Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-13: Varied Treatment

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No amorous plans were dashed in the creation of this work.

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The next day’s fortune telling goes by in a flash. With the recent influx of cash, there’s no Half-Light Show today. As a result, the patrons are all fairly typical. Since it’s S’varga, another capital city, today’s take is pretty good too. By the time it’s passed, Ane has another ten mitres in her bowl, and a load of the city’s dramatic problems now removed from her tent. They’ll probably get more plentiful and interesting, once word about the caravan gets around.

For now, she has her day’s pay and some more free time. Not that it’s very “free” — part of what helped the day go by so quickly was that she kept her mind occupied. Now that she no longer has to worry about pulling cards, she can try to put some of her plans into action.

First, the monk.

But he isn’t posted by the dishes today.

Instead, he’s helping a very confused S’vargan install Ane’s new doors. It looks rather nice, actually; its scrollwork and such are fancier than before, and the wood is of a much better condition. It doesn’t look the same, of course, but it seems to have been easily fitted to her doorway. Right now, the Eternalist callosian is supervising while the shasii finishes up fastening the hinges.

He looks over his shoulder, lifting his brows. 

“Oh, hello! We’re almost done,” he says, assuringly.

“He-” Oh, right. Ane’d told Jarrik to have her door fixed. She’d been so eager to forget having to talk to him, it had been completely forgotten. “–Hello. I need your help with something, if,” she says, with a gesture toward the door, “You can be spared for a bit.”

“Oh, sure,” he agrees amiably. “He’s just finishing up. So, what was the thing?”

The S’vargan wanders off, having fully affixed Ane’s new door. There are other repairs to make, and he’s hoping to make them while Jarrik’s still close enough for him to demand payment.

“First,” she begins, “How good are you at hair, and how is your reading voice?” While she’s glad to have an actual door again, there are more pressing matters at hand. She clasps her hands tensely behind her, as she eagerly awaits the monk’s reply

He taps his chin, thinking for a moment. 

“Well, I have a pair of scissors I use to cut my own,” he reasons, running a hand through his long, yet neatly trimmed and braided hair. “As for reading, I’m only a passing orator; I didn’t win the prize for it, when last there was a poetry read-off at the Vault of Sojethys,” he reflects, drumming his fingers. 

“Yes, g-” Ane pauses, as a perplexed frown crosses her face. “Do you… Actually work for the caravan?”

“I’m provided passage in exchange for labor,” he answers naively. 

Ane pinches the bridge of her nose. Of course Jarrik isn’t paying him. Why would he, when the earnest young monk is so eager to be helpful anyhow? 

“Alright, look. If you can help the klorrian man out with a haircut, maybe a bath, and maybe read to him a little, I’ll pay you.”

He shrugs his shoulders. 

“Sure, as it pleases you.” The monk seems amenable to this. “Does he desire these services? He was rather… terse, when I tried talking while changing his chamber pot.”

Ane exhales a heavy sigh. 

“I don’t know, but he can’t keep sitting in his own filth in a wagon he never leaves. He could die in there, and I’ve a feeling all Jarrik would care about was the cost of burying him.”

The monk nods in agreement. 

“I probably won’t make much headway in conversing with him, but… I think you are in the right,” he says, with confident resolve. “He’s bound to deteriorate further otherwise. You are doing something good, here,” he says warmly. 

“I hope so,” Ane grumbles, though she doesn’t seem at all confident, “I hate going against his wishes, but something needs to be done. Just find what you need to help him clean up and be more comfortable, I’ve a few other things to arrange.”

“It’s probably the only way his wishes can be understood, for now,” he agrees. “In any case, I am happy to help. I’ll get right on that,” he assures her, and strides off to obtain the requisite supplies. 

One down.

Ane is never quite sure where to find Vasht. He might be in his wagon, he might be with the mercenaries, he might be off somewhere trying to plug yet another gap in the caravan’s operations. As a result, it takes her awhile to finally track him down…

Because he’s trying to do his laundry again.

He’s on the second shirt when Ane arrives. He appears to be wearing the shirt he washed yesterday, with a lace-tied collar left untied and the sleeves rolled up. Vasht notices her presence, and pauses washing to sit upright and give her a curious look.

“Need something, Ane?”

Ane clears her throat softly, adjusting the braid over her shoulder before she strolls into view. 

“Nothing really, I was just wondering,” she lightly trails her fingertips over the fronds of a pale fern near the edge of the stream. In response, the leaves gently turn and curl inward. “How serious you were about your offer yesterday.”

He watches her with a measured interest, first from her body language, then her words. He looks away for a moment, then looks back, his keen eyes firm with resolve. 

“Rather serious; I don’t promise things I won’t provide,” he answers with a casual air. 

“Really? I’ve a…,” Ane momentarily nibbles at her lower lip, with a sidelong, downcast hum, “Pretty serious problem that could use some handling.” She places one slender hand on the curve of her hip, angled backward to lightly press her fingertips to her lower back.

A part of Vasht, when presented the words “serious problem,” is swift to straighten his posture and recall where he most recently laid his knife belt. But Ane’s body language convinces him to do otherwise — he just cautiously regards her while he brushes a hand across the soft cloud of chest hair visible from his collar. 

“Well… I’m sure there’s something I can do for you,” he replies, his voice slipping a note lower than usual. “What is it?”

“I was thinking… Maybe you could meet me on the rimward edge of the camp? By the old alosin wagon,” she says, her voice dipping into the silky purr usually reserved for soothing truculent customers. “There’s not much room in my wagon, and it’s quieter there…”

Vasht now furrows his brow for a second, cocking his head to the side. As alluring as Ane’s routine may be, he knows her well enough to understand one or two of her tricks. Abandoning the basket, he rises to stand, and walks up to her confidently. 

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” he says in his own rough, sultry tone, leaning forward just a tad. It gives a generous view of his strong chest through his collar, and there’s just the slightest catch of the rustic scent of soap and leather. 

“So what is it you really want, then?”

Damn it.

“Weeell,” she replies, drawing out the word in the same honeyed tone, “You offered a massage…”

“Mm-hmm…” He nods slowly, eyebrow raised, bidding her to continue. 

Her plush lips pout softly. It’s almost a hurt gesture, as if she might overcome his suspicions by silently chiding him. 

“… And I came to collect.”

He drops his veneer of playful scrutiny and lets out a warm, amused laugh. 

“Alright… Though I owe you a massage as well, once I get done with whatever you’re having me tend.” He smiles, shaking his head. “Alright. Let’s go. Are the alosins injured in the joints?”

Ane lets go of a relieved sigh. No longer required to keep her back thrust in an exaggerated curve, her back relaxes with a little wriggle of her shoulders and a flip of her braid. 

“It’s not them,” she explains, as her hurried strides devour the ground between the water and the wagon, “It’s the man Jarrik brought to camp the other day… He spends almost all of his time in pain. I tried to help, but I don’t exactly have experience beyond rubbing in a little salve, you know?” 

Hopefully, the young Eternalist has been able to make some headway in providing some hygiene help. Otherwise, she might need Vasht’s aid with that, too.

As they walk, Vasht’s smile blooms somewhat further from the discussion. He apparently seems somewhat heartened that Ane is calling on him to take care of someone. He nods in agreement.

“I could see him needing very varied treatment… I’m sure I can figure something out.”

The occasional glimpse of him smiling earns him a raised eyebrow and a curious, sidelong hum from Ane. She’s much more used to the Vasht who spends his days flinging knives into boards and agonizing over things.

When they arrive at the wagon, the door is still slightly ajar. Inside, the Eternalist has begun to move about his tasks. The room is still unlit, though Ane can of course see that some work has been done in here. The hay bales are pinned down by a few old blankets and tarps, to at least keep the dust down, and the floor is still damp from a thorough scrubbing. Ane hadn’t asked the monk to do these things, and it makes her heart glad to see them.

When she approaches, with Vasht waiting in the door, the monk is sitting on one of the hay bales. The man is in his previous position, still, though now his arms at least have a kind of hay-and-blanket cushion beneath either of them. His hair has also been trimmed neatly; it’s impossible for an eyed barber to get a perfect cut in the near-darkness, but at least all his loose ends and scraggly bits are gone. He still has a thoroughly dejected appearance, but he definitely looks better with his hair cropped closer and given a wash. 

The man looks up when he sees Ane.

“You came back,” he states.

“Told you I would,” she says brightly, as she steps into the dark interior of the wagon. It does look far better than it did before — hopefully it didn’t bother the man too much to have the monk going about his duties. “How are you today?”

“Alright,” he replies, his tone lumbering as he does. “This is strange, for me.”

“I know it might be a lot to get used to, but it might make you feel a bit better,” she explains, “If anything hurts or bothers you, we will stop.” 

He grunts in vague assent. As crestfallen as he often seems, he also comes off as rather compliant. He’s also responding more quickly than before, which Ane takes as a tiny sign of progress.

By the look of things, the monk hasn’t been able to work him up to a bath yet, but that might take some time and convincing on his part. Regardless, the slight change in circumstance makes for a noticeable improvement.

“I brought another friend today… They can help you like I did, yesterday, only they’re better at it,” Ane continues. She glances over her shoulder, waving for Vasht to step inside. 

“To stop the pain?” He asks, his voice sounding hopeful, almost fervent. Before Ane answers, he lowers his head. “Alright…”

Vasht enters behind Ane, taking a moment for his eyes to adjust to the low light. He tucks his wings in close, as he sweeps the wagon with a glance. 

“Hello,” he calls. “I’ll be helping you with that. All you have to do is stay still, alright?”

The man responds with another grunt, as he grimly regards his lower arms. He doesn’t seem intent on moving them if he doesn’t have to, anyway. 

“You can stay for a bit and talk to him, if you like,” Vasht whispers to Ane, “It might make it easier for me to work. And he seems to know you, after all.”

The monk, for his part, scoots out silently — unwilling to crowd the space, especially when there will still be things for him to do later anyway.

Ane nods, sitting herself on one tarp-covered hay bale. The mysterious man has only spoken to her once before, but she’s managed to make at least a little conversational headway. She draws her knees up to her chest, looping her arms around them as she makes herself comfortable.

“I’m sorry, I never asked you your name.”

It’s something she does feel a bit badly about — though, to be honest, not knowing his name didn’t even manage to crack the top five list of things that needed fixing yesterday. 

The man is silent for a few moments, before shaking his head.

“I am called Thelorn.”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-12: Gettin’ By

Teller of fortunes is a serial work of Fantasy Fiction, at times surreal, at times slice-of-life. No knife-throwers’ laundry was left unwashed in the creation of this work.

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Much as she noticed during the medicine scheme, there are advantages to living in something that’s essentially a glorified costume closet with a bed in it. Even if the clothes aren’t new, many of them are still serviceable — some of them are even in decent condition, albeit in odd sizes meant for performers who took their leave long ago.

Ane isn’t really sure how the mysterious man might feel about a shift of woven floral fabric, but it’s the only thing she’s found that comes close to his size. That’s why, about a half hour after finding it, opening all of the seams below the shoulders, and sewing in some pieces of satin ribbon, she’s kneeling on the bank of the stream with the shift, a pot of hot water and mordant powder, and the spiralis dye she bought in Paakoponde. She doesn’t know if he’d be bothered by a shirt covered in flowers, but at least she can make some effort to make them less obvious. The woven flowers look the same to her either way, but people with eyes seem to place a lot of stock in the colors of such things.

Now if only she could tell when the fabric’s been dyed. 

“Hey, Nelea!” She calls out, holding the dripping shift up with the end of a stick, “Does this look like a color to you?”

“It does!” She calls back with a smile.

“Good!” Ane transfers it to the drying line. Unlike most shasii, Ane does have an idea of what many colors look like — albeit by borrowing an unwitting pair of eyes now and then. Nonetheless, it would be a complicated affair to ride the mind of another creature just to make sure she’s dyed this soon-to-be shirt properly.

It’s a strange looking garment, with it’s opened seams, ribbon ties, and overdyed flowers, but hopefully it’ll work.

Ane soon finds she has company — a wild Vasht! The feathered knife thrower wanders up to the river side, once again carrying a big basket of laundry. He clasps it tightly between skillful hands, clenched with determination. Recalling last time, he only ever managed to wash about… One shirt. And it has been… One day. Now Vasht is here again, back at square one, kneeling down beside Ane.

“Hello there. Looking into some new fashion?” He asks casually, as he begins to dip a pair of trousers into the water. 

“Funny,” she says flatly, as she arranges the shirt over the line. “Washing the izash pepper stink out of yours?” 

“Oh no, that’d be futile,” he replies, giving her a dry look. “I’m making sure there isn’t any more clown paint on anything, ever.”

Ane scoffs. “Good luck with that, my tablecloth’s stuck proclaiming the virtues of Doctor Lartimus forever.

“As will all the new guards,” he says, practically beaming. “Now that we’ve at least gotten through testin’ half of them.”  He lifts up the trousers, thoroughly soaked, and begins scrubbing them thoroughly with soap. “Did you make that name up, by the way?” He asks.

She picks a stray thread from the edge of the shirt, and shrugs.

“More or less. I just strung together the most pompous sounds I could think of at the time.”

Vasht smirks. 

“I think that’s just the thing for S’varga. Any longer, and we would’ve been run out by someone with a longer name and a hat,” Vasht figures. He’s looking rather well, still; though that might just be the flattering glow of torchlight, or the way his taut forearms look while wringing out a shirt. Nevermind the generous V of that shirt he’s wearing…

All this, because Ane interrupted him last time. Any more of those urgent schemes, and he’d probably run out before long. Fortunately, he wasn’t trying to wash clothes while Ane was by the river earlier.

“Have a foolish problem, I can come up with foolish solutions,” she explains breezily. She dusts her dye-spotted hands together, satisfied with the current state of her handiwork. 

Vasht pauses washing, curious to see said handiwork. He shrugs one shoulder.

“Not foolish if it works. Never did get the chance to thank you for that… It did a lot of good for us.” A corner of his lips tugs back, as he adds, “I might actually get some sleep now, like ya said.”

“Yeah,” Ane sighs. She arches her spine with a faint frown, tenderly kneading the muscles of her lower back with her fingertips. If only she’d saved some of that chest salve for herself. “I saw you enjoy the fruits of our labors while they were getting all sweaty and grappley on each other.”

His look of warmth and gratitude, while a glimpse of shardshine, is now joined by the sardonic cloud of his fluffed eye-wing. 

“Ah, you were spectating? Seems you leaned forward so far that you hurt your back there,” he ripostes. 

Ane purses her lips together, narrowing her swirls at him . 

“Looks like I was mistaken the other day,” she fires an acerbic shot back, “You are still the same vleark you were as a kid. Just taller.”

“And I dance better,” he adds. “And you’re still getting in my hair, when I’m trying to thank you,” he says, lofting his un-winged brow. 

“Well, I’ll be out of your hair in a moment — I was hoping to be able to take a bath,” Ane retorts airily, “But it looks like you’re going to be here for awhile.”

She bends neatly at the waist, reaching down to tilt and pour the bucket of rapidly-cooling spiralis dye onto the springy ground. Once it’s empty, she props it on her hip and turns to saunter away.

He lets out a light sigh, and runs a hand through his hair. 

“I wasn’t trying to get rid of ya. You can go ahead, I’ll handle this later. Void knows I’ve put’cha through enough…” Vasht sits up, moving aside the shirt he was working on. He bites his lip, a subtle, silent self-admonishment. 

“You’re going to smell like peppers and booze still,” Ane chides him over her shoulder, with a playful tilt of her head and point of her chin in the direction of his laundry, “Though I guess that’s better than sweat and blade oil…”

“I didn’t realize you had so many opinions about my fragrances,” he replies, as a tesing warth returns to his expression. “Though I could always visit your wagon, and get that puffroot perfume goin’ again… Not a bad smell, that.”

“I don’t know, puffroot might take the edges off your cranky, haven’t-slept-in-a-week charm. What would the caravan followers think?” Ane turns to face him again, though she keeps the bucket propped on a cocked hip.

He continues to give her that amused, incredulous look, similarly postured with his clothes basket beside him. 

“They might think I’m not a knife-wielding rogue that murders wood for a living. That’d really sour my reputation,” he agrees sardonically. 

Ane opens her mouth to counter, but swiftly closes it.

“Nope. Too easy.”

He tilts his head sideward. 

“Gonna let me wallow in ignorance, unchastened by your powerful quip?” He crosses his tattooed arms, still a bit wet from the halted clothes-washing. After a pause, his eye widens as it dawns on him. He sighs,  “Wow, I’m really hitting the gurr’s-eye today.”

Ane tries to stifle a snicker, with limited success. 

“Glad to see I’m entertaining somebody today,” he says, pillowing his chin on his palm. “And while being not sharp at all. Completely dull. This is a new bit for me,” he appraises, smiling as he endures her stifled laughter. 

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure Jarrik’ll have another Half Light Show for you soon enough.”

“That’s right. And then I’ll be even more muscular, for when you have me parading around S’varga shirtless,” he replies, brushing a hand dry across his chest. 

“Well, don’t hold your breath. I’m not exactly eager to try to wring more bits out of the city’s garrison of tailors, grocers, and scullery staff,” she retorts.

“Probably a good call,” he agrees. Then there’s a slight pause, and he adds, “I’ll have to hope no one recognizes my tattoos at the next half-light…”

“Which is what the grease paint was for,” Ane points out.

“Hmm, good point. I’d forgotten about that part.” He says, glancing towards his clothes. There was certainly enough going on at the time for a little paint to have slipped his mind.

“I know what you mean, though,” he adds in a reflective tone, “I did feel kinda bad, doing a scam and whatnot. Usually that’s someone else’s thing.” He rubs at one bicep, looking back to Ane. There’s a certain hardness to his expression. Perhaps it’s determination, perhaps a dogged sense of protectiveness. “It was for caravan, though, so… I’m glad we did it.” 

“Jarrik’s thing,” she corrects him, “And yeah… It’s a Void-damned sight better than having half our throats slit and the other half of us sold to Skraj by the next bunch of bandits.”

He nods, casting his gaze downward for a second. “Yeah… I don’t know what I would’ve done if one of us was hurt or taken in all of that,” he reflects, as his voice grows husky. “It kinda hit me, when I saw that door of yours. Kept thinking all ‘what if,’ you know?” He shakes his head.

“That’s why I was smiling so much, earlier. It was great to see everyone laughin’, not worrying about who’d get stabbed, or flattened by some Rhytalo build-a-bastard bullshit.” His lips curve back into a smile. “Plus it was funny.”

“If it came to ‘if,’ at least one bandit would’ve gotten his face caved in — part golem or no. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Aedas and that other guy — Bugbeard? — were still at it.”

“Glad to hear you still have that old jawbone handy… Makes me wish I wasn’t further down the train when you used it,” Vasht comments, a note of warm respect in his tone. “Would’ve been nice to see that, after the retelling Narue gave everybody,” he says with a smirk. 

“Narue,” Ane gives a little shake of her head as she shifts her hold on the bucket. “The shadowlands’re enough to twist anyone’s head around, and she had to watch another mercenary eat the dirt maybe a minute before that fight happened. I wouldn’t call her narration reliable.”

Vasht chuckles. “Well… When you gotta look at things like that… you focus on what you need to, to get by.” He says, hauling his basket up in his arms, rising to stand. 

“I guess so.”

When he stands with his basket, Ane bends to deposit the bucket on the ground. Without anyone doing laundry here, this part of the stream is relatively empty and peaceful even with the wagons backed up to it. It’s also pleasantly warm, courtesy of the geyser at its distant source.

“Speakin’ of getting by… If you have more of that back trouble, maybe I can help out sometime. Remember that time we got stuck in the mountains outside Valistea, and I had to find work in a massage house?” Vasht recalls. “Besides, I probably owe you for all the sleep I’ll be gettin’.” He smiles broadly, hefts up his basket of clothes, and begins to wander off with a spring in his step. It’s almost odd to see Vasht happy like this… His sharp features, the broody swoop of his wing, and his general gruffness all go against it. It almost balances him out. Almost.

Ane arches her brow at him as he walks away. Did he really just-

He did.

If he worked in a massage house, maybe he can help.

The wheels of her mind tick along as she strips off of her clothes and wades into the warm, slightly brackish water. She dips her head under the surface, before whipping her hair back in a cascade of glittering drops.

Ane had been able to offer the mysterious man a little relief, but not as much as he could get from someone with more experience. She isn’t sure how much of the man’s circumstances are wrought from despair rather than disability, but it’s obvious something more needs to be done. He’s probably bored, brooding with nothing to do but stare at the walls of his wagon all day. Nelea goes to see him, along with whoever isn’t busy at the moment, but it’s hardly regular. He needs a haircut, probably needs his claws trimmed, he definitely needs a bath…

She rubs the soap over her arms and shoulders, working it into a lather over her skin.

The light seems to bother him, so some simple bits of fabric over the windows might be a mercy. He’d turned down much of what she offered, but providing some things as a “just-in-case” might be welcome. He doesn’t seem to like noise, either, but maybe something could be done about that? Some kind of hat, maybe, or a way for him to cover his ears and shut out the sometimes-raucous sounds of the caravan. 

She trails the bar of soap down her stomach, gently washing the tattoo inside of her hip.

Ane has more books than she can read. Some of them, in fact, are printed in flat inks that she couldn’t read if she wanted to. Though she’d hate to part with even one book from Cerine’s collection, he might need them more than she does… If he can’t read, maybe she could find a caravan follower who’s passably literate.

Maybe the monk? If he can do calligraphy, he can read. Of course, she’s already relied on him to perform one of the most unsavory tasks of caring for the man…

Ane finishes scrubbing up before retiring to her wagon to plan.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-10: Bugbeard’s Brawl

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When dinner time finally rolls around, it only takes a quick glimpse outside to see a fair commotion brewing.

Off to one edge of the camp, a wide V of armed individuals approaches. Their heavy boots sink soundlessly against the spongy undersoil, while their half-polished chainmail and plate-bits shine in the torchlight. None of them bear the markings of the city guard, and it’s no wonder, because they’re not all shasii; they’re a rather motley crew, with everything from a big, patchy-bearded callosian to a lithe huikkaran with shaggy hair. 

There’s one piece that makes it all make sense: Vasht, in the center, leading this band of armored misfits towards camp. He walks proudly and with a broad smile on his face, as if feeling his first taste of relief — and triumph — in quite some time. He’s even a bit better kept today, with his hair combed and his clothes not all a-ruffle. It’s the start of what seems to be a recovery from his many sleepless hours along the road, though even that can’t account for the confidence in his posture, or the sureness in his strides.

Ane shakes her head at the distant display. He really missed his calling — he should’ve been a town guard or a sellsword, instead of a knife juggler. Now he’ll be swaggering until Jarrik manages to lose this batch of mercenaries.

 

Vasht and the group don’t head all the way into the camp, instead heading for a large rectangle marked along the ground. There’s a line down it, bisecting it so there are two sizable sections on either side. On one side stands Narue, who waits there with a quarterstaff in one hand, a round, wooden shield on the other arm, and a length of chewed tunnel reed parked between her lips.

As this scene begins to unfold, the members of the caravan gather and clump around the rectangle with their meals. Some pull up barrels, crates, or actual chairs, pressing them into service so they can watch whatever’s about to happen. 

Ane sits cross-legged on the ground, with a wooden bowl propped on her knee. Inside, a few chunks of chopon meat float in a lake of floury gravy dotted with the occasional root vegetable. It’s a bit heavy, but the biscuits are good. 

Though she doesn’t move closer to the action, it doesn’t mean she isn’t paying attention. She dips her head in between bites of biscuit, peeking at the show through the spaces between chair legs and sets of knees. 

Of course, what ensues is a long line of would-be mercenaries showing up to take a beating. Vasht must have offered a pretty substantial sign-on bonus, because there is quite a drove of them. Scanning across the lot, a fair number are just average civilians: Laborers, brawlers, bar bouncers, maybe a town guard or two down on their luck. 

Most of them end up soundly trounced (and sometimes flounced) by Narue. For all her casual, country affect, she’s able to deliver a mean beating with that stick-and-board. Some get tripped, some get jabbed in the gut, others are shoved out of the ring from a whack in the butt. Generally, she seems a cut above them, but who wouldn’t be after the shadowlands? Her victories aren’t necessarily an obstacle to someone signing on, though — several last long enough to trade blows with her, and they make a good enough effort to get a nod of approval. 

Then, of course there are the odd ones… 

A huikarran with shaggy, curly hair steps into the ring. Her bangs even come down far enough to obscure her eyes, which is really saying something for her kind. There’s a slight twitch to her movements, though granted, a huikkaran crawling on the ground never looks quite natural. And here in the ring, she’s at a clear disadvantage, whereas she might have a good leg up on foes when clinging to the side of the wagons. 

She’s scrawny, but adult-sized, though the look of her crawling about with such wiry limbs is enough to make Narue chuckle.

“Ya ain’t gonna be wearin’ that smirk fer long, feathers,” the woman threatens, as her shoulder suddenly jerks.

“We’ll see. Get up here, maybe it’ll be a smile by then,” Narue quips, to some laughter from onlookers.

Near Ane’s seat, Aedas seems to have moved a log and taken a seat. 

“Ey Ane, wanna place bets?” He leans over and whispers, “Might make this a bit more interestin’…” 

She shouldn’t. She knows she shouldn’t. And yet-

“Three scutes on Narue,” Ane says, around a cheek full of chopon.

“Deal!” Aedas grins widely.

The call is sounded, and the match commences!

Narue goes in for the strike first, noticing the odd stance of the huikkaran and hoping to catch their bad form. She sweeps the legs… And the woman hops up with all four limbs, like a spider! While she’s midair, Narue brings down an overhand strike… And the huikkaran rolls, clutching her stick and dropping the shield. She seems to have no intention of using it, but her overconfidence soon wins her a swift, wooden THOCK to the chest.

This strike sends the huikkaran reeling, still going, but almost blooded. It’ll probably leave a good bruise. Narue may not have hit many times, but when you’ve got her sort of farmgirl arms, you often only need to hit once. The fact that the huikkaran is still in the fight is to her credit.

Then, the shaggy-headed huikkaran really starts to twitch. She suddenly becomes a flurry of activity, scrambling and rolling about, each time thwapping Narue with the thick training-stick. Each one is about her arms and shins, not enough to bring her down, but it soon wears on Narue, who just can’t keep up. With a sigh, she winces and raises her shield, giving the smaller woman a good shove just to stop the assault.

“Alright, alright, I yield; you’ve proven yerself plenty.” Rather than give a thumbs-up straight away, she nods towards Vasht. “Go talk to him.”

The others are a bit in awe, both that the huikkaran “won,” but also that it didn’t mean an immediate sign-on. 

“Might be that temper’a hers,” Aedas figures. “Anyway, I kinda figured she was walkin’ good for wunna us on flat ground.”

Damn.

“Looks like I owe you for that one, then,” Ane says glumly. 

“I think so,” he beams. It’s Aedas, though; by the jovial shine of his eyes, one can tell he cares more about winning than any of the payout. He’d even probably forget the wager if left to his own devices.

Narue, a bit battered, still seems up for testing more hires. She takes a moment to drink a flagon of water and tap at her shins, but after that, she’s ready to go back at it. 

At least, she is until a looming tower of a callosian steps into the arena. He’s as wide as he is tall, too, with layers of thick muscles packed under a generous cushioning. Every visible inch of him is practically covered with hair, wherever the callosian hide permits it to exit. He’s also got a big, mean set of horns that curl right up beside his head, before tapering back behind him. They may not be great for ramming, but there’s certainly a statement being made.

“He’s like a smeerp,” Ane points out to Aedas, “All armored plates set into fuzz.”

But all of this is secondary to his big, dark, fluffy callosian beard, all patchy where it has to slip past his thick skin. It looks like he had to scratch calloused surfaces away just to let it out. It’s a rare sight; most callosians aren’t predisposed towards beardedness, but there are occasionally exceptions — particularly where their lineage blends with shasii.

As he looms over Narue, she looks up and sighs. 

“Arright, that’s hilarious. Alright. What’s the number on this wagon I’m about to be run over by?”

“Bugbeard,” he answers gruffly, with a voice thick as a fur coat. “Pleasure,” he says, then widens a wild grin.

“Ah…Like the creature, but you have a beard… Haha,” Narue says dryly, with a look of resignation about her.

On the sidelines, Aedas leans over and mutters to Ane.

“Should we even place bets on this one…?”

Ane shakes her head firmly, lips pressing into a line. Void, she wouldn’t blame Narue for stepping down from this one, though she doubts Vasht would be that much more willing to take her place.

“Yeah, I didn’t really think so… This won’t be their kinda fight,” Aedas appraises.

And when the signal is given, Narue raises her weapon and shield, and Bugbeard just…

WHOOSH.

He sprints forward at full speed, making only a token effort to keep his shield raised. Without even slowing down, he just slams with the full weight of his body into Narue. She doesn’t seem to be hurt by the collision, but it does send her stumbling. The tzuskar gets in one or two swipes, with one even connecting, but for all its impact Bugbeard doesn’t seem to give a damn. 

Instead, he just digs in his teeth, leaps forward, and…

There’s just no other way to describe it. He catches Narue in a stumble and bellyflops her into a winged pancake. Underneath, she manages to push him back for a moment… But her stick and shield are useless, and she’s very out of sorts. After that, she’s just a mess of arms and wings underneath a towering frame. Soon, Bugbeard has an arm wrapped around her head — rather than choking, he’s just flexing until she can’t breathe anymore.

“HNNN- Yield! Gah,” Narue chokes out, and Bugbeard lets go and rolls away into a crouch. Narue lays on the ground and gives a thumbs up, before shuffling off to get some water. 

There’s mild cheers and applause, as Bugbeard stands up and puffs his chest.

On the sidelines, Aedas is positively shaking with excitement. 

“Like I said Ane, this is ain’t their kinda fight… It’s mine! I gotta get in there!” He says, standing up and beginning to clamber past others.

“Aed- Aedas, no!” Ane shouts. She leans forward in an attempt to grab his wrist, ankle, something to keep him from happily bounding into the middle of the ring like an oversized gelt puppy, but all it earns her is half a bowl of chopon gravy accidentally upended in her lap.

An excited Aedas is pretty hard to deter.

While Bugbeard is grandstanding, Aedas clambers into the ring, all overmuscled and swollen with might. He raises his head of ratty blond hair in defiance, and gestures Bugbeard over with a long, bulge-ridden arm. 

“‘EY! You wanna wrestle, well, take your test with the wrestler!”

Bugbeard lets out a big, guffawing laugh, and smacks his chest with his palm. 

“That right? I just trounced yer vet’ran. Who’m I havin’ to fight now?”

“The stronnest man in these wagons, lad,” Aedas boasts, smacking one of his muscled arms under a striped sleeve.

“Well, let’s jus’ see who’s the lad, then!” Bugbeard blusters, before his heavy, booted strides charge forward.

The crowd roars, some even leap to their feet. Somewhere nearby, Brair is sloshing tankards and Jiselmo is cheering, from his perch atop Korin’s winged back. Korin seems none to pleased, but nonetheless resigned — he’s dealt with being his partner’s ersatz chair often enough before . Nelea is watching intently with hands clasped, occasionally shouting, while the triplets usher Narue away to tend to her. Ane, meanwhile, picks bits of boiled peas and chopon meat off of her trousers. Overall, quite the crowd.

By the ringside, Vasht at first opens his mouth to call a stop to this, but reconsiders. There’s an amused glint in his uncovered eye, as he crosses his arms and leans back against a nearby post, grinning. As duty-bound as he can be sometimes, apparently he can be a fool for this sort of thing too. 

In the middle, the two men are now clashed shoulder-to-shoulder, each making grabs at each other’s thighs. Presumably, the objective is to trip one another to initiate a grapple while on top. In practice, though, it looks like two bulls locking horns, or two very big men struggling to figure out how hugs work. 

Needless to say, tryouts will probably be put on hold for awhile. 

Once Ane has evicted most of her meal from her lap, she watches the fight with bated breath. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — the two competitors are evenly matched. There’s a brief,  incredulous look at Vasht, standing there with his arms crossed and a cheeky grin, then back to the wrestlers. At this rate, they’ll be here all day watching them swat at each other’s pantlegs.

In time, the two of them push each other back and their forward momentum pauses. They begin walking in circles around the arena, facing one another while they grandstand.

“Y’got arms,” Bugbeard rumbles. “But let’s see if you can put a man ‘ta the floor with ‘em!”

“I’ve tossed heavier things than ya,” Aedas rebuts, swinging his arms in preparation.

“Oh, from all the way downthar? Wun’t wanna squish yer head when ya try!” The callosian boasts, fluffing his patchy beard. There are no apparent bugs, but it does kinda look like it’s jutting out from under a shell.

Aedas, who has no riposte for this, immediately rushes Bugbeard.

This time their clash is much more kinetic, and Aedas makes a skilled grab at one of the man’s legs. His thighs are like lumber, but Aedas has flipped lumber before. In a second, the massive callosian is flat on his back. Aedas quickly leaps atop him, and their grapple becomes a complex tangle of thick limbs, bulging backs, and very loud grunts.

This, Ane muses, is more suggestive than I anticipated.

She rises from her seat, making a half-hearted attempt to brush the dirt from the backs of her legs. Really, after the incident with her bowl, these pants are going to need a thorough scrubbing anyhow. She gives up halfway through, and gathers up her dish and spoon to bring them to whatever eager caravan follower is washing dishes today. 

Today, it’s the monk. Yesterday, it was the monk. A week before that, right out of Paakoponde, it was the monk. Apparently he is a dedicated dishwasher now.

He nods his short-horned head. 

“Thank you. How were the guard tryouts? I could hear it all the way from over here,” he says warmly, nodding down towards his mobile washbasin. 

“Oddly sensual,” Ane replies, as she sets her bowl in the wash basin, “Are you sure this is what the cards had in mind when they said you should find something to challenge yourself?”

He shrugs his robed shoulders. 

“I hate washing dishes,” he explains. “It’s a very ascetic task for me to do. It also occupies me, so I don’t consume the alcohol that’s, uh, sloshing over there,” he says, motioning towards the commotion with his scrub brush. 

“I wouldn’t recommend it. Brair’s tastes are of the ‘extremely acquired’ variety.”

“Hrm. Makes me wonder where he found those tastes,” the monk figures, while idly scrubbing one side of a bowl. “Wherever it was, it was probably on fire at the time.”

In the distance, the silhouette of Brair can be seen amongst the crowd. He is very clearly running a betting racket now, collecting coinage in his recently-emptied tankard with a fresh full one in his free hand. At one point he confuses the two, and almost downs a whole mess of mitres and scutes. Fortunately, the coldness against his lip tips him off just in time. 

Ane shakes her head.

“That’s Brair for you. He’s alright, though. Won’t be anything wrong with him that a day’s rest, a few gallons of water, and some headache powder won’t fix. At any rate,” she says, as she hums down at the murky, soapy water, “Good luck with your,” A chunk of half-chewed yam floats to the top of the basin, “Lifestyle.”

“Asceticism,” he reminds her plainly. “Bye!”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-9: A Bastard’s Visit

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The next morning, Ane is woken up by the slight thunk of something landing on her wagon’s floor. The voice of Narue follows, calling from outside:

“There’s your take from the S’vargan Job! Gotta go hand out the rest. Later!”

“Mhf,” Ane replies, as her hum wavers into wakefulness and she picks her face up from her pillow. It takes her a long moment to actually realize Narue wasn’t some kind of hypnogogic hallucination — once she does, she wraps herself in her robe and goes to retrieve the source of the thump: a sizable leather pouch. It’s filled with a generous handful of coins, each imprinted with S’vargan marks, including the noble, half-veiled face of their first high priestess, flanked by tunnel-shark teeth crowns. The other side bears a handsome snake wrapped around a bundle of curly tunnel-ferns.

Twenty seven gold. Not bad for a couple of hours of work. Certainly more than she would’ve gotten had she spent the time reading cards instead. It might even be enough to fix her wagon.

Ane casts a baleful hum at the rigged-up remains of her old door. The odds of her finding a competent carpenter in a bunch of tunnels aren’t exactly good, she figures. Certainly better than finding one in Paakoponde, but far from great. She heaves a sigh as she tosses the sack through her window and onto her bed. Maybe she can use the money to bribe Brair, Aedas, or someone else who knows their way around heavy things to fix it.

Several hours later, after Ane has had enough time to complete her wake-up routine, there is a knock on what remains of her door. It’s a careful, polite, three-rap knock. There isn’t much sound otherwise, as if the person doesn’t see fit to pre-announce themselves. All she can make out is a mumbled, “… more collateral damage…”

More coll-

As far as she knows, the authorities haven’t tracked them back to the camp. Besides, that’s only relevant if they figured out what the “doctor” was up to, anyhow. What collateral damage could she possibly be responsible for? She pauses, teacup in one hand, and hums over her shoulder at the door with a wary frown.

“Who’s there?”

“Ehem. This is Jarrik. I’ll just be a moment,” the voice answers, clear and stately, as Ane hears a hum sweep up over the splintered, hanging remains of her door. Collateral damage, indeed.

“I’m just here to, ahh — congratulate you, after your performance yesterday. Wink nudge,” he explains. There’s a bit of pomp to his accent, the sort his father never had. It’s the thick, frothy fullness of a minor noble, and the swift twang of a practiced salesman. 

Ane stills her sight-hum with an inward groan. Somehow, she anticipates that this congratulations will also come with a request to donate her take to the caravan’s guard budget. 

Nevertheless, she rises from the vulre-hide rug and goes to answer the door. (At least, as much as the dilapidated thing can be answered.) She pokes her head around one cockeyed half, eyeing the caravan master with a wary hum.

“Hello, Jarrik.”

When her gaze lands on him, he’s quite the display of respect and contrition. For all his brass buttons, thick lapels, and the embellished curve of his waxed moustache, he looks rather odd with his hat off. His hair is slick and parted down the middle, where normally it would be hidden underneath — as if he deliberately styled it in anticipation of this moment. The hat, with its three feet of diameter and its big, fluffy dervallo “feather,” lays across his breast, clasped in one hand.

“Hello, Ane,” he says crisply. “My condolences for your door… But, most importantly: Congratulations on a game well played!” He boasts, spreading his arms. It  gives a full view of his impeccably tailored striped shirt, and a glimpse of the jewelled dagger tucked into his soft leather belt. 

“I heard tell of your scheme this morning, after returning from my, ahm, constitutional,” he says, faking a cough. “It does me proud to hear of you bringing all of them together so effectively!”

How much is the dagger worth? She prices that feather out at a pretty sum, too. Meanwhile, she, a pair of actors, an unpaid mercenary, three burlesque dancers, a very perplexed monk, and Jarrik’s more-or-less self-proclaimed captain of the guard were pressed into saving the day with paint, liquor, herbs, and garbage.

“You’re welcome, Jarrik. How’re we going to fix my door?” 

He lofts his brow and pooches his lips, looking down at the damage with a whistle. 

“Hrm, well… I do suppose we can have a carpenter sent for you. It is S’varga, home to a lumber-less people, but I’m sure something can be done.” When he looks back to her, he smiles wide till his teeth shine. The edges do reach his swirls, though there’s a sinister edge to its feigned sincerity. Any man could half-assedly fake a smile, but Jarrik… Jarrik reads on the subject, and simulates both the smile and the squint. 

“It’s a paltry thing, really. Purely within our power. In any case,” he sweeps an arm, gesturing out with his fur-lined cloak. “The day calls, and there’s much to do. Do you require anything else? I am glad to show my appreciation for the, ah, enterprising spirit,” he flourishes. 

“No, I just want my door fixed,” Ane says firmly, as she withdraws into her wagon again. She can feel herself about to be pulled into one of Jarrik’s schemes if she keeps accepting his effusive praise, and the thought alone is enough to make her teeth itch. 

“Very well!” He calls after her. Now behind the door, he lets out a sigh of relief, and smiles with contentment. “Then I shall be off.” He says, taking a moment to test at his sideburns and moustache with his fingertips. A trace of fragrant powder comes off on the tips of his fingers, remnants of an attempt to turn his dark hair a distinguished salt-and-pepper. Venerability establishes credibility, his father always said. 

“Good day, Ane!” He bids her, his pomp thick as oatmeal, as his footsteps fade into the distance. 

Ane returns to her position beside her stove, and fills her cup with fresh tea. Part of her wants to continue working in the bound book of cattail paper spread out in front of her, but something about dealing with Jarrik also makes her feel as if she’s been coated in a thin sheen of frozen slime. 

Or powdered moustache wax.

She closes her book with a sigh, giving it a little push to slide it into the open cupboard beneath her bed.

Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s sudden infusion of cash has delayed the first workday. Instead of skipping breakfast and raising the call as they normally would in a big city, the caravan instead takes time to let things settle. After all, it’s best to avoid bringing customers (or, more accurately, outsiders) into camp while it’s still unguarded.

This means that, next time Ane steps out into the open, it’s mealtime all over again. 

The glint of armor is almost purely absent in the camp. Most of the remaining mercenaries seem to have departed, presumably to aid in recruiting more. Even Vasht has gone to see to it, in pursuit of both safety and several hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

At breakfast, the troupe is filled with laughter and, for the first time in too long, joy. There’s nothing but praise for Ane and her cohorts, along with smiles and slaps on the back. Korin and Vasht went around in the late hours, paying out ten mitres to anyone who was robbed earlier in the week… And share a somewhat-exaggerated story  of how cleverly they came by the money.

It’s also a story about swindling people out of their hard-earned coin, but that, for the moment, is beside the point. A cook who gets punished for spending their master’s grocery money foolishly is still a far cry from the caravan dying to the next pack of bandits, as far as Ane and company are concerned.

When she sits down to eat, there’s plenty of laughter and jovial congratulations for her efforts. Brair at one point pats her back so firmly that it jostles her plate, and even Nelea provides a few gentle pats on the back, knowing that the caravan master’s plots might have been worse. When the praise grows too great, Jiselmo steals the attention, weaving more yarns about all that transpired. At some points he embellishes — a daring chase from guards, Korin fencing a rival merchant, Jiselmo winning over the hearts of young ladies with his plight… 

“Yes, you and your boils,” Korin cuts in, in a voice as flat as his plate. 

Ane accepts it all with thanks, though she’s reluctant to talk about the scheme itself. Jiselmo’s having enough fun spinning his tall tales, Korin seems to be enjoying himself yanking Jiselmo back to reality, why spoil it? She doesn’t stick around long after she’s finished eating, either — she passes her plate to whichever caravan follower has taken on dishwashing duty, bids everyone a good rest-of-the-day, and retires to her wagon. She could go into the city to replenish some supplies she hadn’t been able to get in Paakoponde, but it might be a bit premature for that. Even though they were mostly disguised and managed to avoid trouble from the city guards, it might be a bad idea to saunter back in to spend her ill-gotten gold.

Besides, grift or no grift, the caravan hasn’t started working yet. They might be flush with funds for the moment, but most of those are already spoken for — repairs and mercenaries don’t come cheap. The sixty-odd gold she has right now are starting to burn a hole in her pocketbag, but they’re going to have to last her for a long while after they’ve put S’varga behind them.

Better to settle in in front of her stove with another book and some geltsear leaf tea and while away the hours. All the better to prepare herself for the next commotion.

(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-8: Marry My Daughter, Doctor Lartimus

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After much setup, the caravan undertakes its next big venture to return gold to its purse. With a bit of chicanery, a large amount of bottles and paint, and a whole heap of gurr-shit, the caravan begins The S’vargan Job.

First, Narue the mercenary procures an alosin, a long-necked, maned thing with sound, sturdy hoppin’ legs. She’s familiar with the thing and able to lead it easily enough, before the rest load it down with “Miraculous Concoction.” The beast is a rather helpful feature to have; though the bottles clatter as it hops, it certainly carries more than the lot of them could. Besides, it can easily trot at walking pace to reduce the odds of a big old mess in its saddlebags.

On the way towards the city wall, Vasht directs the group around to a side-gate. It’s a bit more obscure, and makes it seem less like the group is coming from the caravan. On the way through, some of the sleepy guards startle, then scoff at the display. 

“Loony foreigners,” one chainmailed shasii mutters. 

“Just peddlers, mister,” Narue says, with a disarming smile.

“Right, right, get on with you then,” the guard huffs, waving them onward. “Don’t steal anything.”

Inside the walls, the architecture is of much the same style. Even the low buildings are overwhelming, with their own spikes and spires all adorning the top. And somehow, each building is built with its neighbors in mind. It’s such that the toothlike pattern of one rooftop blends with the next, each piece complementing one another. It’s as if one artist had his way with an entire skyline, sculpting it to his whims.

The streets are crowded near the gate, bustling with merchants and locals alike. The crowds are almost exclusively shasii, though tzuskar and huikkarans are also occasionally seen. It’s a good thing the group didn’t decide to include any callosians; they would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

It’s a short walk to reach a square near one of the outlying markets. Jiselmo, despite being dressed as a beggar, often points for the proper street or alleyway to take. He seems to have a rather good sense of the place, however long its been since he last navigated the winding streets. A couple of times, he even manages to divert the group away from a group of cutthroats, who tend to wear gentlemanly garb that matches their stilettos. 

The clearing is a perfect medium; near a market to get good foot-traffic, but not adjacent any apothecaries or herbalists. There aren’t even many guards around to hassle them. What’s more, a fountain in the center serves as a rather nice draw, with people tossing coins into it as tribute to their god, the Wanderer. 

Upon arrival, the group shifts its gaze towards Ane.

Jiselmo waggles his eyebrows. “Shall we begin?”

Ane parks one silver-ringed hand on her paste-gemmed hip, and gives the group a firm nod. 

“Let’s go.”

They all nod to one another, and commence setting up. They park the alosin in front of the fountain, where Narue bids it to sit. Vasht lays out a blanket and begins setting bottles all along the edges. Jiselmo runs away to beg.

Korin finds a dry spot on the fountain’s base, and pins up the glorious sign:

 

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

(the heat lets you know it’s working!)

 

He strides proudly into the middle of the display, and motions for the others to flank it. Even before he begins to speak, people stop and stare — mostly at the sign and its oddly-dressed attendants. 

Korin puffs out his chest before belting out a thick, booming voice.

“GREETINGS, CITIZENS OF S’VARGA! It is I, Doctor Lartimus,” he declares, with a sweeping bow, and a tone that implies he’s known by all. At his call, a few obedient souls begin to gather in front of the display. 

“I have come from far and wide,” he continues, “And borne witness to a terrible plague: FATIGUE, APATHY, IMPOTENCE, and worst of all, CURDLED HUMORS.” He leans forward, wiggling his hands in a most menacing fashion. “Through the finest alchemy and most importantly, vitogeonomy, I have derived a cure: MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION!”

He raises up one of the carefully-sealed bottles.

A shocked crowd of house-peoples and errant servants watches in awe, exchanging blank looks. None of them have heard of “vitogeonomy,” but it sounds enough like something important that it has them hooked. Korin has a rather stately look about him, too. Truly, a face as dour and serious as his couldn’t be that of a con-artist. Void, just looking at his scowl makes them feel ill.

Now that he has everyone’s attention, Korin begins to rattle off his pitch.

“With MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION, all of your ills shall be CLEANSED and HEALED!” He clenches his fist for emphasis, shaking with passion as the other holds his life’s work. “It reduces boils, it regrows hair, it puts the vim back in your vigor and the spring into your step! It even cleans dishes! All you need to do is take a swig, gulp it down fast, and swish it ‘round in your belly! And remember folks…”

As if compelled, his “assistants” shout in one voice. 

“The heat lets you know it’s working!”

A crotchety howl rises from the crowd. 

“I DON’T BUY IT! Yer conkeckshun works? WELL PROVE IT, BEANPOLE,” heckles an old beggar, with a mud-smeared face and a neck encrusted with boils. Underneath all the grime (and generous slatherings of greasepaint), Jiselmo’s fine hair and youth are unrecognizable.

“Very well, good sir, step right up,” Korin urges him, motioning for the man to approach.

The man hobbles forward, supporting his weight on a gnarled stick. His gait is slow and unsteady, his course to the front is agonizingly slow. When he reaches the front, Korin shoves an unsealed bottle into his free hand. 

“Toss it back, good sir, and you’ll feel like a lad all over again!”

“BEH! We’ll see,” the codger scoffs, accepting the drink. 

He brings it to his lips and tosses his head back. The man makes loud, noticeable gulps, as his adam’s apple dips up and down theatrically. Fortunately, the group’s audience misses the small bag pooched beside his cheek, concealed under his palm. It receives all of the drink, draining the bottle over halfway, before he gasps with refreshment, wipes his lips, stealthily flings the bag into the fountain in a feat of cunning legerdemain.

“Well, it sure does hekkin’ burn,” he mutters, looking at the drink appraisingly.

People in the crowd begin to look at one another in suspense, expecting something to happen. There are raised eyebrows and exchanged whispers, as gentlefolk all peer over one another’s shoulders to see.

“Why… I feel a… a TINGLE,” the codger declares with a whoop. His limbs begin to shake and tremble, so much so that he tosses his cane aside. His posture straightens, vertebrae by vertebrae, until he stands tall like a young man. One can almost hear the popping sound of each snapping back into place. He lets out a wild howl, frantically patting his hands across his neck. When he moves them aside, the makeupped-on boils and blemishes are gone.

“WOOOHOO! I’MA GO TO THE BROTHEL! SEE YA LATER, FOOLS!”

With that, Jiselmo breaks off into a full, sprightly run towards the nearest alley. He’s gone in a flash, leaving behind nothing in his wake but an audience of awed viewers.

There’s a pregnant silence. Ane can feel the tension settling on her like an itchy blanket — as her hum roves over the expectant faces of the crowd, she bites her lip to bottle her tense, unwilling laughter. 

Korin clears his throat, blushing.

“Now, you too may have MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION, For the LOW, LOW PRICE of only TEN MI-”

“I’ll take five!”

“I’ll take ten!”

“MARRY MY DAUGHTER, Doctor Lartimus!

“-FIFTEEN MITRES!” Korin concludes.

Suddenly, the group is positively swamped. S’vargans surround the group on all sides, grabbing for bottles. Narue and Vasht can only barely keep them back. Korin holds up a small basket to receive payment, and begins getting pelted by gold. People are throwing away their monthly salary, their allowances, and even the money servants receive to pay for their master’s groceries.

Korin looks back to Ane with a smile and a sly wink as the coin begins to pile up. 

Ane smiles broadly. It’s all she has to do to avoid applauding his performance as she begins handing out bottles and collecting money.

“Ten mitres, thank you,” she says with a saucy flutter of her hum and coquettish cock of her hip as bottles and money change hands. Sometimes, it helps net a few extra coins at the tail end of a card reading. Today, there simply isn’t time — the demand is faster than she can keep up with. 

“Th- Ten mitres, thank y- That’ll be ten m-.” Had she many limbs, like the Progenitors, she might be able to pass out bottles and collect coins fast enough. Since she does not, it takes a considerable effort to keep the crowd from fighting over the rapidly-vanishing bottles of “concoction.”

The money is piling up at an almost alarming rate. 

The way we’re going, Ane thinks dryly to herself, half of these poor bastards are going to end up signing on to be caravan guards just to recoup some of their coin.

Time passes, as bottles and coins continue to fly. A generous pile accumulates in Jiselmo’s basket, and about a third of the bottles are gone. Korin smiles as the coins glitter, though he maintains his stately composure all the while. Had it been Jiselmo, he’d have the look of a grinning Daezra by now.

Someone is shouting at the edge of the crowd, but they can scarcely be heard over the din of sales being made. Only snatches of words come through. 

“… Not true! … Vitogeonomy isn- It’s all… Nonsense!”

No one in the crowd is listening, of course, and they continue to pay vigorously.

Vasht and Narue look to Ane for direction. Apparently they consider her to be the one that decides how long they all stay in. 

Ane’s lips form a frown as she hums over the crowd, trying to pinpoint the voice of the dissenter. It might be a little early to drop the ruse just yet, but it might also be a good time to figure out how to maneuver that voice into the fountain…

Of course, her vigilant scrutiny serves another purpose, too. The second she spots a guard uniform, it’s high time to cut their losses and hie back to the caravan.

Peeking about, Ane’s able to spy the source of the voice. It appears to be a portly old shasii, gray in the hair and red about the face. He seems absolutely furious, though no one’s really listening to him. He’s certainly no guard, though his impotent rage doesn’t threaten to lose steam anytime soon.

She doesn’t move her hum from him, as she leans over and mutters to Vasht.

“The second that codger leaves or a guard shows up, we’re out.”

Vasht nods dutifully, keeping his eyes sharp.

The sales continue, and the gold piles up without slowing. It even overfills the small basket, and Korin is left collecting it in the pockets of his jacket and trousers. The others are stuffing it into the saddlebags of the alosin, stashing away as much as they can. 

“… an OUTRAGE!”

Right at that moment, the merchant screws up his swirls, then turns and dashes off. There’s practically steam exuding from his long, droopy ears, while his coattails flap behind him. 

As soon as he turns, Vasht gives Korin the signal.

“Well sorry folks, I must be away to go give alms to the orphanage! FAREWELL, AND GOOD HEALTH!”

The doctor then leaps up onto the alosin, swinging a leg over it and mounting the stirrups. Narue and Vasht tear down the banner and tuck all the gold safely away, moving with swift efficiency borne from years of dodging guards.

Ane scrunches her face as she clambers aboard the creature. There are no stirrups left for her, so she tenses her legs around the saddlebags and loops her arms around Korin’s waist. 

“It was believable until the bit about the orphans. Anyway, let’s go!”

“Orphans are important!” He shouts in protest, and kicks the alosin into a running leap. “Hyah!” He shouts, sounding much less gallant than most.

“Sure!” Ane shouts back, “But I can’t picture you dropping sacks of gold off to ‘em!”

With the alosin and the speed of flight, the entire group moves far faster than the old merchant. It only takes minutes for the animal to bound out the city gates, slowing only for Korin to wave to the guards. They wave back, before he kicks off again at full speed.

By the time everyone reconvenes at the camp, there’s no sign of guards on their tail. In fact, they looped around so thoroughly, that even the wall guards could never have followed their course. Korin practically stumbles face-first off the alosin, planting into a fuzzy patch of mycelium on the ground. Vasht and Narue arrive a few moments later, landing next to the others. 

Jiselmo is already there when they arrive, still in his beggar’s garb. He’s smoking a pipe filled with puffroot; most likely “borrowed” from Ane’s wagon.

“Compatriots, partners in capitalism! How go the earnings?” He asks, while offering a hand to help Korin up off the ground.

Ane bounds nimbly down from the creature, before gently massaging a spot on her lower back. She doesn’t ride often, if she can help it — alosins are useful saddle animals, but, at high speeds, their scrambling hop is far from comfortable. Even after what amounted to a short jaunt, her back and thighs ache.

“Beats me. It seemed to work pretty well, though I’ve no idea what we’re going to do with the rest of these bottles,” she admits. 

Narue wanders over and pats one of the saddlebags. “One of us could try to hawk it on a black market. We’d get much less for more risk, but it’s an option,” she figures.

“I could do that. What do you think, Ane?” Jiselmo asks, taking a drag from his pipe.

Vasht’s expression seems disapproving. 

Ane hums at the saddlebag for a long moment. They’re not nearly as bulgey as they were before — they must’ve unloaded at least a third of the concoction — but it’s still a lot. Having some extra doesn’t bother her much, each bottle was made with only a few copper bits’ worth of ingredients — but they do represent a lost opportunity.

She exhales a sigh that puffs out her cheeks, before giving the saddlebags a dismissive flap of her hand. At this point, she’ll be happy to be well shut of the whole affair.

“Vasht knows how much money Jarrik needs to pull our asses out of the fire. Do what you want, I’m going to go wash this mess off.”

Vasht raises a hand and speaks up, “Wait! Before you go, there’s one last matter… the take.” He looks towards the saddlebags containing the coins, all bulging conspicuously at the bottom. “There’s probably about seven-hundred and fifty gold in there. Most people probably lost about ten gold in the robbery. How much goes to us, to the caravan, and to the people who lost in the raid?”

He looks towards Ane, raising an eyebrow. This of course makes his eye-wing flutter, bapping his cheek. 

“I’ll defer to Ane,” Jiselmo says in a puff of smoke, “Though I personally enjoy getting paid for a grift…”

Ane turns around, paused halfway to leaving. She gives Vasht an annoyed frown and another, more dramatic wave of her arm.

“How’n the Void should I know? I tossed all my money in the costume closet, pawned two bags of puffroot off on some ugly bastard, and he fucked off. You know how much money Jarrik needs for guards, you do it.” She turns around again, grumpy from a combination of saddle-soreness and hot, itchy greasepaint with bits of alosin hair stuck in it, and begins to walk off mid-mutter.

Vasht shrugs turns back to the group. In her absence, they deliberate about what to do with the money. At some point it gets Korin and Jiselmo into a theatrical tussel, but that’s the tenor of just about any negotiation they’re party to. 

As long as they don’t get put to the sword in the next bandit attack, Ane considers a bath a far more pressing concern. While they argue, deliberate, and haggle over their respective cuts of the gold, she finds a spot on the bank of the geyser-fed stream, a sliver of soap, and a clean washrag to begin scrubbing clown paint from her skin. They water has an oddly sulfurous, mineral quality that’s makes washing clothes and dishes a bit of a challenge (scrubbing the paint from her tablecloth is going to be a struggle), but it certainly feels nice on sore muscles. 

It’s a brief return to relaxation.

(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-7: The Miraculous Concoction

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Ten minutes later, Vasht the knife thrower is well at work gathering the ingredients for the big plan. Gathering materials and accomplices for a scheme is always quite an undertaking. Even now, Vasht knocks urgently on Brair the fire-eater’s door. When the door opens, Vasht speaks in a hurried clip. 

“Brair, I need some liquor, some hot peppers, and all your empty bottles.”

“Uh, sure,” the scaled callosian mutters, moving slowly to grab something from behind him. He moves at an almost glacial pace, causing Vasht to bite his lower lip with impatience.

Vasht rushes in, followed by a clattering noise, then rushes back out with a heap of liquor, bottles, and izash peppers piled into his empty laundry hamper.

“Thank you, Brair, I’ll tell you later, goodbye,” he bids him, and wanders off to the next task.

“Alright… Sounds fun though, gotta be a scheme,” Brair grumbles, and wanders back into his wagon before shutting the door to nurse his hangover. “I wanna do a scheme…”

Next is the clown. Vasht cringes at the notion of having to talk to him. As social as the knife-thrower can be, he really doesn’t like the vibe of that man. He simply can’t fathom asking him for anything…

So instead of doing that, he wanders up to the clown’s window and picks the latch. 

 

After that, it only takes a bit of pawing around towards the huikkaran’s “vanity” to find the paint. At one point, his palm hits a rubber nose, causing a loud, “Squee-wook!” A shiver runs all the way through Vasht, and he dashes off with the paint (and an empty bottle from the clown’s dresser full of something he’d rather not question).

As for Dynkala’s pestle and mortar, well… he knocks on her window shutter, and in seconds, the smiling, wizened face is there to greet him. 

“Dynkala, I need your … Bowl, and, uh, grindy thing, to, erm, herbs,” he explains, mostly with hand gestures. “Urgently.”

“Why, sure dear,” she agrees. Shortly, a scarved limb hands it over from out of view, followed by a strange monotone:

“Enjoy the shenanigans. It is good to enjoy one’s youth,” Vaidna drones. “Also, here are the bottles you forgot,” the scarf-covered interrupter adds, and pours several into his basket.

And then, off he goes.

Now for recruiting. For these, he hits each wagon rapidly in order. First, the actors:

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

“Korin, I need you — and your pet blabrel — to go to Ane’s wagon in an hour. Bring empty bottles.”

“Whaa-” Korin stammers.

“Ooh, a grift!” Jiselmo chimes.

Slam.

Then again… This time, the conjoined dancing triplets.

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

“Wila, Vila, Zila, I need all of you to go to Ane’s wagon in an hour. Bring empty bottles.”

“What?” “Why?” “SURE!”

Slam.

Knock, knock, knock…

“Wait. You don’t have a room,” he mutters, realizing that he’s just knocking on a storage wagon’s door.

“It’s open!” Narue the wagon-less mercenary calls from above, and peers over the edge of the wagon’s roof. 

Vasht blinks at her.

“I need you to-”

She flaps a hand lazily. 

“Yeah, yeah, get all bottles and go to Bones’ wagon, I gotcha,” she tells him. “Really, as if I couldn’t hear you from up here!”

“Errh. Damn.” He looks around. “Slam.”

Then he runs off.

 

A half an hour later, there’s more insistent knocking — this time on Ane’s door.

When she glances out, there is a ridiculous crowd of people, including Vasht with a basket full of stuff. The triplets float nearby, and the actors sit on the edges of her wagon’s small porch. Narue is standing off to the side, and the monk managed to invite himself — even without a formal invite, he seems to have tagged along regardless.

“Assembled,” Vasht says grumpily, and blows a pinion off of his cheek. The bottles in his basket clatter together with the motion. 

Ane pokes her head through her still-broken door. She’s wrestled it aside for the occasion, all the better to allow for easy ingress and egress for the ragtag troupe. Her arms are full of a veritable riot of water-stained silks, balding velvet, and faded cotton — enough that she has to crane her neck to see everyone.

“Alright… You,” she says, pointing at the callosian Eternalist with her elbow, “You lot are good at writing, right? Neat letters and whatnot?”

Generally, the whole group looks pretty bewildered.

The monk looks pensive for a moment. 

“Well, we are all taught to write from a young age. I’m not the best at calligraphy in my class, but I am passable,” he replies.

“Great!” Ane replies eagerly, as she drops the pile of clothing on the threshold of her wagon with a flump

She disappears back into its interior, before emerging a moment later with a folded-up bit of cattail paper. Leaning over to hand it to the man, she points to the brocade tablecloth staked out on the spongy ground. “Take this, and the paint, and do it to that. Don’t worry about what it says, just work on making it look professional. Wila, Vila, and Zila, take the peppers and mortar and pestle, and get as many of them mashed as you can. Jiselmo, Korin, Vasht, and Narue, come inside for a minute. ”

The monk puzzles over the tablecloth. 

“You mean copy? Like a sign?” He asks, while the others bustle into the huddle.

“Just like it is on the paper!” Ane calls out, as she heads back into her wagon.

The triplets all shrug in unison, and take the materials. Wila begins the task dutifully, while Zila curses and mutters. 

“You’re making it splash, sis! There are nine eyes to watch out for here.”

As for the other four, they all give each other a look, before stepping forward into Ane’s wagon. The three tzuskar all have to hunch low and fold their wings tight, lest they knock something over or flap each other about. Jiselmo, being a shasii, just ducks down under the rest of them and crouches on the floor so he doesn’t take feathers to the face.

Once inside, they are greeted by the sight of…

A lot of laundry. There are several piles, none of which seem to make sense. Nonetheless, Ane begins doling them out, carefully choosing who to allocate which pile to.

“First, Korin,” she says, handing the dour tzuskar a velveteen greatcoat, linen trousers, silk cravat,  muslin shirt, and long brocade scarf. 

He furrows his brow at the clothes, with a mutter.

“This looks like something Jiselmo’d wear…”

“And Jiselmo,” she continues, handing him what looks like the dregs of a city’s rubbish pile. There might be pants and shirt in there somewhere, but it’s hard to tell under all of the stains and patches.

“This looks like something Korin’d wear…” He snickers.

“And Narue,” she moves on down the line, handing the mercenary a tiered skirt, ruffled bandeau, and wide, painted leather belt with ribbons for laces.

“Oh my. It’s fancier than all the dances I’ve ever crashed,” she comments, plucking at the ribbons.

“And Vasht,” she hands him what may have once been either a heavy skirt or the bottom of a long coat of patterned velvet, cut to knee length, and a pair of silk scarves. 

“I get to wear clothes with this, right?” Vasht asks, though no one answers.

“So… Find somewhere to put those on, I’ve got stuff to do and there’s no Void-damned room in here.”

While they dress, she rummages through her stash of herbs. There’s the puffroot, of course, maybe some mint and fennel seed. Nothing too exotic or expensive, and just enough of each to make their fragrant presence known. The triplets are mashing the peppers, the monk is lettering, everyone else is trying to figure out what in the name of Animus she’s dressing them as, and Ane…

Ane is beginning to fill bottles. All the bottles, mismatched as they are. There are bottles of ale, jugs, little bottles that once held resin gum, amber tincture bottles, swirled glass lachrymatories… No bottle goes ignored.

First, a generous dollop of spicy izash pepper paste. Then, an equally generous helping of shredded puffroot. She tops each one off with a heavy pinch of powdered mint, and another of fennel seed. Lastly, she pours a generous measure of Brair’s surrendered liquor into each. 

A short time later, they all return wearing the required outfits. Jiselmo and Korin are now doing impressions of one another’s affects, and they are really far too good at it — with Korin flipping his hair, and Jiselmo sniffing and furrowing his brow. Narue does a spin in her new outfit, feeling rather elegant this evening. As for Vasht, he shoved on the required outfit and decided to follow instructions. As a result, more of him is on display than he seems strictly happy about — from a tattooed expanse of chest, to his toned lower legs. Still, he seems willing to shrug it off. It’s no different than a half-light show.

Ane holds an armful of different bottles of the clown’s paint, filched from the monk in the midst of his writing. She can’t see the colors in each, but it doesn’t really make a difference for her purposes.

“Now, Narue,” she says, as she dips a finger into the greasy mixture. “Take these two bottles, and paint yourself wherever you can reach. Like this.” she draws a white line around the other woman’s upper arm, fringing it with small triangles and lining it with fingertip-width dots of color. 

“Ooh, I get the fun job,” she says with measured joy, and gets to painting her self with triangles, squares, rhombuses and the like. 

“And Va-,” Ane dips another fingertip in a different bottle — red, though she can’t tell — and turns to the knife-thrower. She pauses, frowning at him quizzically for a moment as she hums him over. “Animus alive, when’d you get so big?” 

Ane doesn’t often leave her tent during Half-Light Shows. In her mind, Vasht had never stopped being a skinny, mop-haired teenager — just taller, grumpier, and with more scars. In lieu of a demonstration, she just thrusts a pair of bottles at him before turning away to continue assembling the rest of the plot. 

Vasht shrugs his shoulders. 

“I have to throw heavy things,” he explains.

“If you’re done painting… I need you to take these candles, and seal the bottles,” she says, offering him some of her cave bee wax candles. Wasting them on sealing bottles will deplete her store, but having candles to burn isn’t nearly as important as having guards to make sure they don’t all get murdered in their beds.

The callosian monk, having finished his prior task, now stares down with abject confusion at the candles and bottles. Rather than ask questions, he figures he ought not interrupt, and begins to seal each bottle, making trips into the wagon to melt the wax on Ane’s stove.

“Vila, Wila, and Zila, once Narue’s done painting herself, I need you to do her hair and makeup. Everyone else’s, too — the more disguised, the better. You can use mine, I’ve got enough of it lying around. I’ve got a few more things to do.”

“Not a problem,” Wila says with authority. She’s been doing the makeup for the other two for years, and she presses her sisters into service helping her do-up everyone else. 

Soon enough, they all finish with their respective tasks. By the time the triplets are finished, practically no one looks like themselves — even down to the occasional added birthmark, longer nose, or carefully-applied bit of prosthetic putty. 

As soon as the last forehead is daubed with pancake makeup, Ane emerges from the costume cabinets at the rear of the wagon. Like the others, she’s dressed up in a barely recognizable fashion. A wide indigo scarf of nubbly raw silk trimmed in silver embroidery serves as a skirt — a paste gem brooch secures it at her hip, leaving a generously long opening for one pale, painted leg to emerge. Like Narue, she has a ruffled bandeau tied around the swell of her bosom, and bold, geometric designs adorning her arms. A brass chain encircles her stomach, with a large, teardrop-shaped glass pearl dangling just below the shallow dip of her navel. Her hair is still braided with its twists and flourishes, now fixed in place with silver pins capped by more glass pearls. The effect is, at the very least, unusual — any onlooker would have trouble pinning down whatever corner of Uruvalei she hails from. 

“Alright,” Ane says, adjusting one pearl-decked pin. “So, you’re all probably wondering what this is all about. Monk,” she nods to the man, “Hold up the sign.”

When he does, his handiwork is unfurled for all of the others to see:

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

(the heat lets you know it’s working!)

 

They all gasp in awe.

“You, Korin,” she gestures to the actor with a painted hand, “Are the good doctor. Jiselmo,” she says, turning to his compatriot,“Is the one he’s going to heal. The three of us are your assistants from a foreign land, there to make sure you don’t get fucking robbed or decide to spend all the money on props.”

Korin puffs out his chest and adjusts his collar. “My mum always did want me to be a doctor…”

“And my mom always told me I’d be a beggar or an invalid. Now I can be both!” He grins. “That’ll show ‘er, eh?”

“You’re a regular overachiever, Jiselmo,” Ane says flatly. 

Narue, now fully makeupped and painted, speaks up.

“So, do we just… Go to a town square and start hollering?”

“Pretty much,” Ane shrugs, “Preferably one far away from a legitimate apothecary.”

“Good idea,” Vasht agrees. “We might have to make a break for it, if some sort of Union or Guild comes after us.”

Narue nudges one of the bottles. “How are we going to carry all of these? Vasht’s laundry basket?”

“I’d hope not. My clothes would smell of izash pepper for months,” he replies.

“Pinch a handcart? Load up an alosin?” Ane suggests, “There’re some crates full of old costumes in my wagon that we could use, but we’d still be carrying them all by hand.”

Narue smirks, flapping the attendant wing. 

“Not a problem. The guards get a couple of alosins; we can just use one of those. I’ll grab it on the way.” 

“Well, everyone in the camp probably knows about this anyway,” Korin sighs. “We haven’t been subtle or anything.”

Ignoring Korin, Vasht adds, “And the alosin means we have a quick get-away. Jiselmo and Ane can use it in a pinch, while the three of us fly away.”

Ane flaps a hand. 

“We’ll be fine. Just get the alosin and some saddlebags, and let’s get this over with — this paint is heavy and sticky, I’ve no idea how the clown stands it.”

“Insanity,” Korin says flatly. 

And on that note, the triplets and the monk all head off and pretend none of this happened. There’s the sound of banter as they exit, though it’s hard to tell which sister the callosian is talking to.

For everybody else, the grift is underway.

(Thank you for reading! Please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! Best, P&R.)