Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-21: Join the Mad King’s Joust

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When Ane returns to the camp, there’s quite a commotion around one end. People have gathered in a large, oblong circle, faces turned expectantly toward the center. The din of chatter raises high on the air, and alosins chuff loudly.

There also appear to be… banners? At least, Ane’s reasonably certain that the hanging clothes were intended to look like banners.  An even more motley collection has been draped all over what was probably Vasht the knife thrower’s wagon. Then, up top, a seat of some sort has been placed there.

Vasht’s wagon looks like a very odd nucleus for the whole thing, really.
And it all has a certain air about it.
You might call it “whimsy.” 

Oh.

Oh no.

What did the fweep-fweep do now? She’d thought Vasht was safe — if there’s one word she’d never use to describe him, it’s “whimsical.” But now there’re banners? And a group? With tables? She drops the things she’d collected from the undercity, a chair leg and hound’s skull, in her haste to go see what level of fuckery the caravan and her mind-controlling pet abomination have gotten up to in her absence.

As it turns out, they got up to quite a lot.

Ane has to push past the throng of observers, which is growing thicker by the minute. As soon as she finds a spot with a low shoulder, she darts her gaze around…

The first thing she spies is a scraped-bare strip of land, save for a rope fence running down the middle. When her gaze pans left, she sees… an alosin, though that’s hardly the strange part. On the alosin is Brair, wearing a sheet as a sash and a large, ashen pot upon the top of his head. It sits jauntily on his brow, oddly complimenting the stark, firm expression on his bronzed face. Today, the fire-slinging callosian wields something else instead: a tall, wooden pole with a pillow tied around one end. 

Then, Ane pans her gaze to the right…

There’s another alosin, and this one is carrying Vasht. He has a curtain slung about his chest, in a most barbaric fashion (if barbarians had a thing for Valistean lace). His many sharp, sweeping tattoos paint a rather ominous picture; this, complete with the kettle perched upon his head, make him the perfect “dark knight.” He’s wielding a pillow-spear  similar to Brair’s. He also wears an expression of grim determination, though there’s a glimmer of chagrin in his eyes. It’s the look of a man that’s gotten himself into something, knows he looks ridiculous, and just has to commit to the bit.

And lording over the center, in the midst of the “banners” lining Vasht’s roof, is an old oaken chair, perched imperiously right in the middle. Upon it sits a certain round, fuzzy creature, with an air of comical gravitas. Its little beak-mouth is set firmly, as if it too is pretending to take this all very seriously. It’s not bouncing or fweep’ing at the moment, but it nearly vibrates with an excited sort of energy. Its barely contained glee is almost childlike, under its veneer of pretend authority. 

It also has a small, yellow prop-crown on top of its head.

It is King Fweep-Fweep the Whimsical. This is his joust.

Ane groans to herself immediately before she begins to try to force her way through the crowd. Brair and Vasht can have their pillow-fight for the moment — she is going to retrieve that fweep-fweep before someone loses an eye (or an ear, or a wing).

As Ane makes her way towards the wagon, the festivities begin to unfurl in earnest.

Jiselmo, standing in the center of the lanes, steps out wearing the full costume of a royal herald. He even has a long, brass horn with a flag on the end to match. 

“Hear ye, hear ye,” he calls out, “We gather today for the match of a lifetime! Today, two knights shall do battle for their honor. In the blue corner…”

He flings an arm out in the direction of Brair.

“SER BRAIR! Honorable knight of flame, lord of the pints, baron of the exploding wagon!”

Cheers erupt while Brair trots his alosin in a small circle, pounding his chest and waving his spear.

“And in the red corner… SER VASHT! The wicked dark knight, lord of edges, slayer of boards and fruits alike!”

Vasht receives a mixture of cheers and boos, as villains are wont to, though they’re all mixed in with laughter. Vasht, for his part, foregoes the grandstanding and instead raises his spear and points it towards Brair — a challenge!

Jiselmo cuts in, “Once more, simple rules! A knight who is lanced must remove their sash. A sashless-knight who is struck is DEFEATED! And if a knight falls off his alosin, he is both DEFEATED and VERY SILLY…”

Ane gently pinches the bridge of her nose. She knew the little thing was persuasive, but this. Half of the participants here have to be indulging it for fun. There’s no way something the size of an appo and a half could turn the caravan into this.

“Hey!” She calls sternly up to the fweep-fweep, “Either you come down, or I’m coming up.” 

Somehow.

“Fwip fwip fwip fwiiip fwip… fwep fwep…” The thing squeaks and whistles, babbling on, as if imitating a person’s speech. It doesn’t seem to be paying any attention to Ane. In fact… is it acting like a king? The crowd is silent, as if it’s officiating the start of the battle.

“Fuip… fwep… FWEEP!”

Cheers erupt as the alosins huff, scuffing their feet on the dirt. Then in a burst of activity, they LEAP! Both knights charge at each other valiantly, Brair in his ash-pot helm, Vasht wearing his kettle. The thunderous sound of galloping alosins fills the air, as a large dust cloud kicks up behind their springing legs.

The fighters lean low, gaining swiftness, ersatz pillow-spears held tightly to their sides and braced in brawny arms. The alosins leap with their heads low, charging for speed. 

There’s a moment of silent suspense.

Then, in a flurry of motion, the men pass and the spears flash into action! Brair goes for a very straightforward charge, but Vasht… oh, he’s a dark knight. And being the deft fighter he is, he ducks aside at the last second and thrusts his spear! His muscled arms tighten with tension as he swings his ‘weapon,’ striking Brair straight in the stomach. He takes the full weight of the alosin’s charge, coupled with the deftness of Vasht’s strike.

“Bwaaaahfuck!” Brair cries out, sent sailing off the (in hindsight, not-all-that-fast) alosin. He falls back while it charges onward, and he collides into the spongy tunnel ground with a thump.

At the other end of the lanes, Vasht brings his alosin to a stop. He then plants the haft-end of his spear in the ground, stands tall, and puffs out his mighty tattooed chest. 

“SER VASHT IS VICTORIOUS! A DECISIVE BLOW,” Jiselmo calls out, frantic with excitement.

He then toots his brass horn to make it official, while Brair sneakily wanders off to find a pint for his bruised pride and aching rear. 

“Right. I’m coming up,” Ane says, as she begins attempting to find hand- and footholds among all of the clothing hanging from Vasht’s wagon. If he ever did manage to find the time to do his shirt laundry, he’s going to have to do it again — the kicked-up dust from the alosins has not done them any favors. 

When she arrives at the top, the little fweep-fweep is looking quite fat and sassy in his “throne.” It’s currently rocking back and forth, cheeks pooched, looking very satisfied with itself. It’s still wearing the little fake crown, though it’s slid over its little tufted head at an angle.

Down below, the aforementioned actor is now busking the camp followers, guards and passers-by that clumped around this event. He moves among the thunderous cheer and applause, shouting. 

“Thank you, thank you! We accept appreciation in the form of CURRENCY and LOTS OF BOOZE. Brair seems a bit sore, so we won’t be getting more any time soon!”

Jiselmo!” Ane shouts down to him in horror. It’s bad enough the fweep-fweep is responsible for this without him capitalizing on it for liquor and coin. “What the Voi– Alright, you know what?” Perched atop Vasht’s wagon beside the makeshift throne, she reaches out to pluck the crown from the tiny creature’s head. 

“Fwep fuip fep… Fip f– FEEP!” It cheeps, eyes wide with alarm as its divested of its authority. Almost immediately, the fweep-fweep seems aware that the jig is up. Rather than attempt to reason with Ane or feign sleep, it instead lets out a big, gaseous “FWIPPPT!” and jets off into the nearest piece of laundry — a pair of Vasht’s britches — to hide.

Ane holds the tiny crown, pinched between thumb and forefinger.

“No crown, no kingdom. Those’re the rules,” she admonishes the fweep-fweep. For now, she allows it to hide — from the sound of things, whatever ensorcelment it worked seems to be breaking, giving her an opportunity to survey the damages from up on high.

Jiselmo rides out of this place on a tide of money and beer, taking the crowd with him to boisterously retell this event around a fire and a barrel of something brown and potent. 

This leaves Vasht standing in the middle of the field, contemplating his life choices. Furrowing his brow, he plucks the kettle off of his head and throws it to the soil with a clatter. He turns to the alosin, giving him a one-eyed look of sympathy. Then he looks up towards the fweep-fweep. 

Vasht rubs the side of his head, thoughts clearing, and then he sees Ane. His face goes slightly pale. 

Ah, yes. This is what social mortality feels like. 

What,” Ane says, arms held wide in bewilderment, “Happened?” 

She knows what happened. The same thing that got her to dress the fweep-fweep in makeup and jewelry and a tiny stone slipshell hat happened. What she does not know is how the creature escaped its cage and managed to affect the entire caravan.

The dark knight, Ser Vasht, stands dumbfounded. He doesn’t respond immediately, instead tossing his pillow-spear aside and crossing his arms behind his back. It’s like some last-ditch attempt to retain the scraps of his dignity. 

He calls back up to Ane, “Your ‘king’… and also, Jiselmo!” His expression firms. “Yeah, Jiselmo’s definitely to blame for at least part of this…”

“Yes,” Ane says with a slow nod and the tone of voice one might use to ask a small child why their mittens are currently floating in the privy, “But how did the ‘king’ get from safely inside a cage to… to…” She makes a flailing gesture toward Vasht’s britches, which are currently trembling in a perplexing fashion.

Rather than answer immediately, Vasht wanders aside and gathers up the thing’s cage. Its door swings open tellingly. With it in hand, Vasht spreads his rows of wings, catches the air, and flaps his way up to meet Ane on the roof of his wagon.

Once he’s safely landed, he dusts off his shoulder.

“Well, I first meant to keep it in my wagon… but when I saw it, it did something.” He sighs, staring at the wriggling pair of pants. “It kept giving strange ideas, and some would’ve wrecked my things.” He coughs. “Important things. Keepsakes. So…”

He makes a vague, spinning gesture with his fingertip.

“I took it outside, it got ahold of Brair and convinced him to open the cage.” He explains all this in a rather careful, measured fashion, as if that can make the result a bit less silly.

Ane rubs a spot in the center of her forehead. With her free hand, she waves at the tiny, quivering pile of underpants and fweep.

“So it’s Brair’s fault, you’re saying,” she concludes. “At any rate, it doesn’t matter. Just… Put it back in the cage so I can get it somewhere where it can do less damage, I’m not going to go rooting through your underthings.” 

“Well, not his entirely. I should’ve kept him from opening it, though my back was turned. After that, he said he ought to take care of it, feed it some of his booze…” Vasht goes on, walking towards the pair of waggling trousers. He takes it by the legs, positions the waist at the mouth of the box, and begins to gently shake the garment. Soon the fweep-fweep pops out, tumbling into the cage, whereupon Vasht shuts the small door.

He takes in a breath, and continues, “So, we got into an argument… Jiselmo strolled by, and suggested we decide it with a contest. Then, a while later, I look up and this is happening,” he says, gesturing towards the scene laid out beneath the two of you. 

Ane shakes her head as she takes the cage, muttering to herself.

“Can’t go anywhere, Animus alive… At any rate, thanks for keeping an eye on it. Sorry about your laundry. And,” she nods toward his ‘knightly’ getup, “All that.”

“Mm, might want to keep it hidden when you’re away,” he agrees, gruffly running a hand across his cheek. “Seems only to do that when people see it.” Vasht then shrugs a shoulder, and smirks with chagrin. “Well, I’d say you’re welcome, but I’m more sorry that I let it start a monarchy. And knight me, I guess.”

A faint grin tugs at the edge of her lips, in turn. “A tiny tyranny, complete with bloodsports. Out of curiosity, though — why did your laundry end up all over the outside of your wagon?”

Seeing Ane’s smile seems to lessen his embarrassment, somewhat, and he finds himself doing the same. He lets out a theatrical sigh, and plucks one of his scarves off of his wagon’s roof.

“If I had to guess? The critter needed heraldry, and somehow Jiselmo knew that. So while we got ready, he went around throwing my clothes everywhere.” He furrows his brow at the scarf, and adds, “Also, they were nearby… I’d just finished washing them.”

She pulls her lips inward, pressing them tightly together in her teeth to keep from laughing outright. Instead, she manages a stiff nod and a subtle quiver of her shoulders before she turns away from Vasht (and his “heraldry”) and begins the process of climbing down the dangling shirts, belts, and trousers.

As she does so, he leans forward and aims a few pokes at her side. “I see your giggle fit,” he accuses. “Making a getaway with your tiny trouser bandit,” he adds, watching Ane flinch to avoid being poked as she clambers down his wagon. He hops down himself shortly after.

“Hey! Careful — some of us don’t have wings. Or a head harder than that kettle to break a fall with,” she chastises him as she disembarks from a muslin shirt. 

He crosses his bare arms, regarding her dryly from the bottom. “Well, I can help with that. There’s a spare kettle over there, for your safety.”

“Wouldn’t fit without crumpling my ears. Anyway, thanks again, Ser Knight.” 

“At your service. Or something,” he agrees, offering a sardonic half-bow.

With the fweep-fweep safely in its cage, she makes her way back to where she deposited the hound’s skull and chair leg she found earlier. The chair leg is useless to her now — let it sit here and raise questions in whatever hapless wanderer finds it next — but she has a lot of soaking and cleaning to do before the skull is in a keepable condition.

Which means, unfortunately for him, she needs to bother Brair (and his wounded pride).

 

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-18: What the Void is that?

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There’s a sense of tight tunnels, of running, of diving through holes and burrowing to new places. The world is a vast and colorful thing, and all those colors have scents. There’s a plethora of textures in every grain of soil, every patch of mold, every tunnel-shrub that marks the way… Dashing on all fours, Ane feels the memory of diving further into the depths, perhaps even becoming lost. 

The spires of men rise out of a great cavern, swallowing her up, baffling her with so many new smells. Wagon oil, burnt soil, the sweat of toil. It throws her senses into a frenzy, bringing about confusion and distress. 

As Ane drifts slowly out of dreaming, this sense of being lost does remain… like some sort of puppy gone on a long adventure, only to find it’s too big for its fuzzy britches. 

That feeling separates from Ane, though she can smell it on the air… It leads off into S’varga, down through the few stomachs of its connected caverns. 

And that scent, that forlorn call has a color: Emerald. 

 

When Ane awakens, the dream lingering, she finds herself already dressed for the day. At least, in the sense that clothes are laid across her body, in some cases over the sheets. Though as considerate as this could otherwise be, there’s a problem: It’s an ensemble collected from both her actual clothing stores, as well as the crates of costumes kept nearby. There’s a ruff, a fluffy hat, a pair of curled boots, a rather fetching skirt, all paired with a very garish paisley evening robe.

Nearby, the strange “fweep-fweep” creature is innocently asleep. It’s perched right there upon her lap, nestled against a rather out-of-fashion pocketbag. It seems to have passed out at the scene of the crime.

“Fui- fweeweeweeweep… Fuiiiii… Weeweeweeweeep…”

“Gree-” Ane begins to say, as the world around her resolves into view again. It’s an odd transition to make, shifting from eyes-that-are-not-hers to herself-without-eyes, and her momentary waking confusion is not helped by the bizarre collection of moth-eaten clothing draped over her as if she were some sort of doll in the hands of a very clumsy and easily distracted child. She plucks gently at the hem of the paisley robe.

How?

The fweep-fweep doesn’t even have anything to carry things with. How did it manage to drag all of this here? She nudges it gently with the tip of her finger.

“Thanks, but I think I’d prefer to dress myself,” she mutters softly.

“Fwi wiwiwi wiiiiip…. Fwi wiwi wiiiiiip….” 

It seems to be absolving itself of all responsibility via slumber. As Ane looks at the thing, lumped on her lap as it is, it doesn’t even have arms or legs. Even its quote-unquote “giggle tubes” are currently retracted, giving it the appearance of a semi-mammalian sphere of somnolence.

She gently nudges one puffy cheek with her fingertip. When that doesn’t produce anything but more tiny, squeaky exhalations, she gently shifts it to the other end of the bed so she can get up and begin getting ready for the day.

As she pulls a shirt over her head, she steals another glance at the fweep-fweep. It’s really a cute little thing, for all of the trouble it’s caused. It really has a talent for getting up to things… 

Ane catches her lower lip in her teeth as a thought occurs to her. It probably isn’t a good idea to have it ride along in her pocketbag while she goes into S’varga, if only to keep it from shoplifting. She also can’t leave it here, unless she wants to come back to… Ane isn’t even sure what. All of her laundry arranged around a very small tea party. All of her makeup used to draw smiling faces and bug eyes on everything she owns. 

She has a feeling the tiny creature is a creative and efficient architect of nonsense.

Maybe she could find someone willing to keep an eye on it for a little while, long enough for her to investigate the city. Nelea wouldn’t work, she’s far too soft-hearted — besides, she almost let it out of its cage already. The monk is probably busy, and he was nearly swayed as well. She hums at the sleeping creature, frowning subtly as she thinks. So, who?

A half hour later, Ane raps sharply on the windowsill of Vasht’s wagon.

There’s a rummaging sound from beyond, complete with various stumbles and small collisions. After a knock, a bump, and a thump, Vasht finally approaches his window. There’s a creak of wood as he pries the window slats open and squints through. His feather-cropped hair is all amess, tossed this way and that. Despite his usual vigilance, Vasht definitely isn’t a morning person. He’s not even fully clothed.

“Hmm… Ane? S’methin’ happenin’?” He asks in a lazy, amiable murmur, dulled by a haze of sleepiness. His revealed eye is half-open, and the wing over the other flaps lazily. 

Ane arches a brow.

“Rough sleep? I can come back if you need to chase out a guest first,” she offers.

He shakes his head, and raises a hand to sweep back his hair. 

“Nah, not rough. Just early,” he says, with a slight, self-effacing smile. He leans forward, propping his forearms on the windowsill. “And why’s it always caravan-followers with you? Been taking your jokes from Jiselmo lately?” He asks, tilting his head. 

Ane shrugs. 

“It sure as shit isn’t my card-pulling that keeps that bunch hanging around. Anyway,” she continues, as she raises the small wire cage up to his window, “I wanted to know if you’d watch this for a few hours.”

Vasht looks down, fixing his now-keen gaze upon the cage. Expecting to see a skarrow, or a smeerp, or even some exotic bat, he’s left looking puzzled. As he stares, the creature has dropped its ruse of slumber and instead begun to investigate its surroundings. Its trio of eyes widen like saucers as it takes in all of the possibilities… Vasht, for his part, is unimpressed with the morning.

“The Void is that?” He asks, ruffling the back of his hair. He doesn’t seem at all bothered, though he also makes no secret of how silly the thing looks.

After a slight delay, he adds, “… And was that a compliment?” He asks, even more baffled. It sounded like one, but perhaps twisted into a backwards figure-eight or even mobius strip.

“No idea!” She says brightly, as she passes the cage through the slats. “Don’t let it give you any suggestions! Good luck! Bye!” 

And, with a wave, she turns to walk away before he has time to decide he won’t.

“No ide- about which part?” He calls after her, to no avail. Really, he ends up figuring it’s both. The tzuskar lets out a light sigh, then turns his attention to the cage. “Alright, she won’t tell me. What are ya, then?”

“Fwip fwip fwippa-fwee!” The fweep-fweep replies, hopping and flapping its tube-arms.

“Ah, I see. So you’re at least two fwip’s, and maybe a fwee,” he replies, with an air of patient understanding. He then picks up the cage, turns, and disappears into his wagon. It’s time for him to start his day, and if this thing’s going to feature in it, he might as well get on with it.
Ane, meanwhile, sets off for the city proper. If her dream is at all accurate, what she’s looking for is going to be somewhere within, albeit off the beaten path. She should’ve brought Jiselmo — he could keep her from the most dangerous parts of the city, at least. With luck, this thing — if it is a thing, in the same way the little slipshell was — is somewhere so forgotten that even S’varga’s organized crime contingents won’t bother with it.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-13: Varied Treatment

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

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

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

First, the monk.

But he isn’t posted by the dishes today.

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

He looks over his shoulder, lifting his brows. 

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

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

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

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

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

He taps his chin, thinking for a moment. 

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugs his shoulders. 

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

Ane exhales a heavy sigh. 

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

The monk nods in agreement. 

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

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

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

One down.

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

Because he’s trying to do his laundry again.

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

“Need something, Ane?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn it.

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

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

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

“… And I came to collect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man looks up when he sees Ane.

“You came back,” he states.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am called Thelorn.”

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-12: Gettin’ By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vasht smirks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. Too easy.”

He tilts his head sideward. 

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

Ane tries to stifle a snicker, with limited success. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so.”

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

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

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

He did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-10: Bugbeard’s Brawl

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, of course there are the odd ones… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deal!” Aedas grins widely.

The call is sounded, and the match commences!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHOOSH.

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

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

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

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

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

On the sidelines, Aedas is positively shaking with excitement. 

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

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

An excited Aedas is pretty hard to deter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods his short-horned head. 

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

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

He shrugs his robed shoulders. 

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

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

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

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

Ane shakes her head.

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

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-7: The Miraculous Concoction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And then, off he goes.

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

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

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

“Whaa-” Korin stammers.

“Ooh, a grift!” Jiselmo chimes.

Slam.

Then again… This time, the conjoined dancing triplets.

Knock, knock, knock… Creeeeaaaak.

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

“What?” “Why?” “SURE!”

Slam.

Knock, knock, knock…

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

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

Vasht blinks at her.

“I need you to-”

She flaps a hand lazily. 

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

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

Then he runs off.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Generally, the whole group looks pretty bewildered.

The monk looks pensive for a moment. 

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

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

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

The monk puzzles over the tablecloth. 

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

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

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

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

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

Once inside, they are greeted by the sight of…

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

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

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

“This looks like something Jiselmo’d wear…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vasht shrugs his shoulders. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

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

 

They all gasp in awe.

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

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

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

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

Narue, now fully makeupped and painted, speaks up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narue smirks, flapping the attendant wing. 

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

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

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

Ane flaps a hand. 

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

“Insanity,” Korin says flatly. 

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

For everybody else, the grift is underway.

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-6: Riverside Plans

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Ane gives a leisurely stretch as she stands, stepping away from the dying coals in her stove. The temperature is mild enough to not need it at the moment, but it’s nice to have a convenient heat source for tea when she wants it.

While the wagon drivers go about unhitching the wagons, she begins to get ready — dressing in a fresh set of clothing, combing her hair, even braiding a few extra twists and ornaments into the dark, silky mass. She’s not sure if Jarrik’s going to want them to set up and get to work immediately, but she might as well save some time by prettying herself up, just in case. 

As soon as the wagons are unhitched, people begin to pile out and go about their business. Strangely, the call to get ready for a show doesn’t come, at least for now. Mostly, people are setting up camp by the river and taking care of their needs. Many never received the chance to properly gather bathwater or stretch their legs while on the road, and this is the first time in weeks that people have been able to stop moving, settle in, and relax.

It seems that even if Jarrik did call for people to work right now, a fair portion might be of a mind to ignore it anyway. After all, what good is a performance if the performer is grimy, smelly, and moves with the stumbling gait of someone fresh off a moving wagon? It’ll take some time for people to find their feet, and when the caravan makes its first impression on S’varga after so long…

Well, it ought to be a memorable one.

Ane takes the opportunity to wash up and do some laundry — even though she often wears a robe around  her wagon to preserve the integrity of her small wardrobe, spending this much time on the road is nonetheless a recipe for a large load of washing. She’s knee-deep in a geyser-fed creek, bent over to hold a soapy chemise in the gentle current of the water. A humming melody wells from within her, gently vibrating the wooden clothespin held between her lips.

She’s soon joined by Vasht, who comes out wearing dark trousers and a loose shirt, sleeves rolled up. He’s carrying a large basket, filled to the brim with his jackets, jerkins, pants, and such. His arms, while brawny, are strangely free of scars —  unlike his face, neck and shoulders. Apparently he has a real way about getting cut in all the wrong places. His tattoos of feathered knives, swords and the like do well to balance it out.

“So,” he says, as he kneels down near Ane by the riverside. “I know I’m not s’posed to ask dumb questions, but… Any luck so far?” He asks, making a show of pulling out a shirt to wash. 

“Mm?” She murmurs inquisitively around the clothespin. 

Luck…

Well, she wouldn’t call it “luck.” Her hum drops to the swirling surface of the water, watching the bubbles skid and twirl as she considers things for a long moment. Eventually, she plucks the wooden pin from her lips, and takes a deep breath.

“Alright,” when she turns her hum back to him, her voice is firm and solemn, “I need all the clown’s paint, all the liquor Brair can spare, whatever hot peppers he’s got stashed around, every empty bottle in the caravan, Dynkala’s mortar and pestle, and Vila, Wila, Zila, Korin, Jiselmo, you, Narue, and that monk at my wagon, in one hour.”

He blinks.

“Do I just tell Brair, Dynkala, and the clown that you need their stuff?” He asks, bewildered, frozen in his washing.

“Tell ‘em whatever you want, point is we need booze, pepper, paint, bottles, and something to grind with,” Ane shrugs, as she fastens the chemise to a line strung between the tail ends of two wagons. 

“Shit, wish I brought something to write with… Clown paint, Brair-liquor, hot peppers… Every empty bottle? As in, from all the wagons?” He asks, now making another attempt at washing clothes. He misses with the soap a few times, instead scrubbing the air. 

“All of them. All the bottles. Every bottle.”

Vasht lets out a heavy sigh.

“It’s better than being poor and getting robbed,” he reasons, and gives up on his laundry. “Alright, see you in an hour.” 

Though most of the performers keep their preferred attire in their wagons, there are a few advantages to sharing your living space with the caravan’s trove of retired costumes. For instance, after hanging her laundry, Ane has spread her brocade tablecloth on the ground outside of her wagon, and is now elbow-deep in a chest of somewhat moth-eaten skirts. Her bed is almost entirely covered in odds and ends of clothes, most of which a casual observer wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of.

That’s alright, though. In fact, right now, it’s preferable. 

Vasht wanders away from the riverside, clothes under his arm, using his free hand to rub at his forehead. 

“Ugh, I don’t even… Alright, let’s just do this.”

It’s time for a new grift to keep the purses full and the wagons rolling.

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