In concept, the caravan is an ideal place for people who become othered — whether physically or otherwise, whether by accident, design, or birth. There’s a way for them to make a living, experience the world, even earn admiration that might be otherwise difficult to find for those ostracized in a small town or lost to the underbelly of a city. All the caravanners get shelter and regular meals, and, with many hands making the work light, there’s enough time to pursue one’s talents. Even if the gawping crowds show up and hand over their coin to see a “freakshow,” they leave dazzled by performers with genuine skill.
This all depends, of course, on those performers not being left in a neglected wagon with an overflowing chamber pot.
Now Jarrik seems to be building a collection.
Vasht, in the midst of his pacing, occasionally gives Ane a confiding glance. For now, at least, he has enough presence of mind to second-guess it. Perhaps it’s a good time to get answers. Perhaps it would make things more difficult for everyone. His posture looks uneasy — shoulders tense, feathers ruffled, teeth gritted all the while.
Ane tosses her still-half-full bowl down in front of her as she stands. When she catches Vasht’s sight again, she gives a firm jerk of her head in the direction of the river. It’s answers they need, and they’re not going to get them with grinding teeth and anxious glances.
If Vasht was looking for an excuse, this is more than plenty. He leaps down from his wagon, landing on his boots with his dark wings fanned to soften the fall. He quickly hits his stride, heading towards the spot Ane indicates. As much as he’d like to rush right up to Jarrik, a huddle is probably wise.
When Ane walks up, he’s standing with his arms crossed, back leaned against an ivory tree. He gives her a nod of acknowledgement as she approaches.
“I see you’re keen to confront him too.”
Though Ane’s stride is even and relaxed as she walks to the river, her fists are clenched tightly enough to cut half-moons into her palms. She shakes her head, whipping her cheeks with strands of dark hair.
“Not in the least. Have you met Jarrik?”
“Heh. Good point. He doesn’t really do ‘confront,’” Vasht agrees, grimacing. “I guarantee the second I walk up to him, he’s going to have five reams of gurrshit ready to go,” he says with disdain, his visible eye narrowing at Jarrik with suspicion.
“Exactly. He’s obviously up to something, but the odds of us — any of us — getting it out of him are about as good as a sailwhale learning to fly. Either way, him gathering up more performers just to end up leaving them to rot is not alright.” Ane turns her head, casting a wary glance over her shoulder. Even if Jarrik notices the two of them, it’s not likely he’ll chalk it up to anything more than a casual conversation… but still.
Vasht drums his fingers on his bicep, nodding and thinking as he listens to Ane. The wing over his eye flaps in distaste.
“You’re right, he’s not going to give any real answers. The question is whether to wade through his nonsense now, or wait until a moot is called. Given how the others felt about what happened with Thelorn, I’m sure one’s soon to happen,” he says tensely, tightening his jaw. “Dealin’ with Jarrik is always some damn social calculus, and most of it is makin’ sure he doesn’t screw ya.”
“I’d say wade through it without him,” Ane ventures, with a faint tilt of her head, “Thelorn doesn’t know why he was brought here, but, to be honest, Thelorn hasn’t really had the luxury of knowing much outside of his wagon — he went from enslavement to here, from what he’s told us, so it’s not like Jarrik was going to make him privy to any of his big ideas. We don’t know anything about the newcomers, though… They might be a bit more savvy about the situation, yeah?”
He furrows his brow for a moment, mulling this over. If nothing else, the expressions battling on his face seem to express cooling his hotheaded fire into a strategic simmer.
“You’re probably right… This pair might be more talkative. If they are, then they’re bound to have asked questions,” he figures, looking off towards them. The pair has begun walking back to camp with Jarrik and Vozhik, guided along by the bobbing torch. “Better than talking to Vozhik, too… Even if he does know anythin’, he’s more secretive than a smeerp in a greengrocer.”
Ane gives a derisive snort and a sour purse of her lips. She wouldn’t be inclined to palaver with the reclusive magician on a good day — after his display during dinner, she has the feeling neither of them hold the other in any kind of esteem.
“Leave Vozhik out of it. Judging by his complaining, he probably has a few choice words for you about the ‘jousting,’ anyhow.”
Vasht lets out a blunt scoff and shakes his head.
“Of course he does,” he says with a smirk. “In any case, it looks like those two intend to show the newcomers around. Maybe we can greet ‘em in an hour or two, once the gurrshit-doctor is out of earshot.”
“Right. But Animus alive, don’t immediately start ambushing them with questions,” Ane cautions him sternly. “Remember, odds are they’re on Jarrik’s side right now. He might’ve shown up like a hero, far as they’re concerned. Jumping on the opportunity to start grilling isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
“Heh, you’re right,” he says with a self-effacing smile. “When’d you get such a sense for keeping my aim pointed right?” The tension in his shoulders relaxes somewhat, as he rests his head back against the ivory tree.
Ane shoots him an incredulous hum, accompanied by the subtle squint of fern-patterned swirls.
“Literally give people advice for a living,” she says flatly, “I have to size most of them up the second they walk into my tent, pull some cards, and turn it into something useful.” She presses her lips together, to hide the skeptical grin threatening to sneak through. “Think I can’t do the same for you, when I’ve known you since practically before your balls dropped?”
“I like to think I’m a bit less readable, bit more mysterious than that,” he replies, smirking in return. “And trust me, I didn’t join that early…”
“Nobody’s that mysterious. Not even Vozhik. And it was early enough… What were you, twelve or so?”
“Fourteen,” he answers readily. “And it’s not like I’ve gone in your tent, weeping and asking what the shards have in store,” he says, flipping a hand towards the ceiling of the cavern. “As far as you know, I arose from the sea before joining the caravan,” he says with a jokingly-feigned mystique, tipping his chin up slightly.
“Sure. The Littlest Pirate King,” she taunts, “Raised by crabs, left to make your own way in the world at the tender age of eleven.”
“Not the littlest; I was bigger than this other guy. He was eight,” Vasht informs her, holding back a smirk. “He had it rougher; had to be raised by snails instead. That’s why he was eight. They raised him too slow.” As he talks, his grin threatens to break through the gruff facade that the ‘retelling’ requires.
Ane hums at him for a long, quizzical moment, mouth open with unformed questions. Finally, a laugh bursts from her — a strangely euphonious sound after all their conspiring.
“‘Raised him too slow’?” She just barely manages to utter, “Okay, okay — Second Littlest Pirate King.”
“Damn right! Plenty of adventures, loads of mystery.” He raises a brow, nodding in confirmation. He grins and adds, “I don’t know how much it takes to make you swoon, but I got started early. From there on?” He makes a sweeping gesture. “Just lousy with mystery, a downright handsome enigma.”
“More than crabs and pirates,” Ane retorts flatly, “Besides — you were a gangly kid when you turned up here, how much mystery’d you possibly have hiding in your rucksack?”
“Ah. Good thing we made that up, then,” he says, brushing away his hypothetical career as a corsair monarch. He takes in a measured sigh. “Plenty, I guess…”
His rough hand drifts up towards his scarred cheek, before he resists the reflex and lowers it. His one visible eye glances furtively aside.
“I didn’t join up here for fun. Not even sure it’s a choice I made.”
“I don’t think it’s a choice most of us made,” Ane agrees. Her voice softens, easing the edges from her sharply teasing tone. “It wasn’t one I was ever offered, at least.”
“Yeah, seems to be the way,” he agrees, his own tone turning the rough side of sincere. He seems to struggle with a thought, before he lets out an easing breath. “This is better than what I came from, though. It’s a good thing I like most of everybody, bastards notwithstanding.” He adopts a smile — not exactly cheerful, but with its own hard-won mirth.
Ane shrugs a shoulder gently, with a self-conscious cross of her arms. She pretends to flick a stray thread from the sleeve of her shirt, to give her gaze something to do that isn’t trying to meet his.
“I wouldn’t know — this is where I came from, more or less. Not here, specifically, but you get my meaning.”
“Yeah?” He half-asks, curious, but not wanting to pry. “Parents, right?”
She holds up a finger.
Though she doesn’t seem inclined to continue, she can feel his unspoken questions thickening the silence between them. Ane touches her tongue to her lips briefly, as she subtly shifts her weight on the boggy riverbank.
“Her name was Raunia. I never met her,” she explains, almost apologetic for her lack of detail, “We were — the caravan was, anyway — in a mountain pass. It was snowing, we had two wagons with broken axles… “ She makes an airy, looping gesture with one hand, as if that can smooth over the parts she wasn’t yet alive to — or just doesn’t want to — relate. “The timing was… bad. I survived, and she didn’t. Dynkala says she thinks my father was a tzuskar, but nobody ever actually met him. Raunia was pretty rowdy like that. And,” Ane adds with a touch of grim humor, “Tzuskar boys’re bad luck.”
Vasht listens attentively, with a sympathetic air. It’s easy to understand the situation she describes, insofar as: A., the caravan is not great with childbirth at the best of times, and B., mountain passes and broken wheels are vicious killers.
That last note about tzuskar boys, however, earns a surprised laugh from him.
“Hrm. Bad luck? Can’t say I disagree,” he says with his own note of grim humor, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m definitely not good luck myself… though I like to think I’d never abandon someone. Had enough of that from the other end.”
“You don’t have to abandon someone to be bad luck.” The corner of her lips turns down sharply, though briefly. It’s little more than the flash of a half-frown, a momentary crack in her humor that’s gone as soon as it arrives, but it’s a frown nonetheless.
“At any rate,” she continues, with a forced air of jocularity, “It’s not important… How’d you turn up in this merry band of bastards, Second-Littlest Pirate King?”
“Mh, well thanks for the reassurance. Yeah, I manage to be bad luck by stickin’ around,” he agrees, now tracing one hand along the bone-spire behind him. “Anyway, I’ll spare the details. Dad ran off to become an adventurer, came back as a bandit,” he says, his jaw tightening. The thought seems to send one of his hands warily drifting near his waist, though he plays it off by resting it on his hip.
“It was years later. Mom had moved on, wanted nothin’ to do with him… but he wanted plenty to do with us.” He averts his gaze, the wing over his eye twitching from the tension in his brow. “He got drunk, got mad… and tried to get even. I tried to stop him…” He shakes his head, washing the tinge of emotion from his expression.
“Now I’m here.”
For a moment, Ane looks like she might as well have been hit in the stomach. Her belly tenses and her cheeks pale, and there’s a long silence before she can find the words to say through the bilious feeling in the back of her throat.
They feel as leadenly inadequate here as they did when she was talking to Thelorn.
“It’s alright,” he replies almost immediately, offering a light smile of reassurance. “That was over a decade ago. Now, I just…” He looks off towards the rest of the caravan, going about its business. After the interruption earlier, everything has returned to its usual course for the time being. Jiselmo and Korin are telling another tale, Aedas is arm-wrestling over the pot of dinner, and Nelea is introducing a small camp follower to her animals. “This is weird, isn’t it?”
“Hmm? What is?”
Vasht shrugs a shoulder. “Like y’said, we’ve known each other for years. I knew you were born here, more’re less, but we’ve never actually talked about this before.”
Ane tilts her head gently from one side to the other, weighing her thoughts. “Mm… I guess. You know how it is, though — never really matters how someone ends up here, just that they do. Whatever happens outside of the camp stays there. I don’t know what Nelea did before this, or Wila, Vila, and Zila, or anybody. It’s not that strange.” She pauses for a moment. “Come to think of it, Thelorn’s the only one I’ve really asked about it. Everyone else? If they don’t bring it up, I don’t mention it.”
“Fair point. Whatever happened before this… Eh, all that matters is trying to protect everyone. Keeps me awake, but, when you have dreams like I do, that ain’t so bad.”
A smile, albeit a wistful one, crosses her lips in return.
“And then there’re people like me, who give themselves bad dreams on purpose.”
He gives her a curious look. “Well I hope they’re interesting ones, at least.”
“Mm,” she murmurs, before holding out one slim hand and tilting it from side to side. “It varies. Most of them are useful, if nothing else… Some are even relaxing.”
“More productive than mine. If it made any sense, I’d ask you to take me along sometime. If it’s crossing planes, flying ‘round dark forests or exploring weird Voidscapes, well,” he lowers a hand, donning a more warm smile now. “I’m sure it’d be a damn lot more fun with you.”
Ane gives a short laugh.
“Baby steps. You wouldn’t be the first person I’ve guided, but, like as not, I’d spend the whole time holding your hair back while you threw up out my window.”
His smile becomes a grin.
“Alright, make sure you hold the wing too.” He raises a hand to it, gently lifting the feathers from the eye underneath. “It can reach pretty far down if it’s of a mind to.” He lets it go, then puts his hands back at his hips. “Anyway, shall we get on to meeting with these newcomers? We’ve been chatting long enough for Jarrik to get bored, and it’s helped me cool my heels besides.”
She darts a glance over her shoulder. Nelea’s operating an impromptu petting zoo, Aedas’s upset his bowl of stew, and Jiselmo and Korin are probably indulging in either a very animated story, or a relatively subdued argument. If it’s going to be done, it might as well be now.
“I guess so. It couldn’t hurt, I don’t think… Not if we just try to be friendly, at least.”
Vasht presses a heel to the ivory tree, pushing off from it. “I think I just saw them wander off past the fire. Probably grabbed a late dinner. Let’s go.”