(Note: This episode has elements that may not be safe for work. Skim responsibly.)
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Once more, Ane awakens to the swirling lights of the shardflies that call Paakoponde home. This time, she finds that it’s on the way out of town; the wagon underneath her bed is moving, and must have been hitched-up during her sleep. Fortunately, the fortune telling tent was already packed away, so no input was really needed on Ane’s part. This isn’t the first time she’s fallen asleep during the caravan’s start at transit, and certainly won’t be the last.
The trip likely won’t be long; she heard word yesterday that they’ll be stopping in the farmlands on the way out of the region. It might just be another hour or two before they make that brief stop. For now, it’s a decent time to start on her morning toilette before things get going.
As Ane looks to the vanity, something is amiss. It only takes a moment for her to realize that it’s the small painting she made — the rather cryptic item from her sightwort-fueled ritual. The mere sight of the pciture calls forth memories of her hallucinogenic trance, in which she painted with blood and pigment alike, driven by some strange, prophetic whim. Most of the picture remains as it was before. There’s the infinity-and-semicircle symbol, the marks of blood, the hole in the page, and the nine empty spaces amongst the pastel marks above… There’s only one difference. Previously, a strip of those gaps was filled by a single smear of blood.
Now, another blood-mark has appeared, painted dark and thick by hands unknown.
It filled in a nearby white space with a quick, jagged mark. And not only does Ane not remember making this mark… But she hasn’t even bled since the ritual. Thinking back, there’s no way to account for this change.
She frowns at the drawing spread across the tabletop. At first, she rubs at the stain with a fingertip, but the mark is too dry to make much of a difference. It has to be blood — even without being able to see the color, she can tell by the consistency of the smear and its sharp, metallic odor.
Part of her wonders if Jiselmo the actor trying to poke fun at her, since she uncursed Korin, his unfortunate companion, and robbed him of his sport. However, it wouldn’t be much like him to sneak into her wagon to deface a picture; Jiselmo isn’t that sneaky nor mean-spirited.
Besides, if it was him, he would’ve drawn a smiley face.
Ane hurriedly finishes combing and braiding her hair before she takes a seat on the thick, shaggy vulre hide rug in front of her stove. While she puzzles over the mysterious appearance of the mark, her hands go through the motions of making some succory root coffee. It’s a process she’s gone through so many times, she’s able to repeat it almost purely from muscle memory. A few minutes later, the copper kettle is empty, the rich, dark roots are steeping in her cup, and she is no closer to an answer.
Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t decide to show up after that either. And it’s such a small detail to have had to notice… Could it have happened a day ago? Maybe two? The only certainty is that it was sometime after the caravan arrived in Paakoponde. And if it’s happened once, it could happen again… Albeit a maximum of five more times, though that’s likely to be of little comfort.
Divination really is an unsettling sort of thing.
Some minutes later, the caravan stops in the outlands of Paakoponde. The surroundings are even more forested this time, with thicker tree-walls and smaller clearings. The straw-mud huts are just as numerous, but now they seem like an afterthought in the overgrown environment. There’s a thick, cool sort of mist settling over the boggier areas, lending an air of uncertainty to the area. It’s nothing in comparison to the forests of the shadowlands, but it feels a fair bit less friendly than the center of the capital… even if the people are still more or less the same.
Ane ventures out to set up her tent. It’s more of a challenge now — the ground is swampier, which makes finding stable ground tricky. She eventually does, though, for a given value of stable. So long as nobody goes in the rear left corner of her tent, everything should be fine.
As she places her cushions and sets up her table, the thought of someone sneaking into her wagon continues to gnaw at her. She even almost wonders what the point of working today is. It’s not like she’s likely to pull in much money from a handful of huts on the fringes of the city. Really, she’d rather be secreted away in her wagon, waiting to see if any more picture-defacing interlopers show up.
In fact, thinking back on it, the latch on her door was completely undisturbed. Someone might have gone in through the windows. There’d be no way to really tell if they did. Then again, someone would have probably seen it happen, or they might have disturbed some of her items upon entry. As far as Ane can tell, everything was exactly where she had left it. It just makes the dilemma that much more troubling.
Nonetheless, Jarrik must have his cut of her coin, so the Teller of Fortunes must sit and pull cards for as long as the clientele holds up.
The first half of the day goes by at a very slow pace. It seems the farmers out here are not as drawn to the caravan’s many sights and wonders. Most of the cultivators are just wondering about their day-to-day problems, like root crops and fishing yields.
It’s around then that Jarrik presses his clown into service as a crier, and sends it wandering around the camp. Its shouts are partially muffled by the tent walls, but it’s familiar and clear all the same: “Time to ante-up! Tops off, muscles polished, it’s time for the Half-Light Show!”
Of course, it’s to be expected — what better to wring the last couple silver scutes out of the local populace than a bawdy show? Ane, half-dressed already, strips off her chemise and sits back at her vanity. She slouches for a moment, before sitting upright and pulling her shoulders back. Her bare breasts — firm handfuls topped with apricot-colored nipples — jut from either side of the feathers tattooed on her breastbone. Ane smooths a few drops of fragrant oil over her skin, to give it a soft sheen. A generous dusting of mica comes next, followed by a few dabs of her favorite amber perfume. In the soft light, she almost shines like a pearl from her slim neck, across her chest, down her lissome arms, all the way to the thin silver and wooden bangles on her wrists.
Ane ties the lodolite necklace around her neck, sitting it high, like a choker, to nestle the gem in the hollow of her throat. Beneath that, she places a silver-dipped needleshark fang on a beaded cord hanging nearly to her waist. She turns her head this way and that, humming down to gauge her appearance.
The effect is subtle, but striking — a combination of artistic color and texture, shimmering pearl and rough gemstone, feminine softness and needleshark tooth. Ane secures her veil, and goes to her tent to recline on her embroidered cushions behind the veil of incense smoke.
It’s time for the Teller of Fortunes’s Half-Light Show.
Even now, the flow of patrons is slower than usual for farming settlements. Apparently, even a bit of bared skin isn’t enough to have them flocking to the attractions.
Soon enough, however, the entryway to Ane’s tent fills with someone seeking answers. Looking up, she comes face to face with-
Another topless woman.
The fuhajen floats there, blinking as she examines her surroundings. She’s clad in a half-robe, covering only her lower body, with bangle-drapes doing the same for her hands. She seems a bit older than Ane, with her bare breasts presented under a sort of dark paint. In addition to her tattoos of swirling miasma, lingering mists, and other such things, there are animal designs of sap-paint and the occasional mica-fleck scattered across her bare cleavage.
When she sees Ane, she beams, lighting up her colorful eyes.
“Hello! This is the tent that allows not shirts?” She asks, apparently working with a thinner grasp of Skilhouran-Common. It doesn’t seem to impede her speech much, however, and she carries a sort of firmness to her tone.
To be fair, many people in Paakoponde do dress like this. Ane typically doesn’t pay much attention to the styles of dress in the cities she passes through. This particular custom wasn’t as common in the first farming settlement, but maybe it’s particular to this side? Women went without shirts in the city, but they blended into the crowd all the while anyway.
Whatever the case, here floats one of them ready for the fortune telling.
The Teller of Fortunes opens her mouth to deliver her usual greeting, but-
“Y-yes?” She says, suddenly made uncertain. It is a tent that allows toplessness, obviously, but it is not necessarily the tent that does so. There are several implications in the woman’s question and Ane’s reply… And, really, they’re all far more perplexing than seeing a topless fuhajen in Paakoponde, of all places.
The Teller of Fortunes clears her throat softly, to cover her slip back into character. Her berry-painted lips part softly in a smile, as she gestures to the cushions in front of her. It doesn’t sound like the woman’s asking for a reading, but she’s here and it’s better to make the best of the situation.
“Greetings. It’s five scutes for the first three cards, and five more for each three thereafter. What answers do you seek?” She asks, in her smooth, sultry, almost lyrical tones.
“Ah! Then I am in the right place,” she beams, and floats forward. When she arrives at the pillows, she floats down to a sitting position. Now that she’s sitting closer, it’s obvious that while her breasts are technically ornamented — paint, tattoos, mica and such — it’s clearly not to attract wandering eyes. Really, the breasts just seem incidental in the overall picture. Even the glimmering mica is probably accidental, given the mud-and-sap combination being used.
“Well,” she says in a hush, carefully drawing out five silver scutes. “The shaman of our village is getting old, and is too terribly sick to read the skies… So I must ask for all of us. When is the next Storm of Chaos come?” The woman asks, in a confiding tone.
Of course, Ane is familiar with such storms; she’s experienced many of them while out travelling. They rain the hallucinogenic liquid known only as “Stormwater,” but that’s not the most of their effects. The problematic thing is that anyone — and anything — caught in them could be subjected to strange, seemingly random effects. People describe them as a storm of lights in the sky, with a large variety of wild colors, but… Due to the other two properties, people have also described rays of darkness and vulre raining from the sky. It’s best to take these things with a grain of salt.
They’re fairly common in this part of the world, though they’re not predictable like other weather patterns. In any case, now there is a topless woman in Ane’s tent asking about when the Scourge of Vurumaji is going to wreak havoc.
The next Storm of Chaos?
The Teller of Fortunes’s lips draw into a pensive pout. It’s not a question she was anticipating, but she’ll give it a shot. She reaches for the stack of suited cards near her left elbow, and begins to shuffle them while she thinks. The mist is rising heavily from the bogs, but that can only foretell a regular rain storm, at best. Vurumaji would never be so predictable — it wouldn’t be a Chaos Storm if it was. After a few moments, she overturns the topmost card.
“The Ace of Cups,” Fitting, she thinks, “If the events of the world continue on the path they are on, it will be one month’s time.”
The woman observes, awed by Ane’s certainty. Looking down at the card, she reaches forward and gently taps near it.
“This… Does it mean there will be a lot of stormwater?” She wonders, her eyes glimmering as she looks back up at the fortune teller. This question seems to be of great importance to her, at least by the way the firmness in her expression wavers.
“Not… necessarily. Many things can influence the abundance of the Scourge of Vurumaji, it is a difficult thing to anticipate like this when it can change so easily,” the Teller of Fortunes says. At least, she assumes so. She doesn’t often get serious inquiries about Stormwater, unless they are from people looking to drink it. “In other contexts, this card can indicate an overwhelming emotion or sudden creative inspiration. This may point to a large quantity of Stormwater, given it’s ability to stimulate the imagination.”
Really, that last part’s a bit of an understatement — unless you consider vivid hallucinations “stimulating.” Most people don’t, but Ane has always had a rather charitable view of them.
The woman nods, tapping her chin. While some of Ane’s words may have been lost in translation, their general message and intent seem to have gotten across. After a moment or two of deliberation, she continues.
“I know you are a foreign, so this may be tricky question… What does your fortune say of how to prepare?”
Despite calling Ane ‘foreign,’ the woman seems rather comfortable here. It may be that Ane’s bare-chested state imitates local culture. In fact, it may even be a way of distinguishing this village — or tribe — from others. It might also be Ane’s performance thus far. Whatever the case, the fuhajen’s posture is relaxed, and she seems to smile occasionally.
How to prepare for Stormwater? A good book, a strong door, and a lot of buckets, mostly, Ane thinks to herself.
Nonetheless, she turns over a card from the stack near her right elbow.
“Ah, The Pirate-King reversed,” she says, laying the card down between them. She lightly runs a finger over the klorrian pirate’s resin-painted face. “This card, in its negative aspect, indicates selfishness. Prepare to look out for yourself and your loved ones, but do not close yourselves off to helping others who may be vulnerable to the Storms of Chaos.”
The woman cants her head to the side slightly, bundled hair spilling over her shoulder.
“So it means we avoid selfishness?” She asks, folding her arms over her lap. She seems a tad perplexed.
“So it says,” the Teller of Fortunes gestures to the cards with a graceful wave of her hand, “Prepare by preparing to take care of the least among you. Don’t leave anyone out in the storm.”
Her eyes widen, and she nods hurriedly.
“That is wise… what Vurumaji brings is unknown. Does that mean he is feeling vicious in this passing?” The fuhajen asks, touching her fingertips to her lips.
The Teller of Fortunes divides her left-hand deck into two piles, and overturns the topmost card on both.
“The Six of Coins, and… The Nine of Arrows. It does not appear that Vurumaji is spiteful this time, no,” she attempts to assure the woman.
The woman blinks. “Is that good?”
You never really do know with chaos storms. Perhaps the worst prediction could be that Vurumaji is feeling silly. Whatever the case, the Fuhajen doesn’t know what to make of coins and arrows, and looks to Ane for this last bit of guidance.
The Teller of Fortunes grimaces. She’d been hoping to avoid this part.
“Well… No. Probably not. The Nine of Arrows is a sign of nightmares and panic, neither of which are good omens for a chaos storm.” Apt ones, surely, but certainly not good.
The woman’s eyes widen.
She looks down, first considering the card — a man hunched over in bed, possibly weeping, in front of an arrow-covered wall. When she looks back up, her countenance is changed. Perhaps this news has hardened her. But then when she glances at the other card, and sees a man giving out coins in charity, it reminds her of the prior reading — that it will be important to support one another in this time of need.
“You bring important news… We must prepare,” she says firmly, straightening her posture. “Very well. I will go to tell the others. Though still…” She bites her lip, glancing at Ane’s coin bowl. “We do not have much money, as a people. Is there something we can do for you? We have many sorts of roots and tubers, and some raise vulre… Others are fishers.”
Ane thinks for a moment. She’s not really supposed to accept readings without payment, but she also isn’t quite sure how to politely negotiate with the woman. Their language barrier is slight and certainly not unnavigable, but etiquette is a very subjective and tricky thing.
“If you have some appoh fruits to spare,” she says, “The fire-breather would appreciate them. Tell him they are from the Teller of Fortunes.”
She furrows her brow, then nods.
“Anything for you?” And of course, she passes two more silver into the bowl. It’s not enough for another reading, but she seems to be tipping in any case.
The Teller of Fortunes’s lips purse as she thinks. It’s too bad this conversation wasn’t taking place the day before — she might’ve been able to parlay it into some cattail liquor or blue boletes and saved herself a little time.
“A bit of puffroot might be nice…” It gives a nice, pleasant high, at least.
Suddenly, the woman grins, reaching all three of her eyes in its mirth.
“This we can do…” The woman departs in a hurry. She practically flies out of the tent, moving on both ground and air. She leaves behind a quite literal whoosh of air, causing the opening to flap slightly.
It takes less than an hour for the puffroot to begin rolling in.
Villager after villager, heap after heap, they move in with a remarkable haste. It turns out, this village is just absolutely wretched with puffroot. Before long, it’s pouring off of Ane’s table and onto the floor, and from there heaping around her ankles in little bundles. They started by throwing it in the coin bowl, but that overfilled in a matter of minutes. And moreover, no matter what, these villagers simply can’t be dissuaded. Most of them don’t even speak more than a few words to her — the only thing they say in Skilhouran Common is, “Thank you, foreign shaman,” before smiling and dumping another load.
She stops one man, a thin, reedy fuhajen with a neck like a knee and a broad, if uncertain, smile on his weathered face.
“Thank you for all of this, really, but are you sure you can part with so much?” She asks, with a gesture toward the pillowy mounds of shaved puffroot currently eclipsing the surface of her card table.
“Thank you, foreign shaman!” He replies, with a broadening of his smile and a bob of his head.
“No, really, it’s no trouble, I just don’t think I’ll be able to keep all of thi-” She tries, in extremely optimistic S’vargan.
“Th-thank you, foreign shaman,” he repeats, with a sidelong dart of his three eyes toward the door of her tent.
The Teller of Fortunes hums at him for a long, curious moment.
She begins again in very uncertain, stilted Paakoese, while making a firm (yet what she hopes is polite) declining gesture. With luck, it’ll be the right dialect and she won’t accidentally instruct him to go do something impolite with a melon.
“The chopon lands in the west. No more cheese, it is very blue.”
“… Thank you, foreign shaman?” His knobby throat bobs with an anxious gulp. The Teller of Fortunes can see him beginning to nervously twist the hem of his shirt in his square, clay-stained hands, and she relents with a gentle shake of her head.
“You’re welcome,” she replies, with a smile resigned to figuring out how the Void to turn puffroot into food, furniture, and clothing.