Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-23: Most wroth.

In the distance, the caravan’s magician heads off toward the edge of the camp. He’s grabbed up a torch, casting his stark features in half-shadow. He wanders out and greets three figures approaching from the city — the caravan master among them.

As Vozhik stops and palavers with Jarrik, the light of his torch falls upon the two newcomers. One is a ruptured silhouette at first, resolving into a callosian covered in long, lumpy protrusions like the back of a Skrajjic rock-lizard. It’s almost uncomfortable to look at, the way his clothes appear to warp to fit his distorted shape. The weight of the crags along his shoulders and back seems to hold him down, forcing his posture to stoop low.

The other is… a collection of birds? A flock of massive, twitching wings? And yet it stands in the vague shape of a man. It’s hard to tell whether there’s a person beneath them.

Jiselmo, rubbernecking all the while, speaks for the rest as attention falls upon this spectacle.

“… What the fuck?”

Ane twists around in her seat, craning her neck to see what Jiselmo’s spotted. When she does, her nostrils flare in anger.

“More people for Jarrik to shove in a hay wagon and ignore, looks like,” she mutters through clenched teeth as she drops her spoon into her bowl with a clatter. She casts a hum in Vasht’s direction, wherever he’s off brooding. Though he’s plenty far from the group, she raises a brow at him with an unvoiced, Do you see this shit?

Vasht, at this point, has switched to perching atop his wagon with his legs over the side. His expression is hardened as he watches Jarrik the distance, shaded under his sweep of wing and hair. Even as Vasht watches this spectacle, he can feel Ane’s gaze upon him. He turns to regard her with his single eye, shining in the light of torches below. He raises his brow in turn, his lips drawn in a stoic line, as if to say, Oh yes, this shit is seen.

“At least he isn’t leading this pair with a group of handlers,” Korin mutters.

The burdened callosian moves and converses, despite his apparent discomfort. The group of wings stands close to him, somehow gesturing and expressing itself under that mess of feathers. 

Wila huffs, and mutters, “There may be need to call a moot over this… If he’s building a ‘freak’ show,” she says with finger-quotes, “Then I will be most wroth. Simply vibrating with wroth!”

“So wroth that it gets all over us,” Vila mutters.

“So wroth that we must scoot her up an extra bed, just to get some beauty rest,” Zila chimes helpfully.

“I don’t know what he’s doing. Nelea, have you spoken to Thelorn at all recently?” Ane asks warily, though her gaze never stops shifting between Vasht and Jarrik.

Nelea nods, though the gesture goes unseen. 

“He seems to be doing better… We read to him, feed him, and he’s largely left alone.”

Vila scoffs. “The old man must be waiting until he has a full set of us…”

In the distance, Vasht is equally watchful. He’s now standing on the edge of his roof, almost pacing. His brawny arms are crossed, taut with tension. Whenever he looks towards Jarrik, his expression seems to darken of its own volition. He stands like a woethrask on a taut leash, as if he’d charge at the caravan master if Jarrik weren’t in mixed company. 

Ane gives a murmur of acknowledgement. “Does he ever mention why he came here?”

“He doesn’t know,” Nelea replies softly.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-22: You pull smeerps out of a hat!

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The next day begins with a pretty typical thing for Ane: fortune telling. 

It’s the last day for the caravan to wring the last few copper bits it can from the local populace, and Ane spends a solid day’s work behind her table with its (still somewhat paint-spattered) brocade cloth. The readings seem to blur together for her — a few minor lordlings on a lark, badgering her for news of their impending fortunes. A gambler or two asking about their next big score. A few shady types with marks on their temples where masks usually hang, probing her for intrigue and forewarnings of betrayals to come. It’s not an outstanding day’s work, by any means, but it’s a thorough and steady one.  She nets nine miters, nine scutes; a tidy sum, and the last from a city for some time.

Once it’s over, Ane is exceedingly pleased to pack up her tent and put S’varga behind her. The caravan has money, guards, and enough supplies to get them through the next leg of their journey, so the sooner she puts some potentially very dissatisfied customers of “Doctor Lartimus” behind her, the better.

When Ane steps out of her tent, she sees that everyone’s gathering up for their last meal in the city. There’s not enough time for one last day of carousing, so everyone is faithfully assembling at the foodline and eating by firelight. While Ane is generally unaffected by the darkness of the tunnels, the other members of the troupe all flock to the nearest light source. It lends things a rather warm, conspiratorial atmosphere, with people packed in tighter clusters than usual. 

Today, Aedas the strong man is the one doling out food — and massive portions of it. It’s a pity that he’s never had much sense for flavor. On the bright side, he hands out a pretty protein-heavy meal, full of boiled-down plants and fibers known to strengthen the body. 

When Ane approaches at the front of the line, he shovels her portion onto a bowl with a smaller bowl, fumbling with the utensils in his massive hands. 

“Hey Ane, got the gud stuff for ya!” He chimes, smiling to his eyes.

“Thanks, Aedas!” She replies brightly, as she accepts the bowl. Even if Aedas didn’t err deeper on the side of nutrition rather than flavor, it’s nice to not have to worry about Brair’s peppers. She turns, bowl and spoon in hand, to find a place to sit — the clusters of cravanners seem warm and jovial enough, satisfied with a successful trip, but it might be nice to take advantage of her ability to see in the dark and find a quiet place to relax…

When Ane arrives, Jiselmo the actor is in the midst of retelling his tales of the madcap adventures of King Fweep-Fweep and the joust, in usual form. It seems like the story of a small creature enchanting the caravanners gets a little more embroidery with every retelling; this time, the wagons get decorated a little more brightly, and a cadre of charming caravan-followers carry Jiselmo away from the ersatz tiltyard on their shoulders while cheering.

Nelea the animal tamer shakes her head and mutters, “You really shouldn’t encourage such things, Jiselmo. Someone could have been hurt.”

“Oh, it’s fine! That’s what the pillows are for.”

Korin the straight-man covers his face with his palm, and mutters, “They were still poles being thrust at alosin-velocity, Jiselmo…”

“Well, the ground is soft als– oh, hello Ane!” He breaks, waving at her with his spoon. 

Ane takes a seat, though she somewhat regrets it — of course Jiselmo would have plenty to say about being the master of ceremonies to a tiny fweep-king. She gives the group a chagrined smile and a wave of her spoon before setting to eating her dinner.

It doesn’t last much longer. While the conversation continues (and seems unaware of Ane’s role), it soon comes to a swift stop. Looming at the other edge of the group is the klorrian magician, a rather rare figure at these fireside gatherings. He’s always a gloomy picture of a man, with long, thin black hair and a gaunt, disapproving face. All this paired with his ostentatiously-dyed robes and air of importance. The look is only broken up by a pair of floppy lop-ears that stick out of his pocket, each thick with cotton-like tufts. His steps are quiet, but the sound of a smeerp munching a carrot is not. 

The moment he steps up, silverware clinks and conversation grinds to a halt. It doesn’t seem deliberate; his severe, stoic presence has a talent for throwing a wrench into any conversation. As Jiselmo puts it, he’s the “doorstopper of chatter, a paper-weight for words, a muzzle on the snout of pleasant company, and a condom on the cock of social grace.”

Despite this colorful description, Jiselmo is the first to speak. 

“Ah, hello Vozhik! Come to rejoin our delightful company?”

The klorr glowers, staring down his nose. 

“I come to address your idiocy yesterday. Your indiscretions and frippery rub you against forces you’d best not tamper with,” he cautions, as his sharp ears lower gravely.

Jiselmo smirks, waggishly swaying from side-to-side. 

“Oh? Afraid I’ll pull one of your smeerps out of my arse and put you out of a job?” 

This earns Jiselmo an elbow-jostle to the rib from Korin, who adds, “It’s all right now. No one was hurt.”

The klorr responds with a chilly, fanged smile. 

“You don’t even recall that you were influenced? Hah. It’s no surprise, given your lack of mental acuity.”

“It was an accident, Vozhik,” Ane interjects firmly, “Nobody was hurt. Besides, it won’t happen again.”

The klorr shifts his gaze to her, raising an eyebrow. 

“Oh? I would hope so. Let us hope this is the only force you house that’s beyond your ken.”

Nelea bristles.

“You mind your words, Vozhik. You are with the caravan, true, but that gives you no license to insult as you please. One more jibe like that, and I’ll have you out of our circle on your ear.”

The magician reels back for a second, chastened. Somehow, even such a mild threat makes him wilt and balk. He quickly regains his stiff posture, and utters a dour “Hmph.” Then, more cautiously, he adds, “Just a warning. We travel in a complicated world with troublesome forces…” His gaze shifts subtly back to Ane. “A fae mood can cause all sorts of problems.” 

Then, he promptly turns to leave with a swish of his voluminous cape, which he wears literally all the time. His mysterious exit, however, is ruined by the way he tucks a hand into his shirt pocket to anxiously stroke his smeerp’s ears. 

You pull smeerps out of a hat!” Ane calls out sourly after him, to his swiftly-retreating back. There are some people who she would accept this admonishment from — Dynkala, naturally, and maybe the medicine-seller, Vaidna — but the pick-a-card-any-card guy does not number among them, however tall and glowery he may be. 

“Void,” she mutters, turning back to Jiselmo and the others, “Is he always on?”

“Regrettably, yes,” Korin replies sourly. “I don’t know how he walks around with all those smeerps up-him.”

“Oh, it’s important for some of the dark magical super-spooky arts,” Jiselmo adds in, in a suitably, theatrically eerie tone. “He might need to conjure ribbons or saw pretty ladies in an emergency.”

“I worry for the smeerps,” Nelea says quietly. “It must be hard to breathe…”

Ane shakes her head. It isn’t that she doesn’t have her own concerns about the fweep-fweep — far from it — but the last thing she needs is to be scolded like an unruly toddler who left their toys out where someone could trip over them. 

“Damn near killed my appetite,” she mutters glumly. 

Vila (of the triplets) side-whispers, “You should see his dirty wagon… It’s a real warren in there, not made for a person.”

This earns Vila an immediate elbow-strike from the other two on each side. She utters a small grunt of surprise and a mutter of protest to the oddly silent Wila and Zila.

In the distance, Vozhik heads off toward the edge of the camp. He’s grabbed up a torch, casting his stark features in half-shadow. He wanders out and greets three figures approaching from the city — the caravan master among them.

As Vozhik stops and palavers with Jarrik, the light of his torch falls upon the two newcomers. One is a ruptured silhouette at first, then resolves into a callosian covered in long, lumpy protrusions almost like the back of a Skrajjic rock-lizard. It’s almost uncomfortable to look at, the way his clothes appear to warp to fit his distorted shape. The weight of the crags along his shoulders and back seems to hold him down, forcing his posture to stoop low.

The other is… a collection of birds? A flock of massive, twitching wings? And yet it stands in the vague shape of a man. It’s hard to tell whether there’s a person beneath them.

Jiselmo, rubbernecking all the while, speaks for the rest as attention falls upon this spectacle.

“… What the fuck?”

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.

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Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-2: Foreboding Peace

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Almost immediately after the wagons stop, people begin to pile out and prepare for mealtime. People tend to get anxious when cooped up for so long, and it sends them rushing out to socialize and meal in one another’s company once again. 

 Ane changes out of her robe for the first time in a few days, after what felt like an interminable stretch of waking up, washing up in her wagon, combing her hair, and putting her robe on again. She’s happy to get out onto solid ground — enough that she whistles while she walks to take her place in line for dinner. 

As Ane walks out amongst the troupe, many others are similarly carefree. The mercenaries are strung tighter than a bowstring, but everyone else’s pleased as pie. By the look of things, one group has immediately gathered near Brair’s tent and started to crack open his stash with him. It won’t be long before they’re all busting out into song, celebrating this reprieve from abject boredom and (assumed) sobriety. 

Not everyone is sharing in this mood, however. Some of the troupe, like Vasht the knife-thrower and Nelea the animal tamer, seem to be sharing in the same wary temperament as the guards. It’s a simple sort of wisdom: when the people protecting are nervous, it might be a good idea to keep one’s eyes open. This isn’t particularly typical for them, either; during good times, they’ve been known to get as sloshed as everyone else.

Today, the actors Jiselmo and Korin are cooking. Generally, they never agree to let the other do it alone. The reason why is immediately apparent when Ane arrives at the two of them. 

“Oh come now Korin, you know I can be trusted,” Jiselmo says in a wounded tone. “I’d never prank anyone after so long in the wagons.”

“I’m not so sure…” The many-winged Korin says with a sigh. “Hello Ane,” he greets the Teller of Fortunes, and passes her a plate.

“Hello!” She says brightly, eagerly holding out her plate for something that isn’t jerky and berries. If nothing else, her stomach (and, by extension, her wagon’s chamber pot) will be grateful for an actual meal.

 

Jiselmo, with a fae glint in his eyes, passes her a hunk of honeyed vulre, spiced to perfection. It’s steaming and radiating a savory, fire-cooked scent that really sets the senses alight. When Jiselmo is behaving, he really is an excellent cook. “Ane, tell him that I am virtuous and pure, and would never do such a thing,” he says with an impish smile. 

She gives Korin a deadpan hum.

“Jiselmo says to tell you he wouldn’t prank anyone,” she replies, before turning to abscond with her dinner. 

She isn’t sure where to sit today — Brair’s group seems a bit much right now, and she doesn’t want to be pressed into sampling his concoctions at the moment. Vasht and Nelea, while quieter, have a jumpy aura that’s bound to rub off on her. 

Ane finds a log to sit on. She can catch strains of conversation as they’re carried on the breeze, enjoy her meal in relative peace, and take in the open sky without anyone’s drunken singing or anxious whispering. 

As Ane sits and observes, the two groups both seem to be progressing in their own respective moods. There’s laughter and song coming from Brair’s group, which swells as the time passes. In contrast, Vasht and Nelea are now collecting a small huddle of sorts. Their anxious demeanor seems to have faded, firming instead into a sort of resolve. A couple of others are seen joining them, including Aedas and, occasionally, the tipsy Brair who would amble over to try to spread his cheer. The mercenary Narue also joins them for a time, before wandering off herself.

Soon, the armored tzuskar approaches, currently with a lazy gait and a plate of honeyed vulre. She’s wearing her hair down today, apparently feeling a fair sight more relaxed than she did in the shadowlands. She wanders up to the log that Ane is using as a seat, smiling in her usual, easygoing way.

“Hello, got room on this log?” She asks.

“Sure,” Ane replies, scooting over a few inches. There’s plenty of room, but it’s as good a welcoming gesture as any when her hands are sticky with honey sauce. 

Narue the caravan guard sits down with a light thump, not bothering to cushion the weight of her armor. Fortunately it’s a sturdy log, and Narue is otherwise lean besides.

“It’s like lookin’ at two different camps today,” she appraises, forking into the meat. “I could cover one eye and switch troupes.”

“Mm… I wish I could say that that’s just Brair and Vasht for you, but I’d be half-lying. Brair needs a tankard of Rhytalan coffee, and Vasht needs about seven naps,” Ane says, as she pulls a piece of meat from the bone, “They’re dealing with the shortage of guards in their own particular ways, I guess.”

“Seems like it,” the tzuskar appraises, glancing between the two of them. Brair’s group has even kicked up into a silly dance contest of sorts, with the triplets and Jiselmo (leaving the cooking to Korin) trading off first. Jiselmo can’t help but add in a little slapstick, bellyflopping to the ground before hunching his shoulders and arching his back, edging along to the beat like an inching worm.

She chews for a second, then shrugs. “Yeah… That other group seems to be strategizin’. Not really my thing. I just fly around and bop things. Gracefully, mind, but not strategically,” she says with a bob of her fork. 

“Not sure how they’re going to strategize against an enemy they don’t know exists yet, can’t see, and don’t have enough bucketheads to beat back even if they did,” Ane replies, “No offense.”

“Well, about that first part…” She swivels in her seat slightly, and uses her fork to point off further down the road. Somewhere off the main path, there’s a rather large column of smoke. 

Narue shrugs. “It could be nothing. But if I had to give ya my gut’s feeling — y’know, aside from feeling full of this meat — I’d say they’d benefit from coming up with something.”

“Could be a cabin or a hunting lodge. Either way, we don’t know if it’s none, three, or thirty attackers– what’re we even able to do that we aren’t doing already? Force a faster march?” 

“Something weird, probably,” she says simply. “That’s what this sort of troupe is supposed to do, right?” She asks with a grin.

“Sure,” Ane says, growing quietly pensive for a moment, “We’re just performers, though. Aedas is strong, Nelea has gelthounds, Brair has fire, I can swing a club, and Vasht is… Vasht, but weird doesn’t mean powerful, really.”

Narue shrugs a shoulder. “I can vouch for you swingin’ a club, but I’ve heard about you pulling off something clever once in a while… and whatever got you that puffroot pile,” she says, with a playful smile. “Anyway… I think that lot’s kinda stuck,” she says, nodding towards Vasht, Nelea and Company.

“They tried to rope me into their talk, but I’m not good at all that… so I said I was gonna come bug you instead. They seemed int’rested in what you’d have to say.” She shrugs. “I recommend poppin’ by, they could probably use a fresh thought… and some puffroot,” she smirks. 

“Well, if they need some, they know where to find it,” Ane grouses through the wry smile tugging at honey-stickied lips, “Maybe we’ll luck out and find bandits that like smoking. I can get my wagon back, and get them to leave us alone…” She pinches the end of a picked-clean bone in her fingertips, before tossing it aside for one of the strays following the caravan. “Of course, if it’s advice they want… Be vigilant, but for shit’s sake don’t overthink it. We got through the shadowlands alright, we’ll just have to batten down, be prepared, and not lose sleep. I know Vasht takes security seriously, but he’s going to send himself to an early grave if he doesn’t learn to let go.”

“Heh, sounds like good advice,” she appraises, examining one of the bones she’s nibbled-clean. “Might wanna figure a neat place to hide your coin, though. If it’s bandits, and those geniuses don’t get a keen idea,” she makes a looping gesture towards the lead wagon. “We’ll probably just have to let ourselves be robbed. It ain’t pretty, but sometimes it keeps your head on your neck. I know we don’t have enough guards to do the same.”

“Great. I can tell ‘em my money’s at the bottom of a sack of puffroot. Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Ane remarks dryly. 

“You’ve got several sacks to choose from, if I’ve heard right,” Narue says, with a grin that sends her smirk-wing a-flutter. “Hey, at least if we get robbed, I can see what the bandits around here look like! I hear they look all crazy, with golem bits n’ whatnot stuck to ‘em.”

“Probably. Just set Jarrik loose on ‘em, let him talk them into becoming the next part of the show. People elsewhere might pay some decent coin to see a man-golem.”

“I know I would! I bet it makes them all strong-like,” she figures, tapping her chin. “Maybe if we get robbed, I can just… shake one of their hands really hard,” she supposes. “You know, steal it and be the one with the neat gimmick.”

“I don’t think getting golem parts is an outpatient procedure, Rue,” Ane’s never seen one, granted, but she doesn’t exactly think she needs to in order to draw some conclusions.

“Aw,” Narue wilts, drooping her wings. It’s hard to tell how serious she’s being. “I can’t just slip on a golem-glove and start doing heroics? That’s too bad.” She kicks a nearby stone across the grass. “Oh well. I oughta go figure out a new life goal,” she says, and hops to her feet. “See you later!” She waves briskly, about to wander off on her way. 

“See you,” Ane says with a nod. She stands as well, dusting chips of bark from her backside before she goes to return her plate to the communal wash basin. 

As she makes the short walk back to her wagon, a sense of foreboding begins to gnaw at her. Will Vasht ask her to be a lookout again? Possibly, though there’s no reason to ask her over any of the others with actual eyes. The shadowlands was one thing, but here… 

Her nostrils flare slightly as she breathes deep, straining to pick up the scent of smoke. It seems like ordinary woodsmoke from here, and tells her nothing. It could be a hunting lodge — is probably a hunting lodge — but there’s no way to tell from this distance. 

From Ane’s vantage point, that column of smoke could be a lodge… though it’s rather thick, like what one may expect from an open flame. Then again, it might just be a big fire outside of a lodge, or a big lodge. 

Vasht’s group does certainly look concerned enough. They’re still in the middle of talking, even now that the plates are mostly cleaned. During one of the lulls in the conversation, Nelea glances up with a worried look, seemingly in Ane’s direction. She’s a rather shy sort, so she doesn’t call out or beckon where another might. There’s a tentative look about her. Seconds later, the conversation tugs her back in. 

Ane catches her look, but she may just want her to try to talk Vasht down from… whatever it is Vasht is currently Vashting. If it’s that important, Nelea knows where her wagon is. She gives her a small wave, but she’s already been pulled back into the circle. 

With a shrug, Ane turns away to return to her wagon. As nice as it is to have gotten outside, even if it’s just for a meal, she can feel herself growing antsy. A vision would be a welcome way to pass the next stretch of the journey, but it strikes her as a bad idea — as helpful as it might be to ride a passing bird or smeerp and see ahead, that would also leave her virtually helpless until her limbs decide to reawaken and her mind falls back into itself. 

Twenty four hours later…

 

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Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

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It’s the morning before the caravan leaves Paakoponde. Shardflies are buzzing against the curtains, rears aglow with warm light, some starting to slip in across the windowsill. Normally the wagons would have been rolling by now, but the ground is rather marshy and uncooperative in these parts. Sounds of labor last night signalled trouble with one of the wagon wheels. Given the ingenuity of the troupe, the caravan’s sure to be moving again after breakfast.

As Ane shifts, a bundle of puffroot gently thwaps against her forehead. It must have been precariously shoved into a cupboard during her attempts to wrangle the tide of local “gifts.” She’s managed to stay in her wagon since then, but others are bound to be curious. After all, there was a literal procession of bundle-bearing locals heading in and out of her tent, all thanks to her unintentionally standing in for the local oracle. Anyway, the scent of sizzling, savory eggs soon wafts its way into her wagon, sending out the call to go join the others. 

She mutters a soft curse as she bats a shardfly away from her head, before easing herself into a sitting position with a broad stretch. The scent of the smoke has long since dissipated, leaving behind only the barest traces of its sweet, fruity aroma mingled with incense and the smell of dried puffroot. It’s far from an unpleasant smell, but it’s one that’s probably going to start wearing on her after awhile.

After washing her face, combing and braiding her hair, and dressing in a comfortable chemise and a skirt of saffron-colored cotton, Ane heads out to pick up some breakfast and see if anyone she knows is a closet smoking enthusiast.

This morning, peering through the mist, Ane sees that the food line is rather short. All around, the more able-bodied members of the camp are already getting busy prepping the wagons. Apparently many had to awaken early to continue the work of last night. At the moment, it seems they’re almost finished; there are boards under the wagon wheels, the trumba are hitched, and there’s a clear path back to the main road. 

The food line passes in a breeze — a quick step up to Vasht, the sleepy-eyed knife thrower, who’s taking a rare shift at cooking. It’s just as well, since he only really knows how to cook eggs, and there’s a small stock of them leftover from the city. He gives a worn smile when Ane arrives, and uses a spoon to scooch breakfast onto her plate. 

“Welcome to the morning. Glad to see you didn’t float off on a cloud last night,” he says with a hint of mirth, while preparing the next batch. 

Ane gives him a wry, sheepish grin as she accepts the eggs.

 

“That obvious, huh?” She says, briefly catching her lower lip in her teeth, “Well… What can I say? I’m good with customers.”

He lets out a chuckle. “Right… Well,” he smirks, and motions off towards the current circle of people eating. The lot of them, including Brair the fire breather, the dancer triplets, the actors Jiselmo, Korin, and the animal tamer Nelea are all looking in Ane’s direction with amusement in their expressions. There are more than a few sets of lofted brows amongst them.

Vasht, scraping off a pan, adds, “Maybe you can share some of your tricks, and a cigarillo or two.” He gives her a wry smile that sets the vestigial wing over his left eye a-fluff. “Off you go, can’t keep them waiting all morning,” he says, scraping off a pan. 

Ane darts a glance over her shoulder at the lofted brows and amused grins. When she looks back at Vasht, her lips are pursed in an expression that’s half chagrined, and half miffed at his teasing. 

“Careful what you ask for, or you’ll have six pounds of puffroot on your doorstep,” she chides him, as she turns to find a place to sit. She’s tempted to find somewhere where she’ll endure less ribbing, but, after yesterday, she at least owes them somewhat of an explanation…

When she arrives, the atmosphere is certainly jovial. Jiselmo even raises his hands to begin clapping, though Korin intercepts by smacking them down. Perhaps after the ribbing he endured himself previously, he’s inclined to return the favor for Ane. This doesn’t stop the more mildly amused of from grinning, with Brair being the first to comment.

 “Well… I see our troupe’s other top performer just decided to wake up.” He beams, then bites into an appoh — likely one of many. Munching around it, he says, “Thoughf I don’f think it waf my shirtlesh fire twilin,” he swallows, “had them flocking!”

The others chuckle. The triplets lean forward in unison, with Zila pillowing her chin on her hands. 

“Ane, you just have to tell us your method. We practiced very hard at being triple-topless, and now you’re a puffroot magnate!”

Ane sits down on the edge of the group, shoulders hunched a little over her plate of eggs. Her cheeks burn with embarrassment and she prods the fluffy mass with her fork, muttering softly.

“I just pulled some cards, that’s all.”

Even so, a grin — somewhere between amusement and self-consciousness — tugs at the corner of her lips.

Jiselmo kind of shimmies his head, not a shake, but a general spasm of bewilderment. “Well what did you pull for them? Did you predict that their vulre will go on to a top university?”

“None would even explain their activity,” Nelea says, while petting one of the troupe’s trained gelts with her broad, gloved hand. “It was truly bizarre,” she says, looking at the creature. 

“Not even the ones that gave me appohs would explain it! They just kept spouting, ‘Thank to foreign shaman’ and left to get more!” He says, practically in a laugh as he throws his arms wide. “They didn’t even give a damn about all the fire, either!”

Okay,” Ane says, pointing her fork accusatorily at Brair, “In my defense, I didn’t know how many appohs they had. Or puffroot,” she says, before taking a forkful of eggs, “Obvioufly.”

“To Jiselmo’s point,” Nelea says, “It must have been quite a fortune to tell. I’ve had three vulre go off to college, and I wasn’t that excited,” she says with a warm, albeit dry, sort of humor.

“Yeah! Why were they so grateful? It must have been a pretty high-quality grift,” Jiselmo appraises, crossing his arms and nodding authoritatively. “It’d make ‘ol Jarrik green with envy, with that kind of yield!”

“Well, if Jarrik wants to figure out how to fence about three dozen pounds of puffroot, he’s welcome to his cut,” Ane says sourly, “Besides… You all know what I do. That one lady asked a question, I answered it, she asked how to pay me, since she didn’t have much money… I asked her to give Brair some appohs. She asked if I wanted anything for myself, I figured a pouch of puffroot might be nice. I never expected it to end up so…”

She gestures toward her wagon with a vigorous wave of her hand. 

“High?” Jiselmo offers glibly. 

Ane pins the end of her egg-laden fork with a fingertip, poising it to catapult its payload straight at him.

“‘S enough out of you.”

Through some kind of age-old reflex, Jiselmo immediately ducks behind Korin. He peers over the tzuskar’s upper-wing, not even disturbing the man as he continues to eat. “Just saying!” He calls from behind his fortification, then ducks down.

“Well, it’ll make ya good money in the next city,” Brair figures. “As for me, I’ve definitely got enough for that ‘drink the dragon’s fire’ trick,” he says with a grin, rubbing his massive palms together.

Nelea sighs and shakes her head. “Just don’t test it on us or the animals.”

“Really, it’s not a bad idea,” figures Vila, the middle-sister. “You could make some money for Dynkala, if you tell her to prep belly-remedies ahead of time,” she says with a wiley gleam in her eyes. 

“It sounds dangerous to me,” says Wila, clutching her pearls as always. “Really, how ever did you get such a notion…?”

“And if Dynkala doesn’t want to, the other herbalist probably can — whatsername. Vaidna,” Ane adds, “Though honestly, Brair, you could probably start brewing your own liquor from scratch with all those appohs.”

“Huh, you’re right,” he agrees, furrowing his ridge of a brow. “A lot of it, too… Might go well with the other stuff. It’d be easier to sell than all the blasted appohs, if we don’t eat them first,” he figures, while a camp follower wanders by and takes his empty plate for him.

“At least Ane won’t have to be on backup-duty for the medic wagon when you get them all sick,” Wila chides him. “Really, hearthfire vinegar,” she shakes her head, as someone wanders by and takes the triplets’ empty plates. 

“Thank you, such a dear,” Vila mutters, as the three of them settle back into their seats. 

“Phf, a little digestive charcoal, some white clay tablets, a bit of stomach powder… hearthfire vinegar never killed anybody,” Ane replies.

Then a robed callosian wanders by and accepts her empty plate with a broad hand.

“Thank-,” she begins to say. Something about him jogs her memory, though, as she eyes his robe with a curious hum. That is certainly an Eternalist robe. Is he… the monk she met a few days ago? He never gave a name.

“You are most welcome,” says the dark-braided callosian, bobbing his head.

As he takes Jiselmo’s plate, he shrugs and thanks him as well. Jiselmo has still been hiding behind Korin’s back this whole time, but finally seems to be forgetting Ane’s promise of catapulting.

Korin’s the one who blinks, and as the callosian wanders away with the plates, he wonders aloud. 

“Wait a second… why is a burly monk doing our dishes?”

“I can get used to it,” Zila says cheerfully, with a waggle of her eyebrows. 

Vila gives her a cross look, and huffs. 

“Well, he might be some use against a bandit raid,” she says, averting her gaze. 

Ane presses her fingertips to her temples, and attempts to stifle a soft groan. So far, she’s netted the caravan thirty six pounds of puffroot, probably four times that of appohs… And one adventurous monk.

“I’ll see you lot later. I’ve got to go before anything else shows up.”

“See you later, Ane!” Brair calls to her, waving his arm. He seems quite happy with the outcome, given his wealth of ale-fodder.

“See you, Ane,” Zila bids her dreamily, resting a hand upon her flushed cheek. Naturally, she’s not even looking in the fortune teller’s direction, but rather, at the monk currently scrubbing dishes with his oh-so-strong hands. 

Like a fly-trap, the caravan accumulates strange travelers and friends by the day.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 15: Dreams and Pancakes

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When Ane awakens, she’s blinded by the faint glimmer of a memory.

A vast forest looms, fraught with buzzing lights and drooping shadows. Strange figures move about, all hiding their faces beneath wicker and burlap. Unlike the happy, aimless meandering of Paako’s citizens, they all move with purpose, surging towards a shape on the horizon… 

Her vision swoops down from the canopy, like that of a bird, diving between the mud-root huts and the sleepy town squares. Like phantoms, the strange figures are gone. Finding no evidence of their passing, she glides upwards once more, soaring high, cresting over top of the squalls that pass along temple walls. Beneath her, the massive step-pyramid of the Eternalists lingers in shadow, looming like a colossal sailwhale beneath an ocean surf, or a turtle hiding within its shell. 

In that moment, Ane’s “eyes” flare to life, and she sees color — or at least, a memory of color. It’s a deep, glowing violet, ensorcelled somewhere beyond the body of the temple. It calls out, not with a voice or a language, but with a feeling — a sense that it wishes to fly from here, as she soon will. And like a prisoner that watches the jail door swing closed, it knows its time is quickly slipping away. 

All this comes minutes after waking, once the mind has had time to adjust. 

Meanwhile, a familiar smell wafts in through Ane’s window — thick, creamy, buttery, cooking over an open bonfire. It can only be one thing: the dancer triplets’ patented sweetroot pancakes. They only make them when they’re in a particularly good mood. Sausages and other fixings are likely to follow as part of this rare, somewhat special occasion. Perhaps they’re pleased to be back in Paakoponde? Whatever the case, everyone’s likely to be in the camp for breakfast this morning. 

 

 

Purple.

Ane finds herself fixated on her dream. It’s strange — she’d never had, nor wanted, much truck with the Eternalists. Odd that their temple would appear to her now, though maybe not so very odd considering she’d seen it yesterday. Still, she knows better than to think this is a coincidence.

Nothing is ever a coincidence.

Ane avoids letting the memory get to her as she gets ready for the day, brushing her hair, washing up, and dressing for breakfast. When she emerges from her wagon and saunters over for some pancakes, she’s the picture of well-rested, unruffled calm.

This portrait of insouciance is met with a familiar sight — the food line. It’s rather long today, though it seems to be moving quickly,  perhaps almost three times faster. This is fortunate, because people seem rather eager this morning. They shuffle as they stand, watching the backs of those in front of them with a deep, hungry impatience. 

Soon, Ane arrives at the front of the line, where she’s greeted by the conjoined fuhajen triplets. Rather than dancing, this time they’re serving out food in a rather coordinated manner. Wila is to one side, flipping flapjacks on a set of iron pans, pausing to let each new serving sizzle over the fire. Beside her is Vila, in the middle, who smiles and hands out plates full of the morsels.

“Enjoy breakfast, it’s our specialty,” says the usually-sardonic middle sister, today with warmth.

A couple of seconds later, Zila, the “youngest” of the three, offers up the sausages and dollops of either jam or butter. 

“I love it when she’s like this, so much easier,” she confides, pretending Vila can’t hear. 

Of course, all three of them are joined at the hip this entire time. It’s really remarkable what six arms can do in such a confined space. 

“Thanks,” Ane says brightly, as she accepts a plate piled high with cakes, flanked by sausage, and drizzled with butter and jam. She moves swiftly out of the way, to let the rest of the line progress, as she hums over the assembled caravanners to find a place to sit.

After a few moments of wandering, Ane finds a place at one of the larger circles. There are still no tables — lest the caravan more deeply flout the local customs — but the troupe seems used to eating with plates on their laps regardless. Ane’s spot is right between Nelea and Jiselmo (sans Korin), seated neatly on a log. A few others are nearby, including Vasht and Brair. 

As Jiselmo notices her presence, he pauses eating and begins to beam excitedly.

 “Ah! The one responsible for that glorious spectacle last night,” the shasii comedian says, glowing with mirth.

“And the one who cured Korin,” Nelea the animal tamer adds dutifully, chastising Jiselmo with a pointed look.

“Fpecacle?” Ane says, around a mouthful of pancakes. She swallows, gently licks a stray trace of jam from the edge of her lower lip, and says again, more clearly, “Spectacle?”

“Why yes,” Jiselmo replies, leaning back. “A wondrous sight happened upon me as I returned from my grocery run… why, it was truly radiant!”

“Oh, I know where this is going,” Vasht the knife-thrower grumbles, rolling his eyes.

“Purest ivory! Right there, bright and shimmering in the shardlight! It was the pale, contorted belly of my friend and compatriot Korin. Like a loaf of twist-bread or a young girl’s braid, he twisted ‘round towards the sun, splashing himself so copiously with old bathwater! All to apply the curse-cure you gave him.”

Ane purses her lips and furrows her brow incredulously at the actor.

“Aw, leave Korin alone… He’s gotten enough grief from you and your trinket-lady already. Besides, it fixed him, didn’t it? And,” she concludes, spearing another bite of pancake, “How’d you know what the Void ‘ivory’ looks like in the first place? You’re a shasii like me, you don’t even have eyes.”

“Why, dear Ane, we are masters of the dramatic,” Jiselmo waxes on, gesturing with a skewered pancake. “I may not see ivory, but I know it by its passing!”

“I think that meams,” Brair the firebreather mumbles through a mouthful, “That he made it up.”

“Oh, the color may be in my mind, but the spectacle was not! And he was so dedicated in his craft. When I approached, he looked on towards the sun in rapt determination… A true tragic hero,” the shasii continues, gesturing dramatically. 

“I assume you were the cause of his misfortune, Jiselmo?” Nelea supposes.

“I cannot cause such bravery! The way he leapt in front of that crone’s eldritch claw was truly the stuff of song,” Jiselmo declares wistfully. “A true epic, featuring the wise Ane and her remedy, as well as my twitching compatriot with his visceral fondness for puns.”

“… It was Jiselmo’s fault,” Ane explains, “Or, as the trinket-seller apparently put it, Korin’s ‘pet blabrel.’”

This wins a sudden bout of giggles from the animal tamer, who has to stifle herself, lest she lose some of her breakfast along with her high-pitched giggles. Once the callosian has herself under control, Nelea mutters through teary eyes, “It’s true! He is so like a blabrel…”

“Such japery,” Jiselmo faux-chides. It’s not very convincing — he’s often lobbed worse at longtime friends in jest. “I am so much more majestic! Like a soaring silver skarrow, or a sociable clap-vole…”

“If by that, you mean you bring about buzzing horrors by smashing their eggs,” Vasht contributes, “Then yeah, sure, maybe a clap-vole,” he concludes with a wan smile. 

“Still,” Ane continues, “You can’t mock him for doing what he needed to do to get your curse off of him — just be happy I didn’t have him dump the water on your side of the wagon.” She points her fork at Jiselmo, as if it were a wizard’s wand from a fae tale — as if she could strike him with some kind of buttery, jammy bewitchment from where she sits.

“Bwah!” Jiselmo recoils, just barely ducking an imaginary ray of jam. He stumbles back, and nearly knocks over a pile of clothes that’s heaped up between him and the cook-fire.

A head pops out of the pile. It is a shasii woman wearing a dark bandanna over a mop of curls. 

“Be careful. I am toasting,” the scarf-pile chastises him. Vaidna the medicine peddler, apparently.

Jiselmo stops in place, frozen, furrowing his brow. He turns to the pile, then to Ane. 

“I’m… sorry?”

It’s another strange day in the caravan.