Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 27: First Trail End

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Ane beats a swift retreat back to her wagon. It’s quieter there, and nobody will ask her about strange deliveries of produce, or the results of her strange daily adventures. She can finish that cigarillo, maybe meditate a little bit, see how her bolete tincture is starting to get on, even talk to the stone slipshell for a little while – she’s certain it must house some strange spirit within. 

Ane lets herself in through the half-door of her rustic, weather-worn wagon, and bolts it shut behind her. Minutes later, she’s back in her robe, lying beneath her window with the music of an old song crystal filling the wagon and a pot of geltsear leaf tea steeping beside her bed.

She probably should’ve foreseen that the monk was going to end up in the caravan. Hopefully he doesn’t get himself killed by the first troupe of bandits they come across — it’s not likely he’ll end up safely housed, unless he has some previously-undisclosed talent for juggling, puppetry, contortionism, or the like. 

Ane pours herself a generous cup of tea, watching a few stray leaves twirl and dance in the current. As she raises it to her lips for a sip, she reclines against her pillows to ready herself for the long road ahead. The trail to grand S’varga is long and fraught with danger, but great profit and adventure await in those deep, cavernous atriums and amongst its underground city spires.

Across the room, the slipshell figure stands vigil over a bloodstained page. His dull, uncritical eyes belie a gentle guardian, one that cannot fathom the danger to come.

Where one trail ends, another begins.

The caravan rolls on.

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 24: Half-Light Show

(Note: This episode has elements that may not be safe for work. Skim responsibly.)

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Once more, Ane awakens to the swirling lights of the shardflies that call Paakoponde home. This time, she finds that it’s on the way out of town; the wagon underneath her bed is moving, and must have been hitched-up during her sleep. Fortunately, the fortune telling tent was already packed away, so no input was really needed on Ane’s part. This isn’t the first time she’s fallen asleep during the caravan’s start at transit, and certainly won’t be the last.

The trip likely won’t be long; she heard word yesterday that they’ll be stopping in the farmlands on the way out of the region. It might just be another hour or two before they make that brief stop. For now, it’s a decent time to start on her morning toilette before things get going.

As Ane looks to the vanity, something is amiss. It only takes a moment for her to realize that it’s the small painting she made — the rather cryptic item from her sightwort-fueled ritual. The mere sight of the pciture calls forth memories of her hallucinogenic trance, in which she painted with blood and pigment alike, driven by some strange, prophetic whim. Most of the picture remains as it was before. There’s the infinity-and-semicircle symbol, the marks of blood, the hole in the page, and the nine empty spaces amongst the pastel marks above… There’s only one difference. Previously, a strip of those gaps was filled by a single smear of blood.

Now, another blood-mark has appeared, painted dark and thick by hands unknown.

It filled in a nearby white space with a quick, jagged mark. And not only does Ane not remember making this mark… But she hasn’t even bled since the ritual. Thinking back, there’s no way to account for this change.

She frowns at the drawing spread across the tabletop. At first, she rubs at the stain with a fingertip, but the mark is too dry to make much of a difference. It has to be blood — even without being able to see the color, she can tell by the consistency of the smear and its sharp, metallic odor. 

Part of her wonders if Jiselmo the actor trying to poke fun at her, since she uncursed Korin, his unfortunate companion, and robbed him of his sport. However, it wouldn’t be much like him to sneak into her wagon to deface a picture; Jiselmo isn’t that sneaky nor mean-spirited.

Besides, if it was him, he would’ve drawn a smiley face.

Ane hurriedly finishes combing and braiding her hair before she takes a seat on the thick, shaggy vulre hide rug in front of her stove. While she puzzles over the mysterious appearance of the mark, her hands go through the motions of making some succory root coffee. It’s a process she’s gone through so many times, she’s able to repeat it almost purely from muscle memory. A few minutes later, the copper kettle is empty, the rich, dark roots are steeping in her cup, and she is no closer to an answer.

Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t decide to show up after that either. And it’s such a small detail to have had to notice… Could it have happened a day ago? Maybe two? The only certainty is that it was sometime after the caravan arrived in Paakoponde. And if it’s happened once, it could happen again… Albeit a maximum of five more times, though that’s likely to be of little comfort.

Divination really is an unsettling sort of thing.

Some minutes later, the caravan stops in the outlands of Paakoponde. The surroundings are even more forested this time, with thicker tree-walls and smaller clearings. The straw-mud huts are just as numerous, but now they seem like an afterthought in the overgrown environment. There’s a thick, cool sort of mist settling over the boggier areas, lending an air of uncertainty to the area. It’s nothing in comparison to the forests of the shadowlands, but it feels a fair bit less friendly than the center of the capital… even if the people are still more or less the same.  

Ane ventures out to set up her tent. It’s more of a challenge now — the ground is swampier, which makes finding stable ground tricky. She eventually does, though, for a given value of stable. So long as nobody goes in the rear left corner of her tent, everything should be fine. 

As she places her cushions and sets up her table, the thought of someone sneaking into her wagon continues to gnaw at her. She even almost wonders what the point of working today is. It’s not like she’s likely to pull in much money from a handful of huts on the fringes of the city. Really, she’d rather be secreted away in her wagon, waiting to see if any more picture-defacing interlopers show up.

In fact, thinking back on it, the latch on her door was completely undisturbed. Someone might have gone in through the windows. There’d be no way to really tell if they did. Then again, someone would have probably seen it happen, or they might have disturbed some of her items upon entry. As far as Ane can tell, everything was exactly where she had left it. It just makes the dilemma that much more troubling. 

Nonetheless, Jarrik must have his cut of her coin, so the Teller of Fortunes must sit and pull cards for as long as the clientele holds up.

The first half of the day goes by at a very slow pace. It seems the farmers out here are not as drawn to the caravan’s many sights and wonders. Most of the cultivators are just wondering about their day-to-day problems, like root crops and fishing yields. 

It’s around then that Jarrik presses his clown into service as a crier, and sends it wandering around the camp. Its shouts are partially muffled by the tent walls, but it’s familiar and clear all the same: “Time to ante-up! Tops off, muscles polished, it’s time for the Half-Light Show!”

Groan.

Of course, it’s to be expected — what better to wring the last couple silver scutes out of the local populace than a bawdy show? Ane, half-dressed already, strips off her chemise and sits back at her vanity. She slouches for a moment, before sitting upright and pulling her shoulders back. Her bare breasts — firm handfuls topped with apricot-colored nipples — jut from either side of the feathers tattooed on her breastbone. Ane smooths a few drops of fragrant oil over her skin, to give it a soft sheen. A generous dusting of mica comes next, followed by a few dabs of her favorite amber perfume. In the soft light, she almost shines like a pearl from her slim neck, across her chest, down her lissome arms, all the way to the thin silver and wooden bangles on her wrists. 

Ane ties the lodolite necklace around her neck, sitting it high, like a choker, to nestle the gem in the hollow of her throat. Beneath that, she places a silver-dipped needleshark fang on a beaded cord hanging nearly to her waist. She turns her head this way and that, humming down to gauge her appearance. 

The effect is subtle, but striking — a combination of artistic color and texture, shimmering pearl and rough gemstone, feminine softness and needleshark tooth. Ane secures her veil, and goes to her tent to recline on her embroidered cushions behind the veil of incense smoke.

It’s time for the Teller of Fortunes’s Half-Light Show.

Even now, the flow of patrons is slower than usual for farming settlements. Apparently, even a bit of bared skin isn’t enough to have them flocking to the attractions.

Soon enough, however, the entryway to Ane’s tent fills with someone seeking answers. Looking up, she comes face to face with-

Another topless woman.

The fuhajen floats there, blinking as she examines her surroundings. She’s clad in a half-robe, covering only her lower body, with bangle-drapes doing the same for her hands. She seems a bit older than Ane, with her bare breasts presented under a sort of dark paint. In addition to her tattoos of swirling miasma, lingering mists, and other such things, there are animal designs of sap-paint and the occasional mica-fleck scattered across her bare cleavage. 

When she sees Ane, she beams, lighting up her colorful eyes.

“Hello! This is the tent that allows not shirts?” She asks, apparently working with a thinner grasp of Skilhouran-Common. It doesn’t seem to impede her speech much, however, and she carries a sort of firmness to her tone.

To be fair, many people in Paakoponde do dress like this. Ane typically doesn’t pay much attention to the styles of dress in the cities she passes through. This particular custom wasn’t as common in the first farming settlement, but maybe it’s particular to this side? Women went without shirts in the city, but they blended into the crowd all the while anyway.

Whatever the case, here floats one of them ready for the fortune telling. 

The Teller of Fortunes opens her mouth to deliver her usual greeting, but-

“Y-yes?” She says, suddenly made uncertain. It is a tent that allows toplessness, obviously, but it is not necessarily the tent that does so. There are several implications in the woman’s question and Ane’s reply… And, really, they’re all far more perplexing than seeing a topless fuhajen in Paakoponde, of all places.

The Teller of Fortunes clears her throat softly, to cover her slip back into character. Her berry-painted lips part softly in a smile, as she gestures to the cushions in front of her. It doesn’t sound like the woman’s asking for a reading, but she’s here and it’s better to make the best of the situation.

“Greetings. It’s five scutes for the first three cards, and five more for each three thereafter. What answers do you seek?” She asks, in her smooth, sultry, almost lyrical tones.

“Ah! Then I am in the right place,” she beams, and floats forward. When she arrives at the pillows, she floats down to a sitting position. Now that she’s sitting closer, it’s obvious that while her breasts are technically ornamented — paint, tattoos, mica and such — it’s clearly not to attract wandering eyes. Really, the breasts just seem incidental in the overall picture. Even the glimmering mica is probably accidental, given the mud-and-sap combination being used.

“Well,” she says in a hush, carefully drawing out five silver scutes. “The shaman of our village is getting old, and is too terribly sick to read the skies… So I must ask for all of us. When is the next Storm of Chaos come?” The woman asks, in a confiding tone. 

Of course, Ane is familiar with such storms; she’s experienced many of them while out travelling. They rain the hallucinogenic liquid known only as “Stormwater,” but that’s not the most of their effects. The problematic thing is that anyone — and anything — caught in them could be subjected to strange, seemingly random effects. People describe them as a storm of lights in the sky, with a large variety of wild colors, but… Due to the other two properties, people have also described rays of darkness and vulre raining from the sky. It’s best to take these things with a grain of salt.

They’re fairly common in this part of the world, though they’re not predictable like other weather patterns. In any case, now there is a topless woman in Ane’s tent asking about when the Scourge of Vurumaji is going to wreak havoc.

The next Storm of Chaos? 

The Teller of Fortunes’s lips draw into a pensive pout. It’s not a question she was anticipating, but she’ll give it a shot. She reaches for the stack of suited cards near her left elbow, and begins to shuffle them while she thinks. The mist is rising heavily from the bogs, but that can only foretell a regular rain storm, at best. Vurumaji would never be so predictable — it wouldn’t be a Chaos Storm if it was. After a few moments, she overturns the topmost card.

“The Ace of Cups,” Fitting, she thinks, “If the events of the world continue on the path they are on, it will be one month’s time.”

The woman observes, awed by Ane’s certainty. Looking down at the card, she reaches forward and gently taps near it. 

“This… Does it mean there will be a lot of stormwater?” She wonders, her eyes glimmering as she looks back up at the fortune teller. This question seems to be of great importance to her, at least by the way the firmness in her expression wavers. 

“Not… necessarily. Many things can influence the abundance of the Scourge of Vurumaji, it is a difficult thing to anticipate like this when it can change so easily,” the Teller of Fortunes says. At least, she assumes so. She doesn’t often get serious inquiries about Stormwater, unless they are from people looking to drink it. “In other contexts, this card can indicate an overwhelming emotion or sudden creative inspiration. This may point to a large quantity of Stormwater, given it’s ability to stimulate the imagination.”

Really, that last part’s a bit of an understatement — unless you consider vivid hallucinations “stimulating.” Most people don’t, but Ane has always had a rather charitable view of them.

The woman nods, tapping her chin. While some of Ane’s words may have been lost in translation, their general message and intent seem to have gotten across. After a moment or two of deliberation, she continues.

“I know you are a foreign, so this may be tricky question… What does your fortune say of how to prepare?”

Despite calling Ane ‘foreign,’ the woman seems rather comfortable here. It may be that Ane’s bare-chested state imitates local culture. In fact, it may even be a way of distinguishing this village — or tribe — from others. It might also be Ane’s performance thus far. Whatever the case, the fuhajen’s posture is relaxed, and she seems to smile occasionally.

How to prepare for Stormwater? A good book, a strong door, and a lot of buckets, mostly, Ane thinks to herself. 

Nonetheless, she turns over a card from the stack near her right elbow.

“Ah, The Pirate-King reversed,” she says, laying the card down between them. She lightly runs a finger over the klorrian pirate’s resin-painted face. “This card, in its negative aspect, indicates selfishness. Prepare to look out for yourself and your loved ones, but do not close yourselves off to helping others who may be vulnerable to the Storms of Chaos.”

The woman cants her head to the side slightly, bundled hair spilling over her shoulder.

“So it means we avoid selfishness?” She asks, folding her arms over her lap. She seems a tad perplexed.

“So it says,” the Teller of Fortunes gestures to the cards with a graceful wave of her hand, “Prepare by preparing to take care of the least among you. Don’t leave anyone out in the storm.”

Her eyes widen, and she nods hurriedly. 

“That is wise… what Vurumaji brings is unknown. Does that mean he is feeling vicious in this passing?” The fuhajen asks, touching her fingertips to her lips. 

The Teller of Fortunes divides her left-hand deck into two piles, and overturns the topmost card on both.

“The Six of Coins, and… The Nine of Arrows. It does not appear that Vurumaji is spiteful this time, no,” she attempts to assure the woman.

The woman blinks. “Is that good?”

You never really do know with chaos storms. Perhaps the worst prediction could be that Vurumaji is feeling silly. Whatever the case, the Fuhajen doesn’t know what to make of coins and arrows, and looks to Ane for this last bit of guidance. 

The Teller of Fortunes grimaces. She’d been hoping to avoid this part.

“Well… No. Probably not. The Nine of Arrows is a sign of nightmares and panic, neither of which are good omens for a chaos storm.” Apt ones, surely, but certainly not good.

The woman’s eyes widen.

She looks down, first considering the card — a man hunched over in bed, possibly weeping, in front of an arrow-covered wall. When she looks back up, her countenance is changed. Perhaps this news has hardened her. But then when she glances at the other card, and sees a man giving out coins in charity, it reminds her of the prior reading — that it will be important to support one another in this time of need. 

“You bring important news… We must prepare,” she says firmly, straightening her posture. “Very well. I will go to tell the others. Though still…” She bites her lip, glancing at Ane’s coin bowl. “We do not have much money, as a people. Is there something we can do for you? We have many sorts of roots and tubers, and some raise vulre… Others are fishers.”

Ane thinks for a moment. She’s not really supposed to accept readings without payment, but she also isn’t quite sure how to politely negotiate with the woman. Their language barrier is slight and certainly not unnavigable, but etiquette is a very subjective and tricky thing. 

“If you have some appoh fruits to spare,” she says, “The fire-breather would appreciate them. Tell him they are from the Teller of Fortunes.”

She furrows her brow, then nods. 

“Anything for you?” And of course, she passes two more silver into the bowl. It’s not enough for another reading, but she seems to be tipping in any case.

The Teller of Fortunes’s lips purse as she thinks. It’s too bad this conversation wasn’t taking place the day before — she might’ve been able to parlay it into some cattail liquor or blue boletes and saved herself a little time.

“A bit of puffroot might be nice…” It gives a nice, pleasant high, at least.

Suddenly, the woman grins, reaching all three of her eyes in its mirth.

This we can do…” The woman departs in a hurry. She practically flies out of the tent, moving on both ground and air.  She leaves behind a quite literal whoosh of air, causing the opening to flap slightly.

It takes less than an hour for the puffroot to begin rolling in.

Villager after villager, heap after heap, they move in with a remarkable haste. It turns out, this village is just absolutely wretched with puffroot. Before long, it’s pouring off of Ane’s table and onto the floor, and from there heaping around her ankles in little bundles. They started by throwing it in the coin bowl, but that overfilled in a matter of minutes. And moreover, no matter what, these villagers simply can’t be dissuaded. Most of them don’t even speak more than a few words to her — the only thing they say in Skilhouran Common is, “Thank you, foreign shaman,” before smiling and dumping another load.

She stops one man, a thin, reedy fuhajen with a neck like a knee and a broad, if uncertain, smile on his weathered face.

“Thank you for all of this, really, but are you sure you can part with so much?” She asks, with a gesture toward the pillowy mounds of shaved puffroot currently eclipsing the surface of her card table.

“Thank you, foreign shaman!” He replies, with a broadening of his smile and a bob of his head.

“No, really, it’s no trouble, I just don’t think I’ll be able to keep all of thi-” She tries, in extremely optimistic S’vargan.

“Th-thank you, foreign shaman,” he repeats, with a sidelong dart of his three eyes toward the door of her tent.

The Teller of Fortunes hums at him for a long, curious moment. 

She begins again in very uncertain, stilted Paakoese, while making a firm (yet what she hopes is polite) declining gesture. With luck, it’ll be the right dialect and she won’t accidentally instruct him to go do something impolite with a melon.

The chopon lands in the west. No more cheese, it is very blue.”

“… Thank you, foreign shaman?” His knobby throat bobs with an anxious gulp. The Teller of Fortunes can see him beginning to nervously twist the hem of his shirt in his square, clay-stained hands, and she relents with a gentle shake of her head.

“You’re welcome,” she replies, with a smile resigned to figuring out how the Void to turn puffroot into food, furniture, and clothing.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 22: Another Fine Day

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Another fortune-telling complete. Once the young woman leaves, Ane adjusts her veil and slips back into character for the remainder of her clientele. The narrative she weaves is a constant balancing act. Hopefully, she won’t have to dispense more herb-lore to them; it’s enough just to have to spin ways to relate cards showing oysters or cute little clap-voles to Paakoese notions of enlightenment and spiritual prosperity. On the bright side, they’ve been satisfied so far… Well. Most of them, anyway. 

She redoubles her efforts, sweating under her veil in the midday heat. Much like the prior day, the number of customers is rather large. This time, though, the Teller of Fortunes gets into a nice frame of mind that lends well to local needs. The tips are more plentiful this time, and Ane takes home an astounding haul of gold mitres. By now, she could buy enough bleating vulre to fill her entire tent.

It’s just as well, too; this will probably be the largest take for quite some time. She’s heard word going around the caravan that this will be the last day within central Paakoponde. The troupe could probably stay for longer, but by now, everyone’s used to the place; if they get too comfortable, the group’s Grifter-in-Chief, Caravan Master Jarrik would probably get them into too much trouble. That’s what happened in Pellas, anyway. Fortunately, he should be occupied with refilling the caravan’s ranks of guardsmen…

Too many died on the last trail.

As the working day draws to a close, people are beginning to clump up into different groups based, looking for adventure. As Ane takes down her tent, she can easily ovehear some of them. One group, including Korin the actor and the dancing triplets, are interested in checking out tourist sights, like the grand Vault of Sojythus and its gardens. Others, like Nelea the animal tamer and Brair the fire-breather, are more interested in checking out the wildlife and the ancient ruins scattered throughout the woods. They are rather common out in the bogs… 

Naturally, there are others that seem to be staying behind. Ane’s mind is drawn to considering the man with the twisted arms who appeared mysteriously days ago, tormented and displayed by the caravan master for all to see. He remains unseen, likely off in whichever wagon he’s staying within. A couple of the less-sociable caravanners seem to be clustered around that wagon. The klorrian magician, always a reclusive one, is wistfully contemplating under one of the large trees. He appears to be talking to his pocket at great length, with a pair of fuzzy smeerp ears sticking out. Then there’s the outcast clown and, well, he’s just kind of mucking around with junk in the clearing. He’ll probably run off to bother the locals after awhile. 

Ane isn’t sure what she’d like to do — foraging might be nice, but it can get lonely at times. She’s curious about the man with the twisted arms, but isn’t remotely sure if he’d welcome visitors. She could take the time to relax and see where her herbs take her, maybe investigate the little stone slipshel some more, but she’ll have time enough for that while they’re on the road.

A half hour later, Ane’s kitted out with some sturdy clothing, her basket, and a small sickle-bladed knife. The caravan won’t need more medicine anytime soon, luck permitting, but it’s still worth seeing what fresh herbs she can find while she’s here. They’re always better and more potent when they’re taken fresh from their native habitats.

 

 

Fortunately, foraging in and around Paakoponde is rather easy. It’s a nearly trivial matter for Ane to collect some of her favorite hallucinogens, particularly more of the blue bolete. A simple stroll along the glittering riverside yields plenty, enough to really weigh down her basket if she were to spend the time on it. Ane’s familiarity with the mushroom makes it very easy to identify, even amongst its many peers.

As Ane walks, there’s movement in her peripheral vision. It appeared as if there were some sort of shimmering figure swimming amongst the river’s waves. Out here, who knows what it could have been?

There’s also another notion in the back of her head: There are a few breeds of insect that produce hallucinogenic honey. And in hindsight… Some of those “shardflies” looked rather similar. All told, since these creatures included everything from beetles to flutter-by’s, it wouldn’t be unheard-of for them to also manifest as bees. Honey would keep better than herbs, and wouldn’t be nearly as finicky about needing to be dried and kept cool. On the other hand, buying hallucinogenic honey sounds complicated and expensive, and, if she were to try to gather it herself, there’s no telling what the stings would be like.

For now, she contents herself with the basket of blue bolete. Between this and the couple of specimens she picked up the previous day, she should have enough to travel every day for the next few months if she was able. She just needs to clean out a few jars and procure some liquor from Brair, the fire-breather, to steep the mushrooms in.

Another fine day in Paakoponde.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 17: The Right Questions

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

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

Soon, someone decides to make that journey. 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A vague smile curves her lips. 

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

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

The fate of the who in the what now?

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

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

She turns a card over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The oyst-” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy-peasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

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

Teller of Fortunes 13: No Bellyaching

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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, Uncategorized

Teller of Fortunes 12: The Enigmatic Peddler

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, when she steps out…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Dynkala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, she clears her throat gently.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll give you one and two for both.”

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

“One and three.”

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

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

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

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

An abrupt, monotone voice greets her:

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

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

Huh, that is a person, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One gold and eight, right. Thanks.”

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

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

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

Ignore more than half the price?

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

“I’m listening.”

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

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

After a beat, she adds blandly:

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

“Two sq- Are you a contortionist?”

“Not professionally.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teller of Fortunes 11: The Big Show

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

Though, perhaps there is a welcoming committee of sorts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

FORTUNES TOLD

DESTINIES UNVEILED

5 S ea.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nods subtly.

Void, it’s one of these. Welp.

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

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

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

She turns over another card.

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

She flips the final card.

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

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

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

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

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

He slumps a little, chastened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUNK.

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

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

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

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

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

Figures.

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

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

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

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

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

I need to start selling them myself. 

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

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

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

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

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