The little wagon is much as Ane left it. The herbs in the katagon-bowl have burned through, but there’s a crisp, mint-and-vanilla scent lightly wafting on the air. Away from the bonfire, the breeze is cooler and there are fewer sounds of conversation and caravan-noise — she stills her humming gaze and tilts her face up toward the ceiling as she stands in front of the window, drinking in the cool and relative quiet.
Ane parts her lips in a contented sigh as she begins shedding rings into a half-clamshell on her vanity. Her hairpin follows, set on a wooden block carved into the likeness of a particularly placid disembodied head. She runs her fingers through her dark hair, shaking the heavy, glossy mass free, unlaces her sandals, shrugs off her muslin shirt, and shucks off her trousers.
Beneath the fabric, her skin is marked with a score of shapes and colors. The life of a circus performer is fraught with impermanence — one it is necessary to get used to, possibly even enjoy, if you’re going to last long. So, like many others like her, her hide bears the stamp of her travels: the familial and racial markings she was born with across her left shoulder and down her upper arm, a cluster of sightwort leaves picked out in deep blue dye just inside her right hip, a spray of dark feathers between her breasts, angular lines and dots of white ink encircling one thigh. Unaccustomed to the air after being in layers of clothing and a sweltering tent all day, a crop of goosebumps prickles into sharp relief across her skin, swiftly banished by a lively rub of her palms.
Ane plucks a thin, silky robe from the seat of her vanity, draping it around herself for modesty’s sake. Though she may be at home, there could be a knock at the door at any moment. Still, it’s not very likely — the rest of the caravan’s busy with their own doings, and the trumba-drivers won’t need her help to get the wagons linked. She folds her silk-clad arms atop the vanity’s smooth, whitewashed surface, and props her pointed chin on them.
Above, her humming gaze settles on an old poster, little more than a scrap of cattail-fiber paper, yellowed and brittle with the passage of many years. In the center, a sprightly, curvaceous figure stands with one hip saucily cocked, one round-fleshed arm holding aloft a flaming hoop. The heart-shaped face is faded nearly beyond detection, but enough remains to be just barely recognizable: deep, enthralling swirls, a dazzling smile, cheekbones you could slice a cheese on. Beneath, block letters boldly declare (through the dingy veil of a Rhytalan coffee stain),
For 3 Days Only
The Acrobatic Feats
It is not a picture Ane can look upon for long.
She lightly presses her fingertips to a place at the nape of her neck. She can feel the tension brewing there, settling into the muscles from her head all the way down to the middle of her shoulders. With her free hand, she lifts the lid of a small enameled box inlaid with shells. The fancy exterior belies its contents — inside, there’s little more than a few curled shreds of what look like tree bark. More perceptive eyes than hers (if her swirls could be called eyes at all) might pick out the occasional splash of chartreuse lichen or stripe of spalting, but these nondescript bits of wood weren’t exactly chosen for their visual appeal.
Ane gently breaks one in half, and places it in the center of her tongue like a sacrament. She is careful not to swallow, though. Swallowing would not only feel very unpleasant, it would be a waste of very expensive medicine. With her robe hugged tightly about her frame, she pads from her seat to her bed.
Now, she can enjoy the rest of the day in her own way.
It only takes a minute or so before she feels the telltale tingle against her tongue, as subtle and as thrilling as the brush of a feather across bare skin. She hasn’t taken enough for the visions to come, not today. There’s just enough for her to feel a light, downy warmth flowing through her limbs, and a pleasantly velvety feeling beginning to take the edge off of her thoughts. Just enough to rinse her mind of the detritus of other people’s strange cares. Just enough to ease her body from the stress of the oppressive heat and choking dust.
A judicious sip of crownflower wine chases away the bitterness of the herb, and Ane is free.
There is only the cool breeze, the breathy flutter of the curtains above her, the softness of the feather bed, the feeling of the robe against her skin, the pleasantness of a full belly, the sweetness of the wine… And, above all, the spreading succor of the sightwort root on her tongue.
The sightwort is slow to take hold, and it does so gently, rolling across the mind and smoothing out the senses. Any more than this, and one tends to see things; but, for now, all is placid and cool. Time begins to pass in that silken, flowing sort of way that makes it impossible to discern how far it’s gone. Whether it’s the sightwort or a momentary lapse into sleep, Ane soon finds herself drifting carelessly ahead.
Beneath her, the wagon begins to shift like a rolling tide. There are the distant sounds of labor outside, before myriad muffled clicks and clanks signal the wagon being hitched to another. Once it is so joined, the motion ceases long enough to permit Ane another dip into her sweet, dreamlike state. She’s hardly able to notice when the wagon begins to roll again, going steadily down one of Pellas’ paved highways.
The sound of wheels against stone begins to form a rhythm that fades easily into the background. And, as her mind probes at the evening air, Ane finds an odd sense of clarity. Skarrows chirp and swoop high above, while smeerps leap across the grass, munching on bugs… Caravan workers lounge and snooze, rustling fabric as they move.
Up ahead, she hears words. A conversation drifts down from a wagon lit by candlelight. It rolls more smoothly than the others, carried on the finest wheels and springy leather supports. It must be the caravan master’s wagon. He always did keep his in the best condition.
The man is almost never alone. Even now, there are two voices coming from that reinforced wagon, though both are distant and muffled. In fact, it’s odd that Ane can hear them at all. Old Jarrik Varroon keeps thick walls about his person. But something about the coolness of the late hours, the ease of the sightwort, and that sense of relaxation opens up Ane’s senses… It’s like a door being nudged ajar, allowing only a sliver of light to peek through.
The second voice with Jarrik is like a whisper, only occasionally flaring up when their words hit an impassioned pitch. That voice slithers and slides as it drifts across the air. Ane can begin to make out the shape of a conversation, though much of it is muffled and lost to the rolling of wagon wheels:
“The hounds sn- … -our heels, Jarrik. The ti- … has co-” the visitor presses in a deep, insistent tone.
The caravan master’s words are harder to make out, as he waffles and sniffs, “I know, I kn- … It’s been s- … time, but I -n -in- eh … tyrants to scra-…”
Hearing this, the first voice becomes yet more aggressive.
“Then let’s make them!” The shout dies down into an urgent, barely contained whisper, “We need m- … Jarrik…. don’t come like …. once did. One mons- … and some trip- … are n- enough … -ur debts.”
The caravan master seems to take umbrage with this, and scoffs loudly, “-t’s as plain as the sha- … They… There -ust b-… nine.”
Whispering in a frenzy, the first man replies, “Th- … has been -ting. I thi- … it best you- … cold feet this ti-…”
The caravan master sighs loudly, trailing into an indecipherable murmurs.
“You will see,” the first voice reassures, suddenly placating. “-ey will … at the bridge- …”
“I hope so.”
Just like that, the conversation fades. Chairs legs scrape against the rattling floor, followed by footsteps, and a door nearly slamming.
With that, quiet settles back over the trip. The sounds of the prairie begin to take prominence, shooing away the shadows of those two voices like unwelcome specters. Many hours pass in this new sense of peace, with all the sounds of the road put in harmony once again.
It isn’t long before Ane drifts into a calm, dreamless sleep as soft and heavy as a velvet comforter. If the caravan leader’s conversation has intruded on her rest, it doesn’t show. Then again, he wouldn’t be Jarrik if he wasn’t up to something.