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 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 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 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.

Teller of Fortunes 14: A Comedian’s Curse

(This is a direct continuation of the prior episode. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning of the series. Thank you for reading!)

Ane approaches Korin’s wagon. Her arm is filled to heaping with jars, waxed fabric packets, muslin pouches, the katagon brazier, charcoal, several long, green leaves pulled from fresh cattails, and, finally, a small etui made of enameled metalwork.

She raps sharply on the wagon’s door.

“Four thousand!” 

Korin bids her to enter. 

Fortunately, the door isn’t locked; it’s barely even closed.

Ane finds herself amidst the perpetual spectacle that is the “actor’s wagon.” The first, most noticeable thing is a wide chalk line cutting straight along the middle of the floor. All furniture, whether it be standing or hanging from the walls, is distinctly not placed over this line — except one standing table, which has the line continuing over its top, and two different drinks and sets of cards on each side. It’s like looking at two entirely different rooms, though apparently they collide just to drink and play cards.  

On the right side of the room is a wild collection of things, including all manner of costumes from princely outfits to feather boas and highwayman’s masks. There are many old paintings, all of which come pre-vandalized by inked silly expressions, curly moustaches, and sometimes even googly-eyes. One of them is even covered in darts which stick out of the canvas at haphazard angles. Then there’s a mess of things all about, likely various trinkets Jiselmo has collected, including mirrors he can’t use, embroidered pillows, some nice curtains tossed over a barrel… There’s a bed somewhere in there, presumably. 

On the left side is a relatively austere bedroom. The walls are largely unadorned, but occasionally covered in neat, functional shelves, many of which sport a number of books. Some are fiction, focusing on fae tales and adventure. Others are embroidered with titles that concern history, or the finer points of acting. It’s a rather serious environment. 

Down below the shelves is a well made bed, a sensible night-stand, and a comfortable little reading nook tucked into the corner. Korin sits there now with his hands and feet spread. He looks like he’s bracing himself for surgery, and… Well, that is rather literal, isn’t it? He must have been bracing himself psychologically, and now finds himself stuck up against the back of his chair. 

“Hello,” he greets Ane, his voice tense. The back of his head is shoved tightly to the wall, mussing down his short hair, scrunching his neck. 

He has a wooden basin filled with steaming water set beside his reading nook. There’s also a pinned note from Jiselmo, with a scratched-in smile saying, “Enjoy your soak, just try not to croak!” It seems he’s a supportive but not-quite-so tactful friend.

Ane nods. 

“Hello, Korin. Now, tell me…” She sets the basket down cautiously atop Jiselmo’s… Curtain… Barrel. She’s never quite understood his decorating sensibilities. “Was Jiselmo cursed as well, and did he get anything from the trinket-seller?”

The tzuskar relaxes somewhat, lowering his wings — which were previously pinned to the wall. 

“Well, no… Jiselmo seems fine. Somehow, I think the curse bounced off of him and hit me,” he relates. “Cosmically, anyway.” He sighs, then continues, “The woman reached out with a gnarled hand and tried to… Well, bap him, I guess? With her palm. Right in the forehead. Jiselmo bent down to pick something up, and it hit me instead…” Korin’s posture wilts, and his wings promptly become droopy and somewhat dry and colorless. This only lasts for a second, fortunately, as their color and vivacity soon returns. “Anyway, there was a brief flash of li-”

Korin promptly stops talking, grabs the hem of his shirt, and lifts it up to reveal his stomach. As quickly as he did this, Korin immediately shoves his shirt back down. Just as his face begins to flush, he does so instead by grabbing a handful of water and tossing it at his cheeks.

“Oh, that one was a bit of a stretch,” he grumbles, bellyaching, which soon turns literal and has him clutching his stomach. “I guess it didn’t count as a reveal until I got to the interesting part…”

“But did he actually take or buy anything from her?” 

Ane begins setting up. First, she sets the brazier on the table in the middle of the divided wagon, before filling it with a block of charcoal, adding some tinder, and lighting it with her firesteel. She watches him as she works, studying the symptoms of the curse while measuring out a quantity of snowsage, some round, vaguely pearlescent drops of fragrant resin, and a few of drops of a viscous, pungently foul-smelling oil. Her nose wrinkles a bit from the stink as she works — unfortunately, not every type of herbcraft is intended to smell inviting. Hopefully this stuff is as effective as it is odiferous.

Korin shakes his head — not side to side, but rapidly in place, like a vibration.

“No, he just got all offended. Like, ‘How dare you strike my companion!? Look at him, he’s traumatized! Come along Korin, let’s buy our props elsewhere,’” Korin relates, in an almost perfect Jiselmo-voice. Or, that’s what he would have told Ane. About halfway through the impression, the tzuskar stops and begins pressing hard against a nearby surface, at least until a slight indentation is left behind.  

Ane sighs in relief. Good, at least they probably aren’t dealing with a cursed object.

“Alright, well… Enough talk. Strip down to whatever you’re comfortable with getting wet.” 

She heaps the sticky mixture of herbs, resin, and oil onto the burning coal, which immediately responds with a dark billow of deep, musky-scented smoke. While the oil may have smelled like an overfilled privy before, mixing and heating it seems to have released some sort of strongly woody, earthy scent — like moss and soil before a rain.

While that burns, she measures a few other herbs into a pouch of thin muslin. This, she does not burn. Instead, she tosses it into the wash basin to steep in the hot water, releasing little tendrils of tea-colored liquid.

“Sure, sure,” Korin agrees, then promptly begins scratching his nails at the wall, stripping off some of the paint. “Void damn- actually, you know what, I have an idea. Give me a second.”

He stands up, opens his mouth, and begins, “The curse is-”

He takes off his shirt, revealing his thin, soft torso.

“The lady’s name wa-”

He takes off his gloves, revealing his hands.

“She ca-”

He removes his boots, kicking them off the floor, revealing his black-socked feet.

“That’ll do,” he declares, now just wearing his trousers and socks. He sits back down, and resumes watching Ane’s concoction. Occasionally it almost elicits a reaction from him, but he forces his face to not contort, knit, or do any verbs in general. 

Once he seems to be satisfied with his state of undress, she nods.

“Alright. Stand in the basin. Then, what you need to do — without saying anything — is use your left hand to pour handfuls of water over yourself, until you’ve been completely soaked from top to tips, alright?” 

For now, she settles herself comfortably cross-legged on the floor, with a sheaf of cattail leaves and the little metal etui on her lap. The air of the wagon is growing smokier with the incense rising from the little katagon bowl, fumigating the space from the split table outward.

Korin nods, and seems to fight off a brief bout of drowsiness. Without saying a word, he gets up, and step-step-steps his way to the basin. Rather than enter it deliberately, he walks over it but stops when standing in the middle of the water. He then bends d-

Korin bends to the left, forming an arc with his body. This almost causes him to curse, but he forces his lips shut.

After that, he tries again. Korin kneels down, scoops up some water in his hands, and begins scooping water onto his body. It takes him some extra time, since he also needs to soak his wings. But soon, he’s completely wet, shining in the brazier’s light like a buttered biscuit fresh from the oven. His hair is limply wetted down, and his feathers are all matted with moisture. He shivers a little as he sits there, wordlessly looking at Ane as if to say, “Now what?”

In response, she holds up…

A tiny Korin.

Meanwhile, Larger Korin looks concerned. 

It’s really quite cleverly fashioned, really — made entirely out of a bundle of cattail leaves, with a few extra tied to the back and torn into fringes to indicate feathered wings. Ane stands, cattail doll in one hand, reaches over, and plucks a single feather from the shoulder of the tzuskar’s wing.

“Ow! My wings,” he complains.

“Now hold still while I do some things.”

Ane’s nimble fingers tie the feather around the doll’s neck with a bit of cotton thread. She holds it up, over the basin, and speaks, in clear, even tones,

“Let the doll be as the man — whatever curse has befallen him is sent into the water. From man to water, from water to doll, and from doll to dirt, never to bother another again.” 

She dips the doll into the wash basin, holding it by the tip of one cattail-leaf wing. As it dangles, dripping, between her fingers, she turns her hum back up to Korin.

Korin shivers, feeling chilly and rubbing his arms. It may not be the ritual itself, but just the thought of seeing a tiny “him” dunked in water.

“Alright… Take the basin outside, toward the shardlight. Turn your back to the shard, dump the water behind you, to your left, then come back inside without…” she holds up the index finger of her free hand, “… turning around or looking behind you, no matter what. Then, you need to let yourself air-dry completely before you dress, speak, or leave the wagon again. I,” here, she holds up the cattail doll, “Am going to go bury this. Nod if you understand.”

Korin nods off slightly at the end, but he does so with a look of resolve. That probably means he understands. 

She nods in return.

“Good. Once all that’s done… You should be back to normal after getting some sleep. It just needs a little time.”

Ane begins cleaning up — she tosses the coal into Korin and Jiselmo’s stove, and packs away all of her herbs and other accoutrements into her basket. Lastly, on top, she sets the rather forlorn-looking cattail doll.

While he’s disposing of the water, she seeks out some mud. Nothing said the doll had to be buried deep, just so long as it isn’t where others can get at it and disrupt her handiwork. 

Luckily for me, if there’s one thing Paakoponde’s got, it’s mud.

Kneeling by the edge of a marshy spot, beneath the drooping branches of a willow, she pulls a small, pearl-ended pin from her etui.

“As the curse was pinned to the man, so pin it now to this,” she whispers, as she thrusts the pin into the doll. It’s easy enough to scoop away some mud from around the willow’s roots, creating a small hollow just barge enough for the doll to fit — the ground is soft and sodden enough, the base of it begins to fill with water after only a few inches.

With an unceremonious plop, the Teller of Fortunes drops the doll into the little hollow. It really is a sad-looking thing, pierced with the pin, with its battered little cattail-leaf wings just barely jutting out of the muddy water, and thick spatters of mud across its flat, pale, expressionless-

Ane’s mouth goes dry. Her heart begins to pound in her chest, as a tight, hard knot forms at the base of her throat. She quickly scoops mud over the doll, fixing her hum on the gnarled bark of the willow to keep from having to see its accusatory look.

But how could it be accusatory? The Void-damned thing doesn’t even have an actual face.

Ane wipes her hands clean on the moss clumped greedily around the tree’s roots, and hastens her walk back to her cabin. She’s going to need another cup or two of tea and some time to breathe before anyone wants anything from her again. Few things in life have been as welcome as the sight of her wagon’s split door, with its bright, peeling paint and little carved wooden curlicues at the corners.

Once inside, she gives her hands a thorough scrubbing with the bucket of water beside her round-bellied stove. Even after cleaning every trace of mud from her neatly-trimmed nails, lathering her hands with soap, and rubbing them with a sachet of fragrant herbs, it still feels like there isn’t enough she can do to clean them. 

She lights her stove, roughly prodding a divot in the pile of coal with the fire iron. Into this, she casts a handful of dried mint and snowsage — enough for silvery smoke to rise from the stove’s mouth. Hastily, she strips off her clothing to kneel in front of the glow of the coals. Even though her vestigial remnant of vision can only barely perceive the faint light coming from it, she can feel the heat and the fragrant smoke, enveloping her skin.

In spite of the warmth, goosebumps dot her bared arms and legs. 

Ane inhales deeply and lets her head hang, chin to her chest. She can feel the stretch all along the space between her shoulder blades, where her heavy pack pressed, up along the slender column of her neck. It aches, but it’s the ache of falling onto one’s bed after a long day — a pain that heralds the opportunity to rest, if she can get the rest of herself to comply.

While the herbs smoke and the stove burns, she dips some water into her little copper kettle. Some geltsear leaf tea, a little healer’s honey, maybe a few leaves of sightwort, to rest her thoughts and open her mind’s eye… Between that, her robe, and a book, she might be able to relax until she is needed again.

Fortunately, no one comes knocking for the rest of the night. Korin’s curse was likely enough excitement for one evening anyway.

A cool breeze wafts against the outside of the wagon. Activity outside begins to lull as the troupe settles down to rest after a long day’s work. For Ane the night is soothing and calm, and she settles down to sleep after a day’s work well done.

Teller of Fortunes 13: No Bellyaching

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

By the time Ane returns to the caravan, all the wagons have un-hitched and spread throughout a large clearing between the trees. The ground here is particularly dry and well-trodden, great for the weighty wagon wheels and many barrels of supplies.

It seems most people have finished with their errands and tasks. Now they can finally take a breather, enjoying some time in camp without worry for an immediate departure. It’s a noticeably different atmosphere — in one corner of the camp, the knife-thrower Vasht is trying to teach the comedian Korin how to juggle, while Korin’s partner Jiselmo makes commentary. Elsewhere, the dancer triplets perch outside the herbalist’s wagon, gossiping as the old klorr leans out her window. And somewhere in the city, the caravan master Jarrik is off making his mischief.

The trumba graze, the people chat, the caravan master grifts for more gold… All is at peace.

Ane stops at her wagon to unload much of her burden — at least the heaviest bits, like the wax and coffee. With the herbalist’s medicines in a basket slung over her arm, she sashays over to the old woman’s wagon with a cheerful call:

“Knock knock!”

As Ane approaches, she hears Dynkala and three others wrapped up in casual, gossipy banter. Old Dynkala is particularly animated.

“Well, if he has all his limbs, eyes, and his wonderful hair… Then it can’t be a very good curse now can it dear? Why, of all the ones I’ve seen-” She blinks her wide, slit-pupiled eyes, face lined with laughter as she turns to greet Ane.

“Oh, hello! Back from my little errand?” She asks kindly, leaning with her elbows over her windowsill. That window and her wagon seem as much a part of Dynkala as anything else. The sturdy, rustic vehicle has been hers for many decades. As Dynkala dwells deeper into her twilight years, she scarcely exits, mostly speaking through her open window — and open it always is, with a sign bearing a pestle and mortar swinging gently above.

The conjoined dancer triplets all give a little wave, one after the other. They have three sets of arms amongst them, fortunately enough for them to all sip some of Dynkala’s tea. The trio is perched on a wide crate, temporarily pressed into service as a seat until it has to go on to be rations or wagon parts.

“Yes, and I think I managed to get everything,” Ane says as she passes the basket to the aged herbalist. Even without tea and a place to sit, she almost immediately eases into the conversational atmosphere. “A medicine seller showed some interest in coming on board, so it’s a good thing I didn’t get extra — I told her to talk to Jarrik, but it looks like she’ll be bringing her stocks. You know he wouldn’t turn down free supplies.”

“Not even if they were falling out of a burning orphanage on Turnabout Eve,” Vila adds dryly. The other two triplets nod in agreement.

Dynkala, accepting the basket with a withered claw, seems more pensive.

“A medicine seller, hm? Maybe she plans to make marks of us,” she considers and tucks the basket down onto her lap inside the wagon. “Oh well. If she’s a swindler, she’ll never slip past me. I married three, raised two, and I work for one,” she says with a smile, looking down and picking through the items.

Ane chuckles lightly as she leans against the wall beside the herbalist’s window.

“She didn’t seem like one. No sawdust in the stomach-powder, at least, and the snowsage didn’t smell like turpentine. Speaking of the caravan master, though, how’s he doing after losing us a whole passel of mercenaries?”

Dynkala doesn’t acknowledge the comment on the caravan master at first, focusing on the materials. “That’s good. You always have had a good eye, figuratively speaking,” the old klorr agrees, nodding at the ingredients. No sawdust, no dyed leaves, no fake berries…

The trio, of course, is fully willing to take up the gossip-mantle. Between the three of them, they usually have quite a lot of it. Wila responds from behind a flap of her fan.

“Well, Jarrik’s certainly been left scrambling…”

“He even wanted to circle the wagons! Here, in Paako,” Zila says, astonished.

Vila scoffs. “It’s just how insecure he gets, without a bunch of buff kettle-heads to keep him company.”

Looking up, Dynakala murmurs, “He’s probably off scraping for more as we speak. Can’t just have that sharp boy Vasht handle things; liable to spook the root-twirlers with his glare.”

Ane gives a soft snort.

“Yes, well. Jarrik wouldn’t have to scrape as much if he’d pay them more than twice a year,” she scoffs.

“It would probably be more net funds, due to sign-on fees,” Wila reasons. “It’s simply mathematical.”

“Less spent on funerals and bribes,” Vila comments.

Dynkala chuckles, shaking her head. “He’d have to swindle twice as much, just to feel like he’s making money. Price-hiking my folk cures, cutting ingredients from the rest…”

“Void forbid, another fiasco like the Skilvargan Job,” Zila huffs.

Ane pushes herself away from the wagon with a shrug of her shoulder.

“Anyway, I’ve got things to put away, and a tent to set up. I’ll see you ladies around,” she says, with a casual wave as she turns to return to her wagon.

Dynkala nods, giving an idle wave. “Take care dear, and thank you for the materials! We’ll be doing well for a while now,” she beams, settling back. “Good fortune, maybe, for a spell…”

“Just watch out if you see Korin! He said he got cursed, it might be contagious,” Zila says with an air of scandal.

“Now, that’s not nice,” Wila reprimands, “The poor boy is unfortunate enough, all things considered…”

Korin? Cursed? The only thing he’s afflicted with is a damaged sense of humor.

Ane shakes her head gently. Her walk isn’t long, and the weather is pleasantly humid and cool after the dry dust of the last town and the spore-drenched air of the shadowlands. She swings her arms gently as she walks, humming the same strange, wordless melody from her vision-seeking as she goes.

It doesn’t take her long to set her tent up here, either. She doesn’t need it just yet, but it’s better to have it waiting for her than otherwise.

Now, back in her wagon, she settles by her window to enjoy the breeze (and occasional thwup of a shardfly against her curtains) with a large cup of geltsear leaf tea, sweetened with a bit of healer’s honey. The honey lends a light spicy note to the vanilla-tinged warmth of the geltsear leaf, infused as it is with herbs that are supposed to be a preventative for sickness — she doesn’t know how accurate that is, but it tastes good and it couldn’t hurt. Doubly so if Korin thinks he’s been ensorcelled and turns up at her door, coughing, sniffling, and looking for a curse-breaker.

In time, there is the sound of footsteps outside. The soft-shod trodding comes to a halt, and there’s the rustling of fabric that usually accompanies someone raising their hand to knock. The sound never comes, however. Instead, Korin sighs and reluctantly calls out:

“My name is Korin and I’m here to say, Jiselmo got me screwed in a major way.”

Then there’s a thud as if he’s hit his head against the door. He sounds rather despondent.

“Hello, Ko– What.”

Ane frowns at her door for a long moment, hand paused halfway to setting her cup down on the floor beside her bed.

Slowly, carefully, Korin opens the door and enters…

“Ah. Nothing. Wonderful,” he cheers loudly, though he looks down to find he has his index finger shoved into his closed left fist. “Oh, that’s just rude,” he complains, then mutters, “Ow,” and doubles over slightly, clutching his stomach.

Ane focuses her sight-hum at him, puzzled.

“What… What did Jiselmo do, exactly? And what’s it doing to you?”

I guess this is the curse.

“Well, for one thing, my stomach hurts whenever I complain,” he grumbles. He shakes his head — no, shakes his head, like a vibration. “Gods, it really does hit everything.”

There’s a slight pause, and Korin goes very still. He seems to be trying his best to do nothing. He’s still standing in the doorway, of course, and hasn’t even attempted wandering further in.

“I have to do this very carefully. It was very embarrassing last time. Let’s just try…”

He readies himself to reveal the problem, but then promptly seizes up — literally grabbing himself. Tensing his muscles, he fights back a motion in his arms, cranking them towards one another… With a shaking hand, he grasps hold of one leather glove and then yanks it off. This reveals his hand, which is as normal as can be.

“Damn. Well, at least I didn’t reveal something else this time. Do you have a piece of paper?” He asks, exasperated. His stoic features are more lined with weariness than usual, and one of his face-wings flaps in despair.

Ane nods, swirls wide. Without moving her gaze from him, she feels around in the cabinet beneath her bed for some cattail paper, before tearing off a corner of the roll and holding it out in his direction. She stretches her arm as far as she possibly can, as if afraid that this whatever he has might be contagious.

“Sure, yes, thank you,” he replies in even-tone. Then carefully, he reaches out for a stub of pastel placed nearby. “Thank Firin it’s not ink, I thought of several for that,” he whispers. Slowly now, he lifts the pastel… “Still good,” he mutters, almost sweating from the tension.

Then, he puts it to the paper and drags it one line at a time…

Two seconds later, the end of the pastel is in his mouth as if he’s trying to smoke it.

“Void-dammit, that’s not what I meant!” He curses around the pastel, which is now shoved between his lips.

If Ane had eyes that could blink in astonishment, she would.

“Are you… Is there a way you could just describe what happened? What did Jiselmo do?”

“I can, if you can think of a way to do that without revealing it to you,” he explains, raising his gloved hand. Then he promptly drops the pastel from his mouth and sets it nearby. “I would have brought Jiselmo to explain, but…”

His brow goes flat.

“He has way too much fun with this.”

She gives a soft murmur and an understanding nod. That’s Jiselmo, alright.

“Can you tell me what you need? What would cure you?”

“The trinket peddler said I would have to ‘cease the sins’ of myself and my ‘pet blabrel.’ Meaning Jiselmo, naturally,” Korin explains. “Maybe she can be reasoned with? Or something else, you are the expert,” he speculates. Fortunately for him, it seems most of his speaking is not affected. He’s very noticeably regulating his tone, however, as if trying to avoid some kind of consequence. Given his usual deadpan delivery, he’s at least skilled in this.

Korin sighs. “There’s no way we can stop this! It’s our job for Void’s sa- Errrh, damn!” He groans, clutching his stomach. “Yes, yes, I know, no bellyaching…”

Ane presses her lips into a thin line, biting back a chuckle. She has a feeling she knows how it went down… Jiselmo saw a trinket he liked, and tried to sweet-talk his way into getting it.

This will take quite the fixing.

Teller of Fortunes 12: The Enigmatic Peddler

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

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.