Teller of Fortunes 2-4: I Could Do More

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or click here to go to the beginning.)

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 2-3: Robbery Delivery

(Welcome! Teller of Fortunes is a serial work of fantasy fiction. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

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.)

Teller of Fortunes 2-1: Second Trail Begins

(Welcome to the second season! Whether you’re picking up from before or joining us anew, we’re happy to have you along for the ride. Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning.)

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 totem 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.

 

(Thank you for reading and please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

Teller of Fortunes 27: First Trail End

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. This is the last entry in this season, and we will  take a brief hiatus as we prepare for the next part. Thank you for reading, please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

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

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

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

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

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

Where one trail ends, another begins.

The caravan rolls on.

Teller of Fortunes 26: Warm Reception

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. Thank you for reading, please like, share, and comment below if you enjoy! We love to hear from you.)

It’s the morning before the caravan leaves Paakoponde. Shardflies are buzzing against the curtains, rears aglow with warm light, some starting to slip in across the windowsill. Normally the wagons would have been rolling by now, but the ground is rather marshy and uncooperative in these parts. Sounds of labor last night signalled trouble with one of the wagon wheels. Given the ingenuity of the troupe, the caravan’s sure to be moving again after breakfast.

As Ane shifts, a bundle of puffroot gently thwaps against her forehead. It must have been precariously shoved into a cupboard during her attempts to wrangle the tide of local “gifts.” She’s managed to stay in her wagon since then, but others are bound to be curious. After all, there was a literal procession of bundle-bearing locals heading in and out of her tent, all thanks to her unintentionally standing in for the local oracle. Anyway, the scent of sizzling, savory eggs soon wafts its way into her wagon, sending out the call to go join the others. 

She mutters a soft curse as she bats a shardfly away from her head, before easing herself into a sitting position with a broad stretch. The scent of the smoke has long since dissipated, leaving behind only the barest traces of its sweet, fruity aroma mingled with incense and the smell of dried puffroot. It’s far from an unpleasant smell, but it’s one that’s probably going to start wearing on her after awhile.

After washing her face, combing and braiding her hair, and dressing in a comfortable chemise and a skirt of saffron-colored cotton, Ane heads out to pick up some breakfast and see if anyone she knows is a closet smoking enthusiast.

This morning, peering through the mist, Ane sees that the food line is rather short. All around, the more able-bodied members of the camp are already getting busy prepping the wagons. Apparently many had to awaken early to continue the work of last night. At the moment, it seems they’re almost finished; there are boards under the wagon wheels, the trumba are hitched, and there’s a clear path back to the main road. 

The food line passes in a breeze — a quick step up to Vasht, the sleepy-eyed knife thrower, who’s taking a rare shift at cooking. It’s just as well, since he only really knows how to cook eggs, and there’s a small stock of them leftover from the city. He gives a worn smile when Ane arrives, and uses a spoon to scooch breakfast onto her plate. 

“Welcome to the morning. Glad to see you didn’t float off on a cloud last night,” he says with a hint of mirth, while preparing the next batch. 

Ane gives him a wry, sheepish grin as she accepts the eggs.

“That obvious, huh?” She says, briefly catching her lower lip in her teeth, “Well… What can I say? I’m good with customers.”

He lets out a chuckle. “Right… Well,” he smirks, and motions off towards the current circle of people eating. The lot of them, including Brair the fire breather, the dancer triplets, the actors Jiselmo, Korin, and the animal tamer Nelea are all looking in Ane’s direction with amusement in their expressions. There are more than a few sets of lofted brows amongst them.

Vasht, scraping off a pan, adds, “Maybe you can share some of your tricks, and a cigarillo or two.” He gives her a wry smile that sets the vestigial wing over his left eye a-fluff. “Off you go, can’t keep them waiting all morning,” he says, scraping off a pan. 

Ane darts a glance over her shoulder at the lofted brows and amused grins. When she looks back at Vasht, her lips are pursed in an expression that’s half chagrined, and half miffed at his teasing. 

“Careful what you ask for, or you’ll have six pounds of puffroot on your doorstep,” she chides him, as she turns to find a place to sit. She’s tempted to find somewhere where she’ll endure less ribbing, but, after yesterday, she at least owes them somewhat of an explanation…

When she arrives, the atmosphere is certainly jovial. Jiselmo even raises his hands to begin clapping, though Korin intercepts by smacking them down. Perhaps after the ribbing he endured himself previously, he’s inclined to return the favor for Ane. This doesn’t stop the more mildly amused of from grinning, with Brair being the first to comment.

 “Well… I see our troupe’s other top performer just decided to wake up.” He beams, then bites into an appoh — likely one of many. Munching around it, he says, “Thoughf I don’f think it waf my shirtlesh fire twilin,” he swallows, “had them flocking!”

The others chuckle. The triplets lean forward in unison, with Zila pillowing her chin on her hands. 

“Ane, you just have to tell us your method. We practiced very hard at being triple-topless, and now you’re a puffroot magnate!”

Ane sits down on the edge of the group, shoulders hunched a little over her plate of eggs. Her cheeks burn with embarrassment and she prods the fluffy mass with her fork, muttering softly.

“I just pulled some cards, that’s all.”

Even so, a grin — somewhere between amusement and self-consciousness — tugs at the corner of her lips.

Jiselmo kind of shimmies his head, not a shake, but a general spasm of bewilderment. “Well what did you pull for them? Did you predict that their vulre will go on to a top university?”

“None would even explain their activity,” Nelea says, while petting one of the troupe’s trained gelts with her broad, gloved hand. “It was truly bizarre,” she says, looking at the creature. 

“Not even the ones that gave me appohs would explain it! They just kept spouting, ‘Thank to foreign shaman’ and left to get more!” He says, practically in a laugh as he throws his arms wide. “They didn’t even give a damn about all the fire, either!”

Okay,” Ane says, pointing her fork accusatorily at Brair, “In my defense, I didn’t know how many appohs they had. Or puffroot,” she says, before taking a forkful of eggs, “Obvioufly.”

“To Jiselmo’s point,” Nelea says, “It must have been quite a fortune to tell. I’ve had three vulre go off to college, and I wasn’t that excited,” she says with a warm, albeit dry, sort of humor.

“Yeah! Why were they so grateful? It must have been a pretty high-quality grift,” Jiselmo appraises, crossing his arms and nodding authoritatively. “It’d make ‘ol Jarrik green with envy, with that kind of yield!”

“Well, if Jarrik wants to figure out how to fence about three dozen pounds of puffroot, he’s welcome to his cut,” Ane says sourly, “Besides… You all know what I do. That one lady asked a question, I answered it, she asked how to pay me, since she didn’t have much money… I asked her to give Brair some appohs. She asked if I wanted anything for myself, I figured a pouch of puffroot might be nice. I never expected it to end up so…”

She gestures toward her wagon with a vigorous wave of her hand. 

“High?” Jiselmo offers glibly. 

Ane pins the end of her egg-laden fork with a fingertip, poising it to catapult its payload straight at him.

“‘S enough out of you.”

Through some kind of age-old reflex, Jiselmo immediately ducks behind Korin. He peers over the tzuskar’s upper-wing, not even disturbing the man as he continues to eat. “Just saying!” He calls from behind his fortification, then ducks down.

“Well, it’ll make ya good money in the next city,” Brair figures. “As for me, I’ve definitely got enough for that ‘drink the dragon’s fire’ trick,” he says with a grin, rubbing his massive palms together.

Nelea sighs and shakes her head. “Just don’t test it on us or the animals.”

“Really, it’s not a bad idea,” figures Vila, the middle-sister. “You could make some money for Dynkala, if you tell her to prep belly-remedies ahead of time,” she says with a wiley gleam in her eyes. 

“It sounds dangerous to me,” says Wila, clutching her pearls as always. “Really, how ever did you get such a notion…?”

“And if Dynkala doesn’t want to, the other herbalist probably can — whatsername. Vaidna,” Ane adds, “Though honestly, Brair, you could probably start brewing your own liquor from scratch with all those appohs.”

“Huh, you’re right,” he agrees, furrowing his ridge of a brow. “A lot of it, too… Might go well with the other stuff. It’d be easier to sell than all the blasted appohs, if we don’t eat them first,” he figures, while a camp follower wanders by and takes his empty plate for him.

“At least Ane won’t have to be on backup-duty for the medic wagon when you get them all sick,” Wila chides him. “Really, hearthfire vinegar,” she shakes her head, as someone wanders by and takes the triplets’ empty plates. 

“Thank you, such a dear,” Vila mutters, as the three of them settle back into their seats. 

“Phf, a little digestive charcoal, some white clay tablets, a bit of stomach powder… hearthfire vinegar never killed anybody,” Ane replies.

Then a robed callosian wanders by and accepts her empty plate with a broad hand.

“Thank-,” she begins to say. Something about him jogs her memory, though, as she eyes his robe with a curious hum. That is certainly an Eternalist robe. Is he… the monk she met a few days ago? He never gave a name.

“You are most welcome,” says the dark-braided callosian, bobbing his head.

As he takes Jiselmo’s plate, he shrugs and thanks him as well. Jiselmo has still been hiding behind Korin’s back this whole time, but finally seems to be forgetting Ane’s promise of catapulting.

Korin’s the one who blinks, and as the callosian wanders away with the plates, he wonders aloud. 

“Wait a second… why is a burly monk doing our dishes?”

“I can get used to it,” Zila says cheerfully, with a waggle of her eyebrows. 

Vila gives her a cross look, and huffs. 

“Well, he might be some use against a bandit raid,” she says, averting her gaze. 

Ane presses her fingertips to her temples, and attempts to stifle a soft groan. So far, she’s netted the caravan thirty six pounds of puffroot, probably four times that of appohs… And one adventurous monk.

“I’ll see you lot later. I’ve got to go before anything else shows up.”

“See you later, Ane!” Brair calls to her, waving his arm. He seems quite happy with the outcome, given his wealth of ale-fodder.

“See you, Ane,” Zila bids her dreamily, resting a hand upon her flushed cheek. Naturally, she’s not even looking in the fortune teller’s direction, but rather, at the monk currently scrubbing dishes with his oh-so-strong hands. 

Like a fly-trap, the caravan accumulates strange travelers and friends by the day.

Teller of Fortunes 25: Wealth in Smoke

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. This is a direct continuation from the prior entry. Thank you for reading, like and share if you enjoy!)

After her last bout of fortune-telling — and a misunderstanding — the Teller of Fortunes is now left buried underneath a pile of gifted puffroot.

Elsewhere across the camp, Brair the fire-breather is in a similar situation to Ane’s sudden wealth of puffroot; the only difference is that he’s getting loaded down with appohs instead. This is all because, after predicting a Chaos Storm, she told the locals they would enjoy puffroot and appohs respectively. Apparently neither boon is enough to deplete the village’s crop by any measure, but it’s far more than any single person is meant to have in their wagon.

This is a whole damn village, after all, and a fairly sizable one at that. None of them give a damn about the shows, though. They’re all too busy starting the preparations — moving their crops, planning for barricades, considering where to lodge when the month ends — that sort of thing. There is a Chaos Storm coming in a month, after all.

Ane is beginning to have second thoughts about telling the woman to be generous to avoid the wrath of Vurumaji. It’s not that she isn’t grateful, as she certainly hopes Brair is if he’s getting free appohs, but there’s just so much of it. She could smoke up the entire caravan for weeks. It is a pretty valuable haul, but turning it into coin also means storing it, moving it, finding a market for it, and haggling.

At this rate, she’ll be stuffing her mattress with puffroot just to have somewhere to put it.

As more material pours in, it even overturns the coin bowl at some point. The silver clatters out across Ane’s table, rolling and flipping out onto the brocade. One by one, they tumble out, and when they land…

Nine out of the ten in sight are heads-up. While it’s certainly improbable, perhaps it is a sort of omen… After all, coins and cups are symbols of the gods Sarehn and the Wanderer. This result might mean that they look favorably upon this reading. Regardless, the sight instills a certain, visceral warmth in Ane’s chest, like the sort one may feel upon moving an injured, bleeting vulre kid in from the rain.

In time, the situation calms, and Ane is now sitting with her great mound of puffroot. The whole lot of it would have to be measured in the dozens of pounds. The take in silver is pretty normal for a small town — just three gold, mostly in copper — but this is a hilarious sum when one considers that Ane did only one reading for the entire day.

Hopefully Jarrik the caravan master likes smoking, or has managed to hire a passel of mercenaries who do — he’s probably going to be disappointed, otherwise. Ane decides to stop the Half-Light Show a little early, the better to begin shifting all of the puffroot to her wagon. It requires many trips and the patient stuffing of several empty pillowcases, but, eventually, the interior of her wagon looks like a rather oddly-decorated puffer parlor.

Even so, when she goes to take down her tent, she still finds some of the stuff tucked away in the folds and corners of the canvas — and will probably continue to do so for months. 

At least it smells good.

Later, she sits on her bed, nestled beside her window as a cool breeze flutters her curtains. She’s wrapped in her robe, with a book propped on one knee and a cattail paper cigarillo pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Silvery smoke, tinged with an earthy fruitiness and deep, molasses-sweetness, rises and drifts lazily from the ember glowing at the end of it. Though she’s reading, her efforts at doing so are minimal at best — it’s another dogeared bit of romantic fiction, a lyric poem following the adventures of a buxom milkmaid and the lord of the manor (or was it a well-endowed farmhand and a duke? It doesn’t really matter). She could probably still her hum completely and have a better adventure play out in her half-drowsy imagination right now. 

Romantic stories have never been among her interests, but books are expensive. Most of hers had originally been collected by the caravan’s old bearded lady — a costly balm for the woman’s own frustrated passions. There were Archestran epic poems about star-crossed lovers, Aed’harthi bodice-rippers about pirates, Pellan tales of sloe-eyed maids seduced by fae, S’vargan stories about dashing bandits and courtly intrigue… When Ane inherited a crate of them upon her friend’s passing, how could she turn them down? The stories themselves are often uninspired, but, on a long enough road, even the antics of dewy-eyed lovers without an ounce of genre savviness make for good company. There are many books printed in ways Ane will never be able to read (flat ink is no friend to a shasii’s sight), but she wouldn’t give them up for all of the gold in Archestra.

Ane smothers a yawn with the back of her free hand and shakes her head as if to clear it. She reaches around to stub the puffroot out on the side of her stove, leaving the rest of the cigarillo atop it to wait. Void, she can’t even finish a pinch of puffroot in a sitting — she has no idea how she’s going to live with this much of it.

She pulls her blanket up around her, tucking herself in to enjoy the tail end of the day, lulled to sleep by a gentle high and the soft, staccato bap-bapping of the shardflies against her curtains. 

Teller of Fortunes 24: Half-Light Show

(Click here for the previous section, or here to go to the beginning. This episode has elements that may not be safe for work. Thank you for reading, like and share if you enjoy! )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divination really is an unsettling sort of thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another topless woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next Storm of Chaos? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes widen, and she nods hurriedly. 

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

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

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

The woman blinks. “Is that good?”

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

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

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

The woman’s eyes widen.

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

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

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

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

She furrows her brow, then nods. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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