Teller of Fortunes 2: Shard-pepper Stew

(Click here for the first portion. Thank you for reading!) 

Outside, the Teller of Fortunes finds a very different scene. The caravan has gone from a state of transition — boxes, broken signs, and fleeing locals — to one of relaxation and hospitality. There’s certainly a different air about the place when all of the visitors are away. Before, even in that brief span of time, there was a definite sense of tension in trying to appeal to outsiders (and their wallets). Now that’s fallen away, so people walk with easy gaits, slackened shoulders, and genuine expressions.

Others have dressed down and begun to line up near the middle of the camp. Caravaners and hired hands alike all snake around a pot in the center, fragrant and steaming with this day’s dinner. A stocky callosian with geometrical fire tattoos stands over it like a master of spice, doling out sauced meats with a large metal ladle. His shock of blond hair seems to catch the fire’s glow, lighting up his bronzed, scaled skin and arcing horns in a very on-theme sort of way. He serves quickly to keep the line moving, taking just long enough to exchange a few words before dishing out good helping of stew.

After that, people disperse. Many head towards a small, crackling bonfire near the center of the camp. Some of those seated there chat aside and swap stories to the rest. Others hang around the fringes, enjoying a little privacy in the midst of the camaraderie. Then there’s others with more particular social calls to make, bunching up around this wagon or that for smaller conversational groups. 

Finally, a select few go off to eat in their wagons, though they’re the outliers. It’s a category reserved for the Caravan Master (who lunched by appointment only), sometimes the old herbalist (who might not be feeling well), and a handful of others indulging in solitude for their own (perhaps dramatic) reasons. 

Ane takes her place in the back of the line waiting for food, hands clasped behind her as she rocks idly back on her heels. She hasn’t decided yet if she’ll return to her wagon, or find a spot near the bonfire— a convivial atmosphere where she isn’t expected to perform or dictate the path of some anxious farmer’s future would be welcome, but so would stretching out on her feather bed with some more crownflower wine and a pinch or two of something mind-expanding. 

She idly examines the nails of her left hand — short and neatly manicured, if flecked with colorful resin in a few spots — with a patient, weary sigh.

As Ane lines up, she finds herself randomly placed behind a stranger. She’s a shasii of about the same age, and, from her bearing, she seems to be one of the caravan’s hired guards. They make up about one-fourth of the traveling troupe, ever present around the perimeter of the camp. Some are lucky enough to take their breaks during meal times, and, for this dark-braided shasii, that seems to be the case. She’s unveiled, and gives Ane a friendly nod at her approach. 

Up ahead, there’s some laughter as Korin and Jiselmo exchange words with Brair, the fire-eater. Though she’s hardly an eavesdropper, Ane catches the tail end of Jiselmo’s boisterous voice — something about how Brair “handles the fire five hours later.” It sends a ripple of chuckles down the line before the hungry throng shoos the two of them away.

Ane offers the other woman a polite smile, though it’s interrupted by a snicker at Jiselmo and the rumble of a hunger she didn’t realize she had. Keeping herself busy reading cards all day has made for even hungrier work than she’d thought. Divination can be exhausting, especially over the course of a long, hot day. Though, really, it’s the customers. It’s always the customers. And not all are as tractable as Stazio and his beetroot crop… 

“Ah, Ane!” The Fire-breather booms, smiling as he begins to dip the ladle into the pot. “How much heat are you predicting today?” He asks jovially, as he hands her a wooden bowl and spoon and prepares to start dishing out the stew. 

“Brair,” she says warmly, as she steps up to receive her portion of whatever peppery provisions he’s proffering. “Just enough, I hope. Got a long ride ahead of us, from the sound of things. What’s in the pot today?” 

She gratefully accepts the wooden bowl — polished to a high shine from years of use and vigorous scrubbing with clean sand and soaproot — and slips the spoon out of the little carved loop on the side. Holding it in front of her, she cautiously sniffs the curls of steam wafting from the deep, roiling cauldron. 

“Medium it is, then!” He proclaims. “Today, it’s the thickest chopon the market had! We cleaned ‘em out,” he says, with the vigor of his own hunger. “All stirred up in some of my home-made kula sauce, plus those shard-peppers I got at Skilhouros!” Brair boasts, puffing his bare barrel chest with pride. “Only the best for ya!” 

With that, he scoops out some big, meaty hunks of chopon into her bowl, along with a generous helping of vibrant sauce. Luckily, there’s only one of those dark, round “shard-peppers” haunting her bowl this time. The name isn’t literal, fortunately, though it is an apt description. 

“Great,” she replies, with a somewhat forced grin. She’d hoped he’d used the last of those peppers a week ago. “Thanks.”

With that, Brair gives Ane a friendly nod before others begin to bustle behind her. 

Up ahead, Jiselmo and Korin (Collectively, “JiselRin” or “KorElmo,” depending on who is asked) break off to go join their friends around the bonfire, while the guard does the same. From her place at the cauldron, Ane spies the triplets, Nelea the animal tamer, Aedas the strong, and a handful of other recognizable faces. 

Off to the side, Vasht the knife thrower is chatting with a few guards, likely about the road ahead. The troupe’s tall, klorrian magician is there too, though he doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone. He’s busy fussing over a flock of fluffy smeerps as they hop about camp, play “chase” with each other, and generally cause a tiny ruckus. 

The caravan master, the herbalist, and the clown (thank the Fires) are unsurprisingly absent.

Ane wanders off toward the bonfire, bowl in hand, to find a place on the fringes to sit. While the warmth of camaraderie is nice, the heat of the bonfire is less so — if she weren’t preoccupied with getting ready to roll on to their next destination, she’d be looking forward to finding a cool spring or a clean well to pilfer some water for a long soak.

At least the bonfire itself is at a low burn, more a way to get rid of unwanted bugs and burnable trash than for actually keeping warm. They probably would have dispensed with it entirely on a day like today, if not for tradition and the need to get rid of all of the unwanted signage that would take up too much space on the road. 

She finds a spot around the bonfire, tucking herself between the guard and the triplets. The guard hangs around the outer edge where the air blows cooler, while the conjoined triplets… Well, they’ve their own heat-related concerns. The sisters, usually the picture of coordination, are in a rather complicated situation when it comes to temperatures. Zila, the one nearest Ane, fans the three, while Wila, on the far side, speaks to the animal tamer. Fortunately for them, they’re fuhajen — a race known for the thin, air-puffing tentacles that twine together to form their limbs. They each use their hand-vents for a little extra cool air, taking turns to puff one another like a six-armed assembly line for cooling.

“Nelea, dear, could you fetch the group some water? Between this heat and this… heat,” Wila says, with her three emerald eyes glancing towards her bowl. 

“We’re all really going to need it,” Vila remarks dryly beside her.

“Of course,” the animal tamer replies, nodding her head of curls. Even in the heat and dust, she’s the picture of prim neatness, in short pants, lace-trimmed stockings, a linen blouse, and a well-pressed, spotless jacket. It’s a fitting appearance for a woman who only ever carries herself with an air of polite hospitality. “One barrel or two?”

Korin looks over at them, with a roguish smirk.

“Better make it three!” He called from his spot a few paces away. “One for the hot air, one for the spice, and one for…” He stops for a second, taking a long glance aside at his partner in crime, who shovels down the spicy meal before the heat can touch his tongue. “… Good measure.”

“Sure,” Nelea replies with a smile, rising to her feet. “We won’t have a pump… Well, for awhile, anyhow. Might as well make use,” she figures, rolling one of her thick shoulders.

“That good, hmm?” Ane says, as she settles herself between the four. She carefully picks the wrinkled pepper out of her bowl and sends it arcing into the fire with a deft flick of her spoon. She likes spicy food as much as the next person, but Brair’s occupation has given him some very strange ideas about what things taste like. 

“Some men live to so bravely die!” The food-shoveling shasii calls back, “Honor in spice.” His oath sounds even more absurd coming from a man still clad in all his bells and whistles. 

“At least we won’t need any fire for his funeral pyre… He brought his own,” Korin remarks. 

He and a few others follow suit after Ane’s pepper-flinging, as if they were waiting for an excuse to do it themselves. The sisters all do so in practiced unison, with each landing neatly in the center of the small fire. 

“It’s a good thing most of us aren’t getting this in our rations,” the guardswoman chimes in, “Lest we drop before even hitting the road.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Korin says with a slap of his knee. “Just follow Jiselmo’s suit, and we can weaponize this before the day’s done.”

“Best to be careful, flinging them in the fire like that,” Ane cautions, dryly, “Any more, and we’ll be choked out of our seats.” As it is, there’s already a faintly peppery sting in the air, when the breeze blows the right way. 

Still, burning peppers or not, there’s little to keep her from enjoying the rest of her dinner. She eagerly spoons up mouthfuls of the tender chopon, cooked to near translucency in the spicy-sweet, flavorful sauce. Once you get around his predilection for scorching everyone else’s tongues and burning the bottoms of their stomachs, Brair really isn’t a bad cook.

“What’d I say? Weaponize,” Korin confirms, wagging his spoon at the fire. “Put this in a bottle, light a wick, give it a toss and you’re good to go.”

Zila chuckles, covering her mouth demurely with her fan. 

“That’s all well and good, if the breeze doesn’t betray you.” She wafts a bit of the fumes in his direction, causing him to cough into a napkin a bit.

“That’s no good, you’ll have him doubled over. We really ought to put out this- oh, look who’s back already!” Wila chides, as Zila tsks.

Turning around, they see Nelea has swiftly returned with a barrel of water under each arm. She sits each beside the bonfire with a loud thud, before jogging off and hauling in a third. This one already has an old wooden tap affixed to the lid, allowing ease of access to the sweet relief within. Dutifully, the guardswoman fetches some wooden cups and stacks them beside the barrels.

“There you go. It was good for some exercise,” Nelea says serenely, before settling back down into her spot. 

Almost immediately, people begin filling and downing cups of water… Though Jiselmo abstains, for now. He’s currently holding on to his pride, while his cheeks start to burn a merry crimson. Ane darts an incredulous glance at the actor, as she kneels to fill a cup from the tap. Once she’s got enough to carry her through the rest of dinner, she settles herself back between the triplets and the animal trainer, legs stretched out toward the low-burning fire.

“If we put out the fire,” she points out, with a jab of her spoon in the bonfire’s direction, “No guarantee that Brair won’t just scoop up the unburnt peppers for next time. I’m half convinced that’s how he’s gotten ‘em to last as long as he has.”

The others all exchange glances of shock and comprehension. The triplets seem particularly aghast.

“It really is possible,” Zila mutters. 

“He does take care of the fire, so,” Vila continues. 

“… He would know.” Wila concludes.

The trio grimly considers the fire for a moment, as if weighing the option of trying to get the peppers out of the fire… before hauling them off to some unknown location to never be seen again.

While the whole lot is mulling this over and sipping on water, Jiselmo discreetly rises from his seat and shuffles over to the barrels. He maintains a moment of decorum, before opening his mouth in a steaming gasp and leaping for the tap. The shasii begins frantically filling cups with one hand and downing them with the other, pouring cool water down his gullet like a freshet. In a moment of unabashed desperation, he even gurgles, before going back in for a few more.

Korin sighs, shaking his feathered head. 

“I always do see these things coming…”

Ane shakes her head as well, sending a few strands of dark green lightly patting her cheeks in the warm breeze.

“I think that might be some kind of record, though,” she speculates as she scrapes at the bottom of her nearly-empty bowl. 

All that’s left is a few bits of pale carrot, a fragment of yam, and some kula sauce, but there’s no sense letting it go to waste. Like as not, they’ll be stuck eating traveling food until they reach Paakoponde. The marshland city does have some very good taverns, full of sweet ale and puffroot, so at least there’s that to look forward to.

She washes the last of her dinner down with a deep draft from the wooden cup, before pouring the rest of the water into the bowl to rinse it clean. Whoever’s stuck doing dishes will end up scrubbing it anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to lower the odds of getting your supper in a stained bowl next time. 

“Of water poundage consumed?” Korin wonders, spectating. “I suppose we’ll see…”

He and the others give Ane a nod of friendly goodbye as she readies to depart, half still in the midst of eating, half getting ready to make their own ways home. One of the triplets finished a good while ago, but she’s still politely waiting for the other two. Really, there’s not much that the triplets can do but politely wait for each other — this is the cost of sharing parts of a body.

Ane knows that soon the dinner crowds will likely dissolve into post-prandial games and a slow resumption of their actual responsibilities. In her case, she’s certainly made enough of a showing that she’s free to be as private as she likes, at least as much as practicality allows. There’s a lot of preparation to do, but once her own cart is sorted, there’s likely little else she’ll be required to do.

“Well, that’s me done, then,” she says, standing up and giving the others a wave. “I’m cutting out early, this dust’s going to have me coughing all day if I stand around in it much longer.” 

With that, she turns to leave her bowl, cup, and spoon in the basin near the cauldron. What was once full of stew is now full of water and curled shreds of soaproot, steeping until they release their froth of bubbles across the surface. She gives Brair a parting wave and an appreciative grin as she deposits the dishes, not lingering long enough to chat before she makes her way back home.