The Crossroads, Chapter 7: A Visitor

It was growing late, Brill noted, sleepily watching the technicolor projections the setting sun, filtering from their window through the incongruous mass of bottles, phials, potions, pots, and tinctures arrayed before it on their sill-made-shelf, had cast upon the study wall.  They continued grinding away with their pestle.  The market had been…demanding today.  Many orders.  Little time to fulfill them.  It would be another late night.

Business was booming, it seemed, and though they regretted the impingement upon their reading time, Brill knew to be grateful for the surplus.  They had seen the alternative.  They peered down at the parchment on their desk, absentmindedly emptying the mortar into a mixing dish.

“Gar slime…” they muttered, creaking to their feet, rummaging through the pots and bottles on the shelf.  Locating the requisite container–a bulbous, ceramic tub, sealed with a large cork for the…aroma of its contents–Brill lifted it gingerly, pausing mid-turn as a knock on their door echoed through the shop.  “We’re closed!” they called back.

“Aint’ a customer!” came the response.  Gene.  Brill lifted an eyebrow, set the tub of slime on their desk, and proceeded to the door.

“What do you need?” they asked, opening the door to a restless Gene, hands on his hips, mid-pace.

“Need a favor,” the old man muttered.  He was uncomfortable.  The way he got before doing something impulsive, Brill noted.

“I’m always at your service, Gene,” they replied softly.  “Though I am running short on time this evening, so–”

“Sorry,” Gene muttered.  “Y’know those two kids been skulking ‘round the past few weeks?”  Brill nodded.  “Right.  Younger one–the sister–jumped town with Dog Boy today to run some errand for Marko.”

“Bleeding Wolf is back?”

“Was.  Maybe back soon, but that ain’t the point.  Point is the girl left her sick brother in the alley by my shop, and he’s been layin’ there all day coughin’ his guts out.  Was wonderin’ if you could do something for him.”

“That will depend on the reason for his cough,” Brill said.  “I will need to examine him–can you bring him here?”  Gene glanced over his shoulder.

“Weren’t sure if it was okay to move him.  He don’t seem particularly conscious neither.”  Brill sighed.  The alternative it was, then.  He grabbed a small oil lamp off a shelf near the door and lit it with the candle from his desk.

“Take me to him,” they said, their tone urgent partly for concern and partly–they hated to admit–for annoyance at having to leave the shop at such a late hour.  Gene nodded, taking whatever implication he needed, and turned to lead, only to freeze at the rapid approach of a stranger on the dusky street.

The figure was tall, draped head-to-toe in a thin black cloak, though Brill wondered–at the swaying of the garment in the breeze, at the complete lack of visible ambulation beneath it–whether toes were something this creature even had.  It stopped before the two of them, looming, silent, its face obscured by the twilight and the cloak’s drooping cowl.  Then it spoke:

Where might I find the one called Marko?

The words were jarring, brassy, spoken not in tones but in harmonies, and they reverberated, as if through a long, metal hallway.  Gene turned slowly to Brill, then back to the creature.  He nudged his head in the direction of Marko’s.

“Big house.  End of town.”

The creature declined its head in acknowledgment and proceeded down the street as quickly and eerily as it had arrived.  Gene looked back to Brill.

“Think we need to handle that first,” he said.  Brill agreed.

“Go make sure it’s under control at Marko’s,” they replied.  “I’ll get the Mayor.”

With that they parted ways, Gene to his workshop to fetch his polearm, no doubt; Brill to Mayor Bergen’s residence at the town square.  The boy would have to wait.  Unfortunate though it was, a False God’s arrival in town put more lives in danger than his own.

The Crossroads, Chapter 6: The Hunter of Beasts

Orphelia was scared.  It had never happened before.  Not being scared, of course–Orphelia was unfortunately well-acquainted with fear.  No, it was Mr. Ruffles.  Since the Bad Stuff, he’d kept her safe.  She followed his instructions, kept herself and Devlin fed.  She stole food and medicine, but only when Mr. Ruffles said, only how he said, and no one noticed.  No one ever noticed.  Then he told her to follow the man in the brown tunic, follow him into the house they said was “Marko’s”.  She didn’t know why.  She didn’t need to know why.  Mr. Ruffles had kept her safe, and no one ever noticed.

But the merchant noticed.  The strange man who rode into town on his wagon-boat, who spoke with funny words, who had followed her to Marko’s house–no one else saw her.  He saw her.  Plainly.  Like she was really there.  Then everyone saw her, and she really was there, and Marko yelled, and the man in brown left, and the merchant named Lan al’Ver asked her to come with him, and she did, because Mr. Ruffles wasn’t keeping her safe anymore, and she wasn’t sure what else to do.

He led her first to the market, where he argued with the stall traders over the price of onions which he ultimately did not buy and which, it seemed, none of those traders were even selling.  Then, bidding her to carry the bolts of linen which he did buy, he led her to his wagon-boat, tied to a post at the edge of town, and served her tea that was not hot–but was far warmer than it ought to have been without a fire in sight–in a clean, white, porcelain cup.  They remained there for the better part of an hour as he drank his own tea and inquired unhurriedly into how she was enjoying the springtime.  At first she barely responded.  What was she to say?  She was not enjoying much at all at the moment.  Truly, she wanted simply to walk away, but she was paralyzed by the notion that this man saw her, could–and likely would–follow her if she left.  Even so, as his questions became more obtuse, less grounded from reality, she found herself playing along.  He would ask:

“Upon which road lies your greatest treasure?”  To which she would reply:

“Why Mr. al’Ver, ‘tis the road of love, wherein toward me my Prince rides, ever gallant, ever fearless of the tribulations which bar his way.”  He would consider this approvingly for a moment before inquiring again, along a completely separate line:

“Then name me a luxury, Miss Orphelia, which you cannot live without!”

“So forward, Mr. al’Ver!  Alas, I should say I would be rather poorly without my warmest socks.”

And so on.  She was, it occurred to her, even having fun with the strange interaction, though it nagged her that the man somehow knew her name.  She had never given it.  She never had the chance to inquire into the mystery, though, as their game was interrupted by the breathless arrival of the man in brown and another: the man she’d seen before, scarred and shirtless, pulling al’Ver’s wagon-boat into town.

“Al’Ver,” the boat-puller growled.  “We have to leave now.  Target’s much higher profile than Marko let on.”  Lan met his gaze over the top of his teacup, then slowly lowered both cup and saucer.

“Worry not, Mr. Wolf,” he replied, though Orphelia found his smirk at least slightly worrying in itself.  “I am quite prepared to depart–I merely await my conveyance to the riverbank.”  Mr. Wolf, scowling, held his stare for several seconds before exhaling angrily.

“Fuck you.”

Some fifteen minutes later, they were pushing off onto the river, Lan poling skillfully against the current, the others arranging themselves as comfortably as possible amongst the boat’s minimal seating and piles of supplies and goods.  Orphelia leaned over the side, trying to remember the last time Father had let her board a trade raft, listening idly to the conversation behind her.

“Who’s the girl?”

“She was eavesdropping at Marko’s.  Al’Ver insisted she come along.”

“How much she hear?”

“Everything, near as I can tell.”  There was a pause.  Then:

“Girl!” Mr. Wolf called.  “What’s your name?”  Orphelia turned, shaking herself to attention.

“I’m Orphelia, Mr. Wolf, sir,” she said with a curtsy.

“Bleeding Wolf,” he clarified.  “Are you a mage, Orphelia?”  She gulped.

“Um, no.  No, sir.”  The man in brown snorted.

“Lying,” he muttered.

“What!  No!” Orphelia, shouted, stamping her foot.  “I’m not lying!  You’re just rude!”  Bleeding Wolf glanced over to his companion with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, isn’t this cursed as shit?” he remarked.  “What are you playing at, al’Ver?”

Lan ignored the question completely, continuing to whistle a tuneless nothing, eyes on the river ahead.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Wolf?”  Bleeding Wolf exchanged another look with the man in brown.

“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” he said at last.  “You’re sweatin’ mana all over the boat–the kind that comes out of real sons of bitches.”

“Like you?”

“What?”

“Well, you’re a wolf, so I just thought…”

“Dammit, girl!” he snarled.  “Way I see it, we have no way of telling whether you’re a brigand or a victim, but as victims go, you aren’t making out to be that sympathetic.”  Orphelia frowned.  She clasped her hands and looked down at her feet.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf,” she mumbled.  It was partially true–she still thought the joke had been funny, though.  Still, the raft remained silent for some minutes as the weight of Bleeding Wolf’s angry stare slowly eroded, dissipating in juxtaposition to Lan’s off-key whistling.

“Something happen to you, then?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Hmm?”

“You run into a mage who did something to you?  Make some sort of deal?”  His eyes fell for a moment, Orphelia noticed, on Mr. Ruffles.  “Did you find something you…regret finding?”  Orphelia gulped and shook her head.  She didn’t like that question.  Her non-answer wasn’t a lie, not really, but she knew that volunteering anything more would lead Mr. Wolf to topics she didn’t want to think about.  She doubted Mr. Ruffles would approve of the scrutiny either.

Luckily, Bleeding Wolf did not press further, though the man in brown continued to scowl.  Instead, he turned the conversation back toward their quarry, the cause for concern which had accelerated their day’s travel to a rush.

As far as Orphelia could tell, they were looking for a dead body, but it sounded like a really important dead body.  “Bilgames”, the name Marko had given, was apparently used near the Bloodwood to refer to the hero known further and wider as the Hunter of Beasts.  He’d been an invincible warrior, slew some horrible, scary monster, liked the color green or something–Orphelia stopped paying attention after a point.  What she couldn’t tell–and what Bleeding Wolf was not offering–was what she had to do with any of this.  She didn’t want to work for Marko.  She didn’t care about dead folk heroes or robbing their graves.  She just wanted…she just wanted her and Devlin to be safe.  Yes, that was it.  Safe.

But this misadventure didn’t sound safe at all!  The Hunter was super famous, if Bleeding Wolf was to be believed.  There were other scavengers and mercenaries headed this way for sure, and the three men didn’t exactly resemble a fighting force.  Moreover, it didn’t even sound like they would find anything.  Why wouldn’t Marko’s tipster have just picked the corpse clean already?  She came out of her daze to vocalize the question, interrupting Bleeding Wolf’s lengthy description of a flower the Hunter had supposedly carried.

“Bravo, Miss Orphelia!” Lan shouted from the back of the raft.  The man in brown continued to scowl, but she saw a hint of a smile crack at the corner of Bleeding Wolf’s mouth.

“It’s a good question,” he admitted.  “Ty, it’s your line of work.  You wanna tell her?”  The man in brown sighed.

“The scav trade is all about how much trouble you can handle,” he said reservedly.  “Anything you pick up’s just as liable to get you killed as pay for your next lunch.  So if you’re gonna grab it, you need to be ready for the trouble that comes with.  Some scavs aren’t, so they’ll take valuable info, like where the body–or ruins or whatever–is and sell that instead.”

Lan tucked his pole into the crook of his elbow to clap politely.

“So the tipster was a scaredy-cat?” Orphelia asked.  Ty looked annoyed, but Bleeding Wolf responded first:

“Exactly.  My two silver, though, is that our tipster took something anyway.  The Hunter of Beasts has to be the biggest find he’s ever gonna get.  Maybe he didn’t take enough to slow him down, but he took something.”

“So what are we gonna take?” Orphelia pressed.  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“Whatever we find.  Whatever the last guy missed–or didn’t have the know-how to identify.  I’m honestly more worried about who we’re gonna have to fight off to walk away with it all.”  He turned to Ty.  “Who other than Marko has their claws in the trade here these days?”

“Salad of Hazan, mostly,” Ty offered.  “Too far south of Lesser Cairn for any of the Stones dealers to have heard by now.  I’d guess–if the mage is as well-known as you say–we’re competing with one or two groups ready to fight and any number of prospectors waiting to nab whatever’s left.

“Not bad.  You any good in a fight, Ty?”  Orphelia suppressed a giggle at the man’s exaggerated frown.

“As I recall, you were the muscle in thesis arrangement,” he shot back, indignant.  Bleeding Wolf shook his head, as if the answer didn’t matter one way or the other, but the conversation lulled there.  For the next several hours, the group said little else, leaving Orphelia to ponder the mystery of her inclusion undisturbed and, unfortunately, unaided.  Mr. Ruffles wasn’t being helpful either, though that was only to be expected with all the people about.  Soon enough, though, Lan drew the raft up against the riverbank and jolted her awake again.

She looked up, taking in the landscape as the Captain tied his knots and pulled the vehicle’s transformative lever.  The sun was starting to get low in the sky, staining the air with the deep yellow of late afternoon, but despite the number of hours left in the day, from where they floated, it seemed just minutes from being out of sight, lost behind the treeline that loomed over them, spanning their entire field of view to the north and west.

The Bloodwood.  Orphelia had never seen it, though she’d heard plenty.  She had always found the name interesting–dark and scary and romantic.  Father had told her the story of how it got the name, how a bunch of Riverlanders had died there in a war–or was it that the war was about the woods, and they died somewhere else?  She didn’t really remember the details, but she also didn’t care for war stories.  She preferred to imagine there was a more ominous, mysterious reason for the name.  Judging by the way Father and the other merchants he knew had avoided the place, it seemed her fantasy may not actually have been far from the truth.

“I would surmise our quarry three miles and a quarter to the northeast,” Lan announced, the wheels of his vessel locked into place.  “What say you, Mr. Ehsam?”  Ty paused, preparing to jump to the bank.

“Our tip wasn’t that specific,” he replied, confused.

“Specific!” Lan scoffed.  “Ha!  Would you trust that scoundrel Marko to guide you anywhere specific?  Better to place your trust in a consummate professional.”  Ty blinked, likely swallowing a response.

“Let’s…let’s check it out, then.”

Bleeding Wolf, for his part, gave no reaction to the exchange and began hauling the boat up onto the bank.  Ty disembarked to lighten the load, and Orphelia followed, though Lan remained aboard, just as much, it seemed, to annoy Bleeding Wolf as to secure and cover the cargo.

They covered the boat in a patchwork sheet Lan produced from a compartment in the deck and hid it among the brush at the base of a tree before continuing northeast on foot.  Orphelia followed closely, alarmed by the sudden change in light, the tallness of the trees, the ubiquitous, seemingly amplified din of insects and birds, all around but somehow almost entirely out of sight.  She didn’t admit to any of these discomforts, of course, but she did hold Mr. Ruffles close to her chest.

Of the others, only Bleeding wolf seemed to have adjusted his demeanor, his normal calm watchfulness heighted to the posture of a stalking cat.  It was almost a caricature, Orphelia thought.  He would occasionally pause, scratch at the ground, sniff the air, all of which she found hard to believe were actually useful.  She might even have laughed at it if not for the uncanniness his appearance had taken on.  The hairs on his arms and neck were bristling, his pupils had dilated, his…teeth had grown?  She realised in spite of her amusement that the man had become just as unnerving as the forest.

Ty and Lan, meanwhile, seemed mostly themselves.  Ty had been jittery and paranoid from the moment Orphelia had first seen him, and the Bloodwood certainly did seem like an appropriate place for paranoia.  Lan, by contrast, was ineffably aloof, bringing up the rear of their party with a casual stroll and little in the way of backward glances, about which Orphelia was conflicted: It certainly seemed less safe than the others’ frenetic vigilance, but it somehow put her at ease anyway.

“Company on the breeze,” Bleeding Wolf announced, quietly but clearly amidst one of his many stops.  He sniffed.  Sweat and iron.  Could be miles out, could be closer.  Get a weapon ready if you have one.  On…another note…”  He took another deep breath.  “We’re close too.  This way.”

He set off into the brush, and the others followed, struggling to match his quickened gait.  Within minutes they came upon a clearing where, for an oblong patch no more than twenty feet in diameter, the trees gave way to a short bed of grass and wildflowers and a section of worn dirt around a stump.  Just past the stump was a cold pile of ash from a campfire long since extinguished, and next to the ash lay the pale–and only slightly withered–body of an enormous, bearded man.

As she noticed it, it felt as if the world twisted: She saw Father, lying there, bloody hands around the knife in his stomach, a wild grin on his face, but it wasn’t Father.  Father wasn’t here.  It was Devlin, coughing, holding that stupid ring Father had given him, every bit as pale and clammy and withered as the corpse that should have been there, that would be there if she could just focus, could just remember what was real and what was a lie.  She tried and tried and held her breath and pressed her hands against her temples and slowly, piece by piece, put reality back together.

But as she did, her thoughts lingered on Devlin.  She didn’t notice when Bleeding Wolf snapped to attention, fixated on the far side of the clearing; or the way that Ty, in response, seemed to fade from view even as he remained still; or Lan’s gaze, suddenly sorrowful, locked not on the corpse but on the small, dark bird perched in the trees above it, watching him sidelong with a single eye.  She didn’t notice any of it because she was hoping–wishing, willing into reality as hard as she could–that her brother was alright, that he too wouldn’t turn out like the corpse before her.

Trickery

Still a lot of things being worked on, but the pace has been slow these last two weeks. Hoping to get much more done on the Crossroads story by next weekend. In the meantime, here is something Leland wrote for a collection of “world-building” stories we’re working on. It’s a subtly different depiction of the Fox, as if in a tale to be told to Diarchian children. The Fox was the original patron deity of Spar, and one of its founding myths concerned the Old God’s interactions with two orphans: a right-handed boy and a left-handed girl, who became the mythological models for the Diarchs (the Left-Hand King and the Right-Hand Queen).

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, older than your grandmother, and maybe even older than me there was a brother and a sister who loved each other and had only each other in the big wide world. A pair of orphans, whose mother and father were godless and dead, leaving them with just a small family home.

The sister, who was right handed, was a very clever girl who could build amazing traps for hunting. The brother, who was left handed and clever too, knew everything about the forest, what was edible, what was poison, what would happily eat him instead. Brother and Sister lived together, each depending on the other for days and weeks and months and years.

One day a fox with a long pointy nose, a great fluffy tail, and crooked smile from ear to ear came by the cheery little home of the orphaned boy and girl. This fox with a crooked grin was an Old god and he had a sense of humor. The fox god had many humans he took care of and in return they gave him little gifts. He had a funny idea: What if he came to this little house and acted like he needed a human’s help?  He was a little tired and a little hungry. He thought to himself: After I climb inside and take a quick nap, l shall eat whoever lives here!

The fox shrank down, chuckling to himself the entire time and knocked on the door. The sister who was right-handed opened the door and looked at this tiny fox sitting on their doorstep. The fox said, “Oh little girl! Can you help me? I am all alone in these woods and I would very much like to come in from the rain just to warm up!”

The Right-handed Sister looked at the fox and said, “I suppose there’s nothing wrong with heating up from the rain,” and took the fox inside. The fox went towards the fire, snuggled up into a tight little ball and fell fast asleep. He was, after all, very fond of napping.

The Brother came through the door with a small basket of mushrooms and paused as he saw the fox. “Sister,” he said “There’s a god sleeping on our rug! What’s more–he’s not a very nice one.”

The Sister thought to herself and said, “I have a plan! Could you pick some mushrooms that would make an elephant fall asleep?” The brother nodded his head quietly and left.

The Right-handed Sister started to make a delicious rabbit stew. She knew that foxes loved rabbit more than anything else in this entire world. She put in potatoes and carrots and celery and salt. Pepper and paprika and even Garlic pods. By the time she was done the stew’s smell hung in the room and felt like a meal all on its own.

The fox woke up and snuffled the air. “What smells so delicious?” he asked the girl. 

“Why it’s my favorite soup!” the girl said to the fox. “And it’s almost ready, it just needs something before it’s done.” 

The fox said, “I’m so hungry I think it’s time I eat you!”

The girl said, “Well you could…but if you get me a radish this soup will be twice as good.”

The fox paused. “Twice as good?” he thought.  Now as we know foxes are a little greedy, and he did know where radishes were.  He thought, “I’ll get this radish, and eat her and the soup soon after!” 

Off the fox went as the brother came back, with mushrooms in his hand. The sister took the mushrooms and put them in the soup and said, “Brother, can you get a rope?” The brother nodded and left, and the fox came back, a big juicy radish held in his watering mouth.

“Perfect!” the girl said “It is almost ready, it just needs something else.” 

The fox said, “Something else? It smells amazing! I’ll eat it and you right now!”

The girl said, “Well you could…but if you get me some seaweed it will be twice as good.” 

“…Seaweed?” said the fox whose tummy was rumbling.He’d never had seaweed before. “Fine!” he said and ran out the door. 

At that very moment, the brother came back with fresh rope.  “Hide behind the pot!” said the sister to her brother. And the fox came back, wet, salty and miserable. 

He said, “Here’s your seaweed!” 

And the little girl said, “Perfect almost done! The very last thing…” 

“No way!” Said the fox. “No more radishes, no more seaweed! I want to eat!” 

And the little girl said, “I was just going to ask you to try it and see if there’s enough salt.” 

“Oh,” said the fox, “I suppose that makes sense.” The fox tried the soup. He said, “This is good!” and he started slurping and smacking and licking his snout. He ate the whole pot and started to feel woozy… and fell fast asleep from the mushrooms in the soup! 

The Brother jumped out from behind the pot,tied up the sleeping fox and threw him out the door. That wasn’t the last time they saw the fox mind you, but they weren’t the meal for one day more!

Three Gifts Given of Dissatisfaction

A brief interlude from Crossroads (because I caught myself working on material out of order). Note the references below to the Sevenfold Gyre and to the One-Eyed Crow (and, obviously, the previous Three Gifts story).

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why

-Words From a Severed Head

***

The Fox’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you hearth

A place of return from which you roamed

A fire within to banish night

To soothe your aches, to make you home

I rested then for I had thought

My labors had achieved their end

Of steeling you to cold and rot

Your fire I would not need to tend

But now we meet here in the Dark

In fearful quiet ‘neath the earth

Your inner fire early guttered

Broken body lost its worth

The light of day betrayed your years

Promised you many, gave you few

For you I’ll burn, entombed below

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Lark’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you sticks

Upon your ground I taught my tricks

I brought you craft which you might ply

I bid you: Join me in the sky

Why now have you misplaced your wings?

Forgot that art which made you free

To toil among the beasts and bring

Those who bleed right back to me

I fixed their marks of red and black

As wisdom you refused to learn

I wonder if it’s fear you lack

To drive you on, to make you burn

‘Tis fear that brings you here tonight

Poxed and stricken, marked by blue

Fear of wrongs you would not right

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Turtle’s Second Gift

Forever ago I gave you time

A river running ‘round this bend

Would frame your life with reason, rhyme

Would crown your story with an end

When at last you came to cross

Your souls would from your bodies leap

Your ghosts I’d carry to the shore of loss

Your flesh would drift on to the Deep

I will admit I’ve grown fatigued

As I look upon your evil eye

Your request–it has me so intrigued

You’d go upstream instead of die

Three Gifts were given under Night

And from those three came two and two

You’ve sought your torment, earned three more

This last shall be my gift to you

The Crossroads, Chapter 5: Ty’s Quandary

Ty Ehsam had been certain from the get-go that his visit to the Crossroads would be a costly detour.  Marko’s reputation preceded him, and Ty’s question had never been whether he would efficiently ascertain the location of the Keystone.  Rather, he had merely wondered which particular pound of flesh the broker would extract in exchange.  But the visit had still exceeded his expectations in a not so good way.

The job, Marko’s price, stank to the high mountain.  Tip of some folk here–Bilgames or some such–biting it up at the edge of the Bloodwood.  It sounded like bait.  Marko knew it sounded like bait, but if Ty Ehsam got his head collected by some booby trap up north, that was hardly Marko’s problem, was it?  Damn it.

And the boatman made it all so much worse.  Who was Lan al’Ver?  What was his interest in Ty?  And what did Marko know about him that he wasn’t sharing?  Near as Ty could tell, the man was no mage–mana didn’t cling to him the way it clung to the other two travelers on their journey north–but everything else about his behavior outright keened of magical fuckery.  And the girl.  The girl was certainly a mage, drenched in the Deepest magic Ty had ever seen, obviously up to no good, and even after making it clear they had nothing to do with each other, al’Ver stepped in for her.  Ty was not easily persuaded toward murder, but his priors on Deep mages assured him the girl was very probably a cannibal, and even now, hours later, sipping wine in the relative safety of the inn, he could scarcely believe that al’Ver had vouched responsibility for the girl, volunteered her for the job.  And Marko listened!

Ty hated it.  Whatever was going on with this damn job–this damn town, even–everyone knew more than him, and it was going to get him killed, and he didn’t have any choice but to go along with it all because no matter what kind of gruesome death was waiting for him in the Bloodwood, failing to deliver on his promise to the Blaze would be worse.  He’d backed himself into a corner, and he hated it.

He gulped the rest of his wine, setting down his cup just in time for another patron to pull up a seat at his table.  He glanced over, guarded and irritable, to see the shapeshifter who had traveled up the river with him and al’Ver.

“Greetings.  Marko mentioned you were looking for muscle.”  Ty stared him down for a moment, though he seemed not at all put off by the suspicion.

“Yeah,” Ty replied.  “He mention anything else?”  The shapeshifter shrugged.

“Scavenging near the Bloodwood’s all he said.  You have more details?”

“Yeah.  Some mage died,” Ty said.  “Got an approximate location and a warning we should expect other scavs.”  The shapeshifter frowned.

“That…sounds like bait,” he said after a moment.  Ty couldn’t help but snort.  It was a dark sort of funny, sure, but it was a relief too.  Finally, someone else who saw the insanity in all of it.

“It sure does,” he admitted.  “Marko’s got something I want, though.  This is what he wants in return.”

“You have yourself in a bind then.”  The shapeshifter smiled as he spoke and finally sat down.  He offered his hand.  “Bleeding Wolf.”

“Ty Ehsam,” Ty replied, tepidly shaking it.

“Well, Ty, it it’s a trap, there’s a good chance bringing me along could save your life.  I’m pretty familiar with the area.”  Ty nodded.  He’d figured: Every shapeshifter he’d ever heard of had ties to the Bloodwood.

“I’d still want to know why you’re so eager to run into a trap.”  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“I understand Marko’s paying for time even if we don’t find anything.”

“Enough for a risk like that?”  This prompted a laugh.  The shapeshifter’s canines were uncomfortably prominent.

“You got me,” he conceded.  “There’s actually a point of curiosity in this for me.  To which end, I’m asking an additional fee.”

“‘Fraid I don’t have much to offer you.”

“You can tell me what it is you want from Marko, and I’m yours.”

Ty grimaced.  He didn’t want anyone else stuck in his miserable business, but…fine.  This one wanted in, and he could really use the help.  And, he had to admit, it was some comfort that he at least knew something the shapeshifter didn’t.

“Okay,” he replied.  “When the job is done, I’ll tell you.  You might wish I hadn’t, though.”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head, cracking his neck at the end of the gesture.

“I wouldn’t worry,” he said.  “Wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve learned that I shouldn’t’ve.  So I’m in.  Tell me more about our dead mage.  Any idea who it was?”  Ty swirled the dregs of his wine.

“No.  Marko gave me the name ‘Bilgames’, but I’ve never heard of ‘em.”  He looked up to see Bleeding Wolf staring, aghast.

“Are you sure that was the name?” the shapeshifter asked.

Ty nodded, alarm creeping once again out of the pit in his stomach.  Bleeding Wolf stood up and nearly ran to the door.

“Get up!” he called back to Ty, still sitting bewildered at his table.  “We need to find al’Ver and get out of here, or every scav and False God in the Riverlands will have beaten us there by morning!”

Tarot

I have mentioned it before in the most fleeting sense, but one of the long-standing goals of the Rale project has been to produce a Tarot-inspired (though structurally not really) deck of cards depicting images from the world as exemplars of the ways that humans fight death.

Many of the images themselves have been ready for some time, but they have been waiting on frames. They need frames, of course, because the frame is what indicates the card’s suit. Like so:

Cruelty and Control are here presented in the “Viscera” suit. Blame is in the “Gifts” suit, and God is in “Stories”. Not pictured here are “Embraces” and “Avoidance”, as they are still in progress, but these came together so beautifully that I had to share.

Way down the road, a deck is in the works, but if you like any of these, they are now for sale on the store!

Images include work by Quinn Milton and Rae Johnson. The “Tarot” suit frames in particular are by Rae.

The Crossroads, Chapter 4: Marko

The saga continues. Those who have been following Rale for some time will recognize the pieces of the original Crossroads story here.

The Crossroads had always been between.  Of the townsfolk who still remembered, there were yet many versions of the town’s history.  Brill the Apothecary’s was closest to the truth: It began as a tiny trading post, a makeshift connection between the waterways of the Riverlands and the mountains and woods to the north, situated at a crossroads which existed in every sense but the literal.  That enterprise which would become the town was built at the northern mouth of the Lifeline, where the Riverlands’ greatest highway became just another minor stream from the Gravestone range and where, incidentally, the eastern prairies and western hills were separated only by a thin stripe of dry, firm ground, more hospitable, certainly, than whatever hid between the trees of the Bloodwood to the north.  As the rickety post became a place, merchants and enterprisers would enter by each of these routes of convenience, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore.

Sometimes they would pass through; sometimes they would return the way they came, but those who settled, those who came to call the place home did well for themselves in those days.  They made fortunes in trade, and anything they could want in return somehow found its way there from afar.  And of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The town was far enough south that it saw its share of the roaches’ horrors but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the forces of Harmony at the Battle of the Ouroboros, weathered the devastation of the “bloodsick”–the Dragon’s parting gift to those who deposed him–then returned to a peaceful existence at their Crossroads.  For a short, in-between time, things were as they had always been.  But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka of the Roaches had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.

But the power.

To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again.  Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point.  The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered.  A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the Crossroads, which had always been between, became an in-between for a different sort of trade.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity.  One villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers, who had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands and their activities unnoticeable.  And when the guards simply failed to apprehend the assailant, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade.  Many left the region entirely.  Either way, the village saw fewer of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers.  For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that.  It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing, then, was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the Crossroads.  He had always been a scoundrel, well-connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival there had been timely.  In another era, Mayor Bergen might have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations at the tavern, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the town’s mercantile lifeblood crowded out by the “scav trade”, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–as a middleman for the merchants who were no longer willing to face their buyers themselves–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

So it was that the Crossroads remained between: between Holme to the east and the Reach to the south; between the Bloodwood and the Riverlands and the plains and the hills; between the desperate scavs and the respectable merchants and the mercenaries who protected them and the townsfolk who made that place function and the “False Gods”, those buyers of the scav trade who propelled the entire system on with gold in one hand and abject brutality in the other.  And somehow, Marko was between it all, his greasy promises and fine-tuned survival instincts connecting those trustless, unconnectable lines which made the town a town.  Of that in-between place, Marko was its most between part.

But Captain Lan al’Ver was not about to be outdone by a scoundrel like Marko.

His errands were complete, his modest shipments had all been sold, his generous, dangerous, precisely calibrated allotment of free time had begun, and he could think of no better way to spend it than inserting himself, needed but unwanted, amidst the business of the most between man in the most between place in the Riverlands.  It was only appropriate recompense for such uppity behavior, the Captain concluded, making his way to the door of the sprawling, patchwork building Marko had made his base of operations.  He did not knock, of course–now was not a time for courtesy.  It was a time for welcome surprises.  He pulled the door open and strode into the wide, familiar interior of Marko’s “office”.

The traveler, Naples, had been correct: The build had originally been constructed as a theater by a retired merchant some centuries ago, though it only functioned as one for a short time.  The owner, it turned out, was a rather thorny artist who in short order managed to alienate every thespian in the region, and he soon sold his investment to a consortium of stall traders who utilized the structure far longer–and far more prosaically–as a warehouse.  It was only in the last two decades, under Marko’s management, that it had returned to a theatrical operation, though Marko had shaken up the formula somewhat.

Predictably, in Marko’s new “theater”, he was the spectacle.  His desk sat prominently upon the raised area which once had been a stage, leaving his customers and contractors to address him from the spacious area below, long barren of any sort of seating, though cluttered at the periphery by empty crates and other miscellaneous junk.  But Marko had included a twist in the arrangement of his spectacle: The stage was lit sparingly, a single torch at its edge affording just enough light to discern Marko himself behind the desk and little else of his disposition.  His audience’s floor, meanwhile, was furnished with braziers, torchstands, and even two scrapwood chandeliers, all spilling their revealing shine onto every corner of the space.  It was only appropriate, Lan admitted, for a man who exclusively traded with the untrustworthy.

Today’s visit would deviate little from that setup, Lan gathered, confirming the specificity of his surroundings as he swept into the space, purposefully ignorant to the consternation his entrance had elicited from Marko and his guest, the self-described Khettite monk who had earlier paid for passage aboard Lan’s own vessel.

“Ey!” Marko barked, hefting a crossbow over the top of his desk, unaimed but angled threateningly in Lan’s direction.  “This conversation’s private.  Come back when you’ve made an appointment.”

“Cease your jest, knave!” Lan shouted back.  “Lan al’Ver waits not for petty schedules!  I am needed here–’tis plain.”  The monk’s jaw clenched, eyes darting about the cavernous space, no doubt planning his egress.  Marko, for his part, just groaned.

“Ah, feck.  It’s you.”  Then, to the monk: “Relax, mate.  He’s just saving you the effort.”  The monk blinked, nonplussed.

Lan dragged over a crate and seated himself on the edge, polishing the handle of his umbrella as Marko explained:

“Intel you want’s got a price, an’ the price is a job.  Got a juicy scav tip I need you to follow up on.  You bring back somethin’ good, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

“I’m not sure my circumstances allow me the time to run errands,” the monk replied.

“Well I’m not sure I have the spare clout to be just tellin’ you where to find my clients,” Marko spat.

“So you did sell it, then?”

“You got what you’re gonna get, kiddo.  Now do I get a yes or a no?”  The monk frowned, crossing his arms.

“Fine,” he caved.  Then, gesturing at Lan: “So where does he come in?”  Marko sat back, the shadows falling back over his face.

“Two details,” he replied, the acoustics of the room giving the words an otherworldly echo.  “First, I’m gathering from my source that this tip ain’t exactly exclusively info.  Second, it’s about a day’s journey upriver by boat.  Much longer on foot.  Y’see where this is going?”  The monk looked again at Lan.

“I’m going to need a boat.”

“Bingo,” Marko said.  “Some muscle, too, case you find competition, I’d say.  Trust you’re game, al’Ver?”

“My appetite for danger is insatiable, dear Marko.”

“Great,” Marko continued.  “Ask around town if you want an extra set of hands.  I’ll pay normal scav rates for each o’ya, along with your intel.”

“We’ll get going, then,” the monk said, reservedly.  “Though I do ask that you let me know before you bring another into our talks next time.”  Marko raised an eyebrow before glancing over at Lan.  He hawked a wad of spit onto the corner of his stage.

“Best get used to the Riverlands, kiddo.  I didn’t call nobody–Captain al’Ver shows up where he’s needed, and that’s all any of us get to know about that.”

Lan beamed, smugly aloof to the monk’s evident dissatisfaction.  But amidst his implicit gloating, he raised a finger, calling attention to a point of order which had now vexed him for some minutes.

“I do of course with to query,” he began.  “Is it your intent that the girl should accompany us as well?”  Both the monk and Marko answered only with a confused stare.

“What girl?” the monk asked.  Lan shrugged and raised his hand in the vague direction of the girl, dirty, ragged, clutching a threadbare stuffed animal, perched on a crate near the edge of Marko’s stage who now stared back at Lan, her face white with fear.  Marko turned, following the gesture.  His eyes went wide.  He reached for his crossbow.

The Crossroads, Chapter 3: Old Friends

An hour later, Bleeding Wolf stumbled on the tradesmen’s street, equal parts chagrined and impressed.  He had fallen into the trap of thinking the captain a generous man.  Instead, it seemed he was a clever one, though Bleeding Wolf had to give him credit: He really was cleverer than most.  

It was no matter, though.  Lack of care had landed him with worse consequences.  This would simply need to be a reminder.  He pulled his vest back over his shoulders and gave his surroundings a glance.  The street was longer than he remembered–the last few years had evidently treated the Crossroads well–but the surge in the town’s fortunes had cost him his bearings.  It was another fifteen minutes of sullen wandering before he finally came upon his destination.

“Dog Boy!”

The greeting came from under the awning of a smithy, uttered by the old proprietor, looking bemusedly up from his workbench.

“Gene, you look older than ever!” Bleeding Wolf replied with a smirk.  He ducked through the doorway, out of the sun.

“And you still look like a damn kid.”

“The mana yet flows.”

“That’s dangerous talk these days, what with our clientele, and the Shell knows I ain’t riskin’ the bloodsick for an ugly babyface like yours.”

“The warning is…appreciated, though,” Bleeding Wolf replied, leaning against the counter.  “Are they actually coming into town now?”  Gene scoffed.

“Big bads ‘emselves?  I sure hope not.  Marko don’t meet with ‘em here anyhow.  But they got ears to the ground, and words are loud hereabouts.”  Bleeding Wolf glanced out the door at the empty alley across the way.  For a moment, a strange scent tinged the air.  Sugar.  Uncomfortable sweetness.  Then it was gone.  He turned back to Gene.

“Who’s shopping these days?”

“Sculptor, per usual,” Gene said, polishing the knife blade he was working when Bleeding Wolf came in.  “Stays in Holme, of course, but you see whitefrocks here every day.  ‘Yond that, Marko’s got a mystery buyer who’s ‘parently throwin’ cash around wild-like, and then you got the less savory ones hangin’ on the periphery.”

“Less savory?”

“Ya know,” Gene adjusted his spectacles, “the Blaze has his…uh…people around, and I heard a rumor that Old Ouroboros himself put out a buy order a few weeks back.”  Bleeding Wolf let out a low growl at nothing in particular.

“Good to see you’re still on the gossip,” he said, sincere in spite of his choice of words.  “Tell me Marko didn’t sell.”

“Woulda killed ‘im m’self if he did,” Gene replied, glancing back down at his bench.  “Not sure the rest of the Crossroads woulda understood, though.  Town’s changed, Dog Boy.  ‘Tween the bloodsick and the newcomers from the scav trade, most folks round here don’t remember the war.  Maybe they know it’s what took their gramps, but they never saw those roaches or the…stitched things the Dragon had in ‘is basement.”

“Probably for the best.”  Gene spat.

“If the bastard were gone, maybe!  But he ain’t!  He’s still here, the old timers are all gone ‘cept me, and the damn fools holdin’ Marko’s leash don’t know what they’re dealin’ with.”

“The Bergen boy?” Bleeding Wolf ventured.  There was a long pause, then Gene sighed.

“I’ll hold my tongue,” he said.  Another pause, shorter, then: “What have you been doin’ these last five years?”

“Odd jobs around the Bloodwood.  Then I took a trip down south.  Just…trying to understand.”

“What’s there to understand?”

“Well, what’s left, for one.  Seems like after the war the Riverlands were ready to bloom again.  Then a few decades go by, the scav trade gets big, and the Crossroads and Holme and the Reach, they all do well for themselves.  But I realized I’d stopped hearing about everywhere in between.”

“And?”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head.

“There isn’t much there anymore.  Lots of stops I remember on the riverfront between here and the Reach.  Just damp and scrapwood now.  Some signs of violence, though I couldn’t tell you if it was before or after everyone left.  It’s like everywhere but here is just dying, Gene.”

“Certainly a shame,” Gene said, setting aside his knife.  “Something we oughtta be worried about, y’reckon?”

“We should definitely be worried,” Bleeding Wolf replied.  “Though fuck me if I can say what of.”

“Well I ain’t gonna fuck you, so I guess I’ll just wait’n’see.”  Bleeding Wolf cracked a smile at the retort, but he found himself distracted again by the sudden, intrusive taste of sugar at the back of his mouth.  Instinctively, he glanced back at the alleyway to see a boy, perhaps fourteen, slumped there against the wall.  Strange.  How long had he been there?

“I’m worried about those two,” Gene said, following his gaze.

“Two?”

“Boy and his sister.  Came in with a caravan a few weeks back, but I think they was just hitchin’ a ride.”

“They begging?” Bleeding Wolf asked.  “I didn’t think the merchants were a charitable lot.”

“He’s sick an’ ain’t doin’ much of anything I can see.  Pretty sure she’s stealin’ from market stalls.  Peacekeeper’ll get wise soon, but I pity ‘em all the same.  Ain’t their fault the world gone cutthroat.”

“It ain’t.”  For a moment, they sat in silence, contemplating the boy’s dead-eyed expression.  Then Gene spoke up again:

“How long’ll ya be in town this time?”

“Not sure,” Bleeding Wolf replied.  “A day or two, maybe.  Think I’ll see if Marko has any work.  If I’m gonna be worrying about abandoned villages and unseen threats, I might as well check with him anyway.”

“He certainly knows all ‘bout threats,” Gene agreed bitterly.

The Crossroads, Chapter 2: Irregulars

From here.

It had occurred before to Bleeding Wolf that the Riverlands were something of a confused identity, but the point always felt most salient when he found himself aboard a boat.  He hated boats.  They were wretched, unstable things riding arrogantly upon tangles of opaque current and manifest unreliability.  And yet, boats were the only decent way to get about west of the Scrubline, and Bleeding Wolf tolerated them for his debt to the place.  Since the war, the Green had been the only purpose he’d really known.  He belonged with it, and it, for better or worse, belonged here.

Nonetheless, despite his tenuous misery on the water, he had to admit the journey of the last week had been interesting.  He’d bargained for passage up the Lifeline from Captain Lan al’Ver, an eccentric merchant whose aloof manner and patchwork, ersatz aesthetics might have led Bleeding Wolf to seek help elsewhere, if not for the man’s surprisingly widespread reputation for reliability.  Indeed, though this was their first meeting face-to-face, Bleeding Wolf had heard the name Lan al’Ver many times, and so far, it seemed the man’s notoriety was well-earned.

Since the trip began, no fewer than twenty passengers had boarded–and since departed–their small, six-person vessel.  Lan had asked only a pittance of Bleeding Wolf, provided he would help with portage when they reached their destination, but with each new face that boarded, the captain’s negotiations seemed to take a strange, new turn.  In each case, he would offer much more than was asked–he even once fought off a pair of bandits who had chased one hapless passenger into the river–and received more than he requested.  By the time they had reached the fork with the Artery, Lan had made himself several times Bleeding Wolf’s fare, the boat was laden with food and goods and an impractical bounty of knickknacks left in gratitude by the erstwhile passengers-in-distress, and, somehow, they had suffered no particular delay for their semi-charitable excursions.

And now, in the final leg of the journey, they had picked up two final traveling companions, each conspicuous in their way amidst the Riverlands’ fluctuating normalcy.  The first was a quiet, paranoid man who offered coin for passage and no other information, whose evident desire for anonymity was likely undercut by the strangeness of his garb.  Bleeding Wolf recognized it as Khettite, though he’d thought all remnants of Khet had disappeared from the Riverlands by now.

The second somehow managed to be even stranger, despite his complete disinclination toward secrecy.  His name was Naples, and where the previous passenger could scarcely be persuaded to open his mouth, Naples seemed quite unable to shut his own.  He was traveling to the Crossroads, he explained between bites of an apple, to reunite with his lover, with whom their smoldering romance could not continue in the vicinity of her father, and also for the historic architecture, apparently.

“Did you know the Crossroads is home to the oldest theater in the Riverlands?” he asked, tossing his apple core over the side of the boat.  “It’s not used as a theater anymore, of course, but don’t you think something like that ought to be better recorded for posterity?”

Bleeding Wolf very much did not give a shit, but he found Naples just as bizarre as he was offensive.  He didn’t like the man’s carefree attitude, and he especially didn’t like his obliviousness to the concept of hunger.  Not because it was an insult–rather, these days, people who didn’t go hungry had a reason for their comfort, and the less obvious those reasons, the less they were to be trusted.  

For his part, Lan seemed entirely unperturbed by the subject of architecture, throwing in a haughty exhortation that Naples “ought rightly to have laid eyes on the Grand Amphitheater of the World City,” which earned a raised eyebrow from the would-be scholar.  Deservedly, Bleeding Wolf thought.  No history he had ever encountered mentioned an amphitheater in Kol, and even if it had existed, he doubted Lan had the requisite centuries of age necessary to have seen it.

Still, despite Bleeding Wolf’s guarded suspicion, the thread of conversation–Naples musings on various useless miscellanea met by Lan’s boasts and impossible one-upmanship–persisted for days, abating only as they pulled ashore on the Crossroads’ southern outskirts.  Naples and the Khettite disembarked quickly and politely, leaving Bleeding Wolf to help Lan with the boat, as agreed.  He admittedly wasn’t sure how the merchant intended to secure the various windfalls he had accumulated along the way, but that certainly wasn’t his concern.

“Do you want it beached here?” he asked, hopping ashore, gripping a line lashed to the vessel’s bow.

“Oh, heavens no,” Lan replied.  “We’ll be taking it into town.”  As he spoke, he wrenched down a lever near the rudder, lowering four wheels, previously nestled in alcoves in the boat’s hull, into the water.  Bleeding Wolf’s eyes widened.

“What?”

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.