Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-9: A Bastard’s Visit

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The next morning, Ane is woken up by the slight thunk of something landing on her wagon’s floor. The voice of Narue follows, calling from outside:

“There’s your take from the S’vargan Job! Gotta go hand out the rest. Later!”

“Mhf,” Ane replies, as her hum wavers into wakefulness and she picks her face up from her pillow. It takes her a long moment to actually realize Narue wasn’t some kind of hypnogogic hallucination — once she does, she wraps herself in her robe and goes to retrieve the source of the thump: a sizable leather pouch. It’s filled with a generous handful of coins, each imprinted with S’vargan marks, including the noble, half-veiled face of their first high priestess, flanked by tunnel-shark teeth crowns. The other side bears a handsome snake wrapped around a bundle of curly tunnel-ferns.

Twenty seven gold. Not bad for a couple of hours of work. Certainly more than she would’ve gotten had she spent the time reading cards instead. It might even be enough to fix her wagon.

Ane casts a baleful hum at the rigged-up remains of her old door. The odds of her finding a competent carpenter in a bunch of tunnels aren’t exactly good, she figures. Certainly better than finding one in Paakoponde, but far from great. She heaves a sigh as she tosses the sack through her window and onto her bed. Maybe she can use the money to bribe Brair, Aedas, or someone else who knows their way around heavy things to fix it.

Several hours later, after Ane has had enough time to complete her wake-up routine, there is a knock on what remains of her door. It’s a careful, polite, three-rap knock. There isn’t much sound otherwise, as if the person doesn’t see fit to pre-announce themselves. All she can make out is a mumbled, “… more collateral damage…”

More coll-

As far as she knows, the authorities haven’t tracked them back to the camp. Besides, that’s only relevant if they figured out what the “doctor” was up to, anyhow. What collateral damage could she possibly be responsible for? She pauses, teacup in one hand, and hums over her shoulder at the door with a wary frown.

“Who’s there?”

“Ehem. This is Jarrik. I’ll just be a moment,” the voice answers, clear and stately, as Ane hears a hum sweep up over the splintered, hanging remains of her door. Collateral damage, indeed.

“I’m just here to, ahh — congratulate you, after your performance yesterday. Wink nudge,” he explains. There’s a bit of pomp to his accent, the sort his father never had. It’s the thick, frothy fullness of a minor noble, and the swift twang of a practiced salesman. 

Ane stills her sight-hum with an inward groan. Somehow, she anticipates that this congratulations will also come with a request to donate her take to the caravan’s guard budget. 

Nevertheless, she rises from the vulre-hide rug and goes to answer the door. (At least, as much as the dilapidated thing can be answered.) She pokes her head around one cockeyed half, eyeing the caravan master with a wary hum.

“Hello, Jarrik.”

When her gaze lands on him, he’s quite the display of respect and contrition. For all his brass buttons, thick lapels, and the embellished curve of his waxed moustache, he looks rather odd with his hat off. His hair is slick and parted down the middle, where normally it would be hidden underneath — as if he deliberately styled it in anticipation of this moment. The hat, with its three feet of diameter and its big, fluffy dervallo “feather,” lays across his breast, clasped in one hand.

“Hello, Ane,” he says crisply. “My condolences for your door… But, most importantly: Congratulations on a game well played!” He boasts, spreading his arms. It  gives a full view of his impeccably tailored striped shirt, and a glimpse of the jewelled dagger tucked into his soft leather belt. 

“I heard tell of your scheme this morning, after returning from my, ahm, constitutional,” he says, faking a cough. “It does me proud to hear of you bringing all of them together so effectively!”

How much is the dagger worth? She prices that feather out at a pretty sum, too. Meanwhile, she, a pair of actors, an unpaid mercenary, three burlesque dancers, a very perplexed monk, and Jarrik’s more-or-less self-proclaimed captain of the guard were pressed into saving the day with paint, liquor, herbs, and garbage.

“You’re welcome, Jarrik. How’re we going to fix my door?” 

He lofts his brow and pooches his lips, looking down at the damage with a whistle. 

“Hrm, well… I do suppose we can have a carpenter sent for you. It is S’varga, home to a lumber-less people, but I’m sure something can be done.” When he looks back to her, he smiles wide till his teeth shine. The edges do reach his swirls, though there’s a sinister edge to its feigned sincerity. Any man could half-assedly fake a smile, but Jarrik… Jarrik reads on the subject, and simulates both the smile and the squint. 

“It’s a paltry thing, really. Purely within our power. In any case,” he sweeps an arm, gesturing out with his fur-lined cloak. “The day calls, and there’s much to do. Do you require anything else? I am glad to show my appreciation for the, ah, enterprising spirit,” he flourishes. 

“No, I just want my door fixed,” Ane says firmly, as she withdraws into her wagon again. She can feel herself about to be pulled into one of Jarrik’s schemes if she keeps accepting his effusive praise, and the thought alone is enough to make her teeth itch. 

“Very well!” He calls after her. Now behind the door, he lets out a sigh of relief, and smiles with contentment. “Then I shall be off.” He says, taking a moment to test at his sideburns and moustache with his fingertips. A trace of fragrant powder comes off on the tips of his fingers, remnants of an attempt to turn his dark hair a distinguished salt-and-pepper. Venerability establishes credibility, his father always said. 

“Good day, Ane!” He bids her, his pomp thick as oatmeal, as his footsteps fade into the distance. 

Ane returns to her position beside her stove, and fills her cup with fresh tea. Part of her wants to continue working in the bound book of cattail paper spread out in front of her, but something about dealing with Jarrik also makes her feel as if she’s been coated in a thin sheen of frozen slime. 

Or powdered moustache wax.

She closes her book with a sigh, giving it a little push to slide it into the open cupboard beneath her bed.

Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s sudden infusion of cash has delayed the first workday. Instead of skipping breakfast and raising the call as they normally would in a big city, the caravan instead takes time to let things settle. After all, it’s best to avoid bringing customers (or, more accurately, outsiders) into camp while it’s still unguarded.

This means that, next time Ane steps out into the open, it’s mealtime all over again. 

The glint of armor is almost purely absent in the camp. Most of the remaining mercenaries seem to have departed, presumably to aid in recruiting more. Even Vasht has gone to see to it, in pursuit of both safety and several hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

At breakfast, the troupe is filled with laughter and, for the first time in too long, joy. There’s nothing but praise for Ane and her cohorts, along with smiles and slaps on the back. Korin and Vasht went around in the late hours, paying out ten mitres to anyone who was robbed earlier in the week… And share a somewhat-exaggerated story  of how cleverly they came by the money.

It’s also a story about swindling people out of their hard-earned coin, but that, for the moment, is beside the point. A cook who gets punished for spending their master’s grocery money foolishly is still a far cry from the caravan dying to the next pack of bandits, as far as Ane and company are concerned.

When she sits down to eat, there’s plenty of laughter and jovial congratulations for her efforts. Brair at one point pats her back so firmly that it jostles her plate, and even Nelea provides a few gentle pats on the back, knowing that the caravan master’s plots might have been worse. When the praise grows too great, Jiselmo steals the attention, weaving more yarns about all that transpired. At some points he embellishes — a daring chase from guards, Korin fencing a rival merchant, Jiselmo winning over the hearts of young ladies with his plight… 

“Yes, you and your boils,” Korin cuts in, in a voice as flat as his plate. 

Ane accepts it all with thanks, though she’s reluctant to talk about the scheme itself. Jiselmo’s having enough fun spinning his tall tales, Korin seems to be enjoying himself yanking Jiselmo back to reality, why spoil it? She doesn’t stick around long after she’s finished eating, either — she passes her plate to whichever caravan follower has taken on dishwashing duty, bids everyone a good rest-of-the-day, and retires to her wagon. She could go into the city to replenish some supplies she hadn’t been able to get in Paakoponde, but it might be a bit premature for that. Even though they were mostly disguised and managed to avoid trouble from the city guards, it might be a bad idea to saunter back in to spend her ill-gotten gold.

Besides, grift or no grift, the caravan hasn’t started working yet. They might be flush with funds for the moment, but most of those are already spoken for — repairs and mercenaries don’t come cheap. The sixty-odd gold she has right now are starting to burn a hole in her pocketbag, but they’re going to have to last her for a long while after they’ve put S’varga behind them.

Better to settle in in front of her stove with another book and some geltsear leaf tea and while away the hours. All the better to prepare herself for the next commotion.

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-8: Marry My Daughter, Doctor Lartimus

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After much setup, the caravan undertakes its next big venture to return gold to its purse. With a bit of chicanery, a large amount of bottles and paint, and a whole heap of gurr-shit, the caravan begins The S’vargan Job.

First, Narue the mercenary procures an alosin, a long-necked, maned thing with sound, sturdy hoppin’ legs. She’s familiar with the thing and able to lead it easily enough, before the rest load it down with “Miraculous Concoction.” The beast is a rather helpful feature to have; though the bottles clatter as it hops, it certainly carries more than the lot of them could. Besides, it can easily trot at walking pace to reduce the odds of a big old mess in its saddlebags.

On the way towards the city wall, Vasht directs the group around to a side-gate. It’s a bit more obscure, and makes it seem less like the group is coming from the caravan. On the way through, some of the sleepy guards startle, then scoff at the display. 

“Loony foreigners,” one chainmailed shasii mutters. 

“Just peddlers, mister,” Narue says, with a disarming smile.

“Right, right, get on with you then,” the guard huffs, waving them onward. “Don’t steal anything.”

Inside the walls, the architecture is of much the same style. Even the low buildings are overwhelming, with their own spikes and spires all adorning the top. And somehow, each building is built with its neighbors in mind. It’s such that the toothlike pattern of one rooftop blends with the next, each piece complementing one another. It’s as if one artist had his way with an entire skyline, sculpting it to his whims.

The streets are crowded near the gate, bustling with merchants and locals alike. The crowds are almost exclusively shasii, though tzuskar and huikkarans are also occasionally seen. It’s a good thing the group didn’t decide to include any callosians; they would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

It’s a short walk to reach a square near one of the outlying markets. Jiselmo, despite being dressed as a beggar, often points for the proper street or alleyway to take. He seems to have a rather good sense of the place, however long its been since he last navigated the winding streets. A couple of times, he even manages to divert the group away from a group of cutthroats, who tend to wear gentlemanly garb that matches their stilettos. 

The clearing is a perfect medium; near a market to get good foot-traffic, but not adjacent any apothecaries or herbalists. There aren’t even many guards around to hassle them. What’s more, a fountain in the center serves as a rather nice draw, with people tossing coins into it as tribute to their god, the Wanderer. 

Upon arrival, the group shifts its gaze towards Ane.

Jiselmo waggles his eyebrows. “Shall we begin?”

Ane parks one silver-ringed hand on her paste-gemmed hip, and gives the group a firm nod. 

“Let’s go.”

They all nod to one another, and commence setting up. They park the alosin in front of the fountain, where Narue bids it to sit. Vasht lays out a blanket and begins setting bottles all along the edges. Jiselmo runs away to beg.

Korin finds a dry spot on the fountain’s base, and pins up the glorious sign:

 

DOCTOR LARTIMUS ~and~ HIS MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION

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

 

He strides proudly into the middle of the display, and motions for the others to flank it. Even before he begins to speak, people stop and stare — mostly at the sign and its oddly-dressed attendants. 

Korin puffs out his chest before belting out a thick, booming voice.

“GREETINGS, CITIZENS OF S’VARGA! It is I, Doctor Lartimus,” he declares, with a sweeping bow, and a tone that implies he’s known by all. At his call, a few obedient souls begin to gather in front of the display. 

“I have come from far and wide,” he continues, “And borne witness to a terrible plague: FATIGUE, APATHY, IMPOTENCE, and worst of all, CURDLED HUMORS.” He leans forward, wiggling his hands in a most menacing fashion. “Through the finest alchemy and most importantly, vitogeonomy, I have derived a cure: MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION!”

He raises up one of the carefully-sealed bottles.

A shocked crowd of house-peoples and errant servants watches in awe, exchanging blank looks. None of them have heard of “vitogeonomy,” but it sounds enough like something important that it has them hooked. Korin has a rather stately look about him, too. Truly, a face as dour and serious as his couldn’t be that of a con-artist. Void, just looking at his scowl makes them feel ill.

Now that he has everyone’s attention, Korin begins to rattle off his pitch.

“With MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION, all of your ills shall be CLEANSED and HEALED!” He clenches his fist for emphasis, shaking with passion as the other holds his life’s work. “It reduces boils, it regrows hair, it puts the vim back in your vigor and the spring into your step! It even cleans dishes! All you need to do is take a swig, gulp it down fast, and swish it ‘round in your belly! And remember folks…”

As if compelled, his “assistants” shout in one voice. 

“The heat lets you know it’s working!”

A crotchety howl rises from the crowd. 

“I DON’T BUY IT! Yer conkeckshun works? WELL PROVE IT, BEANPOLE,” heckles an old beggar, with a mud-smeared face and a neck encrusted with boils. Underneath all the grime (and generous slatherings of greasepaint), Jiselmo’s fine hair and youth are unrecognizable.

“Very well, good sir, step right up,” Korin urges him, motioning for the man to approach.

The man hobbles forward, supporting his weight on a gnarled stick. His gait is slow and unsteady, his course to the front is agonizingly slow. When he reaches the front, Korin shoves an unsealed bottle into his free hand. 

“Toss it back, good sir, and you’ll feel like a lad all over again!”

“BEH! We’ll see,” the codger scoffs, accepting the drink. 

He brings it to his lips and tosses his head back. The man makes loud, noticeable gulps, as his adam’s apple dips up and down theatrically. Fortunately, the group’s audience misses the small bag pooched beside his cheek, concealed under his palm. It receives all of the drink, draining the bottle over halfway, before he gasps with refreshment, wipes his lips, stealthily flings the bag into the fountain in a feat of cunning legerdemain.

“Well, it sure does hekkin’ burn,” he mutters, looking at the drink appraisingly.

People in the crowd begin to look at one another in suspense, expecting something to happen. There are raised eyebrows and exchanged whispers, as gentlefolk all peer over one another’s shoulders to see.

“Why… I feel a… a TINGLE,” the codger declares with a whoop. His limbs begin to shake and tremble, so much so that he tosses his cane aside. His posture straightens, vertebrae by vertebrae, until he stands tall like a young man. One can almost hear the popping sound of each snapping back into place. He lets out a wild howl, frantically patting his hands across his neck. When he moves them aside, the makeupped-on boils and blemishes are gone.

“WOOOHOO! I’MA GO TO THE BROTHEL! SEE YA LATER, FOOLS!”

With that, Jiselmo breaks off into a full, sprightly run towards the nearest alley. He’s gone in a flash, leaving behind nothing in his wake but an audience of awed viewers.

There’s a pregnant silence. Ane can feel the tension settling on her like an itchy blanket — as her hum roves over the expectant faces of the crowd, she bites her lip to bottle her tense, unwilling laughter. 

Korin clears his throat, blushing.

“Now, you too may have MY MIRACULOUS CONCOCTION, For the LOW, LOW PRICE of only TEN MI-”

“I’ll take five!”

“I’ll take ten!”

“MARRY MY DAUGHTER, Doctor Lartimus!

“-FIFTEEN MITRES!” Korin concludes.

Suddenly, the group is positively swamped. S’vargans surround the group on all sides, grabbing for bottles. Narue and Vasht can only barely keep them back. Korin holds up a small basket to receive payment, and begins getting pelted by gold. People are throwing away their monthly salary, their allowances, and even the money servants receive to pay for their master’s groceries.

Korin looks back to Ane with a smile and a sly wink as the coin begins to pile up. 

Ane smiles broadly. It’s all she has to do to avoid applauding his performance as she begins handing out bottles and collecting money.

“Ten mitres, thank you,” she says with a saucy flutter of her hum and coquettish cock of her hip as bottles and money change hands. Sometimes, it helps net a few extra coins at the tail end of a card reading. Today, there simply isn’t time — the demand is faster than she can keep up with. 

“Th- Ten mitres, thank y- That’ll be ten m-.” Had she many limbs, like the Progenitors, she might be able to pass out bottles and collect coins fast enough. Since she does not, it takes a considerable effort to keep the crowd from fighting over the rapidly-vanishing bottles of “concoction.”

The money is piling up at an almost alarming rate. 

The way we’re going, Ane thinks dryly to herself, half of these poor bastards are going to end up signing on to be caravan guards just to recoup some of their coin.

Time passes, as bottles and coins continue to fly. A generous pile accumulates in Jiselmo’s basket, and about a third of the bottles are gone. Korin smiles as the coins glitter, though he maintains his stately composure all the while. Had it been Jiselmo, he’d have the look of a grinning Daezra by now.

Someone is shouting at the edge of the crowd, but they can scarcely be heard over the din of sales being made. Only snatches of words come through. 

“… Not true! … Vitogeonomy isn- It’s all… Nonsense!”

No one in the crowd is listening, of course, and they continue to pay vigorously.

Vasht and Narue look to Ane for direction. Apparently they consider her to be the one that decides how long they all stay in. 

Ane’s lips form a frown as she hums over the crowd, trying to pinpoint the voice of the dissenter. It might be a little early to drop the ruse just yet, but it might also be a good time to figure out how to maneuver that voice into the fountain…

Of course, her vigilant scrutiny serves another purpose, too. The second she spots a guard uniform, it’s high time to cut their losses and hie back to the caravan.

Peeking about, Ane’s able to spy the source of the voice. It appears to be a portly old shasii, gray in the hair and red about the face. He seems absolutely furious, though no one’s really listening to him. He’s certainly no guard, though his impotent rage doesn’t threaten to lose steam anytime soon.

She doesn’t move her hum from him, as she leans over and mutters to Vasht.

“The second that codger leaves or a guard shows up, we’re out.”

Vasht nods dutifully, keeping his eyes sharp.

The sales continue, and the gold piles up without slowing. It even overfills the small basket, and Korin is left collecting it in the pockets of his jacket and trousers. The others are stuffing it into the saddlebags of the alosin, stashing away as much as they can. 

“… an OUTRAGE!”

Right at that moment, the merchant screws up his swirls, then turns and dashes off. There’s practically steam exuding from his long, droopy ears, while his coattails flap behind him. 

As soon as he turns, Vasht gives Korin the signal.

“Well sorry folks, I must be away to go give alms to the orphanage! FAREWELL, AND GOOD HEALTH!”

The doctor then leaps up onto the alosin, swinging a leg over it and mounting the stirrups. Narue and Vasht tear down the banner and tuck all the gold safely away, moving with swift efficiency borne from years of dodging guards.

Ane scrunches her face as she clambers aboard the creature. There are no stirrups left for her, so she tenses her legs around the saddlebags and loops her arms around Korin’s waist. 

“It was believable until the bit about the orphans. Anyway, let’s go!”

“Orphans are important!” He shouts in protest, and kicks the alosin into a running leap. “Hyah!” He shouts, sounding much less gallant than most.

“Sure!” Ane shouts back, “But I can’t picture you dropping sacks of gold off to ‘em!”

With the alosin and the speed of flight, the entire group moves far faster than the old merchant. It only takes minutes for the animal to bound out the city gates, slowing only for Korin to wave to the guards. They wave back, before he kicks off again at full speed.

By the time everyone reconvenes at the camp, there’s no sign of guards on their tail. In fact, they looped around so thoroughly, that even the wall guards could never have followed their course. Korin practically stumbles face-first off the alosin, planting into a fuzzy patch of mycelium on the ground. Vasht and Narue arrive a few moments later, landing next to the others. 

Jiselmo is already there when they arrive, still in his beggar’s garb. He’s smoking a pipe filled with puffroot; most likely “borrowed” from Ane’s wagon.

“Compatriots, partners in capitalism! How go the earnings?” He asks, while offering a hand to help Korin up off the ground.

Ane bounds nimbly down from the creature, before gently massaging a spot on her lower back. She doesn’t ride often, if she can help it — alosins are useful saddle animals, but, at high speeds, their scrambling hop is far from comfortable. Even after what amounted to a short jaunt, her back and thighs ache.

“Beats me. It seemed to work pretty well, though I’ve no idea what we’re going to do with the rest of these bottles,” she admits. 

Narue wanders over and pats one of the saddlebags. “One of us could try to hawk it on a black market. We’d get much less for more risk, but it’s an option,” she figures.

“I could do that. What do you think, Ane?” Jiselmo asks, taking a drag from his pipe.

Vasht’s expression seems disapproving. 

Ane hums at the saddlebag for a long moment. They’re not nearly as bulgey as they were before — they must’ve unloaded at least a third of the concoction — but it’s still a lot. Having some extra doesn’t bother her much, each bottle was made with only a few copper bits’ worth of ingredients — but they do represent a lost opportunity.

She exhales a sigh that puffs out her cheeks, before giving the saddlebags a dismissive flap of her hand. At this point, she’ll be happy to be well shut of the whole affair.

“Vasht knows how much money Jarrik needs to pull our asses out of the fire. Do what you want, I’m going to go wash this mess off.”

Vasht raises a hand and speaks up, “Wait! Before you go, there’s one last matter… the take.” He looks towards the saddlebags containing the coins, all bulging conspicuously at the bottom. “There’s probably about seven-hundred and fifty gold in there. Most people probably lost about ten gold in the robbery. How much goes to us, to the caravan, and to the people who lost in the raid?”

He looks towards Ane, raising an eyebrow. This of course makes his eye-wing flutter, bapping his cheek. 

“I’ll defer to Ane,” Jiselmo says in a puff of smoke, “Though I personally enjoy getting paid for a grift…”

Ane turns around, paused halfway to leaving. She gives Vasht an annoyed frown and another, more dramatic wave of her arm.

“How’n the Void should I know? I tossed all my money in the costume closet, pawned two bags of puffroot off on some ugly bastard, and he fucked off. You know how much money Jarrik needs for guards, you do it.” She turns around again, grumpy from a combination of saddle-soreness and hot, itchy greasepaint with bits of alosin hair stuck in it, and begins to walk off mid-mutter.

Vasht shrugs turns back to the group. In her absence, they deliberate about what to do with the money. At some point it gets Korin and Jiselmo into a theatrical tussel, but that’s the tenor of just about any negotiation they’re party to. 

As long as they don’t get put to the sword in the next bandit attack, Ane considers a bath a far more pressing concern. While they argue, deliberate, and haggle over their respective cuts of the gold, she finds a spot on the bank of the geyser-fed stream, a sliver of soap, and a clean washrag to begin scrubbing clown paint from her skin. They water has an oddly sulfurous, mineral quality that’s makes washing clothes and dishes a bit of a challenge (scrubbing the paint from her tablecloth is going to be a struggle), but it certainly feels nice on sore muscles. 

It’s a brief return to relaxation.

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

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.)

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-5: The Wanderer’s Bridge

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The pack-laden trumba march with purpose and the wagons continue to roll. They stop occasionally for mealtime and leisure, mostly to bolster morale after the robbery. What was once a desperate march spurred on by danger is now instead driven by light pockets. It’s just as well; the highlands out here are rather sparsely populated, and the scant few villages wouldn’t do much for the caravan’s rest or profit. 

Eventually, highlands soon give way on one side to a dark, watery horizon. It accompanies the caravan for another several days, until a span of dun savannah begins to rise from the other side. The dark waters continue on in between this land and the foreground, moving slowly closer as the caravan advances.

Finally, progress shows when the ocean is just by the caravan’s side, off the side of a steep, rocky cliff. Now it’s clear that the edge of this land-mass is advancing towards another, cut off by a broad, frothy channel. Down below, the occasional trade ship floats  by on large, billowing sails and the might of many oarsmen. Their hulls are adorned with statues of gods and goddesses, old heroes and figures of infamy breaking the low waves with ease. These ships pass in either direction, some back towards Paakoponde, others travelling the channel ahead of the caravan.

Soon, a great bridge begins to loom in the distance. It’s a great arch wrought from unnaturally-smoothed stone, as if commanded to rise from the mountains beside it. This strange artifice is covered over by the whims of the S’vargan aesthetic, with any number of ridges, spines, parapets, spires, and towers at either end. Looking at a work of S’vargan grand architecture is often more like looking at rows of stony teeth, overlaid with trestles, flying buttresses, spiralling inlays, and other architectural garnishes.

To a person’s eyes, these are positively overwhelming.

To a shasii’s eyeless sight-hum, it’s oddly pleasing, or even satisfying; it’s like watching a key fit into a lock, or two hands interlacing. Something about it just feels right.

The arc of the bridge is dizzyingly high, carrying the caravan almost fifty meters over the channel below. It spans the whole way across, with plenty of space underneath to allow ships passage. This isn’t to say it’s just an archway to them; glancing down, there’s an obvious guard posted at both ends, as well as the bottom by each cliffside. There seems to be some sort of great lock they can raise to prevent ships from passing, though currently, the stone mechanism’s cranks are slack and the obstruction is far beneath the water’s surface. 

As the caravan draws closer to the bridge’s entrance, it begins to slow; likely just in preparation for passage. Fortunately, the trade regime of S’varga is not particularly restrictive towards anyone coming from this direction. While there may be an embargo on Karnakan or Skilhouran goods, the caravan has little to hide from them… 

 

Well, at least it has little to hide for now.

As pleasing as the designs may be, Ane shutters her wagon’s window. She has never been much for heights. Instead, she keeps her keen ears pricked for the sounds of voices, footfalls, and surf — they’re the only things that will let her know when it’s safe to look outside again.

An irrepressible shudder travels down her spine. She’s had terrible dreams about bridges like this. Of course, in her dreams, they’re always higher and steeper and the wagons always tip over backwards and fall from them…

While the caravan is stopped, the wagon drivers approach the gate towers and converse with the bridge guards. Then, after a brisk inspection — mostly consisting of strolling along the train and shrugging — the caravan is permitted to proceed. It approaches the ornate, filigreed gate of the bridge, which then creaks open on its massive metal hinges. With that, the trumbas huff, and the wagons begin to roll across.

Ane opens her shutters, eager for fresh air the very moment she hears the terrain change under her wagon’s wheels. Though there were rumors that her father was a tzuskar — Dynkala marveled over it the moment brown-maned Raunia’s daughter popped out with a shock of green hair and swirls like curling ferns — dizzying heights have never been her friend. Like any true shasii, though, the underground doesn’t faze her in the least. She even relishes the cool, damp, earthy smell of it, all fresh and alive… If there were herbs she could burn to make everything smell like newly-turned soil, she would. Some tunnel-shasii placate this feeling by bringing along jars of deep-dirt on their travels. It never really does the trick, though. Besides, it also requires carrying a jar of dirt and being willing to explain yourself. 

Up ahead, beyond the bridge, is a vast savannah that slowly grows drier and brighter towards the horizon. After a certain point in the distance, it seems to give way to sand, and then to a searing brightness of shardlight. It looks like a truly harsh environment, where the heat is scorching and the land is burnt and inhospitable.

Fortunately, the caravan isn’t going there.

Instead, the path begins to go lower and lower into the ground, sloping down past the soil’s surface. One can clearly observe a bisection of the terrain for a moment, with the tall grass reaching and rooting down into tamped-down earth. This then gives way to a layer of rock, striated with all manner of mineral.

Any shasii knows, of course, that this won’t last for long. Once the caravan has traveled below sea-level and into the deeper ground, it will grow spongy and soft.

Now the caravan has begun its last stint towards S’varga through the cultivated tunnels of the surrounding lands. When the shardlight finally recedes behind the wagon train, it grows dark for the moment, as the troupe travels along that midway zone between the harshness of surface shardland and the thriving environs below. 

In time, the caravan drivers light torches and some of the darkness peels back. Mounted hireling affixes the wagons with a lit torch, tucking them securely into the iron sconces at each entrance. For Ane’s senses, this makes little difference, but the warm glow is comforting nonetheless.

In time, the walls grow to the true, deep-ground squishy consistency, as fibrous and porous as a sponge. Soon after, the occasional aperture appears in the tunnel walls, releasing blasts of steam and water like a geyser. There are growing things clustered all around these, from lichen to fungi, all the way up to shrubbery and fibrous ferns. They just out wherever the heat-vents are found, regardless of where it might be in the tunnel — on the ceiling, the floor, or straight from the walls. 

A vulre bleats in the distance, its call echoing off the walls of a side-tunnel. This is the welcoming call of S’varga. 

Fortunately, there’s no real risk of getting lost or being attacked; the roads are all marked with signage engraved in stone tablets. Moreover, it’s very clear which is the well-maintained, well-bricked road down into the city proper. Tunnel-bandits are warded off by the many guard-posts down here, though Faceless still creep in the low light. Still, S’varga’s armed patrols and strategically-placed paletorches do well to keep them at bay.

All of that will only be a real problem if Jarrik has to take the caravan into the side-tunnels and smuggler’s passages. Fortunately, as long as the caravan isn’t being chased by the authorities, it can still use the safe paths.

Then again, that probably won’t last forever, will it?

Soon the tunnels give way to large atriums, all filled with the local flora and fauna, the air alive with the hum of stinging cave bees. Most colonies are confined to their own farms, however, and Jarrik doesn’t seem intent on stopping at one of those… No, he’s heading straight for S’varga itself.

Soon, the troupe pulls out of another tunnel and into a grand atrium, the size of which must be greater than most lakes, or possibly even small mountains. It’s so tall that one can only see the ceiling if they really squint for it in the darkness, and even Ane has trouble reaching it with her full hum. 

The city makes good use of the clearance, for the first thing one sees when arriving in S’varga is a massive city wall. The edges of it are lined with ridged and toothed parapets, swooping trim, and interlocking symmetry. Every guard tower boasts a tall, sharp roof lined with spirals, like a drill. Then the walls themselves seem to display feature imaginable, from the practical — arrow-slits, murder-holes in the gates, and so forth — to the impractical, like the number of tall, elaborate statues. 

Some of the sculptures depict familiar figures from history, like The Last Mage and his long beard, or the herald that sang of Animus’ downfall. Others are more obscure statesmen and religious figures from S’varga’s past. One of them is more prominent than the others: A tall, veiled woman with a sweeping mane of hair and a shrewd smile. She wields a tall staff of sorts, with a wicker-like ball of a head woven around a central orb. There are folded stone wings on the sides of the staff and teeth at its other end, like that of a key.

The caravan and its trumbas don’t give half a damn, however, and make their way for the nearest clearing outside the walls. It’s easily able to find one in the vast expanse, shoved into a corner of the atrium near an underground river and a few heat vents. There are also a few tunnels nearby, which presumably lead off and away from the city. It’s the sort of spot Jarrik favors on these trips, keeping in mind that an escape may be necessary. 

Best of all, it’s a short walk from the city; when the caravan is ready to display its attractions, there’s nothing like a jaunt away from home to attract bored citizens. 

The wagons begin to slow, settling into a crescent. 

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-4: I Could Do More

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The caravan has been sacked by bandits.

Naturally, the most immediate consequence is a forced march to escape danger — albeit just two days this time. It’s enough to put some good distance between the caravan and the bandits, just in case they get an appetite for more. Road-rations are once again brought to the wagons, though they’re slightly more meager this time. Fortunately, it seems the caravan’s food stores were largely untouched; the bandits, fat and sassy from raiding the nearby hunting lodge, were more concerned with gold and silver.

For now, Ane has more time to herself — unfortunately, she ends up spending it arranging bags of puffroot and trying to fix her door. Some of the frame is splintered, so she can’t do much without a carpenter, but she does manage to rig up the upper and lower halves in a way that keeps it from banging every time the wagon moves.

Around midday, the first after the robbery, there’s a sound of large, fluttering wings above Ane’s wagon. It’s followed by the familiar, booted footfalls of Vasht, thumping heavily on the roof. A few moments later, after a hop and a slight thud, the sounds move to the small threshold outside Ane’s door. After a moment of rustling, there’s a firm knock on what remains of her door — a polite one, in stark contrast to the knocking from the day before. 

“Ane?” Comes the voice of Vasht, the knife-thrower. 

“It’s as open as it’s able to get, Vasht,” she calls out in reply.

There’s an audible sigh of relief. 

“Are you alright in there? I would’ve come by sooner, but I’ve had to scout along the back for awhile now,” he says in his usual rough, dry tone. While talking, he takes Ane’s reply to mean he can enter — though how is another question. He begins jostling the door, lifting it up and angling it to see if it will move. He’s surprised to find it almost falls over, and he immediately braces it. As he does so, his head of black hair peeks up over the gap. 

Ane waves from her seat by her stove. She’s wrapped in her blanket again, one hand clasped around the amber-colored neck of a bottle of taistberry wine. It’s a bit of hair-of-the-gelthound, here — ever since the robbery, she’s been in a state wavering between “tipsy” and “hungover.”

“Fine as possible under the circumstances. How’s everyone else holding up?”

After a few grunts of exertion, Vasht finally gets the door askew just enough. He gives up on getting it open completely without tumbling off, but at least there’s some space for him to lean against the other door and be seen from within. As usual, he looks to be lacking sleep, but that’s par for the course with him. What’s different now is the way he fails to hide his fatigue and concern. There’s also something else hidden in there, with his downcast gaze… Perhaps guilt?

“Most are alright, albeit with lighter pockets. The clown is covered in puffer burns. Brair bumped his head after his bender a few days ago.” He sighs. “Some wagons are damaged,” he says dryly, glancing at the door. “Overall, though, everyone’s alive. Luckily.”

“That’s good. Dynkala and Vaidna tending to the clown?” 

He frowns grimly. “Yeah. He’ll be fine. Most of the trouble’s all in the hypothetical,” he says somberly. “What those bandits could have done, and…” He breathes out slowly, and shifts his gaze towards Ane. His usually-sharp eyes seem somewhat blunted by the ordeal. “Well, Jarrik was up to some nonsense before this. Who knows what he might do now?”

He grits his teeth, tightening his jaw.

“I wish I could have protected us… But without enough guards, there was nothing. There had to be a dozen in that raiding party, and even more in the woods,” he says through clenched teeth, as if steeling himself during surgery. 

Ane fixes him with a long, steady hum. After awhile, she scoots over and jerks her chin toward the vulre carpet.

“Siddown for a minute.”

He glances inside, looking in the direction indicated.

“Sure,” he breathes, and begins to slip past the door. It takes him a few moments, mostly to wrangle his sets of wings through. Once he’s folded the last pair enough to fit past the doorway, he wanders in and sits down, legs in front, with a hand bracing behind him. 

She holds the bottle of wine out to him with one hand, while the other begins fumbling for some puffroot and a bit of cattail paper. When he takes it, she starts deftly rolling and twisting a fresh cigarillo atop her blanketed thigh.

“‘S not your fault, you know,” Ane says, “Though it is going to be your responsibility when you get yourself killed. You worry yourself, you don’t sleep enough, your reaction time turns to shit, and then the rest of us’re fucked. Plus,” she continues sternly, as she holds the twisted paper end to a coal, “Then we’ve gotta figure out what to do with your corpse. Here.” She passes the puffroot to him without bothering to ask — there’s a definite sense that she wouldn’t pay his answer any mind even if she had.

“Hrm,” he grumbles, and takes a swig from the wine. It’s just one swallow, before he’s set it down on the wagon beside him, stilled by the palm of his hand. “Yeah, I could probably do with more rest. I just wish I could do more,” he says, and accepts the cigarillo with a grunt — possibly of protest, possibly of thanks, maybe both. Either way, it’s lit, so there’s little he can do with the thing aside from smoke it. He takes a drag, then lets out a fluffy cloud of exasperation.

“Can’t knife a whole group of monsters by myself… And Jarrik spent all his time on getting that klorr. Couldn’t recruit anyone, since they all got word that we went through the shadowlands.” He takes another drag, then mutters, “And now we’re gonna end up drawn into whatever the next scam’s gonna be, to get us outta this.”

Ane murmurs in agreement, as she takes the wine bottle back. She wipes the mouth on her sleeve before taking a sip.

“That’s always the way, though, isn’t it? I mean, when it wasn’t Jarrik, it was his dad, granted his ideas were usually a bit less shit. Mercs might be more inclined to go through the shadowlands if he didn’t come up with so many excuses not to pay them.”

“S’ a bit different now,” Vasht huffs. “I may’ve been a kid back then, but I know the old man wouldn’ta done any of this. Nor would Jarrik, come to think,” he reflects, and takes another pull from the puffroot. Once it’s had a chance to slacken his hard expression, he adds, “The man’s a coward. He’d normally avoid somethin’ like that forest,” Vasht appraises.

“Not that I wanna think about him in the first place. Too angry. We coulda died this time,” he figures, digging a heel against the floor. “I just gotta get ahead of him. Figure out a way to stop it from happenin’ aga-” He shakes his head, as if dismissing some thought. “… To get some more guards. And maybe take up somethin’ more than knife throwing, I don’t know.”

“Easy, easy,” Ane says, trading him the wine bottle for the puffroot. She takes a deep drag of it, flaring the ember on the end into brilliant orange heat, and holds her breath for a moment before exhaling a thick, fragrant plume from the corner of her lips. “Next place we stop, we’ll find more sellswords,” she assures him, “We just need money.”

“That we do,” he agrees, now holding the wine bottle. He takes a swig-and-a-half this time, permitting himself a bit more. Vasht seems quite fond of taistberry, so it’s a bit more persuasive at getting him to relax. His shoulders slacken slightly, as he wipes his lips with the back of his sleeve. “I’m all outta ideas lately, though. We’ll probably end up in S’varga… It has guards, and money,” he appraises. “The two things we need right now.”

“S’varga…” Ane says the word pensively. Even though it’s a predominantly shasii city, the name feels strange in her mouth. She takes another drag, speaking through a lungful of puffroot smoke. “I’ll think of something,” she attempts to assure him, “Just make me a promise.”

“What’s that?” He asks, lofting one brow wryly. A flap of the wing covering his eye spoils the effect, and he ends up having to  puff at it and bat the pinions from his cheek. 

Ane purses her lips to hide a laugh, but it doesn’t quite work. She ends up trying to disguise it as a cough, but amusement shows on her cheeks and swirls as plain as shardlight.

“Promise me you won’t ask me any stupid questions,” she says, attempting to trade him the puffroot for the wine, “And Animus alive, go to sleep.”

He tries to stifle a smirk, but the laugh is infectious — even if at his anatomy’s expense. He sighs in resignation, leaning back. 

“I’d ask what you mean by stupid questions, but I’m afraid that might count…” He shakes his head. “Anyway, we’re gone from those bandits at least. I guess I could allow a nap. There’re no more people to check on anyway, since you’re near the front here…”

And he probably doesn’t want to check on Jarrik. Vasht lets that go unsaid, however. 

“You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. We’ll come up with something,” Ane reassures him. “And, if not, at least the next pack of bandits’ll ensure we never have to worry about this gurrshit again, right?” She half reaches out to pat his shoulder, but refrains, hand hesitating in midair for an uncertain moment — instead, she redirects herself to the wine bottle.

“Yeah. Maybe,” he agrees half-heartedly. He shrugs it off, then presses his hands to the floor and pushes off, rising to his feet. “Well, if you come up with anything, I’m keen to help out… Gotta do something after all that,” he grumbles, glancing back out the door.

“I’ll see what I can figure out,” she calls after him. For now, she’s probably going to continue to nurse her hangover, if not earn herself another one.

They need money and guards. Food can be stolen, clothing can be repaired, even medicine can be foraged, but nothing is going to protect them from more misfortune besides money and guards… Well, money, really. Guards can be bought. 

The image of The Clap-vole card she drew days before leaps to mind, unbidden – the furry little paws with the egg of a woeful beast in-hand, ready to dash it against a rock and unleash horror…

Ane exhales another silvery plume of smoke in a deep, thoughtful sigh.

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

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-3: Robbery Delivery

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The caravan doesn’t even get a full day of peace as it trundles through the outlands.

BANG BANG BANG!

“ROBBERY DELIVERY! Your money or your life!” A ragged, bellowing voice calls through Ane’s wagon door. The wagon had only stopped for a few minutes, and already bandits are pouring out of the bushes to shake down the train. The voice on the other side of the door even sounds rather bored by it.

“Unless you’re a clown! Clowns are fine.”

When Ane catches a glimpse out the window…

Ah, there was a hunting lodge after all! The smoke on the horizon surely came from this peaceful little cottage… 

It just happens to be a burnt-down hunting lodge. Its cinders are currently on their way to becoming smaller cinders. It must’ve been burning for quite some time before the caravan’s arrival. There’s no signs of life left there, though there are a few lanky alosin hitched up to a nearby post. They’re probably also bandits.

Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be right.

 

The knocking sends her heart pounding in her throat. She had been sleeping, fortunately — she only bothers to bolt the split door when she is. Unfortunately, it means the next few minutes pass in a bewildering daze. She scoops up her pocketbag and her jewelry from the half-seashell on her vanity, and stashes them in one of the costume-cubbies. The little stone slipshell gets secreted under her bed. Several sacks of puffroot are given pride of place near the entrance.

For now, she doesn’t open the door — if they want it open that badly, they’ll have to defeat heavy wood and the bolt securing it in place. Instead, she crouches on her bed beside the window, with the gurran jawbone held high over the point of her shoulder.

“Oh, com on, just open the door… I wouldn’t be the knock guy if I couldn’t…”

THUD, THUD!

The door begins to splinter, groaning against the blows. It sounds as if something hard and metallic is striking into the wood, cratering near the lock.

“… Knock!” The man bursts out laughing, a thick, throaty cackle. 

Still, Ane waits. He might break her door’s hinges, but she’s definitely not going to invite him in.

“… Alright then.”

There’s a small, rickety whirring sound, as if some old contraption is kicking into life. Then, with a loud, grating rumble… 

KRRRRACK!

A massive impact strikes into Ane’s door, punching through the latch as if it were set in paper. With that broken beyond repair, the door creaks on its hinges, slowly flipping open to reveal…

By the Fires, one of the most unsightly men she’s seen in some time.

The huikkaran has some flies buzzing around his head, occasionally landing on a gleaming, fist-sized wen on the side of his neck. He’s a bit wall-eyed (which means a lot for his kind), and neither of his two massive pupils seems to want to cooperate in pointing the right way. There’s a strawlike, sticky-looking mop of straggly hair atop his head, and a smug little smile over a deeply recessed chin down below.

“See? I told you I knew how to knock,” he says with a gleeful chortle, raising his right arm. On the end of his otherwise-stringy limb is a large, stony contraption of some sort — it’s shaped like a glove, with a large, notched circle on the back of the palm. A set of cords runs back from there, looping around (and through) a notch near his elbow, somehow set into the bone. The whole thing is puffing out gouts of black smoke, and that notched metal circle even glows with heat.

He steps in, waving his other hand around the room. “Alright, let’s see the gold… The last lass had at least seven. C’mon now, so I don’t have to flip all this over misself.”

Welp, Ane thinks to herself, This ugly fuck is how I die, I guess.

Her mouth is almost too dry to speak. Faceless are one thing — they can’t be reasoned with, but they also don’t really have a concept of cruelty. This guy thinks this is a joke. She clears her throat before she attempts to speak, talking slowly to keep her voice from wavering.

“Do I,” she says, gesturing to the many bags of puffroot on her floor, “Look like I have any gold left?”

There’s a pause as he tilts his head this way and that, buggy eyes alternating at the task of focusing on the pillowy sacks propped by the door. Seconds seem to stretch into an eternity — the only thing that even marks the passage of time is the lazy circuit of the flies around his head, and the steadily-thickening smoke puffing from his mechanical arm. 

If Ane’s hands weren’t occupied, she’d be making as many good luck gestures as she can think of. 

“Well,” he mutters, scratching the thing on his neck. “I guess not.”

With that, the man plunges his hand into one of the bags, coming up with a grimy fist full of shreds of puffroot. He gives it a good sniff, punctuated with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Once he’s finished sampling the product, he gathers up the two pillowcases. 

“Good quality. That’ll do. Stay high,” he bids her, and promptly stomps his clumsy way out the door. 

Well, through what remains of the door, anyway.

Ane watches the splintered door swing haphazardly on its remaining hinge as he stomps off. Part of her is amazed it worked — most of her is convinced he’s only taking the puffroot before he returns to kill her. Not that she’d make for an easy target, but what in the name of Firin’s fiery tits was he made of?

She exhales deeply through pursed lips, trying to slow her racing heart. Shaking hands move to light her stove, though she drops the firesteel a few times before she can get the tinder to catch. There isn’t much water left in her bucket, but there should be enough for some tea… Something to occupy her hands and help her calm down. 

Is the rest of the caravan safe? She doesn’t know. The bandits could’ve taken some of them captive, or convinced some of the camp followers or mercenaries to turn on the others. Some might’ve tried to stand up to the bandits and been injured, or even killed. Granted, any bandit that willing to scoop up a couple bags of puffroot and continue on his way probably doesn’t have any real intention of killing anyone, but still.

While the water boils, Ane hums cautiously through her door. Her ears stay perked, keen for the sound of distress.

Listening closely, Ane can hear something…

It sounds like raucous laughter, coupled with confused shouts and honking noises. Presumably, that bandit finally found the clown in the caravan. He might be flicking the tail ends of puffroot cigarillos at the painted huikkaran right this very moment.

Beyond the confusing cacophony from the clown’s wagon, she doesn’t hear anything else — not counting the cracking of the burnt-down lodge, of course. While the clown is certainly in a situation of sorts, it sounds like this group of bandits isn’t the hostage-taking type. Either that, or they just don’t think any of the troupe is worth anything. 

Except maybe the clown. 

Then again, it might just be that one bandit who’s into that. 

Ane sits back down on the edge of her bed as the kettle begins to whistle. If they made off with enough of the caravan’s money, it’s going to make the next town interesting. 

“Interesting” in the way that two-headed gurran calves are interesting. 

She makes a mental note to buy more mica, or see if Vaidna has any — Ane is probably going to need it when Jarrik inevitably begins pushing them to do more Half-Light Shows. She rubs at the side of her face with a soft groan, momentarily ignoring the shrieking kettle. The robbery may be done (or nearly so), but she can tell the effects are far from over.

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

Lore

Concerning the Trumba, Golem Composites

Lhorisian Neghast, Rim-Seer of Quill and Leather

Ninth of Antegaust, Year Four-Thirty and Three of the Shattered Sun

Recommendation: Study and Augury

 

Shape

The trumba are a grazing creature known all across the world. These lumbering, snorting, roving beasts act with dim-eyed complacency. They roam from one grassland to another in vast herds, blanketing the land in the coarse fur of their backs. From afar, trumba are creatures like any other — albeit much smaller than gurran behemoths, and much larger than ikkapo, deer, and such. They feed on the land, and their broad backs can bear enormous, perhaps impossible amounts of weight. In other words, they are the perfect beast of burden, and have been bred across the world as such. 

What say we, then, to the fact that they have limbs and hearts of stone?

This is no flourish of poetry; it is fact. The peasantry, oft accustomed to trumba, may confuse this material for a sort of bone, or hold it in no particular regard. Trumba are creatures of the earth, so of course, why would they not be composed of earth? And yet, the stone is otherworldly, and not common to this realm’s soil. This line of thinking quickly fails to those who have studied, treated, or even dissected living fauna. Dissecting a trumba, in comparison, requires not just a scalpel but also a hammer and pick of considerable weight. 

The stone in their bodies melds quite perfectly to the flesh. This Seer attempted to find seams or transitions, but if such exist, they are too precise to observe. The stone and flesh act together in perfect union. At its core is a heart-substitute, an orb composed of white stone, threads of glowing shardmatter, and tubes for blood flow. This heart is not an organ, but an artifact — one that multiplies when trumba mate with one another in the animal fashion. 

In fact, the trumba is not a grazing animal as we know them. This Seer has gazed into their bellies, and instead of grass, found dirt in large quantities. They graze upon the soil itself. 

Truth

Trumba are clearly creatures of artifice. This would exempt them from a Rimseer’s scrutiny; however, this Seer asserts that they were not crafted by mortal hands. Trumba most resemble the golems crafted by the Synithe, denizens of the realm of law and rhythm. The signs of this connection are as follows:

Trumba react to particular rhythms, tones, and chimes in an ordered fashion. Consider the story of a trumba shepherd who affixed copper bells to his herd’s necks. When the trumba set to marching, the shepherd found that the entire flock migrated exactly dexward, each in a perfect line from the original position. No amount of driving, whipping, or cajoling could alter this course. Similar stories arise all across the world,  though the tones, materials, and rhythms are too particular to be reproduced without careful design. This Seer’s own attempts have only yielded a chime to make trumba defecate on command. 

The second sign of otherworldly influence is that people, too, may merge with golemic material. The city of Rhytalo, which the Synithe use as an outpost to our realm, frequently dumps large amounts of golemic waste as products of their work. This oft includes discarded golem limbs, otherworldly stone, and rarely,  golemic cores similar to the hearts of the trumba. Even a novice surgeon may insert such a core into the socket of a severed limb, and then attach the appropriate golemic material. As a result, there are roving bands of half-golem brigands that subsist upon unwary travellers. They are a sort of walking, talking trumba, in a sense. Perhaps they eat dirt as well.

Consider, then: if trumba may be controlled by sound, why not these half-golem brigands?

Purpose and Lament

The Synithe are renowned for their efficiency, certainty in purpose, and blind obedience to Fayt, the god of Rhythm and Order.

Why would such beings create a perfectly obedient species, and then discard it?

Why would they allow layfolk to merge with the discarded material?

Perhaps the purpose is the same as that of their master: order and obedience. The trumba serve a niche in society, one that is not well-served by any of the natural fauna. Of them, gurran behemoths are too large, the leaping alosins are too unsteady, and the ikkapo are too weak to bear substantial burden. Trumba are the only recourse for wandering caravans, and trade is the lifeblood of any society. 

Consider, then: Fayt, and thus the Synithe, may control a major aspect of world trade. To exert influence, they would only need to create a bell of substantial enough size. One may dismiss this as typical Rimseer paranoia. However, if the Synithe were truly threatened, they could not only threaten world trade, but also control legions of half-golem brigands. 

The Synithe may otherwise shun such imperfect soldiers, but in a moment of desperation, would Fayt truly turn away from a tool?

In any case, trumba are easier research subjects than other half-golems. This Seer laments the challenge of finding a curious, willing brigand, and the proper bell for testing.

Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-2: Foreboding Peace

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Almost immediately after the wagons stop, people begin to pile out and prepare for mealtime. People tend to get anxious when cooped up for so long, and it sends them rushing out to socialize and meal in one another’s company once again. 

 Ane changes out of her robe for the first time in a few days, after what felt like an interminable stretch of waking up, washing up in her wagon, combing her hair, and putting her robe on again. She’s happy to get out onto solid ground — enough that she whistles while she walks to take her place in line for dinner. 

As Ane walks out amongst the troupe, many others are similarly carefree. The mercenaries are strung tighter than a bowstring, but everyone else’s pleased as pie. By the look of things, one group has immediately gathered near Brair’s tent and started to crack open his stash with him. It won’t be long before they’re all busting out into song, celebrating this reprieve from abject boredom and (assumed) sobriety. 

Not everyone is sharing in this mood, however. Some of the troupe, like Vasht the knife-thrower and Nelea the animal tamer, seem to be sharing in the same wary temperament as the guards. It’s a simple sort of wisdom: when the people protecting are nervous, it might be a good idea to keep one’s eyes open. This isn’t particularly typical for them, either; during good times, they’ve been known to get as sloshed as everyone else.

Today, the actors Jiselmo and Korin are cooking. Generally, they never agree to let the other do it alone. The reason why is immediately apparent when Ane arrives at the two of them. 

“Oh come now Korin, you know I can be trusted,” Jiselmo says in a wounded tone. “I’d never prank anyone after so long in the wagons.”

“I’m not so sure…” The many-winged Korin says with a sigh. “Hello Ane,” he greets the Teller of Fortunes, and passes her a plate.

“Hello!” She says brightly, eagerly holding out her plate for something that isn’t jerky and berries. If nothing else, her stomach (and, by extension, her wagon’s chamber pot) will be grateful for an actual meal.

 

Jiselmo, with a fae glint in his eyes, passes her a hunk of honeyed vulre, spiced to perfection. It’s steaming and radiating a savory, fire-cooked scent that really sets the senses alight. When Jiselmo is behaving, he really is an excellent cook. “Ane, tell him that I am virtuous and pure, and would never do such a thing,” he says with an impish smile. 

She gives Korin a deadpan hum.

“Jiselmo says to tell you he wouldn’t prank anyone,” she replies, before turning to abscond with her dinner. 

She isn’t sure where to sit today — Brair’s group seems a bit much right now, and she doesn’t want to be pressed into sampling his concoctions at the moment. Vasht and Nelea, while quieter, have a jumpy aura that’s bound to rub off on her. 

Ane finds a log to sit on. She can catch strains of conversation as they’re carried on the breeze, enjoy her meal in relative peace, and take in the open sky without anyone’s drunken singing or anxious whispering. 

As Ane sits and observes, the two groups both seem to be progressing in their own respective moods. There’s laughter and song coming from Brair’s group, which swells as the time passes. In contrast, Vasht and Nelea are now collecting a small huddle of sorts. Their anxious demeanor seems to have faded, firming instead into a sort of resolve. A couple of others are seen joining them, including Aedas and, occasionally, the tipsy Brair who would amble over to try to spread his cheer. The mercenary Narue also joins them for a time, before wandering off herself.

Soon, the armored tzuskar approaches, currently with a lazy gait and a plate of honeyed vulre. She’s wearing her hair down today, apparently feeling a fair sight more relaxed than she did in the shadowlands. She wanders up to the log that Ane is using as a seat, smiling in her usual, easygoing way.

“Hello, got room on this log?” She asks.

“Sure,” Ane replies, scooting over a few inches. There’s plenty of room, but it’s as good a welcoming gesture as any when her hands are sticky with honey sauce. 

Narue the caravan guard sits down with a light thump, not bothering to cushion the weight of her armor. Fortunately it’s a sturdy log, and Narue is otherwise lean besides.

“It’s like lookin’ at two different camps today,” she appraises, forking into the meat. “I could cover one eye and switch troupes.”

“Mm… I wish I could say that that’s just Brair and Vasht for you, but I’d be half-lying. Brair needs a tankard of Rhytalan coffee, and Vasht needs about seven naps,” Ane says, as she pulls a piece of meat from the bone, “They’re dealing with the shortage of guards in their own particular ways, I guess.”

“Seems like it,” the tzuskar appraises, glancing between the two of them. Brair’s group has even kicked up into a silly dance contest of sorts, with the triplets and Jiselmo (leaving the cooking to Korin) trading off first. Jiselmo can’t help but add in a little slapstick, bellyflopping to the ground before hunching his shoulders and arching his back, edging along to the beat like an inching worm.

She chews for a second, then shrugs. “Yeah… That other group seems to be strategizin’. Not really my thing. I just fly around and bop things. Gracefully, mind, but not strategically,” she says with a bob of her fork. 

“Not sure how they’re going to strategize against an enemy they don’t know exists yet, can’t see, and don’t have enough bucketheads to beat back even if they did,” Ane replies, “No offense.”

“Well, about that first part…” She swivels in her seat slightly, and uses her fork to point off further down the road. Somewhere off the main path, there’s a rather large column of smoke. 

Narue shrugs. “It could be nothing. But if I had to give ya my gut’s feeling — y’know, aside from feeling full of this meat — I’d say they’d benefit from coming up with something.”

“Could be a cabin or a hunting lodge. Either way, we don’t know if it’s none, three, or thirty attackers– what’re we even able to do that we aren’t doing already? Force a faster march?” 

“Something weird, probably,” she says simply. “That’s what this sort of troupe is supposed to do, right?” She asks with a grin.

“Sure,” Ane says, growing quietly pensive for a moment, “We’re just performers, though. Aedas is strong, Nelea has gelthounds, Brair has fire, I can swing a club, and Vasht is… Vasht, but weird doesn’t mean powerful, really.”

Narue shrugs a shoulder. “I can vouch for you swingin’ a club, but I’ve heard about you pulling off something clever once in a while… and whatever got you that puffroot pile,” she says, with a playful smile. “Anyway… I think that lot’s kinda stuck,” she says, nodding towards Vasht, Nelea and Company.

“They tried to rope me into their talk, but I’m not good at all that… so I said I was gonna come bug you instead. They seemed int’rested in what you’d have to say.” She shrugs. “I recommend poppin’ by, they could probably use a fresh thought… and some puffroot,” she smirks. 

“Well, if they need some, they know where to find it,” Ane grouses through the wry smile tugging at honey-stickied lips, “Maybe we’ll luck out and find bandits that like smoking. I can get my wagon back, and get them to leave us alone…” She pinches the end of a picked-clean bone in her fingertips, before tossing it aside for one of the strays following the caravan. “Of course, if it’s advice they want… Be vigilant, but for shit’s sake don’t overthink it. We got through the shadowlands alright, we’ll just have to batten down, be prepared, and not lose sleep. I know Vasht takes security seriously, but he’s going to send himself to an early grave if he doesn’t learn to let go.”

“Heh, sounds like good advice,” she appraises, examining one of the bones she’s nibbled-clean. “Might wanna figure a neat place to hide your coin, though. If it’s bandits, and those geniuses don’t get a keen idea,” she makes a looping gesture towards the lead wagon. “We’ll probably just have to let ourselves be robbed. It ain’t pretty, but sometimes it keeps your head on your neck. I know we don’t have enough guards to do the same.”

“Great. I can tell ‘em my money’s at the bottom of a sack of puffroot. Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Ane remarks dryly. 

“You’ve got several sacks to choose from, if I’ve heard right,” Narue says, with a grin that sends her smirk-wing a-flutter. “Hey, at least if we get robbed, I can see what the bandits around here look like! I hear they look all crazy, with golem bits n’ whatnot stuck to ‘em.”

“Probably. Just set Jarrik loose on ‘em, let him talk them into becoming the next part of the show. People elsewhere might pay some decent coin to see a man-golem.”

“I know I would! I bet it makes them all strong-like,” she figures, tapping her chin. “Maybe if we get robbed, I can just… shake one of their hands really hard,” she supposes. “You know, steal it and be the one with the neat gimmick.”

“I don’t think getting golem parts is an outpatient procedure, Rue,” Ane’s never seen one, granted, but she doesn’t exactly think she needs to in order to draw some conclusions.

“Aw,” Narue wilts, drooping her wings. It’s hard to tell how serious she’s being. “I can’t just slip on a golem-glove and start doing heroics? That’s too bad.” She kicks a nearby stone across the grass. “Oh well. I oughta go figure out a new life goal,” she says, and hops to her feet. “See you later!” She waves briskly, about to wander off on her way. 

“See you,” Ane says with a nod. She stands as well, dusting chips of bark from her backside before she goes to return her plate to the communal wash basin. 

As she makes the short walk back to her wagon, a sense of foreboding begins to gnaw at her. Will Vasht ask her to be a lookout again? Possibly, though there’s no reason to ask her over any of the others with actual eyes. The shadowlands was one thing, but here… 

Her nostrils flare slightly as she breathes deep, straining to pick up the scent of smoke. It seems like ordinary woodsmoke from here, and tells her nothing. It could be a hunting lodge — is probably a hunting lodge — but there’s no way to tell from this distance. 

From Ane’s vantage point, that column of smoke could be a lodge… though it’s rather thick, like what one may expect from an open flame. Then again, it might just be a big fire outside of a lodge, or a big lodge. 

Vasht’s group does certainly look concerned enough. They’re still in the middle of talking, even now that the plates are mostly cleaned. During one of the lulls in the conversation, Nelea glances up with a worried look, seemingly in Ane’s direction. She’s a rather shy sort, so she doesn’t call out or beckon where another might. There’s a tentative look about her. Seconds later, the conversation tugs her back in. 

Ane catches her look, but she may just want her to try to talk Vasht down from… whatever it is Vasht is currently Vashting. If it’s that important, Nelea knows where her wagon is. She gives her a small wave, but she’s already been pulled back into the circle. 

With a shrug, Ane turns away to return to her wagon. As nice as it is to have gotten outside, even if it’s just for a meal, she can feel herself growing antsy. A vision would be a welcome way to pass the next stretch of the journey, but it strikes her as a bad idea — as helpful as it might be to ride a passing bird or smeerp and see ahead, that would also leave her virtually helpless until her limbs decide to reawaken and her mind falls back into itself. 

Twenty four hours later…

 

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Teller of Fortunes

Teller of Fortunes 2-1: Second Trail Begins

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The wagons of the Varroon Troupe roll ever onward. They slowly trundle along the main road, wheels bouncing over rocks, as the caravan leaves Paakoponde behind. Even as the Eternalist capital fades into the distance, the boggy mist of its outland remains. Without the shardflies around to brighten the haze, it becomes all the more foreboding. Weather like this often heralds the arrival of trouble… whether its bandits, a broken wagon wheel, or a wagon wheel strategically broken by bandits.

Fortunately, this isn’t a concern for Ane, at least at the moment. 

She has some time to herself in the wagon, something that’s often in great abundance. The only difference is that now she shares it with the spoils of her prior adventures: a cheerful little slipshell statue and several large bundles of puffroot. The slipshell is currently sitting beside one of them, reptilian eyes gleaming, looking rather pleased with itself. Given the dream Ane had the other day, it must be rather fond of smoking. 

In a moment of indulgence, Ane even sprinkles a little puffroot over a coal in her katagon brazier. Without hands, the slipshell can’t really smoke puffroot, but maybe it — or whatever entity it represents — might enjoy being offered some nonetheless. 

The little statue seems quite pleased, at least judging by its expression. Even though it’s just stone, the curve of the smile and the divots of the eyes are just inscrutable enough to make the imagination run wild. Even a slight shift in shadow or heat can make the difference between a stoic line and a silly little smile. Right now, it seems both sagacious and grateful. The incense also lends an odd little halo of haze to the creature, as if it’s taking in the fumes and basking in them. Thusly pleased, it sits silently while Ane goes about her tasks. 

Now, she sits on the vulre hide in front of her stove, wrapped in her blanket and holding a hand full of cards. The remainder of the cigarillo is perched between her lips, sweet, silvery smoke rising and drifting on the chilly, humid air. She narrows her swirls as she hums at the cards, shifting the cigarillo to the other side of her lips as she moves one particular card to the front.

The Shard, The Sailwhale, The Twisting Root, The Paenarch… All upright, all in their positive aspects. Luck, contentment, industry, tradition. 

And then there’s this one. The Clap-vole reversed.

 

 

Where The Clap-vole represents partnership, symbolizing the little cooperative circles where the voles clack and crack hard-shelled nuts together, The Clap-vole reversed takes a more sinister bent. There, the partnership is no longer that of fat, happy clap-voles cracking nuts together — it’s clap-voles and okkapli, the enormous, wasplike creatures that use the clap-voles to hatch their eggs. It is exploitation, and danger brought by good intentions.

For all intents and purposes, things seem to be going well for the caravan. Paakoponde netted them a tidy profit, and more puffroot and appohs than they know what to do with.

So what’s next…?

Ane exhales a curl of smoke, as her fingertips brush The Clap-vole’s round, chubby, painted cheeks. 

Hopefully it won’t be a large, hellish, stinging horror that likes to gnaw out a person’s flesh and lay their eggs inside. That would not be an ideal follow-up to any good trip.

For the most part, she leaves a lavender silk scarf tied to the latch of her window-shutters to signal the supply riders when she gets hungry enough. Unfortunately for her, she’s often bored enough to lose herself in reading, drawing, divination, or meditation, so she frequently finds herself hungry long after the food has been eaten and the long-necked alosins dismounted.

Luckily she still has a couple of appohs, though hers have started to go a bit soft and mealy by now. At one point, she debates bothering Brair for some of his — she can’t figure out how to clamber between wagons while carrying some puffroot to strategically abandon on his porch, though, so she doesn’t follow through with the idea.

Fortunately, the alosin is often quick to come at her signal. At one point, less than even ten minutes after she put up the scarf, Ane’s window is visited by a lone mercenary on alosin-back. The chainmailed, curl-horned callosian rides the bounding beast up to her window, then settles it into a trot at the same pace as the load-bearing trumba. 

“Rations!” He calls into the window, and passes a parcel in through. Within is a fairly meager meal, just barely enough for most people: salted meat with some foraged greens and berries. Fortunately, the caravan is pretty well stocked after hitting Paakoponde. It’s better than some times in the past, at least, when it was all pemmican and knobs of what was either very old bread or very strange cheese.

“‘Rations,’ he says,” she murmurs, as she opens the parcel. 

They treat this like a forced military march.

Such is the way of mercenaries. Generally, they always seem to get worse when there’s way too many, or far too few. There’s a happy medium where they’re content, but not too uppity, and this certainly isn’t it. Thinking back, not many people joined up to defend the troupe back in Paakoponde… At this point, there are still fewer guards than there was prior to the shadowlands — or worse, fewer than even there was before Pellas. Glancing out the window, it seems they can’t even cover the entire train.

Given the way that one rode away so quickly, it seems like they’re a tad anxious… This must be a rough place in the route. Given what Ane has seen, it does make some sense; Paako hardly even used town guards, let alone anyone to watch the roads. It’s all well and good to rely on monks to defend a town square, but they do nothing for the miles and miles of road heading out of the region. 

The caravan goes on like this for about half a week, before the wagons finally begin to roll to a stop. The mist has begun to lift, though some of it still clings to the landscape as a vague haze. A simple glimpse out the window shows that the caravan has moved quite far. The forests of Paakoponde have completely receded, giving way to chilly highlands. While this is certainly no mountaintop, it seems the wagons have ascended up a plateau of sorts. Gazing in one direction across the grassy hill, one can see all the way back to the great forest.

In the other direction, there’s an old, familiar sight: the tall, gray octagon on the horizon that represents Rhytalo. Ane has never been very close, given its general intolerance for circuses and the like. But it’s always been a sight to see even in the distance, with its layers upon layers of citadel walls, its massive chime-towers that dispense low, slow moving shapes on the far plains… And occasionally, when one listens carefully, they can hear the signal chimes that supposedly move the city’s golem garrison.

This far out, the caravan is safe from the umbrella of Rhytalo’s crushing authority… but also outside of its protection.

 

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