’s hard when you’re bigger than me.” Luc complains, but he’s showing bravery as he works his way closer to her and pokes her arm. “Mom says people don’t come to the woods unless they’re looking for something.  You’d be asking for Dad if it was normal,” And just there, the way he scrunches his nose is something Beau herself used to do when she spoke of the vineyard, boredom with a parent’s profession, “So it must be special.”

Beau’s more than happy to oblige him with as much of the truth as she thinks he’ll be able to understand. “I’m looking for a woman with two different colored eyes, one as bright as river water and the other one like violets.”

“Pretty.” Luc’s eyes close as his ears twitch back, and Veth comes back into view holding the reins of two ponies, both a little more than gray around the muzzle.

“Luc, here, hand me the rest of the – thank you.” Her son dumps the eggs he’s holding into her hands, and she uses her elbow to open the flap of a sack thrown over the smaller pony. “Yes, it can go next to the sage, don’t let it touch the yarrow. Why mustn’t we –“

“It saps potential.” Luc sounds like he’s repeating a phrase said to him many times over as they finish loading what they’re carrying both in their hands and tucked into many pockets. Luc clambers up on back of the nag when he’s finished and takes the reins from his mother.

“You know how to ride?” Veth’s asking her now, nodding at the other pony.

All Beau has to compare is the experience of being on Yasha’s back when she was White Bear, so she hopes the saddle will be enough to ease the transition over. “Well enough, I hope.”

She pulls herself up at the other woman’s nod, tries to sit far enough back that there’s room for her too. To Beau’s surprise, Veth instead elects to stay on the ground, keeping the reins in her hand and falling in line behind her son as he guides them back to wherever their day started.

Veth is so quiet at her side when she starts, Beau almost doesn’t hear her. “That sounded like the start of a love ballad, sweetheart.”

It takes Beau a moment to realize she’s talking about her description of Yasha. So she’s going to tease like that. Fine, Beau doesn’t need to tell her then. “Why are you out here, collecting ingredients and talking about them like they’ve got some meaning.”

“My husband is an alchemist.” Veth sounds so proud Beau wants to like this man without meeting him. “Some of his ingredients have strict rules about when they’re collected. I do my best to help, when I’m not busy putting food on the table. And well, you know it was just the Harvest’s Rise, so bird eggs and rabbits are at their most powerful right now.”

The way she says the word makes Beau pause. “Powerful? Like magic?”

“Of course like magic!” Luc giggles from where he turns to face her, mischievous big doe eyes instantly taking her back to Kori’s younger days, when she could get out of any trouble just by batting her eyelashes.  

“I grew up in the north. We don’t, uh, talk about magic. I didn’t think it was real until I left.” She would duck her head down and burry herself further in her chest if Beau though it feasible.

Veth narrows her eyes. “So it’s true then. I always thought the rumors too nasty to be true. The Dwendalian family, may the Gods watch over them, has spread nothing but hatred as they’ve grown the Empire. Only thing the northerners seem to have of any worth is wine, no offense, but I just don’t think a good bottle of vino is an appropriate justification for whatever experiment the royalty has decided to run up there.”

Beau knew what she was alluding to. She knew it was not by chance that their village was entirely human, that magic was so taboo north of the Empire’s capital. Their lands were only recently colonized, not during Beau’s lifetime but the village elders remembered what it was like to live free of a king. Her mother was not called a ‘wild thing’ by their neighbors for nothing. But that was something so strictly banned that Beau’s brain could hardly begin to think about it, let alone speak of it. In the Empire of all places. “None taken.” It’s the safest answer, so it’s what she gives.

Veth doesn’t press her anymore, although this may be because they reach a quaint cabin not long after. They’re still far off from civilization, though it’s clear this part of the woods belongs to this little family and no one else. Veth tells Luc to bring the ingredients to his father and Beau to wait for her outside as she leads the mounts to a lean-to around back.

The garden at the front of the house is most impressive. There are dozens of rows of organized herbs and flowers, not to mention sectioned off areas to grow vegetables and fruits that appeared to be mostly for eating. The Lionett vineyard was close enough to the cottage that Beau knew how difficult it was to maintain a space like this for a single crop, let alone all the species present here.

She finds herself drawn to a potted plant that smelt of mint and had balled purple flowers that were soft to the touch. Forgetting herself, Beau drew closer to the plant, lost in thought about their color. They weren’t quite a match for Yasha’s left eye, too little saturation, but they were the closest she’d seen to the hue in weeks.

Veth’s return from the barn brings her back to reality. “You in trouble, girl?”

Beau looks up from her hunched form over the pot. “No?”

“That’s pennyroyal. Like I said, my husband is an alchemist. You wouldn’t be the first hungry thing I’ve brought back who needs to stop a quickening.”

She goes flushed at the implication, though not because Veth says it unkindly. “Oh, I didn’t know it did that.” Beau lets the shape of the flower she’s touching fall from her hand, bud still attached to plant. “We use common broom, back home.”

Veth makes a face at the name of the plant. “Ugh, broom’s got a stench like no other, you’ll never get that yellow out between your nails. Pennyroyal will at least keep the bugs away, if nothing else.” Her hand is at Beau’s shoulder now, indicating she can rise and head inside. She only needs to duck the slightest to fit in, whoever built their home had not just had halflings in mind.

Luc awaits them indoors, bag full of supplies gathered from the woods still slung over his shoulder. The main room is quaint but cozy, like the exterior, worn sofa in the back near a stone chimney tying in the homey feel. To the left is a single door, cracked open, that Beau suspects contains a dining room, and to the right are three shut doors, most likely private rooms. Luc’s face lights up when they come into his line of sight. “Oo, oo, I’ve been thinking! Tell me more about the miss, I want to know!”

“What did I ask you to do, dear?” The pet name sounds like a warning here, and Luc barely has time to yip as if he’d completely forgotten his task, and run off to one of the doors on her righthand side, where Beau assumes his father is toiling away. Veth lets out a soft sigh. “Forgive my son, he’s fond of stories.”

That gives her an idea. “I have a book.” Beau’s hands go to her pack, the old book out within a heartbeat. “Maybe he’ll like them. For your kindness, if nothing else, I insist.”

Though the woman’s eyes go wide at the once-beautiful cover, she shakes her head. “That won’t be necessary.” Veth guides her book back to its resting place, with a teasing wink. “I know a precious thing when I see one, my cooking isn’t worth nearly that much.”

“This, then.” Beau trades the hardcover for linen wrappings. She manages to capture Veth’s curiosity, who cautiously accepts the bundle and begins to unwrap it. Her confusion is not answered when she finishes.

“Tell me,” Veth says as she turns the candle over in her hands. “What’s a hungry young girl doing in the woods, with nothing more than fighter’s hands, a storybook, and a candle?”

The lump in her throat at the sight of the candle is something not easily battled off. “It’s a mistake.” Is all Beau can reply.

“Now that, that I can believe.” Veth shakes her head as she begins to fold the candle back in the cut of bedsheet.

“Please,” It was now Beau’s turn to clutch at the other woman’s hands, but in an attempt to stop. “It’s all I have to give.”

Veth arches an eyebrow as she continues, Beau’s exhausted grip providing little resistance. “Then you’d best be careful who you offer them to.” The bundle goes back in the rabbit-furred bag. “Lay your head on the sofa by the fire, girl. My husband will wake you when he needs to speak.”

Beau wants to protest, but the halfling woman is already pulling her up and guiding her across the small room. She’s settled on the worn cushions in an instant, and they provide an unexpected comfort. Beau tries to keep her eyes open as she watches Veth tend to the tired flames, but the sense of relief and safety she hadn’t felt in days was more than enough to convince her to relax her eyes, if just for a moment.

 

“Up, girl, some tea.”

Crouched on the floor in eyeshot is a man with wild bushy brown hair and surprisingly kept sideburns. He’s tiny, which might be a given since he’s a halfling too, but his slight shoulders tell Beau that he might run small even for them. He’s holding a ceramic cup with an amber steaming liquid, which she assumes is the tea.

She props herself up on an elbow and offers a hand, which he places the cup into. “Thank you…” She tilts her head, realizing Veth hadn’t told her the name of her husband.

“Yeza.” He pushes his glasses up with his pinky finger as Beau blows on her tea. “If you don’t mind me asking for the favor to be returned?”

Gods smite her, Beau could be stupid sometimes. She’d slept in their home and not even offered them a name. “Beauregard, but please, Beau for your family.” She takes a sip of the tea to hide her embarrassment, and is caught off-guard by how tart and musky it is. There’s a touch of sweetness, but nowhere near enough to cover. “Er, what brew is this?”

“My own.” Yeza’s ears twitch, a move that Beau takes as prideful. “Currants run amok out here, and their leaves do wonders for your throat, and yours had my wife quite worried.”

“Yeah, I’m not used to the climate.” Beau lamely tries as she goes in for another sip, trying not to think at how the lack of water and her nights of tears must have done a number on the state of her vocal cords.

That gets Yeza’s attention “Where are you from?”

“Kamordah.” No point in lying, they already had her name.

Yeza let out a low whistle. “You’re far from home.” He sounds sympathetic, in a way that makes Beau grow taught with nerves.

“How far, exactly?” Beau’s hands go to the knit blanket, whose weight she’s just realized, keeping it tight around her as she pulls herself up, careful not to spill her mostly-full cup.

He tilts his head as if to think, and then opens his mouth to call out with surprising force. “Veth!”

Beau hears the woman before she sees her, loud footsteps and door swinging open to reveal frazzled braids and a furrowed brow. “Yeza it’ll be ready in a moment if you could just – “ All harshness leaves her tone and her posture even softens as she sees Beau sitting mostly upright. “Oh it’s good to see you up, dear.”

“I’m Beau.” She says bashfully. “Sorry it… slipped my mind earlier.”

“Water under the bridge.” Yeza assured her. “Veth, how many day’s ride are we from Kamordah?”

“Kamordah?” Veth tilts her head as she begins to count under her breath and on her fingertips. “About sixteen to get to the capitol, and you’re still due north another, oh, eleven? If you have good weather and a boring trip of course.”

Almost a month’s travel from her hometown. No big deal, nothing for Beau to freak out about especially right now. “Do you know of any beaches full of black sand and green cliffs?” She tries instead, because she had never thought to ask where they were when that was still where she rested her head.

Veth shakes her head as Yeza lets out a sad laugh for her. “Beau, the closest ocean to us is across the border, in the Menagerie Coast.”

“Where am I, then, if it’s not too silly to ask?” Beau asks, feeling foolish like a child.

Veth’s nose twitches and such dread takes her face that for a moment Beau fears she can smell a foe. But instead, she calls out “The bread!“ and dives back into what Beau has to assume is the kitchen.

“Felderwin.” Yeza says as he tugs back the blanket at helps her rise to her feet. “And it’s high time you put something in that belly of yours.”

It’s a bit early for dinner, but Beau’s growling stomach would beat out any semblance of manners she had left to insist otherwise.  

 

The dining table is circular and not set. The bowls instead sit on the counter while dinner awaits them on the stove, keeping the food hot until they’re ready to eat. It’s a stew with very little room for broth, pot full of pickled and fresh cabbage, forest mushrooms and onions. Hunks of meat can be seen, but Beau can’t identify them, and she suspects that it’s a combination of whatever leftovers were available. She fills her bowl about halfway, not wanting to look greedy. The allspice and bay leaves are the most fragrant of the flavorings, but Beau can also pick out mustard seed, caraway and paprika.

Luc sits between his parents, and Beau takes the seat across from him. He watches her with wide eyes, never frightened, always curious. After several seconds appraisal, he slides her the wooden slab that the bread had been set out on. Trying not to show too much excitement at the offering, Beau takes some with the dip of her head to show deference and begins to nibble.

The bread Veth was so desperate to save was worth it. They’re several braided rings that have been baked with poppyseed that are sweet and chewy under the crust. Beau thinks it’s the best she’s had in her life. When she’s asked how it’s made, the number of steps throw her.

“You boil it? In honey water?” Beau doesn’t mean to talk with food in her mouth, but she’s surprised.

“Parboil.” Veth gently corrects. “That way, you bake them just before you eat so they can be hot.”

“Huh.” Beau picks at the crust around her last few bites left, hoping she can somehow make it  last longer. “That’s honestly smart. Back home, I usually just made it when I had the time, which wasn’t when I was cooking.”

“You’d cook often, then?” Yeza asks gently, like he’s still worried she’ll find a reason to spook.

“I used to, but not since I’ve left my family.” Yeza’s caution is appreciated but he should be wiser to Beau’s state; they’ve fed her and Yasha had broken her of an ability to be suspicious over mealtime. Beau feels her half-smile slide off her face. It’s the first she’s thought of her since waking and the tea. She’s been distracted, food is nice, but it won’t bring her closer to Yasha.

“What’s wrong, Beau?” Veth asks as she tilts her head. “Is your family in trouble?”

“No, it’s not that.” She rubs her hand behind her neck as if that’ll coax her hesitant voice out. “I’m looking for someone else, she was taken from me. It’s sort of an unbelievable story…”

“I like stories!” Luc pipes up for the first time since they’d sat down, and both Yeza and Veth rush to shush him.

Beau can’t help but smile, he reminds her of Trond. “He’s okay. I need to ask you both, do you know how I might get east of the sun and west of the moon?”

Silence overtakes the table. Beau opens her mouth to ask what she’s said wrong when Luc beats her to it, bursting with the most rambunctious laughter he’s had all day. She feels her jaw drop at the display, and before she can even ask Yeza is on his feet and sweeping the boy out of the room with incredible speed. He shoots a mournful look as he closes the door, and Beau’s trying to figure out which one of them it was for as the muffled sound of Yeza scolding Luc starts.

Veth’s eyes are full of nothing but sympathy. “Oh, you poor thing.”

“Don’t speak to me like that.” Beau’s teeth grit, no way to treat her host but for the first time her words feel condescending instead of caring. “I am grown, not more than you perhaps but I have seen things you would never believe.”

“Then why are you so foolhardy, if you’re a grown woman?” Veth isn’t cruel, but challenging her. That doesn’t make sense, Beau must be missing a link.

“I don’t understand.” She admits.

“East of the sun and west of the moon,” The halfling sounds wistful when she says it, the same tone Beau uses when she used to read her siblings to sleep. It can’t be – “It is a place that does not exist. An impossible journey, one that only a child or fool would take on.”

That desperation she’d been fighting off for weeks begins to claw out Beau’s throat. “It’s all I have to go off! I have to find her.”

“Who are you looking for?” Veth asks, what she’s really been curious about since she’d pointed her crossbow at Beau only for the desperation in her eyes to make her lower it.

“A white bear, who took me from my home and taught me how to live. She’s really a woman. Cursed.” There’s more, Veth will know that, but that’s what’s really important.

A ghost of a smile is on Veth’s face. “You love her?”

“Yes.” The breath that leaves her is faint, but not hesitant.

That satisfies whatever Veth was searching for. “Well, if you’re willing to go east of the sun and west of the moon for her, she sounds special. Sleep here tonight, we’ll send you off in the morning.”

Beau looks at the kitchen, not a terrible mess, but one she doesn’t think appropriate to leave. “Let me clean up, if you’re all finished and I haven’t ruined dinner.”

Veth swats her hand with a wooden spoon as she tries to take a dish. “To break a curse is no small thing, Beau. Go sleep while it’s still safe, though I do fear the couch is the only furniture we have that’ll fit you.”

“You’ve been more than generous.” Beau assures her, dips her head on the way out to show as much respect as she knows how. She passes Yeza on her way out, and all he gives her is an affectionate pat on the arm. It’s nearly enough to bring tears of gratitude to her eyes.

In the main room, Luc is alone and looks bashful. “I’m sorry for being rude, Miss Beau.”

“Nothing to forgive, Luc.” She promises him as she settles herself back on the cushions. “And just Beau is more than fine, you and your parents have been very kind to me, titles aren’t necessary.”

“Okay…” The halfling boy still sounds nervous, but soldiers on. “Do you mind if I play out here? My friends are in the middle of an important journey across the sea.“ In his little hands are figurines carved of wood, shapes of all sorts of animals from the woods. Beau’s eyes settle on the one with a hunched back that can only be a bear.

Beau twists herself so she can face outwards and watch Luc. “They’re crossing the Great Rug Ocean?” She guesses, and is rewarded with a smile overtaking Luc’s tiny face.

“Yes! They’re saving the fairy princess, she’s got a very strict mother, but she wants to run off with her friends and live in the woods with the rest of the animals, so they’re going to rescue her.” Luc is sprawled out on the carpet, carefully grouping appropriate characters together to properly set the stage.

After so many nights of noises of the forest keeping her awake long into the night, the babble of a boy talking to himself is the sweetest sound Beau could have drifted of to.

 

She’s awoken with another hot beverage being pressed to her hands, this time a bitter black drink. Beau recognizes coffee from her breakfasts with Yasha, and downs almost all the cup while it is still entirely too hot. Veth is at the other end of the sofa, lacing her boots up.

“Long few days ahead of us.” She warns, waiting until Beau has kick-started her brain with the coffee. “We’ll get you far east as I know, but we’ll have to go south first and leave the Empire. Menagerie coastline isn’t too far, we can book passage to the east side of the continent and plot how to get further if we need to when we’re on the ocean.”

“We?” Beau was thankful she had taken to sleeping in her mother’s robes, she was practically ready to leave the moment she sat upright and began to cram her shoes on.

Veth smiles, and for the first time it does not look anything close to nurturing. She’s sharp, quick-witted now. “I’m coming with you.” Beau opens her mouth, but is cut off before she can speak. “You don’t get to protest, for all your spitfire you’re sheltered. This world will eat you alive if you give it the chance, a grizzled hag like me will keep you safe.”

“You’re hardly older than me.” Beau challenges, though she wasn’t sure if halflings even aged at the same rate as humans.

“Grizzled. Hag.” Veth insets as she ducks back to her bedroom. She returns minutes later with a surprisingly appropriate travel bag and her loaded crossbow. “Yeza’ll have the ladies readied, come on.”  

The ladies are the two mares that Beau had made acquaintance of yesterday. They’re readied  with minimal packs, and she’s formally introduced to John and Loaf. John is the bigger of the two and she’s already familiar with Beau from giving her a ride home yesterday, so she’s not surprised when Veth tells her to mount up on her.

Yeza pats her leg to draw her attention. “Beau. For you.”

In his palms is the most perfect apple Beau has ever seen, and it is pure gold. She’s certain her eyes are playing some trick on her until the apple is in her hands and the coolness of metal is undeniable. It weighs about what you would expect an apple of that size to as well, perhaps even more impressive than just changing the starting material.

“It’s a technique I’ve been working on for a while now, but nothing like a lit fire under me to get the final kinks worked out.”

She knows she’ll sound young when she asks, but Beau has to know. “How?”

“Alchemist means many things, Beau.” Yeza looks entirely too pleased with himself, but the fact that he apparently turned the flesh of an apple to gold means he’s deserved it.

“I can’t accept this.” Beau tries to offer it back. He’s already letting him take his wife from his side, she surely couldn’t take this too from him. Forget the amount of debt she’s going to owe them already, there are somethings you just shouldn’t take.

“Should you get yourselves in trouble and have no other way out, I think you’ll kick yourself if you don’t.” Yeza teases as he turns away from her, partially so she can’t return the apple and partially to embrace his wife.

Beau looks away, tries to give them a semblance of privacy. She stares at her reflection off the side of the apple instead, resisting the urge to take a bite of it and see if it still could be eaten. A wild thought, but something she won’t try unless… she has to? Shaking her head in an attempt to clear it, Beau places the apple in her bag, nestled by the linen, and ties it back up carefully. She can’t afford to lose anything in her bag, but especially not now when something so precious have been given.

Veth has mounted up Loaf by now and leans down to steal one final kiss from Yeza. She’s not leaving him with a rambling list of instructions, she doesn’t need to, Beau realizes, and if that doesn’t make her want to break down into half-delirious tears.

“She’s got a story or two about curses.” Yeza says with a wink as they move the ponies into action. “Make sure you ask her, she always tells it better than me.”

Veth rolls her eyes, but blows Yeza one final kiss as they start off towards the seemingly unending woods, John and Beau taking lead with Loaf and Veth right behind.

“Your son – “ Beau turns to look behind, expecting a tearful Luc at the door.

“I said my goodbyes to him last night.” Veth assures her as the cabin begins to disappear into the trees. “Leaving them is hard, but Luc doesn’t totally understand yet, he’s still young.”

Beau finds herself thinking of the youngest Lionett boys, Trond, Leif and Brenn. “I know what you mean.”

She doesn’t get a response, wasn’t particularly expecting one, and continues to let John direct them down the path, the mare clearly more familiar with the area than she is. Beau gets to really breathe for the first time in weeks. She’s got an extra set of eyes to keep up on guard with her and the noises that signify another nearby that she would normally need to worry about all come from her companion. It’s nice, not to travel alone.

 

Beau makes it an hour before her curiosity gets the better of her. “What do you know of curses?”

Veth releases a deep breath, but when she looks behind her Beau can see that she’s wearing a big smile and has a mischievous look in her eyes that is really quite unbefitting of a mother. “Where do you want me to start, with the heartless giant, the hag that stole my body, or the true love’s kiss I had to argue with an archfey?”

Chapter Text

“You know there’s no way I’m going to believe the last one.”

Veth snorts at her. “My brothers and their families were frozen in stone by a literally heartless giant and I freed them with some helpful animals that showed me where the heart was and told me to squeeze the life out of it is no big deal. A witch the giant was friends with cursed me to the body of a goblin so my new husband, a mild mannered alchemist, and I teamed up to hunt her down and kill her. That’s all fine to you.”

Beau rolls her eyes, even though from her position in front she knows that Veth can’t see it. “Of course not! But who’s even got the nerve to speak to an archfey, let alone argue with one?”

“He claimed Yeza couldn’t be my true love’s kiss, I threatened to cut his dick off.” She says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

That makes Beau pause. “Do archfey even have dicks?”

“Who cares.” Veth says. “It convinced him to see the point I was making.”

Veth spends much of their time together drawing the full story out of Beau. She pieces the fractured mosaic of the story she’s told into a clear image with a precision that should be frightening, but the care and patience she shows Beau doesn’t inspire fear. Beau asks about Yeza and Luc when she feels she’s earned the right for a diversion. It’s not often, but Veth is more than happy to chatter away that the amount of information exchanged is almost equal between the pair. She does keep some things to herself, things Beau feels she has the right to. That Yasha dreamed of her. The marriage she mentioned that Beau still doesn’t understand. What the rhythm of her heartbeat feels like. Veth does go cold when Beau finally finds the courage to talk about Yasha’s last night.

“Her step-dad totally sucks.” Veth has to compete with rain and the ponies’ feet in the mud for volume. Beau’s glad no one else is on the road. “We can kill him.”

The offering catches Beau off-guard, and she nearly chokes on her laugh that bubbles out from her tears. “I’ve never met a mother so eager to advocate for murder.”

“We’re protective creatures. It’s in our nature.” Veth is entirely too proud of herself, but it sends a warm feeling across Beau that she hasn’t felt in a long time.

They stop early that night. Beau never really stopped crying after she explained her mistake with the candle, and the rain was coming down hard enough that visibility was already difficult. The arms of an ancient yew tree provide them and the ponies shelter. They don’t speak for the rest of the night, but Veth does absently braid, undo and rebraid Beau’s hair until she’s turned ever spare ounce of water in her body to tears. Her sleep is dreamless, and she awakens to a hot breakfast Veth has scrounged up. Beau’s eyes are still very puffy, but she hopes they don’t cloud out the appreciation she tries to show through them.

They’re two days away from the coastline when Beau turns to her under a clouded stary sky. “I love her.”

Veth hums to herself while she thinks. “You say that like you feel like you have to prove it.”

“I do.” Beau protests, sitting upright from her horizontal position. “She knew me so well, even from the start. She’s so observant, and I just gave her nothing.”

The crickets chirp in the warmth of the spring evening, a sign that summer is about to break through. She fears that Veth is going to leave her with that thought to go to sleep, but her scratchy voice breaks through a moment later. “What do her hands feel like?”

Beau blinks, certain she’s misheard her. “What?”

“Her hands, how do they feel when you hold them?” Veth hasn’t risen from the ground, but still has the line of sight to cock an eyebrow at Beau. A challenge, then.

She stills, remembers those nights in the dark of her bedroom and beneath the seafoam quilt. “Abused from work like mine. She had this callous right here,” Beau traces the skin between her thumb and forefinger. “I wanted to know where it came from, but I never asked…”

Before the melancholy can take her once again, Veth asks her another question. “What would she do, if you had no work to do in the day?”

“She’d always oblige me to a sparring match. But, if she had the choice, I think she would just like to listen to me read. We had this encyclopedia of flowers I used to read her, cover to cover and then start right back over.” If she closes her eyes, she can still see the illustrated pages and labeled anatomies.

Veth’s watching her now from a propped up elbow. “You’ve told me she’s funny, but what did her laugh sound like?”

Beau tilts her head, trying to figure out how best to explain it. “It felt like she was always in harmony with the ocean waves. Her laugh would crest and break with all this power within her, but always be gentle when it reached the shore. It was just… sweet. Even when she had the body of this massive animal, her amusement would still be so soft.”

“Her favorite drink?”

That one is too easy. “Honey wine.”

Veth’s smile is sharp in the moonlight. “You love her, Beau. Maybe you didn’t do things in the traditional order, and maybe you didn’t actively dedicate yourself to studying her. But you know her, better than you give yourself credit for. And the journey you’re taking to find her is no small thing.”

“Thank you for coming with me.” Beau whispers.

Veth says nothing in reply, just pats her hand and curls back under her thread-bare blanket to drift off to sleep.

 

When the ocean finally comes into view, Beau can’t stop herself from urging John to break out in a full out gallop. She turns back to holler at Veth, and is treated to the shock in her companion’s eyes as she takes in the unending horizon in front of them. The coastline here is rocky instead of sandy, so Beau slides off John’s back at the edge of the grass and completes her dash to the water on her own. Veth takes longer to join her, taking in the view more slowly while Beau soaks it in like she can’t get enough. It reminds her of home with Yasha and it both breaks her heart and makes it sing. They take in several deep breaths of salty air before Veth speaks.

“Where to from here?” She asks.

Beau opens her mouth to reply, but realizes she doesn’t have a plan. “I don’t know. Do you?”

Veth shakes her head. Beau feels her pulse begin to quicken, panic not taking long to settle in. She has no idea where to go from here other east, but that isn’t a plan, that’s just walking on the coast until they run out of it. Tears begin to gather in the corner of her eyes as the fear of never seeing Yasha again begins to really settle between her ribs. But before she can truly start to spiral, a masculine voice cuts through the silence.

“Forgive me for intruding, but are you ladies lost?”

Beau turns and is ready to spit venom on the man interrupting them, but his sheepish expression kills the poison before it can leave her tongue. He’s scruffy looking despite his best attempt to keep his black hair neat and should stand around six foot, but he’s hunched in on himself making estimating his height some work. His skin is mottled green, lighter on centralized parts of his torso. Beau would struggle to guess his race were it not for the baby tusks that poke out above his lower lip. Half-orc, then. He sounds friendly enough, and his terrible posture makes him come off as nonthreatening. Beau tries to return the goodwill with a smile, but isn’t sure it translates well.

Veth, on the other hand, is not so easily endeared. “What’s it to you?”

“I rolled up here lost and was offered help when I was too afraid to ask for it. I try to return the favor.” He offers a hand to the space between the pair of them. “Name’s Fjord.”

He’s charming, in the way that could give a man an ego, but he genuinely seems unaware of it. Deception seems like it would be more his style, yet Beau can’t find a trace of it on him. “Beau. We’re looking for a place to spend the night.” Just because he doesn’t appear to be lying to them doesn’t mean Beau has to trust him with everything.

Fjord’s handshake is firm, something Beau hopes is a good sign. Veth doesn’t offer her name, but nods in agreement when he offers to show them to a tavern with good rates and decent food.

He keeps them on the fringe of the city, doesn’t ask questions when Beau and Veth both raise hoods over their heads. Beau leads both the ponies, since she’s tall enough to hold them near the bit and that Veth still doesn’t trust Fjord not to up and run off with one. They occasionally weave between strands of dangling beads as they cross intersections before Fjord eventually gets them dockside. It gets worse before it gets better, as half near everything is gilded and Beau catches Veth’s fingers slip into the purses that are too heavy for their owners to notice if someone skims a little off the top.

Only half the city’s population bears Beau’s own likeness back at her, so she takes in all the new folk as quickly as she can. There’s a good mix of elves and halflings, but also horns, feathers and scales don strangers in the crowds. Fjord is unbothered by all the commotion, and steers them down an alleyway that’s barely wide enough for one of the ponies. He stops below a balcony that has a wooden sign hanging  from the decking. It reads Sinking Sun Saloon below the carving of a sun setting beneath the ocean. A half-elven stable girl takes the reins from Beau’s hands and promises that the ponies will be fed and watered as she leads them to the makeshift stable that has been created under the balcony. Fjord leads them up the stairs to the entrance of the tavern proper.

It’s nothing to be impressed by for proper city standards, but still grander than anything Beau had seen back in Kamordah. The tavern is a little crowded, which makes sense given the dinner rush. Cluttered tables take up much of the space in the gathering room, and a single stairway on the left-hand side leads up, where Beau assumes the rooms are. The bar is on the wall opposite from the entrance, so it takes a few minutes for them to navigate their way there.

“Hey, Tusktooth.” The dwarf woman behind the bar throws a rag over her shoulder and raises her other hand in greeting. “Haven’t seen you ‘round in a while.”

Fjord shrugs. “Been busy.”

“Keeping away from that file, I hope.” She’s bald, likely by choice if her splendid beard is anything to go by. She turns her back to them and begins to pour pints. “Your usual, then?”

“Yes Ruba.” Fjord takes her first offering and passes it to Beau. “For my friends here as well, and they’ll take rooms for the night if you have them to spare.” His hand goes for his coin purse, but the halfling stops him with a handwave.

“I’ll cover.” Veth says with a polite grin and fishes out a handful of gold and silver she had definitely not had on her earlier that day. “Keep the tip.”

Ruba takes it without looking twice. “I’ll set you up a room too Fjord, in case you’ve changed your mind. Take your drinks and I’ll send Larkin over with food the minute that poor girl realizes that she doesn’t have a chance with the dragonborn she’s flirting with.”

Fjord takes them to a booth near the back, almost completely obscured by the staircase. The illusion of privacy for the first time since they’d set foot in the city.

“So.” Beau jerks her head in the direction towards the bar. “Changed your mind about what?”

Fjord sighs, rubbing his face before he can even take a sip from his flagon. “It’s nothing serious. Ruba’s an old friend of a former captain of mine, considers it her duty to keep an eye out on me. She doesn’t like that I sleep on my boat. But I don’t stray from the sea for long, they don’t like it.”

The emphasis on the they is odd, but Veth shoots her a look that tells her to let it go. “So, Fjord, what do you do that keeps you so busy with a boat?”

The half-orc squints at her. “Your name, first.”

“No.” Veth snorts.

Fjord shrugs. “No name, no reason for me to trust you…”

She tosses one of her braids over her shoulder. “Nott. No K, two Ts.”

An odd choice for a cover name, and Fjord clearly thinks so as well. But he doesn’t question it. “I’m a fisherman by need. I was learning the ways of a navigator under my old captain, but it’s hard to find work when you’re only half trained.”

Veth tilts her head. “What happened to your captain?”

“Ship blew up.” Fjord’s face falls into a stony resolve. “Far as I know, I’m the only one who made it out. And I shouldn’t have.”

Silence takes them quickly, one that Beau does her best to ignore by burying her face in her drink. She tries to focus on the taste of the beer, darker and heavier on her tongue than she’s used to with just a hint of lightness in the foam that has a rich, nutty flavor she doesn’t recognize but does enjoy.

The tension is broken when a young woman appears at the head of the booth and dishes out three bowls of cold red soup with chunks of a variety of vegetables and white meat. “There’s extra scallops and shrimp, at Ruba’s insistence that you look too thin, Fjord.”

However, despite her words, the bowl with the most of the seafood has ended up in front of Beau. Fjord raises a single eyebrow at the redhead. “If you say so Larkin.”

Larkin turns her smile to Beau. “Miss.” She gives her a half-curtsey and a wink before Ruba is calling for her, and she’s headed back to the bar shouting her response. Beau can feel her cheeks flushing but can’t quite figure out why.

Fjord shakes his head as he spoons his first bite into his mouth. “It’s a rare day that I understand women.”

“Maybe that’s why,” Veth says as drains her pint. “You appear to have been forsaken by them.”

“That’s fine by me.” Fjord mutters around his mouthful.

They eat in silence, letting the last of the lingering awkwardness from earlier wash away. The soup is good, the coolness of it helping relieve the lingering heat that the proximity to the ocean can’t fight back.

Something tickles the back of Beau’s mind, and she can’t abandon the thought. “Fjord, you said you were learning how to be a navigator?”

He nods between mouthfuls of soup. He hasn’t yet noticed that there’s a slight dribble in the corner of his mouth, mixing with a splash of foam from their porter. It makes him look mortal, simple enough that Beau decides she can trust him with this.

“Would you know how to get east of the sun?”

Fjord’s spoon stops halfway up to his mouth. He’s looking at her in a whole new way, wonder creeping into his expression and chasing away the vague fondness he had been wearing. “I don’t suppose you also need to get west of the moon as well?”

Veth does not look pleased at his response. “Fjord, do you think it’s really kind to –“

“Veth, please let him talk.” Beau begs as she looks back to Fjord. “I’m looking for someone there.”

Fjord raises an eyebrow at that. “Oh, not Nott then.” Veth scowls at him, but doesn’t interrupt as he continues. “I’ve never been, but a friend of mine used to visit. But it is a real place, despite what they say up in the Empire.”

“How do you know it’s real?” Veth’s challenging him not out protectiveness and not a need to be rude, Beau can tell that by the way the halfling begins to link her arm with Beau’s, leverage if Fjord says something that makes them need to bolt.

He notices their shift in posture, but doesn’t say anything about it. “I didn’t grow up here. I was left in an orphanage in Xhorhas as a baby. It’s – Well, I mean…” Fjord twists his mouth, clearly struggling with choosing the right words. “So the Bright Queen rules Xhorhas, right? But there are parts of it that no mortal should touch. There’s a different queen who rules over the rest of it, a woman touched by the divine. Apparently, everyone who lives east of the sun and west of the moon resides in her castle that is carved from ice.”

Beau feels her spoon slip from her fingertips and clatter on the table. “Another castle?”

“It’s the only one I know about?” Fjord tilts his head while he tries to recall any other information. “But the queen passed away a handful of years back and erm, two of my friends back home were arrested for conspiracy charges right after. It’s why I fled across the ocean.”

Their path from here is clear, as much as it adds to the growing sense of dread in Beau’s gut. “How do we book passage to Xhorhas?”

“You can’t.” Fjord looks apologetic. “The Empire’s been pushing the Menagerie Coast to stop trade with Xhorhas because of their strained relationship, and the Concord caved a couple of months ago.”

Veth screws up her face as she stares into her half-eaten dinner. “I didn’t realize it had gotten so ugly.”

Fjord nods, debating something with himself. “I could take you, though.”

“What’s your going rate?” Beau thinks of the apple in her bag, wonders if it will be enough.

He squints for just a moment, then shakes his head with a laugh. “You know what, help me man my boat and I’ll consider it paid.”

“You’re crazy.” Veth declares. “We’re strangers, we could be from anywhere fleeing the law, and you’re just going to – “

“Let you aboard my piece of shit fishing boat that I sleep on because I can’t afford a real roof? Call it a hunch, but I have almost nothing to lose and a good feeling about you two. Besides,” Fjord waves his hand, “I’ve been meaning to get back to Xhorhas for a while. Have some folks there I haven’t seen in a long while.”

“You have no idea how reassuring it is to hear you have friends that aren’t criminals.” Veth retorts from behind a grin.

 

They stay the night and are up at dawn to prepare for the three week journey. Fjord sends them out with supply lists and a bit of money that Veth adds to along their way to the open-air market. Beau’s stubbornness and years of being on the other side of the seller-customer relationship save them some coin, and Veth’s sticky fingers mean that they return with more money than they were sent out with. Fjord takes care of sending John and Loaf back to Yeza and Luc with a six page letter from Veth, paying off a courier who had a job that was taking him near Felderwin anyways. They meet back at the Sinking Sun within the hour. Fjord takes them further down the docks, where boats are moored for longer periods of time.

Fjord’s boat is a schooner, two masted with a staysail. She looks grand enough on her own, but is dwarfed by nearly every other ship in port. Privately, Beau worries that a monstrous enough wave would break the boat. She’d seen enough winter storms from the castle in the cliffs to know how nasty the ocean can get. But she keeps her worry to herself, and instead scrambles around the boat with Veth as they follow Fjord’s commands to get it in running condition. Veth is trusted in holding the ship steady when Beau and Fjord hop back out to untie from the docks.

“What do we call her?” Beau asks as she unwraps the last cleat and follows Fjord’s lead and begins to walk the boat down to the edge of the dock.

Fjord nods at her to jump back in, and follows her lead with a final push from the docks. “Tide’s Grave.” He replies.

An alarmed noise comes from Veth’s position on the stern. “A bit bleak, don’t you think.”

All Fjord gives them is another shrug in return, and begins to scatter some fishing supplies out so they look like they’re leaving port with an intention. Beau and Veth exchange mildly confused looks, before Veth decides to go below deck to begin unpacking supplies and Fjord is calling for Beau’s help with the bowline.

They get out to the open ocean without much fanfare, and it doesn’t take long before the port fades behind the horizon. They’re all kept busy, with Fjord’s occasional shouted instructions pulling them to different parts of the ship. He doesn’t go long between agitated glances out at the ocean, like he’s looking down for something he doesn’t want to find. And Fjord doesn’t need to do it often before Beau and Veth both pick up on it.

“For a fisherman, you seem awfully nervous to be on the ocean.” Veth remarks.

Fjord raises an eyebrow. “Maybe it’s because I’m a fisherman I know how to show the sea some proper respect.”

Something in his voice doesn’t quite connect, doesn’t sound right. For the first time since meeting him, Beau feels herself growing suspicious. “The ocean feeds you, provides you with means of living. Why would it want you to fear it?”

“She contains forces of prosperity and ruin.” Fjord counters as he pulls out a compass from his breast and settles it on his flat palm so he can check their direction. “We toe a line every time we leave the shore.”

“So melodramatic.” Veth complains from where she’s settled, cross-legged in the middle of the boat near the hatch to the lower level. “I’m not that bad, and I was drowned one time.”

Beau nearly drops the rigging screw she’s holding. “You were what?”

 

The boat is really understaffed with the three of them, it handles like it was built for at least two more. But they make do, mostly with Fjord’s sacrifice of resting for about half of the time he allows them. Beau finds herself taking to the art of sailing, frequently badgering Fjord with questions. He answers what he can, apologizes when he comes up short. Veth never does tell them how she drowned, but if Beau had to guess she would place it around the whole stolen-body ordeal she had told her about earlier.

With little to do other than maintain the boat and trust that Fjord knows where they are, Beau  takes to working out again. She drags the others into competitions when she can, even though both of them know they're just competing for second place. Occasionally she’ll read aloud from her mother’s book, but always stops before she gets to the pages where the flowers are pressed. Fjord and Veth take turns coming up with increasingly ludicrous stories to finish out the collection.

Fjord’s company is an interesting change of pace. He doesn’t pry and ask questions that make Beau feel like he’s staring at her soul like Veth does. He’s content to listen when she wants to rant, offer what advice he can. Every time they talk Beau feels like she’s so close to getting at what’s eating at him, what makes him go quiet at night and stare a little too intensely towards the bottom of the sea, but they never quite get there. But Beau doesn’t mind that he doesn’t know her darkest secrets, and she feels like the sentiment is returned.

Their last night on the open ocean, Veth gets to sleep the full night. Beau’s on second watch, and rises on her own just after midnight has passed. Still half-asleep, she drags herself to the upper deck to relieve Fjord.  He greats her with a nod, but doesn’t move from where he’s standing, arms resting on the railing and watching the night sky. Beau joins him to see what he’s looking at, but it becomes clear he’s meditating on something internal.

He breaks their comfortable quiet with a shaky breath. “You and Veth have been… Weirdly good for me I think.” Fjord says. “It’s been so long since I’ve had people to care about. I’ve lived so much of my adulthood as a transient that I forgot how to care for people. Being attached to others is important, reminds us what matters. But sometimes the people we would expect to stay closest to us wind up the furthest away.“ He goes oddly quiet at her side. “Would you close your eyes for me, Beau?”

“Are you about to shove me into the water as some weird blood sacrifice?” Beau asks as she obliges him, not entirely serious but not sure what Fjord’s getting at.

“What? Gods, no why… Never mind.” Beau hears rather than sees Fjord smack himself on the forehead. “I want to give you something. It belonged to my parents, or so I was told.”

He takes one of her hands, turns the palm open and places something of a not insignificant weight there. Beau waits for him to give her permission to open her eyes, and when she does she can’t stop her mouth from falling open.

It’s a comb with a single row of thick golden teeth. They’re driven into a thick handle made of white wood. A grip is fashioned into the wood, similar to the fused bands of rings Beau had seen seedier folk wear. The wood is decorated with roses and tulips in full bloom, a vision of springtime. There is a curve to the handle like it’s used for pulling, and Beau somehow knows it must be part of a set. “Do you have its twin?”

He shakes his head. “If there is one, I’m don’t know of it.”

The comb’s teeth glow in the moonlight. They’re almost longer than the entirety of Beau’s hand.  She finally recognizes the comb to be like the one that the woman who wove yarn used back in Kamordah. “This is for carding.” 

Fjord shrugs. “I have no idea what that is.”

Beau raises the comb up higher, squints at the stars through the teeth like they will divine her some meaning. “You know if you spin wool…” His confusion does not shift. “Hold on, Fjord, what were you using it for, then?”

“Um, a comb? Not a very good one but –“

Beau has to shove her fist in her mouth to keep her laughter at a level that won’t wake Veth. “Fjord!” She squeaks as she waves the comb in his direction. “You used this to keep your hair neat?”

“I just told you that this is the last relic of parents I may never know, and you’re making fun of me for not deducing its purpose?” He’s whisper-yelling at her, and trying to hide his darkening cheeks, but he carries no malice for her while he does so.

Beau loosens her thin leather tie and digs the teeth of the comb through her hair, stylized grip peaking up like decoration. “A creative take.” She manages between giggles.

Fjord throws up his hands to the night sky. “Truly, I don’t know why I bother.”

“Aww, don’t sound too crotchety now.” Beau throws an arm around and pulls him to her, as close to a hug as the pair feel comfortable enough willing to admit that they want. “Or I’ll have to insist you sit the next pushup competition out, old man.”

“And make Veth lose outright? You would never.” He correctly guesses. Fjord takes a heavy breath, and settles his head on top of Beau’s, carefully avoiding the comb. Neither pull away from the lazy hug, and watch the reflection of starlight on the still ocean for a long moment.

Beau speaks first, the weight her question carries giving it half a dozen different meanings. “Why?”

“I want to see your journey completed. I’ve grown invested in your happiness, Veth’s too, and I don’t know if that means I get to count you two as friends now but for what it’s worth you both matter to me. I may not know the person you’re seeking or how to get there, but I want to help. And something in my gut is telling me to worry, so I’m trying to listen to that feeling. I don't know how this could help, but I hope it can.”

Beau’s hand rises to the comb intended for an entirely different purpose that she’s affixed to her hair and she thinks of the silver flower-shaped bell given to her by Yasha. “My wife was taken there.” She whispers.

This is what makes Fjord pull away, and he stares at her for a long moment. He’s searching for a lie, but he won’t find any trace on Beau’s face. He lays a firm hand on her shoulder when he realizes it and gives her a tight squeeze.

“Well then.” Fjord replies. “I’d best do everything I can to help you get her back.”

“What kind of friend would you be if you didn’t?” Beau teases, and she allows herself to feel hope for the first time since she’d woken up alone in that strange forest.

Chapter Text

As the dawn breaks, they land the Tide’s Death on a rocky abandoned coastline; Fjord steers it in a covered cove he says that he occasionally swam in while growing up. They’re a day’s walk from Rosohna, the city where Fjord was raised and, allegedly, where more help awaits them.

They do everything they can to help prepare the schooner for storage, but Beau and Veth don’t know the ship as well as Fjord and once that everything left to do can be managed by one person, he begs them off the boat.

They’ve been standing in silence for a couple of minutes, watching Fjord race above and below deck as he mutters to himself, when there’s a jostling motion at Beau’s side that makes her look down. The still-rising sun that shines into the covered part of the cove reflects spectacularly off the dagger that Veth removes from her belt.

“I can do your hair for you.” She offers. “If you’d like.”

Beau’s hand goes to ghost the back of her neck, and is surprised by the inch or so of hair she finds there. She rarely actively checks her undercut, and Beau’s mind has been so distracted that she hadn’t thought to ask either of her traveling companions for help. She’s already falling to her knees on the ragged stone before she can remember to respond.

“Yes, please.”

Veth hums her affirmative as she angles Beau’s head and reties her topknot-turned-ponytail to better keep the hair Beau wishes to keep out of the way. Where TJ always went with speed, desperate to avoid a collective scolding from their father, and Beau had to be achingly deliberate and with the help of multiple mirrors in the castle, Veth’s hands are steady and smooth. She’s gentle with how she holds Beau’s head, never hesitating and firm in all of her movements. It’s the comfort and love of a type of touch that had grown unfamiliar to her in the past eleven years.

“Do you miss them?” Beau whispers as the knife hugs her scalp and last month’s grow out falls to her shoulders and the rough rock below. “Yeza and Luc?”

“Constantly.” Veth replies, tilts the angle of the blade ever so slightly. “You miss your gaggle of siblings?”

Beau makes an effort not to move her head, but the amount of air she draws into her lungs manages to make her tremble just a little. “Of course. But they’re growing, and there’s still so many of them to keep an eye out for each other. It’s… different.” It’s not how she misses Yasha, like a burning hole in her chest that Beau managed to foolishly put there herself. It’s not the dull ache of the loss of her mother that is finally almost bearable most days that Beau is unsure will ever really leave her.

“It was easier, before.” Veth sighs as she continues her work at a slower pace.

Beau says nothing in reply, just waits for the halfling woman to finish gathering her thoughts as the last of the undercut is complete and Veth begins to dust the hair from Beau’s shoulders.

“Before it was always something I had to do. I was the last of my family left uncursed, I had to free them. I hated the body I was trapped in, to not traverse the planes of existence to make the it right wasn’t an option for Yeza and I. When you have no other option…” She’s clearly not satisfied with the words at her disposal, but Veth’s trying very hard to make herself understood. “Having to choose to leave is different.”

A cold thing wraps itself around Beau’s heart as a sense of dread creeps in. “I hope I haven’t trapped you into helping me.”

Veth’s hands still, and her arms come to wrap around Beau’s shoulders and pull her backwards into a hug. “Never. Coming was the right choice, I haven’t regretted it once.” She sucks a breath between tightly-pressed lips. “Still doesn’t make it easy.”

Beau wills the tears of gratitude gathering at the corner of her eyes to draw themselves back. “I think Yasha would like Luc. If it’d be okay for us to visit you, after everything.”

The arms release her and help pull Beau back up to standing position. “I crossed a fucking ocean to help bring you back to her, if she doesn’t like Luc I’m going to take offense. He’s perfect.”

“Who’s perfect now?” Fjord’s refined cadence comes from their left, boat evidently having been secured. He carries a single backpack that he tosses Beau’s way.

Beau catches the bag reflexively, and as soon as her mind realizes why, she’s talking over Veth in objection. “You’re making me the pack mule?”

“It’s your impossible quest we’re on.” He winks at her, the cheeky shit. But Beau can’t hide her smile as she tosses their singular bag of supplies over her shoulder. It’s a little awkward to manage with her rabbit-furred pouch that is growing increasingly full a she collects more friends and trinkets, but taking them both is not unbearable.

A huff catches both their attention, and Veth is feigning exasperation with crossed arms. “The perfect one is my son. And I reckon he’s got more sense than the two of you combined.”

They’re begin to walk the length of the cove out to where the stone doesn’t bend to create a shell, back towards the morning sun and open sky. Fjord takes point as he leads them on a trail he’s clearly dedicated to memory, but turns back with a smile and invites himself in to their earlier conversation.

“Tell me more about your perfect son.”

 

The story about how Luc can animate his toys to life fills most of their morning. When Veth’s finished, Beau picks it up with recollections of her three-room childhood home. Fjord is quiet, more content to listen and keep an eye on their path than contribute. Beau finds herself wondering about his early days and how he found friends that he doesn’t hesitate to show up unannounced with two strangers, but she doesn’t prod.

It’s the first day in a long while that she doesn’t talk about Yasha. She holds her White Bear close, keeps her as a comfort. She can feel them drawing nearer, feels it in her bones, and Beau fears that if she speaks on that her patchwork plan will fall to pieces.

Veth and Fjord do her the mercy of not asking, not even as they settle down for the night. In these past weeks, the three of them have developed just one unspoken rule; if someone doesn’t want to talk about something, don’t make them. 

They settle in a wave of tall plants within a sprawling prarie that night, obscured from the main path, when the twin moons take dominion of the sky. There’s a moment when they bicker over taking watch, but weeks of travel at sea has made them all long for solid ground beneath their bodies as they rest and, foolishly or not, no one stays up that night. The road has been quiet, and there’s no reason for that to change under the cover of darkness.

Beau rises the next morning with the sun, and decides to let her companions rest a while longer. She eats her portion of the rest of their rations from Port Damali and begins to fiddle with the silvery leaves of the herb that is scattered around the tall grasses of the meadow. The flowers the plant does yield would barely be called that by some, clustered pale yellow small things.

The body at her left stirs, and Veth’s dark eyes are blinking awake as Beau rolls a flower between her thumb and ring finger. Veth pulls at a silver-green leaf near her, smells it, takes a small nibble, and chews it before gracelessly spitting it out.

“You’re playing with wormwood, dear.” Veth says as she leans over to kick Fjord awake. She’s gentle about it. Mostly. “Great for indigestion. And a good dozen other things, if you ask an alchemist not worth their weight in salt.”

Beau’s light laughter gets drowned out by Fjord’s sleepy groans of resistance as he too raises his head from the earth. “I’ll take your word for it.” She replies as she digs through her bag to pull out the book and preserve a few of the buds. Yasha always appreciated a flower with a purpose. Beau would have asked to steal a pennyroyal if Veth’s bluntness hadn’t thrown her.

When she’s finished, her friends are at their feet and ready to go. Beau joins them as she slips the book back to its place with her other worldly possessions, and they set off once Fjord has been provided his share of their food.

He does warn them about the dark nature of Rosohna, but it still throws Beau. They hadn’t even reached the city proper when the midday sun vanishes from the sky. There’s barely enough light provided by the recreations of the cosmos to illuminate the trail ahead, so they rely on Fjord to lead, who not only has home-field advantage, but whose eyes are largely unbothered by the dark.

Throws the occasional “Light be with you.” At pairs of guards that look a little too suspicious of Beau’s presence, but their general weariness and hesitancy to lift their gazes from above the ground give them the luxury of passing largely unnoticed. With a hushed voice, Fjord explains that his friend has a home in the Coronas. A stain has been left on his ledger from their rowdy connections in their teens. This has kept him in relative poverty, limiting his work opportunities and denying him the chance to study, despite his incredible intelligence. When it is light enough for her to catch Veth’s eye again, Beau knows that the fondness with which Fjord speaks of his friend is the only thing keeping their reservations at bay.

 

The house Fjord stops them at is all together unassuming, though comparatively newer to a lot of the surrounding constructions. Fjord knocks twice on the door, but when it does swing open there’s no one at eye level awaiting them.

This is explained by the voice that squeaks out “Fjord!” from what’s about knee-height to Beau. A small feathered black creature is blinking up at them with bright golden eyes.

“Kiri!” Fjord swoops down to pick up the girl in his arms, and she trills in response. Beau and Veth shuffle inside the home behind him, and as Beau is closing the front door she hears Fjord ask, “Still have that dagger I gave you?”

“It’s sharp.” She says in a perfect mimic of Fjord’s voice.

Veth looks appalled at this. “You gave that baby a knife?”

“That baby!” She chirps back in affirmation, now sounding just like Veth.

“Huh.” Beau wonders as she takes in the little girl. She’s got now idea how old she is, or how to even start guessing with a bird humanoid, but her mimicry behavior is reminding Beau of a habit the twins fall into when they get irritated with everyone else except each other. “Pretty neat trick you’ve got there, Kiri.”

An arm of black feathers is extended her way in a form of greeting. When she says “Kiri,” she now sounds just like Beau.

As she makes introductions with Veth, Fjord explains their relationship. “Kiri was abandoned in the city when she was little more than a bundle of feathers in a blanket. Our friend found her in the dumpster of a brothel. Kenku are really uncommon this far east, but no one would take her in other than the orphanage where we grew up. She’s five now, but only was recently adopted by Caleb.”

“Well, speak of the devil.” The thickly accented voice belongs to a pale man who stands in the hallway. He stands a couple of inches shorter than Beau, reddish hair gathered in an attempt at a neat ponytail. He gives the appearance of being put together, cleanshaven and fairly nice clothes. Closer inspection reveals that the majority of what he’s wearing has to be a half decade old, if not older. Bits of his apparel are less worn, like someone had been trying to keep him fashionably up to date with gifts. The dark purple scarf, which doesn’t really match the weathered long coat he’s thrown over his underlayer, and the practically unscuffed dark boots stand out in particular.

Despite his eagerness to embrace Kiri, Fjord has only exchanged a deep nod with Caleb. Caleb’s Common is throaty, it clearly not his first language. “Ah, but names! Not your real ones, mind you.”

Fjord rolls his eyes at his friend. “He’s got this thing –“

“A completely valid one, you hear?” His accent is familiar, Beau just can’t quite place it. “Full names have power; they are for trusted folk and I am but a stranger.” It finally clicks.

“You’re Zemnian.” Beau tilts her head in slight awe. He’s a long way from home, almost as far as she is.

“And still sounds like one, despite leaving his home country over a decade ago.” Fjord teases as Kiri twists in his arms so she can face outwards.

“He’s sentimental.” The bird girl chirps in a voice that belongs to no one in the room, a cool and soothing cadence back.

Veth holds out her hand, which Caleb grasps firmly. “I’m Veth. Fjord’s taken us here because of  -“

“Me. Beau.” She gives him a quick head-check in lieu of a handshake.

He gives her one in return.  “Charmed. As much as I would love to assume otherwise, I’m guessing this is not a house visit born of pleasure.”

“Go on.” Fjord gives Beau an encouraging nod over the bundle of black feathers that has snuggled back into his chest. “Ask him for directions.”

When Beau had asked that question of Veth and Fjord, she had been hesitant. Life in the mountains makes one skittish, slow to trust and it’s not behavior that’s easily unlearned, even with love. But Yasha had spent so long fighting Beau’s worst instincts, and Veth and Fjord had chipped just enough away that Beau feels… emboldened. Nothing other than pure determination had hold of her now.

“Can you tell me how to get to the castle that lay east of the sun and west of the moon?”

Caleb looks at her for a heavy moment, expression unreadable. “That is the question that has driven you across the sea then. Follow me.”

He leads her away, down a hallway that bends to a door that has them tucked away from the eyeline of the three they’d left near in the entry room. They achieve privacy for real when Caleb opens the door, revealing a room of full bookshelves, a writing desk that matches the one in the entry room, and a curiously empty middle, occupied only by a rug.

Caleb shuts the door behind Beau, and turns to stare her square in the eye. “Why do you need to go there?” He’s steely, tone completely unreadable.

“I need to find my wife.” She won’t have time with him like she’d had with Fjord. Caleb wasn’t as inclined to help and is likely nowhere near as trusting as his friend. “My name is Beauregard Lionett. A white bear showed up outside my home last fall and my father traded our family’s safety for my hand in marriage to her. She’s a woman, her name is Yasha, and I looked upon her face at night so her step-father stole her back home. I need to know how to get there so I can see her again.” And break the curse. And maybe kill Obann. But none of that was more important than looking into those mismatched eyes one last time, even if it was all that was destined.

The thought of Yasha rejecting her after all of this terrified her. She had no proof for it, you could convincingly cite Yasha’s reaction to having the tallow spilled on her and just holding Beau as counterevidence. But the possibility would never be gone until she saw Yasha’s face again, and its threat is only fed by passing time.

Caleb’s eyebrows rise into the strands of hair that have come loose from his ponytail. “That is all you can give me?”

“It’s all I have –“ Beau felt her throat strain over the last syllable, the pitiful sound of her voice breaking, and she knows desperation is painted plainly on her face.

“So there you must go, come late or come never.” Caleb’s face finally reveals its intentions to her with a soft smile. “I shouldn’t be surprised. The Princess has inspired this type of loyalty before, in me and my friends. Come here, Beauregard.”

Beau follows him, dragging her feet as she tries to process Caleb’s response. “Princess?”

He gives her an arched eyebrow, but judgement is absent from his face. “I assumed you knew.”

“She didn’t tell me anything until the night I fucked it up… Maybe she couldn’t?” Beau thinks of those many, many days Yasha spent absent from the palace, unable to explain why. Like her voice was stolen from her every time she tried. “She spoke of her mother once, but not in much detail.”

“Well she was a queen mother, regardless of what she says or doesn’t say otherwise. Since you seek Yasha, this was meant for you.”  

He waves his hand and the emptiness of the room reveals itself to be  an illusion. In the center of the circle rug is occupied by a spinning-wheel, gold like the teeth of the carding comb, like the apple that resided next to it in her satchel. 

As is her instinct whenever she’s faced with an ounce of generosity, Beau’s brain short circuits. “Caleb, I don’t understand – “

“Then understand this.” The weight of Caleb’s hand is firm on her shoulder. “I have no allegiance left to anything in the world, other than Kiri, Essek and Fjord. When I do this for you, it is because I believe in you. I don’t think anyone has ever said that to you, Beauregard Lionett.”

Not like that, not like they mean it. Beau’s left with a gaping mouth, staring dumbly at Caleb as he shrinks the spinning wheel down to the size of a dollhouse toy with another wave of his hand and mumbling of a few words. Through a spoke, he threads a silver wire that he’s procured from a hidden pouch.

“I had a friend tell me about you. A woman with sapphire colored eyes and a hole in her heart.” Caleb wraps his arms around Beau’s neck, ties the magically shrunken spinning-wheel long enough that she could tuck it in her clothes and hide it from any passersby. “This wheel was a gift to me from that friend, but always intended for you.“

He’s cryptic and dancing away from what she’s really trying to get at. “But I don’t understand why.”

His smile is sad, but it doesn’t dull Caleb’s wit. “The universe works in funny ways, Beauregard.”

And Gods, what is there to say to any of that? A flash of anger bubbles in her chest, not at Caleb and the point he’s making, but at the world itself. “I think the universe mostly likes to take from me.” Caleb only gives her an expectant look, so Beau sighs and begins to count off on her fingers. “It’s robbed me of my mother and my stepmothers, not as bad as what it’s done to you and Fjord but… It still hurts. And now I might lose Yasha, if I haven’t already.”

“Beau. You’ve extended me grace with this, but understand.” Caleb’s attempting to look dead serious, but all Beau can think is that he wears the expression of a man much too haunted for his age. “I am where I am and ended up in this city with no fault but my own. The fire that consumed my home was not an unlucky bit of fate. I am not a good person, despite what Fjord has convinced himself of. I want to help you, not just because I had a friend tell me to, but because you came in here and gave me the truth, no strings attached, and to do anything else would be a disservice to your courage. I may not be good, but I am not a jackass. Understood?”

Beau’s not sure that she does. Caleb seems like he’s believing everything that he’s saying, but if what he’s implying is the truth… She finds it hard to believe that a teenager would murder his parents and then have the wits to flee a country, and either walk for months across the continent or hop on a boat for three weeks to wind up picking an odd city and giving himself to an orphanage. This has less to do with her judgement of Caleb’s character, and her trying to picture TJ or herself at that age do the same thing and just coming up with nothing. Fjord may be a touch too laid back for her tastes, but she’s willing to bet that he’s got a more unbiased take on the situation.

But arguing with Caleb now won’t help her now. So she agrees. “I understand.”

He looks relieved, Beau wonders if it’s by her statement or the fact that she didn’t hit him for what he claimed to do. “The princess is not lost to you yet.” And now he’s being so earnest, and damn it if that doesn’t endear him to Beau just a little more. “You don’t need me to tell you that you cannot allow that to happen.”

 

He’s guiding them back in the entry room, where Kiri, Veth and Fjord are all sitting and having an upbeat conversation if the happy noises coming from the bird girl are any indication. When he speaks again, Caleb is addressing the room.

“I will do my best to take you east of the sun and west of the moon. I may know a way, but it’s a long shot and I’ll have to take you to the home of the East Wind.” His eyes drop away from their faces, and settle on a meager desk that looks ready to collapse under the weight of paper it holds alone. “Let me settle Kiri and leave a note first, Essek will skin me if he comes home to her with a run of the place and no explanation.”

That revelation clearly surprises Fjord, who rises first from the floor. “Caleb, I can stay with her. I didn’t realize you and Essek –“

Caleb is shaking his head, despite not looking at any of them as he cuts Fjord off. “He’s fallen out of some favor with the Bright Queen and taken up lodging with us instead of the palace. Allows him to have his trance in peace, without being disturbed with some busybody errand. It’s been helpful, having an extra pair of eyes around to keep the little one out of trouble and starting her education.”

Kiri seems pleased by her mention, and in the same smooth voice from earlier chirps. “She’s a  clever girl.”

“And…?” Fjord tries, teasing glint in his eyes that has become oh-so familiar to Beau.

Caleb finishes the note and twists his head over his shoulder as he blindly replaces the quill and folds it so the ink will dry and still be legible. “That is all Fjord. Let it be.” He crouches down to be eye-level with Kiri. “You’ll be a good spatz now, until Essek comes back from the Gallimaufry. Stay busy?”

In response, Kiri opens her mouth and a melody of piano notes flows out. She does a little dance to them, and Caleb’s fond smile is peaceful until he looks back at the group. “I can take us to the East Wind.” He begins to fiddle with the same pouch he pulled the silver wire from earlier.

Veth tilts her head. “She’s Logi, right? I always mix up her and the other woman…” She snaps her fingers as she attempts to recall the other name. “Hler.”

A faint humming noise comes, as Caleb’s digging is taking him a moment. “Those are their worship names, who’s prayed to. She has you call her a different name, if you have the pleasure of meeting her.”

Something stirs at the back of Beau’s memory as, without thinking, her fingers rise to fiddle with the jade earring. Her sister’s kittens…

Fjord is awestruck with his friend. “You met her? Caleb why didn’t you write me, that’s incredible!”

“Logi tries to keep her family’s safety, I feared a letter would be stolen.” He hesitates for just a moment, before choosing honesty. “And she’s become dear friend and mentor. It would be, ah, uncouth for me to betray her trust.“

“You’re friends with the East Wind?” Veth’s gaze is fixed on Kiri as she tugs Caleb’s sleeve so she may bestow a kiss to his cheek before she scuttles off to some other room. “How in Erathis’s clenched fist did that happen?”

“I’m a wizard.” The shock from Veth and Beau, which initially catches him off-guard, quickly fades into amusement. “Did Fjord not mention that? She taught me everything I know, well, what’s worth knowing anyways.”

Fjord gives Caleb a quizzical look at that claim, but it’s quickly overshadowed by Veth’s excitement. “You must visit me, when this is over. My son has magic in him and we’ve been unable to find a tutor for miles around us.”

A hesitant smile quirks on his face. “And here in Rosohna seems more reasonable to you. What am I to do, pick between traversing the entire continent and sailing for three weeks every time there’s lessons?”

“You can stay with us, Kiri too. We have a spare room. Besides, you might learn something from my husband too, he’s a talented alchemist.” Veth’s much warmer with Caleb than she’s been with Fjord. Her kindness to Beau still feels like a reflex more than a choice, like how you’d be gentle to a kicked dog. But to this ragged, exhausted man, she’s apparently found something she likes very much. Beau wonders what exactly it is Veth sees in him that has won her suspicious nature so easily over.

But she’s also still stuck on the first revelation. “Luc has magic?’

“Of course.” Veth’s giving her a mildly confused look. “He can move his toys into the air with his mind, and he’s been summoning a spectral hand to help with his chores when he thinks we’re not looking. Your father keeps nine children under a roof, and none of you have an ounce of magic?”

Sigrun said she talked to her cats. Beau hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but now it’s starting to form a headache just below her brow. “I don’t know, we never talked about that sort of thing.” She tears her eyes away from the too-perceptive halfling in a desperate attempt to bring them back on track.  “Caleb, what do I owe you for bringing us to the East Wind?”

“I’ve already given the spinning-wheel, Beauregard.” He shoots her teasing wink, hands full of chalk. “What’s one more little favor?

Caleb drops to his knees and begins to draw out arcane symbols, some Beau even recognizes from faded illustrations of her mother’s storybooks. The sigil is complete within a minute, and they are all four consumed by a burst of amber light.

Chapter Text

Wherever they reappear, it’s hot. Beau goes to rub the sweat she can already feel collecting at her brow as she takes in the room. The walls are all a dark ash-grey stone, giving the feeling of being in a bubble more than a room. The open stone doorway feeds into a hall with a much higher ceiling, one that Beau doubts she could actually find even if she stared up into the darkness for long enough.

The floor is solid below her boots, but covered in a dusting of powdery gray particles like a thin layer of soil. Sulfur and mildew hang in the air. The mountains in Kamordah hadn’t been active in over a century, but Beau could never forget what volcanic ash smells like.

Caleb takes point as he leads them through several winding bends, muttering to Fjord the whole way. Beau knows that she should keep close and try eavesdropping, but she’ll forgive herself for being too deep in thought as she contemplates… wherever Caleb has taken them.

It could remind her of the castle in the cliffs, but it’s too different. That castle was enchanted, Yasha told her so. The ground now is too solid, the flaws in the stone too random to be anything but real. This place was carved by nature.

They round a final corner and are in what can only be a throne room. The walls are bare, and there’s nothing in the realm of what could be described as furniture around save for a single hunk of charcoal stone, made special only by the decorative whirl shape the back formed into. The person sitting in the throne appears to be sleeping, but their head still snapped in the groups direction when they drew near.

Caleb falls into a deep bow, which Veth and Fjord quickly copy, but the figure in front of Beau has her too shocked to remember what the proper manners likely are.

A tall woman with fawn’s ears sits on the cathedra. Her skin is a light purple hue, a likeness that Beau had never seen on a humanoid. Her hair appears to be mostly pink, with wild streaks of blue, green, yellow and many other hues. It’s hard to tell what’s been added to her mane, as she’s also adorned herself with many kinds of flowers, scattered around without any pattern or much intention. You would expect an airy tone from her, so it catches Beau off guard when she speaks with a booming voice.

“Who dares to –“ She snaps her pink eyes open just before her brow twitches in recognition, and a smile is taking over her face as the glow fades from her eyes, revealing a softer pink hue. “Oh, hi Caleb!”

She’s rising from her seat and races towards them. The closer she gets the taller is, and by the time she’s near enough to throw her arms around Caleb in an enthusiastic embrace, Beau would wager she stands at over six foot five.

“Hello, Logi.” Caleb mumbles into her wild hair.

“Caleb. I told you to call me Clarabelle. Logi is so formal, and we’re friends!” She releases him, and seems to notice the rest of them for the first time. “Speaking of friends, who are yours?”

“This is Fjord, I’ve told you of him before.” Caleb starts by waving at the half-orc, who bashfully raises his hand only for it to be grasped half-way and shaken in an excitable greeting by the East Wind.

“Fjord, Fjord, a pleasure.” Clarabelle is red-hot with excitement in a terribly infectious way.

Caleb points at Beau and Veth. “These two I haven’t known for quite as long, but I’d vouch for their good nature. Veth,” As he nods at the halfling Clarabelle takes her hand too. “And Beau.”

Beau’s ready to return the greeting with a strong shake of her own, which seems to please their host. The skin on her hands is soft, and she realizes that there’s a thin layer of fur all over Clarabelle's body. “And why have you done the favor of introducing me to them?”

“Caleb has taken me to you so that I may ask a favor.” Beau tries to look respectable with a dip of her head. “Do you know the way to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon?”

“Why d’ya want to go there?” Clarabelle screws up her nose in disgust. “These days you have to be summoned with a spell and well… I don’t know a soul who’s actually wanted to visit since the queen died.”

“The woman I love is there. Yasha stole me away from my home at taught me happiness, and I ruined it by breaking her only rule and casting a light over her face while she slept. She was a bear by day, woman by night, and I didn’t even know her name until right before she was lost to me.” Beau drops her head, sense of shame taking over. “I’m trying to go find her, prove that I meant it when I said I would. If she won’t have me,  then she won’t, but I have to try. So I’m asking for your help. If you find any of what I just said worthy. It’s fine if you don’t.” Beau adds with a mumble.

“I trust you.” Clarabelle speaks with such conviction that Beau finds herself compelled, even though she’s just talking about her. “And Caleb endorsing you doesn’t hurt.”

Caleb rolls his eyes but speaks without malice. “Just like that? I spent months –“

“I’m a firbolg, a fickle fey being!” She tosses her hair over her shoulder in a flashy display. "What matters to me is all that matters, why it matters is so boring."

“I thought firbolgs were…” Veth trails off like she’s changed her mind halfway through speaking, but completes the thought with an urging nod from Clarabelle. “You know, patient and shrewd. Suspicious of outsiders.”

“You sound like my aunt.” They don’t actually see Clarabelle roll her eyes, but the tone does enough to imply it. “We’re still free things of nature. Especially me and my siblings.”

“What makes you so special?” Beau questions.

Clarabelle gives her a funny look. “Odd that you need to ask. But my family serves Melora, goddess of wilderness. My siblings and I were chosen to take up the mantles of the four winds as her mouthpieces. Our father complained that I was too young when She chose us, but I think I’ve grown into my own well enough. And if Melora doesn’t breech the divine gate to stop me herself, then I can’t be doing that bad.”

She earns herself a collection of laughs from the rest of her at her own self-deprecation. When Beau looks back to her, those pink eyes are locked on her with the hint of a challenge.

“Beau, we’ll speak alone for a moment. Follow me.” Clarabelle turns with a swish of her tail and ducks behind the towering stone of her throne. Beau follows, and is surprised to see what must be an entryway to a private room, obscured from her vision by a curtain made of small black beads. When she reaches out to touch them, the porous nature of the stone reveals itself to her. Like everything else in this… castle? Manor? Beau hadn’t thought to ask. Wherever Clarabelle lives, it all seems to be made of the hard stone around her.

She has to admit, the dedication to the aesthetic is impressive, if nothing else. Beau pushes the curtain aside, and steps through the doorway.

The room it leads to isn’t actually a room, but a balcony that overlooks a field of more black rock. The only disruption to the stone field is a river of dark molten material, pushing its way across the plateau until it reaches the edge, where it runs of the side and forms a waterfall of lava. The air out here is somehow hotter, muggier and Beau wonders how Clarabelle isn’t as drenched as she is, insulated by that soft extra layer of fur.

She stands at the dark metal railing, watching the flow of molten rock with intensity that would indicate it was a direct threat in this moment. “I’m cursed by many in Exandria.” Clarabelle says it casually, not a drop of malice in her voice. “They blame the East Wind for much. Bringing winter, feeding bushfires. General ruin.”

Slowly, Beau strides out to join her, though she doesn’t see anything new from her slightly shifted position. “My father is the suspicious type, he always vowed that a strong eastern wind meant a mountain would explode and we’d be buried in ash.” She says. “Just because it never came true once couldn’t stop him from believing it.”

“Who cares about what your father thinks?” Clarabelle asks, firecracker grin creeping its way on her face. “You stand in front of me Beau, not him. What does the East Wind mean to you?”

She thinks for a moment, but all she can do is shake her head. “I never thought of the wind as anything more than that. All winds bring change I suppose, but that doesn’t make it good or bad. Maybe the shift of the breeze spreads a wildfire. But it also carries seeds that can fill a meadow with color come springtime.“ She nods towards Clarabelle’s adorned mane. “As numerous and beautiful as the ones you keep with you.”

The firbolg pulls one of the pink hollyhocks from her hair, and presses it into Beau’s hands. “This is one called mountain mallow. They’re terribly fragile once they bloom, but the seeds they give are so durable that they can lay dormant for decades.”

Beau raises the flower to her eye level, tries to imagine a seed so tough. “Then how do they germinate?”

“Extreme heat. Like wildfires.” Clarabelle is expecting Beau’s fevered glance that shoots over, looks as calm as anything. “Destruction is not evil. It can even yield birth.”

As Beau cradles the petals between her fingertips, Clarabelle lets out a happy hum. “Keep it with the rest, in that book in your bag.” She suggests.

Beau wants to ask how she knew, but that hint of mischief in the firbolg’s eyes tells her even if she did ask, Clarabelle would evade her. Just as well, her instruction saves Beau from needing to request permission.

“The rest of you.” Clarabelle raises her voice, and several beats later, Caleb, Veth and Fjord push past the curtain of volcanic beads to join them.

Veth’s eyes are as wide as saucers as she takes in the seemingly unending lava fields, and Fjord’s amazed expression is a close mirror to Beau’s. Only Caleb is unaffected, deferring to his instructor.

“I’m going to take you westwards. My brother who resides there is the eldest, there is much he knows, and he may know this too. I’ll carry you on my back, the same way I taught Caleb.” She traces out a lose shape in the air with her fingers, which earns her a smile from the wizard.

“Should I take shape too, help with the load?” He asks.

A devilish grin takes Clarabelle’s face for just a moment before she shakes her head.  “As tempted as I am to say yes, my brother will smite you out of the sky since he doesn’t know you. Besides, I’ll travel quicker without having to worry about your ability to keep up.” She shoots him a wink, before she crouches to gather enough momentum to jump onto the railing.

When her feet make contact, they are not the same ones that left the ground. Massive talons grab purchase instead, as Clarabelle’s neck and arms elongate and her hair presses flat into feathers. A giant violet eagle awaits them, somehow still sporting Clarabelle’s fiery smirk.

An impatient squawk leaves her beak, and that’s the invitation Beau needs to scramble aboard. She helps haul up Veth and Caleb, while getting to appreciate the many random multicolored feathers that are scattered within the rest of Clarabelle’s plumage.

“Uhh…” Fjord looks more than a little cagey at the sight of the three of them crowding Clarabelle’s newly feathered back. “Maybe it’s best if I just stay ba-“

His voice is drowned out with the beating of wings as Clarabelle takes flight. Beau presses her chest close to the back of the giant eagle form. She’d grown accustomed to traveling on Yasha’s back while she was in the body of White Bear, but flight had never been something she’d had to calculate for.

The wind is both fresh on her face and screaming in her ear as Clarabelle spins them skywards, only to stop beating her wings. She brings them to a total free-fall, diving towards the balcony with talons outreached. Beau knows that Veth is shrieking behind her, but unless she’s mistaken it’s one of thrill.

Clarabelle snatches up a frightened Fjord, drowns out his complaints with a happy trill, and steers them westward with a speed that makes her dive-bomb feel like something she had done while half-asleep.

 

While she’s grown slightly accustomed to falling asleep while traveling, Beau’s adrenaline never stops pounding long enough for her to get any number of winks it. It’s just as well, because they can’t fly for much longer than an hour before Clarabelle takes a sharp turn upwards and burst through a cluster of dense clouds. Once they rise above them, she accomplishes what would be described as a total crash-landing by polite folk, and an “utter fucking disaster what in the name of every miserable God was that” by Fjord once he’s able to sit himself upright.

Beau’s inclined to agree with his sentiment as she digs around for her hair tie, despite the borderline-hysterical fit of giggles the firbolg-again Clarabelle is in thanks to his misery. They haven’t actually landed in the clouds, despite what Beau’s frazzled mind keeps insisting, but a patch of snow so high up that the clouds kiss the ground. She assumes they’re on some sort of mountain, because if they’re not her brain is really going to start frying and Beau would prefer to keep the scraps of her sanity that remain until she’s back in Yasha’s arms.

Gods, what an unexpected sentimental thought. It’s still concrete enough to make Beau dizzy from heartsickness.

“Coltooooon, I have the girl the princess left the castle for!” Clarabelle shouts upwards as Caleb and Veth pull one another to their feet. She stares ahead, posture indicating indifference to the rest of them as she waits for a response

A pale figure, maybe around Fjord’s height appears out of the flurry of snow and clouds. His sharp purple eyes narrow in an expression Beau knows she used to wear nearly every morning that her siblings would drag her out of bed before sunrise.

“Belle, get out!” He calls as he begins to make a big show of waving his staff.

Clarabelle shimmers out of existence with another laugh. Caleb shakes his head at Beau’s side. “She knows better than to cross domains and truly test him.”

“Then why has she left us here?” Beau hisses as she rubs her hands together, trying to make sense of the form in front of them. He keeps… shifting? The form is unstable, gaining an inch here or there before dropping down to what would be eye-level for Veth as he draws closer.

“Kari, West Wind and keeper of air!” Caleb shouts as he dips into the bow from earlier. This time, Beau doesn’t hesitate to copy him with the other two.

She does nothing but stare downwards, even as she can hear the footsteps draw near her bent form. Normally, she would probably try to sneak a glace up, but her hair is still in a state and Beau bets all she would see is a curtain of brown.

“You’ll do me no favors if you freeze.” The voice finally speaks again, sounding like he’s returned to where he was when Clarabelle disappeared. “Come inside.”

“Your little sister is…” Fjord pauses for a moment, searching for the right word. “Intense”

The body in front of them literally ages at the news. Wrinkles take purchase on his face and the long hair goes whiter than snow and begins to be pulled out in the breeze. “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with her. For that displeasure, you may call my Colton.”

The West Wind, Colton, does not speak again until he navigates them out of their place of misguided landing. Just out of their original line of sight, the small mouth of a cave emerges. The exterior and interior are adorned with reds and browns that form the shapes of wild animals and hand imprints. Inside, there’s a small room with several chambers leading in deeper, but it’s so poorly lit that Beau can’t see further than the centerpiece of the cave. There’s a cathedra here as well, spun impossibly by clouds and shifting shape with the same speed Colton is capable of.

Beau wonders if they’re up high enough to get altitude psychosis.

The snow never stops blowing outside, but the air in here is much warmer. Colton still does nothing but lazily watch them, but his expression and body’s unstable shifting nature is off-putting enough to keep them quiet. Beau’s focused on getting feeling back into her fingertips, and when she does accomplish that, she ties her hair back up with the thin leather cord. As she’s securing it, a sharp intake of air from her left makes the air around her go cold.

Colton’s gaze is locked on her, but not quite making eye contact, as if he’s staring at something over her shoulder. “You. Belle said the princess left her castle for you?”

Beau gives him the smallest nod as her body tries to figure out if she should be angry or fearful under his sudden attention.

“The princess has been brought back home alone.” His eyes narrow so slightly, not suspicious, just curious. “Why has my sister delivered you here?”

 “I need to go east of the sun and west of the moon so that I may see her again.” Beau speaks plainly, not dropping her stare for a moment. “Can you take us there?”

Wariness presents on his face, and his brows shift impossibly close together. “There’s to be a wedding there very soon, and I’m doubtful you’ve been invited if you don’t even know the way. Speak truly now, and tell my why you want to know, or by Melora’s Spire I vow to steal the air from your lungs.”

Beau knows she should be offended by that, and even if she didn’t the variety of displeased sounds coming from her friends behind her should get her angry. Whether it be true or false, Colton’s looking at her with distrust like he’s considering following through on his threat anyways, and that alone would normally spark her temper.

But she can’t. If he were asking this for any other reason, she’d be more than willing to start a fight over it. But it’s for Yasha. Beau would want anyone who’s had to ask half as many times how to find her to be put through this same rigorous testing. She deserves shelter, deserves to be protected.

So, she tells him the truth. “I love her. And I really, really messed things up by breaking the rules and looking at her before our first year together was finished. But I have to try to get back to her, even if it costs me everything.”

Colton’s face is young again. Not new, there’s just the hinting of crow’s feet in his eyes, but still the most youthful he’s looked in talking to them. He curls an arm inwards, holds his hand just below his face and begins to whisper a handful of arcane words. Just above the meat of his palm, a flower begins to form. It’s star-like, with white petals that put the snow to shame.

“Put it with Belle’s.” He instructs, flower stretched outward towards Beau.

She carefully collects the bud, and it takes almost no thought to crack open the spine of her book and rest it besides the pink one she’d been given earlier.  

Veth looks skeptical “Why?”

Colton dismisses her with a wave. “It matters not, not yet at least. Are you up for travel again, or will your bodies require rest?”

“Why do you speak to us like that?” Caleb asks, posture tense as if he’s been wound. “I know your bodies are mortal ones too. Clarabelle says you were chosen for the nature of you ancestry’s long lifespan, not because you’ve been made immortal.”

“Did she now.” Colton’s voice is dry, grey beginning to sneak back into his hair. “She speaks so recklessly, it’s a wonder anyone believes a word she says.”

Beau knows better, but it doesn’t stop her from grabbing the arm of the West Wind. Funny, it feels much more muscled than the smooth skin would imply. “Caleb’s her student. She gave me answers and brought us to you, and all you’ve done is watch us shake in the cold and speak in riddles. We’ve currently got at least a half dozen reasons to believe her over you.” The protective streak for her siblings that she’d been infamous for back in Kamordah has found a home in her newfound friends, and Beau refuses to apologize for it.

The silence is almost as chilled as the air around them as the two stare at one another. Beau feels the telltale sign of anger begin to bubble in her chest, and it takes all the discipline she has not to scream at Colton for no reason.

She’d been given answers for such a brief moment, stupid hope caught her again. Clarabelle has been the exception, not her rule the past few months. As tempting as it is to let her pent up fear and frustration out here and now, she knows that if she does, Yasha will be lost to her and she’ll have dragged three very good people halfway towards the end of the world all for nothing.

“We can travel now.” Fjord says, hand placed on top of Beau’s shoulder, willing the anger to flow out of her and into him, so that he might ground it and send it into the snowy earth to be abandoned.

Colton takes a deep breath, gives Beau another long look before he strides back to the mouth of the ice cave. “I have never blown so far as east of the sun and west of the moon, but our sister who lives in the south may have. She’s from water, adaptable and always changing. Even if she hasn’t been, she may still know how to get there.”

With that, he claps his hands together and the sensation of cool fog runs straight down Beau’s spine. When she looks at her hands, they’ve taken a gaseous form, and so have the bodies of the rest of their companions when she pops her head up to check.

Colton raises his arm, and floats out into the blizzard. The four exchange shrugs, before going out to follow him.

 

For all the time Clarabelle spent taking them skywards, Colton gets them back to the ground in twice the speed. Beau would probably grow sick if she stopped to think about what had been done to them for too long. As far as she had been concerned last autumn, magic didn’t exist. Then she had been given to a talking bear. Being turned into a wind form was just the next moment in the increasingly hysterical series of events that had become her life.

The descent downwards does not stop when they hit the ocean. Colton takes them deeper, further beyond what any mortal would be capable of. Just before it grows too dark for Beau to make out her own fingertips, a glowing crystalline light comes into view. They have to land on the bottom of the ocean to enter the bubble.

“We’re in Hler’s home.” Veth says as the countless shades of blue are absorbed into her dark eyes.

Fjord’s edge from being snatched by Clarabelle’s eagle form has never quite worn off, but down below the sea it has resurged with a vengeance. “She has complete dominion down here?”

Colton gives a lazy nod as he goes to open a second set of doors. “Yes and yes. Her original name is Calliope, she’ll be much more willing to help if you call her that. We do not give our birth names so freely, despite what today’s events may have indicated. It implies you've earned my trust. True names are powerful things, after all."

Caleb looks oddly smug at his last point, but the expression is quickly wiped off his face when Fjord sends a firm elbow to the junction between his ribs. The only reason he doesn’t return the favor is due to Veth inserting herself between the pair and taking Caleb’s hand.

Beau has come to expect the impressive thrones by this point, and the South Wind is no exception. The chair is elevated from the ground with a pillar of stone, with disks of stony coral serving as stepping-stones to ascend to the seat. The seat is a pillow of kelp and other soft plant life, supported by arms of stone seahorses. An impossibly large scallop shell forms the back, which is currently providing support to a firbolg woman.

Calliope is towering. Her hair, a mohawk grown out so long that it flops to her ears when pushed to the side is wine colored and also the only warm part about her. Her eyes are hard, skin the hue of blue-gray slate and the bite sized chunk missing from one of her ears only enhances the dozen faded scars that adorn most of her exposed skin, all the way up her neck. A mace lies at her feet, the head made more brutal with storm-weathered barnacles. She’s the only one of her siblings that looks battle-ready, sea glass green breastplate adorned with coral and the bit of her doublet that peaks out appears to have been formed from discarded fishing nets.

She doesn’t need to say a word for Beau and her friends to dip down in a show of respect. For their humility, she grants them a laugh that bubbles like an overrun brook.

“Oh, none of that piety will do you much good down here.” When Beau looks up, Calliope has risen from her spot on her throne, and is making her way over to them. Her feet never quite settles on the ground, the sand propelling itself upwards to meet her sturdy abalone shell boots. She moves with the grace of an experienced swimmer, despite their current lack of water. When she reaches them, Calliope’s cool gaze settles on Colton.

“Stop that.” Her expression is one of disapproval, but an exasperated one like she’s told him this many times. She taps his forehead with two fingers and Colton’s form drops, the magic sliding down him in barely visible wisps of smoke, like a bucket of water had been thrown on his head. His skin settles to a similar hue as Clarabelle’s with warmer undertones. His hair is the same dark burgundy of Calliope’s but grown out to collect at the nape of his neck. The longest of it is kept out of his eyes with a lazy, half undone braid, one Colton likely did days ago. Beau would guess he’s not much older than the sister that stands before him, likely as close in age as TJ and Kori. The only thing that remains unchanged are his eyes, pools of lavender that are as sharp as their matching set that stare right back at him.

Colton is not pleased with her trick, if the unhappy shape his mouth has settled to is any sign. “Well then, I’d best not bother you anymore.”

His form begins to shimmer like Clarabelle’s had, only for him to phase back into reality with a handwave from his sister.

“Honestly, for our brother of air you’d think you would be a little more eager to bend the rules.” She’s teasing, Beau recognizes the tone form the hundreds of times she’s done the same with her siblings.

Colton does is best to not look amused, though a playful twitch of his tail betrays him. “Not since Clarabelle decided the meaning of her existence was to raze them.”

His sister opens her mouth to retort, but then closes it as she takes in the four strangers with a closer glare. “Who are these mortals, why have you brought them to me?”

“For Beauregard.” Colton tilts his head towards her, and Beau finds herself under the chilled watch of Calliope. “She has asked me to take her to the castle east of the sun and west of the mood, for her heart belongs to the princess that lived there.”

“You don’t say…” Calliope raises a single finger into a come-hither gesture that is so, so evocative of Thoreau’s that Beau has to will her legs not to run away on the spot and instead close the gap between herself and the South Wind.  “This is her, then?”

Calliope’s hands are gentle as she cups Beau’s face and turns it side to side, inspecting it in a similar way the pig farmer used to do with his hogs. She taps the jade earring and makes a thoughtful humming noise in the back of her throat, before taking Beau’s hands in her own and scrutinizing those as well.

“You grew up poor, and working poor at that. Farmers likely, even if you had other duties at home, nothing shapes the skin on your hands quite the same way as working soil. A small wonder the princess managed to steal you away from your home then, a strong body like yours. She promised your father riches I’d bet. Nothing sways men easier. And yet…” She taps the jade swirl once more. “You wear a mark of Melora, though I’d wager unknowingly, or you would have declared it upon entering my domain.”

The kittens had given it to Sigrun. She really had spoken to them then, there was no other reason that made sense. “It was a gift.” Beau replies, keeping her voice soft and attempting to avoid having to look directly into those hard purple eyes.

“A mighty one at that. Someone knew you’d be seeing us, and was rooting for you. What troubles you so deeply that you’ve gone east, west and south?”

Beau’s throat wants to swell shut in exhaustion for being asked the third time today, but she forces it to work. She has no other option. “I lived with Yasha and knew her only as White Bear. I loved her, but I broke the only rule given to me, which was not to look upon her face at night. When I failed her, she told me she would be going east of the sun and west of the moon. I’m trying to get back to her.”

“A compelling story.” Calliope remarks, finally releasing Beau’s head from her grasp. “Though I suspect you’ve only skimmed the surface. I’d like to hear more, if you can manage it.”

The before I decide what to do with you is unspoken, but Beau hears it loud enough.

So she tells the South Wind the long of it. From the autumn storm to her last night in the cliffside castle to the months on the road and how she’d acquired the companions she’d brought with her. It takes the better part of the hour, and her friends settle on the sand and have the decency to pretend they’re not listening. It’s nothing they wouldn’t have been suspicious of, but it’s the first time she’s said it all at once.

Beau knows she’s in tears long before she reaches the end, though she’s grown so accustomed to that overwhelming sense of loss that it doesn’t catch her off-guard anymore. When she finishes speaking, the firbolgs exchange several words in a gravelly language Beau doesn’t understand. Then Veth is at her side, pulling her down to eye level for just a moment so she can wipe Beau’s tears away with the sleeve of her dress and press a quick kiss to her brow.

“There was a rumor that the princess’s hair was going gray when she returned.” Calliope remarks as she scans over the rest of the group, apparently finding no flaw in Caleb, Fjord or Veth that she desires to comment on.

Beau wishes she had something to say to that, that understanding of what a change in hair color means. She remembers Yasha’s hair the night she saw her, inky black everywhere except the ends. All she can do is nod like she knows what it means, though she suspects that the South Wind sees right through her.

“I fear I will have to take you to our final brother up north.” She announces as she combs her fingers through her mohawk in an attempt to make it lie neat for a moment. Her success could be described as middling at best. “He’s the strongest and wisest of us. If the North Wind doesn’t know how to get there, then you’ll never find anyone in the world to tell you. It will take all of us to carry your lot, however.” She turns to her brother, mischief in her eye.

“Call Belle back. It’s time for a family reunion.”

Colton rolls his eyes. “I hate it when the rest of you get like this.” But he’s tracing the outline of a large circle in the space beside him, and when the shape is complete, a portal blinks into existence. The heat from the other side is sudden, and it’s gone just as fast when a blur of multicolored hair races through and Clarabelle joins them on the sand.

Her smile is brilliant as it is expectant. “We’re taking her to see him, then?”

“Don’t sound so pleased with yourself.” Colton grumbles as he allows his excitable sister to pull him into a hug. In his true form, he stands a head taller than Clarabelle, and Beau comes to the late realization that she’s absolutely the baby of the bunch in every possible way.

As they prepare to depart from Calliope’s underwater domain, she’s pressing something into Beau’s hand. It’s a singular blue-violet flower, curved into the shape of a bell. For a single wistful moment, Beau thinks of that silver bell that surely melted into oblivion back at the cliffside castle. Without any thinking or asking if it’s okay, Beau pulls out the book and places the flower next to the other two from her siblings.

“I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.” Calliope whispers before throwing her arms upwards, and sealing the group in a giant bubble that begins to rise towards the shore with a steady speed.

 

Chapter Text

Beau opens her mouth several times as they head towards the surface in an attempt to respond, but her voice refuses to work and form any appropriate words. That’s just as well, because the siblings are conversing in hushed voices, arguing about the best way to reach their brother. Beau hears chatter behind her that belongs to her friends, but she can do nothing other than hold onto the spine of her mother’s fairytales for dear life and try to understand how an immensely powerful creature could hear Beau’s cautionary tale of the price of impatience and somehow feel bad for her.

As rays of sunshine begin to make themselves seen through the water’s surface, she does manage to put the book back in the rabbit-furred pouch. All its other contents are still there, by some divine grace. Probably Melora’s at this point. The weight of the silver thread that holds the shrunken wheel around her neck is still new enough that Beau needn’t check for it.

Once they’re washed ashore and have regained footing, Clarabelle claps her hands together and eight horses as black as coal with flaming red eyes appear in front of them, all saddled and ready to go. The horse left riderless takes lead with the three mantles of the wind close behind. They race with unbelievable speed into a strange woodland, trees bending close enough to block out most of the sunlight and vegetation disconcerting shades of ash-purple. Beau recognizes the sensation from when she used to travel with Yasha, but the forest is unlike any she’d ever seen before.

“Where are we?” Beau manages to shout over the thundering of hooves to Caleb, who’s on her left and doesn’t look like he has much idea of what to do with the reins in his hands.

He tries to give her a shrug, but the rhythm of the horse beneath him makes Beau take a good while longer than she should to recognize the gesture. “Nowhere touched by most mortals, but beyond that who’s to say?”

Their steeds last for an hour before they slowly begin to fade, and Clarabelle has the decency this time to allow for a graceful dismount. They make the rest of their journey with help from Colton’s firm breeze that spins them off their feet and saves the effort of walking while being nearly as fast as horseback.

The wind stops when they reach a looming iron gate.  Slipping through the bars is easy enough, and their destination is clearly the crumbling stone building that awaits them not sixty yards away. The challenge in getting there will be the plants, as here the shrubs and roots grow so thick and numerous that travel on foot would be impossible for the average mortal. The final hurdle before reaching the most favored of the Wildmother.

All three wind siblings work together to gently carve a path through the overgrowth. Calliope has to haul them up to the stone platform of the structure, and whispers to Beau as she brings her up to stable ground.

“His name is Caduceus. Forgive him, he’s taken the heaviest burden of the four of us.”

The look Beau exchanges with Fjord as they make way into the crumbling building indicates he’s been told the same. She wonders what kind of person awaits them, in this overgrown home that feels more like a crypt.

The mossy stone does its job with keeping unwanted things out. Every rock is weighed down with fungus and domineering ivy, giving the whole structure a very heavy feel. The earth beneath their feet is well used and packed, still with enough spare needles and leaves to give the illusion of a proper forest floor. The experience of being both indoors and outdoors at the same time is odd, even undesirable, but it seems right here. The breeze is ever blowing, an indication of the power of the wind in this domain, but it is not an unpleasant one. Beau had long thought the North Wind a bitter and cold thing, but spring chases winter. He’s clearly taken to the idea that if nothing ever died, little would be born.

A long table takes up the center of the room, seemingly in the place of where a monarch would put a magnificent rug. It’s currently empty, but it takes little of Beau’s imagination to fill it with a glorious feast. The table leads them to a throne, just as magnificent as the other three and true to his own element. The slabs of rock are adorned with amethyst crystals, and are held together with coils of thorny plants that curve, forming the back of the chair. It’s settled in a great evergreen tree who shelters much of the unprotected ceiling, with roots that form something akin to steps upwards, to the throne, and beyond. You could house a small civilization in this pine.

The man on the throne is… something otherworldly. His fur is the same shade of Calliope’s but not as sharp, dulled to a color that better matches stone than water. He’s just as tall as his siblings, but where their strength is indicated with muscle, the North Wind is thin, looking borderline frail. There’s an earring, gauged into his fawn’s ears, that matches Beau’s, except for the fact that it appears to be carved out of a very dark wood. He’s adorned in mostly simple garb of muted greens, save the tunic he wears underneath other layers, a brilliant glowing thing that looks like it’s been spun from spider silk. His peaceful face bears just the hint of a scruff, the same color as his hair. It’s pink, cascading far beyond his shoulders, slightly aged with the occasional strand of grey. The side with the earring is shorn, has a great swirl shaved into it, the same shape and notches as Beau’s jade earring and his own wooden one. The mark of Melora.

Caduceus looks almost nothing like a firbolg, but at the same time Beau couldn’t picture someone more fitting.  

“He’s..”  Fjord starts, but seems to forget that he's speaking aloud.

“Annoying.” Calliope supplies.

“Wanna-be oldest child.” Colton grumbles.

“In need of new decor.” Clarabelle says as she scrunches her nose at the overwhelming ivy.

“I was going to say beautiful.” Fjord whispers, heat rising to his cheeks as he ducks his head.

Beau isn’t sure if she can agree with the sentiment when the North Wind looks up at them. He’s got eyes like his youngest sister that go dark when they lay their view on the group. Inky black floods out from his pupils into the iris, before the whole of both sclera are dark as night and threaten to spill over to the skin of his lids.

“Blast you all, what do you want?” His voice sounds unnaturally projected, like he’s shouting inside Beau’s mind. As he speaks, the vines around his caldera snake outwards, and threaten to wrap around Beau’s legs and bind her to the earth.

Calliope is unfazed by this display. “Well,” She starts in a strict tone. “You needn’t be so foul-mouthed with your siblings.” She strides up to his throne, unbothered by the ivies that rise from the earth in an attempt to grapple her feet to the ground. She performs the same action she had on her other brother, tapping two fingers to his brow, and the color comes back to Caduceus’s eyes. “It’s been how long since you’ve come to visit one of us?”

He presses his ears flat at that. “I am here to maintain order! And all of you are breaking at least half a dozen of our vows by being here at the same time right now. How’s the world to turn if every mantle of the winds steers northward?”

“Come on Deuces.” Clarabelle, embolden by her older sister, races up to her brother’s throne and grasps his hand in her own. “Don’t you remember what it’s like to be fun?”

Colton rolls his eyes as he kicks at a stray root. “He doesn’t. He hasn’t since we were children. Tell me Deuces, do your mosses give you gossip of weddings between princesses who live in impossible places?” He taunts, more petulant than he’s ever been before.

The casual way he says that terrifies something deep within Beau. Veth takes her hand, sensing the the tension that's overtaken her, and gives her a reassuring squeeze.

“Ignore him.” Clarabelle says, fiery eye on her discontent brother. “He isn’t why we’ve come.”

“It’s about one of the princesses Colton mentioned, the one we call Nydoorin.” Calliope says, carefully watching Caduceus’s reaction, despite the fact he’s not appearing to have one. “The woman who’s won her heart by all rights has come to us, now we bring her to you so she may plead her case to our wisest.”

There’s a solid weight on Beau’s back, and Colton is guiding her towards the throne of stone and moss. Her gut tells her to bow, as the rest of her companions have surely done by now. She shouldn’t look to closely at him. Now more than ever it is important to show reverence, especially to one as powerful as him.

She doesn’t. She stares him, exhaustion of the last few months of grief making her bold. “North Wind. My name is Beauregard Lionett, I come to you seeking the way east of the sun and west of the moon.” This is where she should stop, but she cannot stop her mouth from running now that she’s started. “I have traveled from Kamordah to a palace in the cliffs to Veth’s home outside Felderwin, to Port Damali where Fjord took us to see Caleb in Rosohna, then east, west, south and north to you. I know no other way to show my devotion to her. If you know the way, tell me it.”

There’s a quiet, but it’s not a violent one. Caduceus looks at her with an odd smile, like he knows her already, that he understood what she was seeking before she even opened her mouth.

“I know well enough where it is. Once, I blew an aspen leaf there and it left me too tired to blow the wind for many moons after.” Caduceus is silent for a moment after, eyes boring deep into Beau. She doesn’t know what reaction he wants from her, but she’s so tired. Calliope said that if he didn’t know the way, no one else would. She hasn’t come this far to be rejected based on the lack of a spine. If that’s what costs them her ticket east of the sun and west of the moon, then so be it. She’ll claw her own path, now that she knows it’s possible to get there.

“But I will take you.” His eyes scan over the rest of her friends. “All of you.” He decides.

Caleb is the first to speak. “North Wind, if this will kill you –“

The firbolg rolls his eyes. “Oh please, don’t call me that. Caduceus is fine, Jord if you feel pressure to maintain a sense of gravitas. It won’t kill me, but I must take you alone.” He arches an eyebrow that he attempts to direct at all three of his siblings. “Return, do your jobs for once you layabouts.”

Clarabelle gives him a long, unreadable look before throwing herself into his arms for a hug. Just as Caduceus squeezes back, she disappears in a flash of rainbow light similar to Caleb’s amber that had brought them to her domain, but much faster and seemingly cast just with words.

Colton still refuses to cross the vines and come meet Caduceus, but he does offer a friendly wave from where he stands besides Beau. His form shimmers for a moment, before going into fog the same way he’d taken them southwards. Colton wisps out of the throne room, the way a ghost would.

Calliope gives her brother a firm pat on the arm, touches two fingers to her forehead, and pops out of existence with no other fanfare.

There’s a very odd smile on Caduceus’s face, sentimental and sad at the same time. He turns his attention towards the four that remain in his room, and pushes himself off his throne to inspect them closer. Beau’s taken aback by his terrible posture, as he hunches his spine to get a close look.

Caduceus’s eyes go from the halfling, to wizard, to half-orc before he pulls back the slightest. “She’s convinced me. The rest of you have not.”

Fjord’s confusion is not unique, but he’s the first to speak on it. “I don’t understand what you’d have us do, Caduceus.”

“We’ve proven ourselves to her.” Veth nods at Beau, something fierce in her eyes. “I’m not helping you, so I don’t give much of a rat’s ass to what you think of me. If you decide to leave us behind we’re creative enough to find ways to follow.”

Caduceus takes her in with appropriate appreciation. “You have restlessness in your soul, but you’re grounded too. More so than the rest of these folk. You realize it doesn’t need to be a choice, right?”

Veth smiles, something she’s done so often, but this one is her most telling. “I think I am. It does little for the ache in my chest for them.”

Caduceus gives her a serene look back. “A rat’s ass indeed. You don’t need someone else to tell you who you are.“ Veth has passed his test. His gaze leaves her, settles on the man still kneeled at her side.

“You’re heavy with grief. There is joy in your life, but you can’t forgive yourself. You think this will do it, but I am not so sure.” Caduceus rests his head in his hand, looking thoughtful with the elbow propped on the other arm he’s wrapped around his side. “You will find fault with yourself and keep bearing your punishment until you get put in the ground. Is it worth it, to be full of that much hatred, when the potential of what you could be if you let that love back in is near infinite?”

Caleb tightens his jaw and his eyes shine with new wetness. He says nothing, but does not break eye contact with the man as he rises from his bow. “I will never forgive myself. But I am trying to learn to live with it. If I can prove to myself that I can help Beauregard with this like Molly said I could, then maybe there will be a home for me to come to one day. Then maybe Essek –“ And Caleb’s voice catches in his throat and he looks back down.

She knows that Caduceus must have some sort of reaction to this where he deems it an acceptable answer, but Beau can’t stop staring at the wizard. She knows that look in his eye, she’s been wearing it for months now. She kicks herself for not seeing it before, his calculated nature, purposefully unreadable expressions, essentially telling her that he caused a fire that destroyed not only his childhood home, but his entire way of life.

The next moment she got him alone, they were so going to be having a real conversation about this. But they were currently in an overgrown garden, and the last of her friends still needed to “convince” the North Wind.

Caduceus speaks with closed eyes, though his head moves as though he’s still looking upon Fjord. “You carry something within, something both physical and spiritual. My goddess would call it incurable but not irredeemable. I still think it may be cured.”

Fjord is the only one to have a violently physical reaction, and he draws away as if fire had spewed from Caduceus’s mouth and burned him. “No one knows anything of that.”

“You do.” Caduceus retorts, eyes flashed open and relaxed posture gone as he leans forward. “And you carry it. But I don’t think you want to.”

“You don’t know me.” Fjord spits back. He’s all odd and cold, almost unrecognizable to Beau now. It’s how he would get in those quieter moments, when he had the chance to stare out at the sea with that glimmer of fear in his eyes. “You don’t know what I want.”

Caduceus’s gaze is unchanging, spine still ramrod straight. “No.” He says. “I don’t. But I know you are not always yourself; I can see it in your friends, old and new. And there is no supreme unhappiness that can compete with pretending to be something you are not.”

The silence that hangs in the open is thundering, and for a moment the air feels similar to Beau the way it turns when a storm’s coming. Caduceus and Fjord do not stop staring at one another, and both release an exhale at the same time. There’s an understanding between them, odd and something Beau doesn’t quite know. It reminds her of the way she and Yasha danced around one another that first night, unsure and slightly desperate on both sides.

Caduceus shakes off the look with another plastered smile. “You all must sleep here tonight. You’ve traveled far today, and I have to make my own preparations for the journey. You may head that way. I have guest chambers; they’ve been waiting to be filled for quite some time.” The three of her friends follow his pointing, and Beau turns to follow. “Not you.” He waves his hand towards the short table, and two cushions made of large mushrooms appear side by side. “Sit, I’ll make us some tea.”

 

Caduceus takes a deep breath in before blowing slowly on his tea. He waits for Beau to do the same before taking a sip. The silence hangs between them for several heartbeats longer before he speaks.

“Show me what flowers my siblings gave you.” He places the cup down and holds out his palms to her.

Even as she’s pulling out the book in reflex, Beau’s incredibly caught off-guard. “How do you… “

“You may be a special woman Beau, but my siblings gifts are not.” He’s amused at her confusion. “There is language in everything, evermore so in nature. The four of us, we have many ways to speak that go unheard by ears and eyes that don’t know what they’re looking for.”

She pages to the back to find the three newest flowers, and is surprised that they’re closer to the middle than she had realized. Her book has grown heavier with petals the past few months, not that she minds. Beau gently places them in Caduceus’s outstretched hands. “I wouldn’t have guessed the four of you were that close. At least tell me what they thought, since they’ve left. It’s only polite, now that I know you were talking about me behind my back.”

“We were much closer. Before…” Caduceus waves his hand at the general expanse of his throne. “If it’s any comfort, the talking was to your front, just in words you didn’t yet know. I know Clarabelle gave you that one.” He points to the pink open flower. “She’s fond of hollyhock, she believes that many of the people we meet are capable of creating good. I would also guess that the myrtle came from Colton.” This time he does turn his head to check with Beau, and she gives him a nod. “It means duty. He respects you, believe it or not. But this one…” His fingers fall to the small violet-blue bell, making a thoughtful noise in the back of his throat. “It can only be Calliope’s.”

Beau’s trying to be a good student while hiding her surprise at what the other mantles of the winds perceived her as, even with only being around her for such a short time. “I told her what I did, the long of it, and she told me she was sorry.”

“Hm.” He gives her no other reaction than a thoughtful nod. “Harebell. Your grief must have felt heavy. She also thinks you’re selling your capabilities short, which I’m inclined to agree with for once.” He sets her book down to take another long draw of tea. “They’ve served their purpose; you needn’t carry them with you any longer.”

She has to fight her gut reaction to jerk the book back towards her chest to protect them and the dozens of other blossoms Caduceus hadn’t seen yet. “I’d rather have them, if it’s all the same to you.”

He closes the cover and gently pushes it back her way. He’s watching her response through these half-lidded eyes that make Beau feel like he can read her mind, which is somehow unsettling and a little comforting. Instead of tucking the book out of sight, Beau takes another sip of tea.

They finish their cups in silence, tome in the space between them the entire time. As Beau sets down her empty cup on the table, it fades into mist. She looks over to Caduceus as a knee-jerk response, and finds him risen to his full height, helpful hand extended to pull her up as well.

“Let me give you one, if you’re determined to keep the rest.” He offers.

So Beau takes his hand and follows a winding, nonsense path of hedge, iron gates and ivy to an impossible flower garden. The colors here put Clarabelle’s rainbow hair to shame. Beau sees hues she’s never thought possible before, accompanied by a lazy hum of bumblebees that dance between the flowers. Beau’s trying to catalog every leaf, every plant she can see, but knows she’ll never be able to do this sprawling space justice. There’s a peace that settles in your chest when you’re tucked away from the rest of the terrible world in a garden, where your only concern is caring for the things that make it beautiful. If Caduceus looked like a fey creature before, he’s positively ethereal here, moving between the plants as if he’s one with them.

He’s on his knees in the dirt, plucking a dense flower that has dozens of tiny bright purple blossoms on a single stem. He holds it up to her as she bends to get a closer look, and finds herself nearly overwhelmed by the scent of vanilla that comes up to her.

As Caduceus rises, he places the bloom in her hand. “Heliotrope. I’ll let you figure out what it means.”

“Yasha would love it here.” Beau whispers as she tucks this flower away too.

Caduceus gives her a half-smile as she puts her book back away. “Calliope was right. Your guilt is heavy.” He says in lieu of a response.

Beau wants to find herself confused at his appraisal, but all she can do is agree. “What kind of person would I be if I wasn’t weighed down?” She waits for a retort, but he gives her nothing, only looks deep into her eyes with an intense energy. What does he desire, to get to the root of it maybe? Beau can do that for him. “She said she dreamed of me. Before she even looked upon me, she knew what I was. I haven’t been able to. Or can’t, I don’t know.” She drops her head, does the best to swallow the grief that’s clawing at her throat. “I’ve tried to be thankful for everything, these past few months. Sometimes it’s not very easy.”

“These last two months have taught you much about anger, have they not?” Another unrelated answer, but this one is also a question.

Beau can’t stop the dry laugh that leaves her. “Oh trust me North Wind, there’s little anyone could teach me about anger. I’ve been angry most of my life.”

“At what?”

“Why don’t you tell me, ‘wisest brother?’” Beau bites back.

Caduceus looks at her thoughtfully, tail dragging on the earth behind him like he’s forgotten about it. “I would guess your family. Parents, specifically. Your siblings, but quietly in a way where you really don’t hold it against them, but it can’t be stopped. The Gods, that’s an easy one.” He slowly heads towards the exit of the garden and head back the way they came.

Beau follows him, for as much as she’d like to stay and marvel at this garden and not thing about what he’s just said, she does not know the way back. “Can I ask you something that’s going to sound crazy?”

“Most questions don’t.” Caduceus reassures her. “But yes, ask away.”

“Can you, your siblings as like ‘Wildmother Chosen’,” She says with air quotes. “Like, possess and speak through animals?”

Caduceus gives her a single raised eyebrow. “I’ll give it to you, that’s one of the stranger ones I’ve been asked. But no, not that I’m aware of.”

Beau shakes her head in frustration. “Sigrun… One of my younger sisters… She… talks to these kittens we found? They’re the ones that gave me this.” Beau’s fingers rise to ghost her earring. “Or, well, really they gave her the earring and then she gave it to me.”

“Unusual.” Caduceus remarks.

She looks up at him, prays he won’t call her mad for what she’s about to say. “And, well this part I’m less certain about, but she said their names were Logi, Kari, Hler and Jord which –“

“Is an odd way of phrasing it if they hadn’t told her themselves.” Caduceus muses.  “And coincidence is a poor explanation when destiny is right there, isn’t it?”

Here, the architecture begins to look familiar, and Beau’s certain the path they’ve stopped on leads to the throne room. “The thing that doesn’t make sense to me, is why to Sigrun? Why not directly to me?”

Caduceus flicks his ear back. “You care very deeply for your siblings.”

“I want to protect them, I do, I have for most of my life. I gave them my childhood so they could have one, I try not to resent them for it.” Beau lets out a shaky breath. “I think I do, most days. I’m here, for them, in a roundabout way. I gave up myself to Yasha for their safety before I ever imagined I’d journey across the world for her. It’s just so…”

“Hard.” He finishes her thought for her. “And I’ll bet you only feel that way because your parents didn’t do it for them.”

“It’s not my mother’s fault she died.” Beau retorts. “Or Vanja’s, or Traci’s. They tried. I can’t blame them for not being around long enough to raise their children, it’s not like they wanted to go.”

Caduceus lets out a sharp exhale, still somehow managing to sound contemplative. “What of your father, then?”

“He was just busy trying to keep us alive. He didn’t have time to stop to raise us, to love – “ And that’s a dark though, a dangerous one Beau does not want to unpack under Caduceus’s careful watch that misses little. “Who he was doesn’t matter, good fortune has given him a sickness I’ve only heard tales of in dragons. I can’t remember what he was like when we were happy.” Maybe she never had been happy with him, for as long as Beau has felt she’s known herself it has been a source of disappointment to her father. And she doesn’t know what that is, but it certainly isn’t something he should be making her feel.

Caduceus nods his head while listening, draws them to a stop just outside the mossy stone wall. “Hm. I don’t wonder if absence is the kinder thing then. At least there’s no need to keep your opinion to yourself.”

“I’ve swallowed my tongue most of my life. Then she comes in, and asks me what I like to do, what I want.” Beau doesn’t need to say who. They both know. “She set me free, and I fucked it all up. And I think I did it to please my father, to stop my brother from worrying, so a woman who’s been dead since I was seven would be proud of me.” She doesn’t know when, but her hand has gone back into the rabbit pouch and she’s gripping the candle of tallow, like she would be able to wring the life out of it.

“Anger at yourself is always the most difficult to move past, isn’t it.” It’s phrased like a question but he’s not asking it. Caduceus’s eyes are focused out the doorway, towards his throne room.

Beau follows his gaze and has to stop herself from laughing. She wonders what kind of person this fey giant is, how exactly your family has to function so that you and your siblings all wind up a goddess’s chosen. “Are we still talking about me?”

“Who’s saying this was just about you to begin with?” Caduceus says with a ghost of a smile as he looks back at her. “But the Gods, that’s always the hardest to understand. Why do you turn your wrath towards them?”

“I was given this.” She taps her earring, the jade still solid and cool against her skin. “And this.” She raises the candle up so Caduceus can make no mistake. “On the same day. My destruction and a chance at redemption at the same time. What would your goddess make of that?”

He takes in the candle she’s clutching, and something that looks like a dangerous understanding settles on his brow. “If She thinks anything like I do, then She’d say you’ll understand in time.”

The biggest non-answer of the entire night, and the only one she believes to be a falsehood. “I don’t have time.”  Beau hisses.

Caduceus’s nose twitches, like how the rabbits in the mountains would sniff the early morning air when they feared a hawk was drawing close. “Do we not? My siblings are so dramatic I don’t bother trying to interoperate their differing senses of urgency. I was under the impression there was no real schedule, just a desire to reach your final destination.”

She’s shaking her head, gaze falling back to the fucking candle in her grasp. “It’s a feeling. If what your brother says is true…”

If Yasha is married, Beau’s gut tells her that she’ll be lost to her forever.

“I never much cared for what Colton thought as important.” Caduceus muses as he presses his ears back. “But I’m also not one to ignore intuition. I’ll have you there before this time tomorrow.”

He’s got that same power that Fjord does, like Caleb and Veth too. His words settle her stomach like a good cup of tea, and keep it that way. There’s no creeping doubt like it was with her father, no ever-present melancholy she’s prone to falling in when left alone with her thoughts.

It’s faith, she realizes belatedly before sleep fully takes her in the mushroom bed blanketed with dead leaves that has no right being as comfortable as it is. They believe that this will end well. They believe in Beau.

What an odd thing it is, having friends.

 

The morning is a blurry rush as Beau finds herself battling the pull sleep even as she’s seated at the short-legged table. She has some vague awareness that she’s eating the plate Veth prepared for her, but that’s only thanks to the warm coffee that Fjord makes her pound.

Caduceus has a staff made of damp-looking knotted wood leaning on his shoulder, made even more notable with the large, uncut amethyst that adorns the top. He looks deceptively casual with it, and Beau suspects that there is much more within it than meets the eye, beyond the properties of a magical staff she’s got tales of stored in her mother’s book. Caduceus isn’t paying much attention to his staff or breakfast, focused on them instead.

“East of the sun and west of the moon. It’s been a while. You two.” He points to Fjord and Caleb. “I can feel it’s presence on you faintly. Sure you’ve never been?”

Caleb’s face is one of pure confusion before he realizes something. “Ah, we used to have a friend who visited.”

“Her mother was a performer, got invited lots. We were barely out of our teens.” Fjord supplies as he refills Beau’s empty mug with more dark coffee.

The firbolg seems impressed with this. “Must have been a very talented one, then.”

“Oh ja,” Caleb says with a dusting of a smile. “Our friend would tell you she was the best ever.”

Once they’ve eaten, Caduceus tells them to finish packing. Beau’s going to travel light for the rest of her life, even if some of her father’s growingly obscene wine fortune ever trickles down to her. Having little makes the process of leaving so much easier.

Caduceus takes them through another winding maze that exits on a balcony similar to Clarabelle’s, with fields of stone and lava having been replaced with a view of the forest they road through yesterday. It’s simultaneously dead and full of life, with plant life growing so strong that some of the trees tower upwards and beyond the simple railing that marks the edge of the balcony, but with no sounds of animals that fill any other woods. It’s peaceful in an otherworldly way, not dissimilar to the way one feels when Caduceus looks too deeply in your eyes like he’s trying to find your soul in them.

If she squints, Beau thinks she can see skeletons of corpses littering the earth. It does nothing to chase away the sense of calm that’s settled in her.

“So,” Veth claps her hands together, looking expectant. “How do you plan to get us to this impossible place?”

“The trick my brother has.” Caduceus says as he plucks an ivy leaf from a strand that’s currently choking out a tree rooted just below the railing. “He learned it from me. Colton’s much more of a natural than I am, but I’ve got hard work on my side.” He gently tosses the leaf up at points his staff, forcing it to remain floating and not come close to touching the ground. “All I need is an anchor. That’s how I got there last; I blew a leaf. What’s four more people?”

It doesn’t sound like a question he’s really asking, so Beau steps towards the spinning ivy, and feels herself picked up in the squall. It is similar to Colton's, but stronger, holding her in the air through force of nature instead of happenstance. Veth and Caleb are quick to follow, attempting to stabilize themselves with linked arms.

Fjord is last, still warry of Caduceus. Beau would almost hold it against him, but the unblinking expectant expression on Caduceus’s face is just eerie enough to make her lean towards Fjord’s side.

He’s been incredibly helpful, perceptive and resourceful. She still thinks he’s a little weird. Chosen of the goddess of nature or not.

It’s much too loud for them to speak as he fires them skywards, soaring over the trees of his forest until they move so fast the word beneath them turns into a blur. Caduceus, who on foot is soft-spoken and frail enough you wouldn’t peg him as a threat, now is reminiscent of the terror he was capable of when he first met them on his throne, so utterly divinely possessed through his magic that he’s almost gruesome to look at. They tear on, carried by the storm, beyond more untamable wilderness, back to lands they might have been able to recognize had the speed not been so frightful, beyond houses until they swept over a great sea, full of ships by the hundreds.

She thinks of the first time she saw the sea on that black sand beach, sunset kissing the water and the utter sense of unending calm. There is no similarities here, for they race above the ocean at such a pace that Beau would bet that to touch the water right now would sting more like sandpaper than wash over like it should. The sea looks stone-gray and freezing, not helped by the near frightening pace they’re traveling at. Beau has the realization that this ocean ends, that they could go with ease from one shoreline to the other.

As she wonders if Caduceus could drive them right off the edge of the world, the ivy leaf blows past her face. She reaches out to catch it, some instinct she doesn’t understand, but it’s going much too fast even for her nimble reflexes. The force of Caduceus’s wind rapidly begins to give out, and when she finds him, looking frighteningly gaunt and exhausted, it’s right as the breeze stops and gravity begins to work again.

“Are you afraid?” He asks, absurdly calm as they plummet to certain death over the cresting sea.

“No!” Beau screams back at him. And the funny thing is, she isn’t.

Chapter Text

Beau waits for the fear to start, for her anger to bubble out and direct her towards Caduceus. She’s got every right to be angry, to have been promised passage after coming so far. There should be anger rising any moment as she prepares to be swallowed by the ocean so far from home, searching for the way to an impossible place. But it never comes. She’s at a strange peace, as the sea draws near.

If this is as close as she was meant to come to Yasha, then it is what it is.

It’s Fjord who catches them, saves them from certain death on impact. He throws out both of his palms and ocean bends itself, comes up to meet them. Caduceus, who was falling faster than the rest, is the only one who doesn’t land on his feet and instead goes face-first into the water. Beau pulls him out and delivers a hearty thwack to his back to knock out as much water as she can.

Veth is the only one of them with enough wits left to not trust the cocoon of water Fjord has made. She’s got a death grip on Caleb, nearly scaling his legs to get away from the pull of the angry sea. The water is unstable, Fjord focused on creating a constant rush of water to keep them afloat that has a side effect of them all essentially treading in place to not be sucked beneath the surface. It’s not ideal, but it’s about a thousand times better than being dead.

Fjord works his way to Beau’s side to help support Caduceus, shouldering a good deal of the firbolg’s weight that Beau had assumed his stature wouldn’t be capable of. As he closes his eyes and tenses his fingers, the flow of water beneath Fjord begins to move, and he can push them across the surface of the ocean. He listens to the whisperings of Caduceus to keep the course and carries them to their final destination.

It doesn’t take long, as thankfully they’re not far from the shore. They wash up on the dark pebbled beach as the adrenaline from falling finally leaves Beau, all thankfully unharmed. It would almost be peaceful, if the iron windows of a towering stone castle didn’t loom over them. The foundation of the castle looks like it starts around one hundred feet above them, weighing on a cliffside that Beau can’t imagine is maintained through any means other than magic.

“You never told me you knew how to do that.” Caleb says as he rubs Veth’s back on the stony shore they’re washed out onto, soothing the end of her mild state of panic.

Fjord shrugs in an attempt at nonchalance, utterly failing. “I’ve picked up a couple things since we last saw one another.”

That’s apparently Caduceus’s cue to vomit up whatever he’s got within him, which appears to be the last of the face full of water he took in earlier and scraps of breakfast. Beau, remembering how much both of her stepmothers complained about hair getting in the way when they combated morning sickness, manages to catch Caduceus’s untamed mane just before the retching starts, and strokes it in her best approximation of an attempt to soothe him.

She watches a strand of pink go grey in her hands, and hopes Caduceus doesn’t look at her for reassurance in these next moments because her face is certainly betraying her fright at that. Beau releases his hair once he’s finished with a singular pat on his shoulder, before turning her attention towards the cliffside they’re sheltering under.

The rock is as dark as the beach, nearly black. The pebbles give way to some pillars of basalt, which help form an easy initial path, but rapidly grow too tall to scale through normal means. To go undetected means they’re going to have to be nimble, something she thinks they might all be capable of, but Beau has no idea what it means to be caught trying to break and enter this place. If the difficulty to get here was any indication, and the way Yasha had whispered her step-father’s name like it was something to be feared, Beau was willing to bet that the price would be much higher then she’d like.

Caleb wrings his wrist as he begins to pace the shore. “We need to send someone to look ahead, but it’s too risky to go alone, but if we send a pair they’re more likely to get caught, but if one alone gets captured –“

“Tsk, no need to worry.” Veth says. “It’ll be easy for me to go undetected. There’s common broom up top, see?”

A familiar yellow plant adorns the caps of the cliffside, too stubborn a thing to realize that the stone hadn’t intended itself to be inhabited by any living thing.

“I’ll blend right in.” Veth promises, and though the yellow of her dress is much more weathered by the sun, she has a point. It’s close enough, and no one can stay as low to the ground as she can.

Her impossible destination, east of the sun and west of the moon. Beau can barely come to terms with what this means, how close she’s gotten. There were months where the thought of seeing Yasha’s face again was so impossible it had made her ache with something fierce, something so terrible she feared it might destroy her. Sure, she had started this journey out of some frightful, near feral desperation, but it was really because of her promise. Beau had screwed up so terribly and she’s had so long to think about what she’d say to think it, but now the thought of an apology falls heavy on her tongue. She thinks of the gifts in her bag and around her neck; would one of them do maybe? What words are there to say, when you’ve betrayed such a trust? Yasha hadn’t been mad with her that night, but Beau couldn’t expect her to just take her in her arms and forgive her for whatever has passed in these last months. Beau’s life doesn’t work like that. Just as she begins to spiral into a deeper panic, a quiet command breaks her train of thought.

“Take out the earring.” Caduceus demands, still trying to cough out seawater that has long left his lungs, now with Fjord at his side.

“What?” Beau’s hand goes reflexively up to the jade. “No, I-“

He’s not weak enough that he can’t spare the energy to press his ears flat as he cuts her off. “It’ll do you no good in there.” Fjord’s hand is running along Caduceus’s back, an attempt to rub heat back to his body. “It’s served its purpose, its existence in your belongings will only bring trouble. Leave it on the beach, let the tides take it. We’re leaving Her domain and crossing into somewhere she can’t reach.” He gasps one more time, lungs sounding dangerously frail. “Leave it.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Beau slowly pulls the spiral out of her ear as Caleb produces a small flame in his palm and offers it to Caduceus to help warm him. Watching him struggle as more strands of hair turn grey is frightening, so she lets the jade fall to the beach with little fanfare and turns her back to the three men hunched on the shore. Beau lets her eyes wander up to the cliffs. She should have kept an eye on Veth as she ventured upwards, because now she’s lost to her in patches of yellow swaying in the breeze.  

“I’m sorry.” Caduceus wheezes. When Beau looks back at him, the amount of grey in his hair has more than doubled, and he had become skinnier if that was even possible. She at first wonders if it’s some magic like Colton’s, but his brother seemingly had say over what he looked like. This… Caduceus doesn’t seem to be controlling this, more like his channeling of magic and sudden loss of control in turn had some sort of decaying effect on his body.

Fjord is still rubbing his hand on his back, like Caduceus isn’t the chosen of a goddess, some creature two ladder rungs down from immortality, but just a man who’s had a bad go at things and needs gentle comfort. “There’s nothing to apologize for, you carried us very far.”

He struggles to rise, but his legs still don’t seem to be obeying his mind. “I should have been able to go the whole way.” Caduceus laments, looking upwards at the cliff. “Something saw me, sensed me maybe. I didn’t lose that leaf on accident.”

Beau feels a chilling sensation run down her spine at the idea of being watched. It isn’t a stretch  to think of who might be doing the watching. “You think he saw all of us?”

A headshake is all Caduceus has to return. Beau tries not to worry about his reluctance to elaborate.

“If we had…” Caleb gestures out towards the ocean. “Would we…?”

“Probably not.” Caduceus says in an effort to reassure, but accomplishes the exact opposite if the other’s expressions are anything to go by. “Calliope’ll keep her eyes on the surface of the sea for a while. She trusts me, but has limited faith. I think she’s too fond of me to let me drown, and she’d have swept you up out of some sense of duty.”

“You think?” Fjord reels. “She’s your sister, your blood!”

“Eh.” Beau says with a lazy wave as she thinks of the time she made Viggo fight his way out of a pile of loose hay after she'd instructed him not to jump in. “As an older sister, I might have let you drown a little. To prove a point.”

Fjord’s half crazed expression is turned on her, like he didn’t just bend the ocean to his will after weeks of showing nothing but fear towards it. His mouth is opened, likely to ask another horrified question, when the sound of earth skittering down rocks grabs all of their attentions.

It’s Veth, sliding down the cliffside with a twinkle in her eye. She’s done her scouting without detection, and is obviously proud of herself.

“All I saw were tieflings and aasimar coming in through the front gate. Maybe if you have fiend or celestial blood, it’s an easier task getting here?” Her eyes flick towards the hunched figure of the firbolg, who still doesn’t trust his legs to hold him. “No offense, Caduceus.”

He gasps out a sharp exhale that sounds closer to a bark than a laugh. “None taken. But what will we do about getting you in?” His watchful pink gaze turns upwards towards Beau. “None of us look much like either of those.”

Caleb begins to dig through a pouch strapped to his side. “I can, ah, manage it. A spell your sister taught me, actually.”

Recognition dawns upon Caduceus’s eyes. “Oh, so you’re Clarabelle’s new favorite human. Cast away, wizard.” Teasing takes his tone to match his fond expression, and Beau can easily imagine Caduceus saying the same words to an excitable and even younger Clarabelle as she tests her powers out for the first time.

Caleb finds what he needs and as he prepares to cast, he asks “Anything I need to know, Veth?”

“Best stay away from the aasimar, they’re in radiant form and I doubt that’s an easy illusion to maintain.” She taps her chin in contemplation as another thought occurs to her. “No red tieflings. They’re every color of the rainbow in there, but no red.”

“Verstehe.” Caleb responds, and quickly marks them each with a sharp flick of his wrist as he draws some shapes in the air, visible only to him. Their transformations occur the moment Caleb completes the marking for himself as well.

Fjord changes the least, his tusks have just been hidden and the horns that sprout from his forehead curve back, as if he combed them with his hair. They all have the appearance of tails, but they’re thin and hold tight to their forms, unlikely to be noticed as false by any suspicious third parties.

Veth’s skin changes to a hue similar to the lighter mottled parts of Fjord’s skin, but less saturated. Her hair’s now black, still in twined braids, and she’s got the starting of horns combing back tight to her skull, also like Fjord’s. She could pass as his daughter if needed. Clever move on Caleb’s part.

Caduceus’s more fey-like features have all been smoothed out into a dangerously appealing pallet of pinks and greys. He’s almost adorable, with goat’s nubs sprouting from his forehead like a kid, but one would be foolish to forget the grand display of divine power that carried them to the edge of existence. He looks much better than he had moments before, but Beau has to remind herself that it’s an illusion. She worries how much of his current state he’ll be able to hide from them under this spell.

Caleb’s transformation is the most jarring. Tight ram’s horns curl towards his newly pointed ears, poking out from his mess of dark blue hair that’s fallen loose from his usual ponytail. His skin is a dusty blue, no part of his original form remains as even his eyes are now violet. They’re not as bright as Yasha’s left one, but still a notable difference from his usual blue. Beau wonders if he’s trying to lose himself in the disguise, or if he’s copying someone he knows.

When she holds out her own arm, Beau recognizes the shade of blue immediately. It’s the same hue as her eyes, dark sapphire. The strand of hair that hands loose in her vision is the same color as Caleb’s, and when she goes to blow it out of her eyes it responds to her breath. Most of Caleb’s spell appears to have been a cosmetic dye-job, adding enough illusioned features for them to also pass as tieflings. The reflection of herself that she can gleam from the wet stones shows that her horns, while starting at the same place as Caduceus’s are longer, and wrap along the line of the end of her undercut until they taper to points, right above her ears.

Stakes of their current situation ignored, they look pretty badass.

“Up we go.” Caleb says, expectant nod at Veth.

The halfling-turned-tiefling takes point, and slowly leads them up the cliffside, slick with the fog that’s hanging over the ocean. Caduceus is kept between Beau and Fjord, as they’re the only two with any sort of strength to help keep him balanced while also laying low. Caleb is right behind Veth, making sure her pace isn’t too quick and silently pointing out helpful notches in the cliffside for Beau to use for additional security. They don’t speak for the entire ascension, but Beau still half expects them to have been spotted, and for blades to be pointed at their throats when they reach the top of the cliffs.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. The broom up here is thick enough that they barely need to crouch for their heads to stay hidden under the sour-smelling plant. Beau can’t stop herself from pulling one of the bright gold flowers and tucking it in her pocket to be pressed in the book later. Caleb pulls a fine copper wire from his seemingly unending pouch of clutter.

“Blueberry, it’s Stinky. Here with friends, we need help. It’s for the princess.” He tosses his head to the side for a moment, taking in his surroundings before Caleb goes back to muttering into his curled hand. “East side of the keep, no walls, above pebbles, yellow plants.”

Fjord’s brow has knitted itself nearly to touch the bridge of his nose while Caleb is speaking. “You think she’s still here.” He says as soon as Caleb has completed his message.

“I know it.” Caleb then cocks his head, as if he’s listening to something, as a giant grin spreads across his face. “And I’m right. Come along.”

He pulls them through the safety of the broom and out to the sky-high stone walls of the keep. They’re at just the right angle, where they can see into some of the windows of the actual castle, but it would be hard to spot them, even with colorful tiefling bodies. They wait with bated breath as Caleb’s eyes scan the walls, waiting for something and Fjord absentmindedly taps his fingers on Caleb’s shoulder, clearly trying to decide if he should be nervous or excited. An impossible door of stone swings open right in front of them, and a figure steps out.

The answer to the question of Caleb’s inspiration for his disguise stands right in front of them. A blue tiefling woman, adorned with many freckles and pretty jewelry dangling from her horns despite her plain clothes, is still only for a moment before she launches herself into Caleb and Fjord’s arms. The pair hug her tight as she lets out a squeal of excitement, before she can tear herself away long enough to take in the three strangers.

“Hi!” She says, removing one of her hands from the tangled embrace to offer it to Beau. “I’m Jester.”

Beau takes the hand, and can’t stop the small smile that forms on her face. She’s such a bright patch in this otherwise dreary place that she can’t help but be slightly enamored by this tiefling. “Hi Jester. I’m Beau.”

At that, Jester nearly beats back the other two to regain use of her other arm . “Beau, Beau, Molly’s been talking about a Beau. You’re Yasha’s?”

Beau can barely contain the hope that claws at her chest. “You know Yasha?”

Know?” Jester looks nearly offended at the casual use of the word, and she looks back at Fjord and Caleb. “You two didn’t tell her! Suspicious bastards the both of you. The four of us risked our heads to help break her out of here, I’ve known Yasha as long as my momma had been invited to perform for hers.”

She can’t help her posture sinking at that. “It’s my fault she’s back.”

“Chch.” Jester chides. “Wouldn’t have no breaking out to do if it wasn’t for her step-father.”  She belatedly remembers the other two figures just behind Beau.  “Oh, hi, Jester.”

Caduceus is leaning on the wall for support, so he only offers a small wave of acknowledgement, but Veth is close enough to shake Jester’s hand and offer their names. “You’ve seen her then.” Veth asks as she releases the other woman’s hand.

“Only Molly’s been allowed near. He’s been hexed so he can’t tell anyone where she is, he tried to tell me and blood started pouring out his mouth. It’s been his… Thing. Now.” Jester’s eyes flit between Caleb and Fjord. “As punishment. Since she’s been back.”

Fjord and Caleb’s mouths both open at the same time, only for Jester to cut them off with a sharp shake of her head. “No. We knew what we were risking.

Caduceus’s eyes have gone squinty as he looks between the trio. “I don’t mean to pry, but I do feel like I’m holding a puzzle box with only half of the pieces in it.”

“I’d save me a lot of time if you two weren’t so suspicious.” Jester bemoans at her former childhood friends. “Caleb, Fjord and Molly were all at an orphanage in Rohsona when my momma was the top performer at the Lavish Chateau. She’s the best. Ever.” Her eyebrows quirk with sudden seriousness, like she expects some sort of challenge. “She got invited to perform here, east of the sun west of the moon, very big deal. I got to come because I was The Ruby’s daughter, and that’s how I met Yasha. We played together for many years, but Yasha couldn’t ever see me in the day because of a curse her step-father put on her. Bastard. When her mother died Yasha became very scared and wanted to run away, and because I’m her friend and they’re my friends, we all agreed to help. Molly and I snuck in with my momma, and we got Yasha out with her. But we got stuck, and couldn’t follow. Caleb and Fjord got her out of the cities and to the wilds where she would be out of his reach. Or so we thought. That was… four? Five years ago maybe? I was grown, I knew what I was doing, we all did.” Jester gives a little nod. “We know even more now. What we’re risking.”

There’s silence for a moment, the only sound being the crash of the waves on the stone shore. “Shit.” Veth says.

“There’s no cause more righteous than freeing people who are chained.” Jester says, with conviction strong enough to stun. “Good news, it’ll be much easier to get everyone inside. Especially with the spell, good work Caleb. I’m in the kitchens most days, now.” She crosses her arms. “I could bring you in as new hires, but you’d need to be able to cook. Convincingly.”

Beau tries her best to not laugh at how easy that is. “I can cook. Promise.”

“Me too, but I’m a better baker.” Veth says, and Beau’s mouth waters a little as she thinks about the braided rings of poppyseed bread she made those months back.

“I’m passable.” Caduceus offers, gently pushing himself off the wall so he finally stands on his own two legs unassisted.

Jester takes in the three of them under her sharp eye. “Veth, yes, we’re short on bakers right now so no one will question it, but you’ll have to pitch your voice so people think you’re actually a child.” She’s looking unconvincingly at Caduceus. “All right Mr. Caduceus, but you stay by me until you prove you can take more than four paces unassisted. You…” She shakes her head at Beau. “It’s good to get you in, but we need something different. You won’t have the time you need to find her, if you’re stuck in the kitchens all day.”

“Why wouldn’t she have the time, if it’s just cooking?” Fjord says with a confused look. When Jester turns with a glare strong enough to make most mortal men melt, he holds up his palm in explanation. “I mean, there’s only so much one castle can eat in a day, right?”

“Normally.” Jester agrees while rolling her eyes. When no one has anything to contribute other than blank expressions, her vague boredom shifts to worry. “None of you know?”

Beau and Caduceus exchange a very worried look, but he beats her to asking the question. “A wedding?”

Jester’s nodding furiously, mouth set in a grim line. “A wedding.” She repeats, though her tone indicates that she’d prefer a funeral. “On Elvendawn.

“So soon.” Caduceus whispers. “On the Archeart’s holy day…  odd choice, no?”

Beau wills her mouth to work so that she can ask a dreaded question that just occurred to her. “Is that another name for Midsummer?”

Caduceus gives her a nod. Beau tries not to fly into a panic. She should have been keeping better track of the days. It means nothing, the wedding being planned on that day has to do with a holy day, it has nothing to do with the fact that’s also Beau’s birthday. Some cruel trick of the universe. Must have conspired with her father, this would be his idea of comeuppance, even though he wouldn't know the date to do any of the actual planning.

“I trust ‘The Master of Wills’ intentions as far as I can throw him.” Jester puts what may be the biggest air quotes Beau has ever seen around Obann’s title. “He calls no one by their actual names, Yasha is Orphanmaker to him. His daughter he’s having her marry goes by Caedogeist, and he calls his son The Laughing Hand. Who does that? He’s the same with the servants, pulls names from our past he should have no way of knowing. He’s terrible and shady as fuck. I’m sure the date matching with a holy day is significant, I just don’t know how.”

Beau presses her hand to her cheek as she looks up the stone castle walls. She’d assumed Yasha’s step-father to be a piece of work, but this… “Oh, I’ve brought you all here to die with a half-baked plan.”

“Plan’s easy. We find Yasha’s step-dad, who sounds like he’s up to something, wait for him to go to sleep, and then we just stab him.” Veth says with a shake of her head. “The world would probably thank us for it.”

“Yeah, good luck finding him while he’s resting, you know tieflings can only see movement.” Jester says with a swish of her tail. “You’ll need to be better actors, if I’m going to have to stick out my neck for you guys.”

Veth’s brow knits with worry, but Fjord just rolls his eyes. “She’s joking, try not to take much of what Jester says too seriously or she’ll age you ten years in ten minutes.”

“I am worried about everyone’s acting abilities. Now what to do with you two…” Jester taps her fingernails along her jawline, before something hits her. “Oh! Remember Reani, she used to come watch my momma perform?”

A fond smile is on Caleb’s face. “Of course.”

Jester points at a second story window about ten feet away and twenty up from where they stand. “She’s here for the wedding. If you can find a way to her room, I know she’ll help cover for you guys.”

“I’ve got us covered.” Fjord says with a short nod, and looks over to Caleb. “Ready to go?”

Caleb shrugs. “Now? Sure Fjord, though I don’t know how you pla-“

With that, Fjord grabs Caleb’s hand and they disappear into a shimmer of mist. Beau’s gaze immediately chases up to the window, which she can see Fjord and Caleb just for a moment, before they fall out of reach, hopefully on the floor and in front of a friend.

“Huh.” Jester remarks as she tilts her head. “I didn’t think Fjord knew magic.”

“Yeah, well he pulled the ocean around earlier today to.” Veth grumbles as she shakes her head. “Everyone Beau makes friends with is full of surprises.”

The tiefling doesn’t appear to share the other woman’s sentiment. “I guess.” Jester says, though she sounds pretty warry. “Unfortunately, the four of us will be making our way into the castle on foot.” She opens the stone door once more, into near darkness. “Follow me.”

Jester leads them through the hidden door she came from, into a dimly lit passageway. Servant’s tunnels. They follow her until they spill out into a bailey that Jester calls a courtyard. She leads them across, rapidly pointing out small buildings and towers while explaining their uses and who they house, while also giving a dismissive wave towards the intimidating castle on the edge. Beau assumes most of the hubbub takes place there, but as servants they won’t be allowed in without good reason.

Yasha’s there. Somewhere. Beau’s going to have to find a way in, besides the guarded door.

“What’s that building?” Caduceus asks, pointing at a small stone construction. It stands out, as the stone its built with is different from the rest of the castle grounds, much darker. There are also three stained-glass windows that run floor to roof, that if Beau squints, she thinks she can make out some celestial iconography shackled in chains and flames.

Jester shakes her head. “You want to stay out of the angel’s eye. No one goes there but the Master.”

The vast majority of the people on the castle grounds seem to have some infernal or demonic blood. However, there is the occasional aasimar amongst them, shining with radiance that makes them hard, almost painful to look at. Beau asks about them.

“The late queen was an aasimar.” Jester says with a slightly reverent whisper as her gaze follows one man with snowy-white wings and a blinding bright halo. “They’re here to honor Yasha, even if they no longer hold any sway over the dominion here. They won’t forget her, even if they have no way to help her now.”

Veth tilts her head as Jester opens a door that she identified as leading to the kitchens. “So, the new ‘Master’ is a devil?”

Jester snorts a half-attempted laugh at that. “Oh, he’s no devil. He’s worse.”

 

They settle in the kitchens, quickly introduced without names to the rest of the busy staff, before Jester pulls them into a smaller room. The stoves are smaller, equipment all a little more beaten. This is where things are prepared for folk of lower status, and while it would normally be a bit busy, wedding preparations mean that it’s nearly been abandoned.

Jester sets up Veth and Caduceus to do some simple work, before taking Beau aside to the pantry stores under the ruse of teaching her where ingredients are why she tries to come up with a cover that would give her more free reign on the grounds.

“C’mon, there must be something.” Jester urges her. “What did your parents do for work?”

Beau rolls her eyes. “My father’s a vintner, once I left home Lionett wine apparently started sweeping the continent.”

“Beau!” Jester’s eyes are bright with excitement. “That’s perfect! You’re our wine taster, to determine pairings for the wedding. We were going to let The Master decide, but he’s so busy he never would have gotten around to it. C’mon, let’s go!”

Jester takes them back by Veth and Caduceus to inform them of her plan. She then casts a spell, announces to someone that they have a wine taster coming and to please prepare all options in a lounge in the castle. They go back outside to the main bailey, where Jester fills the next hour with babbling small talk while slipping in information about building layouts and ideas where Yasha may be hidden away.

They’re summoned by a white tiefling woman, who takes them inside the castle and clears Beau with the guards without her having to say another word. When Beau shoots a raised brow at Jester, she explains with a hushed whisper that the woman, Lillith, had her tongue removed for speaking out against the Master in his early days of rule. She’s become a telepath, and is now one of his favorite servants.

Beau tries not to shudder as Lillith guides them to the prepared lounge. The ceilings are high, and every wall is made of grey stone that is softened by no adornment. There’s a small fire going in the lounge to provide and illusion of comfort, and a large, severe table nearly entirely covered by bottles of wine. There’s too many to know where to start.

She spies a label she instantly recognizes. Purple Cinder red wine, her father’s personal favorite from their vineyard, even when it struggled to thrive. She knows that, objectively, it’s a good bottle of wine, but the sight of it here turns her stomach.

“Not that stuff.” She says, pointing at the Lionett wine.

“Really.” Jester says flatly, picking up the bottle and pretending to examine it, even though she surely knows what’s really bothering Beau. “How odd, I hear the vineyard in Kamordah is thriving like no other.”

A wicked thought crosses Beau’s mind. “You haven’t heard? Apparently, strange magic runs through the plants the Lionett family tends. We wouldn’t want the nobles drinking enchanted wine, what if it’s secretly some devil’s work?”

“It would be a terrible thing.” Jester’s smug grin matches Beau’s. “It would be best we found a way to dispose of all the bottles now.”

“I’m sure the servants wouldn’t mind being bewitched by such wine.” Beau agrees. The white tiefling takes the bottle with a hint of a smile, and leaves them alone as she goes to share the recommendation that all wine from Kamordah should be removed from royal stores.

Still, nearly forty bottles remain to be sampled and given opinions on. Beau’ll be free for the rest of the day, but she’s got work to do now. Jester helps by uncorking bottles and pouring just the slightest bit of wine into the glass so that Beau will make it through the process without getting drunk.

“It’s so strange.” Jester remarks as she gives Beau a look that betrays a well of wisdom she must normally keep secreted away. “The princess has had the strangest cravings since she’s returned to us.”

“Has she now.” Beau tries to sound bored as she swirls the wine in the glass, occupying herself with recalling snobby wine terminology instead

“Mhm.” Jester says with a nod. “Grown fond of reindeer, for some reason. She also desires cloudberry jam as often as we can provide it, which isn’t enough.”

Beau does her best not to choke on her sharp intake of breath. Reindeer roam the mountains, sure, but cloudberries are temperamental, they’re hard to find in the Empire outside of Kamordah.  

It doesn’t need to mean anything. Unless she wants it to. And Gods, does she want it to.

Writing recommendations for pairings for each bottle takes time, but Beau’s smart, and she doesn’t need much time for reflection once she’s taken a sip. It takes her back to the rare days she’d be sent to the market to sell the fruits of her father’s labor, and how to pitch wine to fancy men who don’t need it. She’d almost be proud of her work, if it was for something she was actually looking forward to.

She’s given release after that to some of the halls of the main castle. Obviously, she tries to search for wherever Yasha may be hidden away. Everywhere she turns is a dead end, and that sense of despair starts to build in her chest again. She desperately needs to get out of this building that feels like a tomb, see the sky at least.

Beau finds herself playing with the apple given to her so long ago by Yeza, tossing it from hand to hand as she walks in the shadows of the bailey. She keeps her breathing steady as she leans against the cold stone wall of the castle, closing her eyes in an attempt to ground herself. She’s nowhere closer to figuring out where Yasha’s being kept, and she’s considering crying out of frustration when a voice from above calls down to her.

“What do you want for your gold apple, lassie?” A tiefling woman has thrown open her window from above to look down on Beau. She has dark ashen skin and brilliant red hair that hangs loose, only held back from her bright ruby eyes with a black bandana.

“It’s not for sale.” Beau says automatically. “Not for gold or money.”

“What is it that you will sell it for?” The woman tries, tilting her head. “You may name your own price.”

There's only one thing she wants in all of the world right now. “The princess that lives here, pale with braided black hair. I want to be taken to her, tonight.” Beau wears an unassuming glint in her eyes. She sounds so utterly broken when she speaks, she has to smile and pretended it an act or she’ll actually cry. Tears will not win this woman over, and will likely get Beau reported to someone who’ll throw her out.

The woman considers her with an ice cold look. “I can get you to her. Now toss me the apple.” Her long fingernails extend from the window, nearly reaching low enough to brush the top of Beau’s hair.

Beau pulls it back to her chest as the woman reaches out. “How do I know you won’t take it now and run?”

The woman’s face twists in a scowl, before she sees reason. “Fair. Meet me here at sundown, with the apple, and I’ll show you the way.”

 

“How do I look?”  Beau worries to Veth as the disguised halfling measures out ingredients to prepare bagels.

Caduceus and Jester are a room over, chopping vegetables and preparing other scraps to be thrown into the large stew that will serve most of the castle’s servants tonight. Jester’s promised to keep a close eye on him, but their seeming forms make it difficult. The shake of his hand concerned her enough to force Caduceus to sit while he worked, but his stubborn insistence that he’s fine has done little to dissuade Jester’s worries.

Beau and Veth were allowed this smaller room to themselves to bake, which right now has consisted of Beau running for ingredients while Veth prepares ovens. Beau had joined them after agreeing to meet the other woman, fearing that she’d be too preoccupied with her terror mixed excitement to keep up appearances. Here, in the fading light of a neglected kitchen, presence only known by three others that she’s come to trust far more quickly than any reasonable person would, she feels safe.

“It’s hard to tell, dear.” Veth says as she pulls out a large bowl. “Disguised form and all.”

Right. Same problem they’re having with telling how Caduceus is fairing. “Right. Well, hopefully I’m not frightful enough to ward Yasha off.”

A hand dusted with flour comes up to pat her cheek. “Beau, if she feels anything for you like you do for her, she’ll know you blind and half-dead.” Veth vows, willing determination into Beau.

Beau helps her until the sun kisses the sea, and then she’s practically racing out of the kitchens, rabbit-furred pouch still slung over her shoulder, to go meet this tiefling woman. It turns out that she’s waiting for Beau. They don’t exchange words; Beau just tosses the golden apple to her. With a flick of her tail and a self-satisfied grin, the other woman nods at her and begins to trek across the courtyard. She takes Beau not to the castle, but towards one of the towers built into the wall around the keep, one that Jester had pointed out earlier as one where guests were held. The woman opens the door with a wave of her hand, and begins their spiraling ascent.

The only sound is their footsteps, before the woman decides they’ve climbed high enough, and opens a solid iron door, into a dizzying maze of halls that Beau would never have guessed could be contained in the tower. “They call me Caedogeist.” The woman says as she taps her sharp talons of nails on the side of the apple.

It takes every ounce of willpower in her body for Beau not to freeze on the spot. “Do they now.” She says, compelling her legs to move forward and continue following the tiefling woman.

“Mm. You’re new.” She turns her head to rake her bright red gaze over Beau. “What did you say your name was?”

“Traci.” Beau lies effortlessly, sends a quick prayer to her stepmother not to smite her on the spot for borrowing her name. “Won’t be here for long ma’am, just to lend expertise with some wine parings.”

“You’re here for the wedding then.” Caedogeist says with a smug grin as she tosses her hair over her shoulder. “You must know who I am. And who I’m taking you to.”

Beau says nothing in return, just tries to keep her breathing collected as they turn down another hallway, dedicating this winding maze to her memory.

“I don’t know who you are, why you want this, but you’ve given me such a treat. It would be rude of me not to return the favor, and my father taught me to never be rude.” Her smile is wicked sharp, and for a moment Beau wonders if she intends to devour her whole on the spot for what she’s asked for.

Instead, this Caedogeist extends her hand to the door of the room she’s stopped at. “A beauty for a beauty. You’ll be gone before dawn, if you know what’s good for you.” She brushes past Beau effortlessly, like she means nothing to her, and waltzes back the way she came. Beau finds herself stuck staring the door, frozen.

The door is intimidating, wood stained black. Weirdly, it’s fairly nondescript compared to the rest of the doors down this hallway, which Beau assumes all lead to some sort of private chambers, or maybe special rooms intended for folk that the lord or lady of the castle needs to keep hidden. It’s only made notable by the polished iron face of bear affixed to the front, mouth open in an unwelcoming growl and eyes slanted in hatred.

It looks nothing like White Bear ever did. Beau pushes forward, unafraid of what the door contains.

The bedroom she finds herself in is much smaller than she expected. The walls are empty, but even in torchlight the discoloration is obvious. They were not always bare, they were likely once decorated to show some sense of identity, but they’ve been stripped now. The furniture is all dark and nondescript, containing a similar message of depersonalization. The only show of a hint of personality is the teacup on the bedside table, a beautiful painted porcelain piece showing a scene of a field of poppies. The only other splash of brightness is the rug beneath the bed. It’s a large white-fur throw, that Beau interoperates as a threat more than a comfort. The levity of the white is still weighed down by the massive bed, which takes up a good third of the room. Beau had always felt small in her canopied bed in the castle by that black-sand beach, but the woman tucked into the slate-gray bedspread looks absolutely tiny. The door clicks quietly as it shuts behind her, and that’s the urging Beau needs to make her presence known.

“Yasha.” Beau’s breath is barely a whisper, she would not believe she had spoken were it not for the soft rush of air as she exhales.

She doesn’t stir. Beau waits another heartbeat, before she realizes she can’t see the rise of Yasha’s chest. Then she’s throwing herself to Yasha’s side, pulling back the heavy quilt to get a better sense of her.

He body is cold, not far off from a corpse. She looks strange, even though Beau only saw her once that image of Yasha has been burned into her mind’s eye ever since. Parts of her look sallow, withered, not unlike Caduceus when he washed up on the shore with them. An effect of how she was transported to the castle, maybe? The grey ends are gone from her hair, it’s entirely jet-black now, still in that sea of unending braids. Beau presses the back of her hand to Yasha’s cheek and waits for a reaction that never comes. She’s seemingly dead to the world, and nothing Beau can think to do would rouse her.

The one thing she doesn’t try is a kiss. She’d stolen one true one before, under false pretenses, and it’s what’s landed them here to begin with. Beau knows in her heart that it would fix nothing now. And really, she doesn’t deserve one.

Drawing near, Beau notices a lump on Yasha’s side that she can’t make sense of, so she goes to toss the sheets back. She hesitates for a moment, before she sees the dark straps of a nightgown. If she throws them back, she won’t betray Yasha like this too.

Nothing could have prepared her for what they covered. Yasha has wings, like the other aasimar Beau had seen today, but also nothing at all.  They’re completely skeletal, not a feather in sight, and the way they’re tucked and attempt to curled into her back gives Beau the impression that having them out is incredibly painful for her. Beau’s too nervous to touch them, doesn’t know what price that might have for the both of them, but she knows they’re real. There’s an odd bundle of fabric between the two of them, and it takes Beau several beats to realize what it is.

She’s still wearing the cloak Beau spilled the three drops of tallow on, and it still doesn’t look like it belongs. She runs her fingers along the navy fur along Yasha’s shoulders, worrying it until her hand comes to gently rest on the back of Yasha’s neck. As she strokes the cool skin, her eyes fall down the hollow at the base of her throat and outwards towards the edge of Yasha’s collarbone, where an oddity lies. At first, Beau’s certain her eyes are playing tricks on her, but when she raises her other hand to touch the dark, angry stitching along Yasha’s wingspan, she has to come to terms with what’s there.

Yasha doesn’t wear this cloak by choice. It’s been sewn into her skin with dark, angry thread that has left her. Beau wants to tear the thread out with her own bitten nails, let Yasha choose how to adorn herself. She wants to take her back to that castle hidden in the cliffs, to some real place that you didn’t need to befriend a demigod to reach. She wants Yasha to just be awake with her, so they can hold one another. She wants to let Yasha know that Beau is hers, has been since that day in the sitting room, reading her that first book curled up into her furry side, back before she even knew her true form.

She wants

But there’s nothing she can do, not right now. Yasha, somehow, is dead to the world and to Beau. The only comfort is that she still breaths, that her heart still drudges out a slow rhythm. Yasha is here, if nothing else, and Beau cannot help but feel thankful for that. She blindly searches for that dark grey quilt, refusing to let go of Yasha for a single moment as she tosses it over the pair of them. Her hands eventually find their way into Yasha’s hair, and her fingers gently trace the maze-like lines of Yasha’s braids until Beau’s eyes can stay open no longer.

 

Beau’s sleep that night is terrible, coming and going like a tide being broken inconsistently on a rocky shore. Every time she wakes her heart rushes with joy, before her mind has to remind herself of the situation they’re in. She does get to sleep face to face with Yasha, something that had never been allowed before. Beau doesn’t feel like the price paid could even come close to this tiny victory.

Her eyes open for a final time in the minutes just before daybreak, when the unmistakable creek of a door being opens hits her ears.

“Beau.” Jester stands in the doorway, two dark green cloaks in hand. Her eyes widen was she takes in the scene, it’s not hard for her to realize what’s gone wrong. “Oh no.”

“I can’t leave her.” Beau mumbles, fingers still tangled in Yasha’s dark hair as the weight of the bed begs her back towards sleep.

“If he catches you, he will kill you.” The tiefling begs, but she does not cross the threshold any further. “You have to leave, the wedding’s not for two more days, we can try again.”

The desperation in her plea is what breaks Beau. Jester’s voice is a plain in what she thinks as Beau’s face is. She wouldn’t be here, begging if she didn’t believe her fear to be real. Beau has earned some of her loyalty too, however wildly undeserved. But she can’t ignore it, not when Jester’s risking her own neck. So Beau does the one thing she never dreamed she’d be able to do, not since she’d woken up alone in an unfamiliar wood.

She rises from Yasha’s unmoving side and slowly, somehow, her feet carry her out of the room.

Chapter Text

It turns out Jester had not come to fetch her out of her own improbable precognition. A lavender tiefling is with her, currently wiping a red stain from his mouth. Jester’s entire posture relaxes as Beau leaves the threshold of Yasha’s room, and she pulls Beau into a worried embrace.

“Gotta cover you.” Jester mutters as she throws an emerald cloak over Beau. At some point in the night, Caleb’s spell had given out and Beau had been returned to her fully human form, no other illusions around to protect her in this place most certainly not meant for your average person.

Her purple friend taps his nails on the side of his jaw thoughtfully, sharp talons matching teeth brought to pointed fangs. While many of Jester’s features leaned more on the humanoid side of things, he looks like Caduceus. More otherworldly than anything Beau might have recognized in the occasional traveling tiefling merchant that got lost in the mountains and ended up in Kamordah.

She doesn’t like the way the newcomer is taking her in, he rubs her the wrong way. Something about the way he holds himself, like he’s new but doesn’t want anyone else to get the idea, calculated in his weirdness. “What’s your problem?” Beau asks, uncaring that her tone is practically serrated.

“Sapphire eyes.” The purple one remarks as he gives her a once over that reminds Beau of the sensation of stepping in hot coals while barefoot. “Hole in your heart, as clear as anything. Didn’t think you’d be such a bitch about it.”

“This is Molly.” Jester says before Beau can even think to react as they descend the stairwell she had used the night before. “From earlier?”

The tiefling behind her tuts in displeasure. “My friends call me Molly. You may call me Mollymauk.”

Beau rolls her eyes, knowing he cannot see them. “Okay Molly.”

A swift kick to her shin has her sucking in a whimper and clawing the stone side of the wall in an attempt to not fall down the staircase in shock.

“Oops.” Mollymauk says dryly. The smile he gives her leaves Beau with the impression he’d be happy to tackle her the whole way down, were Jester not leading them and likely wind up taking the brunt of their fall.

Beau does her best to stay on Jester’s heels and out of Mollymauk’s reach. He makes the most racket out of the three of them, nervously humming the whole way down and cursing something about a safer way. Jester hushes him when they reach the bottom. She pushes the door open just a crack, and musty dawn’s light spills at her feet while she investigates outside. Satisfied with the deserted nature of the courtyard, Jester nudges the door open just a little more so that the three of them can slip out single file. She’s quick as she races across the wet grass, and Beau’s feet are happy to pick up the pace.

She doesn’t have more than a moment to appreciate the muted colors of the sunrise that have managed to fight through the heavy clouds that cover the entire castle before the purple tiefling’s fingernails dig into Beau’s wrist and tug her through another doorway, this one tucked into a structure Jester had pointed out as a storage building.

The room inside is full of crates, barrels, and other objects covered in sheets that Beau’s eyes can’t adjust to the darkness rapidly enough to identify. Jester and Mollymauk both lead in front, following a slightly dizzying maze to another door. This room is lit with several globes of light which allows Beau to see the faces of her four companions.

This room looks like it holds feed and supplies for any animals kept in the castle. Caleb and Veth are exchanging worried whispers from the floor while Fjord has his back turned to them as he rummages through the storage containers, ostensibly doing his part to make sure they’re as alone as they believe themselves to be. Caduceus appears to be in some sort of deep meditation from his folded position on the top of a stack of crates, but his eyes flash open when Mollymauk busts them in and his trance is broken. The wizard reaches them first, up faster than Beau thinks she’s ever seen him move.

“I couldn’t risk you all not being within thirty feet.” Caleb is apologetic, and takes Beau by the hands to pull her towards a bed of hay he’s made in an attempt to have her rest more. She allows him, for no other reason than the worry settled on his brown that’s aging him a good decade.

Veth is passing her what must be scraps from the kitchen’s cooking from her seat on the floor and Fjord has managed to produce a cup of coffee clinging on to the last of its heat while Caleb marks them all again and seems them into tiefling facades once more.

Belatedly, Beau realizes that the six sets of eyes trained on her are all waiting for her to speak, to explain why she’s here alone and presumably looking like shit. “Caedogeist brought me to her, but Yasha couldn’t wake, or she wouldn’t I don’t know.” She feels that initial panic rise up in her chest again and her hands race up to her hair to push it out of her face, tugging at it to ground herself. “I gave her Yeza’s apple, I’m sorry Veth it’s what caught Caedogeist’s attention and I thought I was going to get her back but now I’m back alone and it’s gone and –“

“It’s what it was meant for.” Veth insists stubbornly as she presses the fork back into Beau’s hand.

Caduceus’s eyebrows arch. “You know where she rests her head, then.”

“Yeah, she’s…” Beau tries to continue speaking, but something rushes her mouth and renders her useless with the sheer volume of liquid she’s trying to hold. She spits it out on reflex, and is by the dark red color of it Beau knows it’s her blood.

“Beau!” Fjord exclaims, and he’s pressing a canteen of water to Beau’s mouth to wash it clean of the foreign substance.

Mollymauk tuts his tongue. “Shit, I thought it was just a hex on me.”

She wants to contradict him out of spite more than anything else, but Beau can’t deny the metallic taste on her tongue. “We’re all stuck spitting out blood if we try to say where she is?”

“Guess so.” Mollymauk says, scowl twisting his face as he kicks a crate with enough frustration to cause the neglected wood to crack. “Tiamat’s shriveled tit, I hate this clever ass who’s got the run of things here.”

“Speaking of him…” Veth says. “Why do you not call Yasha’s step-father by his name?”

Mollymauk’s face only grows grimmer. “He cursed it. You summon him, if you speak his name."

Caduceus tilts his head in thought. “But wouldn’t he just wind up…” He pings is index finger randomly around several points in the air. “Being summoned every which way, never able to get a word in edgewise?”

Jester’s expression is a weary one. “He’s no goddess’s chosen, being prayed upon. Nearly everyone who knows the true name of his identity resides here, and we know better than to use it.” She shakes her head. “And like Molly said. He’s an ass.”

“Has plenty of cleaver ways of punishing servants that step out of line. There’s Lillith’s lack of tongue and myself around to remind folks of that.” Mollymauk’s tattooed hand pushes his dark purple hair away from where his ear should be. Instead of a neatly pointed tip, the flesh had been gnawed to the base.

Fjord lets out a low whistle. “And I thought I broke bad.”

Mollymauk’s brow jerks in his direction as he runs the tips of his nails through the ends of his hair, and it falls back in place to cover what remains of his ear. “What do you know of bad breaks, Fjord? From where I’m standing, seems you wound up landing on your feet.”

“He’s doing magic now.” Jester mutters, casting her eyes down at her feet.

Mollymauk looks surprised at that. “The Caleb way?”

“No.” Comes the flat response from the man sorting out ingredients in his pouch on the floor next to Veth.

That softens Mollymauk into worry, and Beau wonders if that’s the first genuine expression she’s seen on him yet. “Hey, Fjord…” Gods, is that what he looks like when he’s unsure? “I don’t know much, but if it’s something I can help you with, I will.”

“This isn’t why I’m here.” Fjord looks to Beau, gives her a firm nod. “Bigger fish to fry. Maybe after, Tealeaf, but not until we break out our princess.” He breaks his eye contact, instead collecting Caleb, Molly and Jester in his gaze. “It’ll be just like old times.”

“I certainly hope not.” Veth says, brow furrowed a little deeper scowling in the way that Beau knows is worry. “Last time it ended with Mr. Asshole in power and Molly and Jester trapped here. Besides, you all are really too young to have ‘old times’ to reminisce on.”

Molly’s sharp scrutiny shifts to the halfling. “You’re like, our age. What, you get married and suddenly think you know more than everyone else?”

“I don’t know if marriage makes you feel entitled to wisdom. It certainly didn’t have that effect on me.” Beau muses to her coffee more than anyone else.

Jester’s gasp is strong enough to blow open latched windows. “You’re married to Yasha?”

Beau could have sworn she told Jester. But then again, maybe she’d just told her story so many times in the past few days they’d all blurred together. She had definitely meant to tell her. “Y-yes?”

The tieflings share a significant look. With the tension that rises in the room, Beau just knows she’s the only one who can’t read it.

“Well.” Fjord says grimly, expectant eyes on Jester.

“The ascension of the angel requires bonds breaking to form new ones.” Jester’s gone pale. “Tell me I have it wrong Molly, tell me I’ve misremembered.”

Mollymauk shakes his head lightly, like he’s afraid anything with more force behind it will shatter the tightly drawn air in the room.

“Is this the same angel you mentioned earlier?” Veth asks. “The one with the stained-glass building, whose eye we are to stay out of?”

Jester gives a light nod. “According to Yasha, he’s been worshiping it as long as she’s known him. He built the temple to it here, after he became king. I haven’t met a soul whose heard of it before he brough it to us.”

“Neither have I, from Xhorhas across the sea to the Empire.” Fjord says with a tight frown.

Caleb shakes his head as well. “It’s not in any book Essek or I have managed to get ahold of.”

“He needs some aspect from the Archeart.” Jester’s tail drums on the floor. “If it was about breaking rules, the binding nature of something like marriage, he’d have chosen Civilization’s Dawn. He’s not having the wedding now because he’s strapped for time, Yasha’s been here for two months.”

Caduceus looks the least outraged of them all. But he still has a set of anger in his brow as he looks towards the wall, in the direction that Beau somehow just knows is of the throne room Obann occupies. “If he is as you say he is, he wouldn’t allow any loose threads. This was paramount to his plan from the start.”

Veth tilts her head in thought. “Something with beauty, perhaps? Maybe this angel of his is very beautiful, and to break it out he needs to snap then reforge a bond of another being.”

“Is it just happening this way because I saw it?” The purple tiefling wonders aloud, eyes darting between Caleb, Fjord and Jester. “I saw her,” he extends a sharp finger at Beau, “and now we’re here, trying to string together a plan in a half-forgotten storage room?”

Caleb leans backwards so he’s close enough to Beau’s makeshift bed of hay to whisper to her. “Molly has visions. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they don’t and very occasionally they come true. He had one right before we freed Yasha the first time. It was a decimated stone building. In the heart of the ruins stood woman with sapphires for eyes and a hole in her chest, carrying three golden things. Thread, an orb and –“

“Teeth!” Mollymauk says with frazzled excitement, having obviously been listening in on their conversation. “Beau, do you have something with teeth?”

“Um.” Beau tries to not think about the teeth in her own mouth as she mentally sorts the rest of her possessions. “Oh, Fjord gave me a carding comb?”

She pulls it out, and the globules of floating lights give the thick golden teeth of the comb the illusion of an internal glow that has only to compete with the brilliant white wood of the handle.

Mollymauk lets out a low whistle. “Where’dya get that, buddy?”

The half-orc looks almost ashamed. “From our headmistress at the orphanage. She used to taunt me with it, said it was in the blanket they found me in, a payment in apology for having to take a sorry sod like me on. She’d always wait when I was at my lowest to whip it out and remind me that I was willingly left there. When we aged out I, I couldn’t leave it in her hands. So I stole it.”

“Don’t make it sound like you committed some terrible sin.” Caleb scolds.

“She was a bitch.” Jester says in agreeance.

A silence takes them as they all look back at the comb, such a cause of misery for one of them and now a potential key to freeing their missing link. Beau knows they need to formulate some sort of plan where the aggravating Caedogeist can catch eye of it and trade it for Beau’s presence back into Yasha’s room to wake her and steal her away from this place and the man entitled enough to call himself her father.

“Whoa.” A sunshine-bright voice fills the quiet of the room.

The voice belongs to an aasimar, no doubt. She’s almost impossible to look at, one of the rarer ones whose radiance pours from her skin, eyes straight showers of golden light, freckles shimmering and a halo so bright that it reflects of her white hair with enough intensity to blind. When she opens her mouth to speak, the searing heat that comes with the additional light is nearly enough to burn skin. Beau can’t stand to watch her straight on for more than a moment, and resorts to looking just over her shoulder.

“Reani.” Fjord’s voice is strained. “What Caleb and I proposed, you know you don’t have to do it. You know what we’re asking?”

“I know.” Reani says, impossibly calm smile reminding Beau of Caduceus’s. “But you know I have to. The rule is that evil dies.”

Mollymauk’s face twists into a conflicted look. “Reanminere, as true as your beliefs may be, I fear it will not be as easy as you hope.”

“I know.” Reani reassures again. “That’s how I know you guys are right.” Her conviction is only mildly terrifying. Beau’s just thankful she’s not on Reani’s bad side.

Caleb stands upright. “Reani, this is Beauregard.” He gestures, and belatedly Beau realizes she ought to be standing and properly deferring to the aasimar. “She’s the one we have to thank for bringing us together again.”

Reani gives her a little curtsey, which only feels moderately odd to be on the receiving end of. “So, we’ve got to sneak you back up again so you can bring us our dear old Yasha.” She says, smile brightening to an inhuman level. “What’s the plan?”

 

Under full daylight in the bailey, Reanminere is truly radiant. She somehow both absorbs and reflects the sunlight. Ostensibly, she’s taking advantage of the sun to read while a dark sapphire tiefling attends to her, painstakingly styling her hair, holding up a mirror for approval, and getting back to work when she’s denied.

It’s not difficult for Reani to attract attention, and Beau swears it feels like she knows everyone currently staying at the castle with the number of aasimar and tieflings that stop by for a chat. Eventually, as the sun begins to sink in the sky, the woman they’re waiting for comes.

“I didn’t realize you were the type to be caught preening for attention, Reanminere.” Caedogeist remarks as she passes by, arms folded and chin held up.

Reani just tuts her tongue. “Now now dear. Wouldn’t want the princess to hear you’re treating on of her oldest friends so rudely.”

That makes the other woman go from a brisk walk to standstill. “If she caught word, wouldn’t be from me. Wedding’s not for two days and I’m not allowed to see her.”

“I thought the was just the night before.” Reani says as she shuts her book, giving Caedogeist her full attention.

“They say her hair is going grey again.” Caedogeist says, lip curled in accusation as she takes in Beau as if noticing the servant for the first time.

Beau attempts to hide her surprise with a cool look. Reani certainly feels the hesitation in Beau’s hands, and is quick enough to figure out what word in particular caught her attention. “Again?” The aasimar asks, feigned confusion so obvious that Beau makes a note to never let Reani meet her father. Her false flattery would be spotted a mile away.

“It was like this when she came back; I wasn’t allowed to see her then either.” The woman is surprisingly sullen, must be why she hasn’t already become suspicious of their ruse. “I can’t say what I’ve seen, just what I’ve heard from servants who don’t know how to keep their voices down.” Her tail is trashing as her mood stews, and she’s paying close attention to Beau. “I wonder what you would know of it, Traci.”

Reani turns her gaze towards them, Beau can literally feel it with the way the radiance causes her skin to turn into gooseflesh. “What has my servant done to displease you, your grace?” She asks with a deferential bow of her head.

“Your servant?” Caedogeist sounds confused. Good.

“Traci has many talents; I pay her family quite a fee to keep her in my company. Wine tasting is one, the kitchen borrowed her yesterday for it.” Reani may not play dumb well, but she lies with effortless grace. “I’m sorry if she caused you any grief, but I need her help in arranging my hair for the rehearsal dinner tonight.”

Once the ashen grey tiefling laid her gaze on the carding comb, she couldn’t be compelled to look away. If Caedogeist’s eyes could flash green with envy, Beau suspects they would.

“Is this yours, Reanminere?” She asks, tracking the comb with the focus an assassin would their mark.

“That?” Reani shakes her head dismissively. “Oh no, it’s Traci’s. Something about it being a family heirloom I believe, dear?”

Beau gives a single swift nod. They’d decided Fjord’s truth was the safest bet.

“You may speak.” Reani coaxes, teasing look in her eye. She looks an awful lot like Asta right now, so much that Beau has to remind herself not to gently knock her with an elbow to put her in her place.

“Yes, milady.” Beau says, repeating her nod.

Caedogeist isn’t interested in their exchange, she’s focused on the comb. “I would pay a pretty penny for such a thing.”

Beau keeps her face cool and collected, tries not to betray herself with a grin. “It’s not for sale, princess. Not for gold or money.”

The other woman gives her a long stare, before she snatches the comb from Beau’s grasp. “You know the way. Be gone by morning.”

They watch her stalk across the courtyard, until slides into the shadows towards a passageway Jester hadn’t pointed out earlier.

Reani exhales first, letting out a bright laugh. “Is it really that easy?”

“I guess.” Beau says dumbly. “I’m like, in general, not used to things turning out good.”

“Sounds like you’re due for a change in luck.” Reani says, tilting her head back so her bright gaze doesn’t quite blind Beau, but clear that she’s still meant to be looking at her. “For real though, I do need help with my hair for tonight. Can you do the first one, the one with the half updo and little braids?”

Beau just shakes her head, lets the half-finished elaborate ponytail down as she tries to muffle her laughter and starts over on Reani’s hair. It was Sigrun's favorite style, so at least she's had a lot of practice.

 

She makes her way alone that night, promising to be careful with the time.  The rehearsal dinner, which has no one questioning the absence of one of the brides for some reason, means the baily has been left relatively empty. Still, Beau sticks to the shadows as she makes her way across, slipping into the door and trekking up the spiral staircase.

When she reaches the door with the countenance of the snarling iron bear, Beau hesitates. Slowly, she lets her finger come up to trace the bear’s face, starting at the nose and running up to its brow, before falling across the cheek and metal jaw.

Is this how Obann and the rest of his brood see Yasha? Face frozen in rage as she’s kept in a room that feels more like a cell than any place one should rest their head. Something to be feared, not ever met with a gentle hand. Is this how he’d have the world see her? Why?

The thought makes Beau feel slightly ill, and she’s thankful there’s little in her stomach to get sick over. She pushes the door open, trying to shove her new sprung worries to the back of her mind.

The covers are thrown back on Yasha’s bed tonight. She looks impossibly small, curled into herself and wings folded in. There’s not a lit light to be found, the only reason Beau isn’t blind in the dark is from the thin stream of moonlight that runs through the iron-gated window.

Slowly, Beau crosses the ocean that is the handful of steps from the door to the bed. Misjudging the distance, Beau has to bite her lip not to swear when she stubs her toe on the bedside table with enough force to rattle the teacup painted with poppies. As gracefully as she can manage, Beau slides above the covers of Yasha’s bed and gathers the other woman’s hands in her own.

She is frigid, unaware of the world around her. Yasha’s breath is so faint, Beau has to place the back of her hand near Yasha’s mouth just to make sure it’s actually happening. She’s certain now that something is being done to her, for Beau can’t think of a night in their castle on the black-sand beach that Yasha had ever felt so inhuman.

Beau can’t help herself. Once the tears start, she can’t stop them. She doesn’t scream or curse or pray in between ragged breaths, she doesn’t have the strength to do so. Beau cries like she had after her first full day alone in the castle before White Bear came back to her bed.

She pulls a pillow so that she can sit upright in the bed. As her fingers comb through Yasha’s hair, Beau finds places to add her own braids to Yasha’s menagerie.

For all the headaches Caedogeist has caused Beau, there’s one thing she’s been forthright about. Beau knows that last night Yasha’s hair had been blacker than coal, but if she draws her gaze sharp enough in the moonlight, Beau can tell that her roots are different tonight. She’s never seen Yasha’s bear shape at night, it was the only time she was allowed to shed her fur after all, but Beau thinks that her white hair would look something like this.

Yasha’s breathing does not change, and she’s just as unresponsive as the night before. Beau winds up wrapping her entire body around Yasha’s torso, the other woman’s head cradled in her arms. Beau presses a sleepy kiss to her hairline, trying to telegraph her thoughts through her lips like she used to do for her siblings when they would be in the throws of nightmares but unable to rouse.

At some point, in-between trying to share her memories of seeing the ocean for the first time and what it felt like to be cradled up on White Bear’s side reading in silence for hours, Beau finds herself chasing Yasha into the darkness that is sleep.

 

The sound of stone scraping on stone is what causes Beau to stir. It’s somewhere on the other side of the room, somewhere over her shoulder that she’s too sleepy to turn over and really take in. It’s the first time she’s ever woken up with Yasha still in her bed. Something is off with the feel of her skin, Beau wonders if this means she’s on the edge of transformation and she’s going to be able to see what happens in order for Yasha to take bear form. Will it be near instantaneous, like Clarabelle turning into an eagle, or is it more drawn out? Whatever the case, Beau thinks she’ll be able to see because a hint of sunlight is pouring in from a small window and –

Wait. The sun is rising. Fuck.

The moment Beau has that realization, the pounding on the door begins. Beau jumps to her feet, can practically feel her hackles rising as she positions herself on guard, fists ready. There’s swearing behind her, Molly’s, and when she throws a look over her shoulder she sees him digging in his boot for something.

When the door does give, it reveals a being the like of which Beau’s not sure her worst nightmares would be capable of conjuring. The thing has to bend in on itself to fit through the doorway, and when it tries to draw itself to its full height, the ceiling gets in the way. The ceilings in this part of the palace are about ten feet high. The stench that it brings with it is that of spilt oil and rotting flesh is enough to turn anyone’s stomach inside out. A cloak shrouds its visage, but in the fresh dawn’s light you can see the sagging jaw, overfilled with sharp, broken teeth and the way the rest of the skin is pulled in what Beau feels like is more of an approximation of a human face than the real thing. The dark browns and reds of its apparel draws attention to the corpselike pale skin that in itself seems to hold more mangled mouths. There is much of this being to sprout fear, but perhaps the most frightening part is what has been done with the junction where its right wrist should lead to a hand. In place of a fist there is a massive double-sided blade that meets to form a flat, jagged end in place of a tip. If it manages to stick you, it’d have a similar, if far worse, effect of barbed arrows.

This creature does not have eyes for Yasha. It’s looking at her, and only her. Too late, Beau realizes that it is meant to be the consequence for those who trespass into the princess chambers.

“Shit.” Mollymauk says. He looks from the giant teeth-mouth monstrosity to the unmoving Yasha to Beau. “I hate you.” He declares, before grabbing her wrist and pulling her into the wall with him.

Beau’s surprised to watch the stone give way, and a small passageway to be revealed to them. As the creature roars, Mollymauk throws Beau behind him as he digs his nails into the damp wall. The beast charges them, primary mouth held open as the other ones on its skin begin to gnash in what Beau thinks is likely excitement.

Mollymauk swears twice more in a language Beau has never heard before until the grinding sound of stone on stone starts. The light is rapidly blocked out from the slight passageway they’re occupying. It must be the creature closing in on them, and Beau is trying to duck her way under Mollymauk to get at the beast when a thud sounds. She waits for Mollymauk’s dull groan of pain, for the sound of steel ripping flesh and for the tiefling to fall and the being of mouths to descend upon her.

Instead, a warm hand with talons in place of fingernails finds a light purchase on her face. Beau jerks away, out of surprise from being touched rather than the mild stinging pain that comes from the scratch. As Mollymauk’s slightly hysterical laughter begins to fill up the hallway and Beau realizes he’s managed to safely seal them away, she leans her neck so her head thuds on the stone walling, poorly attempting to collect her breath and shove her adrenaline back down.

“C’mon, Miss hole in your chest.” Mollymauk taps her with his tail once he manages to pull himself together. “This’ll dump us out somewhere safe, but it’s a long walk in the dark.”

It takes the force of both of Beau’s arms to shove herself off the wall. “Thank you, Mollymauk.” She says as she blindly feels around for him, an effort he rewards with by taking her hand.

“Don’t mention it.” The tiefling says as he squeezes her hand in what feels dangerously like fondness.

“I hate you too.” She adds. Can’t let him get too comfortable, even if he did most certainly just save her from what would have been a very unpleasant demise.

Mollymauk snorts. “I wouldn’t expect anything else Beauregard.”

Chapter Text

Beau gives Molly ten minutes to tell her before she decides to be rude and ask. “Where are we?”

“It may be hard to get east of the sun and west of the moon, but that doesn’t mean the palace wasn’t built with security in mind.” Mollymauk snorts as he keeps his steady pace. “There’s a network of tunnels that can be used for escape, some of them empty out on the beach. I used them a couple months back to find Yasha.”

She wants to find it in herself to be short with him, but she can’t hide her admiration right now. “Impressive.”

“Of course, once our beloved Master of Wills figured out that I knew he had her in his clutches again, he decided I’d make better use as her chambermaid. Haven’t had to use the tunnels in a while.” Mollymauk says, nails scraping along the wall.

He takes a few turns, has them backtrack, then go straight. Beau has long lost her vision down here and trusts that Molly knows the way. They stop in a room that is probably cylindrical, if the bend of the wall counites. It sounds like the tiefling is tapping his tail against the floor as he mutters to himself in a language that sounds more like metal clashing than any common words. There’s a drip somewhere diagonal to them that will be mildly insanity inducing if they stay put here for much longer.

She crosses her arms as she leans against the cold wall, shuddering a bit as she realizes the stone is damp. “Any particular reason you’ve decided to stop here?”

“I need…” Mollymauk’s voice makes it sound like he’s facing her, but Beau can’t be certain. “You won’t be able to help. Of course, you have to be the one without an ounce of magic in your entire being.”

“I could knock your ass out until next week, that’d be pretty magical for me.” Beau bites back. “Doubt any of your childhood friends could do the same. Besides, I don’t think Veth knows any magic either.”

“Jester could.” Molly says with zero hesitation. “Which one’s Veth?”

She hopes he can see how hard she’s rolling her eyes. “The halfling.”

“Oh!” He pauses for a moment. “Don’t think she likes me much either.”

“I can’t imagine why.” Beau huffs. “Tell me what you need, Mollymauk. I am not entirely useless, despite the fact you clearly believe me to be.”

“Light.” Molly says, tail tapping on the wall now. “I… I don’t have the system this far down memorized; I usually just use the tunnels to get around the palace without being seen. I need to make sure we’re heading towards the shore because if anyone sees you as you are without explanation, we’re both good as dead.”

Right. The night has passed, Caleb’s spell has expired by now. There is one thing that has left her with a question. “Why do you need light? You’ve been doing just fine so far.”

Mollymauk snorts. “I can’t see down here, idiot.”

“But you’re a tiefling!” Beau protests, accidently smacking the stone wall when she tries to wave her hand in exasperation. “What, have you been blind this whole time?”

“Tiefling, not a bat.” Molly says. “Yes. But it’s been fine so far but it’d also be really fucking inconvenient if you died right now so please respect the fact that I am doing my best to keep us both alive.”

“I would never want to inconvenience you.” Beau says. She’s trying to come up with something that stings a little more on the fly because she’s growing more nervous with each passing moment and she’d rather deal with that by being a dick to Molly than actually unpacking it, when it hits her.

She does have something that could help.

“Wait.” She digs through Kori’s rabbit pouch, making sure it’s still there. The cylinder of wax is firm in her grip, and Beau lets out a shaky sigh she didn’t realize she was holding. “I have a candle.”

“Shut up.” Molly’s tone is immediately more pleasant as he knocks a hand into her elbow, feeling in the dark for what she’s holding. “What’re the odds?”

Remembering why she has the candle doesn’t exactly feel good. “Well, when everything in the castle disappeared it was one of the few things I had left because I’d brought the candle from home because my father…”

Beau trails off when she realizes Molly isn’t paying attention, pawing through his pockets if the sound of fabric is anything to go on. “Can I help you?”

“I know I’ve got a match, just nothing to light it on. I’d use my teeth, if I felt we had enough to spare for cheap tricks, and the walls are too damp.” He pauses for a beat. “Unless…”

The way he claws at the bag over her shoulder violently reminds Beau of every single one of her siblings digging through her shit. “Oh, something dry. Perfect.” He pulls out a weight that Beau instantly identifies.

The response comes much faster than she intends to, as Beau’s hands chase the space where Molly ought to be holding her mother’s tome of fairytales. “No!” Okay, wow, way  too aggressive, even if she is worried about its immediate future in his hands. “Please don’t. Just use anything else Molly.”

Molly sounds miffed. “It’s just a book.”

“No, no it’s not, it’s one of the last things I have of my mother’s.” She doesn’t realize it until she says it, but that’s half the reason she’s carried it so far. Beau’s worn her mother’s clothes for so long it hardly feels special, but this worn book with faded gold filigree is something that was uniquely Clara. Even though it holds Yasha’s preserved bouquet, Beau has loved this book for simply what it is. “I want to keep it safe. Surely, you can have some sympathy for that.”

Molly pauses. “Nope.” He says and holds the cover out in one hand and strikes his match with the other. Beau considers knocking him between the ribs, and then there’re claws in her wrist as he pulls the hand holding the candle close to the burning match.

“You’re welcome.” He says as he shakes out the match, smug, unbothered and her mother’s book now tucked under his arm.

It takes everything in Beau not to scream at him in frustration. “Were you not held enough as a baby? Did you just spring from the earth fully formed?”

There is no hesitation in his response. “Yes.”

Beau clenches her free fist in frustration before she really looks at him. He’s plain right now, Mollymauk may love to lie and swindle but he’s not good at hiding when he’s doing it. And Beau can’t find a trace of that characteristic grimy charm. He believes what he’s saying then, at the very least.

When he looks up at her, pupilless eyes unblinking and waiting for her response, Beau caves. She offers him the candle with a small nod.

Neither of them apologize to the other. He just takes the candle, offers her book back, returns the nod, and begins to pick up the trail once again, clearly more confident with the light. Beau follows once she’s tucked the volume safe out of reach of twitchy purple hands.

He does take care to cup his free hand around the flame and walk slowly enough so it’s not threatened which. Well, it’s at least something.

 

Against the odds, they make it out without snapping at one another again. The sun is high in the sky and so much brighter than a single candle. There’s about a third of its original length left when Molly wordlessly hands it back to her, and Beau can’t bring herself to shake the hot wax of and replace it in her bag, so she leans it against the interior frame of the passageway they just stumbled out from. It’ll burn out in less than an hour, and then it’ll just be a messy puddle of tallow, forever to be overlooked because the doorway it’s in leads to something so much more beautiful, a shore of smooth dark stones that lead to a forever raging ocean that helps keep this domain sheltered.

For metaphors, it feels way too heavy handed, but Beau has to start somewhere. That candle has been her symbol of ruin since she woke up alone in the woods, but it’s not the candle’s fault she’d been filled with doubt and let it get the best of her. The candle deserves something nice, a pretty place to rest.

What? Wherever she’s going with this it’s not working. She really ought to see what Molly thinks comes next. But something about the little flame is mesmerizing, and Beau can’t quite look away. Maybe she -  

“Thank you, Jester.” They’ve been in silence for so long, Beau nearly jumps out of her skin when Molly begins to speak. “I’ll make a scene, bring us around front, make sure the Master is there to see it.” He pauses for a moment, before ending with “Doo doo doo doo doo doo.”

Beau stares at him like he’s truly lost his mind. “What – “

“You have to use all the words, that’s what Jester says!” Molly protests.

Beau waves her hand out to the very empty beach before them. “I don’t know if you noticed, but it is just the two of us right now.”

He returns the wave dismissively. “It’s magic, something her imaginary childhood friend who is in fact real I guess lets her do.”

“Sure.” If Beau ever does manage to break Yasha free of this castle, they’re going somewhere north, where people don’t talk about magic and just taking a break from whatever these past few months have been. She went twenty years without seeing magic once and all Beau’s asking for now is just a brief vacation from turning into air and people talking in each other’s heads. Can’t go too far north though, or she supposes they’ll run into Caduceus. “Why not.”

Not reading the room, Molly bobs his head enthusiastically. “Great, it took her way more work to convince me. So, we’re going and…I have a plan?”

Any gratitude that had been slowly building up in Beau immediately vanishes. “Why’d you say that like it’s a question.”

“It is not one. I’ll say I just had an episode, and I woke up on the beach with you in my claws. I don’t know how I brought you here, but look you’re young, you could work just fine!” Molly’s smile is strained, which does not pair soothingly with his mildly panicked tone.

Beau blinks at him twice, making sure he’s being serious. “This is a terrible idea.”

“I’m doing this for your benefit, let me know if you’ve got a better one!” Molly hisses back, tail trashing with distress as he marches down the beach of black stones and straight into the continually roaring ocean.

“At least tell me what kind of episode it was supposed to be so I can play along.” Beau says as she follows him to the coast and doing her best to hide her shiver as her boots are invaded by the ankle-deep cold.

“I had the pleasure of meeting Caleb and Fjord because someone found me crawling my way out of the earth in the middle of the woods when I was in my teens.” Molly says cheerfully as he rustles up his hair and dunks his face in the water. When he remerges, he spits out a mouthful of seawater. “I don’t know who I was before, I’ve been blacking out, losing chunks of time and waking up in strange places under stranger circumstances ever since.” He sees that she’s only followed him to the shoreline and rolls his eyes. “You’ll have to be soaked now too, c’mon.”

Beau lets him drag her deeper into the water without any real fight one she’s tossed her pouch on the dry shore. “Maybe that’s why you’re so insufferable. You really don’t remember what it’s like to be held as a child.”

“Takes one to know one.” Molly bites back without any venom in his fangs. “The Master is convinced I come back with prophetic visions. Caleb thinks I have them, at least when it actually happens and I’m not lying to get out of some other punishment. I really did see you in that one, years ago before we first got the princess out of this miserable place. Well.” He tilts his head, considering her. “I guess it was really more your eyes but so far you’re holding true to expected.”

Beau wants to have some sort of sharp response to that, but she honestly has nothing. She’d kind of thought they were mostly just fucking with her. All she knows of dreams and magic come from her mother’s book, and Beau had thought most of what she read not possible until a great bear knocked on the door of her childhood home. Maybe Molly’s got some truth to this, if he was able to see her without even knowing Beau existed.

Molly, of course, takes that moment of Beau being deep in thought to dunk her deep beneath the rolling waves, without so much as a warning her to hold her breath.

 

They’re going around the long way to the front entrance of the castle that’s hidden east of the sun and west of the moon, Beau’s dry pouch hidden in the many flowing, now soaked layers of her mother’s vestments. Molly’s got his fingernails practically dug into Beau’s forearm to give the impression that he’s dragging her along.

As they ascend the foothills of the castle, Molly makes his gait more shambling, breathing more labored. A sharp look at her has Beau doing the same, as well as the occasional actual tug of resistance. Off in the distance, a blue tiefling comes into view, miniscule compared to the towering stone wall that surrounds her. There’s a red figure at her side, who stands more than three heads taller than her. Batlike wings make the figure seem even more massive, their red in much contrast to the darker clothing that has the humanoid shape almost blend into the dark walls with.

Molly’s teeth are sharp as he pulls his lips into an unpleasant smile. “Time for a bit of improvisation, Beauregard. Do try to play along.”

Before Beau can even ask him to explain himself, Molly cups a hand around his mouth and practically screams out the word she’d been taking pains to avoid since setting foot on the castle grounds. “I’m baaack Obann!”

Right before them, the air folds in on itself for a spilt second. The figure in the distance now towers over them and doesn’t even need to make an effort to. Beau maybe comes up to his chest at her full height. He’s more massive than any being in this place, tiefling or otherwise. His horns curve just the slightest back, tips sharp enough of a point that they look like they could easily skewer someone. The wings shift slightly as he takes in the pair of them, stretching out just enough that the block direct sunlight. His dark slick back hair can almost go unnoticed when trying to comprehend the rest of him, but the goatee cannot be ignored as it makes the small smile that begins to grow on his face look far more threatening than it has any right to be. When his yellow eyes with cat’s pupils train on her, Beau is overtaken with a desire for the earth to swallow her whole.

In a display Beau wouldn’t have thought him capable of, Mollymauk throws himself at this man’s feet. His head is held low, arm extended in a true, proper bow that all of the elders in Kamordah would have applauded him for. “I had another episode, my Lord and- “

Obann backhands Molly with such force it brings him to his hands and knees, and Beau is violently reminded of the one time her father ever raised his hand to her. She shrinks into herself even more, but her deference to Obann is certainly no longer part of this act.

“You’re the most useless thing I’ve ever made the mistake of deciding to keep.” Obann’s hand holds Mollymauk’s hair in a tight fist, and for a moment Beau fears she’s about to see his other ear be ripped off. Instead, Obann uses his advantage to drag Molly back to his feet and force him to look him in the eyes. “What have you brought me now, Lucien?”

The corner of Molly’s mouth twitching is the only hint of his displeasure. “That’s the best part.” He hisses. “I don’t know myself, just woke up with her in my claws, spitting like a feral cat.”

It seems to be enough to satisfy him, though how it is makes no sort of sense to Beau. Obann drops his hold on Molly, and snorts when the other tiefling scrambles to his feet, breath coming out slightly ragged. Beau can’t tell if he’s acting or not anymore.

“Let’s have a look, then.” He says, voice low and threatening enough without the seemingly permanent look of malice he sports.

Obann’s massive hands inspect her, pressing like her father would when he was trying to determine if her appetite was why they were out of food in the winter, or when using her as a comparison to fieldhands trying to get hired in the summer. His movement is telegraphed, so Beau can prepare herself by flexing. She doesn’t spar with a great white bear every day anymore, but she’s been on the road for months. Even the weeks spent of Fjord’s boat were used wisely. She’s leaner, but her muscle is just as strong.

The man seems pleased with what he finds. “Hm.” He hums as he turns Beau’s head. “She’s strong at least, Lucien. Has the decency not to be a sniveling mess. What’s your deal, girl?”

“I work on my father’s farm. I’m his oldest, I’m good with cleaning, hard work and animals.” Belatedly, as almost an afterthought. “My name is Vanja.” Another quick prayer of apology to her other stepmother. Beau desperately hopes this isn’t becoming a habit.

“Oh, someone’s daddy wished they had a son.” Obann’s laugh is only slightly cruel, but he so clearly means it to be Beau can’t let it bother her. “I think we won’t be calling you that.” The meat of his palm settles on the crown of Beau’s head and she has the very frightening realization that he’s likely able to crush her skull in on a whim if he so chooses.

Instead, he says something that has Beau thinking a crushed head might be preferable to. “You’ll be Thoreau, then.”

For what feels like an impossibly long time, Beau finds herself frozen. If he can know that, what else does he know? Is it just a guess? She had always been told she resembled her mother more than her father. But maybe that’s just because of her eyes. Has her father’s fame grown so much now from the wine that it’s known he’s missing a daughter about her age? Did Obann just get lucky and her reaction is telling him everything and more now?

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because if she’s dead then she’s dead. Beau manages to blink once at Obann and bob her head slightly in a nod.

The hand goes from her crown to the small of her back as Obann thumps her with an unsettling laugh. “Well, let us make haste Thoreau. Lucien has already eaten up much more of my time than he’s got any right to.” He turns, pressure on her back guiding her as they take the path back towards the castle.

The blue tiefling is Jester, as Beau suspected, and stands ramrod straight at attention. Beau finds herself shoved in Jester’s direction, and scrambles to catch herself in a bowed position in place of falling flat on her face.

“Genevieve.” Obann barks. “This is Thoreau. Take her to Seneschal Respa, see that she’s made useful.”

Jester’s head moves in a rapid nod and gathers Beau without a care that she’s still soaking wet and smelling of salt water. She’s upright faster than she’s got any right to and already has them moving into a hallway as Obann is turning, mumbling something about a plan for Lucien when he stops. Beau risks a look over her shoulder to see that the red-skinned man is alone, no purple tiefling in sight.

Beau thinks that Molly’s going to be able to make it out of all of this unscathed. Probably. Hopefully.

 

Seneschal Respa is an older aasimar who, unlike the others aasimar that Jester had pointed out as being guests, sports two skeletal wings from her back. They look sort of like Yasha’s, Beau supposes, but where Yasha’s are tangible, the seneschal’s look more ghostly, and Beau suspects that if she tried to touch one her hand would go straight through. Her graying hair is pulled into a tight bun that makes Beau wince in sympathy. She’s going to have some terrible breakage.

Overall, she’s better than Beau expected. She addresses her as Thoreau, is apparently pleased to have someone not afraid of hard labor, not that any of her behavior actually indicates that’s the case.

“We’re a bit busy, with the wedding and all.” Seneschal Respa says, tone indicating no emotion. “I can’t spare the time to have a bed cleaned out for you, so you’ll have to make do with the animals.”

“Oh, she can stay with me!” Jester offers, arm still linked protectively with Beau’s. It doesn’t take a genius to tell that Jester does not like Respa.

The woman just shakes her head as she sorts papers on her desk. “Fine by me. Thoreau, your main task is to stay out of the way of guests seeing as you’re…” She gives Beau a disdainful wave. “Human and wet. Genevieve, is there need for another scullion?”

Jester bobs her head in a nod that nearly looks overeager. “There always is, with this many guests Seneschal Respa.”

Respa gives another wave. “Take her, then.” When both of them are slow to move, she looks up from her paperwork. “Out.”

Once they’re certain they’ve been dismissed, they can’t be out of there fast enough. Jester steers her across the baily once again, now empty of Obann and still without a sign of Mollymauk.

“She’s a terrible woman.” Jester mumbles. “Incredibly devout to whatever the Angel of Irons is.”

“Maybe she was raised religious and doesn’t have anywhere else to put it.” Beau says as she tries to wring out her wet clothes while they walk. Her tone doesn’t indicate she believes it, but nice words when you’re new never hurt.

Jester confirms her doubt with a firm shake of her head. “Nobody good here loves that thing.”

The kitchen staff on a whole do not appear to recognize Beau from her earlier tiefling shape. A pair of twin boys with porcelain blue skin and the start of wings poking out through their shoulder blades show her to the back of the kitchens where they spend their time as scullions. The one that talks says his name is Kyor, and rather forcefully insists she works by the one stove in the room. She’s grateful for the hint of heat on her skin and hopes it’ll help her clothes hurry up and dry.

Scrubbing dishes isn’t hard, Beau’s been doing it nearly all her life. They’re not trusted with the real fancy stuff, that gets sent to a different part of the kitchens. They’re to clean the cookware and the servant’s dishes, and since Beau is new, she’s just to focus on the dishes. The boys mostly hum, Kyor occasionally actually singing a few bars, so Beau stays quiet and takes advantage of the time just to listen to them. The way the more confident one steps in and takes harder tasks and checks in with his brother reminds her of Asta and Viggo and their unspoken language.

When the sun has long passed the midway point and the faint pull of hunger has become more difficult to ignore, Beau asks when lunch is.

The twin who hasn’t yet spoken more than a hum gives her a slow look. “We work until the rest of the castle breaks for dinner, or until there’re no more washing for us.”

Beau doubts the latter has ever happened. She just gives them a nod and turns back to her dishes.

Dinner in the kitchens happens in a larger room connected to the main preparatory one. The rest of the unimportant castle staff seems to come in on a rolling basis when they can spare a moment away from their duties. It’s long after anyone of significance in the castle would eat, but no one’s complaining. Beau suspects it’s a combination of being too tired to do so and the knowledge of what happens to those that do.

Jester is presiding over the portions of the stew they’re eating, with Caduceus doling out bowls and small bites of bread, still wearing his tiefling illusion. Veth eats dinner with them at the same time, with flour smudged on her face and also in her disguise. Beau doesn’t dare to give more than a nod to either of them as she takes her bowl and sits in a corner as far away as she can from the other kitchen workers. Thankfully, her behavior isn’t seen as too odd and the rest of the staff regard her more with mild worry than anything bordering suspicion.

She deposits her empty bowl in the appropriate bin and twists her neck to look around for Jester. She unfortunately does not see the dust-covered tiefling behind her and knocks into him and the hot bowl he’s carrying. Beau’s reflexes work faster than her mind could ever hope to, and she somehow prevents his dinner from spilling all over the floor, catching it with barely spilling a drop. She offers the bowl out, head ducked in embarrassment. He’s clearly not kitchen staff, but someone who’s having to work late in preparation of the wedding and just looking to get a hot meal in before bed.

The tiefling man regards her with a raised eyebrow and a faint smile. “Clumsy, but quick. You work here, human?”

Beau gives him a quick nod. “Yes.” Belatedly, she adds. “My name is Thoreau.”

Jester is there to relive her from the awkward encounter. “So sorry Uten, she’s to bed down with me tonight, forgive the hastiness.”

“Not a worry. The man gives a respectful bow of his head, and they’re on their way, outside and towards the pile of stone Jester had pointed out as servant’s housing on their first tour.

“That’s one of the porters.” Jester tells her as they catch a view of the sun setting over the cold sea before ducking indoors. “He and Senokir have been put in charge of cleaning up the throne room in preparation of the wedding. You’re lucky, he’s the polite one.”

Jester has worked her way to the decency that comes with a private room. “Cook’s privilege.” She says with a soft smile as she pulls back the covers for Beau. “Rest your head for a bit. I’ll wake you when it’s dark and we’ll try one more time.”

It would be hard to say no to Jester even if her feet weren’t furious with her for standing on them all day.

 

She’s a woman of her word, and Beau is gently roused no more than an hour after she closes her eyes. It doesn’t take her much to be ready other than redoing her hair, as she hasn’t let the satchel leave her side and the final offering has been nearly burning a brand around her neck all day. Beau politely declines the offer of an emerald cloak.

She doesn’t tell Jester, but if she’s found out and all is lost tonight, then she’d rather be dead than have to see the consequences tomorrow.

The baily is empty once more, no rehearsal dinner to keep folks up and much of the remainder of the castle entertainment having been allowed an early bedtime in preparation of the late evening tomorrow. She makes her way to the lonely tower unhindered.

The ascension is as quiet as she could hope for, not even the chittering of rats, or worse, Molly, to keep her company.  When she reaches the proper level with the solid iron door, Beau pushes through.

There’s the ashen tiefling with scarlet hair on the other side, sat in an uncomfortable looking chair with her eyes closed as her head rests on the stone wall. As the door creaks, she shoots upright and her mouth pulls to its default scowl.

Beau does not speak but extends out her final offering. From Caleb’s silver thread, dangles the miniature golden spinning wheel.

“No one’s allowed…” Caedogeist’s eyebrows quirk up as she looks Beau in the eye, really looks at her, and recognition from the previous two days hits her. “You think you could slip by now that you’ve become slow enough to think that showing your true face is a clever idea?”

Beau shakes her head. She’s not dignifying that with a response, she hasn’t come here to hide in the shadows. It’s now or never, more than ever. “When you break the thread, it’ll become full sized. I’ve been told it makes the worthless invaluable.” She hasn’t, but it’s a nice lie.

“I could rip you.” Caedogeist remarks, cold as the sea. “End to end, angel’s eye watching over me.”

The golden spinning wheel on silver thread still hangs out, unclaimed. “Let me pass.” Beau says stiffly.

“I want something else.” Caedogeist replies, eyes on the pouch Beau keeps close to herself. “You tricked me twice before. Pretty gifts won’t work this time, I want to take something real.”

“Why?” Beau scours her face for any kind of reason she might find there, but comes up short.

The tiefling looks so righteously angry in that moment, Beau worries she might just bisect her on the spot. Tension gathers in her brow, and instead of screeching the Caedogeist lets out a weak sigh and crosses her arms.

“It’s what I’m here for.” Her jaw is firm, unmoving but flexed in a way that places Beau in front of her father before having a verbal tirade of criticism laid on her. “I won’t take the silly little wheel. Give me something you value more than gold or money, show me what seeing her is really worth to you.”

Her mother’s book burns a hole in Kori’s rabbit pouch and Beau knows like she’s known little else before that this is what Caedogeist wants. “I don’t have anything else.” Beau says.

“You’re a terrible liar.” Caedogeist leans against the wall, arms crossed. “Don’t know how my father can’t see it.”

Beau does not break eye contact with the other woman, and instead mirrors her body language. She’s not the same girl who was driven to enough paranoia to light a candle. She doesn’t scare so easily anymore.

The tiefling just huffs. “Well, it’s not like it matters. Tomorrow night I’ll be wed, I’ll have a legitime claim to the lands here. I’ll send you and whoever’s so foolishly helped you get this far as great a distance as I can from here. I’ll start with the one who brough you in, the blue tiefling. Surely there’s no one here who’d miss a servant.”

The hair on the back of Beau’s neck goes up. She should walk away, there’s no need to give into this woman’s threats. She should warn Jester, warn them all and find a way out. Beau can’t let herself be the cause of any more hurt.

But, if she doesn’t get to Yasha now, then what have they throw themselves in harm’s way for?

“Here.” Beau feels the weight of the book in her palm more than it’s worth in gold. “It was my mother’s.”

The other woman’s eyes flash with delight. She plucks the book from Beau, treating it far more gently than she expected. Her fingers trace across the golden threads that adorn cover as she cracks the book open, nose scrunching at the apparent odor she finds. Caedogeist flips to the back and squints. She plucks the first flower Beau had placed there, one of the asphodels from the bush that she’d woken up under.

Beau feels her throat grow thick. “They were for her.”

The other woman just snorts as she lets the pressed flower fall from her fingertips. “Fairytales and flowers. Of course it’s all you have left of any worth.”

When the flower hits the stone, Caedogeist lifts her boot and crushes it into white powder. Beau has to swallow her anger as not to lash out at the other woman, breath shaky but gaze maintained. The tiefling looks at her for a long beat. She shakes her head, closes the book, tucks it under her arms, and walks right passed Beau, click of her heel indicating that she’s walking downwards.

Beau feels like she’s forgotten how to breathe as she collapses on her hands and knees, unable to stop her body from shaking. She closes her eyes, wills the rise and fall of her chest to return to normal. When she can open them again, Caedogeist has not returned, nor has the horrifying being of teeth that chased her and Molly last night.

She’s alone. The book was enough.

Once that realization hits, it’s easy enough to force herself up. She leaves the crushed remains of the first flower, willing them to mix with the dust that’s gathered in the corners of the hallway. It wasn’t what she’d meant to bring her, and some part of her she can’t quite explain hopes Yasha doesn’t find out about it.

It’s her third night here, and she’s had the way to Yasha’s bedroom memorized since it was first shown to her. Beau stops for just a moment, mesmerized for just a moment more by the face affixed to it. If she could rip that metal bear off the door, she would. But she can’t, so she pushes the stained black door open once more.

Beau’s barely set foot in the room when the vision on the bed shocks her to stillness and the door slips out of her grasp to slam shut behind her.

She’s there, sitting on the edge of the bed, picking at the skin on her thumb in a way that gives Beau a direct flashback to how White Bear would rub her claws against each other when she thought Beau wasn’t watching. Her cascading sea of braids is now almost half-white from the roots out, disheveled in a way that matches her patchy wings sprawled on the bed behind her, resting on the mattress and appearing to do fuck all to help hold her upright.

Yasha is in a plain black nightgown that her permanent navy furred shawl clashes terribly with. Her body looks strong in a way it had been incapable of when she was out cold in whatever the trance state Beau had been unable to rouse her in was. The image Beau has of her, sleeping peacefully under stolen candlelight before three drips of tallow woke her up, the only one of her human body that doesn’t bring Beau distress to think about, can’t even begin to do justice to an awake, breathing and so clearly alive Yasha. Her pale skin practically glows in the low light of the room, making her look a step away from the divine.

The moment after she has that thought, Beau wants to smack herself in the forehead. She’s an aasimar, whatever the state of her wings might be. Of course she’s going to look holy.

While she’s busy being thankful that Yasha can’t read minds, the other woman is pushing herself up from the bed and staring at Beau like she’s seeing a ghost. Yasha’s mouth slacks in an expression of excited shock like she can’t believe Beau’s standing in front of her. 

For Beau, the space between the door and the bed has felt vaster than the sea, but Yasha crosses it with ease. She’s upon her within seconds, the shock melting into something that is so clearly, radiantly joy that Beau’s heart stutters at the sheer idea that it might be for her.

“Wait I…” Beau’s hand rises up before she can think to move it and it finds purchase on Yasha’s cheek. Her skin is warm beneath her fingertips. Beau’s breath becomes shaky as her pinky settles beneath Yasha’s jaw and the thrum of her pulse is steady and strong and there. She can feel tears gathering in her eyes as she has to look away from the cut of Yasha’s jaw and into her eyes because it all means that the Yasha in front of her is real, is alive, is here.

The expression Yasha’s wearing almost breaks her. The other woman looks just as close to tears as Beau is, but where Beau feels like looking at Yasha is near enough to burn her, Yasha’s gaze is steady, calm and unwavering as those mismatched eyes dig past her skin, her bones, the blood that courses through her body and Beau feels like Yasha is staring directly into her soul.

It feels comforting in a way Beau’s not entirely sure it should. There’s a lot down there for Yasha not to like. But if she can see it, and still love her, then it’s not so scary.   

In that moment of silence, time feels like it expands forever before Yasha breaks it with a very uneven exhale.

“I’ve been seeing you for so long Beau.” Her voice sounds rough from misuse, emotion, maybe both, and it’s still like music on her ears. “Please, let me hold you.”

To say that Beau throws herself at Yasha would be a charitable description of how desperate she is in that moment to give her what she’d asked for. Yasha’s arms are tight around her, warm, heavy, and Beau feels her heart slow to that steady rhythm for the first time in so, so long.

“Yasha.” Beau tearfully whispers into her endless mane of braids. “Yasha I’m so sorry.”

“Shhhh.” Yasha’s hand comes to the shaved undercut of Beau’s hair, stroking it so carefully. “There’s nothing to forgive Beau.”

Beau has to pull back at that to look into Yasha’s eyes, she can’t stop the bubbled tear-stricken laugh that comes out her throat. “Are you kidding? There’s everything that’s happened since this spring.” As if that doesn’t feel like a lifetime ago.

“You came.” Yasha says like it’s that simple. Her words must not have landed on Yasha, or maybe she means it and there really is nothing she needs to forgive. “I told you to forget me, and you’re here, some place I didn’t think was possible to find on your own…” Yasha draws Beau even closer to press a kiss to her temple.

Even just there, on the side of her forehead, the heat that dances below Beau’s skin is enough to have her consider combustion.

“Well.” Beau says, voice long gone thick in her throat. “You’ve got a host of people willing to move heaven and earth to help you.”

Yasha’s forehead settles against her own, and they stand still for a moment, doing nothing more than passing breaths between one another.

“Can…” Beau wants to ask, should have asked so long ago, but even now her nerve seems to be dying in her mouth before the words can come out.

Yasha’s head stirs just the slightest, tilting so she can get a better look at Beau, and just waits.

She doesn’t deserve any of her, least of all her patience. “Yasha, can I – can…” Her hand moves like it has a mind of its own, fingertips seeking gentle purchase on Yasha’s lips.

When they find it, the woman across from her does not turn away, doesn’t laugh at her, doesn’t complete her though even though by now she surely must know what it is. All she does is raise one dark eyebrow.

Teasing. Gods she’s perfect, divine or not.

“Can I kiss you?” It finally comes out, much more forceful than Beau had meant it to. She’d wanted it to be soft, sweet, but she’s too nervous for that to happen. It’s ridiculous how anxious she is right now; she has to be the first person to be afraid to ask her wife to kiss her.

Is she still allowed to call Yasha her wife? She has been doing it in the months since they’ve seen one another, but she’s always pictured her in bear shape when she’s done it. It feels different now, Yasha’s face so close to hers, she really should ask, that way Yasha could let her down gently at least instead of having to do it in front of everyone else, that would be far, far worse than –

Yasha’s cupping her jaw, not quite looking her in the eye but with love so plain on her face. For a moment Beau feels brilliant and as bright as the sun.

“Yes.” She whispers back, gentle but with strength too. “Please.”

Beau hadn’t realized how long she’d been waiting to hear Yasha say yes. Not within these last few moments, but outside of them, for a dizzying number of sunsets and sunrises. It feels disingenuous to say she’d been waiting all of her life. But, at the very least, as long as she’s known Yasha. Maybe longer.

But she can’t think about that now, not when Yasha is waiting for her to kiss her, to really kiss her.

It’s entirely too reassuring that Yasha’s lips are as warm as they are. After two castles made of ice, one literally and one ruled by people so cold it might as well be, how chilled she’d been the last two nights, warmth means she’s safe. That first press is slow, gentle as Beau inhales every smell, taste of Yasha that comes her way. She’s never held her closer, and Beau selfishly chases after her as Yasha pulls away to take a small breath, feeling like she’s losing her all over again even just for the moment that Yasha’s bottom lip isn’t touching hers. There’s a flash of cool air that would be a balm if the heat of Yasha didn’t feel so much better. Beau leans into her, arm wrapping around the other woman’s waist to draw her closer and meeting the smiling mouth that’s waiting for her. Yasha is just as gentle with her as she was the first time, lips pressing back and forth until everything other than the other woman feels out of focus. For a beat, Beau wonders if they’re floating. Then Yasha goes and deepens the kiss.

She goes weak in the knees almost instantly, the gentle wave of heat entirely overwhelming. Yasha’s hand is on the small of her back, and she’s chasing her down. Down to the floor, the one thing in the room that Beau is fairly confident isn’t spinning just the slightest right now. Yasha release her mouth for a moment so they can lock eyes, and with a knowing look dives back in. She’s a little too fast, and their teeth knock from the force even as Yasha misses and mostly just kisses the corner of her mouth. But that gives her an idea if the low chuckle means anything.

And it most certainly does, because Yasha goes for her jaw next, not just kissing her skin sweetly, but with a flash of teeth too. The sharp inhale that flies out of Beau’s lungs makes her pause for a moment, and then she’s back, chasing the line of her jawbone to where it fuses with her neck, and then down, down where her skin is thin and whispering what sound like tiny devotionals as Beau does her best to swallow what, even when mangled and pushed down, is an embarrassing moan.

When it hits the other woman’s ears, she pulls up to treat Beau with a satisfied-looking grin. Beau didn’t think it was possible for watercolor teal and wildflower purple to look like they were on fire, but she likes it. Yasha’s still standing, albeit hunched while Beau is barely upright enough to be considered on her knees.

That just won’t do.

Beau goes back for her mouth, tugging her downwards to bring her really to her level. The warmth is still there, hotter even, and Beau doesn’t even have to think before going open-mouthed, doing her damndest to draw Yasha’s heat into her and replace it with some of her own. Like she can make Yasha feel what she’s feeling if she kisses her hard enough, she can make her weak and make her head spin like Yasha’s doing to her.

It might actually work. Yasha chases her to the floor, one hand cradling the back of her skull and the other running down her neck to where her shoulder blades meet. Her feet give out to her knees, and Beau’s knees stop pretending like they can hold her up. They share that kiss for so long, Beau swears they only accomplish it by pushing one air-full of lungs back and forth until the last of it has finally leaked out of the corner of their mouths and they have to break apart in fear of passing out. The two of them are pooled in a mess of black and cobalt blue, the white-furred rug being the only thing sheltering them from the cool stone.

The laugh that comes out of Beau is one she didn’t know herself to be capable of making, giddy and girlish as she puts all of her weight into Yasha, nearly melting into the floor until she’s positioned so her torso is mostly held upright by the other woman and the rest of her is useless on the floor. From this angle, it takes nothing to look up at Yasha and let her fill her view, prettier than any sunrise could hope to be.

The chuckle that she gets from the other woman is fond, like Beau’s done this a hundred times and she knows she’ll do it a hundred more. Like they have all the time in the world to memorize one another’s quirks, nothing better to do as the days crawl past and they grow soft from doing nothing but spending time in one another’s arms.

Like they have time. Right. The one thing that more than anything else is not on their side.

They both seem to realize this at the same moment, and though she tries to fight it, Beau knows some tension sneaks back into her body. She feels it happen in Yasha, the way her core tenses and how careful she is when she goes to touch Beau again.

Yasha’s fingers comb through the front of Beau’s hair, rubbing her scalp. It’s a little more programed than Yasha probably intends, but Beau still leans up into it. “She was drugging me.” She whispers, eyes trained on the door.

Beau doesn’t need to ask who she’s talking about. She does have a different question, though. “How?”

That tears Yasha’s gaze away, and she’s looking over at the bed. No, bedside table. There. A cup with poppies painted on the side, still slightly steaming with heat. Beau knows if she stands, she’ll see a full, untouched cup of tea.

She feels like a fool for not realizing earlier. “I should have known.”

“I was the one drinking the stuff.” Yasha snorts. “Molly figured it out. He told me that you were here. Well.” She tilts her head for a beat, and Beau does the best to memorize what she looks like from this angle when she’s thinking. “I didn’t believe him at first. Not because I didn’t want it to be you. But because it meant you’d be putting yourself in danger for me. If my stepfather knew…”

“He doesn’t.” She says. “He knows I’m here, and that I’m human which wasn’t exactly the plan but,” her attempt to shrug from the floor largely fails, but Yasha gets the gist. He knows she’s here, but not who she is. Not really, at least, because if he did Beau’s pretty confident she’d be in some sort of dungeon at best. “I didn’t expect him to be a tiefling.” She admits. “Which, hindsight it makes sense it just never occurred to me – “

“Tiefling?” Yasha shakes her head. “No, Beau. He’s a Cambion, at least half demon if not more.”

The feeling that is battering around in Beau’s chest is something she should have felt much, much earlier. “I didn’t realize.” She manages as good, proper fear sinks its teeth into her.

The fiends were the worst part of her mother’s fairytales. They were rare, not as prone to causing problems as the fae might be. But they were vengeful, more bloodthirsty than any mortal creature could dream of. If there was a demon in the story, not everyone got to make it out alive. Her mother had never, ever read them those stories, Beau only found out about their existence after she passed and there was no one to stop her from leafing through those pages alone at night, with only candlelight and TJ’s snores for company.

“It’s how he’d have the world see him.” Yasha’s voice is forceful enough to break the sensation that’s clamping down on Beau and throw it free. “Underestimated, so he’s free to take advantage of anyone he chooses. It makes me sick.”

Beau thinks of the event Obann has scheduled for tomorrow, for her birthday, for Midsummer. “Yasha, what are we going to do about this wedding he’s planning?”

“Oh! You almost made me forget.” Yasha smiles impossibly bright, in a way that tells Beau the upcoming occurrence they’re discussing will not pass if she has any say in it. “We’re going to stop him. I’ve been working on how to since he trapped me here.”  

She’s entirely too smug, like how she’d get after beating Beau in a sparring match by virtue of being in a bear’s body. It’s a good look on her human form too.

 

Once Yasha is satisfied that Beau has her plan memorized, she rewards her with another slow, toe-numbingly kiss that could go on for hours as far as Beau is concerned. The moon is still high in the sky if the sliver of cool light that sneaks through the window is any indicator as Yasha fully surrenders to the floor as well. Yasha pulls her close to her, wings are folded tight to her side, allowing her to throw the navy shawl over the both of them like a substitute blanket.

Beau blinks in and out of a light sleep as she saps Yasha’s warmth. They’d never slept like this back at the black sand beach, tight and close enough to kiss like it’s nothing. Beau misses the solid weight behind her back, but she’ll pick Yasha in front of her, with only her own eyelids as any real barrier between them any day. So would Yasha, if the innocent hand that runs along Beau’s exposed skin is any indicator. She’s moving achingly slow, it feels like she’s trying to commit every line of Beau’s shape not just to sight, but touch too. She’s clearly finding something compelling in the apple of Beau’s cheeks, if the circles Yasha’s thumb keeps tracing mean anything.

Maybe she makes a little rumbling noise like a too-pleased cat once or twice. So what if people in her life would, at the very best, tease her miserably for doing so. The only person whose opinion Beau cares about the matter is right in front of her, and all she’s doing about it is failing to hold in a smile and going over the spots that are eliciting the hum.

It’s Yasha who breaks their stillness, first with a kiss pressed to her cheek and then as she rises. “You can’t stay.”

Beau lets herself have a final moment before she joins her, risen on her own two feet. “I know.” She whispers back. “Last night was too close.”

Yasha nods like she knows. “I’ve been told to tell you to meet them where you met Reani.” She taps the side of her head. “Jester’s orders.”

Beau just shakes her head with what she’s sure is a fond smile. What it must be like to have that tiefling’s voice bouncing around your skull. They all ought to be thankful that it apparently hasn’t occurred to Jester that she could use it for evil, popping in at any moment to check in.

She takes one of Yasha’s hands in both of hers, brings it up to her mouth so she can press as sweet of a kiss as she can to the back of it. She keeps her lips there far longer than would ever be deemed appropriate if they were in public, but it’s much better than saying goodbye. Even if it is just for a handful of hours, goodbye feels too permanent. This is better, easier. It means she can turn for the door and hide the water that’s searching for escape through her eyes.

She doesn’t know how Yasha made crossing this distance look so easy. As she tries to leave, the expanse between the furred rug and the door feels like it triples. The weight of knowing that Yasha is behind her, watching, makes turning back and crashing on the consequences of being found here after the sun rises feel like a very appeasing option.

But she’s not here to be caught. That’s not the plan. And she has to share it with the others.

“Wait.” Yasha’s other hand hovers in the air as Beau turns, lingering just where her shoulder was a moment ago. “Please. Stay alive until tomorrow night.”

“Of course.” Beau says quietly, failing to stop the tears that have gathered in the corner of her eyes from spilling over.

Yasha’s hand settles on her cheek, soft and unsure, as Yasha releases a shaky exhale. Beau brings up her own hand to it, lets her fingertips run along Yasha’s knuckles and dedicating their feel to her memory, some smooth while others are busted, like she’s been trying to practice using her fists as weapons but without anyone around to teach her the proper form. When Yasha’s fingers run out and Beau is cradling the joint of her thumb, she tugs her hand up the slightest so Yasha’s wrist is close enough for Beau to turn and press her lips to it, sealing a sweet, slow kiss into the memory of the pale flesh.

“Anything for you.” Beau whispers.

Chapter Text

She stands in the courtyard below the tower that holds Yasha for an uncertain amount of time, just breathing in the night air. The earth beneath her feet is cold in the night, and the ever-present rolling waves she can hear beneath the castle can almost trick her into thinking she’s somewhere safe, a castle just a day’s magical travel from Kamordah. Beau wants to be at the palace in the cliffs, away from all of this mess that she’s created.

Yasha wouldn’t like her thinking like that. Beau didn’t lay the curse on Yasha, forcing her into a bear’s body every sunrise. She didn’t claim dominion over this place, make it so miserable that her friends would sacrifice their freedom so Yasha could have a chance at her own.

Her ever-growing hatred for Obann burns just a little deeper in her gut. Beau forces her eyes open, takes a single shaky breath, and makes her way to the storage room that has become her refuge these past few days.

It’s Fjord who’s supposed to be keeping watch at the door, and his body that Beau nearly trips over in the dark. The noises rouses him, and as she blinks at his laughing form, Beau can see the curved false horns. Caleb still has them disguised. They must have expected the worst tonight. Not that Beau blames them.

His laughter has woken the rest of them, if the five sets of sleepy eyes are an indicator. She can only see because there are softly glowing orb’s illuminating the room, Caleb’s handiwork if his outstretched palm is any indicator. Even Jester is here, must have snuck back from her room after ushering Beau out.

“She’s herself again.” Molly doesn’t sound like he’s asking a question, but the way his eyes are trained on her Beau knows he’s waiting for a response.

There’s a lump in her throat as she nods. She was in Yasha’s arms tonight, but that doesn’t mean this is over. She turns her anger into passion and tells them the plan.

They listen, nodding and humming in agreement at appropriate times. It takes Beau longer to tell it to them than it did for her to listen to Yasha because Caduceus will ask her to repeat something, Veth will interject for clarification, Caleb’s making his own notes on a piece of paper he’s pulled from somewhere, Jester and Fjord are stuck in their own small battle of valid skepticism versus steadfast optimism, taking turns at playing each role and Mollymauk… Molly actually doesn’t do anything other than appear to listen diligently and occasionally offer Beau a nod of understanding.

The sun hasn’t quite come up by the time she’s done and they’re all satisfied, but it will soon. Beau stifles a yawn, as the force of staying up for most of this night and not catching much sleep the two days before begins to hit her like a horseless wagon that’s been shoved off the top of a hill. Her friends are moving around the small room, Jester making her way out while dragging along Caleb as he hurriedly casts his disguise spell for everyone who isn’t a tiefling except Beau. Molly and Fjord sound like they’ve started to bicker over the last of the food that’s been brought to this room, and Caduceus’s small grin implies that he isn’t planning on doing anything about it soon as the threats escalate to more and more overdramatic levels.

“Here.” Veth’s hand is warm in her own, pulling her down to the makeshift bed Caleb had made yesterday as she tries to blink the sleep away. “You won’t be missed for a few more hours.”

Beau’s grateful for the rest, but the concern that’s been building in her gut has become more difficult to ignore. Veth is again in her green body, and she has to blink several times to remind herself of what the other woman looks like beneath the illusory magic. “I feel like I haven’t seen you since we got here.”

“S’alright.” Veth says as she throws a cloak over Beau in place of a blanket. It reminds her of the hard stone beneath a furred rug, Yasha’s shawl. “We’re here for you, whatever you need. There’ll be time to talk about it later.”

“I want to make sure you’re okay.” Beau sounds childish, but she’s too tired to care. “You’re all working long days and sleep feels practically impossible in this place. But Caduceus, he was so…”

Veth stills at the mention of their firbolg. “I’m worried about him too. He looks worse, every time our disguises drop between Caleb’s castings. He keeps getting grayer, I think some of his hair is falling out.”

That image of the slight but powerful Caduceus on his throne bound into a massive tree compared to the last time she’d truly seen his shape, shaking, soaked and spewing out seawater already doesn’t compute for Beau. The idea that he’s somehow grown worse, even less so. “Does he talk about it?”

Veth shakes her head. “No. Can’t get much of a word out of him about anything other than you or Yasha. Fjord asked last night if his siblings could come help take him home, back North, and I’ve never seen a more clumsy attempt to change the subject.”

“He won’t…” Beau can’t say it aloud, can’t risk speaking it into existence. “Right?”

Veth looks just as lost as she feels. “He’s a godling, right? Can he? Does the Wildmother make him immortal, or just give him more power?”

Beau racks her memory; tries to recall everything she’s read about firbolgs. “Logi, Clarabelle, said she and her siblings were chosen to be mouthpieces? They live, naturally at least, for a very long time.”

“Caleb would know for certain.” Veth bemoans. “If we didn’t have to spend every moment we’re here lying, which, by the way, we’re again more than willing to do for you and Yasha, I bet he could have figured out what was going on by now.”

“Veth.” A rumbly baritone that could only belong to one person fills the room. “We agreed she needed to rest.”

Veth holds her hands up. “She wanted to know how we were doing, just filling her in about our very boring days here.”

“Hm.” Caduceus looks between the two of them, then presses two fingers to Beau’s forehead. “I really think you should take a nap, Ms. Beau.”

The world goes black faster than a candle snuffed out in haste.

 

When Beau wakes, it is violently. She shoots up, feeling not unlike she’s had a bucket of half-frozen water dumped on her. Caduceus is propped up on a crate nearby, apparently waiting for her. The rest of their hidden storage room is abandoned.

“What the fuck…” She trails off when Caduceus comes to her side and offers a hand. “Did you force me to go to sleep?”

“It’s a simple spell.” Caduceus is nonplussed, Beau wishes his tiefling form would drop so she could get a real look at him, have something to go off on besides just Veth’s eyewitness account. “Colton used to do it to me all the time if I was being cranky.”

Beau takes his hand. “Bet that happened a lot.”

“It’d’ve happened more often if I had half of your attitude.” Caduceus replies as he pulls her up. “They’re not looking for us yet, but they will be. Kitchen’s busy.”

“There’s a wedding tonight.” Beau says grimly.

They nearly out of the storage room when Caduceus turns to her. “Oh, I nearly forgot. Happy birthday.”

Beau tenses, out of reflex more than any suspicion that Caduceus would actually harm her. “I haven’t told anyone that.”

Caduceus just shrugs. Beau pinches the bridge of her nose and sends a silent prayer out to anyone or thing who might be listening for her to survive the slog of the day she’s about to have.

 

She doesn’t spend her day in the kitchen. Jester is waiting for her and Caduceus outside the kitchens with the tiefling who’s dinner Beau had nearly spilt all over the floor last night. Jester waves Caduceus into the kitchens, but Beau is stopped by the orange tiefling.

“Hello, Thoreau.” He sticks his hand out towards her, before hastily pulling it back to wipe it off on his pants. “I forgot to give you my name yesterday after we met, I’m Uten.”

“One of the porters.” Beau says as she takes his hand when it’s offered a second time. “Je-Genevieve had mentioned you were understaffed.”

Uten’s brass-colored eyes light up with excitement. “That’s why I’m here to meet you. I think your reflexes are wasted with the scullions. The rafters are abysmal and Senokir and I don’t have anyone half your age on our staff.” He swishes his tail as he leans in to add. “Besides, even the lowest ranking janitors get paid better.”

Beau not being under Jester’s unofficial control wasn’t part of the plan, she’s got to find a reason to say no. “The Seneschal- “

“Respa is the one who left me understaffed.” Uten says with a handwave. “We’ll put in the request for you to be transferred too, and she’ll approve it because she doesn’t care who works where as long as the Master is happy.”

Beau looks to Jester, who gives her a nod of encouragement, a real one. She’ll manage it. “If you’re sure, then- “

“Great!” Uten takes her by the arm, pulling her towards a building back from the way she just came, Beau thinks it’s another one mostly dedicated for storage.

When she looks over one last time for Jester, she’s gone, but there is the flash of a purple tail darting in the tower that holds Yasha.

The building is another storage one, but not in the first room Uten takes her in. There’s an odd looking… man doesn’t feel right because he’s certainly not all human. His skin is sallow, his dark red hair is wild and seems to ignore gravity with the way it fans upwards in the back. When he looks up at her, the glow of his orange iris makes Beau want to duck her head to avoid eye contact.

He’s also got a flame running in his hand that he’s using to turn a pile of collected shrub branches into an impressive collection of ash. There’s a large pot of water starting to boil on the lone stovetop in the room.

For his part, Uten seems entirely unimpressed. “You’re starting a lye batch right now Senokir, really?”

“The laundress says if her workers run out of soap, she’ll make me scrub the Master’s sheets myself.” The other man whines, not moving his gaze a millimeter. “What’s this one doing here?”

“I didn’t ask because unlike you, I’m not rude. Be grateful we have the extra set of hands and get back to your lye.” Uten says as he opens one of the doors, dragging Beau along. “Here we keep the basics; rags that are still clean enough to do the job, dusters, brooms, spare buckets, I think there might be a ladder back there too. You’ll be with me for your first day.”

Beau nods, grabbing items as he points them out. She’s got a lot of rags, a bucket she should be able to tie to her sash and carry around with relative ease.

The man Beau assumes is Senokir twists his mouth into a smile that looks unsettling for a reason Beau can’t quite divine. “Let me know if you make any… interesting discoveries in the guest quarters."

“We’re cleaning guest rooms? I thought you two were porters, in charge of things.” Beau remarks as Uten leads the way across the bailey, towards the castle but not the main entrance. “Not cleaning side attractions.”

Uten pulls what is clearly a servant’s door open. “Like you said. We’re understaffed. The Master commands us, so it will be done no matter the cost, just as he instructed.” A suspicious smile tickles the corner of his mouth. “He didn’t say we couldn’t ask you for some extra hands though.”

Beau just hopes he’s not being literal when he says hands.

They turn down a couple hallways before they climb a half-dozen flights of stairs, to the top of the official, fancy guest quarters. The tower where Yasha is currently being held must be reserved for the less important folk. But this is the wedding of the woman who was true claims to this castle and the impossible land it was built on to one that will give Obann even more power than he’d held as prince regent if he has as much control over Caedogeist as Beau suspects he does. Every guest for this wedding must be important, and they have to be treated such so that rumor of Obann’s power will spread over in Xhorhas, across the sea to the Menagerie and work its way back up to the Empire. Trying to distract herself from the vision of that future, Beau listens intently to the directions and expectations she’s to meet for cleaning. It sounds like the rooms are mostly identical, so her task will be mostly a monotonous one. When she asks about the chamber pots, Uten pulls a sympathetic face.

“Oh dearie, if you stay with us long enough and manage to chip away at Senokir’s demeanor, he’ll teach you prestidigitation. It can’t clean a whole castle, but it saves us from the unpleasant things.” He pats he shoulder as he opens her first room. “I’ll be across the hall if you need it, clean all the rooms on this side and wait to go downstairs with me. We’ve got four more floors of these to do.”

Beau feels useless for the entire day. She cleans rooms with Uten, the sensation of scrubbing until her nail beds are raw reminding her of home back in Kamordah. There’s familiarity in the task, but it brings her no comfort. She’s on edge, counting the hours as well as she can on her own. They don’t even break for lunch. Lillith, the white tiefling who seems present in every corner of this castle, brings them a cloth full of bread, dried meats, and hard cheese. Uten and Beau take turns snacking on it while they clean the third floor. There’s not enough to settle either of their stomachs, and while it just seems to make Uten a little grouchier than he was this morning, the nag of hunger feeds Beau’s anxiety. They’ll be done in a few more hours, then off to clean more nooks and crannies to keep the guests and the lord happy. It was barely an hour before sundown when she barreled into Uten yesterday at dinner, and the wedding is tonight. None of the servants are getting off until long after the ceremony. Beau’s not going to be where Yasha needs her to be when it grows dark tonight. She’s going to be the problem, the kink in the chain that causes the rest of the mail to fall apart.

They’re going to lose Yasha, and it’s going to be Beau’s fault all over again.

She drums her knuckles on her last door on the final floor before swinging it open, just in time to watch the closet be slammed shut. Beau waits for one beat, then another, but nothing happens. She tilts her head before tentatively calling out. “Hello?”

Slowly, the door creeks open and a green face pokes out. An incredibly sheepish Fjord untangles his way out, just barely not managing to trip over whatever garments he’s gotten himself tangled in.

Beau almost drops the wet rag she’s holding. “Fjord?

“I didn’t know it was you!” Fjord protests, blush darkening his cheeks. “Reani and Caleb left earlier, and they don’t knock so I panicked!”

Beau doesn’t even say anything, just shakes her head as she goes to prop the window open. The room stinks of incense, better to air it out now then leave it as a problem for someone else later.

“Didn’t expect to ever see you doing laundry.” Fjord remarks, pacing around a little bit but mostly staying out of her way.

“Didn’t expect to see you hiding in a closet.” Beau snorts, resisting the urge to smack him with a rag. “I’m a janitor now, it’s a very different business than cleaning dishes.” She sees his nose twitch like it always does before he lets a unfurls a teasing remark, so she beats Fjord to it. “But not new. I’m the oldest; I’ve been cleaning up other people’s messes my entire life.”

The mirth goes away as a hint of worry settles in Fjord’s brow. “What about Yasha’s plan? How’ll you get to the throne room at sundown?”

She doesn’t realize she’s biting the inside of her cheek that hard until Beau can taste iron in her mouth. “I don’t know.” She admits.

Fjord mutters something, but Beau doesn’t quite hear it and would frankly prefer to stew in silence than drag Fjord down with her. She gets in the routine that she’s managed to establish and tries to find relief in the routine. It doesn’t come, but Fjord’s occasional awkward and well-meaning compliment manages to pull snorts of laughter out of her. In hecticness of the days since landing in Xhorhas, Beau’s forgotten how much Fjord’s presence puts her at ease. He’s a good friend, even when he isn’t trying to be one.

As she’s cleaning the window, her final step in every room because it’s the most mindless act, there’s a knock. Fjord takes initiative this time and opens the door instead of seeking shelter in the closet.

It’s only Uten, and he’s clearly surprised by Fjord’s presence. “Sorry sir, I’d only expected my assistant. I didn’t mean for her or myself to trouble you.”

Fjord flashes a smile, and Beau is struck of her first impression of the half orc, the terribly charming man unaware of just how terrible he could be if he decided he wanted to. “No trouble. And there’s no need for manners here, your station likely outranks my own. Your woman did excellent work.” He gives Uten a slight bow, an act that catches the tiefling off guard, but one he clearly appreciates. “She got a spider out of the rafters that’s been bothering my lady.”

Uten sends a half-smile Beau’s way. “Glad to hear that Thoreau’s been earning her wages. Anything left in you dear?”

She gives a dutiful nod. “Of course.”

If she knew him better, Beau would call Uten’s smile conspiratorial at this point. “No need in letting your energy go to waste when the main hall is still in shameful form. Let’s get you that ladder and keep you busy until the sun goes down.”

Beau lets her eyes scream thank you as loud as she can without worrying about also catching Uten’s attention as they head down the stairwell. Fjord’s nod is one that’s happy for her, but more shocked that he pulled his small deception off. It’s with a small, but still sharp, shock that Beau realizes she’s not surprised that he managed it. She shakes it off by the time Uten takes them through the passage out to the open air, but the sense of trust in her friend that’s left her warm doesn’t fade. It’s a quick jog across the courtyard to the room that’s quiet now that Senokir is gone, where she’s passed a ladder, fresh rags, and a duster that looks like its older than Beau and given the clear to enter the castle through the front door.

Of course, she’s never entered this part of the castle this way, but Beau doesn’t really get hit with it until she’s pulling one of the doors open. No knocker or figurehead awaits her here, not like Yasha’s door in the tower where she’s held prisoner. These doors are iron. New iron, at that. They’re meant to keep her out, keep her frightful of what they contain. Beau’s still not sure what the Master of Wills here is really capable of, not entirely certain of what exactly she should be frightful of. But Beau is intimately familiar of what it feels like to be without Yasha, to have the other woman be away from her side and on this island. And no fear could ever dream hold candle to the dull, constant pain of being without Yasha. Opening that stupid door is the easiest thing Beau’s ever done.

The main room in the castle, the one with the throne Obann likes to sit on, is fifty, maybe sixty feet long, thirty wide, twenty five tall. It’s at least nine times grander than anything in Kamordah, and Beau doesn’t think it can hold a candle to the castle in the cliffs that she grew to love White Bear, and through her Yasha, in. It may be more beautiful, technically speaking, with silver and platinum inlaid in the dark grey marble, but it’s cold. Even surrounded by nothing but ice, Beau felt warm in the castle that resided on the black sand beach. Yasha’s warmth was in every detail, from the simple chandelier to railing decorations of summer and storm. A stranger, no, an enemy resides in these halls, and he’s made it his own. No show of wealth, no beautiful tapestry, could sooth the burn of cold that comes from the cambion lounged in his throne.

You can’t miss him when you step in the hall. He’s in a throne backed by beautiful stained glass. The castle sits on the cliffs so that the setting sun illuminates the glass angles and creates dappled patterns on the slate floor. Almost dancing in the last of today’s light. Yasha will be allowed to return to her human shape within the hour. Beau’s where she asked her to be, she just needs to hope for the rest will fall into place.

They’ve planned out the scene the best of their abilities. It’s Yasha’s plan, with Molly’s fingerprints all over it, but still Yasha’s. They’re to be in the hall, at the places where they should be least likely to be noticed, waiting to strike. Yasha will come in as soon as she can, make some sort of impossible demand of her step-father, and distract him. Once his focus is solely on his insolent step-daughter, the seven of them use every ounce of their strength to put the son of a bitch down.

Of course, they’re relying on the fact that no one in the main hall at the time is going to miss Obann’s clenched fist as they murder him. There’re two shapes behind his throne right now, one clearly a woman and the other an amorphous but towering shape that Beau suspects holds many mouths that make her more nervous than she’d like to be.

She has faith in her friends. She’s just also burdened with the belief in the strength of others who’d like to stop them.

Beau is following Uten’s orders, best utilized to be cleaning the cobwebs out of the hanging chandeliers and high corners in the ceiling. They offer little illumination to the rest of the room, allowing Beau and her human body that stands out in a hall of angels and infernal, to be out of sight. As she props the ladder and begins to scale to the ceiling, she searches other corners of shadow that Yasha had named last night, before she’d allowed Beau to doze off in her embrace.

Fjord, Caduceus, Caleb and Veth are paired up and tucked out of sight in the passageways that feed into the throne hall. Beau hopes they are at least on their way now, because she can’t catch sight of any of the four right now. They should still hold their tiefling forms, Caleb was supposed to refresh the spell before they hunkered down. Jester is working the room as she promised she’d be able to, holding a copper pitcher full of water. She’s offering refreshments to the wedding guests that mill in and out. Mollymauk, she can’t find either, but that one’s expected. He’s doing his best to stay at Yasha’s side until the last moment possible.

The sun sets, and Beau scampers in the background as she shifts the ladder and tries to hit every fixture in the back of the room. She doesn’t need to be noticed; they’re counting on the fact that she won’t. So, Beau must stay busy, even as she catches a tell-tale pair of braids and a flash of pink hair that lets her place her four friends in the places they should be. First pit of worry settled in her gut, now they can only wait.

The waiting isn’t long. Beau’s still on the same chandelier that she spotted Caduceus’s hair from when the doors that she shimmied through are thrown open. A woman, and it could really only be one woman, is breathing with a labored effort as she lets the iron door slam behind her. Even from her high perch, Beau finds Yasha impressive. You can’t stop your eyes from being drawn to her as she strides down the hall, even paced, every footstep echoing across the hard surfaces that fill the room. There’s no fabric known to man, no tapestry, no cloth, that’s forgiving enough to soften the blows of Yasha’s feet as she makes her way towards Obann, and that knowledge sends a thrill down Beau’s spine.

Every head is turned towards the pale woman, who’s dressed in a plain gray tunic and torn black pants. Her blue-furred shawl drags slightly on the floor, but you’d be forgiven for missing it considered the state of her wings. They look even better than they did when Beau saw her off this morning, soft down feathers covering even more skeleton. The bone isn’t black anymore, but white like it’s been bleached in sunlight. Even that, while not what it should be, feels like a victory. The only shadow that remains is in the last of her hair, but the black looks like it’s only still hanging on because Yasha has allowed it.

If Beau wasn’t already in love with her, she knows this would be the moment when it consumed her. There’s no way not to love her, not when she’ as strong as she is now, her essence worn on her skin like it’s something she adores, lilac and river-green eyes brighter than Beau’s ever seen them.

She looks like someone who was suffocated but unwilling to die. Her body repels darkness, like her soul is unwilling to let the threat of corruption torment her anymore. Obann is the only person in the room that refuses to recognize her, and in doing so Beau feels like he might as well have stared open jaw, like his Caedogeist is doing right now.

“My lord.” Yasha bows low to her step-father, the exposed bony parts of her wings brushing the ground. “I’ve come to you as I am as earlier as I can to ask a favor.”

“Depends on the favor, girl.” The cambion is checking his fingernails, barely a regard for anyone else in the room, least of all the woman knelt before him.

Yasha doesn’t move a muscle from her bow. “It’s to do with my manner of dress this evening.”

Obann spends another good thirty seconds picking at the skin around his nails, before he sighs and looks over to her. “Fine, tell me Orphanmaker. And stand upright, your show of deference has never convinced me of anything.”

“It’s my cloak, my lord.” Yasha draws herself to her full height, which might have little effect on Obann given the height of his throne compared to the rest of the room but draws the eyes of everyone else bustling around in the room who’re trying to pretend like they didn’t spend the last minute completely mesmerized by Yasha. “It’s gotten three spots of tallow on it, and I would prefer to have it washed out. After all, it’s not like I could just wear something else.” The corner of her mouth sharpens just the slightest into a point of a smile.

“Who would you have do this?” Obann is looking up at the celling, more concerned with cobwebs than the conversation he’s holding. If Beau knew better, she wouldn’t have such an intense desire to strangle him right now. Maybe that’s just how she feels every time she sees the hint of smug grin on his stupid, hateful face.

Yasha feigns a moment of thought. “Well, if it’s not to presumptuous, I’d like to ask for my bride to do so.” Obann opens his mouth to object, but Yasha steamrolls over him without hesitation. “I mean, I haven’t spent much time with your Caedogeist since we were children, and if I am to be a queen one day it’s only fitting I have a bride that is fit for such a task as simple as laundry, no?”

It’s Obann’s turn to rise wings rising up out of his back like a dog’s hackles. “This is pointless. You will always have servants to do such things, girl, you’re just wasting my time and your own when you should be preparing for midnight.”

“Forgive me, I must be confused step-father.” There is no begging in her tone. “I thought your intention was for me to be the one for battle, the one face of both your legacy and the one my mother tried to leave.” The tension between the pair is thick enough to swim in. “What am I to do if I come home covered in blood and all the servants are busy. You’d choose a partner for me who’d leave me, and the legacy of this place, a fool? I thought you were different, but maybe I’m mistaken, maybe –“

“Stop.” Flame flares bright enough in Obann’s eyes for even Beau to see. “I will not have you this restless and insolent.”

“I’ll do it.” Caedogeist appears seemingly out of the shadows behind the throne and the Laughing Hand. Her head is bowed deferentially to her foster father and Yasha both, looking as close to meek as the woman can probably appear. For a moment, Beau feels something strange and not unlike pity for her.

Obann’s exasperation with the pair of them would be obvious to anyone within a mile radius. “Fine. Seno-“ He’s looking towards the doorway, but it’s currently unattended. Beau knows that Senokir and Uten are busy with a final sweep of the temple. There is, however, a certain blue tiefling who just happens to have brought the king some fresh water. ”Genevieve, you’ll fetch us the things.” Jester gives an over-eager nod and disappears into some chamber Beau hasn’t had the time yet to memorize.

The silence hanging over the room is heavier than any cask Beau’s been asked to carry. If the stakes weren’t what they were, Beau would probably be cackling just for the hells of it right now. But even the guests seem afraid to make a disturbance, so the whole room just waits in silence for the return of the blue tiefling.

Jester comes back fast, with a tray full of cleaning supplies. Almost too fast. Like she’d prepared for it. But Obann is too busy directing his hatred towards the woman who stands before him without any fear in her mismatched eyes. Beau can’t tell if the rest of the room is just as on edge that they don’t notice, or simply fear speaking out to draw attention to the suspiciously fast return of Jester. She’s thankful for whatever it is.

“Orphanmaker.” Yasha’s spine is ramrod as she makes eye contact with Obann. “Kneel.” His voice is so strong for a moment, Beau feels compelled to comply as well.

Yasha does as he says, so the affected part of her cloak is close enough to be reached by the bowl. Caedogeist hunches herself over Yasha, dark swathes of clothes giving the illusion that she’s melting into the stone. She takes a rag provided, dunks it in the water, and begins to scrub at the three offending splotches of fat with… Haste? Anger? Beau can’t clock the emotion from here, but it’s certainly not a pleasant one.

Too late, Beau realizes she’s completely forgotten to pretend to be preoccupied with her work instead of watching Yasha’s plan unfold. As she turns to scour the chandeliers for more cobwebs, she finds that every single soul in the room, from the servants decorating the room, the few guests who have been admiring their handiwork or just wandering the winding halls of the castle, even to the seemingly unmoving being made of teeth, have their eyes glued on the three members of the royal family who have been bickering. Beau exhales a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding on to and continues to watch.

Agh!” Obann scoffs, and just for a moment, he sounds like a mortal. “You’re soft Caedogeist, you can’t wash. Give it to me.”

Obann now has his back turned, crowding in on the other two women as he focuses his attention on the shawl. The bar of soap bends to the strength of his grip, but the rate that he’s scrubbing won’t help his case. Yasha’s tried to clean the cloak herself. Beau’s foolish mistake is that strong. The stains will be there permanently, unable to bend even to the will of a devil.

This is their chance, he’s distracted, open to attack. She does the math; she thinks she can land on him if she tenses herself just enough from up here. Shame she didn’t bring a knife, but if she tackles him the rest can spring on him. Her stomach coils, she readies herself, and then there’s a blur of purple in the corner.

Molly is shaking his head. Beau can’t stop herself from tilting her head in blatant confusion. But his mouth is drawn tight. Two days ago, she’d probably have ignored him and launched herself at the creature that had caused Yasha so much misery. But it’s not two days ago, its now, and godsdamnit, she trusts Molly’s judgement. So she waits.

No one else makes a movement. There’s only the red-skinned man, bent over his step-daughter, hurling obscenities at her and the cloak he bound to her. His cursing confirms Yasha’s suspicions that she whispered to Beau. The tallow stains don’t yield to him.

“It seems neither of you are worth your weight in straw.” Yasha’s smugness is off-putting, Beau’s never seen her wear it before. It looks very similar to Mollymauk’s. And it looks good on her.

Obann’s eyes look like they’re alit with flame in this lighting, frustration sits so heavy on his brow. “Well, my dear. Daughter.” There’s no endearment in his words, he’s practically spitting them out. “Who would you have do your laundry?”

Yasha lifts herself up to scan the room, wings relaxed and dragging on the floor with her soaked cape. “What about her?” Yasha points right at Beauregard, on her perch on the ladder that’s kept her above the rest of the crowd. Her head is tilted so from behind you might think she’s just curious, but Beau can see the sharp delight, the unsmothered joy in her eyes when Yasha’s pale finger settles on Beau.

Obann snorts. “Your Lucien dragged her out of the sea yesterday. My seneschal tells me she’s been bounced around between jobs already. What good is a girl like that?” He considers her for a long moment, during which Beau thinks her heart forgets how to beat. “Fine, come here girl.”

The way he says girl sounds like a threat. That part, that’s almost familiar and for a half moment, it’s not Obann, no cambion is calling upon her. It’s just a man going gray with half an eye out for a fourth wife summoning her to do a task he’s determined unfit for himself calling upon her. And really, there’s not many ways that Obann can be different from Thoreau Lionett in this moment.

She knows that she must climb down the ladder, make her way through the crowd. But this was not part of the plan they’d discussed; they’re not descending on Obann and trying to rip the wings out of his back. Something has changed for Yasha since last night, and at least Molly seems to be in on it. Maybe they all are, and she’s the only one out of the loop. The uncertainty has Beau feeling unstable, but the weight and confidence of Yasha’s gaze on her steadies her. She should take this chance to glance around, see if she can find where the rest of her friends have hidden themselves, but she can’t tear her eyes away from the front of the room.

It feels like a dream instead of the nightmare it could be as Beau walks through a parting crowd of aasimar, tieflings, and otherworldly beings she doesn’t have the time or wherewithal to name towards Obann, his Caedogeist, and their bodyguard made of flesh and teeth. But she’s not going to them. She’s got her eyes locked with Yasha’s. She’s not heading towards a being that could tear her to shreds, the woman who threatened to, and the man who was responsible for her past months of misery and nearly a lifetime of a half-lived existence. Beau’s going to her patient White Bear, the woman who dreamed of her and was so certain she was the one she gave everything asked of her to have her and even more to keep her. This is the woman she wrestled with, who listened to her read, who took her out to swim, who guarded her family, who waited for her when Beau had done the singular worst thing she could have to her.

The threat of death can’t even hope to be frightful when it stands next to the person you’ve loved to the edge of the earth and right over it.

When she finds herself at Yasha and the three others, Yasha kneels on the ground once again, and Beau follows her downwards. On this level, she doesn’t have to look up to her. They’re equals on this footing, and Beau wants to kiss her so bad. But that’s not the plan. This isn’t the plan either, but it’s still thought out. If there’s anything the months of separation have taught Beau, its patience. She can wait to kiss her again a little longer. She just needs to be able to do what her White Bear needs her to do.

“Can you wash my cloak clean?” Yasha asks, soft almost unsure.

“I don’t know,” Beau responds truthfully, trying to keep her voice from shaking like her hands are, “but I think I can.”

There’re several objects in front of her, a bowl of water, the bar of lyre soap, a small jar with a white powder, and a variety of vials that hold different oils. Beau dismisses the oils as perfumes belonging in a bath. She rubs her fingertips in the white powder and brings them to her nose, waiting for the odor to hit. Only, it doesn’t, it smells like nothing, almost neutralizing, just like -

Baking soda. Of course. Using her hands to scoop water from the bowl, Beau stirs the powder and liquid together until she has a paste and applies it to both sides of the cloak where the tallow has stained.

As Beau dunks the rough fabric into the bowl full of water, it feels like it’s the oldest thing she could have done. She’s fourteen again, and the spinster in Kamordah has taken pity on her grass-stained pants and invited her inside to show her how to beat back even the toughest splotches. She’s sixteen, earning some unacknowledged but still begrudging respect from her father as she washes out their few farmhand’s clothes out and makes them look brand new as their Winter’s Crest gifts. It’s last autumn, the week before she would leave her childhood home and be dragged into Yasha’s much wider and wilder world, and Sigrun is helping her scrub out still-warm suet stains she babbles on about names for the kittens that had been born that morning.

Tending to this request of Yasha’s feels like the most forgone conclusion of her life. As Beau massages the dark stains, she doesn’t expect to clean the mess that’s her fault to begin with, but to at least undo the worsening done by Caedogeist and Obann. But she’s barely begun to put her knuckles into it when she realizes that the water is becoming cloudy, like it’s full of oil. Unable to believe her own eyes, Beau scrubs further at the fabric, working out the baking soda paste she’d applied not moments before. She can’t hide her sharp inhale when she removes the cloak to check it. The dark navy is unblemished, the heavy material feeling lighter than it had ever been.

For a single moment, every molecule of air in the room feels as if it crackles with electricity.

To call it an explosion is far too violent. It’s more of a rustling, like the sensation of pulling yourself out of a sleep that’s gone on for far too long. The noise is coming from above where Beau’s kneeled on the ground. She looks upwards, towards the ceiling, not sure what she expects to find. A crack, maybe? But her gaze never makes it that far, they get caught on the true culprit of the disturbance.

There’s a soft light she can’t determine the origin of radiating off the woman she’s kneeled below. Yasha’s wings are fully feathered now, so bright that they’re almost hard to look at. Almost. In the wake, unstained cloak still in her hands, Beau takes in the newly glistening golden-white feathers. Her wings evoke the image of the geese that nest amongst the tree line every warm season, snowy white defensive things. The feathers remind her of springtime in the valley, flowers filling a barren earth. New beginnings. The promise of change that comes with a snap of lightning.

Looking at her like this feels like coming home. They’re far from it, closer to real danger than either of them have been in a while. But Beau’s never felt more at home in her own skin than she has now, never felt like she’s belonged somewhere more than she has in this moment.

A small commotion from the rest of the throne room begins to hit Beau’s ears, but she can’t hear them, not really. Not when Yasha’s taking in her wings with her own look of wonder, so bright she blocks out the miserable three figures before her. Yasha rises from the floor slowly, looking more like she’s levitating to a greater height than her own than just standing upright. Maybe it’s the way she’s holding herself, the certainty in her eyes or something.

As Yasha rises, Beau finds herself chasing, feet scrambling under her until she too stands before Obann, although much less of a presence than the woman besides her. What’s a girl next to an angel on the border of vengeance? But she’ll be dead and damned before she’s not right at Yasha’s side, this in moment and every one after it.

The ashen-gray tiefling speaks first, eyes wide and voice saturated with stunned disbelief. “No.”

“Yes.” Yasha says as she catches Beau’s jaw with her fingertips and takes her in with all the adoration her mismatched eyes can hold. “She’s the girl for me, Obann.” Her gaze turns, and all the love withers into hard defiance as she looks at her step-father. “This is Beauregard, she’s been allowing me to call her my wife since she let me steal her away to the sea and will continue to be mine for as long as she’ll have me.”

There’s a beat of silence again, full of crackling potential. This time, it is fair to call what comes next an explosion.

The outburst that comes from Obann sounds inhuman. He seethes in a language that Beau does not understand, one that Yasha clearly does but treats with almost indifference. The two figures at his side, tiefling and humanoid mass of mouths, shrink away from him. Like they’re afraid. A flash of purple in the corner of her eye tells Beau that Molly is moving towards them with haste she hadn’t thought him capable of.

“She is the one for me.” Yasha says, wings flaring out just a little wider now, making her even more terribly beautiful to hold in your gaze. “No plan of yours can come between us, I will not break my bond with her.”

Without looking, Yasha’s hand finds hers and presses it. Asking. Taking it is the easiest thing she’s ever done in her life. Beau gives her a faint squeeze of reassurance as their fingers interlock.

She’s here. She’ll always be here. As long as Yasha will have her, she’ll be Beau’s. Beau will be hers.

The space before them that an outraged, spitting Obann occupies suddenly collapse inwards. The flash of darkness before them is all consuming, and endless inky black spot of despair that consumes the red figure before them. It should be loud enough to deafen, but no noise comes from the apparition of darkness. It looks like it’s trying to eat the air surrounding it, pull everything inwards. But it’s moving too fast, it can’t sustain the pace it’s trying to set. The darkness folds in on itself, once, twice, fifteen, sixty, a hundred countless times until it’s one too many and the folded in air is gone.

There’s nothing, for a single deceptive moment.

Then comes the wave, Beau think’s it’s a shockwave of magic, but she can’t tell for certain. All she knows is that its strong enough to snuff out every unprotected candle and knock all of the spectators in the hall on their backs.

Beau and Yasha remain unbothered by the blast, firmly on their own two feet. Beau is only certain that Yasha is with her because Beau’s practically tangled in her hand at this point. Yasha’s wings blows into her face, sharp feathers not quite breaking her skin but very much confirming Beau’s presence right on the spot she stands.

In the darkness, light spills outwards from Yasha’s free hand as she holds an orb of it, and that’s when Beau sees the wetness on her cheeks. The other woman is smiling as sure as its night outside, as strange sobs come out of her and it’s not until the ringing from the shockwave dies in Beau’s ears that she realizes what the noise is.

Yasha’s laughing a little as she pulls her in, relief rolling of her in waves so strong Beau isn’t sure where Yasha’s ends and her own begins. She meets her for a kiss that’s soft, ground, affirming the fact that they’re both alive and yet still manages makes her head spin.

Caedogeist pushes herself up first. Her horns are gone, but her ashen skin and pointed ears are unchanged. She fits her body better now that she’s just an elf. Bitterness has less of a hold on her. “The Temple.” She gasps, eyes Beau had only thought capable of jealously and uncontrollable want now full of fear. “His Angle of Irons. It’s Tharizdun. He means to free him.”

“Jourrael I-” Yasha blinks like she doesn’t know how she knows the words her mouth is forming.

A groan from massive body that used to be full of lesions and terrible mutation snaps away her attention, gathers nearly everyone else’s in the room too for that matter. He’s… human. Just a man, dark hair very dirty and unkempt, but other than that, fairly unremarkable. He looks like a solider lost in a war that isn’t his own, nothing like a monster.

The cry of “Ganix!” flies out of Yasha’s mouth as she tries to move towards him, the tangle of her fingers and arms in Beau making the lunge awkward and ultimately unsuccessful.

“Go.” He has just one mouth that moves, the only one on his body, where it should be. He’s still impossibly massive and strong, but he looks exhausted. On the mend, like his body is trying to recover from being forced into a shape it wasn’t meant to take.

The elf is spitting, teeth grit in anger that shines through her terror. “Make him pay.”

Molly has reached them now, and he’s got two scimitars strapped to his back in addition to a greatsword in his arms that he doesn’t seem certain how to wield. He’s muttering something Beau can’t quite catch and pushing the six-foot long blade towards Yasha.

The sword is in Yasha’s light-filled hand, and this, Beau is certain, is her most natural state. Yasha looks like she was born with a sword in her and battle fury in her eyes. There’s something playful about her right now, but maybe it’s just the presence of Mollymauk at her side. She cocks her head just so that she can catch Beau in the corner of her eye. “I hope you’re not out of shape, Beauregard.”

Beau can’t stop the huff of laughter that escapes her lungs. “Don’t.” She warns, untangling her hand with Yasha’s just so she can crack her knuckles.

With that, the pair of them tear out of the room like bats out of hell. Mollymauk is hot in their trail, Beau can hear his faint cursing behind them, and the collection of footsteps that race behind them is so familiar that Beau knows like she has little else that their friends are close behind them.

Jester is ready for them at the doorway, because of course she is, and points at the temple. “There was a flash of something there. He’s there, I know he is.”

“Let’s fucking kill him then.” Yasha growls, feet not stuttering for a second as she races towards the stone temple.

The cackle that Jester lets out suddenly makes Beau appreciate how grateful she is to have the tiefling on their side. “Lets.” She agrees and joins the rest of their friends.

 

The small stone building looks unassuming compared to the rest of the towering buildings that make up the castle and its courtyard. It’s perched in a precarious spot now that Beau’s directing real attention towards it. There’s a gap in the wall that holds the bailey, and this temple occupies it. It must have something to do with the windows and the sunlight, and her suspicious are confirmed as Yasha kicks open the door and the eight of them spill into the small building. The stained-glass window depicting a celestial woman bound in silver chains, skin covered in as many lidless eyes as possible takes up almost the entire back wall. Were it day, the flames sweeping around her feet would make the floors glow orange, bring the illusion of real fire dancing on the floor.

But it isn’t day, it’s well into the night, and the candles that have been lit in preparation for the wedding are a poor source of light. Yasha’s body is still producing a divine glow, so they’re not necessary to see the being that they’ve come for.

The thing that awaits them is not Obann. Not his original body, not anything close. It’s an impossibly shaped thing, mass of tentacles that hold a color like the night sky, swirling indigos, purples, and blacks that would be beautiful were it on almost any other creature. The flesh holds points of white too, but they are less wonderful than the stars that are currently out. There are eyes, so many eyes, none of them in the right place, looking at nothing and the entire room all at once. The mouth is all wrong too, and it wasn’t a mouth it was mouths, snapping in thin air looking for something, anything to consume.

No!” The cursed shape screams, and it lunges towards them.

Yasha is ready for him, and her sword carves into the mass like a knife through butter. Her own screams rival the creatures. And that should not be so hot, that should not be so hot.

While her mind is slow, Beau’s muscle memory isn’t, and she thankfully doesn’t need to be thinking to throw herself to meet Obann, this monster, whatever the fuck it is. She throws a punch before rolling under a tentacle that flies out towards her, landing another one right where the tentacle connects. She’s used to sparring with people more than dummies, but this is something in between. The flesh doesn’t feel right when she beats into it, it’s too soft, squishy almost.

A flash of holy light comes from behind her, and when Beau throws a look over her shoulder, its Caduceus, hand stretched outright towards their friends. She feels something strange in her, but a good strange. Before the feeling can even settle, Caduceus pops out of her vision, invisible.

It takes Veth shouting “Don’t be tentacruel, you ugly son of a bitch!” and her whipping her head in the other woman’s direction to watch her load up her crossbow before she realizes that at some point, Caleb let everyone’s disguises drop. Veth is wholly herself, dark skin, whipping braids and rare halfling malice in her eyes as she sinks a bolt into the fleshy creature. It feels good, right that none of them are hiding anymore.

Let Obann know just exactly who has come for him.

She can see the blue tiefling out of the corner of her eye, tucked behind Fjord, so Beau gets to see her press her palms together and send a flash of light towards their foe that has a radiance that could almost rival Yasha. There’s a flash behind her, and Mollymauk pops up between Beau and Yasha, teeth barred in a furious snarl as he slices his own scimitars across his chest. The action gives them an icy-blue flash, and before Beau can even begin to question what he his plan is, Molly is swinging at Obann. He’s unblinking, fury so bright Beau’s tempted to call it a rage.

There’s the sound of Caleb’s Zemnian accent while an amber sheen washes over Yasha, in time with three crackling balls of energy hurling like they’ve originated from Fjord’s direction. One of them flies too high, smashing into the stained glass but not breaking it. The other two make solid impact, energy seeming to dissolve across the ever-changing skin of Obann’s new body in waves of a dark, sickening green.

The force from the blasts of energy is enough to push the creature right into Yasha’s sword, and she takes pleasure in the opportunity to carve into the creature yet again. She’s faster, now, amber sheen helping her move like water. It’s easy to flank the creature, hit him in his weak spots that Yasha helped expose.

That’s the moment that Caduceus reappears, flanking the creature on her left. Beau is first struck by the fact that without Caleb’s seeming, Caduceus’s head of hair has gone entirely gray. The only pink left on him is his eyes, which are sharpened with an anger she hadn’t thought the firbolg capable of. He mutters some words in a soft, songlike language that creates green spectral flames that dance around his wrists. Caduceus grabs Obann as the last word leaves his tongue, gritting his teeth as the flames race in the soft flesh.

The creature howls and Beau has to fight the urge to cover her ears to block out the noise. It leaves all of them stunned, wincing while the scream rings in their ears. The creature takes this chance to wrap two of its tendrils around Caduceus and pull him towards the central mouth. Tired, but clearly not out, Caduceus trashes in the grasp of the monster in an attempt to break free. A crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s open mouth, Veth taking advantage of the opportunity, when it decides he isn’t worth it. Caduceus is thrown from the grasp, clear across the room to a stone wall.

There’s a sickening crunch as he makes contact and goes limp.

Before Beau can even think to react, she’s engulfed by darkness. And not the comforting kind that you find under the cover of night, speckled with starlight and in a gentle battle with the moon. Suffocating, inky darkness that feels like it’s trying to climb inside of her and choke her from the inside out.

Scattering crossbow bolts and Molly’s creative cursing lets Beau know she’s not the only one affected by the darkness. She feels a tentacle try to grab for her, but she’s still light enough on her feet that dodging is easy enough.

The darkness is only with them for a few seconds before its gone, seemingly sucked into Caleb’s outstretched palm. Beau has to blink for a moment to recover from the sudden change. When she takes in her friends, they all are still upright except Caduceus, his body covered by a furious-looking Jester pressing a glowing palm to his face.

With a flash and small boom, Fjord appears in melee with them. There’s a sword in his hand unlike anything Beau’s seen him hold before, barnacle-covered metal that appears to be soaking wet. He has better luck up close than he did afar, not missing their foe once.

Yasha gets a swing on the flesh creature again after it latches on to her ankle, and the noise her sword makes is just wrong. It sounds like she’s hit something dense, hard. Like iron striking iron, but worse.

“Beau!” Yasha’s cry is sharp, and she’s swiping the malleable flesh away from where she’d hit with her sword. There. The thing she’d struck.

It’s… an orb? Something domed at least, that’s residing in the core of the flesh creature that Obann has possessed. It certainly doesn’t belong. That’s when her train of thought crosses Yasha’s.

If they take it out, they might kill this thing before it gets the chance to kill their friends.

Beau’s elbow deep in the creature as fast as her reflexes will allow her. She grabs around the orb, because her gut was right, and it is something strange and circular. Beau tugs, and she’s pulling with everything in her body, but she can’t get it to budge. She can feel her muscles screaming but Beau pushes right past, tries her damndest to wrestle this orb out so Yasha and the rest can destroy it.

She’s not fast enough. All it takes is one tug for the thing to realize what she’s trying to do. Evidently, Yasha was on the right track, because Beau can feel panic in the flesh around her arms as the creature tries to throw her off. But Beau’s not letting go, not now, she’d never when she’s this close to help Yasha put Obann down for once and for all.

If she was less stubborn, less consumed by wrath, Beau probably would have realized the flesh creature was dragging her across the church floor. Maybe if it had been daylight, it would have been enough for her to realize where the thing was going. But she was angry, it was dark as shadows outside, and Beau doesn’t realize the creature is taking them to the stained-glass window until it picks up speed at the last moment when a shattering crash erupts in front of her. In that moment, the magical darkness disappears, and Beau feels herself go weightless as she’s dragged through the collapsing stained glass and out the window.

The feeling of falling is so much different from the last time, when Caduceus’s spell gave out. The sensation of bleeding out from the shattered glass cut into her back is certainly new. She hadn’t expected to be overtaken by the feeling of loneliness as her stomach went free-weight. A patch of green whizzes by her in a blur and Beau understands that she’s barley missed cracking her ribs on the ground outside the temple when she has the other, far more concerning realization. The only thing below her is the rocky coastline, holding a hungry ocean at bay.

There’s also this monster who dragged her into this particular mess. And Beau’s not planning on letting him go.

Midair, freefall in the dark of what must be the early hours of the morning, Beau pulls at the solid orb. The gelatinous flesh of the creature begins to do… something around her hands, reknit maybe? She pulls again, harder, feeling the orb give a little more, more than it has before.

Beau throws every bit of momentum she can find and wrenches every vertebra in her spine and muscle in her arm to tear the orb out. And the flesh gives, and she’s got a cold lump of metal pulled right into her gut. She’s holding Obann’s…. Essence? Soul? Life source? She reckons it hardly matters what it is now, because the flesh has stopped fighting her and there’s nothing to distract her from the freefall that she’s taking towards the shore that Caduceus and Fjord washed them up on mere days ago.

Just as she begins to contemplate being broken into pieces on the rocks and stolen by the sea, a shape moves in the darkness above her. It moves so fast, were it anything else, Beau probably wouldn’t have recognized it. But something in her adrenaline-addled mind just knows, and her heart seconds her confirmation as a flash of light emits from the mass that plummets after her.

Yasha is diving for with no hesitation, she’s bright and impossible to look at and brilliant and she catches Beau before she hits the rocky ocean in the darkness. The weight of the orb cradled on Beau’s stomach is heavy but in Yasha’s arms its weightless

Someone’s sobbing, a wretched noise of fear and relief mixing with the restless ocean. Yasha’s shushing is what makes Beau realize she’s the one crying out for Yasha, whole body trembling as it tries to catch up with the rapid series of events that just happened that let her end in her wife’s arms, safe to cry until the realization of still being in one piece and not a smear on the shore finishes washing over her.

“I’ve got you.” Yasha mutters, voice so faint it’s almost lost in the crashing of the rolling waves. Beau can feel herself trembling, she’s not sure if it’s from fear or relief. “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.”

“Please – “ The sob feels like it’s trying to tear out her throat as Beau pushes the orb towards her. “He, he, he has to, some part of him is here, I can’t let him hurt you, Yasha- “

There’s a kiss on her brow, forceful and warm. “Shhh.”

Kill it!” Beau cries, pushing the orb towards Yasha’s chest. “Kill him, kill him, you saw it in him for a reason, he has to die now!”

“Beau.” One of Yasha’s hand is on the back of her neck, fingers cradling the base of Beau’s skull and providing the majority of the support for her to hold it upright. “I watched your tear him to pieces in midair. He’s not coming back for a few minutes at least.”

The tears in her eyes make the glowing woman in front of her blur, but not so much that Beau can’t clutch at her. “We have to make sure he never does.”

“But I saw you falling,” Yasha is still speaking in the same serious tone she was before, Beau’s interjection not fazing her. “I saw you falling towards the rocks for me, because of me, and I need to make sure you’re still whole.”

A laugh breaks through the rapid rise and fall of Beau’s chest. “I’m here, Yasha.” It comes out much softer than Beau thought she’d be capable of right now; body still tense with adrenaline and hands still covered in the mess of flesh that was Obann’s fallen form. “I’m okay. You caught me.”

Yasha presses another kiss to her brow, followed by one to her temple, outlining her face while her free hand traces the other side. Her chest is shaking, Beau can feel it because she’s drawn tight to it, and the thrum of Yasha’s heart helps slow her own down to a more manageable pace as she starts to press sloppy attempts back, cradling the stupid heavy orb so they don’t lose it in one arm but allowing her other to tangle in Yasha’s mane of knotted hair and braids so she can pull the other woman closer to her. They’re both crying for different reasons, the levels of stress they’re releasing into the stones below them surely radiating a wide aura around them as they just try to affirm that they survived that stupid awful devil when a voice pierces through their veil.

“Hey-“

No!” Yasha screams, terror ripping itself through her so violently Beau feels it as if it were her own fear. The woman pulls her tighter to her chest, heart speeding up to rate worse than when she caught her.

Yasha’s wings are still curled around the pair of them, but Beau would know Veth’s voice anywhere. Especially now, at the end of the world, balancing what’s left of the man that brought her here between her free arm and her stomach.

“Is Caduceus okay?” Beau calls out, hoping her fingers rubbing across Yasha’s scalp are soothing.

“Yes.” Veth sounds like she’s backed up, nervous but not any worse for wear than she was when beau plummeted out the temple window in Obann’s grasp. “And that thing is splattered to bits and you’re not so… we won?”

The laugh that comes from Beau surely sounds hysterical. “I think so.” Yasha’s breathing is still ragged in her ear, and that’s when Beau remembers that Veth is one of the few Yasha doesn’t know. “Gives us a few, we’ll follow you up Veth.”

She can practically hear Veth shaking her head, see the shit-eating tint her eyes wear when the rest of them are being ridiculous for whatever reason. “Okay Beau. Make sure your wife doesn’t kill us on her way back up.”

Before Beau can find a sharp barb to swing her way, Veth is gone, scattering back towards and up the cliffs, clothes blending in as she effortlessly climbs back to where their friends wait. She moves so fast, Beau suspects Caleb of putting a spell on her to give her some assistance.

“I owe her an apology.” Yasha ducks her head.

“Shh, no.” Beau cradles Yasha’s jaw to stop her head from drooping. “She’s one of mine, it’s on me, not you. Besides, she won’t hold it against you.”

Yasha’s hand that isn’t already wrapped around Beau finds its way around her left wrist, which Yasha uses to tug upwards slightly so she can press a kiss on the inside of her hand. “I trust you. I do hope I didn’t frighten her too badly.”

Beau laughs. “She doesn’t scare easy.”

“Good.” Yasha’s happiness will forever be the most beautiful thing to Beau’s ears. A siren’s call couldn’t hope to be half as sweet as relief and joy on her voice.

This time, when the other woman drops her head Beau lets her so they can press foreheads together, standing impossibly close while they listen to nothing more than the roll of the waves and one another’s breathing. When Beau does finally open her eyes, she realizes that Yasha’s wings are still wrapped around them, cocooning them in a soft glow of light despite the dark of night all around them.

She slowly presses a kiss to Yasha’s temple. “We should probably go meet them, unless you want to make someone else scale down the cliffs and check on us.”

“Hold on.” Yasha says, gathering Beau tight in her arms before taking a slight squat that she uses to help propel them upwards, wings taking great, long flaps to help them gather momentum. 

Beau can’t stop the little laugh that bubbles out of her chest, the feeling of racing skyward surrounded by the sound of beating wings being so familiar now that it actually excites her.

The noise startles Yasha, but when she looks down at Beau her eyes hold nothing but fondness. “Oh? I suppose you’ve flown quite the way to make it back to me. How do I compare?”

“They don’t hold a candle.” Her poor use of the metaphor hits her almost immediately and Beau can feel herself both flush and freeze as she stutters. “Er. Um. Well. You know.” She runs her hand along what she supposes is the upper arm of Yasha’s right wing as the other woman does nothing to hide her fond chuckle at Beau’s reaction. “If I’m being honest, it feels familiar. You’ve carried me so many times, I know what to expect. I can enjoy where I am in this moment without having to worry about falling.”

Yasha tilts her head for a moment as her wings carry them upwards. “But I… Oh Gods, you’re counting all those times you were on my back as a bear, aren’t you?”

“‘All those times’,” Beau makes exaggerated air quotes while her laughter sneaks back into her voice, “oh yeah, just every time you took me anywhere for months, all over that castle, down the beach, to the ocean. Just all those times.”

“It’s embarrassing.” Yasha mutters, still blushing pink but smiling. “I just… At the time.” She’s twisting her mouth, struggling with the phrasing. “It was selfish. At the time, all I wanted was to be close. To touch you.”

“Oh.” It’s not really shock or surprise that comes over Beau, but something hits her heart with a dull thud that has a heat to it. “For what it’s worth, that’s when I started to fall in love with you.” She can feel her nerve dying in her gut as that heat fades, so it all just spills out of her without any real elegance. “It snuck up on me, I didn’t realize what it was until that day on the beach, with the gulls, when you told me you were the woman coming to me at night and I had to ask for space. Back before I knew what was happening, holding to your fur when you took me to that beach and the castle. Watching from your back as you were careful with every plant and creature that crossed our path. I kept forgetting you were a bear, before I knew that you weren’t supposed to be one. But how could I not love you, with how gentle and patient and kind you are with me and every living thing you meet that has the good sense not to cross you?”

She’s rambling, long lost the plot of what she was trying to say as the taste of salt leaves her mouth and the cool night air from above takes over. Yasha’s mouth has dropped to a small o, and she looks almost slack-jawed. “You love me?” She whispers, barely audible over the beating of her wings. “After everything?”

It’s Beau’s turned to be stunned for a moment. “Yes. I love you Yasha. I went east of the sun, west of the moon for you. I loved you before I screwed up, the entire time after when your absence felt like an ache. And now, how can I not now. How did I never tell you?”

“Hey!” A voice is shouting, a little whiney and just obnoxious enough that Beau realizes its Molly before she looks towards the sound of it. It’s to her surprise that their friends are about fifteen feet below them, they’d been so distracted they hadn’t realized they’d made it to the top of the cliffs already.

Everyone is gathered by the back of the temple, looking up at her and Yasha. Caduceus has been returned to consciousness as Veth promised, currently leaning heavily on Jester. Caleb is on his other side, hand pressed on a capped bottle of swirling red liquid that he appears to have forced into Caduceus’s free hand. Molly’s got his hands on his hips, shaking his head through his laugh that he’s doing a terrible job to pretend is disappointed. At the edge of the cliff sits Veth, feet dangling over the edge giving Beau and Yasha a knowing grin. Fjord is the only one not looking skyward, something has compelled him to have eyes only for Jester as she helps Caduceus. Whatever it is, Beau can’t wait to give him shit for it.

Caleb is the most obviously amused out of all of them. “I don’t think die unzertrennlichen want to come in to roost.”

Beau doesn’t know exactly what he means, but the waggle of his eyebrows says enough. Yasha snorts just soft enough that only Beau can pick it up, a clear protest to the teasing, but Beau doesn’t need to look up to know that she’s really smiling at their friends.

They land swiftly, Beau having to hold on to Yasha’s arm for a moment before she regains her footing.

“This is what’s left of him.” Beau drops the orb on the ground, the thud it makes upon impact making her wince. “It needs to be destroyed, for good.”

Before anyone else can say something, Caleb is waving his hands in a complicated pattern that ends with a thin green ray that collides with the last of Obann on the ground. Beau watches the solid metal orb gently dissolve into a billion minuscule ash particles. They’re airborne for a moment, before slowly settling into a pile.

“Neat trick.” Molly remarks.

Fjord goes for the dust, pulling a glass vial out from under his armor before a thin hand grabs his wrist. Caduceus is shaking his head.

“He’s gone.” The firbolg says, and Gods his voice is so much weaker than Beau would like it to be. “Let him mix with the sand and be pulled apart by the ocean.”

Fjord tugs against his hand, easily breaking free. “I don’t plan on putting him back together, I just want to stop someone else from doing it.”

“Fjord.” Yasha speaks up for the first time since landing, her face is so soft for the half-orc as she shakes her head. “He’s right. Obann’s not hurting anyone ever again, there’s no need to keep his memory around.”

“Okay.” Fjord relents, in that careful, soft-spoken display Beau’s come to learn to accept from him. “But if he crawls back out of the sea a year later and we have to help free you from another curse, I’m going to say I told you so. Several times.”

Jester squints at Fjord. “You have to know that sounds strangely specific and not at all like a hypothetical scenario.”

Yasha’s fingertips grab at the navy fur that runs along her shoulders. “This is still here, though. He’s gone, I’m certain, but this is still here.”

Caleb almost touches the dark stitching, but pulls his hand back at the last moment. “Maybe there is no way to undo this. If there is a spell that can fix it, I don’t know it.”

“What if we go to your friend?” Veth asks, arms crossed and brow furrowed. “You said Essek was knowledgeable in the arcane, maybe he can help.”

“We’ll have to leave the island.” Jester whispers.

Molly is holding her gaze, with a matching worried look while he twists his hands together. “Obann always allowed absence. He gave permission to come and go, it was on technicality of his wording that we got her out in the first place. If we try to leave now…”

Knowing what Obann had been capable of, seeing the twisted bodies of his foster children struggle to reclaim their original forms, the liquid flesh creature that he’d transformed into, Beau didn’t want to play those odds.

A silence hangs over them, no one sure what to do or say as they exchange worried glances and nerve-filled hugs.

Its broken when a bright voice beams itself into her mind, the air noticeably still with any spoken words. You need to remove the cloak. He’s dead, but his hatred for this world still lingers.

Beau whips her head around looking for the origin and finds the only white tiefling she’s met in this castle. She’s holding a steaming metal basin in her hands, unbothered by the heat, and a small, furred pouch over her shoulder that Beau would know anywhere. “We don’t know how. None of us know the magic that attached the cloak to Yasha, we don't want to hurt her trying to remove it."

There’s way to end a curse that don’t require a knowledge of the arcane. Lillith’s mouth curves into a sharp grin. Obann was many things, and wise wasn’t one of them. He forgot that hatred isn’t an isolated emotion, it’s just one on a spectrum driven by passion. Her attention turns to Yasha, speaking only to her. Yasha is nodding furiously in agreement, relaxing her wings so they’re out of the way of the cloak and throwing her hair behind her shoulders.

“Okay. I’m okay with that risk.” Yasha says, looking between Lillith, Beau and the rest of them.

“What risk?” Beau’s voice sounds oddly echoed, she realizes, because Molly has said the exact same thing.

Nothing that can’t be undone with time. Lillith promises as she opens the rabbit-furred pouch, bowl held on her hip with her other arm. Beau’s pouch contains several white rags that look freshly made, and a single small knife. The blade looks sharp, but no more than any good paring knife should be.

Molly’s got a hand on Yasha’s wrist, searching deep in her eyes for… something, Beau may have a reluctant soft spot and hesitant trust for the tiefling now, but that hasn’t made reading him any easier.

His voice is low, concerned. “You’re certain in what she says?”

“More than anything.” There’s no hesitation in Yasha’s response, and Molly seems to take solace in that, pulling the woman down to his level so he can give her a kiss on the forehead.

Lillith has pressed the knife to Beau’s hand, and she looks from the blade to Yasha’s stitches that have been made easily visible by the other woman. Beau’s gut freezes over when she realizes what she’s going to have to do.

“I don’t have steady hands.” Beau says, throat catching at the very idea of pressing the blade to Yasha’s skin, even to help. “I’ll hurt you.”

Veth gives her free hand a soft squeeze as she walks by. “If what the tiefling says is true, then it has to be you.”

Hatred on a spectrum of passion. Of course. Beau doesn’t know if she’s deserves the title of person who loves Yasha most, especially not surrounded by everyone who helped bring her here. She’s not as foolish to doubt the intensity of her love for the other woman, not after everything, but some base insecurity is trying to prick its way up her spine to make her doubt in her ability to do this task.

No. Doubt is what forced them here, doubt is what made her light the candle in the middle of the night. She’s spent months beating it back, all of her friends have, as they came together to do this impossible thing. Beau killed her doubt, or thought she had, when she got the tallow stains out of this damn cloak. She’d reversed the damage of the very thing she now must destroy. This cursed item only holds sway over Yasha because Obann forced it into her skin. It doesn’t have any power over Beau, not ever before and certainly not now. She can do this.

The threat of dawn can be seen coloring the sky. If they don’t hurry, if Beau doesn’t hurry, Yasha will be a bear again within the hour.

She has to ask, one last time. “You’re sure?”

“Please.” Yasha’s voice catches in her throat as she kneels on the grass, head bowed to all of them. “I want to see the sun with my own eyes.”

At either side sit Jester and Molly, squeezing Yasha’s hands with as much might as they dare. Veth’s nimble fingers pull Yasha’s hair back and begins to weave a complicated plait. Caduceus’s hands faintly glow with a warm light, healing magic prepared just in case, next to Caleb who now holds the spare rags and the bowl of warm water Lillith brough them, maintaining the temperature with a small flame that spurts out of his palm. Fjord gives Beau’s shoulder a reassuring pat, belief in her plain on his face.

“I was never much good with needlework.” Beau warns them as she steadies one hand on Yasha’s shoulder, just above where the stitching starts to hold the fur trim of the cloak back.

Yasha gives her a soft grin. “At least you’re not putting them in.”

She holds the blade as tightly as she can without limiting her own mobility, and Beau goes for the knot at the top of the stich on Yasha’s left shoulder. She pulls it through and the dark thread cuts like she’s using an obsidian blade. On close inspection, it’s easy to see how sloppy the work is. Instead of one, single line of stiches all along her shoulder blades, there’s clusters of simple continuous stitches, four or five, each wildly different lengths like whoever did them couldn’t figure out how much thread they needed. With each full set she removes, Beau can pull the thread entirely out and lay it aside to be discarded. She does her best to keep the knife sterile, dunking it in the bowl of hot water every few cuts. Yasha bleeds, just a little here and there, and Fjord takes care to keep her clean with the spare rags. First Molly, then Jester as the stitches help hold the navy cloak so it doesn’t pull on Yasha too hard as its hold on her is removed.

Beau feels like it takes her ages, the care she’s taking to make sure her hands don’t shake, and the effort spent making sure she’s slow, careful and doesn’t miss a stich. She’s probably done within half an hour.

When the last stich is gone and she’s pulled the final thread free, Beau expects something to happen. Another flash, some sort of creepy cackle, a monster to jump out and attack them again. It’s the way this day has been going, and by the tenseness gathered in Yasha’s shoulders and the way no one else seems to be breathing, Beau knows they all except it too.

The shawl unravelling and the fur dissolving into mist wasn’t what she’d expected, but Beau can’t say she’s going to complain about it. There’s a massive sea of dark thread around them, tangling their limbs together as the group attempts to free themselves. Jester gives it a kick for good measure, cursing in Infernal, which has Molly snickering and clearly making his own suggestions in their shared language.

“All of our years of collective suffering,” Yasha has risen but can’t take her eyes off the thread, “the entire castle, the way this land has hurt, my mother, everyone who has died on these grounds. Jourrael. Ganix. Me.” Her face is schooled to a steely resolve, expressionless, but Beau can see her hands shaking. “And this is what’s left of him, after everything.”

There’s a green arm around her shoulders, taking great care to be gentle. “Seems only right, after what he did to try to secure his legacy.”

“Just.” Caleb agrees with a grim look, fingers wrapped around the bowl like his life depends on him holding on. “The bastard got what was coming.”

Now is when Caduceus runs his hands across the open wounds, doing his best to stop the bleeding and knit the skin back together. Yasha allows him a few moments before taking his hands in her own.

“You look tired, friend.” She says simply, and Beau almost misses Fjord switching his arms so that he can help hold Caduceus upright. Almost.

Caduceus doesn’t fight her, just nods and accepts Fjord’s help. “It’s good to meet you properly, Princess Nydoorin.”

“Reckon you’re technically queen now.” Veth snorts, dipping into a small bow. “I’m Veth Brenatto.”

“Ah, yes.” Caduceus’s ears perk up a bit, and Jester on his other side helps him stand more upright. “Caduceus Clay, servant to the Wildmother and maker of fine graves.”

“Please, I’m just Yasha to you two. Forever.” Beau doesn’t know when Yasha started holding her hand, but the gentle squeeze it is giving her right now makes her heart want to sing. “It’s the least I owe you for helping bring her to me. All of you, oh Gods you’re all really back.” The tears in Yasha’s eyes bring on her own, but there’s no sting of bitterness to be had now.

Jester initiates their hug, using her free arm to pull Yasha close. Within seconds, they’ve all collapsed into a pile, just clinging together and happy to be alive, whole, together. Beau’s not sure how they’re allowed to stay together so long, and undistributed by the rest of the people in the castle. Lillith’s work, probably. Beau owes her. This peace, this time spent behind the old stone temple, alone in the grass to trade endearments, gratitudes, and small acts of love, Beau would give nearly anything to secure them all to have this moment together. Even if she’s going to have to be the one to break it when she notices a glow starting before her.

“Hey.” Beau nudges Yasha as well as she can with her shoulder, tilting her head towards the sea. “Sun’s comping up.”

That’s enough to detangle everyone, as their group tuns so they all can watch the sunrise. Beau winds up in Yasha’s lap, careful when leaning back into her embrace. Caleb and Veth are now assisting Caduceus, which is only made possible by the fact that Caduceus is mostly sprawled out, Veth helping hold his head and Caleb is sneaking glances away from the sunrise to use what’s left of the water to wash dried blood out of Caduceus’s hair. The tieflings are on their other side, Fjord in between them Jester resting her head in the half-orcs lap and Molly taking turns to mindlessly combing his fingers between both heads hair, more relaxed than Beau’s ever seen him.

Yasha also feels tranquil, that bit of tension Beau had never even known about finally set free. It’s wonderful, watching the dawn sky being painted all shades of orange and pinks as the day comes to greet them. When hot tears fall on her neck, Beau just leans up to press a soft kiss to the corner of her wife’s mouth.

They’re silent until the sun fully makes its way above the water, new dawn firmly begun.

As she savors the feeling of sun on her skin, Beau’s caught off guard by Yasha sweeping her up in her arms as she stands. All her mind can seem to have the wherewithal to do is give Yasha a bizarre expression.

“Come on.” Her wife says. “We’re going to get some real sleep. In a real bed. If anyone asks, the entire castle has the day off. They’ve earned it, after everything.”

“But,” Beau’s twisting herself so she can see their friends, who are in the process of rising at a slower pace, but all watching the pair of them with amused expressions. “Yasha, there’s so much to do, surely delaying, while there’s guests especially, what if someone needs you, what if- “

She’s cut off by Yasha’s laugh is heavy, but warm and alive in her chest. “I’ve seen the sun, Beau. We both deserve some rest.”

 

Chapter Text

Once upon a time there lived a poor vintner who traded his eldest daughter to a great white bear in exchange for good wealth and fortune for the rest of his family. They lived in delicate harmony until homesickness and doubt crept into the daughter’s mind that drove her to light a candle that revealed everything, including the cost of upsetting the balance. The white bear princess was stolen back to her cage, in a castle that lay east of the sun and west of the moon. The daughter did the only thing she could and followed. She travelled across land and sea and sky to find her wife, collecting the strangest company of friends along the way, all just as determined as the daughter to free the princess. Racing against the clock, with just three nights of deception they managed to break every enchantment the princess’s wicked step-father had placed, including the one that bound him to this plane of existence. Tallow drops washed out of her cloak and curse broken, the princess was now free to stay in her true, angelic form day and night and do as she please. And she wishes to live happily ever after with the vintner’s daughter, her wife, in the castle that was built in an impossible place. It’s everything the daughter had dreamed of, hoped for, and then some.

Jester insists it’s the best love story of their age. Veth takes offense to that.

The castle in the cliffs is lost to them. It fell into the sea the morning Beau woke up alone in the woods, and while she regrets not being able to say goodbye to the beautiful library they created and the canopied bed where she stole that costly first look of her wife, the land is not lost to them. The black sand beach and its welcoming waters are waiting for them once they get things in order long enough for them to not be missed for a couple of days and for Caduceus to be on the mend.

Beau is nostalgic for the glittering halls that looked like they were made of ice, the spiral staircase and the enchanted dining room that left them wanting for nothing. A few simple caves are all that remains, just as cool as the castle halls had been. All that’s left are her and Yasha’s memories, those they share with the group their first night there, camped out in the open air just out of the sand. It was a beautiful place to live, and Beau will mourn it being wiped off the face of the earth.

The home they build with their calloused hands is endlessly more perfect.

It’s smaller than the castle. A one roomed cabin, dividers made with curtains instead of walls. A bed, a small kitchen, a space to eat and gather, bookshelves on every spare wall. There’s ground cover of lily of the valley and baby’s breath just outside, spilling out from the woods. There’s also plenty space on the cliffside. If they want to expand it one day, it wouldn’t be hard.

It helps that their friends come along. Caleb spends most of the time they take to build the house in one of the caves that survived the castle falling into the sea. When he finally emerges, there is a permanent teleportation circle placed there.

“For when we need one another.” He says. “So Beauregard never has to go on a wild goose chase to round us up ever again. I’ll make sure we all have a matching set.”

The procurement of materials would have been the difficult part, but Jester helps them skip that with magic. Caduceus tries to help, but he still looks so tired and pale that every one of them have to ban him from doing anything more than resting. Veth, in her sharp bluntness, seems to be the one to get through to him, threatening to have Caleb teach her magic so she can force him to sleep like his brother used to. They could have used magic to speed up the process, but there’s something satisfying in pulling the beams up with their own hands and Jester needing to pull out her magic paints to quickly make another hammer.

It takes them less than a week to build the cabin. Their hands are full of splinters and Beau’s got a knot beneath her shoulders she’s unsure will ever come out, but they did it together. That night, tangled up in a pile on the floor, is some of the best sleep of Beau’s life. They have to return east of the sun and west of the moon the next morning, and some of them have to depart from there to their homes across the continent. It’s been a hectic few months. They’ve been missed in their lives. They won’t be gone from the castle forever, so their parting isn’t bitter.

 

Beau and Yasha do have a wedding on the black sand beach, with the people who really matter. Most of them. Beau’s siblings aren’t able to come. She can’t get in contact with anyone in Kamordah, no matter how many letters she writes. She wonders if her father hopes her dead.

That is not to say she is without family. The six that helped them put Obann down forever are there, as are a few choice others. The small alchemist and his toddler son, who never stops trying to animate every branch, toy, or scrap of wood he can find when he thinks no one is watching. A drow man she’s never met holds a little bird girl for the entire day, never more than a half pace away from Caleb, though the group of them that have been friends since childhood clearly know him and are comfortable around him. When Yasha introduces him as Essek, it clicks into place. They also have three more godlings in attendance, all needing Caduceus’s encouraging to mingle. It helps that the friendliest woman in all of Exandria is there, freckles glowing with more radiant light than Beau had ever seen in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon.

None of the castle servants Beau befriended are there. Yasha had helped break the contracts that bound all of them to the land and has returned to them their freedom. Many have taken it and run. Some, like Lillith, just want some time off to see how the world has changed since they’ve been trapped on the island. Beau and Yasha had offered them all invitations, as they had with Jourrael and Ganix. They all declined. Beau doesn’t blame them. There are parts of her three days on the island under Obann’s rule that are still too painful to think about. She doesn’t know what she’d do if it was years of memories she was struggling against.

They hold their wedding just after sunrise, without a priest and only their vows with simple wedding rings Caleb had helped them craft. They’re already married, but this ceremony is still important. It’s saying their promises to one another, out loud, in front of those that they hold dear in the world. Beau never thought she’d have a wedding, didn’t want one, but watching Yasha walk down the aisle in a plain white dress on Mollymauk’s arm and the way it made her heart do cartwheels confirms that this moment was meant to be.

After the ceremony, they spend the rest of the day celebrating with friends. Beau and Yasha had already had a honeymoon of sorts, in the seasons spent in the castle in the cliffs, so they’re in no rush to start their second one, which is just two weeks away from the castle to settle into their new cabin. They’d rather spend the day with friends, on the beach and under the sun.

It’s the first time the seven of them have been together with others and watching everyone mingle and trade stories is more fun than it has any right to be. The day passes in little vignettes between drinks and small plates that they snack on instead of ever settling down for a real meal.

Luc and Kiri take to one another quickly, playing all sort of games down the beach and in the shallow water. Clarabelle is always at their heels, entertaining them with flashes of red-hot magic and the endless handfuls of flowers she produces in her palms.

It’s good to see Reani, especially since she’d had to leave so soon after Obann’s defeat to her hometown, her secret work as a vigilante always keeping her busy. The way Yasha’s eyebrows quirk up every so slightly at Reani’s recollection of the last assignment she’d taken on, Beau suspects her secret identity may be more of a public knowledge, but one that’s still very appreciated.

Molly spends a good amount of time with his peacock feathers puffed up around Essek as he grills the elf while passing drinks to him. Essek looks more than a little uncomfortable until Caleb makes it over their way, one hand clasping the back of Molly’s neck in greeting, the other giving Essek’s free hand a quick squeeze. The drow relaxes after that, less frightened of the tiefling and his intense questioning he has of his intentions towards their wizard.

Calliope stays close to her brother’s side, constantly worrying her hands through his hair. Colton doesn't touch him, but keeps an eye on him the entire night and brings him plates throughout the day to make sure he's eating. Some pink has returned to Caduceus’s mane, but he’s got a long way to go. His ribs aren’t so sallow though, and he’s keeping his food down today with ease. He’ll be strong enough to make his journey to his home in the far north soon.

The only people who are more attached at the hip than the re-newlyweds are Jester and Fjord, who share more dances than Beau and Yasha get to. They evidently have a lot of catching up to do from the past years of separation, if the never-ending banter of whispers they share are any indication. Beau doesn’t think she’s ever seen Jester smile more than she does at their wedding, including the day after they slaid Obann and Jester got to herald the good news around the entire castle.

Beau wishes she had a way to seal these memories in amber, return to them whenever she’s missing her friends or feeling down. But all she has is her steel-trap of a mind, so she just takes it all in and dedicates every interaction she can to recollection. She knows she’s going to be a little forgetful, but so would anyone so lucky to spend the day tangled in the arms of Yasha Nydoorin, distracted by whispers of sweet nothings every spare moment alone they have. Beau misses out on a fair amount of conversation by how distracted she gets trying to plot different ways to surprise her wife with a quick kiss, and even more in the execution of these plans.

There are accommodations for those who want to spend the night outside, tents and sleeping rolls scattered around the cabin, but inside it’s also prepared to hold as many of their friends as it can. People begin to mill up the cliff towards the cabin, bedding down as the sun starts to set and the moons take its place in the sky.

Before she realizes it, it’s just Fjord and Beau left on the beach, watching the sun sink into the sea and below the horizon. She looks half a mess, one of her suspenders unclipped and both shirtsleeves and pants rolled up in an effort to stay dry earlier when Veth baited her to chase out in the water. Wordlessly, Fjord passes her one of the few cups left down here. Beau takes it, finding it full of the dark nutty beer she’d first tried back on the Menagerie Coast.

Everyone had spent a fair amount of the day drinking, but Beau had let herself hit it harder as their festivities began to slow down. Fjord had too, if his unfocused half-lidded eyes and lazy smile were any indication.

They drink in silence for the most part, enjoying one another’s company and the sound of gentle waves reminding her of those three weeks they spent on the open ocean in Fjord’s schooner. Jester says the Tide’s Grave is still in the sheltered cove in Xhorhas that they’d left it in. Beau wonders if he’ll ever go back for it.

“I’d wish you luck on your wedding night,” Fjord says, eyes playful over his mug of beer, “but I guess you two will have to wait a little while considering how full your cabin is right now.”

Panic races down Beau’s spine, but she’s able to force herself to laugh, if a little too loud. Fjord doesn’t seem to notice, just laughs in return, and gives her a hard pat on the back.

They finish their drinks, dig their cups deep in the sand so the tide won’t carry them off, and do their best not to stumble up the cliffside. Yasha is waiting for both of them at the top, crossed arms and gentle smile. Beau buries herself in the woman’s side, hoping her face isn’t as red as it feels, and that the darkness is doing her favors. They deposit Fjord by the pile of tangled firbolgs that is the Clay family, before Yasha guides them to the door.

Using Beau’s dulled senses to get the drop on her, Yasha swoops up Beau in her arms and carries her across the threshold of their cabin, having to press a kiss to her lips to muffle Beau’s laugh of surprise. After they tiptoe around Veth and Caleb, as well as their families that have sprawled over the floor, Yasha gently lays her down on their bed before diving under the sheets beside her.

Getting to be the little spoon, curled up beside Yasha, is normally Beau’s favorite way to fall asleep, but it’s a struggle for her that night. She’s consumed by Fjord’s reminder. They’d spent the weeks since Obann’s defeat so busy that one or both of them were dead tired every night, and quick to fall asleep. Sex hadn’t really come up, and Beau doesn’t have any sort of relationship to compare this one to, so she wouldn’t even know where to start. Sure, they have moments that get heated, running their hands along one another’s bodies and biting bruises into flesh, but it never had escalated past that. Did Yasha see something defective in her? Was she going to have to be the one to take the first plunge?

She waits until tomorrow, once everyone has left. The teleportation circle Caleb made in the cave takes them back to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, for when their return is required. Their friends leave in waves, different parting words and promises to see one another soon. Yasha is picking away at the last scraps of breakfast before Beau can

“Yasha I-” No matter how she tries to start this, it’s going to sound lame, Beau needs to just bite the bullet and get it over with. “I’ve been calling you my wife for months.” The blush is racing up her cheeks, Beau really ought to duck her head and pretend to have some humility. “And we haven’t even…”

The plate is already abandoned as Yasha crosses the room so she can hold Beau steady by her elbows. “Hey.” She’s blushing too, but Yasha doesn’t look embarrassed at all, the pink blooming into red looks good on her. “I haven’t had any sort of relationship that’s come this far.” She squints a little, looking like she’s about to laugh at herself what she just said. “Obviously. Hopefully that’s obvious. We’re taking it at our pace, and that’s all that matters to me.”

“It-” Beau tilts her head, trying to find the right words. “It feels like we’ve done this all in the wrong order and I’m not sure how to keep progressing? If that makes sense? I want to. But I don’t really know how.”

“What, getting married first isn’t what all couples do?” That gets a snort out of Beau, an unsexy one but genuine. “In our defense,” Yasha says, all gentle smile and glowing and Beau’s never felt safer than when she’s held by her, “I was a bear half the time and then you were preoccupied breaking a curse created by the most evil creature I’ve known. A lot’s been going on.”

“We’ve been busy.” Beau agrees, smile breaking through and no longer paralyzed with worry. She uses that to loop her own arms into Yasha’s, pulling her wife in for a tight hug. There’s a beat when there’s nothing more than the pair of them, bound tightly together under the roof their friends helped raise. “Should we plan it? That feels weird, right?”

Yasha leans back, tracing the line across her wingspan where a navy-furred shawl had once resided, unwillingly stitched into her flesh. “I was allowed one impatience. Whatever pace the rest of our lives come at, I won’t mind. I think it’ll just happen when it does.”

 

When they do, it feels fated and more natural than Beau ever could have thought up. They’re waiting for a sunset a few days later, half exhausted from swimming all day under the summer’s scorching sun. Yasha’s skin is a little red, but the color has taken wonderfully into Beau’s.

When the rain starts, it’s gradual. Beau doesn’t mind at first, tilts her head back so the warm droplets can run down her face, neck, undoing the little bit of drying her clothes had managed.

Once the thunder crackles and the rain begins to really pick up, Beau does have some minor regrets, but they all evaporate once Yasha’s wings unfurl, sheltering Beau at her side. Beau hadn’t expected girlish giggle that comes out of her, but it’s okay because it makes Yasha break out in a grin, something more than slightly reverent in her mismatched eyes.

It makes Beau want to ask her. “Did you really dream about me?”

Yasha blinks at her, once, twice, frazzled white hair and unwinding braids making her look almost owlish in combination with that expression. “I wouldn’t fib about that. There was a girl in the mountains, with a hungry, unlucky family. Where I expected to see bitterness, for your family’s vineyards, for the way the cards landed, for the world, I found nothing but love. Fierce love, off-putting love that could be easily misread, but I knew what it was from the moment I saw you in that dream.”

“I mean,” Beau considers this, tilting her head. “It’s not like there aren’t hundreds of girls on the continents that that could apply to. But when I’m with you, it feels like we were meant to be. Inevitable. From that, you knew it was me?”

Yasha presses her lips together, Beau can practically see the thoughts flying around behind her eyes. “Yes but. I don’t know if I can explain it properly. I just… I knew the way to you. Your father opened that door and I saw you, behind him, arms outstretched to cover your siblings. And I knew I had been right.”

Beau wonders what she must have looked like, half frozen from the storm and frightened of what a strange talking bear might have planned for her family. “Such a romantic first meeting, who could blame you?”

“Well, I’m technically cheating.” Yasha’s brow quirks up. “I got to see you twice, once as a bear and once as myself, that first night. You weren’t asleep yet, I could tell by your breathing. But you never flinched. In darkness next to a stranger, you chose to trust me, who was a strange bear to you. Any act that courageous inspires love.”

Beau can feel a heat begin to burn under her skin from the compliment. “Aww baby, you think I’m brave?” She teases.

There’s a hand, rough with callouses and a little bit of sand, that holds her jaw. “Yes.” Yasha’s entirely sincere as she pulls Beau into a long, deep kiss that strokes the heat under her skin into a flame. “And I love you for it. And so much more.”

Beau’s arms are around Yasha’s neck as she pulls herself into a straddle across Yasha’s lap, forgetting all about the rain. She’s on a mission now, to kiss all the good sense out of Yasha that she can. Her hands snake down Yasha’s back, and when she rubs the spot below her shoulder blades where her wings sprout out from, the moan that comes out from Yasha is the best sound she’s ever heard. It also makes it all the easier for Beau to try to claim Yasha’s mouth as her own, as foolish of a task as that might be.

It’s Yasha that breaks their kiss, one of her hands having worked its way under Beau’s top to massage the flesh underneath. “Do you want to…” She whispers, all breathy like they’ve just raced up an entire tower’s worth of stairs.

“Yes.” Beau pants right before a giant crackle of lightning comes from above. “Although, maybe in our castle here?”

Yasha tilts her head back to laugh, letting Beau come in closer to mouth at and suck a bruise along her neck. “Okay, yes. Our castle here.”

She must untangle her hand so she can properly hold Beau to her as her wings begin to beat, lifting them out of the sand and scaling the cliffside, to seek shelter in their cabin and more importantly, the bed in it.

They stay up well past the conclusion of the thunderstorm, until the sun starts to rise. Beau can’t bring herself to care that her lips are kiss-bruised and she’s sore in more places than she thought possible. She’s tangled up in bed with Yasha, her wife, her lover. It’s not until late afternoon that they awake, but it doesn’t take long for them to pick up where they left off. They don’t bother getting out of bed except for quick breaks for the rest of day.

And the day after that.

 

Before she is anyone else, Yasha is a princess from east of the sun and west of the moon. As Jourrael is, and Ganix is a prince. Obann took the three of them in under that castle and molded them into a family, for better or worse. Beau had thought the castle to be made of ice, just like the first one Yasha had taken her too. She knows now that Obann shaped it into one. He tried to tear out the warmth in the hearts of his children, sink it into the stone of every building.

She’s so glad it didn’t take.

Jourrael finds her one day, when Beau’s alone out in the baily early one morning. Yasha had terrors the night before that had kept her from sleeping. She’d woken up in the dead of night, dry heaving and instantly rousing Beau. She’d held her wife until a thunderstorm picked up outside, and that helped calm her down enough to lie back in bed until the moons set and the day started anew. The storm has left them now, but Beau is thankful it came when they needed it.

“I’m sorry.” Jourrael’s head is held low, she looks more shameful than a dog that’s gotten into the trash and made a mess. “I’ve been trying to figure out what to say to you, how to make up what I did to you, but I have nothing. I can tell you that it wasn’t me, but our father shaped Ganix and I into those monsters a long time ago. I don’t want to be his Caedogeist ever again. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I have to make sure you have these.”

She pulls from a shoulder bag three items. An apple, perfectly shaped with a flawless golden sheen to it. A comb, with sharp gold teeth meant for carding and missing its other half. A book, navy cover worn so much that the golden thread is starting to fray too and heavier than it ought to be. It still contains her flowers.

Beau doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know if she can speak when tears start to well up in the corner of her eyes when she realizes what Jourrael is saying.

“I’m sorry.” She says again when Beau remains speechless, regret practically rolling off her.

“You saved everything.” Beau can’t keep the wonder out of her voice. “I thought you destroyed them all, but you kept them.”

Jourrael’s red head ducks even lower as her gaze becomes fixed on a single blade of grass. “I knew what we were doing was wrong. So did Ganix, but we couldn’t stop. But that, that I had some say over. I’m sorry I took them from you in the first place.”

Beau tears her eyes away from the books, takes in the slight drow woman who’d been trying to keep herself hidden in the shadows for the last few weeks in the early morning light. “It’ll take time. I want to forgive you now, I really do, but I need time.” She pauses for a beat, before deciding to be completely honest. “I think it’ll help that he made you take another shape. I don’t see that cruel tiefling or that toothy monster when I look at you and Ganix. It sounds unfair to say, but I think the fact that you both look new will help.”

“I hope it does.” Jourrael is grasping at her own wrist, squeezing it tight. “I hope I can earn your forgiveness, though I’m sure I’ll never deserve it. I’m glad that we’re in our old bodies too. It reminds me that he had to make us into something that we weren’t to act like that. Small mercies, I suppose.”

Beau feels an ache in her heart for the other woman. “I look forward to the day when I look at you and don’t feel anything but love for my wife’s sister. And I hope you will be able to forgive yourself for what he forced you to do some day as well.”

That’s a step too far, makes the elven woman turn sharply and take a few steps away from Beau. She can recognize the panic in the other woman’s body and already a clumsy apology is on her tongue when the other woman just shakes her head, and angles her head ever so slightly towards Beau.

“Give her those flowers.” Jourrael says, soft as the breeze as she turns away to the temple that she and Ganix are turning into their own sanctuary. “She deserves beautiful things.”

Beau holds the items close to her chest, unable to believe that at the end of all things, she has everything she was willing to sacrifice for Yasha. Items she’d once had to use as bartering chips, freely given. She wants the day she gives Yasha her flowers to be perfect, untouched by the shadows of their pasts that keep haunting them. Today isn’t going to be that day, so she makes sure to hide away the gifts Jourrael had given her.

Soon. Not today but soon.

There is still love in Obann’s children. She sees it in Jourrael when she isn’t wearing a mask of neutrality. Ganix is thoughtful to everyone around him, quiet and always listening to anyone who wants to speak. It’s when he’s alone that Beau sees his face fall, the melancholy take in. They try to make sure that doesn’t have to happen so often. Yasha, though not in the same way, is Obann’s child too. She has better days and worse. The good ones tend to outnumber the bad, but when she’s in less than top shape, she has the rest of them to lean on. There isn’t any darkness in this castle that cannot be rooted out with time, patience, and love.

She’s out in the bailey one day, going through her full routine of stretches that she’d neglected in the hecticness of the past few weeks when Molly comes up to her and decides to join in without welcome or invitation. The way he’s puffing his breath in some of the deeper poses and his inability to hold a headstand are more than worth the price of him crashing on her moment of solitude.

“You know -” He says, unprompted and cross-legged on the grass while Beau sinks deeper into her reverse warrior.

“I don’t, actually.” Beau cuts him off, earning a halfhearted scowl and childish tongue stuck out from her friend as she laughs.

“Oh piss off.” Molly unfolds his legs, finally joining her in stretching as he folds himself in half and attempts to touch his horns to his toes. “As I was going to say. You know what been bothering me about how we got Obann?”

She arches her back a little more, drawing her raised hand further over her head. “That we didn’t make it more embarrassing for him?”

“That it didn’t fit my vision. Shut it!” He gives her a pre-annoyed look before she can interject with snark. “It’s because some of it was right. You were there, and to say you had a hole in your heart is entirely fair. We all did, when Yasha was away from us. And the stone building looked exactly like his temple that we fought his second form in.”

Beau brings herself back to center, before raising her back leg and extending her arms forward while making a flat back. “Maybe it was only a partially true vision.”

“Thought you knew by now.” Molly says. “These things don’t happen halfway. Magic doesn’t work when you offer up someone else’s liver when your own is what’s necessary, just like when someone casts blindness it doesn’t only work in one eye. It’s all or nothing, just like love.”

She would shrug, but it would ruin her pose, so Beau just gives him a grunt of confusion.

“Anyways, my point is I think I figured it out.” He pauses while he unfolds himself, stretching all the way out from fingertips to toes. “I thought you’d need the objects you were holding to win, but they were really symbolic of Yasha’s ‘family’.” He throws up the biggest air quotes Beau has ever seen him use. “Obann was the orb, he had it in him. Or whatever he turned into, I suppose. Was still him. The teeth were just.” He pauses, cocks his head if the sudden jangle of jewelry is any indication. “The mouths he made Ganix have, I guess. Ugh, I still have nightmares about that thing Obann turned him into. Jourrael is the one that doesn’t really fit, but the more I think about it she’s so obviously the thread. She held them all together, loyalty to Obann, however forced, her love for her foster brother, very real, and attachment to Yasha, which Obann was going to abuse to help him stay in power but now is on the mend. Plus, I think you broke her first, when you gave her the book, and that’s when Obann’s plan really started to unravel.” He waggles his fingers at that, proud of his pun.

Beau thinks about Jourrael’s recently returned gifts. Yeza insisted that she keep the apple, and Fjord didn’t want anything to do with the comb. She gave it to Jester instead, figured she’d have more luck finding its missing partner, and maybe a clue about where Fjord came from, than Beau ever would. Caleb got the magically shrunken wheel back the night after they killed Obann, though she doesn’t know what he did with it. Her mother’s book of fairytales still lives in the rabbit-furred bag, and that’s where it will stay until she’s ready to share it with Yasha. “So, what I’m hearing is that if I start having magic visions, don’t take them so literally.”

Molly snorts. “Well. Less than I do, at least. Though if you start developing magic, I would plan an exorcism before believing it was something that came from you.”

Beau breaks her pose to reach out and smack Molly right in the center of his stomach for that. He shrieks in surprise, curling in to protect his squishy parts as he rolls out of her range. He’s on his feet in a flash, but Beau’s just as quick as him so he won’t be out of reach for long as she races after her friend.

“Wait until I can take out my horn piercings before you use me as a punching bag!” He howls, looking over his shoulder to make sure that she’s giving chase and they’re on for a sparring match.

 

On her good days, Beau will be in the library, or the kitchens, or an abandoned guest room they’re repurposing into something more useful and feel a rush of warm air. Slowly but surely, life is coming back to the castle.

But something is missing. Beau knows better than to call it a curse, it isn’t that. It’s just a simple fact. No children will be born in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon until the chill of oblivion is rooted out of every corner.

That doesn’t stop children from coming. The first one that washes up on their shores comes to them clinging to her life. Beau would not have recognized Kori with her broken nose and welted eye were it not for the ragged doll she had named Sestra cradled to her chest. Yasha is a thing of riotous fury when she blubbers out her reason for coming and becomes so bright in her anger that Beau can barely look at her to find her hand so that she might take it and bring her back to earth.

It doesn’t frighten Kori, though Beau reckons it should. The way Kori looks at Yasha, with wonder in those doe brown eyes, reminds Beau that the first thing she told her sister about her wife was that she was kind.

Yasha offers to kill their father for them, in the same monotone she used the first time she proposed his death, when Beau only knew her as White Bear. Beau considers it for a moment but abandons it the second she sees that look in Kori’s eyes. It’s not about what she wants, it never has been. It has always been about her siblings. The difference now is that Beau doesn’t have to choose between her happiness and theirs.

“Don’t send me away.” Kori begs, still shivering despite the swaddle of blankets Beau has wrapped her in at this point. It’s still summer, but the season isn’t immune to its cloudy days and chilly nights. “Don’t walk away and make me watch again.”

Beau feels something in her break, only to immediately meld back as Yasha wraps an arm around Beau and another around her sister. She gives her a look and Beau knows she’ll never have to feel that terrible tear ever again.

They offer her a room, and Kori accepts. It’s a simple as that. Her wildcat sister is here to stay.

But Kori is only the first. An elven boy washes up several weeks later while Beau and Kori are in the library, it’s restoration and recategorization having become a pet project for the two of them. It’s Mollymauk who nearly trips over the boy during one of their walks, Yasha having to carry him to them, hollering for her adoptive siblings to bring them towels and hot drinks. His stomach is covered in bruises, and Kori somehow gets him talking as Beau and Yasha do their best to warm him up as fast as possible while Molly releases a string of curses not appropriate for young ears while he tries to light the fireplace.

“It was my father.” The boy says while trembling, from cold or fear Beau can’t tell. “But my mother let him. I mean so did I, it was me or her. I’d rather it be me.”

Gods, this boy wouldn’t be more than thirteen if he were a human. Beau’s unsure how closely elven and human develop is, she’ll need to write to Caleb and have him send her a book. Maybe for more than a book if they’re going to start collecting children here.

“My father gave me this.” Kori says with a soft smile as she points to the still puffy break in her bridge. “My sister-in-law keeps trying to convince me to take her up on her offer to kill him.”

The elf looks over to Yasha, who’s retreated to the doorway to convince Ganix to join them for a moment, arms already full of the offerings he’s brought them. “I bet she would. You at least get him back for it?’

If that doesn’t get Beau’s attention. “Sorry?” Out of reflex more than any real worry on what the boy might do, one of her hands settles on Kori’s shoulder while the other balls into a fist.

His pale eyes are affixed to Beau’s fist, but he wisely doesn’t say anything about it. “Just curious. I managed to break my father’s arm before he let me go and the wind pulled me out the house and into the sea.”

Molly’s chuckling, mostly at Beau’s posturing, but raises at what the kid says. “Sorry, the wind pulled you into the ocean?”

The boy ducks his head. “It felt like someone was grabbing me. It sounds like I’m crazy, but she told me that I’d be safe. She called herself Hler.”

“Calliope did this?” Yasha’s mouth is dropped open, alone in the doorway. Ganix must have shuffled away, both her siblings are still unease in the presence of the rest of them so it’s no surprise to Beau. “No warning, just dragged you away?”

“I sent a prayer out to anyone who might hear me when Father was in his rage.” Kori offers as she wiggles the mug out of Yasha’s iron grip and into the elf’s more careful one. “The South Wind is always listening. She’s the cat, the one of Sigrun’s, that always finds us when we go off to cry.”

Beau looks up to Yasha hoping her wife will have some idea of what to make of this, but the other woman looks as baffled as she does. Kori was one thing; Beau knows where she came from and how to care for her before she washed up on their pebbled beach. This beaten boy is an entirely different animal, Beau isn’t certain how to approach him without making him bolt, how to let him know that he’s welcome and wanted here.

Of the three of them, its Molly who knows what to do. He swaggers over from the fireplace, popping down into a squat so he becomes eye level with the elf. “I’m sorry for what’s happened to you. And I know that doesn’t mean anything because I’m a stranger, but I’m glad you’re safe with us now. But firstly, I ought to amend how rude I’ve been.” He extends a hand out towards the boy, wearing the kindest smile Beau’s ever seen on him. “My name is Mollymauk Tealeaf. Molly to my friends.”

The boy looks at the hand, up at Molly, then takes it. “I’m Corfiser. Just Corfiser. I don’t want my father’s name anymore.”

Molly gives the hand a good shake. “You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be here, Corfiser. And never try to be something that you aren’t.”

That makes the boy laugh, and Kori looks up to Beau with a hopeful expression. Beau gives her a nod, and her sister is introducing herself to the newest resident of their castle, if he accepts.

Yasha wraps an arm around Beau’s waist, pulling her to her chest. “You know.” Yasha murmurs, nosing gently against Beau’s ear. “We have four stories of fine guest rooms in the keep that we have no real need for. Visitors can always take up residence in the tower of rooms meant for longer stays.”

“I know those rooms well.” Beau agrees. “It brings me comfort, knowing they’d be sleeping just above us.”

She can feel the curve of Yasha’s grin. “We’ll have to practice being quiet.”

Beau shoves a lazy elbow her way. “We have our cabin on the black sand beach if we need it.”

“If you two are done being gross,” Kori has an eyebrow arched in disapproval, something she learned from Molly, “I’d like to introduce you to our newest resident in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon.”

 

They do eventually visit Thoreau Lionett. Not to kill him, like Yasha would prefer, but to make a deal.

“I want the cottage.” Beau says, arms crossed, and chin held high. She hasn’t come alone. Molly had wanted to knock the bear-headed door clapper once he’d finished laughing himself to stitches over it. Allowing him to do so also had given Beau the small pleasure of getting to watch a bewildered servant fetch her father, who was still looking at Molly like he’d watched the tiefling grow, well, horns wouldn’t be inaccurate, but something preposterous, like another set of eyes.

Beau had been nervous for all of them to leave Kori and Corfiser alone, but Jourrael and Ganix have taken a real shine to the children, and the slow return of castle staff made her confident that at the very least, they wouldn’t starve. Jourrael had even had a break from the shroud of self-loathing and guilt she always seems to wear around Beau to tease that it wasn’t like she was planning on locking them in their rooms for months on end, and even if she did Beau would be back in a few days to beat some good sense into her. That had made Yasha snort out her coffee over their rushed breakfast.

“Who are these… people, Beauregard?” Her father hisses while taking in the group behind her. It’s not everyone; Caleb and his family are currently with Veth’s, trying to start Luc’s magic education, Jester makes up for the years of lost time with her mama as often as she can, and these days its near impossible to convince Fjord to leave her side. Yasha has come, because she’ll tell anyone who will listen that she refuses to let Beau have to face her father alone ever again. Mollymauk has come because he’s been promised he’ll be allowed to be a nuisance. Caduceus was unexpected, but his curiosity of Beau’s homeland made him unwilling to not be included on this trip. It was easier to let him tag along now that he’s wearing a full head of pink hair again, and the brightness has returned to his eyes. They’re all gathered behind her now, and Beau knows they make an odd group. “Take them away from my home, they don’t belong.”

“I will.” She keeps her jaw held firm. “Sell me the cottage, and you’ll never have to see us again.”

That gets his attention, eyes now locked on her. “What further wealth could you offer me that your cursed bear hasn’t already given in exchange for taking you away?” Before he can finish his question, there’s a low snarl from behind her and Beau knows Yasha’s hackles are flared more than she’d ever done when she was forced to live in a bear’s skin.

Beau already has her hand on Yasha’s, hoping that will be enough to keep the other woman just growling at him and not raising a fist. “Name your price.”

“Something more than money.” Thoreau, right now, just for a moment, looks like her father again. Suspicious, but sharp. It’s almost enough to make her miss him. “Something the world has never seen before.”

“What about an invention?” Beau offers. “Never been seen before like you said, the only one that I know of in the world. You take it sight unseen and I get the cottage.”

She’s got him now; she knows what that quirk of his brow means. “One of a kind, you say?”

Promising, but not a contract. “Do we have a deal?”

There’s a moment, a beat where she thinks it might not be enough and he won’t take it. But it’s only a moment.

“Yes.” Thoreau says. “Go, I’ll have Thoreau bring you the deed there. Keep these people hidden, they don’t belong here, and I don’t want it coming back to me.”

Beau can barely contain herself from rolling her eyes as she turns away. “Will do, Pops.”

“Wait, your pay- “

Before he can finish, Beau has dug Yeza’s golden apple out of her bag, where it’s lived since Jourrael returned it to her. Without looking, she tosses the apple over her shoulder and into her father’s hands. She knows he’ll catch it, can hear it marveling as she walks away as fast as she can. If he plays with it, he’ll discover its properties and that it is in fact a real apple. He’ll learn of its value, of the worth and energy Yeza imbued it with. She doesn’t care. He wants something rare more than he wants to ever see Beau again, and that makes a feeling in her throat catch as she puts as many paces as she can between herself and this miserable mansion her father has built his dragon’s den in as quickly as her feet will carry her.

There’s silence, for a little while. But her friends aren’t the kind to let a wound like that fester, not without treatment, or at least alleviation.

“What a miserable man.” Caduceus remarks as they follow Beau’s lead, taking the long way around the heart of Kamordah and up the hillside to her childhood home. “You swallowed your tongue for him?

“For my sisters, for my brothers.” Beau bites back, no real heat for Caduceus behind the words but her ever-present protectiveness for her siblings has only grown stronger since Kori washed up on the shores of the castle east of the sun and west of the moon. “I think he might have been a good man, once, but money made unrecognizable.”

“Shame.” Molly says, bitterness sharp. “He must be blind and a fool, to willingly chase away a daughter like you.”

That’s the highest compliment Beau thinks she’s ever received from Mollymauk, and it does put warmth back in her chest. Yasha’s fingers tangled in her own helps too, especially when the other woman just squeezes her hand as she lengthens her strides so the two can walk shoulder to shoulder.

The voyage to three-room cottage is brief. Beau knows how to get here better than she does anywhere in the world. There’s dust settled in, more so than the last time Beau was here. Her father leaves this place untouched, this building that sheltered him and his children for nearly two decades. No one’s been here since she last visited Kamordah.

Her friends follow in behind her, single file. Molly wanders their gathering room, fingertips dancing patterns in the dust. Yasha is still at her side, hand held tighter than before as she says nothing, just takes it all in. Caduceus pulls out a stone from his pocket, and softly whispers a few short sentences into it. Then he turns to the cupboards, flicking on one of the stove’s burners as he fills a kettle with water he conjured from thin air, at starts to make them all tea.

Two minutes later, the center room is filled with six more people. It’s crowded now, even with three of their new guests with as small of a stature had by halflings. The chaos explodes as little shape throws itself towards Yasha, Luc’s greeting sounding more like a high-pitched battle cry. Veth is cackling as she watches, eyes darting away subtly so she can take in the small room they’re in while her husband already starts to apologize. Wordlessly, Caleb passes her mother’s storybook back to Beau, nod of thanks from behind a body of dark feathers that’s wrapped around his torso.

“I have not known rest in weeks.” Essek bemoans as he takes the first chair he can see. “Ever since your wedding, all this man does is drag me across the ends of Exandria, making me help him create teleportation circles in every corner of the world.” There’s not an ounce of frustration in Essek’s voice. If anything, it’s weighed down with fondness as his eyes never shift from Caleb’s face, who is wearing a conspiratorial grin as he passes the bundle of feathers that is Kiri off to Molly so he can hold the kenku.

Free of bird girl, Caleb takes the four steps required to cross half the room and muss Essek’s hair. “All we needed to do is lay the groundwork.” He scolds, teasing expression softening with something Beau knows is adoration. “Colton and Clarabelle do all the real heavy lifting; you should be thankful they make it so we don’t have to recast those circles every day for a year.”

Essek rolls his eyes. “Gods, godlings.” He mutters, shaking his head. “Only the most codependent people in the world would bend the ear of the divine so they can visit one another whenever they get the urge.”

Caduceus snorts at that. “You weren’t on the trip there before the circles. Asking for a divine miracle would have been easier than our crossing.”

Still slumped in the chair, Essek gives a deferential nod that tells Caduceus he believes him. Beau just shakes her head as she helps pass out teacups to anyone who wants them. The amount of time they’ve all spent together since Obann’s defeat, Essek is primed to become just as reliant on them as they all are with one another, if he isn’t already.

The pantry is empty, but Caduceus solves that by summoning some simple ingredients. Beau, Veth and Caduceus immediately get to work, Veth taking command of the kitchen as Beau helps them find all the cookware necessary and Caduceus pulls out an impressive spice rack to make sure that the magical nature of the food is reflected in the flavor.

From across the room, it’s perhaps a little less chaotic than in the kitchen but no less noisy. Yasha is on the floor with both Luc and Kiri, somehow having found a few simple wooden toys that had been left behind by younger Lionett children in the move, and is weaving an intricate tale while Luc climbs onto her shoulders and Kiri coos bits of dialogue from her lap. Molly is catching up with Yeza, mild torment of Veth’s husband seeming to be one of his favorite recent hobbies. Yeza may be better mannered than the tiefling, but that doesn’t keep him from giving as good as he gets as they trade barbs over tea, and Beau can hear him sternly correcting Molly’s ideas about what early childhood education should look like over the fast chopping of her knife. Caleb and Essek are the quietest, probably intentionally so they can be forgotten in the chaos. When Beau looks up from starting the stovetop to heat up the oil in the pot, she catches Caleb massaging the line of Essek’s neck with one hand, his other preoccupied with Essek’s hands returning the favor, rubbing small circles in the human’s calloused palm. She ducks her head down so they don’t catch her smiling at them.

Dinner is a simple vegetable soup, but not a plain one thanks to Caduceus’s spices. So much of this cottage was abandoned as it was, so thankfully that means there are enough crudely carved bowls for everyone to eat at once. There isn’t room at the table, there never was for Beau and all her siblings, so they scatter on the small countertop, the floor, any surface they can find so they can all be together to eat.

No one really starts up any conversation, they’re too busy with dinner. Beau leans ever so slightly into Yasha as she brings her bowl up to her mouth so she can drink the broth. Watching her wife just over the lip of her bowl take in the rest of their friends that fill the room with a soft smile makes Beau’s heart purr in content. The silence they’re all soaking in right now feels so good, the way this many hearts can all be at peace with one another. They’re missing two of their rank, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a hole here. Jester and Fjord are just busy, they’re gone but they’ll return to them soon, and this cottage of Beau’s can be even more crowded in the future if they want it to.

The silence breaks with a knock at the door, but before anyone can scramble up and answer it, it’s being pushed open. The face that awaits them first drops his mouth open in shock and breaks out in a great big grin when he sees Beau. Without any care for manners, Beau throws herself out of her seat and into her brother’s arms as fast as he can catch her.

“I missed you.” Beau murmurs, unable to stop the tears that gather in her eyes and unable to care. She’s held in so many tears for so long, she doesn’t care if her brother sees her cry.

TJ’s grip is so strong, Beau has the thought that he might crack her ribs if they aren’t careful. “I missed you too.” He whispers, voice thick. When she pulls away, he’s weeping just as openly as she is. “Is Kori…?”

“Safe and warm with us.” Beau promises, pressing a few forceful kisses into the side of TJ’s face. Predictably, he pulls away from her at that with a groan in protest, but not before she can sneak another kiss.

“Dad said you had weird people with you, but…” TJ’s eyes are as wide as saucers, and seeing her own blue reflected in his reminds Beau of her first weeks really immersed in the crazy world of Yasha and the rest of their friends.

“I like to think of us as more of an unusual party.” That gets her a bit of a laugh out of him. She’s struck again by just how much time she’s missed, his hair is really getting an unruly length now, there’s more of an angel to his jaw. He’s growing up every time she leaves, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it, no way to get those missing months back. “I’ve been away for too long.”

“Not alone, evidently.” TJ says with a wave across the room.

“Yeah. It’s…” She tries to think of how she can explain in any way that will make sense in less than an hour without any of her friends interrupting to fill in parts she’s forgotten and comes up short. “It’s a long story.”

TJ’s arm around her stays strong as he goes from the only other human, Caleb, still huddled in a corner with Essek. They never see elves in Kamordah, especially not drow. The Brenatto family next to them probably surprises him the least, halflings aren’t entirely uncommon, especially at market. Molly looks about as weird as he always does, but not exactly as frightening as he was before when they met Thoreau, especially considering he’s sprawled out on the floor and has a black feathery toddler on his chest. She knows TJ has a hard time looking at her wife for too long. Beau may have grown used to Yasha’s ever-present radiant glow, but even away from her homeland where she normally keeps her wings folded up, Yasha still is a lot to take in. Beau has no clue what he can even begin to make of Caduceus.

“Why don’t you tell me?” He asks, smile so wide Beau thinks she could count all his teeth like this. “No one’s expecting me for a couple hours.”

So he stays. And absolutely does not believe the tale they weave him, in no small part because Molly won’t stop interjecting with bullshit. Their story already holds enough twists and turns, Beau doesn’t think they need further elaboration to make it even more unbelievable.

TJ narrows his eyes as Molly says how Obann’s first demise opened up a pit in the castle floor. “You remind me of one of our brothers.”

“Thank you.” Molly says flash of his fangs as he leans towards the teenager.

“Oh please.” Caduceus rolls his eyes from next to the collection of bowls he’s been magicking clean. “That obviously wasn’t a compliment.”

TJ’s eyes flash in a way Beau knows her own often do, smug approval plain on his face. “You, now you I like Jord.”

Their tale does get wrapped up, TJ shaking his head in disbelief once every five minutes. Beau wonders how much he believes right now, how much he’ll come around to later. He does do what he originally came here for, giving the deed to the cottage at the barn behind it to Beauregard. The distilling equipment had long been removed, as had anything of any monetary value. Beau could care less. The worth of this house is the memories it holds and the three woman who rest beneath the soil in the backyard. She has her childhood home. She has her mothers. They’re safe, for whatever happens in her father’s future, whatever man he becomes. There’s just one missing piece, seven really, and one is standing right before her.

“Come with me.” Beau begs as he opens the door into the darkness of the early fall evening. “Don’t go back to that loveless house with that man who wears our father’s face. Don’t let him try to shape you into his legacy. Come home with me.”

Her brother wears a bittersweet smile, the only one she’s seen that night. “I can’t leave them.” He responds, and Beau thinks of Sigrun with magic teeming inside of her and all of them too blind to see it, watching music being what helped Asta overcome her stutter and Viggo his lisp, the way Trond will allow his unyielding curiosity to rule his learning, Leif’s obsession with counting anything he can, from the days, to grapes, to clouds in the sky, and their sweet baby brother Brenn, who must be so good with his words now. Kori, for all her patience and timidity, didn’t survive that house. Neither did Beau. She can’t fathom how TJ stands it.

She couldn’t have been asked to leave them earlier. Beau was forced out of that house, away from them and out of their lives. TJ isn’t so different from her that he’d take the easy way out now and do what was best for him. Not when the rest of their siblings are still in that house.

Beau pulls him in for a parting hug and whispers just so he can hear her. “Send them here, once he pushes too far. Then save yourself and get out.”

TJ lets out a little laugh, sad and high pitched. “Where in the world am I to go if I’m no longer wanted at home?”

“With me.” A final kiss to his cheek. “If you can’t get yourself to me with the magic we’ll put in this house, call out. There’s no distance too far. I’ll find you; they’ll make sure of it.”

She waves to her friends behind her, filling up her childhood home. TJ looks from them, to her, then gives a small nod. Then he’s out in the darkness, walking back to the Lionett mansion. Beau’s heart aches to see him go, but it’s soothed by Yasha’s soft grip on her shoulder and the faith that she’ll see her brother again.

 

The first time Beau realizes it, she nearly keels over in shock. It’s one of fall’s final days, the chill of winter around every corner. She’s spending the sunset on the beach where their castle in the cliffs used to reside and now below where their little cabin lives, more than a year past the night that a great white bear showed up on her family’s doorstep. When the thought strikes her, Beau has to pull a hand to her chest to make sure her heart isn’t actively beating out of it and sink her toes deeper in the black sand to solidify she isn’t dreaming, that this moment is real and she’s living in it.

She’s at peace.

Beau has the three things she’d asked for if her life had happened once upon a time. She starts every dawn calm, no worry of too thin siblings to rouse her while it’s still dark outside. She wakes each day at her wife’s side, and every night they return to one another, no matter where the tasks of the day take them. And she no longer is bound to a small village nestled in the mountains and forever smelling of volcanic ash. Beauregard can come and go as she pleases to the castle she shares with her wife, friends with open doors residing all over the map with teleportation circles allowing her to be there at a moment’s notice.

The full-body sorrow Beauregard had assumed would live in her bones until there was no memory of her in the dirt is gone. She lives with her friends, her family, and she gets to be happy.

Though not without paying the price of gut-wrenching suffering that she inflicted on herself, she supposes. But the months of travel, the months of work she put in to get Yasha back, Beau has no regrets. She’s at the side of the woman she loves more than anything she’s ever known, and she knows that love is returned just as intensely as it burns in Beau.

They’re taking another weekend for themselves. She’d finally been introduced to the famed Ruby of the Sea when Jester traveled her mother to meet them last month. Fjord had come a few days later, having spent a few days in Caduceus’s domain working on building his relationship with the Wildmother. He was finding his own peace in nature, he no longer looked out at the sea with such anxiety, but there’s a voice in the back of Beau’s mind that tells her this chapter is not finished. Fjord is honest about much, brutally so, but she knows there’s a side of him that none of them have seen. Maybe it’s because they’re the ones that haven’t known him since childhood, but there’s moments when she’ll exchange a look with Veth and Caduceus that tells her they’ve arrived at the same conclusion. Whatever has happened, whatever comes for Fjord, it doesn’t matter. They’ll help him get through it, overcome it. He’s theirs, and no force in the world is strong enough to tear them apart.

With the arrival of the Lavorres, there’s been a shift. All of their friends have taken up permanent dwellings in the castle, rooms that are undisturbed when they leave. Beau doesn’t know when it started happening, but there are places she just associates with each member of their party. Caleb and Essek have a room above the library, with a trundle for Kiri that rarely gets used as she prefers to wedge her way between the two of them when they sleep. The Brenattos are just down the hallway from Yasha and Beau, in a room technically meant for next of kin to the king and queen of the castle. So, right where they belong. Beau doesn’t know if Fjord intentionally picked the room Reani had been assigned to before Yasha’s thankfully averted first wedding, but she doubts his choice was random. Caduceus, in a move surprising none of them, prefers the outdoors, and has a small hideaway built in the sparse gardens. On one of their slower days, Beau and Yasha were able to come out and watch him build it, twisting and shaping the plants with a flick of his wrist and murmurs in both the gravelly language he shares with his siblings and the melodic one he normally saved for combat. As they leave him to his work, he conjures them a small bouquet of delicate blue and yellow flowers that he passes to Yasha while giving Beau a knowing smile. Jester somehow has maintained two residences, her old room she was given as a chef as well as one of the largest guest rooms that looks over the sea. Molly is the only one without a permanent room, preferring to wander around and take turns sleeping in increasingly bizarre places. Once, they find him cocooned in a hammock hanging from the rafters in the sauna. Beau still can’t figure out where he’s keeping all his clothes.

Their castle is full of family. Even when it’s just Beau, Yasha, her siblings, the children that are washing up on the shore, and Mollymauk, the feeling is unmistakable. This castle is their home that they share, as freely as loaves of warm bread passed around the dinner table.

Sigrun had joined them too, appearing in the teleportation circle that led to Kamordah with a bundle of silver tabby cats in her arms. Essek has been the one coaxing her magic out of her, somehow finding helpful overlap between his complex arcane and her simple ties to nature. Beau doesn’t understand it, she knows she never will, but she knows what her sister looks like when she’s happy. She folds right into their growing family as if they were saving a space for her. Only Fjord keeps his distance, the sight of her cats enough to make him sneeze himself into a tizzy.

They’d had a busy month, but everyone at the castle means that its full of life, and that they can afford to be missed. Leaving them behind gets easier every time, especially now that Beau knows it’s not forever. The solitude is something she even looks forward to a little, time for just her and Yasha. She wouldn’t give their ragtag family up for anything, not for gold or money or wonders unseen, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t appreciate alone time with her wife.

Time away from home often leads her to these little epiphanies, realizations that will follow her back east of the sun and west of the moon when their weekend ends and they return to the castle filled with the ones on this land that they love most.

She’s at peace. Gods alive, she gets to spend both her waking and resting moments being relaxed and happy.

“Beau?” Yasha’s calling out from her, towards the pathway in the cliffs that leads up to their hand-built cabin. “You said there was something you wanted to show me before the light fades. Did you still want to?”

A glance towards the grass, out of the sand, reveals Clara Lionett’s book of fairytales, still holding the flowers Beau had pressed in the months it had taken her to get back to Yasha. They hadn’t really had a decent stretch of respite since Jourrael had given it back to her, but then this weekend had happened. Beau knows that everything that those pages hold will bring her joy, not sorrow. Her journey isn’t a tale of struggle to mourn, it’s one of hard work, friendship, and love. One with a victorious triumph, one that makes her happy to reflect on even in its worst moments.

She wants Yasha to be able to see it the way she did. She wants Yasha to have that book of flowers, real ones, from across the continents to be able to marvel at before her and know Beau’s connection to each and every petal.

“Yes.” Beau shouts back, feet dancing across the black sand that’s clinging on to the last of the setting sunlight. “I’ll be up in a moment.”

When she turns her back to the ocean, the sun is behind her and shadows fill her path. But Beau doesn’t mind, not when she goes to retrieve the floral catalog of her journey to a place she’d thought impossible, not when her feet find cool stone and start to trek upwards to the cliffs, not when she’s walking half blind at this point towards nothing more than her recollection of where the Yasha’s voice was coming from.

She’s not lost in the darkness. So long as the woman she loves beyond the edge of the earth and all reason breathes the same air as her, Beau will never be lost again. It’s not something she’s said, maybe it will remain unspoken for the rest of their lives, but there’s a compass in her heart that guides her better than any map or directions or language might hope to.

She doesn’t need to ask ever again. She knows the way.