“… And here, we have the Shard in your Luck house. This is an omen of good fortune.”
One slender, neatly-manicured hand turns a card over with a deliberate air of reverence as she explains. The words slip from wine-colored lips with a smooth, almost lyrical quality — part prophecy, part lullaby.
Incense smoke softly curls from the nostrils of a bronze, sleeping katagon-shaped brazier, thickening the air with its perfume. The silk scarf pinned over the tent’s entrance is almost completely still in the heat — the light glowing warmly through its brightly dyed designs paints the ground in shifting shades of scarlet, indigo, and violet. Much of this effect is lost on the Teller of Fortunes herself, for the eyeless, humming gaze of a shasii is ill-equipped for colors.
“And,” she purrs smoothly as she uncovers another card, “The appearance of the Oyster in your Money house means that yes, you absolutely should sell your beetroot crop to the merchant in the next town instead.”
The stout huikkaran seated in front of her nervously twists his wool hat in work-worn fingers. A grin, nearly giddy, spreads across a mouth with more batac nut stains than teeth. The Teller of Fortunes smiles softly at the response, a subtle shift in expression emphasized by the veil covering her from forehead to nose. This is always the way in these small enclaves — the women want to know when they will fall in love, and the men want to know when they’ll become rich. Those who are both, neither, or in-between have their particular concerns as well, but it’s a rare day when they ask her cards for help.
It hadn’t taken her long to learn that she needed to remove all of the bad omen cards from her deck if she wanted to make money, herself.
Woman, man, or otherwise, nobody is very willing to pay for bad news.
She moves to turn another card.
“Here, in your Longevity hou-” Barely do the words leave her before the little bronze katagon breathes its last fragrant breath. The woman’s lips form a faintly apologetic pout as she flips the card face-down again with fluid, practiced ease. “I’m sorry, that’s all the time we have for now,” she explains, “However, for another five silver…”
The long-armed huikkaran farmer’s ruddy, spatulate hands dig in his pockets, discovering only empty air and a bit of knotted string. He looks up at her with large, watery eyes, at a loss for words. What? What’s in the Longevity house? She rises from her brocade seat cushion and gently lays a hand on his shoulder. With a gesture as subtle as it is forceful, she turns him toward the tent’s entrance and gives an airy wave of her free hand.
“Well, have a good season, Stazio, and remember — you’re born in the sign of the papandaki, so keep a bloodroot in your left shoe for luck, and definitely sell your beets. Bye!”
The bewildered farmer, his mind turned in spirals by soft words, a dreamlike hum, and clouds of incense as much as it is by prophecy, stumbles back out into the air. As soon as the silk scarf flutters back down over the tent entrance, the Teller of Fortunes drops herself back down onto the cushion and swipes the veil from her head. Her sight-hum, once somnolent, vibrates balefully at the tent’s completely ineffectual window-flap.
“Fuck me, it’s Void damned sweltering!”
She deftly combs her fingers through her hair — a mane of green, dark enough to look nearly black in all but the brightest light. The silver hoops running the length of her long, pointed ears tinkle softly against each other as she replaces the veil with a few swift tugs and the judicious application of a hairpin. Her swirls — patterned like curling ferns and situated where most others would have eyes — can still detect enough sound and light through the gauzy fabric to see.
To her clientele, the Teller of Fortunes is a mysterious figure.
Thus rendered presentable for the public again, she slouches in her seat, scoops up her deck of cards, and begins idly shuffling. They flip and tumble through her fingers as her touch passes over the resin-painted figures on each card’s face — figures bright enough to capture the imagination of an onlooker, and painted thickly enough to be seen even by those with voices for vision.
Unfortunately, if this heat keeps up, she’ll be spending her after hours peeling The Dragon and The Virgin apart and wiping bits of The Archmage’s robe off of The Huntress’s claws.
Quickly, she casts a hum over the contents of her cash-bowl. It hasn’t been a bad haul, but she could have done better. She cautiously lifts the back of the brazier and prods the ash-covered coal inside with a brass poker. It’s nearly burned away — it must be late in the day.
As the sounds outside begin to settle, there’s a slight shift in the breeze against the sides of the tent. Out here on the open plains, one can sometimes feel a shift in temperature as the day goes by. The air begins to cool slightly as the Skyral’s dark side causes a rush of calm, soothing wind. It’s not much of a reprieve from this steady heat, but it’s something.
A distant call rings out. It sounds like a man’s voice coming from the other side of the encampment. The voice is deep and booming, and yet it’s difficult to make out the words.
Before there’s much time to wonder over it, the sound of footfalls comes from outside the tent. There’s two pairs to the noise, one from a pair of soft-soled shoes walking in a leisurely gait. The other is steady and solid, likely from hard, practical boots. They’re accompanied by a soft murmur of conversation, which stops when it reaches the entrance.
With the brush of an arm, the cloth sweeps back to reveal the forms of two young men. The first, leaning forward and obscuring the other, is a shasii with a long fall of dark hair. His swirls seem almost as whimsical as his clothes — myriad curls and other odd flares.
“Hello, Teller!” The smiling shasii greets the woman behind the brocade-covered table. “The old wagon-tugger is sending us around with a message.”
“Ffffruffhf!” The man behind him exclaims, with his face caught and covered in the tent flap. After struggling with it for a moment, he emerges, gasping for air. He seems a much simpler sort of man: a tzuskar with close-cropped hair, numerous wings, and straight features. He gasps for breath as he collects himself.
“Gods, Jiselmo, every time…”
“I have to play true to part, dear Korin,” the shasii replies impishly.
“We’re not doing a ‘bit’ right now!” Korin bristles, shaking his head. With a look of embarrassment, he turns to her with a measured calm. A wing flaps on his upper-left cheek. “Ah, yes, hello also.”
The Teller of Fortunes nods a greeting, accompanied by a soft sigh of relief — she probably won’t have to do any more readings for today. A good thing, too. The incense was beginning to make her dizzy.
She dips a little in her seat, slipping a hand down beside her table. When she straightens, she’s holding a small bottle of crownflower wine. She tugs the wax-covered cork free with her teeth, and takes a sip before speaking.
“Jiselmo. Korin. What’s he want now?”
Jiselmo bobs his head of swaying hair.
“No raunchy stuff today! Wagon-Tugger says we start packing up after dinner.”
Korin nods with a grave air.
“He just shouted at the other end of the camp. Some of us will be sleeping with the wagons rolling, at least until we’re a good ways down the road,” he says, squinting against the glare of the distant light. No sun ever rises in the sky of these lands, but bright shards of the broken star dot the landscape. They’re helpful for growing crops within their radius, but make very annoying obstacles when you need to drive a caravan around them.
“Oh yes! He seems to be in a hurry,” Jiselmo continues with an impish half-smile.
Her complete lack of surprise hangs heavily in the sultry, perfumed air.
“When’s dinner?” She asks, stuffing the cork back into the bottle’s narrow cobalt neck before tucking it down beneath the table’s voluminous brocade cloth.
Korin ruffles his short, tousled hair in thought.
“By the pace of things, probably a bit less than an hour.”
“Brair is still breathing on the coals,” Jiselmo adds helpfully, to Korin’s chagrin. “I hear he’s cooking today! That means spicy… Not my thing, I prefer Nelea-Days.”
“Biscuits…” Korin murmurs in somber agreement.
The Teller of Fortunes wrinkles her nose slightly.
“Stew again, probably. Here’s hoping he’s run out of those little round death peppers he picked up in Skilhouros,” she says, with a weary sigh.
Still, even the virtual guarantee of a bumpy ride with indigestion does little to dampen her relief at leaving this particular patch of land, with its heat, dust, and unpleasant similarities to-
“Any idea where we’re going next?” She asks, as she rises from her cushioned seat with a bone-cracking stretch. She interlaces silver-ringed fingers and reaches high over her head, easing kinks from a back that’s spent too many hours bent over a table for one day.
Both men glance about, as if checking whether others are nearby. Jiselmo looks back to her with a conspiratorial hum.
“Well… I hear we’re beating a strong retreat away from Pellan lands. I’m not sure what it is, but the patrols are starting to look at us a little funny…”
“Starting?” Korin scoffs, flapping his cheek wing.
“More than usual,” the shasii amends. “Anyway… It looks like we’ll be heading dex-rim towards Paakoponde.”
Beneath her veil, one brow shifts upward.
“Again? I feel like we were just there.”
Granted, her perception of time is faulty, at best. It’s at least partially a consequence of watching countless towns through the window of a jostling wagon.
“Somewhat,” Korin answers dryly. “We went along the midward trail, avoiding Paako-”
“-Now the trumba wants to march right through. Couldn’t tell ya why!” The shasii throws up his hands. “He made a point of not doing it last time. Anyway, how’s stuff, before we go marching on?”
“We have other tents to tell, though I don’t think we’re in any hurry,” Korin adds, with a pointed look at Jiselmo, who seems more than happy to chat instead of doing his assigned task.
“Mm…” She murmurs, trailing off as she jingles the handful of coins in her bowl. “Not great, if I’m to be honest.” She lets the bits of copper and silver sift through her fingers, clattering back into a less-than-impressive pile. “Hopefully Paako’ll be better, though I guess that depends on how long we’re staying for.”
The pair murmurs thoughtfully.
“Well, we will be passing near the capital,” Korin reasons.
“I hear they’re rather…” By way of explanation, Jiselmo raises his hands and wiggles his fingers. “So… Maybe better? At least for us, they’re a bit less stiff…”
“We might just have to go higher-brow than we did around the Pellan farmers,” the tzuskar figures, while tugging the tent-flap off of his wing.
“Perhaps,” she replies, as she lifts the lid from the katagon-dish, “That’s easy enough for you two to do, though. I just shuffle cards.”
The incense is nearly ash now — the last dregs of smoke curling up from the smoldering embers grow fainter by the second. The Teller of Fortunes begins absent-mindedly gathering up her things: slipping the cards back into their leather pouch, moving the katagon-dish, folding the tablecloth…
“Hmm. Well, they’re mystic enough at least. I think you’ll get plenty of takers,” the shasii offers, with a more optimistic air. “Anyway, we’d best get moving before someone gets upset. See you later!” Jiselmo bids her, and begins to wiggle past his compatriot.
“See you,” Korin adds with a nod, as he follows.
“See you,” she calls over her shoulder. It won’t take her long to pack up the little tent and roll it up for safekeeping, but it’s nice to have something to keep her busy in the space before dinner. Besides, the sooner she has the tent broken down, the sooner she has an excuse to be away from her spot and back in the fresh air.
Well, as fresh as the lingering odor of fertilizer can be, at least. Usually, she almost enjoys the smell — it’s strong, but earthy and redolent of young plants and growing things. It’s a welcome air after they’ve been traveling through snow-capped mountains or across seemingly endless stretches of sand. In this heat, though?
There isn’t much to recommend about the smell of shard-baked gurran leavings.
The smell is one downside of the late-day breeze, and the Teller’s senses are well-tuned to pick them up. (That Stazio fellow certainly had quite a bit of that particular fragrance with him as well.) Though with the promise of new lands comes the promise of new smells. As far as she can remember, things smelled much fresher around Paako-lands. At the very least, there wasn’t the stench of croplands and the ambient musk of wandering gurrans, nor was there a chorus of mournful, trilling moos around day’s end.
As the Teller of Fortunes packs up, the footfalls of the pair trail off on their way on to the next performer. There isn’t much space from one tent to the other, but the two of them seem to be taking their time. They’ve never been ones to rush about doing errands, after all.
Once she’s deposited her tent’s furnishings in a neat pile of chests and sacks just outside of its entrance, she steps out to begin prying the pegs out of the hot, dusty earth. Stepping from the interior into the fresh(ish) air is a blast of relief — as warm as it is here, the difference in temperature feels as refreshing as plunging her face into a cool spring, even behind her veil.
She only allows herself a moment to enjoy it before she’s busily yanking at wooden stakes and flattening tent poles, though.
Out here, it’s much easier to enjoy the late day breeze. The sights of the camp offer a different sort of relief from the monotony of working inside all day. The world outside is full of motion, as all the tents in the encampment begin to fold and crumple under busy hands. Everyone, from the long-armed huikkaran strongman to the dancing triplets, are all taking care of their own. Even those ahead of the two messengers are already taking down their tents in anticipation of Korin and Jiselmo’s visit.
At times like this, the caravan feels like a living, breathing thing. Even such different people can seem unified at times like this. As the seller-stands and the knife-thrower’s target board falls, the trappings of an actual camp begin to build in their wake. The impromptu signs and staves begin to melt away, while a few fires glow to life at the center. Then there’s the oddly organic flow of commoners being ushered off the grounds.
In the distance, there’s the shape of a large callosian bent over some of the kindling. He is — quite literally — blowing the fire into existence. Such is the way of things.
The Teller of Fortunes rolls her tent up, crushing it as small as she can. She tucks it under one arm, followed by a sack of cushions under the other, and a set of tent poles slung between the side of her neck and the curved point of her shoulder. It’s not a heavy load, but it makes for awkward carrying.
Luckily for her, her home isn’t far away. The sight of it greets her like an oasis to a thirsty man — from its roof, flat and bordered by ornate scrollwork, to its tall, wooden wheels, to the gauzy curtains tugged by the breeze. It’s been around longer than she’s been alive, but it has seen her through years of touring through every sort of weather blowing across every sort of terrain.
The wagon doesn’t have a voice of its own, but it greets her with a gentle against the wind. Though it’s an old, patched-together sort of thing with new parts brought in over the decades, it has its own rustic charm nonetheless. It’s survived a number of strange hardships, from chaos-storms to Faceless attacks. There’s some steel in that wagon’s make, underneath where the rain can’t reach. The Teller of Fortunes leans over the bottom half of the split front door and deposits her burden. She’ll worry about putting things away later. For now, she has several more armloads to carry.
As the Teller toils, many others are doing the same. Some are getting done sooner, especially the strongman, Aedas, and the knife-thrower, Vasht. The two of them are some distance away, leaning against a stack of barrels and crates that await one last shove into a wagon’s door. As the Teller goes by, they cast waves in her direction — part greeting, part silent offer to help her move things. It’s their unspoken role in the caravan to assist with this sort of work (and sometimes the fire-breather too, when he’s not busy puffing dinner into existence).
Though her burden is considerable, it’s one she’s used to — even with her arms full, she gives a polite nod of her head in return for any waves she gets on the way. It only takes three trips for her to have her temporary place of business broken down and stashed away anyway, and the walk itself is almost meditative in its repetition. Once everything has been deposited on the threadbare rug inside of the wagon’s door, she lets herself in to stow it away. There’s not much to her tent, but it wouldn’t do to have it rolling around the floor while the wagon pitches and sways. Tent poles cost money.
Inside, shardlight slants through the wide, double window in one of the wagon’s walls, setting the dusty air alight with motes of glittering gold. A few mismatched rugs cover the painted floor, cobbled together from what was available in her travels — a patchy floral by the door, an elaborate work of colorful, fringed silk beneath the whitewashed vanity, even a thick, curly vulre hide in front of the wagon’s little iron stove. The curtains hanging in the window are all of crinkled linen, elaborately block printed in shard-faded leaf-and-vine designs. Under the widest window, there’s a wooden bench with a set of cupboards beneath and a thick feather mattress on top; with enough pillows and a soft blanket, it makes for a welcoming enough bed.
As much as that bed calls out to her right now (how nice would it be to lay down and enjoy the late-day breeze!) she continues putting things away. The little katagon-bowl gets pride of place atop her vanity, positioned next to a lacquer box, a few cut-glass bottles, and various other pots and vials of varying description. She even takes the time to refresh the coal in his back, and sprinkle it with a pinch of herbs from an octagonal, lavender box nestled in the cupboard beneath her bed. The fresh, herby sweetness curling into the air is one of the few small luxuries she will afford herself today.
With tent, cushions, and other accouterments securely stashed away, she sheds her shawl and hangs her robe in the closet at the rear of the wagon. Domicile though it may be, most vehicles in the caravan have to pull double-duty. Hers is no exception. Aside from the little section given over to her own belongings, it’s stuffed full of leotards, feathered headpieces, boxes of masks, corsetry, and all of the other bits of threadbare sartorial artistry on which the caravan’s performers rely.
Lastly, she places the leather bag of cards in the vanity’s velvet-lined drawer. Now, she is no longer the exotic, mysterious Teller of Fortunes. Dressed in a loose muslin top over rough-spun, knee-length trousers and a pair of sandals, Ane exits her wagon in a state of cool, relaxed comfort.