The Crossroads, Chapter 1: Orphelia

Coming from here. I’m going to try posting these in more bite-sized pieces, since I’ve been a little quiet on here lately. Hope you all are doing well.

Orphelia’s welcome, she gathered, was beginning to wear out.  Admittedly, she was surprised it had taken this long.  Most villages in the Riverlands would have noticed her and Devlin immediately, regarded the vagrant children with a tepid, kind suspicion, which would inevitably fade to hostility as their naked intent–to take full advantage of any kindness or carelessness mistakenly offered–became clear.  This town was different, though.  It had bustle, traffic in and out, and along with the stream of caravans and trade boats and wandering merchants, there was a matching current of vagrants and parasites through the town’s auspices, among which she and her brother encountered only superficial resistance.

It helped that since the Bad Stuff, she had found it much easier to be places without demanding attention.  She just needed to follow Mr. Ruffles’ instructions: Stand here.  Walk over there if they move too close.  Take the fish from the stall when they look away.  It was weird they didn’t react, even when they could see her so plainly, but Mr. Ruffles wasn’t worried about it, so neither was she.

Still, even in the mess of moving faces, someone sees yours too many times, and they start getting suspicious.  Two weeks on, the blacksmith, a gruff, addled man with sooty hands, approached her and Devlin in the alley opposite his shop one morning.

“Which caravan was you two with?” he asked.  “Best get back to ‘em.  They’s prob’ly lookin’ for you.”  She feigned bleariness, pretended to have just woken up.  Then she muttered something about lozenges and dragged Devlin away, just as he began coughing again.  It could have gone worse, she supposed, but it also wasn’t as if her noncommittal mumbling had convinced him of anything in particular.  Now he recognized her, and that recognition was one step closer to the truth that their caravan–which they’d been a part of for a full day and a half–had departed a week ago, no doubt glad of their absence.  And that, of course, was one step closer to things Orphelia needed to keep hidden.

It had been long enough, she decided.  Others would notice soon, start asking questions.  Then the Bad Stuff would happen again.  She and Devlin needed a ticket out of here–or a pretext for staying above suspicion–but Devlin was sick: The two of them would be bandit fodder out on the roads alone, and she didn’t trust that the town might pity them.  Pity required a story, and stories invited questions too.

She had been thinking on it all morning, but nothing was coming.  She clutched Mr. Ruffles to her chest as she steadied Devlin against the side wall of the inn.  Mr. Ruffles was normally so helpful, but he wasn’t talking today.  Today it was just scared thoughts in her head, Devlin’s labored breathing, and the busy sounds of commerce on the market street before them.  She watched it numbly, stowing the foreboding certainty that nothing was alright beneath the experiential barrage of simply being amidst the Crossroads marketplace.  Time passed, some minutes or hours–she wasn’t paying attention to which.  Then a break in the market’s ebb and flow caught her eye.

Down the street, she saw a strange, unwieldy contraption break through the masses.  Nominally, it was a wagon–a particularly large one, perhaps–but the ways in which it was not a wagon seemed just as important as the ways in which it was.  Specifically, it was also quite clearly a trade raft, one of the flat-bottomed, shallow barges that Father’s river caravans had used, though this raft had been fitted with wheels, affixed to the sides by some mechanism Orphelia couldn’t quite discern from her sideline vantage.  Regardless of–or perhaps because of–these modifications, the craft should have been quite heavy, which made it all the stranger that it should have been pulled by a single man, shirtless, wild-eyed, veritably tattooed by scars, as another–its owner, likely–rode atop it, waving greetings to the stalltenders all along the marketplace.

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