“Poz?” Nicandros said, looking up at the window with wide eyes. “What…what are you doing at my flathing window?”
“I need your help,” Poz said. It had been years since he’d last seen Nicandros, but they had fought together. He wasn’t sure what kind of reception he should have expected, but it wasn’t this. Nicandros looked wild, unkempt, and like he’d spent the last few days either drunk or hungover.
Nicandros cursed and stood up, striding over to the window and throwing it open with a violent gesture. “Get in here,” he growled, “before someone sees you.”
Poz’s nose twitched as he slid through the window. The room smelled of ale and wine and sweat. It smelled like the common room of an inn whose keeper spent no time making sure it was well kept, and whose patrons were the kind of surly that didn’t much care either. “You seem to be having a rough time,” Poz said carefully.
Nicandros ran his hand through his hair. It was long and grayer than Poz remembered. Human hair did that, a slow transformation as it lost color with age, but Poz hadn’t expected it to have changed quite this much. He also hadn’t expected Nicandros to allow his beard to grow out so much. “Well, it’s good to know you’re still observant.” Nicandros shook his head and walked back to the table. “What did you want?”
Poz pressed his lips into a thin line of annoyance. “You are less than pleased to see me,” he said, as opposed to directly answering Nicandros’ inquiry.
Nicandros chuckled. It wasn’t a pleasant or friendly sound. The laugh was dark and hoarse. “How hard did you look to find me?” he asked. He motioned for Poz to take a seat on the bed, the first sign of hospitality Poz had noticed.
“I’ve been looking for weeks,” Poz admitted. He took the proffered seat. After all this time searching, he’d been hoping for a warm reception. Or at least one that wasn’t ice cold. “I’ve gone halfway across the kingdom and back. Everywhere I knew you favored. I broke my exile terms and ate Crowflesh, among others.”
“Thought you sounded less like a halfwit than the last time we spoke,” Nicandros said. He opened the wardrobe in the room and pulled out a green bottle. Poz’s nose twitched at the scent that emanated from it. It was the cheapest type of alcohol, and the smell turned Poz’s stomach. “Well, I’m happy you finally decided to stop punishing yourself. Although I thought Crowflesh was supposed to make you smart.”
Poz could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. “It does,” he said, his voice sharper than he intended. He clenched his hands into fists, trying to control the rising anger. “Crowflesh is among the most intelligent forms I can adopt.”
Nicandros took a long swig from the bottle of cheap alcohol. Poz took slow, deep breaths to try to calm himself while Nicandros deliberately insulted him with the delay. Perhaps it’s not deliberate, Poz thought, the anger still white hot in his stomach. Perhaps he just needs alcohol to process-
“Then I must have been wrong before. I assumed that you were a halfwit because you were eating insects. Now I understand. You’re just a halfwit.”
“Nicandros!” Poz snapped, the anger finally boiling over. “I do not know what I have done to insult you, yet I doubt it was enough to deserve this treatment.” Weeks. Weeks looking for you. Weeks desperately hoping that you would be my salvation. And…this is what I get.
“Well then, let me explain it to you, in terms even you can understand,” Nicandros said, sitting down at the table and putting the bottle in front of him with enough force he nearly broke the glass. “You spent weeks trying to find me, and it never once occurred to you that perhaps your difficulty was that I flathing did not want to be found!” The last few words were shouted, practically screamed.
Poz curled his fingers into claws. Ratflesh had a strong instinct, when confronted with danger, to flee or engage in battle. Normally it opted for flight, but Nicandros hardly seemed like a threat right now. Half drunk and weary, Poz was tempted to pay him back for the insult with a thrashing that Nicandros apparently desperately needed.
Then he saw the tears forming in Nicandros’ eyes, and realizations slept over him. “What happened?” Poz asked, his voice far gentler than it had been before.
“None of your flathing business,” Nicandros said, turning away from Poz’s gaze to stare into the bottle that sat in front of him. “Go. Leave.”
“I can’t do that,” Poz said. “I need your help. Desperately. If I had anywhere else to turn, I would have tried it when you could not be found.” He hesitated before continuing. Nicandros was slouching in the chair. The grey hair…Poz knew that sometimes, humans under immense stress could age prematurely. Was that what was happening to Nicandros? “And, I think, you need my help every bit as badly.”
Nicandros snorted. “I have all the help I need right here,” he said, holding up the bottle and shaking it in front of Poz. “Unless you want to fetch me more, as I’ve started to run low.”
Poz studied Nicandros. The man was definitely under immense strain. That much was painfully obvious. Treating him with comfort and kindness seemed unlikely to penetrate the barriers that Nicandros had erected. “Does the alcohol numb you from how pathetic you’ve become?” he asked.
Nicandros’ eyes hardened, and he put down the bottle with deliberate care. “I’d take that back,” he growled.
“Why? What are going to do? Make your stench more offensive? Drink even harder?” Poz scoffed. “I’d say I’m worried you’d crawl into a hole and die to spite me, but it looks like you’re doing that already.”
Nicandros stood up with careful deliberation. It wasn’t enough to hide the unsteady nature of the gesture, the way his hand trembled as he set it on the table, the way he swayed with the motion. “I’m warning you-”
“And I do not fear the warning,” Poz said. “The man I knew, the man I fought alongside, would not have given me warning. He would not have given me a chance. I would have been cuffed across the face for the insult, as I deserved. Yet you stand there and let me continue to mock you. What happened to you, Nicandros? When did you become a coward?”
Nicandros swung at Poz. It wasn’t the precise strike Poz had seen Nicandros use before. It was a wild throw of the fist, an act of violence without coordination, without direction. Lashing out.
It was far too easy to duck out of the way of the blow and land a precise punch against Nicandros’ ribcage, sending the man reeling backwards. Nicandros stumbled into the chair and went down in a clatter. It would have been comical had it been any other drunk. Seeing it happen to Nicandros, a man who had always moved with the grace of a hunting panther, was almost physically painful. “What happened to you?” Poz repeated. He deliberately kept the sympathy, the concern, the fear out of his voice. Nicandros would reject pity.
But scorn? He’d respond to scorn.
Nicandros started to rise to his feet again. The anger was still there, but the sorrow was overwhelming. “What will it take for you to leave me be?”
“Knowledge,” Poz said simply.
“Fine.” Nicandros spat onto the filthy floor. “You remember why I left the resistance?”
“Because you couldn’t bear the thought that you might one day fight your son,” Poz said.
“That’s right. Well…it stopped mattering. He died. I went back because I wanted revenge for what happened to him. I met the princess. We became close. And then…she told me she was the one to kill Thomah.” Nicandros gave Poz a defiant glare, as if daring him to mock his pain. “She murdered my son in cold blood to avenge the beast she called a father. A flathing dragon. So, leave me be, Poz. I’m done with this world.”
“I’m sorry,” Poz said.
It wasn’t much. They were just words, after all. But Nicandros reacted as if Poz had embraced him. He sat down hard, and the tears finally began to spill out over his cheeks.
“I lost him,” Nicandros said softly. “He was…he was the whole reason I fighting to rid the world of the Alohym. So he could have a future free of them. And the resistance I helped to found is going to put the woman who killed him on the throne.”
Poz sat down to listened as Nicandros told him the full story, an outpouring of words and pain that had been building up inside him like a poison finally being excised.