He’s unused to being on the ocean, and every rock of the boat, however gentle in the Nicodranas harbor, feels like another lurch forward, like a fall. Like that moment before falling asleep, when your mind drops and you are startled awake by vertigo, over, and over, and over.
But it’s not just the ocean, is it? This is the fall. He’s been waiting for decades for the tightrope he’s been walking to break, and now he’s spiraling downward, eyes closed tight so as not to catch sight of the ground rising up to meet him at terminal velocity.
He’s always prided himself on his ability to float. He’d hoped maybe he could keep it up forever. He should’ve known it wouldn’t last.
The soft surface of the hammock in the cabin they’ve settled him in—well guarded, he’s sure, though they didn’t say as much—might as well be cement, for all the comfort it brings him.
There will be no sleep for him tonight, he knows. His skin burns where Jester squeezed his hand and Caleb kissed his head, and their affection is a like a brand—imagining it as a burn is the only way he can feel like it’s something he deserve. But these marks they’ve bestowed upon him tie him to them in a way that endangers them, but he doesn’t think they’re willing to take them back.
And they know, he thinks, the way they’ve spoken about the Assembly, how much danger he has put them in just by caring about them.
But he thinks of throne rooms and white dragons and devils and remembers that danger has never driven them away from saving one of their own, and he is, against all odds, now one of them. He only prays that he is worth saving.
Funny. He’s never prayed in his life, not sincerely anyway, and though he is uncertain to what entity he is appealing right now, it is certainly a prayer in his mind.
The gentle rock of the hammock feels too much like a descent, and he stands finally, his breath short and catching in his chest, and he pushes the door to the tiny room open, holding onto what little air he can take in, expecting to get reprimanded, but… no one is in the hallway outside. The ship is silent aside from the occasional creak of the wood hull.
He can’t bring himself to float, not here, not tonight, and he also can’t bring himself to cover his footsteps, and they still fall, even as light as they are beneath his weight, with hollow thuds on the stairs.
It is still so dark on the deck, most of the lamplight of Nicodranas extinguished now, but the stars overhead are bright enough that his keen eyes have no difficulty in picking out the lone figure standing at the railing across the deck.
Perhaps he is being guarded after all, more subtly than a locked door or a set of chains. After Caleb’s attempt to cuff him at the party, he had half-expected to be chained in his room.
This is almost worse—any modicum of trust they award him feels like an admittance that they do not understand how much of a danger he is. Nothing he touches comes away uncorrupted, but he also does not think they are fools.
The cool ocean air comes in gulps as he tries to find his breath again, liberated from the musky weight of his cabin. He walks to the railing.
When Caleb meets his eye, he doesn’t look surprised. In fact, he barely glances over, his eyes fixed on the darkened city. “The docks are crawling with Crownsguard, and it bodes poorly for either of us to be seen together by anyone associated with the Assembly. Perhaps you should be in disguise.”
Essek ducks his head until he can place it in his own hands, elbows resting on the railing in a mirror to Caleb. “I… I don’t know that I can face you all as anything other than what I am. Not anymore.”
“We are going to protect you,” Caleb murmurs, “but we need you to protect yourself in order to do that.”
Essek sighs, and his fingers flit in the air, tracing a few runes, before a disguise falls back over his form, different than the one he had presented to the Martinet. He is not that much of a fool.
“It’s alright though,” Caleb continues as Essek allows himself to stand up straighter again, “we wear many masks here. It’s only fitting.”
Essek frowns at him, though he has no idea how much Caleb can see of his expression in the dark.
Caleb laughs though, so he must’ve seen it, understood the intention behind it, because he says, “Caleb Widogast is not… not the name I had when I was under the tutelage of Trent Ikithon. In fact…” He presses almost instinctively at the bandages on his arms—the sleeves of his robes had hidden them, earlier, but back in more comfortable clothing, his sleeves are rolled up, and the gritty wrappings are exposed to the night air. “I was a very different person then. Not physically but…” His voice trails off, and he peers into the sea below them. “That boy died a long time ago.”
Essek’s mouth is dry, and he has to clear his throat before he can speak again. “When did you study under Trent?”
“Oh, I began with him almost… I think almost fifteen years ago, now,” he says softly, and Essek remembers his interactions with the Scourger, their quick Zemnian conversation before she’d tried to kill him. The small bits of information he’d gleaned from veiled conversations with the Martinet over the past several decades. For all of his poor decisions, Essek is a clever man.
“Caleb.” He’s never been so uncertain of what steps to take next, not even when he didn’t touch the ground. But he is certain that he needs to know this. “I have no right to ask you for anything, but I…” He swallows hard. “May I see your arms?”
Caleb startles now, though he doesn’t seem alarmed, only surprised. “Why?”
“If you worked with Trent, and he has been…” One hand rests in the air over Caleb’s wrist. “Will you permit me?”
Wordlessly, Caleb offers his arm, and Essek’s face burn where he unwraps the bandages. He is grateful it’s dark enough that Caleb won’t notice the color in his cheeks. When the scars are laid bare, the designs are unmistakable, geometric patterns that mirror the ones he has traced so many times in notes and research. “What did he do to you?”
“Residuum,” Caleb answers, and he winces as he remembers. His forearm still rests in Essek’s palms, and Essek imagines the touch sears another brand into his palm, but he cannot bring himself to let go. “There were residuum crystals here, in lines and points.” Essek keeps expecting him to pull his arm away, but neither of them move. “It’s odd; I saw some of… some of my former peers, a little while ago, when they allowed us to inspect the beacon, and they now have tattoos in similar design instead.”
“That is… puzzling.”
“You know something of this?”
Essek wets his lips and shakes his head. “No, no, I have not been told of this. But it certainly appears to me to be dunamantic in nature.”
“And you are something of an expert, hmm?” Caleb asks, and Essek knows his own arrogant words thrown back at him when he hears them. There is no malice in their tone, though, nor in Caleb’s smile, and he still doesn’t answer.
The silence stretches between them as a set of guards passes by on the docks below, and that sensation of vertigo washes over Essek again. Instinctively, he grips the only thing he can—Caleb’s arm, and Caleb’s hands find his own arms, grasping onto him tightly.
“Are you alright?”
“I… I think so. Tonight has been… overwhelming.”
“Yes,” Caleb smiles again. “We can be an overwhelming lot.”
Part of Essek wants to scream at that, wants to rage against the kindness of Caleb’s scorched fingers on his arms, the place where Essek can still feel his lips on his forehead. He deserves none of it, and every extension of that kindness only brings the ground hurtling closer. The impact has not come, and yet it must.
But at the same time, with his feet firmly on the deck and Caleb holding onto him, it is almost like he can feel the ground. Perhaps a softer landing is not impossible for him after all, cradled in the battered, straining wings of his friends. The burden of his mistakes might not be too heavy to carry, with all of them around him.
He is burning, drowning, falling, all at once, but when he finds Caleb’s blue eyes in the dark, swimming back into focus, he gets the faintest idea that, of everyone in the world he could’ve met, this group of people—how broken, he cannot say, but he has seen the fear that he feels behind their eyes—understand that the most.
Everything blurs again, but this time it is because of the tears that have risen to his eyes, and before he can speak Caleb’s arms wrap around his shoulders. The sob catches in his throat before he can make a sound, maintaining composure to the end—it is the last of his dignity that he can cling to, but with his face buried in Caleb’s shoulder, he allows the tears to fall.
“This is not a kindness I am worthy of,” he chokes out finally, but Caleb doesn’t move.
“We have not asked what you believe yourself worthy of,” he responds, and the growl of his voice rumbles in his chest. “We offer you the kindness that in the past we have withheld from ourselves.”
Essek has no response to that, but it is the last protest he thinks to give them as Caleb grounds him—to the ship, to the group, to what life he may yet live. And now that he has touched it, been given permission to land, he cannot give up the sweet kiss of the earth anymore.