Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

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Truth be told, there’s no “entering” into Paakoponde. There’s no border, no walls, no guards, and no welcoming committee. There is only first a marsh, with the land turning wet and damp, the air thickening, and the trees growing fewer but, at the same time, larger and larger. Their willowy limbs begin to drape impossibly wide. The fronds are thick enough that it feels like a loose ceiling, allowing only shardlight to pass through. 

Though, perhaps there is a welcoming committee of sorts…

The very first thing seen upon entering into Paakoponde is light. This time, it doesn’t come from the sky, nor the trees, nor even the hundreds of pale-torches that some cities use. No, this time the light comes from thousands, perhaps millions of flying, buzzing “shardflies”. Many of them are simple creatures, with almost stone-like thoraxes that radiate improbable levels of light and heat. They buzz around with a vivacity that’s far removed from any normal insect, seeming to travel miles without eating, drinking, or even landing. They make this obvious by how they buzz around the caravan, following along like a strange little entourage. It’s as if they’re attracted to… Movement? Life? People? It’s hard to say, for they also buzz around the plodding trumba that pull the wagons.

On closer examination, the term “shardflies” proves to be woefully lacking, for not all of them are flies at all. The term proves to encompass an entire category of insects, ranging from beetles to wasps, to even the rare sparkling flutter-by. They form entire fields of light, first infrequent enough to be misperceived as will-O’-wisps, then thick enough in the air to give the illusion of full shardlight. 

One by one, small huts appear between the trees, each made from tree-fronds and other leavings. None are crafted from logs, bearing no marks of hatcheting or cultivation. Instead, these huts are largely modest, questionably stable, and patched by sticky sap gums and mud. Each tends to accompany a small pier over the march, similarly constructed to allow easy fishing and diving into the centers of the larger marsh-ponds. 

This is what Paakoponde considers to be farmland, and it’s a halfhearted venture into the concept at best, if not an outright aversion. Even the sap-taps are unintrusive, barely penetrating the trees; it’s as if they avoid harming them with a religious zeal. Then, strangely, there are animal hides, feathers, and other signs of hunting that adorn various windowsills and doorways. The locals seem to have no qualms about harming wildlife, so long as the trees are treated with respect.

Upon further examination… Those shardflies do seem quite fond of those tall, willowy trees. 

Ane takes a long moment after waking to watch Paakoponde through her window, blanketed knees drawn up to her chest. She even sticks a hand outside of her wagon to test the weather, only to withdraw with a glowing shardfly clinging to her fingertips. She sends it on its way with a soft puff of breath and wriggles out from under her covers to begin her toilette. 

She’ll be working in a few hours, and it takes time to prepare.

Fortunately, as quick as the creatures are to flock to Ane’s hand, they make no attempts to enter the wagon. Nonetheless, it’s customary to seal wagons tightly when in these lands. If too many shardflies gather in a dwelling, it can cause several problems. Most of them simply boil down to “too hot, too bright, and damn bugs in general,” in Brair’s words, and when he complains about brightness and heat, there’s bound to be something to it.

Outside, the actual weather is relatively cold, balancing out the temperature. Without it, the bugs would burn hot and keep people awake in their dwellings. Without the bugs, well… Perhaps this would be a “twilight land,” one permitting some of both life and un-life. 

The caravan continues to roll, and in time it comes to a stop. Here the huts are more dense, though the troupe has yet to enter Paakoponde-proper. This tends to be the customary approach: draw in the farmers on one side, roll into the city to get supplies and attract the wealthier takers, then get the farmers on the other side when leaving. 

The metallic clanks of the wagons being unhitched echoes past the walls. 

Ane combs her long hair, fashioning it into a thick, doubled-over braid fastened with a pin of carved snailwhale shell. She smooths a few drops of shimmering, mica-flecked oil over her skin, lending a soft glow to her cheeks under the dancing light of the shardflies. One fingertip dips into a small pot, before lightly painting her lips with a sheen of burgundy. She ends her efforts with a light dab of rich, warm amber perfume at the nape of her neck, her wrists, and atop the bouquet of feathers tattooed in the center of her chest.

Her tent is usually warm, but it won’t permit any shardflies — with Paakoponde’s breezes, she may need something extra to cover up with. She sorts briefly through the racks and boxes of odds-and-ends of clothing at the back of her wagon, sifting through strongmen’s singlets, spangled leotards, and her small collection of clothing. She comes away with a silk skirt (carefully tied so the tear doesn’t show), and a loose muslin shirt with an embroidered neckline that sweeps daringly down around her upper arms. Not enough to scandalize, but maybe enough to entice a few extra coins.

She drapes a tatted shawl over the curved points surmounting her shoulders, pins her veil atop her head, and steps out into the cool, damp air to finish setting up camp.

Outside, others are doing the same. No one needs a signal to start their work; this process has been done over a thousand times, and will naturally be done over a thousand times more. It’s so automatic, that things seem to be in roughly the same configuration each time, albeit allowing for local anomalies in geography. For example, Jiselmo and Korin’s theater-wagon is almost always stood up at the side of camp opposite from the triplets’ burlesque tent-stage. Then the “oddities” show will always be on the side of camp perpendicular to them, with the master’s wagon positioned on the side opposite that. 

In the middle, the strong man set up his weight bench, his arm-wrestling table, and his “Tower of Broken Skies” — a vertical, interlocking, modular obstacle course made of salvaged wood and fake, painted-on steel. He sets it up surprisingly fast. Over the last few times, Brair helped by adding what he calls “pyromajicks,” which are really just torches that fume from the top of the tower at certain times, sometimes over perilous gaps. This time, the tower is set up on one of those muddy piers, simultaneously adding the illusion of extra peril and a quick way to douse the flames. 

The location of Ane’s tent is at a nearly random position but generally fixed, like how a student may choose a desk on whim but in time commit to the position. At least, except when new acts appear; hers is the easiest to reposition, lacking both outdoor features or the drama that determines some of the others. Today, habit arranges the tent in between the triplets, the knife-thrower’s range, and the “Tower of Broken Skies,” though comfortably remote enough to give a sense of isolation and mystique. 

That’s the curse of having a tent instead of bringing people into her wagon — it has to be set up wherever the ground’s flat and hard enough, and that isn’t always consistent. Still, at least the nature of her trade helps her here.

If someone wants a diviner, they’ll seek one out.

She paces over the patch of ground for a few moments, kicking a few stones and fallen twigs out of the way before she lets the rolled-up canvas flop off of her back. Setting it up is a relatively simple affair: Flatten it out, slide in the poles, prop it up, and hammer the pegs in at the corners. Once it’s standing, it’s just a matter of ferrying in cushions, her folding table, her little katagon brazier, and other bits and pieces from her wagon.

The others often have similar concerns, albeit more tailored towards their wagons. Frequently, they employ boards to stop the wheels from sinking into marshy spots. As for the “Tower of Broken Skies,” well… That thing almost topples over about three times, before the stubborn strongman finally relocates it five feet further down the embankment. 

 

With everything in place, a wild, tinny turn-box tune begins to play, made by the slow grating of a song crystal inside the mechanism. Now Brair begins to make his rounds, lighting all the camp’s torches and braziers. Here, the bugs render them mostly unnecessary, though the differently-colored flames give a certain sort of ambiance. For Ane, this is a haunting pinkish-purple, though she wouldn’t know it herself.

A flick of the match, a light of the powder, and that rush of flame… And the show begins. 

It’s not just any show, but the big show — The Wondrous Varroon Troupe, limited time only. Bring your wife, your kids, Void, bring your hounds! The thrills are cheaper than the tickets, but they’ll light your pants on fire! Except for the hounds. The hounds get in free because Jarrik loves them. Everyone loves a good hound. Granted, the “Custom Fur-Shine Kindness Treats” (available in packs of twelve!) are always a few silvers each.

It’s better than what the herbalist gets stuck peddling, though. Her pitch burns the ears; it’s amazing what an old lady with some dried herbs and a shadowy windowsill can sell. 

Ane tugs gently at the corner of the neatly-painted fabric banner pinned over the entrance to her tent. 

FORTUNES TOLD

DESTINIES UNVEILED

5 S ea.

 

It’s not quite as flashy as the other displays, but it doesn’t need to be — people find their way well enough. Once she’s satisfied with the appearance of her post, she heads inside to light the katagon, shuffle her cards, and relax on a small pile of cushions until someone shows up to hand her some money.

In time, there’s the sound of footsteps approaching, then a sweep of the entry-flap…

The first patron of the evening is a tall silhouette of a man. This is to say, he’s not very visible underneath his many layers of travel gear. Between his cloak, his hood, his doublet, and some old, tattered banner, it’s really hard to make out their actual features. Marking him, however, are many trinkets hanging from his neck and shoulders: fangs, feathers, claw tips, and all manner of things dangling from him as he walks. When he approaches and lifts his hood, revealing a shasii half-veiled in the traditional style. There’s little else remarkable about his features; straight, firm, and with a token scar or two about the chin.

“Hello,” he greets her, looking about as in bewilderment. The man has the appearance of someone who just wandered in from being lost in the forest. Like most patrons, it seems he doesn’t know what to do or say upon entering; he stands confused within the atmosphere Ane has arranged.

 “Greetings,” the Teller of Fortunes says with a smile. She gestures to the cushions in front of her table with a lissome hand. “It’s five scutes for three cards, and five more for every three thereafter. How may I help you?”

She returns to shuffling the cards as she eyes the man up and down. Shasii, so he may have some social mobility concerns. He appears to present as male, so that makes it doubly likely — his trophies show he has a rather unconventional idea of the trappings of wealth, but it’s something to keep in mind regardless. He has a few scars, too; judging by his apparel, they probably come from animals, but he may have an enemy. He doesn’t look too young, and few people get into his apparent line of work if they have other means, so his parents are likely deceased. No trust fund. She nods subtly to herself. Money, enemies, dead parents. Her smile widens a fraction, touched with growing confidence.

The man follows her instruction, albeit with the typical delayed reaction. When people step into Ane’s world from the very, very different places outside, it usually takes time for their sense to catch up to them. This man, well-traveled as he seems, is certainly no exception. 

He kneels, then folds his legs underneath himself as he sits. The result is a dark heap of a man, mostly cloak, veil and trophies. He reaches a leather-gloved hand into his cloak and draws out an “approximately five” amount of scutes. The figure seems almost surprised that this place accepts his currency, and as a result, he hardly counts — though fortunately for Ane, it comes out to six. 

It soon strikes him that he’s supposed to ask a question. He purses his lips, then forces the words out in a low, grizzled tone. 

“I am looking for something… A creature. It’s a thing of myth in this land,” he explains, looking left and right as if he might see it slipping under the tent-walls. 

“Mm?” The Teller of Fortunes murmurs inquisitively, with a subtle raise of her brow beneath her veil. “And what information about this creature do you seek?”

 “How to find it, and how to kill it,” he replies bluntly. It seems he has little notion of how this process works; it’s sometimes a common thing for people to walk in with such misplaced expectations. 

She nods subtly. 

Void, it’s one of these. Welp.

“I can’t give you an exact map, mind — it would not be useful if I did, for creatures are prone to moving, no?” She asks, with an amused purse of her lips. “But let’s see what I can find for you…”

She leans over the table, as the trail of smoke emitting from the katagon brazier gives a rather theatrical little billow. The first card she turns over is…

“Ah, The Shard reversed,” she says, with a soft tsk and a shake of her head. “This signifies frustration, which I’m sure must be unsurprising to you.” Her hum raises coyly to meet his scarred, veiled face, before she continues in a conspiratorial tone. “But more than that, it signifies delay. The first steps on your journey to tracking down this beast are to release your frustration and relax your attempts to look for it. Counterintuitive, perhaps,” she cants her head, “But important things are often found just as we stop looking for them. Besides, after this…”

She turns over another card.

“We have the Cradle reversed,” she swears silently to herself. It’s hard to make reversed cards sound good, and bad omens don’t get much money. “It is a symbol of nurturing, but a cradle is also a place where one is looked down upon by one’s betters — when you find this creature, do not underestimate it. You may be tempted to treat it as any other conquest, but such would surely be your downfall. Now, to end your quest…”

She flips the final card. 

“Ah! The Gurran upright.” Finally, an upright card. “This indicates a stoic nature. Whatever the result of your quest, you may find yourself with greater reserves of mental fortitude for having done it.” 

The man is mostly silent during the reading, though occasionally his lips part in-between cards as if to ask a hurried question. He’s a disciplined patron, however, and holds his queries for the end. In any case, Ane certainly grabs his attention; something about her statements keeps him on the hook, as if he’s accepting them as immediate truth. This is the benefit to people who expect concrete results from the cards; sometimes, they become convinced that they’re receiving such results. 

His jaw is set firmly, with a dogged sort of determination. 

“So I will see more trouble in this… and be stronger.” He blurts out, “But will I find the beast?” He’s raptly attentive, even leaning slightly forward. “Oh,” and as an afterthought, drops four more silver scutes into the money bowl. 

The purse of her lips tightens a little as she tilts her head as if silently chastising him for his impatience. 

He slumps a little, chastened. 

“The beast is important to you, but the important things in life are only won with patience. Now…”

She turns another card, silently praying to any deity that’s listening to let it be something she can spin as a good omen.

“The Shroud upright,” the Teller of Fortunes says, with a soft sigh of relief. “This card, specifically, indicates putting old matters to rest — either you will find this beast, or you will abandon it for better quarry. Either way,” she says, as her soft, berry-colored lips ease into a smile once again, “You will reach the end of this goal. As for how long it’ll take…”

The tension in the man’s posture eases. His look of determination melts slightly, as he finds himself in a state of ambivalent calm. There’s still a shine of hope to the curve of his lips…

She reaches over to another stack of cards near the brazier and flips the topmost one. 

“The Two of Hearths,” Void damn it, “It won’t be soon — a year, at least, likely two.” 

THUNK.

The man promptly drops his head face-first against the table, pillowing it under his arms. It’s a look somewhere between despair, acceptance, and just plain old melodrama. He looks like he just lost a raffle, or sold his most prized vulre for a bargain-bin price. There will be no crops this flowering, no presents for him this Turnabout. 

In a surprise turn, he raises a fist slightly and shakes it, “Damn, that Void-ridden Great Mymbis! The beast evades me even in the cosmos,” he bemoans, scarcely realizing how any of this is inappropriate. All the while, he’s still covered in cloak, banner, and veil, making it all the stranger a display. 

The Teller of Fortunes hums at him flatly for a moment. She’s seen a lot of emotional displays, but none for a… What was it he said? 

“Tell me — what sign were you born under?” 

“Vurumaji, the stormwater,” he answers glumly, raising his head just slightly enough to do so without being muffled by his arms. 

Figures.

“Ah,” she says, with a sympathetic murmur. Her hum lands on him almost like a caress — like a gentle, reassuring pat on the hair. “In that case, you should keep a piece of iridescent rock crystal on you. For best results, tie it in a square of blue cloth, and keep it around your neck. This will improve your luck.”

She has no idea how he’s going to figure out what “iridescent” or “blue” are, but neither of those things are her problem.

He lowers his head slightly, now fixated on the recommendation. 

“… How… How do I find these?” He asks. “I have no eyes,” he answers, humor tempered by his deep, utter openness to superstition.

“Weeeell…” She trails off. Does Paakoponde’s market have a gem seller? Or a tailor? “You should check the market if you’re unable to dig your own,” she offers, “Just ask until you find someone who sells precious stones, or fabric.”

I need to start selling them myself. 

It’d be so easy, too. She can picture it already: A neat little display beside her table, full of little jars of herbs, stones, and bones…

The man nods, and even makes a tentative pat at his pouch — just checking to make sure he still has money for it. He’s not the sort to keep careful track. With this done, he begins to rise from the cushions, bracing himself upon his knees. “Very well… I shall do this. Thank you, Fortune Teller,” he says in an exasperated tone. “Maybe I do need to think about this…”

“Any time!” She says brightly, “Come again! Tell your friends!”

He’ll probably have to explain it anyway, at least when he returns to the hunter’s lodge and asks for a new assignment. It’s just as well; The Great Mymbis can’t be caught by everyone, otherwise it wouldn’t be legendary. 

With a whoosh of shifting fabric, the man is out of the tent and off towards whatever he next sets his sights upon.

Teller of Fortunes 10: Return to the Shardlands

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading!)

When Ane reawakens,  the wagon has finally come to a stop. It’s almost disorienting, as if her body expects the floor to suddenly jolt forward once again. Above her head there is a single beam of light pouring in through the window, shimmering behind the gauzy curtain. Wherever they are now, it’s certainly not the shadowlands.

Her senses reclaim clarity from the cloud of slumber, and immediately anguish at the buzz of outside activity. Clanking pots, rolling wheels, the hum of distant chatter… The caravan has come alive once again as if it too has reawakened. The strange, barren world of shadows has receded, and a battered semblance of normalcy has swept in.

Ane stretches her limbs, wincing at the dull throb that reminds her of the wounds on her arm. She tests the temperature of the air against her bare skin for a moment, before wriggling out from under her blanket and into a pair of trousers and a loose shirt. They’re plain clothes, old and much-repaired, but they’ll do.

She slips a sliver of honey soap and a clean cloth into her pocketbag, and steps, squinting, into the shardlight. If there’s light, they’re probably near Paakoponde, and that means she can find a stream.

And lo and behold, a glittering span of water shines off in the near-distance. It’s a wide thing, more a river than a stream, spanning to the far horizon. It’s right against the edge of the encampment. It would probably be a five to ten-minute walk to reach the river’s shore, which slopes down from the solid ground and into a silty beach.

The surroundings seem to be yet another grassy plain, but up ahead, things rapidly change. Parallel to the river, the smooth ground turns marshy, patched with water and thick vegetation. Further on the brush turns into trees, and then into a wide-leafed canopy. Beneath this, a road half-paved winds in between large tree trunks. This must be the path to finally reach Paakoponde, the last stop before the circus finally arrives at the city’s edge.

All around, the caravan seems to be buzzing as per usual. The motion is constant, but a bit more subdued and sluggish than usual. The men carrying boxes all seem to take their time, while those washing clothes and running fetch-errands all look more than a little drained and withdrawn. The bulk of the troupe seems cheerful having survived, but not invigorated in it. There are smiles on faces, right under the lines beneath eyes.

Those without immediate orders seem to be divided; some are heading towards the center of the camp to score some breakfast. Others are heading to the beach, hoping to clean the darkness of the shadowlands off their skin.

Ane makes her way toward the silty beach, avoiding the groups of other bathers as best as she can. Fortunately, she’s able to find a small space for herself — a neat semicircle of shoreline, marked by a stand of tall, swaying reeds and the spongy hump of a fallen tree, gone soft in the water. She neatly vaults the tree and finds a place to lay her clothing, happily shucking off her trousers and shirt and laying them aside on a dry, sandy patch beyond the reach of the river.

She can tell already that the river will be cold, so she hastens her way into it to get past the shock of the icy water on her bare skin. Waterbugs skate around her knees as she wades in up to mid-thigh, and she keeps her hum trained on her feet to keep from slipping on a mossy rock or trodding on a grumpy shellfish. Shellfish are not friendly at the best of times.

With soap in hand, she bends and dips her hands into the water, working the wet bar into a creamy lather up her legs, over her stomach, and across her chest and arms. She splashes herself with clean water before slipping a hand between her thighs, rubbing the soft fluff of hair into a lather with a soapy hand.

As she washes, the same strange, wordless song rises to her lips. She half-hums, half-sings to herself as she pours water over her hair with cupped hands, before working the soap through the silky, green-black locks.

This proves to be a peaceful location, currently secluded from the rest of the caravan by a tumble of rocks from a nearby cliffside. The water glitters nicely in the shardlight, with small fish and bits of stray algae floating by from upriver. The source of the flow comes from high in the mountains, rather than the shadowlands, and so it brings a refreshing coldness and cleanness.

Across the river, on the far side, is the shape of a water-bear in the distance. Its pudgy, hairless body trudges across the rippling surface, occasionally poking its circle-mawed head down to catch fish. Whenever satisfied, it returns to leisurely floating along with the water’s flow, easily floating despite its bulk.

Elsewhere, towards the middle of the river, the surface foams and ripples with activity. A small group seems to be playing there, frolicking amidst the small waves. Their arms and bodies seem to glisten in the air when they wave or sweep a splash at one another. The lot of them seem to be accompanied by large, sectioned creatures that float ever-close, like oversized prawns or some other sort of enormous shellfish.

Ane squeezes the soap through her hair, before dipping her head down into the water to rinse away the bubbles. Cleaned of the traveling dust, she gives herself a little time to play… She’s not hungry yet, and the cool water feels good on the cuts on her arm and thigh.

She bends her knees, tensing her thigh muscles like coiled springs before she pushes forward, hands pressed together to slice through the water. With a deep breath, she splashes beneath the surface, feet kicking to propel her along the shallow bottom of the riverside.

Ane lingers as long as breath and temperature allow, only rising long enough to take another gasp of air before she vanishes beneath the rippling surface of the water again. The perpendicular current buffets her side, gently pushing her off course as if toying with her. When she has finally had enough of the river’s chill, she wades back to the shore, pulls her clothing on, and makes the soggy slog back to her wagon.

For now, she’ll air the wagon out, maybe do some laundry… She has devoted enough time to pursuits of the mind and spirit of late.

Today is a day for housekeeping.

Hours later, with her blanket airing out over a tree branch and her clothes drying on a line, the Teller of Fortunes sits on the little rickety wooden steps leading to her door. She balances a book on crossed knees, one bare foot idly swaying as she makes notes in the margin of a page adorned by a drawing of a plant with short, slender, twisting leaves.

SNAKELEAF

Root: Good for creative expression. Divination(?). Hard to maintain control, though. Bitter. 

She pauses to take a bite of an appoh before she traces the drawing with the wax pencil in her hand, gently darkening the delicate lacework of the veins of one serpentine leaf.

As Ane works on the drawing, several other troupe-members wander past in their day-to-day doings. There’s first the old matronly herbalist, Dynkala, who hobbles by on her cane. Her sight is fading, so she doesn’t seem to take notice of others on her way. Given the tatty wicker basket on her arm, it’s likely she’s headed off to gather materials for her work. The area around Paakoponde is prime for this sort of thing, and a faint smile creases the old mouth-lines across her cheeks.

Next come Brair and Vasht, talking about something as they stroll along. Vasht, still clad in leathers and strapped head-to-toe in knives, seems as tired as he ever has. He has the look of someone who’s either not slept for days, or just awakened from sleeping well beyond what the body can handle. Either way, he’s likely not to be up and about much longer; the stint in the shadowlands must have taken its toll.

Brair, in contrast, looks about as bright and warm-blooded as ever. He likely didn’t have the eyes for spotting in the darkness, and his method of combat — pyrotechnics — would’ve either burnt down the wagons, started a forest fire, or just drawn more faceless with the spectacle. He’ll probably be doing double duty for awhile on cooking to make up for it.

“Good day, Ane! Easier to draw in shardlight, eh?” Brair booms, walking past Ane with a wave.

Vasht, seeing this as an opportunity, smirks and begins to slip away. Time to go steal that nap he’s been lacking…

“‘Lo Brair,” she calls out in return, before pausing to spit out bit of fibrous appoh skin, “Seems like everything’s easier in the shardlight.”

Especially staying alive.

Brair chuckles, scratching the back of his head under his fire-like shock of hair.

“Well, I’ve heard you’re rather capable at some things out there… Vasht was alight with praise that you handled yourself. Isn’t that right Va–”

He looks around, then notices Vasht is long gone.

“Bah. Anything he can do to avoid complimenting someone directly,” the callosian scoffs, crossing his arms.

“D’you get a look at him?” She asks, with an incredulous rise of her brows, “He looked about half-dead himself. He probably flapped off somewhere to get a nap in before having to do it all over again.”

Brair hums, rubbing the blunt end of his chin with a wide palm.

“Well, he did make fewer dark jokes than usual… They must’a run him pretty ragged in the shadowlands.” He shrugs his tattooed shoulders. “I dunno what Jarrik does to keep a guy like him.”

She shrugs in return.

“Blackmail? Or Vasht just likes feeling important.”

“Maybe both,” the bulky callosian agrees. It’s then that his gaze drifts down, finally taking notice of her book. “Hrm…? Oh,” He glances up, abashed. “Was I interrupting?” Brair’s never been great at noticing things. Given how often his lidless eyes are exposed to open flames, it’s a wonder he can see at all.

“Hmm?” She scoots her hand aside, before making a small, dismissive gesture. “Nothing, you’re fine — just a way for me to keep track of things.” Brair is easier to talk to than Aedas most days, but it would still be patient work to really, honestly explain exactly what she gets up to when the wagon’s curtains are drawn.

Brair nods, a bit of comprehension shining in his eyes, which always seem glassy — as if the heat of his work has dried the clear scale typical of callosian eyes into a window of sorts.

“I wish I could do the same… Though I’d never write with a skilled hand like that. And it’s all powders and chemicals,” he muses, letting out a huff of air. “If only I knew letters, maybe I could do it that way. I’d put them all in neat little blocks, like bricks, but for explosions!” He booms, miming out the brick shape, then the subsequent blast.

“Hey, everybody has their talent! Yours is fire, mine is strange plants and stranger dreams, Vasht’s is having more edges than a hope chest full of silverware.”

“Ah yes, Lord of the Barony of Edge,” Brair agrees, smiling and bobbing his head. “If only we had someone with a talent for arrangin’ boxes… Then my mixes would blow up on atheir own less often,” he figures, scratching at his scruff. “They could put them together, maybe into columns and rows… One for things that ‘splode easy, one for one’s that don’t,” he figures, miming out the stacking process. As ever, Brair is a rather fixated individual. “… And one for all the things I’m not allowed to have,” he adds, beaming.

“Could ask the herbalist… If anyone knows organizing, it’d be her,” Ane offers.

He pauses for a moment, then snaps his large fingers.

“Good point! She’s got to keep all her drugs straight somehow,” he figures. “Bright as ever, Ane! Thanks for the thought, and enjoy the light and the city!” The callosian bids her, in the midst of excitedly bustling off.

“You too, Brair,” she says, as she tosses the remains of the appoh off into the trees. She flips the book closed and sets it down as she stands, dusting her hands against her hips before reaching out to touch one of the skirts fluttering on the line. The very edge of the hem is still cool, though dry enough to the touch. Ane hums as she sets about pulling her clothes from their pegs, draping them over one arm to carry them back into her wagon.

Once inside, she has the rest of the day for small, domestic things: Making her bed, putting away her laundry, and organizing her shelves of herbs, tinctures, and simples. There are a few things she’s running low on — some she might be able to forage from around Paakoponde, others she’ll need to track down a medicine seller for. She worries the right side of her lower lip in her teeth as she formulates a shopping list, performing a little mental math to help stretch her earnings from their last stop as far as she can.

At least Paakoponde is bound to be a prime location for gathering such materials. According to rumor, the city is known to have a large, open market amidst the trees. Many of the merchants here tend to corner the market on these things and charge huge prices to ship the materials abroad. Here, though, they’re certain to be cheaper by several orders of magnitude. There’s also word of a great arboretum somewhere within Paakoponde… The Eternalists are known to be preservers of many things, from knowledge to cultural artifacts; perhaps they might see fit to stockpile plants and seeds as well.

Then, of course, a stray medicine peddler or two is a likely sight. Who knows? It’s a large city.

Ane settles onto a floor cushion to skim through another book — something barely a half-step above a bodice ripper, but with sorcerers in it. She ends up missing the call to dinner when she dozes, but that’s alright — Paakoponde’s market beckons, and sleep shortens the hours before her arrival.

 

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.