Teller of Fortunes 17: The Right Questions

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It doesn’t take long for awestruck locals to creep into the carvan’s campgrounds.

The calls of the barkers and entertainers comes through the tent walls, tales of the bizarre and the awesome muffled by the thick canvas. Sometimes the noise is enough to remind one of the surroundings, but generally, it’s just muted enough to give a very separate sense of place for the Teller of Fortunes. Though of course, the sights and smells do much more to create that illusion of travelling elsewhere…

Soon, someone decides to make that journey. 

A thick-skinned, curl-horned callosian steps through the tent’s opening, sweeping the flap back with a wide forearm. His skin is tinted differently than most of his kind, probably a deep sort of blue, while his hair hangs long and dark, partly bound into a braid beside his temple. Otherwise, he looks like many men of his kind: wide of jaw, broad of build, and bearing almost shield-like forearms. The only other departure are the half-robes he wears, covering all of his body save for the deep-diving “V” collar typical of fuhajen Eternalist monks. Apparently not all of them are fuhajen, though this one has the look of a man of mixed ancestry.

“Hello,” he says kindly, looking about as he enters. He holds his arms close to his sides at first, wary of accidentally knocking anything over. 

The Teller of Fortunes offers the man a smile, humming over the idle shuffling of her cards.

“Greetings! It’s five silver for three cards, and five more for every three thereafter,” she says, her voice pitched in an almost musical purr. She gestures to the cushions in front of her table with a gentle bow of her head. “Please, sit, and let us find the answers you seek.”

The man beams at her hospitality, his thick jaw making his smile look all the wider.

 “Very well. Let’s see what the Shards have in store,” he agrees, and strides over to the cushions. Where most callosians might ‘lumber’ in such a cramped environment, he moves with a careful, trained sort of grace. Once there, he descends into a cross-legged position and draws five silver from his belt pouch. 

She keeps a practiced hum on her cards, as she quietly surveys the man’s face from the edge of her perception. He doesn’t seem old, but clean-living monks can be deceiving. Still, if he had other options, he would likely not have joined a religious order. He seems to be a half-breed, so at least one parent may not be in the picture, if he chose to leave home and join a religious order… Fortunately, he also seems relaxed and jovial, so there’s less pressure on her to perform.

“Do you have any specific questions you wish to have answered?” She asks, as the cards dive and flip between her fingers.

The man seems pensive, pillowing his chin upon the back of his hand. 

“Hmm… Does it matter if I ask a big question, or does it need to be personal?” He asks, then adds with a chuckle, “Also, that’s not the question; I don’t think djinn-logic applies here…” 

A vague smile curves her lips. 

“No, it doesn’t matter — the cards can answer either.”

“Alright then,” he nods, then asks, “What shall be the fate of the fallen sun?” He asks casually, as if asking about the weather next week — though the notion is something most Kindlers (or even Void-fans) would balk at as blasphemous. The Sun shattered more than eight-hundred years ago, after all, and only the most audacious religious orders pronoucne things about it — certainly not the Eternalist monks.

The fate of the who in the what now?

Beneath her veil, the Teller of Fortunes’s brows knit slightly. Fucking Eternalists.

She shuffles her cards a bit more quickly, and divides them into three piles. Her hand hovers briefly over each, feeling for the faint call — a tingle in her fingers, a subtle raising of the tiny hairs on her arm, a little jolt that says here, this — to tell her which to pick. 

She turns a card over.

“The Rogue upright. Usually, it represents cleverness and cunning. Here, it may indicate that the fate of the fallen sun is not ours to worry about — creation has its own rhythms, its own plans, its own conception of intelligence and the way things ought to be.”

She hopes the trail of smoke from the katagon bowl is enough to hide the relief in her smile. So far, so good.

The man lofts his brows, his expression light — somewhere between pensive and amused, though not in any sort of theatric or mocking way. Perhaps it’s the sort of amusement that comes from a curious surprise. “Interesting answer. A few religions disagree, but I’d say it’s at least above myself,” he figures. “I have no plans to go hauling shard-hunks antyime soon… So then, whose concern is it?”

Whose concern? If only her deck could be so specific… Still, she turns over the next card.

“The Oyster upright. It will be the concern of those who are self-sufficient, who have created boundaries for themselves. Oysters are also lowly animals, still and quiet enough to be mistaken for rocks. So, it is those who don’t seek glory — who are mild, self-supporting, and unconcerned with the troubles of the world. In short — it is whoever seems least likely.”

Oysters also only qualify as “sentient” through what is, at best, a technicality, but she tactfully leaves that part out.

The man nods again, taking a moment to wrap his head around this one. 

“It certainly seems an odd answer, though it has some truth… Creatures died in the shattering, unable to adapt; whereas people survive by building walls, or cultivating bright little bugs…” As he says this, he casts a glance at the tent wall. There, a collection of shardflies are gently bap-bap-bapping against the canvas. They seem to have a fondness for something in the tent, whether it be the people or some of the incense that’s burning. 

“Alright then,” he smiles playfully, and asks, “What will happen to the oysters next?”

“The oyst-” 

She clears her throat softly and turns over another card, before continuing in the same smooth, lullaby-like tones.

“Ah, The Fang upright. This indicates a preparation for battle — what was once meek, self-sufficient, and unconcerned will find themselves needing to become concerned if they are to prepare for the events ahead.”

She’s not quite sure how oysters would even go about doing this, but that metaphor may have begun to slip away from her.

“Hmm. Well, they should probably think about growing some arms then,” he figures, his tone somewhere between joking and firmly serious. Ultimately, he shrugs his shoulders and adds, “Alright, that’ll do. In any case, I’m open to another reading if you’re not keen to kick me out of your tent… yet.”

“Very well, that will be five silver. More oysters, or…?”

The Teller of Fortunes picks up her three piles of cards, preparing to shuffle them should the situation require it.

He laughs mirthfully, and shakes his head, disturbing the dark braid beside his chin. 

“No, no, I think the oysters have it handled… I have a more personal question this time.” He settles in, resting his large hands upon his lap. “After every four years of training, the people of our Order set out on a journey to gather more knowledge. Mine is coming up. I could ask what I would find, but that’s probably getting ahead of myself. So, what should I look for?” He asks, canting his head slightly to the side. 

Easy-peasy.

The Teller of Fortunes gently shuffles her deck before she turns over a card, setting it on the table between her and the monk.

“Ah, The Maranj reversed… .“ She leans forward, with a sly cant of her head and a playful lilt to her voice. “You should avoid overindulgence. If you might be tempted to seek out any temporal delights denied to you by your Order, now is not the time to do it.”

She turns over another card, placing it just below and to the left of the first.

“And The Huntress upright. Seek that which will demand courage from you. So, look for opportunities that will help you maintain your austerity, but challenge your spirit.” 

He rubs his palm across his firm cheek, considering what has been presented to him. 

“Well… No alcohol or carpentry for me, it seems,” he says jovially. “Something to challenge my spirit, though… Hm. That is a tricky one,” he figures, squinting in thought. “Very well. What sort of challenge would lend best to this?” He asks.

She gives an understanding nod as she turns over the third card.

“The Gurran reversed. The Gurran indicates a stoic nature, but, in its negative aspect, shows stubbornness. There is an aspect of your life that requires much tenacity from you, and that is where you should begin.”

At this, he purses his lips and sets his jaw. It’s not like he’s displeased, but more like this is exactly the sort of thing he’d expected. The man nods dutifully. 

“Well… In that case, it’d have to be either board games, love, or mathematics, and I don’t plan on buying an abacus anytime soon…” He sighs, then immediately lifts his spirits and straightens his posture.  “Alright! I think that’s perfect. Best get going before I complicate my worldview about clams any further. Do you take tips?” The callosian asks, rising from his seat. 

“Oysters,” she gently corrects him, amid a playful smile, “They’re also an aphrodisiac, if that helps. And yes, gladly.”

“Well then, maybe it’ll all work out!” The colorful callosian agrees, and lays out a handful of another five silver.  “Thank you for your insights, and may the stream ever flow,” he bids her, dispensing what seems to be some sort of local parting-idiom. Hastened by his thoughts, he’s soon slipping out the door.

The Teller of Fortunes reclines on her cushions, fanning herself gently with her hand. As breezy and cool as it is, there’s not much airflow through the tent, and it can be uncomfortably humid and stuffy sometimes. 

She keeps her ears pricked for the sounds of another customer, just in case, as she lounges. 

It seems that Eternalist really got in on the ground-floor of a busy day. While this clearing may not look like a typical location in a bustling city, it certainly is one. Before long, people are lining up outside of the tent. Given how the caravan tends to avoid city squares, this is a pretty unusual level of traffic. Today,  the caravan is positively swamped (pun intended). 

Many of the readings are made back-to-back-to-back, all with their own thoughts and concerns, and Ane is left sweating to keep up. Many  seek “knowledge” or “enlightenment” in lieu of wealth/love, asking towards some sort of deep, metaphysical understanding of the world. It’s surprising how many are willing to ask this of a fortune teller, but the locals seem prone to superstition and open to a broad definition of “divinity.”

Of course, if one is feeling cynical enough, these desires can easily be interpreted as yet another way to say gold and lovin’.

Ane is certainly cynical enough, though with a bit of a twist.

All any of her patrons ever really want is love in some form, when you peel away the disguises their questions wear — the ones who want gold want it because they think it will make them more attractive, and the ones seeking enlightenment want to know if the world is truly the understandable, loving place they hope it is.

The Teller of Fortunes shuffles and flips her cards, lending the appropriate flavor to their meanings depending on who’s doing the asking. Candlelight blooms across the shining reedpaper cardstock. One more card — the Shard upright. It can be any number of answers, as long as the questions are right.

Teller of Fortunes 16: Strange New Friends

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The dinner group of caravanners stares at the strange woman bundled into a ball of scarfs. She’s unperturbed by their stares, and speaks in a monotone:

“Greetings,” the scarf-woman nods politely, “I am Vaidna, your new friend. And good day.” With that, she promptly recedes back into the motionless scarf-ball. There’s an empty plate sitting beside her, as if she had just recently eaten while no one was looking. 

The three of them all exchange glances, shrugging, ultimately giving Ane the same glance of bewilderment. 

She is momentarily perplexed, until-

Oh!

“She’s a medicine seller,” she stage-whispers to the triplets, “I told her to talk to Jarrik about tagging along.” She fails to mention that the two of them prattled on about hallucinogenic herbs for twenty minutes when they met.

The triplets glance down at the pile each in turn, coordinated in the same way that they’re conjoined. Wila shrugs, Vila smirks, and Zila whispers:

“Well, I hope she’s being paid in pancakes!”

The head pops back out. As ever, Vaidna’s face is expressionless.

“Yes. Negotiations were successful. As a result, I am the new friend. The pancakes were delicious.” She pauses. “You may tell me your names, I will memorize. Except Ane and the blabrel, I already heard those.”

Once again, glances are exchanged, followed by short introductions. As soon as this is finished, Vaidna unceremoniously returns to her blanket pile.

“Well. Seems you found someone of our calibre, Ane,” Vasht the knife-thrower remarks.

“Yeah, our level of weird,” Brair the fire-breather elaborates. 

Ane shrugs a shoulder, cheeks stuffed full with pancake. 

The others nod amiably. Moments later, Vasht suddenly stops eating and looks up over the shoulders of the others. He has to tuck the small, vestigial wing covering his left eye aside to get a better look.

“What level of weird is that?” He asks, pointing with his fork.

A group of people arrive at the other edge of the camp. At their center is the caravan master Jarrik, who strolls along with his tall hat, bejeweled cane and his high white breeches. He walks with his head held high and shoulders drawn wide (and his belly pooched out under his coat). He’s travelling with an entourage of sorts, likely just a group of copper-bit hirelings; they’ve a very temporary look about them, in a number of senses.

That’s all normal, of course. The real spectacle trails on behind them, hemmed in between a few nervous men with spears.

There stands a tall figure, looming almost seven or eight feet — tall for a klorr, though not improbably so. This is made more ominous, however, by the tattered burlap tarp thrown over his head, shoulders, and arms as if to cover the scene of a grisly murder… Below, his arms hang down in massive, strange lumps of burlap long enough to touch all the way down to his shins. By their silhouettes in the sacks, they hardly seem like arms at all and more like gnarled, misshapen clubs. His slitted eyes practically glow from the holes in the threadbare tarp, catching some odd trick of the shardfly-light. He looks like some strange, lost titan, or an experiment gone horribly wrong and now on a mission to wreak havoc, befriend blind people, and tragically kill his father in a frozen wasteland. 

The bend of his back is strained and wretched, as if he struggles to lift his own arms.

Ane watches the caravan master and his entourage approach with mild curiosity.

Abruptly, the Caravan Master turns on his heels and shouts some kind of curse. He wags his cane at the hirelings, motioning towards the klorr. They soon bow their heads, and quickly rush up to the figure. It seems Jarrik has instructed them to remove the tarp, and perhaps for good reason. A complete aberration might be accepted by the caravan, but someone in an ominous hood? No chance in the Void for that. Jarrik has to unveil the lout before people flee in terror.

The face, of course, turns out to not have glowing eyes at all. He’s just a tow-headed klorr, albeit with his nose slightly askew, a dull look in his eyes, an an odd cant to his head. Then the shoulders, they’re fine… But those arms. Even before the tarp-wrap is removed, they look profoundly wrong. The silhouette defies definition. It leads one to think that the burlap wrappings themselves must just be very, very thick. 

When they’re removed, this is proved to be false.

The man’s arms are thick, and absolutely twisted. They proceed as normal from the shoulders, then bulge out irregularly at the upper arm, and at the elbow… They split. Each arm divides into two halves, like branches of the same bone, which proceed to twist around one another. They spiral all the way down to the hands, which are knobby, blunted versions of the usual klorrian claws. They face off in odd, impractical angles, with the claws still of course being on the misshapen fingertips. 

The klorr, for his own part, squinches his eyes shut — either to block out the light, or to hold back the tears that ripple at the edges of his eyes.

Somewhere in Ane’s company, a fork drops, and she catches herself open-mouthed with shock. 

“Well. That hits minimum,” Jiselmo concludes.

In all of her time getting acquainted with blue bolete, sightwort, and snakeleaf root, she has never seen anything like this. Even in her wildest, post-vision nightmares, she has never seen anything like this. The sight of him makes her own arms ache — even though she doesn’t know what it’s like to have a set of long, klorrian claws, his blunted hands seem agonizingly wrong.

She diverts her hum to her plate. It’s bad enough Jarrik is practically encouraging everyone to stare at him — she won’t be complicit in stroking his ego at the unfortunate man’s expense. Just because he’s enlisted to be gawked at for coins doesn’t mean he should have to bear the weight of stares from the rest of them. 

While Ane’ss looking away, the hirelings escort the klorr off to a wagon on the far side of camp. To all onlookers, he seems surprisingly unmoved by this whole proceeding, numb to it by the time his eyes are closed. 

In time, the group lets out a collective sigh of tension and begins finishing their plates. 

“I hope he is given good quarters… he might need help with those arms,” Nelea muses.

Brair shrugs his shoulders. “I’m just glad Jarrik got rid of the getup. I’ll take an odd sight any day, but covering him like that was terrible. I hope he just came like that, and it wasn’t a…”

A spectacle.

The rest goes unspoken. People may think of Jarrik as not a good man, maybe even a bad man… But they don’t like to think of him as a cruel man. It seems to help morale somewhat that he personally walked with the new arrival on the way to the wagons. Still, the group is a tad shaken, and many are beginning to get up and stow their plates. 

Ane hasn’t touched the plump links of sausage at the edge of hers, but she no longer wants to. Something about the display puts her off the rest of her food and, like everyone else, she goes to scrape her plate and set it in the wash basin to be scrubbed.

Before she does, though, she tosses the sausage to a skinny stray gelt sniffing around the perimeter of the camp. The creature looks older than its years, with a hide patchier a teenager’s beard and strange, sunken hollows beneath its dark eyes, but she imagines it’s grateful for a meal.

With her belly full and her plate handled, she returns to her wagon to ready herself to work.

Behind her, in the silence of the campground, a bundle of blankets marks the first of the tragedies to come into their midst.

Teller of Fortunes 12: The Enigmatic Peddler

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The Teller of Fortunes’ new customers are decidedly unlike the last. The vast majority tend to be either cultivators or fishers. Many are visibly covered in mud, leaves, and other signs of rough living, with bodies adorned in shells, clad in fabrics made from root-fibers. Most are primarily concerned about their day-to-day subsistence, whether it’s fishing hauls or the amount of good root and cattail cuttings that they find. Peculiarly, the cultivators are more driven by luck than most farmers; they almost treat their craft like foraging or mining, as if they spend most of their time wandering around for the best results.

As a result, Ane makes quite a lot of money for a short stint in farmland — four gold mitres and change, when you convert all the silver upwards.

Typically, the caravan might stay longer in these sorts of outlands. However, after that deadly stint in the shadowlands, the caravan master Jarrik is eager to get things moving. There are higher “marks” in the city, and much more in the way of the creature comforts of which Jarric is quite fond. After just six hours, the call goes out to uproot the tents and move into the wagons. Normally this would be a paltry work period, but the many “village squares” of Paakoponde offer a higher clientele, and they’ll have more provisions during the post-city stint…

Ane is pretty satisfied with her take, anyway. She requires little in the way of materials — not like Brair’s need for fuel and burn salve. She should have plenty enough to buy the supplies she has to replenish, and perhaps some dye, thread, ribbon… Maybe even a new dress or a pair of trousers.

She tries not to get her hopes up too high as she rolls the canvas tent back up and stashes it in her wagon.

As she gets ready to travel once more, Ane feels a strange sort of silence about the camp. Usually, there’s a lot more going on… Sure, all the performers are still accounted-for. Brair is snuffing his flames, Jiselmo and Korin are stashing their costumes, the triplets are closing down their stage… There’s even that mercenary that Ane met during the trip — Narue, probably. She’s walking and talking to…

Nobody. She’s alone, walking in pensive silence.

That’s what’s missing. Mercenaries. Normally, this picture includes a group of them, often drunk and sassy on the alcohol that the caravan provides. Right now, though, it’s just Narue wandering about. One can practically draw a dotted line to mark where the others are supposed to be. This silhouette’s holding a tankard, that one’s smoking puffroot, the other is scratching his- well, nothing right now. They’re not here.

Of course, it’s not like there was a mass death in the shadowlands… More like a “slight death,” or a “middling death.” But whatever the size of the supposed die-off, others seem to have decided that after such horrors, the farming life is for them. Some others have even been seen donning a foresty sort of ceremonial garb, then marching off deeper into the trees, presumably to find some monastic vows to take and put all of this far behind them.

Plus, one or two of the remainder seem to have the sniffles. So does Korin, but that just helps with his “straight-man” schtick.

Ane doesn’t worry about it much — mercenaries come and go, though such a mass exodus is certainly unusual. Still, so long as Jarrik doesn’t have any more jaunts through the shadowlands on the docket, they should be fine until they can round up more dewy-eyed farmers’ get with ill-fitting hand-me-down armor and adventure on their minds…

Once everything is gathered into the wagons, the caravan then spots for a brief but chatty dinner. While Ane washes the bowls, the others all chat around her. She doesn’t overhear much, save for bluster and curiosity about the recent trip; easy enough to ignore.

She finishes scrubbing the dishes piled in the washbasin and retires to her wagon to change clothes and dig through her stock of herbs to double-check what needs replacing before she ventures out to find it.

Soon after, the caravan hitches-up again and begins to roll into the “city”… Though in this case, it defies most conventional notions of such.

While Ane is getting ready, most of the short trip into Paakoponde goes unseen.

But, when she steps out…

It’s more like stepping out into a painting than any kind of settlement. Sure, there are the huts, the shanties, the rows of homes. But all of these are dug out underneath tall, sweeping trees that dwarf most others. Many are so wide, that the gaps and “knees” of their roots are spacious enough to accommodate actual dwellings. The main body of each tree bears a peculiar, diagonal striation that spirals up to the top. The twisting looks almost synthetic as if someone walked around the outside while urging the tree, “Yes, keep going! Just a few more dozen feet, come on now. Up you go, on with it!” And by the Fires, judging by their bark, those trees must be far older than most men can count.

Up above is a veritable explosion of foliage, many trees with their leaf-shapes depending on their apparent age. Each seems to be the grandest specimen of its time, preserved in perpetuity…

Then all around are the shardflies, which now sometimes form large, swarming clouds of light. There seem to be small sparks of heat when they draw too close to one another, promptly repelling and expanding the cloud. It’s like watching a creature breathe. It would probably be rather hazardous to walk into one of those super-heated clouds of shardflies.

At times, the shardflies rush to the trees, seeming to feed on the sap. Whenever they do so, the spot seems to radiate light, moisture, and heat just a little bit, as if it’s receiving a sudden burst of nutrition. Soon after, a local in a heat-retardant smock rushes by, either encouraging the creatures with a vase of liquid or shooing them away with a wide, feathery fan.

Then, in every gap along the far horizon, there’s a massive stone structure with blocky stone steps, ascending between a set of wavering, stone-carved walls. They together lead up a tall, tapering pyramid, which itself seems to house several mega-trees that jut out of pits made into the structure. It’s as if they built the temple around these trees, then continued to modify and excavate the stonework whenever they expanded many, many times over.

Though all of these sights are overwhelming, they’re strictly in the background. After a few moments of adjustment, they become much easier to ignore in passing.

When Ane leaves the campgrounds, she’s certainly not the only one; many others are being sent off as runners to collect basic supplies, whether they be food, wagon parts, or other needs. She spots the wing-eyed knife-thrower Vasht being sent off in one direction, while the finely-dressed form of the caravan master, Jarrik, arranges for transport in another.

At some point, a pair of hands passes Ane a shopping list to append to her own, followed by a leather pouch of coins. The list sports several medicinal herbs and compounds — most of which Ane could probably gather in her sleep, while Grandma Dynkala can scarcely leave her wagon. There’s also her usual note:

 Remedies for the camp and all its sniffles. Keep the change, avoid the sneezes! 

– Dynkala

Fortunately, Ane can remember some of Paakoponde’s layout from the circus’ last pass through. There’s some logic to the streets, at least in a rather organic sense. Markets tend to be in population centers, and herbalists often prefer places that lend best to plant growth. Soon she finds herself in a sunny city “square” (more like a clearing), the middle of which is covered by a line of root fiber open-air tents. Each is well-stocked, sporting a wider variety of flora than one may expect in nearly any other city. There’s everything ranging from the practical — medicinal herbs, oils, incense — to the mystical — good luck charms, ritual components, psychoactives.

It’s quite the place to window-shop. And past the row, there seems to be a particularly wide, well-stocked tent towards the end…

She follows her sensitive sense of smell — first a few candles and ten pounds of wax from this seller, scented richly of honey-sweet cave bee combs. Then a pound of geltsear leaf tea, redolent of freshly-split vanilla pods. After that, a pound of powdered spiralis dye, with its sharp, dusty, dried-herb scent. Ane may not be able to see its bright green color without riding the mind of a creature with eyes to see by, but refreshing her clothing with a new bath of dye goes a long way toward maintaining her image as the mysterious Teller of Fortunes instead of presenting the somewhat threadbare reality.

She lets herself linger by a tent with samples of fine brocade hung around the outside. Having clothing made for her is far too rich for her blood, but her fingertips trail longingly over the sleeve of a cotton gauze shirt. It’s a loose garment, as things made for nobody in particular tend to be, given shape by laces at the neckline, shoulders, and sides. The laces themselves are ribbons cunningly worked with tiny fern leaves — this, more than anything, gives her a pang of want. She worries her lower lip in her teeth as her hum roves over the garment. She wouldn’t be able to get the colors right, whatever they might be, but she might be able to buy some ribbon and re-work one of her old shirts. The cut wouldn’t be the same, and the fabric would show its age, but…

Standing in between the patterns and floral flourishes of the brocade, it feels like being in a completely different jungle. There’s something a little disorienting about standing amongst all of these different shades, patterns, and textures — textures which Ane can see as only a shasii might, sightless and with a sight-hum to sense texture. The hum bounces strangely, sometimes blending one texture with another in echoes.

The cotton shirt, though… Its gauzy sleeves are like an island in this sea. The pleasing texture and the relative simplicity are both soothing in this sort of environment.

Deeper in the tent, an aged fuhajen sits against the tent wall. There are streaks of gray in his thick hair, and he waits with a sagacious sort of patience. He’s watching customers with his three, inscrutable eyes, but only just barely, and offers no particular pitch or price. He must be the sort of merchant that lets his wares sell themselves, and otherwise just treats salesmanship as a nice occasion to sit and enjoy the midday breeze.

If he wasn’t so old, and this wasn’t Paakoponde, she would just steal it. The feeling of guilt wouldn’t nag at her as much in Skil’houros.

Instead, she clears her throat gently.

“How much?” She asks the man, casually holding up the edge of the sleeve as though it were no more than a handkerchief.

The fuhajen raises a brow as if his attention were diverted until just now.

“One gold piece,” he replies placidly, with a downward glance at the garment. “Less if bought with trousers or a skirt. Together, one and five.” He sounds rather serene, enjoying his day even as he tries to ante-up with a bundle deal.

She feels her resolve harden, and prepares herself to argue.

“I’ll give you one and two for both.”

“One and four,” he replies as if discussing the weather.

“One and three.”

“Sure,” he agrees as if answering his thoughts. This conversation feels oddly one-sided.

She exhales in relief, though it still pains her to hand over so much money. Ane hadn’t sweated buying the dye, or the tea, or the candles and wax… Those are all useful things. Clothing, on the other hand, is largely a concession to the local constabulary and indecency laws (however pretty its ribbons may be).

After picking out a pair of cotton trousers in something close to her size, she lets her sensitive sense of smell lead her back outside of the tent, past the alluring fragrance of perfumes, the beckoning scent of skewers of spiced meat and honeyed dough, and beyond… to the bittersweet, sharply green smell of dried herbs and the alcoholic sting of tinctures.

She doesn’t see the medicine seller at first when she approaches — she’s mentally going over Dynkala’s list. Her hum is fixated on the wares spread out on the table under the canvas canopy. There’s a jar of stomach powder, next to what looks like neatly-labeled pots of chest rub…

An abrupt, monotone voice greets her:

“There is everything from nullwither tincture to wagon wheel oil. Choose wisely.”

Glancing up at the seller brings great confusion. It looks like Ane took a wrong turn and ended up back at the textile tent. She sees scarves, cloaks, tunics, veils, head-wraps, and they all appear to have banded together and formed a Garmentry Union. Granted, they’re all very nicely coordinated by both texture and shade, though they don’t seem to align to any sense of function. They all just heap up and around a…

Huh, that is a person, isn’t it?

Peeking up over them all is the face of a young woman, shasii and paradoxically un-veiled despite wearing veils. She has a dark-shaded silk bandana tied over tumbling curls. Her smooth lips are set into a thin line.

“I feel like I was just in a different tale… How abrupt,” she comments, in her perpetual one-note voice. “Anyway, take your time. There are many travels and trials ahead.”

Ane’s hand pauses over a packet of ale-head tea.

“Travels and tri–? Of course,” she says. The other woman must’ve deduced that she isn’t from here. That probably isn’t hard to do. “I need four jars of chest-rub, six ounces of headache powder, a pound of digestive coal,” she hesitates for a moment, thinking before she continues, “Some dried blue bolete, cherry bark, a gallon of hearthfire vinegar, and a pound of dried sightwort. Is that it?” Ane frowns gently to herself. “I think that’s it. Oh! And some healer’s honey.”

“Oh my, sightwort,” the medicine seller comments flatly. “That’s the good shit.”

After a pause, she adds, “Right over there, prices are tagged. I’m the only one in the city who believes in forestry, let alone convenient labeling.” The pile of scarves gestures about, sweeping that blanketed hand over each item in the list. The sightwort, however, is accompanied by a knowing nod.

“I’ve been into snakeleaf roots lately,” Ane confesses, “Though it’s better if you tincture them and drop them on some sugar, first.”

She begins to amass her purchases, counting out the coin from Dynkala’s pouch first, then her own. As an afterthought, she adds a few more herbs — some mint, an ounce of fennel seeds, some Skil’houran snowsage…

“Alright,” she finally says, laden with about as much as she can bear, “How much?”

“Snakeleaf. Interesting,” the medicine seller comments. “Very messy foreshadowing. My last dose was unpleasant, rather ominous stuff. Anyway,” the medicine seller totals up Ane’s selections. At least she wasn’t kidding about the convenient labeling.

Ane sighs softly as she parts with her coins. It’s painful, but necessary — she doesn’t haggle with medicine sellers, because she doesn’t need any of them hedge-magicking at her after she leaves. Besides, good herbs are worth paying for.

“One gold and eight, right. Thanks.”

In one day, she’s nearly destroyed her take from her last three workdays. Hopefully, Jarrik knows what he’s about here…

Before Ane turns to leave, the medicine speaks up in a slightly louder (though no less flat) voice:

“If you lack for spending money… I will ignore the one and eight, and discount the rest slightly. You do seem to know your craft well, and I can appreciate that.” Strangely, there is a slight curve to the edges of her lips — a smile, albeit a very mechanical one. It’s as if she has to signal the muscles her good-will, rather than have them react on their own.

Ignore more than half the price?

Ane pauses mid-stride, before turning back around with a wary tilt of her head.

“I’m listening.”

The medicine seller folds what Ane can only assume are her hands, nodding as she regains her attention.

“Simple. Secure me a spot somewhere on your caravan,” she replies. “It can be small, so long as it is warm. I fit in a space of approximately two square feet.”

After a beat, she adds blandly:

“… I also have a tincture for square feet, though I don’t think that will be necessary.”

“Two sq- Are you a contortionist?”

“Not professionally.”

This is at least slightly baffling. Two square feet? For an entire medicine seller? Doesn’t she sleep?

“The caravan is in a clearing three miles that way,” she says, pointing. “Ask for a man named Jarrik — tell him the Teller of Fortunes told you to come because she and Dynkala need help with the sickness in the camp.” Even if Jarrik would be cross with her, he would be less likely to question the aged herbalist needing an extra hand.

“Wonderful,” she replies, seemingly incapable of the enthusiasm that the word requires. “I shall do so. I would have looked silly as a mercenary anyway.”

With that, she holds out a limb of scarves and veils, then drops three gold coins out of the pattern-work and into Ane’s hands.

She quickly pockets the gold, as if afraid the medicine seller might change her mind in the face of not receiving a more tangible agreement. It’s between her and Jarrik, though — she has little power to add employees to the caravan at will. Besides, it’s not like another person will be noticed while Jarrik busies himself with scraping up more hired guards…

With the gold securely in her pocketbag, Ane gathers her purchases and makes her way back to the caravan.

Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

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

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 3: A Little Sightwort and Some Crownflower Wine

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

The little wagon is much as Ane left it. The herbs in the katagon-bowl have burned through, but there’s a crisp, mint-and-vanilla scent lightly wafting on the air. Away from the bonfire, the breeze is cooler and there are fewer sounds of conversation and caravan-noise — she stills her humming gaze and tilts her face up toward the ceiling as she stands in front of the window, drinking in the cool and relative quiet.

Ane parts her lips in a contented sigh as she begins shedding rings into a half-clamshell on her vanity. Her hairpin follows, set on a wooden block carved into the likeness of a particularly placid disembodied head. She runs her fingers through her dark hair, shaking the heavy, glossy mass free, unlaces her sandals, shrugs off her muslin shirt, and shucks off her trousers.

Beneath the fabric, her skin is marked with a score of shapes and colors. The life of a circus performer is fraught with impermanence — one it is necessary to get used to, possibly even enjoy, if you’re going to last long. So, like many others like her, her hide bears the stamp of her travels: the familial and racial markings she was born with across her left shoulder and down her upper arm, a cluster of sightwort leaves picked out in deep blue dye just inside her right hip, a spray of dark feathers between her breasts, angular lines and dots of white ink encircling one thigh. Unaccustomed to the air after being in layers of clothing and a sweltering tent all day, a crop of goosebumps prickles into sharp relief across her skin, swiftly banished by a lively rub of her palms.

Ane plucks a thin, silky robe from the seat of her vanity, draping it around herself for modesty’s sake. Though she may be at home, there could be a knock at the door at any moment. Still, it’s not very likely — the rest of the caravan’s busy with their own doings, and the trumba-drivers won’t need her help to get the wagons linked. She folds her silk-clad arms atop the vanity’s smooth, whitewashed surface, and props her pointed chin on them. 

Above, her humming gaze settles on an old poster, little more than a scrap of cattail-fiber paper, yellowed and brittle with the passage of many years. In the center, a sprightly, curvaceous figure stands with one hip saucily cocked, one round-fleshed arm holding aloft a flaming hoop. The heart-shaped face is faded nearly beyond detection, but enough remains to be just barely recognizable: deep, enthralling swirls, a dazzling smile, cheekbones you could slice a cheese on. Beneath, block letters boldly declare (through the dingy veil of a Rhytalan coffee stain),

PRESENTING

For 3 Days Only

The Acrobatic Feats 

Of 

RAUNIA S’VARIO

It is not a picture Ane can look upon for long. 

She lightly presses her fingertips to a place at the nape of her neck. She can feel the tension brewing there, settling into the muscles from her head all the way down to the middle of her shoulders. With her free hand, she lifts the lid of a small enameled box inlaid with shells. The fancy exterior belies its contents — inside, there’s little more than a few curled shreds of what look like tree bark. More perceptive eyes than hers (if her swirls could be called eyes at all) might pick out the occasional splash of chartreuse lichen or stripe of spalting, but these nondescript bits of wood weren’t exactly chosen for their visual appeal. 

Ane gently breaks one in half, and places it in the center of her tongue like a sacrament. She is careful not to swallow, though. Swallowing would not only feel very unpleasant, it would be a waste of very expensive medicine. With her robe hugged tightly about her frame, she pads from her seat to her bed.

Now, she can enjoy the rest of the day in her own way.

It only takes a minute or so before she feels the telltale tingle against her tongue, as subtle and as thrilling as the brush of a feather across bare skin. She hasn’t taken enough for the visions to come, not today. There’s just enough for her to feel a light, downy warmth flowing through her limbs, and a pleasantly velvety feeling beginning to take the edge off of her thoughts. Just enough to rinse her mind of the detritus of other people’s strange cares. Just enough to ease her body from the stress of the oppressive heat and choking dust. 

A judicious sip of crownflower wine chases away the bitterness of the herb, and Ane is free. 

There is only the cool breeze, the breathy flutter of the curtains above her, the softness of the feather bed, the feeling of the robe against her skin, the pleasantness of a full belly, the sweetness of the wine… And, above all, the spreading succor of the sightwort root on her tongue. 

The sightwort is slow to take hold, and it does so gently, rolling across the mind and smoothing out the senses. Any more than this, and one tends to see things; but, for now, all is placid and cool. Time begins to pass in that silken, flowing sort of way that makes it impossible to discern how far it’s gone. Whether it’s the sightwort or a momentary lapse into sleep, Ane soon finds herself drifting carelessly ahead. 

Beneath her, the wagon begins to shift like a rolling tide. There are the distant sounds of labor outside, before myriad muffled clicks and clanks signal the wagon being hitched to another. Once it is so joined, the motion ceases long enough to permit Ane another dip into her sweet, dreamlike state. She’s hardly able to notice when the wagon begins to roll again, going steadily down one of Pellas’ paved highways. 

The sound of wheels against stone begins to form a rhythm that fades easily into the background. And, as her mind probes at the evening air, Ane finds an odd sense of clarity. Skarrows chirp and swoop high above, while smeerps leap across the grass, munching on bugs… Caravan workers lounge and snooze, rustling fabric as they move.

Up ahead, she hears words. A conversation drifts down from a wagon lit by candlelight. It rolls more smoothly than the others, carried on the finest wheels and springy leather supports. It must be the caravan master’s wagon. He always did keep his in the best condition.

The man is almost never alone. Even now, there are two voices coming from that reinforced wagon, though both are distant and muffled. In fact, it’s odd that Ane can hear them at all. Old Jarrik Varroon keeps thick walls about his person. But something about the coolness of the late hours, the ease of the sightwort, and that sense of relaxation opens up Ane’s senses… It’s like a door being nudged ajar, allowing only a sliver of light to peek through. 

The second voice with Jarrik is like a whisper, only occasionally flaring up when their words hit an impassioned pitch. That voice slithers and slides as it drifts across the air. Ane can begin to make out the shape of a conversation, though much of it is muffled and lost to the rolling of wagon wheels:

“The hounds sn- … -our heels, Jarrik. The ti- … has co-” the visitor presses in a deep, insistent tone.

The caravan master’s words are harder to make out, as he waffles and sniffs, “I know, I kn- … It’s been s- … time, but I -n -in- eh … tyrants to scra-…”

Hearing this, the first voice becomes yet more aggressive. 

“Then let’s make them!” The shout dies down into an urgent, barely contained whisper, “We need m- … Jarrik…. don’t come like …. once did. One mons- … and some trip- … are n- enough … -ur debts.”

The caravan master seems to take umbrage with this, and scoffs loudly, “-t’s as plain as the sha- … They… There -ust b-… nine.”

Whispering in a frenzy, the first man replies, “Th- … has been -ting. I thi- … it best you- … cold feet this ti-…”

The caravan master sighs loudly, trailing into an indecipherable murmurs.

“You will see,” the first voice reassures, suddenly placating. “-ey will … at the bridge- …”

“I hope so.”

Just like that, the conversation fades. Chairs legs scrape against the rattling floor, followed by footsteps, and a door nearly slamming. 

With that, quiet settles back over the trip. The sounds of the prairie begin to take prominence, shooing away the shadows of those two voices like unwelcome specters. Many hours pass in this new sense of peace, with all the sounds of the road put in harmony once again. 

It isn’t long before Ane drifts into a calm, dreamless sleep as soft and heavy as a velvet comforter. If the caravan leader’s conversation has intruded on her rest, it doesn’t show. Then again, he wouldn’t be Jarrik if he wasn’t up to something.