Chapter 1: YASHA
Yasha claps a hand over her mouth to stifle her breathing. If she were to remove it she does not know if she would be gasping or sobbing or if she would be breathing at all —
There, behind her and to the right, she can hear Zuala struggling, and even closer, Marla snapping commands to the tribe Yasha had called family.
Family. Family, she’d called them, and she’d been so naive, and optimistic, just like they’d told her. Soft, they’d called her, because she loved beautiful things and there were so few here in the wastes of Xhorhas and Zuala had hair like spun gold and Yasha thinks if she were to see the flowers of the Empire, the marigolds or the buttercups or the dandelions or any of the other flowers painted through with gold, she would see Zuala in them, and Zuala would love them too.
Footsteps, on all sides. There’s a rough slide of cloth on cloth and the sound of Zuala struggling grows muffled for a moment. She was — before, she was calling for Yasha to run, and there are far too many for Yasha to fight but she cannot go, she cannot leave Zuala here, but if she stays, she will die.
She sinks to her knees, back pressed up against the walls of the building inside of which she has dined so many times. Even with her eyes closed she knows the shape of this place, every one of its wooden constructs, every knot and nook in the wood, and she has whiled away so many hours above this very earth in blissful ignorance that here, she will die.
“Go!” Zuala manages, voice coarse and cracking. Last Yasha saw her, she was bleeding from the throat. Without help, she will die. Zuala will die. “Yasha, go — ”
A harsh slap, and a pained grunt that Zuala does her best to kill in her mouth. She fails.
Yasha clamps her head between her hands and hopes — like a fool, like a child, like if she kneels and prays enough she will open her eyes and this will all be a dream.
“Come out, Orphanmaker!” Marla calls. The once-comforting grate of her voice is harsh, now. Distantly, Yasha thinks maybe it always was. Yasha thinks about a lot of things differently, and has ever since she met Zuala. “If you dally, we will make her death slow.”
A sound like no!, a sound like her name, screamed, comes from the empty space in the middle of the camp she called home, desperate and muffled still.
More footsteps, drawing closer.
This is familiar. This is the way of the hunt: when prey hides, it is tactical to block their exits, and draw in slowly, until they ferret themselves out, or fight and are killed. The footsteps of the women she’d called family are slow and ruthless and Yasha can feel each second pressing against her skin like steel, like flame. Each heartbeat draws closer to her last.
The pounding reminds her of Zuala. Oh, just hours ago, they were married, and they thought themselves invincible.
Another weak go, and with a horrible, strangled noise like a wounded animal, Yasha pulls herself to her feet, hand still clapped and shaking hard enough to tear at her own lips, and starts to run —
And collides with a man.
“Ow,” says the man.
She stops as he goes sprawling back in the dust. For a moment she is surprised — there are no men in their tribe so skinny and small — but then there is a cry, and dozens of footsteps moving swiftly in their direction. Yasha looks up, into the darkness of the wastes, and knows, and knows that if she runs, she could make it out alive —
Yasha stands, her heart pounding, her hands shaking, the hot and roiling beginnings of rage tearing through her veins, made even more vicious with the knowledge that she cannot win. Frustration builds. If there was something she could do, she would tear this whole camp asunder. There is only one person behind her that holds her heart and Zuala is dying as they speak.
Around the corner, dozens of her friends emerge, swords already drawn. There, the Godborn; there, the Tearcleaver, there, Scartooth, her spear in hand and ready.
Yasha should be afraid. She should be terrified. She pulls her lips all the way back around her teeth and snarls. Her chance to run has passed, and she has failed. She is going to die here, she is going to die alone, but by all the gods above and below she will fight until her blood runs dry.
The beginnings of a cry spill from her lips. Answering snarls twist across the faces of her once-family, and feral smiles, too, equal in number, and she has her sword above her head, body coiled to strike, when when the man — who Yasha had forgotten — lets out a pleased little ah!
Then there is a small plink, the sound of shattering glass, and Yasha stumbles back as a bubble of shimmering white energy slams around her.
Yasha stares at it. It is swirling, faintly, like the drifting of mottled cobwebs down a glassy stream. Distantly she notices that her sword-arm has dropped and that her snarl has staggered. She twists both back into place as Scartooth shrieks and leaps forward, a half-second too late to protect herself, but Scartooth’s wrist only slams into the bubble and bounces back, unable to cut through.
Yasha straightens, tip of her sword dipping. She reaches out, and startles when her hand passes through the glistening cobwebs that stopped the tooth of a spear from biting into her neck. There is a clang, and another clang, and the Godborn’s chest is heaving, her gums bleeding as she roars, the head of her mace dropped helplessly into the sand skirting the fringe of the bubble. The Tearcleaver’s spear, hurled directly toward Yasha’s face, follows it harmlessly down.
Yasha blinks. The man, who she remembers moments before she speaks, dusts off his coat and grins at her.
“Much better, ja?”
She stares. “What is this?”
“I worried I had missed you,” he says confidentially, as though she is supposed to have any idea who he is. “Which would be rather humiliating, I think, given that I have had years already.”
From within her bones, sharp shards of rain press up against her skin, itching and stinging with the dizzying need to do something. Her rage starts to ebb, but her desperation goes nowhere, and from very far away bells ring in her ears as she studies this strange wizard. He looks very different than anything she knows — he is light, for one, not the strange pale of Yasha’s unearthly skin and not the smooth dark of the rest of her tribe, but a pinkish-orange that seems to darken already in the Xhorhassian sun.
“Who are you?” she asks, words tripping over themselves. “Can you — this bubble, can it help us? Can it help us leave?”
“My name is Caleb Widogast,” the wizard says, the relief and joy bleeding from his face at her urgency, replaced by solemnity. “I can help. What is yours?”
“Yasha. You — can you get us out of here?”
He rolls another bead between his fingers. “I can.”
“Okay,” she mutters, head still sort of spinning, “okay okay, there is — there is one more, with this shield, that we must get before we leave.”
“Someone dear to you?”
Yasha nods quickly, and a part of her wonders that she trusts this wizard so soon, and the rest of her does not think it strange at all. “Very,” she says desperately. “Please, her name is Zuala, she is with the gold hair, Marla has her, in the center — ”
The man is already nodding. “Walk with me,” he says, and sets off in the direction she pointed. “Stray no more than ten feet from my side, Yasha, or the shield will leave you.”
Yasha jolts beside him. Between her and the center of camp bristles a knot of spears and bodies and full-toothed snarls, but the wizard is confident as he moves. There is shouting, and clamoring, and the slam of steel against steel, but the bubble around them parts her tribe as surely as the tides. She notices, in some absent place, that he must not be of Xhorhas, not with hair that bright and strange nor skin so red, not with clothes of such a different make, but files it away for later, for later, because she might have a later, and she might have a later with — with —
They emerge into the clearing, and as soon as the bubble protrudes it becomes invisible. Cries sound behind them, and Yasha whirls with sword drawn to confront the half-dozen blades already swinging toward her throat, but each of them bounce off with a great tink-tink-thunk and fall back on limp wrists with snarls of defeat.
“Ah,” the wizard says, and Yasha hisses a wounded breath between her teeth. Marla, an inch shorter than Yasha and two more broad, holds a knife to Zuala’s throat.
“Good,” she says, and digs the blade in so that Zuala bleeds deeper. There is no terror in her eyes as she looks toward Yasha; only fondness, and sorrow, and something like regret.
That is wrong. There should be no regret. Zuala told her, Zuala promised her, a mere day ago, that she would never regret this, and she would never regret them, no matter the cost.
It is Yasha, then. Yasha has made her regret.
“That is her,” Yasha whispers, voice shaking, and clears her throat. “Her — there, your magic, can you get her?”
“Her, with the gold hair, you said,” Caleb murmurs. “This is a little tricky, but...ah.”
“Orphanmaker,” Marla drawls, pleased. She nudges the blade up into Zuala’s chin, forcing her head to arch painfully and Yasha snarls, rage and defeat and frustration coiling in her, but Marla only smiles at the sound. It is cruel that only in retrospect does Yasha see how easily Marla’s cruelty toward the other living things of the Moorland could be so easily turned on her own. The part of her that knows intimately the glittering of gold thinks, maybe there is another way, but the rage pounds in her ears and drowns out that softer voice.
Zuala is bleeding. Zuala is bleeding.
“Come out, then,” Marla grins, chin raised in a clear challenge, and digs the knife in deeper. “It is better for lovers to die together than apart.”
And then Zuala is gone.
One moment she is tangled in Marla’s arms, grimacing and bloodied, and the next Marla’s arms are empty. Yasha lets out a hoarse shout, panic welling up in her, and the rage boils again because Zuala is gone, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. She tenses, ready to leap forward, through the protection of the bubble, to cave in her skull — she thinks on it, she tenses, ready for a swing, because if Zuala is gone then what is the point — but before she can there is a growl. It is deep, deeper than any curse of Abyssal, running deeper than the stones on which they stand. The ground beneath them shakes. A dozen pairs of eyes turn.
A streak of bright red and orange flashes between the bubble and the women Yasha once called dear, and she thinks nonsensically of the flowers that Zuala had showed her once, after there was rain in the moorlands and some hardy plants had flowered between the cracks in the soil-and-sand — they were beautiful, dotted with yellow and with strange proud strands that jutted upward, like fingers turned toward the sun — before the shape resolves into a cat, and shock erases the soft memory. The cat hardly merits the title, in fact, because it is huge, its shoulder drawn at least as tall as Yasha’s ear, and it unhooks its jaws and roars.
All around them is the shinkof metal as blades are drawn, but faster than thought, the cat streaks forward. It dives toward Marla, snatches something in its jaws, and charges toward the bubble.
Yasha lets out another strangled yell, her blade flying up to protect her face, but the great cat only skids into their bubble and crouches down to deposit something, wet and sticky, at Yasha’s feet. Then it lopes over to the intruder and knocks its massive head against the wizard’s elbow, who rasps a laugh the color of rust, sending him stumbling back.
“Well done,” Caleb murmurs, and runs a hand through the hair between the great cat’s ears. The cat rumbles again, still deep and quaking, but his eyes are closed in contentment.
At her feet is a little mouse. Its fur is gold.
“It is perhaps not the most elegant solution,” the wizard admits softly, beside her, “but — “
And then the mouse becomes Yasha’s wife.
Yasha collapses, drawing Zuala to her chest, burying her face in golden hair. She smells of hard dirt and burnt sand and woodsmoke and Yasha has never been more relieved in her life.
“Zuala,” she chokes, voice breaking, heart twisting now that she can feel again. “Gods above, Zuala....”
“Yasha?” she asks, voice hoarse, and those brown eyes flick to meet hers, confused. Her neck is still bleeding. Yasha presses one trembling hand to Zuala’s neck, gentle as she can, the other smoothing her hair over and over again, pulling her closer. She is breathing. She is still breathing. “How did you...?”
“I don’t know,” Yasha says honestly. She smooths down the hair along the back of Zuala’s head, then to the base of her skull, and she has to bite back tears at the gesture because even still Zuala is content to let Yasha’s hands near her neck, where she is most vulnerable, where she almost died, even now, even now, and she does not — she does not deserve — she nearly ran — “I thought I lost you,” she chokes.
“But you didn’t,” Zuala murmurs. Her voice is scratchy and coarse but the dearest sound Yasha has ever heard. “Dearheart. I’m here.”
“I know,” Yasha manages, “I know, but you — but I — ”
“Yasha,” the wizard says quietly, reluctantly. “We will need to move.”
Yasha startles. She — she had forgotten about the rest of the world. Outside their little bubble, her tribe bristles, and she realizes belatedly that dozens of arrows litter the perimeter of the white webbed sphere, but she was lost to all of it with her wife in her arms again.
When she looks down, Zuala is studying the wizard, then looks back at Yasha, a question in her eyes. Yasha just shakes her head, relief and joy and shame and guilt and fear and love tearing her apart, and shifts Zuala closer to her.
“Can you walk?” she asks instead.
“Yes,” Zuala says, and steadies herself on Yasha as she stands. She falters to one side, and Yasha steadies her. With a weak, rueful grin, her lips bloodless and pale, she corrects herself. “No, actually.”
“That’s all right,” Yasha says, a helpless smile breaking out across her face as she sweeps Zuala into her arms. She is well and truly crying now, but not of grief, and not of regret. She kisses Zuala’s forehead. “I will carry you.”
If she were to have her way she would never move again, never shift the warm body tucked up against her chest from her own, but if the wizard moves with his bubble then they will move with the wizard until they both are safe. She tucks Zuala’s head against her shoulder carefully, pressing their foreheads together for one brief moment, and stands.
“You,” Marla spits. Yasha realizes that she has been speaking for some time. She honestly had not noticed. “Wizard. You interfere in matters you have no rights to meddle in! Orphanmaker! We knew you were without pride or honor but now you are a traitor, and you are no higher than scum!”
“Then I am scum,” Yasha says. Her rage subsides, and her voice dips back to its usual soft tenor. If sentiment is weakness, then Yasha will be weak, because love brought Zuala to her. Let them scorn her for her softness. To Zuala, it is strength, so Yasha will cherish it. “Then I am soft, and naive, and a fool. I do not care.”
“Then you will die as all of those,” Marla says, and draws her blade, and points it to the bubble. “No shield can hold forever. Surrender yourselves, or fall.”
Zuala grits her teeth against Yasha’s neck. The wizard looks to her, one hand on the head of his great cat. Yasha turns to him. “I’d like to go,” she says. “If we can.”
“We can go,” the wizard says. “Not, not quickly, unfortunately, as I have used a good bit of my magic already, but for as long as you can walk, we can move.”
“Then let’s go.”
Yasha gently shifts Zuala’s hair from her face. Marla spits, “ Choose, Orphanmaker!” but she has already chosen, and she has Zuala and they will leave this place and they will make a home, together, perhaps in the Empire, where Yasha can pick all the flowers she has heard about from the stragglers of Xhorhas and braid them into Zuala’s hair. They will make such a lovely halo on a backdrop of gold.
“Oh,” the wizard says suddenly, his sharp voice a far cry from his previous calm tenor. An arrow clatters to the ground, and Yasha traces it back to a crossbow leveled at the wizard’s great cat.
“Oh, you should not have done that,” he murmurs, the quiet words almost loving, and raises a closed fist to the sky. Where his arm points, the sky darkens, then begins to broil, the clouds writhing with sparks of red and gold. “You should not have tried to kill my cat.”
He opens his fist.
When the four of them take their leave, the camp still smokes behind them. Yasha is not entirely sure what happened; the heavens had opened, and then great shards of earth caught aflame had rained down over the people she had once called family, and as chaos reigned the wizard had looked to Yasha and asked, quiet, “Are there any you want to spare?”
Yasha had looked out: over the smoke, over angered screams and rallying cries, over buildings she knew well set aflame. And for a moment, she despised them like nothing else. For a moment, she wanted them all dead, rage roiling hot and surging like thunder in her chest.
Then Zuala had shifted in her arms, eyes opening to study the wizard just as Yasha’s had, and Yasha could not help the smile that curled across her face.
“All, if you can,” she had said, without a trace of rage in her voice. “I don’t want them dead. I just...I just want to go.”
The wizard — Caleb — did not look surprised. He only raised his hand, and snapped once, and the heavens swallowed the gray back up and closed again, leaving a thick blanket of ash muffling a storm of coughs and awful retches behind them. He had watched Yasha, and she had nodded, and when she had turned and walked away, he followed.
As the moorlands fade from sand to marsh, the bubble fizzles away. The moment it dissipates Yasha tenses, and her feet still itch with the need to run, but that would mean leaving the wizard behind, and...she could do so, really. Perhaps she should. But he is quiet, like her, and his presence at their side is comforting.
The great cat lopes alongside them, sniffing curiously at Yasha. Once, he opens his maw, and Yasha’s hand twitches for her sword, but the cat moves only to lick a great stripe up Yasha’s arm. Its tongue is warm and scratchy.
The wizard laughs softly. “He likes you, Yasha. You are a good cat, did you know that? Yes, a very good cat. I will put you back soon.”
The cat chirrs in a way that Yasha could almost call happy, and butts his head beneath the wizard’s elbow, eyes squinting shut. The wizard scratches the top of his head with a smile of his own.
The miles fall away beneath their feet. Soon, the wizard, runs out of breath. Yasha would not mind walking through the night — it is winter, not the summer months in which the dangerous beasts hunt only when the sun is gone — but eventually she takes pity on Caleb and stops.
He stops too, gratefully. She snorts. “You’re exhausted.”
He shakes his head ruefully. “A little. I confess that I am — that I am not so good with, with walking for so long.”
“I know,” she says. “You’re a wizard. That makes sense. Let’s make camp here.”
“Ja, okay, that sounds good,” he says. “But before that, tell — tell me, Yasha. From here, where, you and — you and your wife, where do you mean to go?”
“The Empire,” she says. “Somewhere. We’re not sure where yet.”
“The plains,” Zuala rasps, and coughs. Yasha adjusts her carefully, head cradled in her arms. She smiles up at her. “Somewhere with flowers.”
“Ah. Is there somewhere a little more, you know, specific?”
“Not really, no.”
“We just want to see grass,” Yasha says. “The real grass, thick and green. It doesn’t...it doesn’t happen so much. In Xhorhas.”
“That is not so hard to find, in the Empire. I can take you there tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Yasha says.
“Why?” Zuala sits up a little, and Yasha’s hand flies down to her back, keeping her steady in Yasha’s arms. “Why did you help us?”
Yasha blinks, startled. She should have been wondering that too.
Caleb tilts his head a little. He looks away from Zuala’s keen gaze then, instead rummaging around in his pockets. He takes out a pearl, a diamond that glints even in dim moonlight; he takes out cocoons and phosphorous and handfuls of dirt and ash, which float harmlessly about his fingers. Then he retrieves a small ivory carving, holds it up to the moonlight and studies it, then nods to himself, before replacing everything methodically in his pockets.
He says, “Because yours is a story that deserves a happy ending,” then walks toward the jagged cliffs not far from them, and says no more.
"Wizards,” Zuala mutters after a few moments, then grins at Yasha, a loping, roguish thing that sparks tears behind Yasha’s eyes. Oh, she would have missed this. “So frustrating.”
She shifts Zuala more securely into her arms, wordless as she holds her tight. Zuala laughs softly and wraps her arm around Yasha’s waist, in a gesture that is comforting and painful, burying her other hand in Yasha’s hair, fingers gentle against her scalp.
A long moment passes. Yasha loses herself in a world of bright gold and tries hard not to think how close she came to losing it forever. If she had — if she had run, if she had left Zuala behind, she does not think she ever would have forgiven herself.
Slowly, heavily, Yasha kneels. She sets Zuala down gently, and her back hits the dirt with a tiny grunt, but within moments she’s twisted herself to her knees, arms wrapped stubbornly around Yasha’s shoulders. Yasha fights the instinct to push her back, wrap her in a blanket and keep her safe, far from the woman who almost abandoned her, but Zuala is more stubborn than Yasha, and she holds fast far more compellingly than any argument.
And then Zuala whispers, “I’m sorry.”
Yasha almost laughs. “What are you sorry for?”
“For getting captured.”
“Zuala,” Yasha says sternly. “It was not your fault. They surprised us. If anyone — if either of us....”
Zuala moves to pull away, to look Yasha in the eye, but shame bubbles up in Yasha’s chest and she only holds Zuala tighter, burying her face deeper into her shoulder. “I could have lost you,” Yasha whispers, voice cracking. “Zuala, I nearly lost you.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I almost did. Zuala, I almost ran! I almost ran away, and you were still back there, and I was so — I was so scared, and I’m so sorry.”
“Dearheart,” Zuala murmurs against her ear, like a benediction, and Yasha hiccups ungracefully and tenses around her, trembling, like she can keep Zuala safe by pressing her deep enough into her chest. “That doesn’t make you a coward. It makes you a survivor.”
The stinging in her eyes overflows. The gentleness in Zuala’s voice chokes Yasha’s own, and she tries to speak and fails, again and again, before giving up and just breathing in the comforting scent of sweat and sand and deep sunlight that Zuala carries with her wherever she walks.
“I —” she manages, before her voice breaks apart. Zuala runs hands through Yasha’s braids, patient. Just this morning Zuala had tucked matrimonial braids woven in the traditional style behind Yasha’s ear, and they are frayed now, and dirty, but they still run steadily along her scalp. Zuala smooths them over while Yasha fights for words. Eventually she manages: “I almost left you. Zuala, I — I would have left you behind.”
“And you would have lived,” Zuala says softly.
Yasha shakes her head. “No. No. Not without you. I would have been alive, but not....”
Zuala holds her as she chokes again on a sob, voice soft as she shushes Yasha’s tears away. “Then we’re lucky we’re both alive. And I am, Yasha. I’m okay. I’m not angry.”
“You should be.”
“You don’t get to decide that.”
Yasha hiccups a small laugh at that. It’s such a Zuala thing to insist upon, and she looks up for long enough to press their foreheads together, eyes shut tight.
“I love you,” Zuala whispers, and takes Yasha’s hand in hers. She brings it to her mouth and kisses her knuckles, one-by-one.
Yasha rests her hand on Zuala’s cheek, kisses her eyes, her forehead, her nose, her lips. She says, “I love you too.”
That is how the wizard finds them, when he returns. Twined together, like two flowers bent toward sunlight.
Zuala looks up as she approaches, and after a long, reluctant moment, hearing his footsteps, Yasha looks up too. He clears his throat awkwardly, with a stuttering, “I — I am sorry to, to interrupt.”
Zuala waves the protest away. “Well then, wizard. Did you finish your mystery spell?”
“Ja, yes, I have.” Yasha looks past him and sees, small against the gaping maw of the cliffs in this part of the wastes, a simple wooden door that she does not think was there before. “It is a, a place to sleep for the night. Simple enough, I think, but I hope that you will find it comfortable.”
When the wizard called it simple he was not lying. Yasha is not so used to having a roof over her head, but she does not much mind the simple thatch-and-wood of this hut. She is not sure how the wizard has crafted a small home for them in the side of a mountain, but there is a firepit and the center, and branching off of that a room for herself and Zuala, and a small window in the roof through which they can see the stars.
They quickly make themselves comfortable. Zuala falls asleep quickly, but Yasha watches the sky spin for an hour, holding Zuala tight to her chest. One hour bleeds into two, then three, and when she drifts off to sleep, she is warm.
The next morning, Yasha wakes early. Zuala is still asleep, which is good; she needs to recover.
The wizard is already awake when she does, sitting at the center room and tending the fire with a long stone stick. He prods at the logs, sending a shower of sparks into the air intermittently. Beside the stone pit, curled happily in the warmth of the fire, sits his large cat.
They exchange good mornings quietly. It is one thing she likes about this strange wizard and his odd cat, that neither of them mind the silence.
Outside the glass windows threaded along the walls of this small home, Yasha can see the faint lightening of gray outside that means that light has returned to the skies of Xhorhas. She hears that in the Empire, the sky is bright blue. That every day, vibrant colors splash along the sky, and that they are different depending on whether the sun is rising, or risen, or set.
She cannot wait to see it.
The air pops and fizzles lazily with embers. Yasha is digging through her pack — she had packed for two, and does not want to think about what she would have done if she had only had to feed one — when the wizard closes his book.
“Yasha, I have a — I have a favor to ask,” he says.
“What is it?”
“Your necklace,” Caleb says, nodding toward the brooch at her neck. It’s fashioned in the shape of a sparrow. Zuala had her flowers, and Yasha her birds. “May I borrow it for a moment?”
“It was a gift,” Yasha says unthinkingly. “From Zuala. Why do you need it?”
The wizard blinks. “You did not tell me it was from her,” he says, voice almost accusing.
“Well I only met you a few hours ago,” Yasha bites back. “And besides, it didn’t really come up in conversation. We were mostly busy running.”
“No, not —” the wizard waves his hand about, as if to dismiss the thought. “Not you, never mind. If you would let me, I need to — to reach someone, and I do not have the components myself.”
He hesitates, then exhales heavily. “You do not yet know much of him, Yasha, but the Stormlord watches over you. I mean to try to contact him through your necklace.”
“The god of — of storms? And battle?”
A small grin quirks up the side of his mouth. “The same.”
She has always had an affinity for storms. And sometimes, on her travels, she would feel a presence watching over her shoulder, even when Zuala was not there. She never understood it. A god? “Why me?”
Caleb shrugs. “I do not pretend to understand the whims of the gods,” he says. “Only that I would petition their help. In, ah, in truth, Yasha, this rescue was an attempt to curry his favor.”
Ah. She’s relieved to hear that. This, a transaction of help, that she understands. And she had wondered why a man clearly so far from home would intervene on behalf of a woman he had never met. But if he were seeking the favor of a god...well, there have been stranger things done for faith.
“And the Stormlord, he trusts you?”
Caleb see-saws his hand. “He knows of me.”
Yasha frowns at him, but unhooks the necklace. She looks down at it, and the silver sparrow glints back up at her.
She hands it to him, coiling it carefully in his palm. “Bring this back.”
“I will,” he promises. “See, I will leave you with my cat. He is very dear to me, you know.”
The huge orange cat by the fire lifts its head and yawns, baring all of its teeth, before loping in her direction. Yasha watches it carefully. It doesn’t seem hostile, like the beasts that her tribe keeps, but then again there are very few beasts she has met that haven’t tried to kill her.
“He will not harm you,” Caleb says, a hint of warmth to his voice. “He likes you. His name is Frumpkin.”
The wizard had nearly obliterated her tribe for trying to hurt his cat. Yasha nods. “Come back with it soon.”
Yasha watches the cat carefully, and it watches her. Its eyes are large and unblinking. Eventually it ambles over to her, making small strange noises in its throat, and Yasha lets it. They are like this when Zuala emerges, wild-haired and sleep-eyed, kohl smeared all down her chin. She sits by Yasha and raises an eyebrow. “Making friends so early?”
“His name is Frumpkin,” Yasha says by way of explanation. Its ears perk up at the name, and it lifts its head and lets out a deep meow, which rumbles ominously through the ground below them, then promptly lifts its leg and starts washing its butt.
A smile lifts across Zuala’s face, and Yasha can’t help but laugh. “Caleb asked to borrow my necklace, so he left his cat as collateral.”
“He could take his familiar with him if he chose to go,” Zuala says, watching the cat curiously.
“But I do not think he will. Did he say why he helped us?”
“He wanted the Stormlord’s favor, apparently,” Yasha explains. “I think that’s who was watching over me, Zuala. When I hunted without you.”
She expects Zuala to be surprised. Zuala only hums.
Zuala turns to her. The great cat looks up from its washing and takes a step closer, cocking its head at them curiously, an uncanny mirror to Zuala’s look only moments ago. “There was always something special about you, Dearheart. It doesn’t surprise me that a god saw it too.”
Yasha chuckles quietly, shaking her head. “You’re a romantic at heart.”
“Perish that thought.”
Yasha tucks her head against Zuala’s shoulder, and, laughing under her breath, Zuala tips her head atop hers. Golden hair spills over her shoulders and Yasha reaches up and twines a lock of it around her finger. It occurs to her that they were married yesterday. Yesterday, she was still a part of her tribe, with Zuala. Yesterday she was married to a man she did not dislike but did not much like, either.
Today they are married. And today, they forge their own path west.
Yasha reaches out a tentative hand toward the cat. It perks up visibly, thrumming that deep rumble again, and rubs its nose against her fingers. Yasha pats the top of its head carefully, and it chirrs, butting its huge face against her knee.
“I don’t know what it is,” Yasha murmurs. “They’re called, uh, cats, right?”
“I think so. I think they’re kept as pets in the Empire. Just the smaller ones though.” Zuala studies it carefully. “I don’t think they keep those the size of moorbounders close for so long.”
For a few moments Frumpkin lumbers in idle circles around her forefinger, arching his back to run her nails along his spine, before Yasha gently presses the palm of her hand along its back.
Zuala holds out her hand, too, for Frumpkin to nose at and smell. So with his tail battering heavily against Yasha’s knee, and his nose leaving wet splotches along her calf, Frumpkin paces happily between the two women, rumbling all the while.
“I have no idea what to do with him,” Zuala confesses eventually, and Yasha laughs.
“I don’t either.”
They leave their hands extended, just watching him for a while. For a handful of minutes, that’s enough; Frumpkin curls between them, running flank and back and the top of his head along their fingers, until he grows bored of that and drops his head and shoulders onto Yasha’s lap.
Yasha jumps, her whole body tensing. “Oh no,” she whispers, hands hovering over the cat’s flanks. “What do I do?”
“Maybe hold him?”
Yasha stares at her. Zuala shrugs. “Sometimes the wolves calmed down when we hugged them.”
“You were restraining them,” Yasha points out, a traitorous laugh curling into the edges of her voice, but hauls the cat more securely onto her lap regardless.
Instantly he starts rumbling, his whole body shivering with some sort of affliction. He wriggles happily, tail tap-tap-tapping along her wrist. “He’s making a noise,” Yasha says, gesturing Zuala closer. “Here, feel him.”
Zuala rests a hand flat along Frumpkin’s flank, lets out a soft oh of surprise. “I wonder what’s wrong with him.”
“I don’t know,” Yasha says. She runs a single finger from Frumpkin’s nose between his ears to the back of his head, and the thrumming intensifies. “He doesn’t seem unhappy. He actually seems happy, I think.”
“At the very least, we’re not hurting him.”
Yasha cards careful fingers through his flanks, and marvels how every touch sets the great beast strumming harder. His fur feels like what Yasha imagines grass would be; soft and smooth in one direction, and prickly in the other. Bears have fur too, and gnolls, in short little tufts, but most of the time when Yasha touches those they’re clumped with blood and all sorts of gore. They’re not nearly so soft as this.
“Hold him,” Yasha encourages Zuala softly, plucking Frumpkin’s tail off the log and waving it at her. It doesn’t elicit the smile she’d been hoping for.
Instead, Zuala grimaces. “I don’t know if — you know, I have sort of a bad track record with, uh, with soft things — ”
“He’s the wizard’s,” Yasha points out. “I’m sure he’s sturdy. Besides, Zuala, you’re only holding him, and he’s friendly. The wolves you were trying to tear apart.”
“I’m not good at being gentle.”
Yasha sets the tail back on the seat, frowning. “You are, though.”
“Not with — no, that’s not what I....” Zuala cuts off with a sigh. “Not with animals.”
“The only animals you’ve met have been trying to kill you,” Yasha points out reasonably, and points at Frumpkin insistently. “You won’t hurt him. You’re gentle with me.”
“You’re different,” Zuala says softly, but rests a hand on Frumpkin’s head regardless. He perks up, then swings two unblinking eyes toward Zuala. He cocks his head, studying her, and Zuala tenses. But after a moment, he seems to decide that she’s alright, because he licks a stripe up her face that coats her cheek and half her hair besides, before flopping his head in her lap with equal abandon.
Zuala bursts into surprised laughter at the rasp of the tongue along her cheek. And Yasha stares. It has been some time since Yasha has heard her laugh like that.
Soft things suit Zuala. She will cover Zuala in as many flowers as she can find if they will make Zuala laugh like that.
“I like him,” Zuala declares. “I want to keep one, if we find it across the border.”
“Me too,” Yasha says thoughtfully. “I like this one.”
“I do too,” says the wizard, startling both of them as he ducks beneath his strange ivory-rimmed doorway. The cat flicks an ear in his direction, but otherwise doesn’t stir from his place half-draped over Zuala’s lap. “Oh, my apologies, I had not — I am done.”
He holds the necklace out to Yasha, which she accepts. The little sparrow glimmers up at her and she takes it back with careful fingers and refastens it on her neck. Frumpkin looks up at the clinking of metal, then shuffles backward so that his feet rest on Yasha’s other side, before dropping his belly on her with little ceremony. She lets out an inadvertent oof at the sudden weight, but starts petting him again readily enough. The great cat’s eyes squint tightly shut. “What does it mean, the noise he makes?”
“He is purring,” Caleb says, something sad flickering across his face. “That means he likes you. That he likes both of you.”
“Oh!” Zuala says, delighted. “We like him too. Are there many like him, in the Empire?”
“Frumpkin is something special,” Caleb says, dropping cross-legged across from them. “But you will find many cats in the Empire. Most of them smaller than him. Plenty for you to, to keep as pets, if you would like. They are loyal, cats are. If you treat them kindly.”
Yasha is already nodding. “We will,” she says. “They are warm and very soft.”
“The well-fed ones are,” Caleb says. He prods at the fire, which had sputtered in his absence. A muttered word and a flick of his hand as it burning merrily again, and a chill Yasha had hardly realized skitters from her skin. “Cats require a great deal of meat to survive, and wet meats, mostly. Meats that you would hunt for yourself, though they eat before cooking the flesh. If needed they can eat vegetables and such, but not so often as other pets.”
“Have you had cats for a long time?” Zuala asks.
“Yes,” Caleb says, “since I was a very small boy. Frumpkin is the best of the lot.”
Slung lazily across Yasha’s lap, Frumpkin purrs even harder, then nudges insistently at Zuala’s hand, who immediately starts stroking his fur, motions uncertain at first. Yasha watches fondly. “What did you need my god’s favor for?”
The wizard leans back on the heels of his hands. Smoke funnels up to a curved hole in the ceiling, the walls flicker with amber. It is warm and comfortable, and Yasha thinks she could sleep here for several more nights and be quite content.
“A favor in kind,” Caleb says. “Though not for me. For another friend. He has a, his home is in danger, and it is beyond my ability to fix alone.”
“So do you have it?” she asks. “What you wanted?”
Caleb smiles a little, and pulls a vial from his pocket. It glows a faint pink, and for the brief moment Caleb holds it aloft she thinks she sees moss fringing its glass corners. “Yes.”
The cat stretches, his great maw stretched open in a terrifying yawn. For a moment Zuala stares at his tongue, fascinated, before the mouth slides shut and Frumpkin lumbers across the fireplace to curl at Caleb’s feet. With amber-colored fur, he blends in neatly with the rusted sand and dirt of the plains. “I meant to ask, ah, the two of you. I have my favor, what I came for. Do you wish to stay here, in the wastes? Or if you, if you mean to go to the Empire, as you mentioned, then I can take you there.”
Zuala is squinting at him again, clearly thinking. Yasha wishes she were as insightful as her wife, but as long as one of them knows how, then the other will never want for her skills.
Caleb frowns. “Why what?”
“Why have you helped us?”
“For the favor of the Stormlord, as I —”
“You have your favor,” Zuala points out. “The two of us are safe. It isn’t easy to cross between countries, even with magic. Why help us?”
“Zuala,” Yasha hisses — the thought that the wizard would not help them is more strange than it is justified — but Zuala lifts her chin.
The wizard looks at them for a long moment. The cat at his feet lifts his head and pins them with the same eagle-eyed stare. Belatedly, Yasha notices that the cat’s eyes are the same blue as the wizard’s. Absently she remembers the thrum of power in the wizard’s fist as he had called fury down from the heavens, and for the first time he seems truly capable of devastation; steel in his eyes, fire in the creases of his palms.
“You know, a very long time ago,” he begins, holding out his hand. Frumpkin looks away from the two of them to slink beneath his arm, secure and unmoving at the wizard’s side. “A very long time ago, when I was learning magic, I was told once that wizards are nothing without their secrets. Is it not enough to have compassion? To be invested in a story that is not your own?”
Zuala does not back down, still studying Caleb. Yasha looks between the two of them, but Caleb studies Zuala in turn, just as steadily.
A long moment passes. The cat’s tail swishes slowly behind Caleb’s back. His gaze meets hers, and Yasha looks back a little uncertainly — one second, two, then three — before giving up and returning her attention to Zuala.
Between the two of them, the fire pit flickers and snaps an ember into the air. Nothing changes in the room, but suddenly, Zuala grins.
“A wizard is nothing without some secrets,” she concedes, and stands.
Surprise flashes across Caleb’s face, but he stands hastily. Zuala holds out an arm, and Caleb follows, their forearms clasped together.
“Thank you for this.”
“Do not thank me yet,” Caleb says, wry humor replacing the strange simmer in his voice. “You are not yet home.”
She sits, shoulder pressed warmly against Yasha’s, and across the firepit, Caleb does the same. Yasha stares at Zuala for a long moment, but aside from a faint smile playing at her lips, Zuala says nothing. Yasha will ask her later.
“So. The Empire?”
“We don’t know exactly where,” Zuala says, relaxed against her. She holds out her hand, and after a long moment of eagle-eyed examination, the cat returns to their side and nudges the palm of her hand.
“Somewhere with...with grass,” Yasha says. “And flowers.”
“Then the south might do you some good. What will you do? When you get there?”
“We could be mercenaries,” Yasha suggests, because they are both skilled with blade and body, but Zuala winces briefly. “Zuala?”
“I don’t know,” she murmurs. “After all this, I don’t know if I want to fight. Not for a cause I know nothing about.”
“It’s all we’ve ever done.”
“We can find something,” Zuala says. “Once we get to the Empire. We’re quick. We’ll learn.”
Caleb clears his throat. “If you do not wish to fight, there is other work, you know,” he says, prodding at the flames. “Many other things you could, ah, do. There are craftsmen, there are travelling merchants, if you wish to learn how to wrangle, there are beasts in need of it, there is work bartering for spices, you could find work as a guard — there is a colorful place that I know, a circus of some repute, that is currently winding its way south of the Marrow Valley, I think.”
“Ah — it is, it is difficult to explain, my hulking friend. A circus is, is a collection of people with unique talents. There are those that breathe fire, that bend themselves into impossible configurations. The one of which I speak is the Fletching and Moondrop Carnival — no, the Fletching and Moondrop Travelling Carnival of Curiosities, I think — it has something of a long title, too long, if you ask me — and as I hear, the owner, Gustav, is looking for work. For hired hands to, ah, help with security. Too many people bringing in weapons and such.”
Yasha cocks her head at him. He seems strangely nervous for so simple a proposition. Then again, that could be the strange atmosphere Yasha finds herself in. She is not so accustomed to walls this shade, or firelight quite so bright and unabashed. Fire burns a beautiful color when she does not have to stifle it with broad leaves and thick sticks to stifle smoke.
“It is a place to start,” she agrees. “As good as any. And I think...I think, if it is as interesting as you say, we’d like it. Is it colorful?”
Caleb smiles again. “Very,” he says. “The show is, and the people are even more so. Part of the show is costuming, you see, so the performers themselves are dressed in bright colors. To attract attention. It is a spectacle indeed.”
“And it is in the Empire?”
“It is. All about the Empire, so that if you would like to find a place to settle, more permanently, it will be much easier to look. There are some truly beautiful places down south, you know. Where it is warm and the earth is fresh and the breeze is always sweet. It is peaceful there, and a good place to grow.”
“We want something like that,” Yasha murmurs. “We just want to...to grow, I guess. To grow old together.”
Zuala knocks their shoulders together. Softness creases at the edges of the wizard’s eyes. “That sounds nice. I hope that, that you are able to find that place.”
“Thank you,” she says. “I think we might look for this circus. But for now, I think...we will find something.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Zuala says, grinning at her with that loping, roguish grin. “The hardest part is already behind us.”
The little town is called Trostenwald.
“It is within the Empire,” Caleb explains. “Ask for a man called Gustav, Yasha, if the idea that I proposed to you still appeals. I will come with you only long enough to be sure that you are not lost, and then I will take my leave.”
Something in her tightens, but Zuala nods. She takes Yasha’s hand and says, with a gravity that Yasha does not fully understand, “Thank you.”
She gives the wizard pause. Caleb studies her for a long moment, then, wordless, holds out his hands.
Zuala takes one, Yasha the other. “Are you ready?”
Yasha takes Zuala’s hand tight in hers. “We’re ready.”
“Good,” Caleb says, and begins to count down with numbers she does not know. At ein, the world around them compresses and stretches and spins, and then —
And then Yasha looks up, and the sky is a deep, bright, infinite blue.
Chapter 2: JESTER
A stuffy old Lord finds himself evicted, and the Lavish Chateau hosts an unexpected visitor.
Time for everyone's favorite little blue tiefling!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lord Robert Sharp is, by all measures, an impressive man.
Of course, he takes a great deal of pride in his appearance; physical, political, and social, each with care. Appearance forms opinion, which in turn forms reality, he has found. And although he does not necessarily cut an attractive figure, no one could object to the perfect coif of his hair, the elegant styling of his fingernails, the plump and healthy flush of his cheeks.
The man who enters his office, adorned with nothing but commonwear and a cloak with a simple brooch fastening the cloth together, carries himself with a confidence that he certainly has not earned.
He’s not even a particularly good-looking man. His hair is long, and red, and a little straggly. It perks up mangily at the ends, like a recently-rescued dog in a new home. His eyes are a piercing blue — too blue, in Sharp’s opinion — and he has freckles. There is very little less attractive than an overindulged smattering of freckles.
Technically any commonfolk are allowed entry — at least his staff did not permit entry to a tiefling or an Orc, good heavens — but this sort normally does not have business with him. Most of them know their place.
Still, Sharp is nothing if not good-mannered. “May I enquire your name, good sir?”
The man is rather rudely silent as he continues across the carpeted hall leading to Lord Sharp’s desk. Yes, this carpeted hall is one of the more clever features of his office’s design, if he does say so himself. A jewel among a treasure trove, so to speak. In making the entrance so long, visitors must declare themselves and be announced before reaching the Lord himself. He came up with the design himself. It takes wits to survive in the harrowing political climate of Nicodranas, after all.
The man approaches Sharp’s desk soundlessly, his eyes clear and blue and cold as he studies Sharp. Something about his countenance makes Sharp think that this man is memorizing his face, which makes him uncomfortable, and he opens his mouth to object loudly or at least demand a voice when the man finally stops behind the chair seated across from Sharp and asks, “You are Lord Sharp?”
He still has not seated himself. Sharp keeps the disdain off his face, but it is a close-run thing. Gods above, it is fortunate that he does not have the ill-breeding of this man.
“Of course,” Sharp says. That should have been obvious. There are no offices in Nicodranas like his. He narrows his eyes at the stranger. “I asked your name, good sir, and you did not reply.”
The man inclines his head. “So you did. I am called Caleb Widogast.”
“And why are you here?” Sharp demands. “I think you might be lost.”
“You are a frequent patron of the Ruby of the Sea, I am made to understand.”
“That is hardly uncommon here,” he sniffs. “She is a lovely woman.”
“Ja, she is,” Widogast continues, his voice quiet. It carries strangely well for its muted tone. Still this man has not sat. “The best along the coast, I hear. Though I must confess it is not a thing I would know for myself.”
“Of course not,” Sharp scoffs. “Her nights cost a large sum, and you — well. I do not suppose you would know much of her at all.”
“I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Lord Sharp,” the man murmurs. “Understanding me so clearly when I know so little of you.”
“Well,” Sharp says, twirling one end of his mustache around one delightfully plump index finger. “Of course I do. Now. Why are you here? I asked you once, and you did not reply.”
“Ah,” the man says, with the audacity to act as though he had forgotten Lord Sharp’s question! “Why I am here, you ask? I am here because of the daughter of the Ruby.”
Sharp bristles. “Oh, yes, her little Sapphire,” he snarls. Insolent little whelp. Through foul trickery and some magic, she caught him quite literally with his pants down, and these streets that are his home have shamed him ever since. “I know her quite well.”
“Of course,” Widogast says. “I take it you and she do not, ah, get along.”
“Not at all,” he spits. “I want her head on a platter. Humiliation, shame is what she brought me. Yes, Mister Widogast, I want her dead.”
“And are there any others that know of her, or do you seek your revenge without aid?”
“Of course there are not. I do not need help in fighting my very own battles. Besides, I would not want to associate myself with her, or — or her mother! Good riddance.”
The strange man hums neutrally. For the first time, Sharp studies him back. He does not like the judgement in his tone much at all, neither his inflection nor the harsh grate of his accent. “You. How do you know of the Sapphire?”
Widogast looks over Sharp’s shoulder. Behind him is a window, of course; all powerful figures look out over the city they control. It is good to never forget what sorts of huddled masses lurk beneath his control. It would never do to allow them too much, because they would take all they wanted.
He can understand why the man is spellbound. The view from his office is particularly beautiful, of course. The design of the room is impeccable — the glinting fall of afternoon sunlight burnishes the shoulders of his coat and the imposing cut of his figure, and he has been informed that he is quite a sight to behold, just about this time of the day. The thought gives him confidence, and he straightens.
“I asked you a question,” he snaps. “How do you know of the Ruby and her little Sapphire?”
“You have told no one of her,” the strange man says. “You wish to see her dead, and have enlisted no help in the matter. You were wise, at least, in that.”
“Of course not. I need no one’s help. This is the third time you have made me ask and I will not ask again! How do you know of the Sapphire?”
His voice thunders, but the man does not do him the courtesy of shrinking away, or even allowing adequate pause for his question to reverberate intimidatingly around the room! Instead, when the man answers, it is with the cheek to be prompt and soft. “Call me an imaginary friend,” the strange man says, and for the first time his even expression cracks, a small half-smile trickling through. “It would not be entirely a lie, as we have never met.”
“What are you talking — ?”
“Lord Robert Sharp,” the man pronounces, and leans over the chair. His shadow stretches longer than it should. “You are a leader of the Coast. Surely you have dealt with the Empire before.”
Sharp eyes the strange man, nervousness budding strangely against his collarbone. He stands. The man is a half-inch taller than him, so Sharp rolls onto his toes and glares.
“Of course. I have been many times.”
“And you have many friends there.”
“I have friends everywhere.”
“Of course,” the man echoes. “Well then. In the center of the Empire there is a delightful city known as Alfield. Its people are good, and loyal, and hardworking. You will find good work to do there, and you will be well cared for. You understand me, ja?”
“I’ve heard of the town, but why should I care — ?”
The man passes a hand in front of his face. “A suggestion, for you,” the man says, circling slowly about the desk. Sharp tenses, one hand reaching toward the dagger he keeps strapped beneath his desk, fear spiking – and then, suddenly, there is no fear at all.
“What is it?”
“I suggest that you go there,” the man says. “That you go to Alfield, and begin a new life. This life of power does not suit you, Sharp. It does your complexion ill, and behind your back your fellows speak quite poorly of you.”
“I suppose I always knew,” he says faintly. “Those backstabbing traitors. It’s so hard to find real friends amongst the upper echelon.”
“Ah, there are good eggs in every batch,” the man says, that small smile returning. “You just have to know where to look, and your eyes, well. They are not very good, are they, Mister Sharp?”
“I do have difficulty looking at things far away.”
“I am sure you do,” the man hums. “Lenses, Mister Sharp, I would recommend those. You will stumble much less over your own two feet. Particularly in Alfield, those pesky stairs, they will give you some trouble."
“That’s a good idea. Perhaps I will visit a store here, to stock up before I go.”
The man is already shaking his head, expression distantly kind. “No, that will not do. You see it is imperative that you leave now, Sharp, and make way with all haste toward Alfield. You would not want to keep your new life waiting, would you? They are very eager to receive you.”
“And why should they not be?” Sharp muses, running a hand through his hair. It might be a little difficult to maintain his coif while so far abroad, but then again, the sun does lend a healthy, attractive complexion to the skin. A move might do him some good.
The man is behind him, now, between himself and the window. For a brief moment, there is a chill along his back as the sun is blotted from view; then the man moves on, swifter in his step, to the other end of his desk.
“When you leave in two hours’ time, then I should suggest you do not return,” the man says, as soft and unhurried as he had been when he entered. “I will know.”
“And if I discover that you have returned to Nicodranas, for any reason — any reason at all, Mister Sharp — you will be killed.”
The man nods once. “Good. You should begin to pack now. You have less than a handful of hours before the sun will set, and you will not want to set out in the dark.”
“That’s good advice,” Sharp says, still strangely distant and vague. “Thank you.”
The man smiles, but it is not the soft and gentle thing of earlier; it is sharp, and full of teeth. “Of course, my friend,” he says. “May the wandering gods of travel bless your path.”
Jester is swinging from Blude’s horns, giggling at the rough rasp of tough skin against the pads of her palm, when suddenly Blude stiffens and sniffs and sets her down with gentle hands.
“Someone’s here,” he grates, his voice rough and dear to Jester.
Jester tilts her head. “But she came back from dinner twenty minutes ago and already picked out a book to read and took off her makeup and fancy jewelry. She told me she doesn’t have a client tonight.”
“Still, someone wants to see her,” Blude snorts. “Wait in your room, Jester.”
Jester smiles, even though she’s a little unhappy she has to leave now. “Okay! Tell them I say hi!”
“Of course, Jester.”
She skips in the direction of her room, but she doesn’t get all the way there. She’s too large to really swing from Blude’s horns any more, since she’s not a child, but he still thinks she’s a little baby and needs protecting from everything. Which is fair, because when she was a little baby she probably did need protecting from everything, but now she’s grown. She’s been learning magic!
Then again, she should really be packing. Lord Sharp...well, she needs to go.
But not yet. Right now, she presses herself into the shadows, and sits in the crook between corner and door, and listens through the crack of light.
She doesn’t see the strange unannounced visitor yet, because she can’t see anything through the very solid and very sturdy door between the chambers where she sleeps and where her mama works, but she can hear his voice. He has a very warm voice. She thinks he probably has freckles. She loves freckles. She has freckles too, and she has it on good authority that hers are very cute.
“Hello,” the voice says, a strange accent on the greeting. Hello. Hallo. Jester mouths the strange word to herself, grinning. What a funny way to talk! “Is the Ruby, ah, busy at the moment?”
Even though Blude doesn’t say anything Jester knows he’s staring down this new man with the weird voice. Blude doesn’t trust people easily, which Jester thinks is a little silly. Most people are pretty cool when you give them a chance, or she thinks they will be, when she gets to meet them.
A little part of her — very little, because the rest of her is trying really hard to not notice that she is very afraid — is excited to leave Nicodranas. Not to leave her mother, of course! She would never want to leave her mama. But to travel, and see places like the ones the Traveler tells her about, and meet new people, and make new friends.
Jester is really excited about that last part. She can’t wait to make new friends. New friends means more faces and even more lips to put smiles on!
“What do you want?”
“I would like to, ah, only to speak with her for a moment,” the man says. “Not if she is busy, of course, but it should not take long. I have a message. And coin, if I am interrupting something — I mean, oh, scheisse, I did not mean to imply that I came here for — ”
The man cuts himself off, taking a deep breath. Jester stifles a giggle into her hand. He sounds really flustered and he hasn’t even seen her mama yet. He’s going to be so much worse when he sees her. Lots of people her mama meets lose their words really quickly when they see her boobs.
“Give me your weapons,” Blude grunts. “Components and everything. Jacket pockets. Empty them. And any knives you’ve got. Short blades. Give them to me.”
“Of course,” the man says, and there are a few quick swipes of metal on metal and one the distinct shush of a coat being removed before Blude grunts again and says, “Wait here.”
“Of course,” the man says again, and then there is the floomph of a man sitting very heavily on one of the pieces of furniture in their common area where mama meets all of her guests. A moment passes, and then a strange snapping sound comes from the meeting-room. Instantly she can hear a strange tap-tap-tapping , like a rag whapped against the leg of a couch. Something rhythmic. The man murmurs, “Well, here we are, Frumpkin.”
Jester perks up. She’s never met anyone named Frumpkin. It’s a really weird name.
Then there’s a bark, and Jester has to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a squeal of excitement. That was a dog! There’s a dog in their rooms! She’s never had a dog before, she’s only gotten to pet one once when she snuck out of her mama’s room in the night and chased after a stray and even though he was really mangy he was really soft and Jester would very much like to pet one again.
“What an ass I have made of myself, ja? Offering to pay the Ruby, gods above, that is not what I meant at all.”
An answering bark, and the man sighs. Strangely enough, his voice is almost fond. “Yes, I am excited, I suppose. It has been...it has been some time.”
Jester’s eyes go wide. Is this the man? Is this the man that came from the sea? Oh, Traveler, maybe he finally came back for her mama! And then mama won’t be scared of leaving this place and they can all go be a family somewhere where no stuffy old Lord wants to kill her and she’ll be able to take walks around her home and they’ll have lots and lots of friends!
“Good evening,” says her mother’s voice, and Jester droops, because there’s no recognition in her mother’s tone. She slinks back against the door a little, feeling pretty silly for hoping this strange man was her father. It’s only that she has to leave tomorrow, and if she could not be her own knight in shining armor, and neither could the Traveler or her mama, well, she had hoped that maybe her father would love her again and come back.
“The Ruby of the Sea,” the man murmurs. “The shanties do not do you justice. My name is, my name is Caleb Widogast, and I am afraid I rather ruined any chance I had of making a good impression when I instead made something of an ass of myself when I introduced myself to your associate.”
Her mama laughs, and it’s a genuine, surprised sort of laugh that most of her mama’s clients don’t get to hear. That’s the sort of laugh Jester loves to encourage from her mother. “Young man, I did not take you for the seafaring type.”
“Gods above, I am not,” he says fervently. “But I once knew a man who was. He was quite endeared with, ah, well, I suppose I should, that I should stay on topic, ja?”
“Perhaps,” her mama says, and Jester can almost see the twinkle in her eye. “What brings you here, Caleb Widogast?”
“I have a message for you.”
“It is...it is not only for you. It is for your little Sapphire as well.”
Silence. There’s that familiar ringing in Jester’s ears that comes with complete and utter quiet and she bats at her ears, trying to make it go away. Normally the Traveler is really good for when nights like these fall when she’s in her room and her mother is busy and Blude is asleep, but the Traveler isn’t here right now.
“How do you know of my daughter?”
For the first time, her mother sounds angry, but she only sounds angry because she’s afraid. Her mother is afraid of a lot of things. Basically everything outside their walls, technically.
“I do not mean to cause alarm,” he says, into the shivering silence. “I had grievances against the Lord Sharp, and she was mentioned, but I only bring good tidings to do with him. And if Jester is here, I would like to, to present them to her as well.”
Another long stretch of quiet. That strange ringing in her ears happens again. She notices, belatedly, that the tap-tap-tapping she heard earlier is gone, and hopes the dog is okay.
Her mother calls, “Jester?”
Jester dallies for a moment, just to make sure no one suspects her of eavesdropping, because bursting out of hiding so soon would be very suspicious and Jester is sneakier than that. “Yes, mama?” she asks, her pretty tiefling eyes very large and very innocent.
Her mother is all stiff and tense, a wineglass clutched and trembling in one hand as she says, “This man has a message for us.”
“I do not mean you any harm, Jester,” the man says, and Jester was right. He has lots and lots of freckles and bright red hair. They go all down his nose and across his cheeks, like paint splatters on a pale canvas. She knows immediately that she’ll draw him as soon as he leaves. He’s so brightly colored! “I only wish to say that Lord Sharp has been...ah, persuaded, to leave Nicodranas, and to not return.”
Her mother drops the glass she was holding, and in the distraction Jester looks frantically for the dog she heard, and then she understands the words the man just said and says, “What?”
“I had a, you know, a conversation, a business meeting of sorts, with the man, and he was persuaded that his interests were better suited in Alfield. It is a, a small village toward the center of the Empire. Several weeks of travel from here. He will not return to your city.” The freckled man’s brows knit, pained and nervous and reassuring all at once. His clothes are almost as nice as hers. “You do not need to leave your mother, little one.”
Jester stares. “I showed everyone his dick,” she says blankly. “And he got, like, really really mad. How did you make him not mad? Also, what is your name? You haven’t introduced yourself, and that’s pretty rude.”
“I suppose my manners have gone, have they not? Well then, little Sapphire, my name is Caleb. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“My name is Marion,” her mother says, and curtsies. Her voice is all unsteady, but her movements are sure, because her mama is the best at her job basically ever. “Marion Lavorre, in full. It is a delight to hear the good news you bring, if it is true.”
“Yes, it’s a pleasure,” Jester says, and does the proper curtsy her mother taught her. “How are you sure he’s going to leave?”
Caleb gestures toward a window, the nearest in the room. “Because he is departing this moment.”
He’s leaving right now! Jester scurries to the window before her mother’s caution can stall her and she gasps audibly at the really fancy cart outside the Sharp manor that is, true to word, being loaded with goods and prepared to leave.
Her mama joins her quickly at the window, a protective hand looping over her shoulder. Jester points out the cart quickly, because her mama doesn’t really like being at windows for too long, and when her mama sees the cart she swallows so hard that Jester watches her neck bob.
“Mama?” she asks. She thought this was a good thing! “Are you all right?”
But her mama doesn’t answer her. Instead she calls, “Blude?”
Blude materializes from his room, alert as always. He’s laden down with a few new knives and is awkwardly carrying an overlarge coat that Caleb probably handed to him, wrapping and re-wrapping it around his forearms so that none of the pockets spill. The wizard hastily stifles a chuckle at the sight, and Jester hides a grin of her own. Blude does look pretty silly. “Marion?”
“Go out to the street, please,” she says. “I need — I wish to know — tell me if Lord Sharp is truly leaving, and whether he intends to return.” Then, “Please. As quickly as you can.”
“Of course.” Blude sets the wizard’s things down before he goes, and Jester looks from him to the strange wizard, and asks, more quietly than she means to: “Does this mean I don’t have to go?”
Her mama pulls her in for a long hug, and Jester buries her face in her mother’s shoulder. Her mother always smells sweet and is very warm. “I hope so,” her mother whispers. “I hope so, my sweet Jester.”
After a moment, Jester pulls back, feeling light and relieved and also, strangely, a little disappointed. But that’s okay. At least she still has the Traveler.
She skips back to the common room and stops in front of the wizard, who was watching them with a strange, distant fondness in his eyes. Jester pats his hand to get his attention and asks, “Are you here for my mother?”
Caleb chokes on a breath, suddenly very present and aware. “I — no, gods above, no, I would not — no. I am not interested in, in that. I mean no disrespect, of course, it is only that — ”
“Peace,” her mother says, laughing a little. “I will admit that was my first thought when you asked to enter my chambers, but it seems you are not the type, hmm? Would you prefer a male? I have a counterpart in Port Damali that I recommend with flying colors.”
Then her mama winks, and the man turns a startling shade of crimson, nearly matching his hair. He’s making a very strange sound that Jester has never heard before. “I do not — I would be amenable to both, or, or either, but that is not... scheisse,” he says, grinning ruefully, “you have caught me quite off-guard, Marion. I am not typically such a stuttering mess.”
“My mama has that effect on people,” Jester says. “Normally it’s with her boobs though. Do you have a dog?”
Caleb blinks. “I do,” he says, and snaps, and then there’s a dog in front of her. He looks to her mama. “If you do not mind — ?”
“Not at all,” her mother says, watching Jester with that little fond look she gets when she comes to tuck Jester in before bed. Jester squeals excitedly and drops to pet the dog, who barks just as enthusiastically and slobbers all along her face.
“He’s so cute! ” Jester enthuses. “And he’s magic! What’s his name?”
“Frumpkin,” Caleb says. “And he is very dear to me.”
“Well he’s very dear to me, too,” Jester says, scratching as much fur as she can. This dog is big and beautiful and a lovely orange color that matches Caleb’s hair and is panting happily as she pets him, wriggling about to give her better access, tail wagging so excitedly she can hear the air whoosh around it. “I love him. Frumpkin. I’m going to call you Frumpy.”
“Please do not,” the man says, sounding slightly pained. “It is not a habit of mine to give him nicknames.”
“Frump,” she says. “Frufru? I like Frumpy better, but I think that might be better for your wizard, huh? He does look sort of frumpy,” she stage-whispers to the dog, and her mother hisses slightly in alarm, but Caleb takes no offense and only laughs.
“You should have seen me some time ago,” he says, his voice the unflustered gentle it was before. “You would have added quite a number of unflattering adjectives to the end of your thought, Jester.”
“I definitely would’ve added adjectives, but they wouldn’t have been mean,” she says. “I would’ve added smart, and handsome, and magic — ”
“Stinky,” the man says dryly. “You might have said stinky.”
“But you’re not smelly.”
“A lot can change in a handful of years,” the man says, so quiet that Jester looks up from petting the dog. He seems sad. Behind him, Blude has passed to her mother and muttered something in her ear, and her mother is wide-eyed with shock, which Jester thinks is probably a good thing.
“There is one more message I mean to pass to you,” Caleb says, watching her pet Frumpkin with gleeful abandon, “but I would prefer to do so in private, and would make that request to your mother, that she might give us a few minutes of time. I mean no harm to your daughter,” he says, softly. “It means nothing to you, but I give you my word.”
“You did not lie,” her mama murmurs. “He is leaving.”
“He is,” Caleb promises. “And he will not return. Your — your daughter is safe.”
“Thank you,” her mother whispers. “I do not understand how, or why, but this is a blessing.”
“It is a favor in kind,” the wizard says.
“I can’t imagine what I have done to merit such a favor.”
A strange, almost wistful smile passes over Caleb’s face before he brushes it away. “Do not let it trouble you,” he says. “Jester? Do you mind if we, if we were to speak for a moment?”
“Sure!” she chirps. “Mama, are you okay?”
“I will allow it,” she says. “But I will be no more than a room away.”
Caleb nods. “Of course.”
He waits until her mama is out of the room with the door closed. Jester kneels by Frumpkin and scruffs along his ears, and he squints his eyes shut real hard and pants happily. Jester wants a dog. Jester wants a magic dog.
“I want a magic dog,” she says.
“They are very good companions, ja,” the man says, and kneels next to her. “Jester, I am, you know, I am proficient in the arcane.” He gestures to Frumpkin.
Jester snorts. “Well, duh,” she says. “Of course you are. You made a whole dog just for me.”
“I did not — well, okay, that is not technically correct but you have, you do have the spirit of the thing. Normally he is a cat,” Caleb mutters. “But you, you have magic too, ja?”
“I do!” Jester says excitedly, petting the dog even harder. Frumpkin is rumbling now, all warm and content. “The Traveler’s been teaching me all sorts of magic! Do you know about the Traveler?”
She’s already reaching for her sketchbook to show him pictures of her and the Traveler when he says, “I do.”
“You do? I’ve never met anyone else who knew about the Traveler before. He’s really cool, isn’t he?”
“He is, yes, he is pretty cool,” Caleb says, and Jester snorts at the awkward way those words tripped off his tongue. They sounded weird and cool in his accent.
“Honey,” Caleb says. Jester laughs again. His voice sounds funny.
“Okay, now say ‘dick.’”
“Say, ‘the Traveler is the best and I love him so much.’”
Caleb raises an eyebrow at her. “Why are you asking me to say these things, Jester?”
“Because your voice is really cool. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. I’ve never heard anyone talk like anything but my mom. And Blude. But he doesn’t talk much at all.”
Caleb is silent for a moment after that. Eventually he asks, “Would you like to?”
Jester pauses in petting the dog for a moment. She thinks she understands now why the man didn’t want her mother in the room for this conversation, and she’s glad too, because she thinks her answer might be different if her mama were here.
“What do you mean?”
“Would you like to travel?”
“I would,” she says, carefully. She starts petting the dog again, eyes fixed to bright fur. “But I don’t want to leave my mother. I almost had to leave the city, and I didn’t really want to. I’m very glad I get to stay.”
“That is true, yes,” the wizard says. “But that is the thing about travelling, you know? No matter where you are, you can always come home.”
Jester keeps petting the dog’s fur. He’s very warm and his eyes are scrunched close and his tail keeps battering Jester’s knee. She kisses the top of his head, and Frumpkin starts rumbling, deep and low in his chest.
That’s the problem. The problem is that she does want to go. She wants to travel very much. There is so much she hasn’t seen, and so many friends she hasn’t made! But she doesn’t want her mama to be afraid, and if she leaves her mama then maybe when she comes home her mama would be angry.
Jester likes petting this dog. This is a very good dog. “Why are you telling me this?”
“There is a, in a few months, there will be a meeting of sorts. Of a handful of people that I think you would like very much, Jester. New — new friends. Do you know of a little town named Trostenwald?”
Jester shakes her head. “I’ve never really left this hotel,” she says.
“Ah,” Caleb says. “Well, it is within the Empire. Toward the south, and the middle. It will not be terribly difficult to find on a map. In two months’ time, there will be a, will be a gathering of strange people there, and if you are ready for an adventure, Jester, I think you will like them very much.”
Jester keeps petting Frumpkin. Carefully, she says, “I don’t want my mama to get lonely. She’s had me for, you know, a really really long time, and if I go away then she won’t have anyone except Blude.”
“If you do not wish to go, Jester, then you can stay,” he says gently. “But there is a spell the Traveler can teach you, if you ask him. It is called, there is an incantation called Sending, so that once a day, you and your mother can speak with each other, no matter where the two of you are in the world.”
Jester looks up. “Really?”
“It is not an easy spell to learn, you know, and it will take some practice, and you can only send twenty-five words to your mother a day with each cast, but it...it is an awfully sorrowed life, Jester, to live without people. I tried it once, you know, to live on my own, and I did miserably.”
“That seems dumb. I’m never without people. I have my mama. Though I suppose...” she trails off, still combing her fingers through Frumpkin’s fur. “I think I might want a few more,” she whispers. “But don’t tell mama I said that.”
“I will keep your secret,” he promises.
“Okay,” she says. “Thank you. I think....” She thinks about it. She wants to go. She really wants to go. Also it seems sort of silly to worship the Traveler without actually, well, traveling. “I’ll think about it really hard.”
“I am glad, Jester,” he says fondly. There is a knock, her mama’s distinct one-two-three, and the man stands.
“One second, mama!” she calls, and stands too. Belatedly she realizes that she should curtsey here, like her mama showed her, but curtseying to this man seems silly, so instead she smiles really big, privately delighted when he gives her a small smile in return. “Will I see you again, will you be in Trostenwald? It had better be you and Frumpkin both. I think you would be really fun to travel with.”
Frumpkin barks happily, tail whapping repeatedly against her shin as he noses at her knee. She scrubs her knuckles along his spine, cooing. Her movements make his fur stick up in all sorts of strange directions but he’s pant-pant-panting and there seems to be a smile on his face so Jester doesn’t stop. His eyes are squinting, and Jester can’t help but grin in return, really! Her smile is toothy and squinty too and Frumpkin lets out a little bark and licks her face. She chokes out a little giggle and kisses his forehead again.
“I do not think so,” the wizard says softly, and when she looks up he’s smiling sadly at the two of them. “Not unless we are very lucky.”
“Oh.” Jester tilts her head. “Are you lucky?”
Caleb tilts his head back at her. He really does have a lot of freckles. Jester tries to memorize them quickly, so she can draw them later, when the Traveler asks her what made her decide to travel finally. She thinks the Traveler would probably like this weird wizard who made her and her mama smile.
“Sometimes,” he says eventually. “There are things in my life that took a great deal of luck for me to have, and there are a number of things that happened to me that were unlucky indeed.”
“Okay,” she says, not quite sure what to make of that. She supposes it’s the same for her too. She’s lucky to have the Traveler, and her mama, and Blude, and all the cool people she’s going to meet in Trostenwald. “Well, I hope you get lucky again! I want to pet Frumpkin when you get back. He’s very soft.”
“Ah, I hope so as well, Jester,” he murmurs. “Perhaps we will see each other in a few months, then. I do not think so, but...perhaps.”
He holds out his hand for her to shake. She laughs at him, bats it away, and hugs him tightly. “Thanks for getting rid of Lord Sharp for me.”
“That is, also not technically true, but that is —”
“The spirit of the thing, yes I know you said,” she says, and hugs him tighter before letting go. He lets out a little oof and massages his ribs, and she just laughs louder. He’s so squishy. “Thank you anyway. I hope I get to see you really soon!”
“And, ah, me too. But if not, Jester,” he says, his smile short and soft and all-too-brief. “Be well.”
“And if he ever returns to the city,” Caleb says quietly to the pensive elven mage before him, two cups of tea set between them and the teleportation circle upstairs still murmuring with warmth, “kill him.”
So the Nein's bad habit of foisting problems off on Bryce continues. Poor Bryce. They have more than enough on their plate already.
Anyway: Happy Monday! Talks tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. Matt and Travis, I have questions for you both.
ART ALERT! The lovely @erebugs drew this incredible comic for this chapter!
As always, a huge, thankful shoutout to Tea, or @gndy-dancer on tumblr, who was a wonderful beta, an excellent ear to bounce off ideas, and the support and motivation that helped me see this project through.
Hope you enjoyed! More to come next week. Check me out on my tumblr if you wanna chat. <3
Chapter 3: BEAUREGARD
This is probably Beau's worst assignment yet: she is at a ball, in a dress, and she has not danced with a single woman. She could just fucking run, she could do it, the forest is right outside the ballroom, but Dairon is watching.
Instead of running, she dances with a flame-haired man with a strange story to tell. And at the end, he gives her a gift.
Beauregard! Man, when I set out to write this fic I wanted to nail this chapter. Beau and Caleb's relationship is one of my favorites in the show, and they're both super-important to me. I think it came out pretty well, and either way I'm excited to share it.
Without further ado: the lionness herself.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Beau imagines this ballroom would unnerve most people.
It’s an elven hall, see, and elves don’t really “do” conventional safety standards. Personally, she’s fine with it, the layers of balconies and the dizzying heights that would give most people vertigo. She’s fine, too, with the lack of handrails, the gentle slope of the floors that make dancing even much more of a challenge.
All that makes it unnerving for most people, the ever-present danger. For Beau, what gets her is that this place is gorgeous.
Because there’s the gentle winds and folds of the balconies, whose edges dip like leaves weighted down with frost or beads of rain; those are breathtaking. And sure, the precise and elegant crumpling of the ceiling with jade windows, which tint the afternoon light a velvety green, blushing the whole room with emerald, that’s a nice touch, too. So are the balconies curling outside, letting in the fresh air and warm breezes of the Pearlbow Forest, a great view; and so are the cream-colored walls, so are the golden railings, so is the gold filigree lining the mirrors and the walls, the only bits of the room not touched by the green light spilling from the ceiling.
The whole place smells soothingly of moss and rain and the very best of her childhood days cheerfully exploring a whole forest of her own. The air feels warm but not stuffy, gently enveloping, and there has to be some sort of magic in all of this, in how graceful everything from the filigree to the touch of the air feels.
So as she mentioned: beautiful. Of course, it wouldn’t be half so beautiful in nighttime, because instead of green the place would just be dark, but whatever. That’s what makes this place the palace to go-to for daytime balls, Beau supposes acerbically. More time to get fucking wasted in the after-parties.
So the whole place is a little dangerous. Off-putting. Thankfully, Beau’s a monk, so, whatever. She’s got even these stupid elves beat when it comes to grace and speed. But there are definitely a couple dwarves dressed in finery huddled about this room, conspicuously standing only by the corners and the windows of the upper balconies, where they have no chance of falling off.
Makes it hard to mingle. It wasn’t until she walked into the place that Beau understood why their dwarven Souls had chosen to skip out on this particular mission.
Of course there’s something to be said also for the centuries of tension between elves and dwarves, and how just getting their aasimar companions an invitation had been difficult enough, but it’s much funnier for Beau to imagine people misstepping up on those upper balconies and falling splat onto the ground below.
Far more entertaining than dancing, anyway. She’s currently in the arms of someone whose name she’s already quite forgotten, and hating every single inch of silk pressed along her thighs. She had to wear a fucking dress for this. She hates dresses. They’re always cinched too tight and she can’t kick for shit in them without tearing them apart.
The man with a hand on her waist asks her a question, and Beau blinks reluctantly back to the present, torn from her imaginings of Zeenoth slipping over the ridiculous sashes trailed over his shoulders and planting face-first on the ground. “Huh?” she says, then winces at the sound of her own voice. She clears her throat and tries again, aiming for an airy, fluff-headed tone of voice that apparently makes her less threatening. “Sorry, I mean, what was that? I was lost in your, uh...eyes.”
This man, who Beau vaguely recalls to be a teacher of some sort — history, perhaps, one of those official Empire types — only smiles, and flushes a little. Beau forces down a gag. Gods. Gods, this mission isn’t worth it. She deserves a, a fucking commendation for this. Dancing with a man.
“They sparkle, don’t they?” he says, red still scattered along his cheeks, and Beau very nearly does it. She very nearly just steps out of his arms and disappears into — not the night, since it’s still afternoon, but disappears into the streets of Odesslot. The expanses of Pearlbow are right there, she could just rough it in the woods for a little bit until fucking Dairon hunted her down.
“Yeah,” she says, trying to make gritted teeth sound breathy and unintimidating. He’s smiling openly as he raises her arm to coax her into a twirl, and she tries smiling back, face relaxing into a true snarl in the half-second she’s facing away from him. “So, do you enjoy teaching? At, uh, your school?”
That smile softens. Gods. History teachers. She’s doodled in enough margins of history books and been called out by enough teachers to have a healthy disdain of the subject. “I love it,” he says, disgustingly sincere. “It’s a such a pleasure to teach children, you know? And to show them from such a young age all that our King does from them, it’s rewarding work.”
“Yeah,” Beau says, trying to sound like he knows exactly what he’s talking about. “I sure love our King. Uh, you, uh, who do you work with?”
The music starts to dwindle, and Beau bites back a sigh of relief. “Oh, you know, my colleagues at the Academy,” he says. “Janelle, our arts instructor, I could introduce you if you’d like — “
“Nah thanks I’m good,” Beau says, as the song ends, and pulls away too quickly. Her shoulder itches under the satin of her dress. She couldn’t even wear blue. Had to wear this bright, sickly shade of green that clashes horribly with her eyes. “I’ll pass on that. Nice dancing with you.”
She feels no regret turning away from that man and beelining it for the refreshments, up one smooth set of stairs. And by refreshments she means beer. “Cider,” she grunts, as soon as she hits the bar. Impeccable craftsmanship, of course, all polished wood with silver and gold inlays, not a single stain on the whole thing. The barkeep passes her a drink, eyeing her a little warily — belatedly she realizes she’s the only person at the bar — and she knocks it back in one go, biting back a shudder.
He was probably useless anyway. Arts teachers, they’re all so insular. Her investigation is in a whole different division so he won’t know anything she needs regardless —
Suddenly there’s a hand strong on her arm, and she jumps. Dairon is beside her, leaned casually against the bar; and beneath her draping sleeves, hidden from view, one dark hand is closed firmly around her arm. Beau automatically puts down her drink.
“Useful?” Dairon asks soundlessly. Her mouth doesn’t move. Beau wishes she could do that. That would be badass.
“Literally not at all,” Beau mutters. “Can you — can you let go of me?”
“No,” Dairon murmurs. Her gaze meanders calmly around the ballroom, her posture perfectly relaxed, but the tension in her fingers belies her facade.
Beau swears, shoves her hands up her own sleeves to try to pry Dairon’s fingers off her biceps — she’s cutting off all the damn bloodflow — but Dairon only pins Beau with a glare, and Beau backs off, grumbling. “That fucking hurts.”
“Good,” Dairon says. “You’re paying attention. Look, do you see that man down there —”
Beau groans, signals the bartender for another drink with her free hand. “Not another one.”
“We deal with informants of all types,” Dairon whispers sharply, though her nonchalant posture never shifts. To any casual observer, it wouldn’t even look as though Dairon were touching her at all, and it definitely wouldn’t look like her entire forearm were going numb.
“Okay, yeah, but they’re horrible dance partners. That last one kept stepping all over my feet.”
“Deal with it.” Dairon nods downward, toward the guests assembled below. Beau follows suit, but it’s impossible to pick out anyone in particular. Some guests have masks tied snugly about their faces, and the green tint of the room makes details blur together around the edges. Especially with her weaker human vision. “There is a man down there, robed in gold. One of us flagged him as a potential informant.”
Beau gets her drink and downs it in one go. Some of it slops onto her cheeks, which she flicks away with a grimace. Apparently wine is much more an elven thing than beer. Sucks that Beau much prefers the latter to the former. Her father made damn sure of that.
“Where?” she says finally, squinting into the throng of partygoers all lilting merrily around each other. The whole room is starting to stink of sweat, not alleviated even by the heavy mist of greenery and smell of fresh rain that permeates the ballroom.
“There,” Dairon says, flicking her eyes pointedly downward. Beau looks at her, earning herself a slight eye-roll — yeah, okay, maybe staring at Dairon while they’re trying to have a discreet conversation wasn’t the smartest move, whatever — then back down.
“Toward the left of the room,” Dairon murmurs, almost soundless. “With the dwarven woman in purple.”
Beau scours the throng, exasperation building as no one jumps out at her. Dwarves are tiny, okay, and everyone’s dress looks a different color in here, it’s not her fault that Dairon has incredible elven eyesight and Beau is stuck here with the stupid measly sight of a human —
“Got him,” Beau says. “I’ll go — yeah. Who is he?”
“He calls himself Widogast, but it is likely a moniker,” Dairon says. “Find out his real name if you can. We don’t know what his profession is, either.”
“What is he supposed to know?”
“He was vague.” Dairon looks distinctly displeased, eyebrows knit together. “But he was convincing.”
Beau scoffs. “So this could all be a false lead, huh. Which is why you’re siccing the apprentice on him, ‘cause it’s all low-stakes — “
“You are a student, Beauregard,” Dairon hisses, her impatience flickering through. “This is how you will learn. And you would learn much quicker if you performed instead of wasting your time complaining.”
Dairon pushes her pointedly away. A mixture of harsh triumph and disappointment curdles in Beau’s stomach. On one hand: getting Dairon to emote heavily, about anything, is always a goddamn victory. On the other hand, well, she doesn’t love pissing Dairon off enough to show it.
“Sure, sure,” Beau says, and winks lazily in her direction, seeing too late that Dairon has already stalked off. Well, hell. “See you later.”
She straightens her shoulders as she descends the stairs. She reaches for a handrail before realizing — right. None of those here.
Beau chills off to the side of the dance floor, a handful of steps from the sunlight gaping across one of the balconies behind her — those things are huge, and there are like six of them circling the ballroom, and they don’t look physically suspended at all, it must be magic — until the song ends. There are some lovely ladies that she would just love to spend a dance with, a fair number towering over her, but no, she gets stuck with the human in the high-collar gold robes who’s even shorter than her. Great.
Eventually the song ends, and Beau winds her way through the throng of people before stopping by the human. “Hi,” she says, and he turns toward her with a look of surprise. She tries to smile, and his partner — who’s still beside him, whoops, she missed that particular social cue — stares. “Could I, uh, have this dance?”
“Of course,” he says, and immediately Beau’s eyes narrow. She’s never heard that accent before. Where is he from?
His partner bows elegantly to him, and he returns the gesture, before straightening and holding his hands out to her. Beau retches internally before stepping forward, trying actively not to grimace when one of his hands rests on her shoulder.
He’s watching her with some amusement. “These dances do not seem to be your favorite.”
“No, I love them,” Beau says, voice higher and breathy again. She’s going to wake up tomorrow morning with a sore throat. “I love dancing! And dresses.”
At least this idiot persona makes her seem like less of a threat. She needs to give it a name, because she simply cannot think of this other...this other character as Beau.
The man simply chuckles. “What is your name, then?”
“I’m Beau,” she says. “Who are you?”
The second the words leave her mouth she winces. Gods, she has to practice this whole talking thing. Who are you, nice one, great way to ask someone for their fucking name.
Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to notice. “Caleb Widogast,” he says, and she realizes with a start that he’s not leading the dance; he’s following. She’s leading.
Before she can pick that apart, though, he asks, “And what do you do, Miss Beau?”
“Just Beau, please,” she manages through gritted teeth. She can feel Dairon’s eyes on her from above. “I’m a wine merchant by trade. I’m learning from my father.”
“Ah.” Widogast nods. “And your work, then, do you enjoy it?”
“It’s fun,” Beau says, in a way that she hopes is convincing. “Besides, the wine we make is really good! Not so good as the wine here, of course.” She laughs. It’s high-pitched and awkward, even to her ears. “So, uh, what about you?”
The tempo of the dance changes, becoming slightly faster. She shifts her pace instinctively to match, and he follows without hesitation. It’s strange; his hand is definitely near her shoulder, but carefully a fingers-breadth away, more holding the sleeve of her dress than her actual body. She doesn’t love being touched by strangers, so this is already far better than she expected. Honestly it’s the most tolerable way she’s danced with a man since...well, ever.
“I am a simple shopkeep in Rexxentrum,” he says softly. “I have my own bookstore. It is a quiet little place, but sees a good deal of business.”
“That’s really interesting,” she says. The music swells, and she raises her arms, and he mirrors her, and for a brief moment, his collar shifts. Just a nudge of fabric, but enough for her to catch strange c-shaped scars, like the inverted scales of some massive fish, pressed along his collarbone. She squints, and fumbles with her words for a moment before asking, "So what, uh, what sorts of books do you sell?”
“Magical tomes, mostly. Some of which are used for the Academy.”
Bingo. “Oh, in Rexxentrum? The Soltryce Academy? I’ve heard a little about it. Do they come to your store often?”
“Occasionally,” Widogast says. “Enough that I know personally some of the teachers there.”
Beau nods. “Probably magic teachers, right? They’d be the ones to come buy your books.” She smiles, hoping she’s not showing too many teeth. Widogast doesn’t flinch, which she counts as a win.
“Indeed,” Widogast says. The music swells, and he raises his arm in an invitation to twirl, and Beau raises hers in challenge, and he grins slightly before spinning himself. “I am familiar with some of the powerful number there. I have made myself some connections.”
“Oh? Like who?”
“I have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Lady Vess DeRogna in the past,” Widogast says plainly, no hint of pride in his voice. “And the Headmaster Oremid Hass as well, of the Halls of Erudition. And the Archmage Trent Ikithon. Those are the three I have seen most frequently.”
Beau leans forward, suppressing a flash of interest at that last name. Bingo, she thinks again. “I’ve heard of him,” she says, spinning her words carefully even as the two of them slip easily among the throng of dancers. “That last one, Brent, wasn’t it? He’s the one who, uh, makes all the speeches.”
Widogast’s face darkens. Not a flash of desolation; but he gets there, slowly, in shades. “That would be him, ja. He is the one responsible for the reputation of our Empire.”
“I’ve heard some odd stuff about him,” Beau prompts. Their pre-arranged cover story slips off her tongue. “A friend of mine went to the Soltryce Academy a long time ago. She thought he was really, uh, cool.”
A beat passes, then another. The couples around them dip, and Widogast follows smoothly as she keeps them moving around the ballroom.
All around her flash dresses of bright colors, swirls of loud fabric. Ever in the background is the pleasant din of passing conversation, the faint tinkling of laughter. There’s an uncomfortable residual warmth all the way from her elbow up to her shoulder where careless dancers have brushed their arms with hers.
“Your friend should be careful,” Widogast says eventually, carefully. That darkness has now settled on his face. “He is a good instructor up until he is not.”
Beau pauses, like she’s considering that. They sweep beneath one of the crinkled mountaintops of jade roof, and for a moment both of them burn with color, until their dance sweeps them out from that spot on the floor.
“She says he told her she’s one of his favorites,” she feeds him carefully. That much the Soul knows already. Most of their reports on Ikithon aren’t specific enough to pin down his misdoings, not really; there are half-cocked tales of students being hand-selected for training, but it wasn’t until an anonymous report was fed into the upper echelons of the Soul some months ago that they became aware that Ikithon was doing more than just preaching the goodness of the Empire.
According to the report, he’s doing something far more sinister. Burning the goodness of the Empire into his students, the paper had accused. And the Soul does not precisely get along with the Assembly — in fact Dairon has suspected them of foul play for some time — so this report came as no surprise.
There were problems, of course, in that none of the claims could be substantiated. Yet the tale made sense. So here Beau is: in a ballroom in an elven city near Rexxentrum, fishing gossip from the rich and powerful, dissecting hearsay and rumor from reality.
After all, within the best lies are seeded grains of truth.
“Ja, he talks of them sometimes while he shops,” Widogast says, slightly distant. “His favorite students. You know, I had one in my shop some time ago. He was a regular client when he first joined the Academy, but that was the first time I had seen him in a long time. He said he had not written to his family in months.”
“Months?” Beau repeats, affecting surprise. That’s a thing most students do, then, probably. Write back to their families.
She wonders, very briefly, what her brother would do if Beau wrote a letter to him — and shoves that thought away. The kid probably doesn’t even know she exists.
“Months,” Widogast confirms solemnly. “And this boy, he would not stop talking about his older sister when I first met him. It was strange.”
Beau digests that. There are religions, she knows — cults might be a better term — that do something of the same. Strip their members from communicating with their families to make them more compliant. She never understood it herself, but can understand in an abstract way how that might fuck someone up. She’s never been good at being alone either.
So if Ikithon is doing the same — there’s some sort of manipulation going on here. And paired with his devotion to upholding the safety of the Empire....
“What was he studying?” she asks. “The boy you knew.”
“Enchantment,” Widogast says, then something strange crosses his face. “But you know, now that I think about it, he had intended to declare abjuration when he began his studies.... Hm. I had forgotten that.”
Beau feels her eyebrow raise in surprise for a moment before she hastily smooths her expression. Abjuration to enchantment, huh? Most wizards specialized in abjuration have something to protect, so to switch from abjuration to enchantment, of all things, means either his thing-to-protect went away, or....
Or his priorities changed entirely.
She files that away too, as they continue to sweep around the ballroom. “The boy’s name,” she asks, “what was it?”
Widogast is looking at her strangely. A cold chill seeps through her when she realizes she’s dropped her airhead persona, but before she can muster an excuse he shakes his head and says, “His name was Johan. I do not know his last name. Why do you want to know?”
Okay. Okay, yeah, that was suspicious. Beau backs off. It’s useless information without the last name anyway; there are hundreds of Johans enrolled in the Academy, in this school with thousands of students. They’ll have an easier time asking after Ikithon’s proteges when they stop next in Rexxentrum anyway.
“My friend, she’s going to be really far away from home,” Beau says carefully, slipping her persona back on. “Just wanted to see if she could make friends before she got there!”
Widogast nods. “Of course, ja. Well, I wish her the best of luck.”
“Yeah, me too,” Beau sighs. It’s easier than it should be to affect longing. She tugs on a feeling she normally avoids — a strange sort of nostalgia for a place she’s never met. Spun sugar and saltwater and static. It feels like home, but Beau’s never really had one of those. “I’m gonna miss her.”
Another pass beneath bright green light. Beau catches the flare of her skirts, and is nearly blinded by how brightly she shines, one green riveted to another and glowing. She leads them out of the light as soon as possible, making her way for the safer, thicker crowd of dancers.
At this point, his hand is hardly touching her shoulder at all. She’s grateful for that. It’s one of the only reasons this whole conversation has been bearable in the slightest.
“Do you know any more of them? Any more of his favorites?”
Widogast’s eyes narrow in thought. “Peripherally,” he says slowly. “Not by name.”
“Did you know them for long?”
“Some. All of them seemed different after.” He swallows, eyes distant. “And not in a good way. You should let your friend know to...to be careful. And please, of course, do not — “ he squeezes her hand in his, a hint of fear entering his eyes. “Do not let the Academy know that I think this.”
“Of course not,” Beau assures him, mostly because she needs him to keep talking. “Yeah, no, I got you. I’m not gonna rat you out or anything.”
“Thank you,” he says, with a little sigh of relief. “It is just, I trust most of the Assembly, but I do not...I have seen Ikithon a handful of times and I, I do not think that he is...that his teaching practices are, well, entirely good.”
“I’ll let my friend know,” Beau promises. “Uh, thanks.”
Widogast nods, a little shakily. She must not have been too convincing, because that fear still isn’t gone from his eyes. “I — I should go,” he says. “I have said, I, I did not realize — I am going to...goodbye,” he says. He bows once, hastily, and dashes from the floor.
Beau watches him go, exasperation crawling up her throat. “Well, shit,” she swears, and follows him.
So maybe too many questions at once. That’s a thing, definitely a thing Dairon’s warned her about, since most of the people they interrogate don’t know they’re being interrogated, too many questions at once can be a tip-off or something frightening, except Beau thought she had a pretty good cover story going with her imaginary friend, except then he got all worried she was gonna...what, ring up Ikithon and rat out some bookseller?
Whatever. Some people are just paranoid.
Beau mutters a couple of choice words as she stalks out onto the balcony. She was doing so good, too, they have the name of one of Ikithon’s students who was almost definitely turned, and they have confirmation of rumor from a third-party source: a further lead, and more credence to hers and Dairon’s assignment! She sorta wishes she could wrangle the guy into still talking, but he’d seemed a freaked out by the whole thing, and yeah it’s sorta stupid for him to be scared — he’s just a bookkeepper, who cares — but whatever. Beau did good work today. Darion’ll definitely be pleased they can keep prying into the matters of someone so high in the Assembly as Trent Ikithon. Maybe that’ll make up for Beau pissing her off earlier.
She steps into the fresh air and instantly feels better, residual stress about disappointing Dairon dissipating. The sky is stuffed with a gentle warmth, the only clouds a few puffs of bright white, their shadows dancing lazily across the green Pearlbow canopy. The light breeze brushes away the sting of musk and sweat that leeches naturally from the dance floor, and she instinctively tilts her cheek toward the sun.
Widogast is alone, looking out over the forest in the peaceful silence of midafternoon. There’s still a small lock to his teeth that belies tension, and Beau gets her eye-rolling over and done with before approaching.
“Hey,” she says, as gently as she can. Even still, Widogast jumps. “Sorry if I, uh, freaked you out.”
He smiles at her, a little shakily. “No, it is not — you had a good reason for asking, and if I can keep another from joining his, from catching his eye, then that is good, but he is very powerful, you know, and I do not want to draw his attention, either.”
“Okay no but really, I’ve never met the guy,” Beau points out dryly. “What did you think I was gonna do?”
Widogast shrugs helplessly. “I do not know, I do not know if you would ever attend the Academy yourself, or what you — there is a lot I do not know about you!”
“Fair, yeah, okay, fair,” Beau concedes, and joins the guy, elbows to stiff oak, gazing out through the thicket of curling trees that mark the beginning of the Pearlbow Forest. Behind her, the music lilts and swells, and she finds her feet tapping almost idly to the beat. “Still kinda dumb though. Just — just saying.”
“Perhaps,” the man murmurs. “He is dangerous.”
Caleb’s gaze is fixed firmly on the trees around them. In a brief glance Beau takes in sharp cheekbones, a pale face in the long habit of being without blood, bright freckles complemented by the ruby trimmings on his robe. She looks away when she asks, “How so?”
He swallows audibly. “Those that he trains. They have...scars, some of them. On their arms.”
Beau narrows her eyes. “Huh.”
“Ja, it is strange. They say he tells them it makes them stronger.”
“Okay, but stronger against what?”
Widogast shrugs. “They do not say. I, I am sorry, Beauregard, I do not really wish to say much more. I know you think that I am paranoid, but I....” He trails off, a strange expression coming over his face, somehow darker than his earlier fear. “I cannot risk him finding me right now.”
Beau shakes her head. Some people, honestly. What, does he think Ikithon gives a single damn about a bookseller from Rexxentrum he’s met maybe once?
“Whatever, dude,” Beau says. “Thanks for the tips, anyway. I’ll be sure to, uh, let my friend know.”
“Ja, do that. And...well, in truth there is more on my mind than just that.”
Beau perks up. “Oh?”
“It is something of a silly story.”
“Trust me, man, I am all about dumb shit,” Beau says. “What did you do?”
“I....” Widogast trails off, then shakes his head ruefully. “I have made what some might call the single dumbest fucking impulse purchase ever.”
He holds out his arm, then, and whistles.
From the trees soars a — a falcon. A real falcon, a peregrine falcon, she guesses, in blank surprise at it flies from the trees toward the two of them, the beige underside of its wings flaring as bright orange talons latch around the man’s wrist. He winces a little, and as his sleeve rises she catches hundreds of little scars lashed all up his arms.
She frowns. Those she could write off as falconry scars, but they’re pointed in all directions, not just horizontal, and some of them curve, like — like flame —
“He was a gift,” Widogast is saying, and Beau blinks back to reality, the back of her head buzzing faintly. It’s the same static that accompanies her sourceless nostalgia, simmering at the back of her throat. “And I do not want to just leave him, but I cannot exactly take a falcon with me. He is very well-trained, it is true, but in a bookstore, he would not be so happy.”
“Holy shit,” Beau manages. “I want a fuckin’ falcon.”
Widogast turns to her, surprised. “Do you?”
“I mean, I can’t,” Beau says. That’s silly. She can’t have a falcon. She’s got training and shit to do. On missions like this, where would she even put her damn bird? It’s not like she can carry around a portable forest or anything. Besides, they require food and, and maintenance and everything....
“He is good at taking care of himself,” Widogast says, stroking the bird’s head with two knuckled fingers. “Sometimes I do not see him for days on end, but he always comes back. He hunts for himself, too. But even when he is with me....” Widogast shrugs, grinning ruefully. “Again. Bookshop. Beaks and paper do not get along well together.”
Beau looks longingly at the bird. Shit, how cool would it be if she could have a falcon? Dairon would kill her, but she would have a peregrine falcon for a pet. Sharp beaks, sharp claws, and they can fly —
“I want him,” Beau blurts, her mind moving slower than her mouth. “I mean, uh, how much are you — ”
Widogast is already holding out his arm, smiling slightly. “Take him.”
Beau stares. “Just like that?”
“Just like that. Oh! Wait, no, not yet, take — take these,” he says, and fumbles around in his pockets, and out from inside his robe flies...an owl?
“How many fucking birds do you have on you, dude?”
“Just the two,” Widogast mutters, placing the owl — it’s so tiny, like, one ounce at most — on his shoulder and rooting through his pockets. Clearly his robes have many pockets inside because it takes him more than a handful of seconds of searching before he lights up with a pleased a-ha! and brandishes a pair of gloves in her direction. “They will attune to you,” Widogast says with a nod. “If you wear them long enough. Right now they fit me, but if you would really like this bird, I will give them to you.”
“For how much?”
“Nothing,” Widogast says. “I need to be rid of them. If you are willing to take him, then he is yours.”
“That’s sketchy as shit, dude,” Beau says suspiciously.
“I mean, if you would like me to charge you for them, I can do so,” Widogast says dryly.
“Nah, it’s just super suspicious that you’re trying to get rid of a bird,” Beau points out. “Like, for free. Is something wrong with him?”
“No, nothing is wrong with him,” Widogast says. “I got him from a dear friend of mine, at a discount because of some, of some old history between us, which is another reason I can give him to you for cheap....” He trails off, looking over the gloves, before presenting them to her. “Here. Try to hold him. Put these on.”
He helps her strap on the gloves, adjusts them around her arm. Then he holds out his arm, and Beau mirrors him cautiously. The falcon eyes her, head cocked, and caws once. Thankfully, the music behind them doesn’t miss a beat, and when Beau looks over her shoulder, no one inside has seemed to notice the sudden bird sounds from outside.
The falcon picks his way from Widogast’s arm to hers, and Beau winces as the talons dig into her flesh even through the gloves. It takes a few seconds to claw along her arm before flapping its feathers contentedly and looking directly at her.
“Holy shit,” she breathes. “This is insane.”
“He is a good pet,” Widogast says, stroking his own little owl. “He is very loyal once he grows to like you. Although I would recommend not putting him anywhere small and dark, like a bag, or a pocket.”
“Who the fuck would put a bird in a pocket?” Beau asks, incredulous. “That’s fucked up.”
“That is the question,” Widogast says, once again dry as bone. “Who indeed.”
The falcon stares at her. Beau looks to Widogast for advice, but he remains blank-faced. Motherfucker. Beau looks back at her falcon, mostly hoping it doesn’t try to bite her. Is she supposed to win a staring contest with a falcon? Is it like that thing with cats where they’ll stare you down but then if they blink first they’ll look away all haughtily like the contest meant nothing to them?
Whatever she does though, it seems to be enough, because the falcon plucks its way along her skin and into the crook of her elbow — ow — and butts its beak into her shoulder.
She pets it slowly, wonderingly, laughing to herself a little. The bird chirrs at her happily, ruffling its feathers. Okay so Beau maybe loves this bird a little bit. “Can’t believe you’re giving him up for free,” Beau says. “He’s so cool.”
“Ja, well, I will not be at my bookshop for much longer,” Widogast says, and Beau peers at him. He’s watching her falcon intently. “Take the gloves.”
“Where are you going?”
“To visit some very old friends,” Widogast says. “Back in Rexxentrum. I did not want to leave him without a place to go when I am gone.”
Beau tenses. If he’s actually in league with Ikithon and he reports back that she’s been asking questions — no, she can’t be traced to the Soul, but — damn it, she gave him her real name, what was she thinking? Gods, why did she give him her real name? That was stupid, and Dairon is going to kick her ass when she finds out!
“Who you, uh, who’re you gonna go see?”
Widogast looks at her askance, and it suddenly hits her — gods, what the fuck is she doing — that she has been using her regular, rough-around-the-edges, brusque Beauregard voice ever since she stepped out onto the balcony with just her and Widogast, so now of course he knows that she was faking something, which means she has something to hide, what the hell did he do to her that made her drop her defenses so quickly? Or has she just lost her mind?
“Some colleagues of mine. They are from a very long time ago, when I was in school,” Widogast says, still looking at her curiously. “They need my help, though they have not asked for it yet, but, and I have called in a favor, from the same person as from whom I purchased the bird, incidentally, to help them, but I — well. I do not think I will return from it, hence — ” he gestures to the bird. “ — hence the, ah, very low cost for this bird.”
Her heart rate settles. “Okay, good,” she says, then bites her own tongue. “I mean not, not good like — not good that you’re gonna die trying to, do whatever you’re gonna do — ” Beau shuts her mouth with a snap, face flaming with embarrassment and ire. Foot meet fucking mouth, apparently! Gods! “I just mean — ”
But Widogast only laughs. Something in her is surprised at the noise. “Yes, well, you know, you are right. It will be good to have some old scores settled.” He stretches, and the owl stretches with him, flexing its wings and nuzzling into the hollow of his jaw. It’s a strange owl; its feathers are bright orange and yellow, fringed on the tips with wings. Despite the coloring, it’s kinda cute. Pocket-sized, she thinks out of nowhere, before slapping that thought away. “It has been weighing on me for some time.”
Yeah, Beau knows that feeling. She’s got a few scores of her own to settle, one day, when she’s stronger and a little bit quicker. One of them has her family name written on it.
“Good luck,” she says, and for some reason, she means it.
“Thank you,” Widogast says. He nods toward her falcon. “He eats pigeons, by the way. Doves and pigeons and fowl of all sorts. Cities have a very good stock of pigeon, if you are in a place where he is unable to hunt for himself. If you have more coin, there is a shop in Zadash, near the regional bureau, that sells pocket forests. Look for the tabaxi shopkeep, and be ready to make a deal.”
Oh, shit, yeah, she’s gotta take care of this thing. “Oh, right,” she says. “Food and shit.” She doesn’t put her airhead voice back on; the ruse is already up, and besides, talking to him in her fake breathy voice just doesn’t feel right. “Anything else I should know?”
“Nothing you cannot learn from books.”
Beau scowls. Widogast — Caleb, he said Caleb was his name — laughs again and hands her a small packet of what looks to be feed. She takes it and tucks it, carefully, into the pocket of her dress. She’d had to fight with the tailor for two hours to get even a single considerable pocket, and even then it’s folded awkwardly within her skirts. “They are not so awful, Beauregard. Books. You should give them an honest try.”
“Of course you’d say that, you own a bookstore,” Beau grumbles. “You’re biased as shit. Okay, pigeons. Got it. What’s his name?”
“He does not yet have one.”
“You’ve had a falcon for however the fuck long and you haven’t given him a name?”
Caleb shrugs, smiling slightly. “I never intended to keep him forever.”
Beau studies her bird. Nothing comes to her. She keeps studying; her mind keeps blanking. She sighs. “I’ll get back to that,” she mutters. “Come up with a badass name for this little guy.”
“Please do,” Caleb says. Inside, someone calls out Widogast! Caleb pauses for a moment, real regret passing over his face, before he sighs and says, “Beauregard, I...it is time for me to leave.”
“Oh,” she says. That old, odd nostalgia bubbles up again, burning at the back of her throat, tasting of woodsmoke, and she pushes it away. Or at least, she tries. “Oh, okay, yeah. Sure. Thanks, uh, for the falcon.”
“Of course.” There’s something odd and sad in Caleb’s eyes. “Take good care of him. And, ah, and of yourself.”
Beau very nearly brushes him off. Says I always do, or what kinda business is it of yours? It’s easy to be snappish, and easy to be brusque.
But she doesn’t. Instead she says, “Yeah, you too.”
He smiles again at that, and bows to her; a full bow, from the waist. It’s disorienting, and by the time she realizes she hasn’t returned the gesture it’s too late. She feels, strangely enough, a little sick. He shouldn’t be bowing. Not to her.
The owl on his shoulder coos once, lands briefly on her shoulder. It scoots along her skin — a pat pat, pat pat, pat pat pat of tiny feet — and nips at her ear affectionately. Then it takes off with a gentle brush of wings against her neck and lands back on Caleb’s shoulder.
And, without another word, he turns and leaves.
And from the balcony, with a falcon on her shoulder and a pair of too-squat gloves in her hands, Beau watches him go.
Happy Monday! Psyched for Talks tomorrow. I have so many questions for both Liam and Taliesin. Hey, Liam, whatcha gonna do about that Vollstrecker who knows who you are, huh?
A couple of quick notes:
First, re: characterization. When Caleb went back in time, he didn't completely overwrite the timeline. In this 'verse, bonds create marks on souls so indelible that even undoing the timeline can't fully erase them. Like with Yasha, like with Jester, each member of the Nein trusts Caleb instinctively when they see him, even if they don't fully understand why. That's why Beau is so open with him, and why she's so quick to drop her Tracey-personality when it's just the two of them on the balcony.
Second, for all my eagle-eyed readers: yep, Caleb did indeed use Beau's full name a few times. And no, she did not give it to him. Strange, huh? She doesn't call him on it in-fic because she hasn't realized it yet (why wouldn't he use her real name, after all? haven't they known each other for years? no - they just met today), but she will realize soon. She won't know who planted that report, who drew the Soul's attention toward Trent Ikithon, for a long time. And it will take her longer still to find out how he knew who she really was.
Also, a very special ART ALERT! Created by the same lovely Critter who has encouraged this whole fic, the very same Tea from below (this time, from her tumblr @tea-arts), is this incredible depiction of Beau and Caleb's tit-for-tat twirl, which delights me so much!
Chapter 4: FJORD
Fjord's not looking for a new god, per se. It's just — the falchion freaks him out a little. Which he thinks is understandable. It blinks at him sometimes.
He doesn't enter the bookshop looking for the idea of a new god, but he leaves with one.
Buckle up, it's Fjord Tough. Note: this chapter was drafted three months ago, before Fjord even knew who the Wildmother is. I hope he does become a paladin though. I think that would be, pardon my French, badass.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
From a distance, the door looks simple.
Deceptively so; there is one handle, and a small circular window with no engravings. There are no steps leading up to it, and no hinges on which the door rests, and oh, it’s built directly into rock.
A bookstore, the guardsman had called this. Fjord frowns at it. Sure, a bigger town than Deastok, he’d expect some weird shit — he’s heard stories about Zadash, even from Port Damali — but this is just strange. There’s no light from behind the hinges. Is he just supposed to walk face-first into a stone cliff-face? Is this some sort of test? Maybe it’s a wizardry test.
Fjord steels himself, folds and returns to his pocket the paper that pointed him to this door (which had to be sketched by hand, because this shop did not have an address or even a name), and opens the door.
To his surprise, it opens smoothly at his touch, and swings inward to reveal a small bookstore. He expected it to creak, honestly, or at least whine ominously, but the door is almost silent.
The inside is even more surprising. For one, the walls are not stone, but wood. Rose-gold shelves lined thickly with books spiral all the way up toward the ceiling, rotating in dizzying circles until the wood disappears into a blinding halo of light. Stout staircases cut mountains through the forest of spines, dark ribbons of rosewood arcing and jolting to a brief halt on each level. Shelves replace nearly every available inch of wall.
And the books. Gods, there are so many books. Some are hand-lettered, where the original title was obscured or destroyed. They glitter like gold, faintly, so that the whole room sparkles like starlight. Fjord can make out some Orcish titles, and he thinks he sees Elven, a little Halfling, and of course, half-a-dozen languages he’s never clapped eyes on in his life.
Nervously, he straightens his posture. So this guy’s a braniac. Great for what he came here to do, but also, Fjord’s gonna need to make a good first impression.
A bark from his feet startles Fjord and he jumps back with a shout.
On the ground before him, curled up with the tail lazily swaying, is a red fox. It has bright yellow eyes and is fucking watching him, which is unnerving as shit. He’s starting to think maybe he should go somewhere else, this place has no ceiling and also there’s a fox in here and it’s not trashing even a single book, he wants to learn but he doesn’t want to learn that bad —
No. He’s gonna learn, and observe, and consume, or whatever the hell else that snake told him to do. Fjord musters his courage and straightens his shoulders and steps further into the shop. “Hello?”
There’s the faint pattering of feet as the fox gets up and follows him. Fjord stops and stares at it for a moment. It stares right back, eyes gleaming and curious. “Good dog,” he says quietly. “You a good dog? Are you even a dog?” He frowns. “Are foxes considered dogs — ?”
“He is a pretty good dog, ja,” a strange voice calls, and Fjord whips around to find a tall, red-haired human man watching him with a half-smile tugging at his lips. Behind him arches one of those staircases, and sunlight from — somewhere — high above burnishes his hair with flame. “His name is Frumpkin. He watches my store while I am busy. What can I do for you?”
“I’m, uh, sorry for interruptin’ you,” Fjord says, inclining his head slightly. It occurs to him that he has no idea how wizards work, if there’s some custom he should know about — about greetings, or exchanges, but it’s too late for that now, so he’s just gonna run with what he’s got. “I just had a couple of questions, and was told this would be the place to go?”
“It depends on what you are looking for, but a bookstore is typically a good bet,” the man says, descending the rest of the stairs to stop in front of Fjord. Vaguely Fjord wonders if the man knows how the sunlight silhouettes him and makes him look as intimidating as hell, or if that’s just a thing wizards do naturally.
“I was referred to you, actually,” Fjord says, figuring some flattery can’t hurt. “Told you were one of the smartest folks in this town, just passin’ through for, uh, a little while.”
“You were not misinformed. I am Caleb Widogast, and I am a shopkeep here, and you have found my store, which is impressive in itself.”
“Uh, I’m called Fjord,” Fjord says. He’s not even gonna ask if the wizard just fuckin’ packs up his store and takes it with him as he travels, or what. “And thank you. To be honest, I’m impressed as well. I thought this place would be made of stone, but it’s....” He gestures around himself, meaning the unfettered sunlight streaming from the ceiling, the winks of gold-lettered stars falling faint from amber panels. Now that he’s listening, he can hear the sound of the sea, faintly, from outside the shop. Which should be impossible, because the nearest beach is miles away, but when he peers through the circular windows he sees a vast and unbroken expanse of cerulean sea. “It’s pretty incredible. Wasn’t sure how you were gonna work around a cliff, but it seems like you didn’t have to at all.”
“That is correct. We are no longer in the town of Deastok, Mister Fjord. This is a dimension entirely separate from the city.” The wizard, Caleb, follows his gaze up to the ceiling, letting Fjord double-take in relative peace. “What brings you here?”
O-kay. He’s gonna pretend he didn’t hear that until he can think about it in peace. “Information, really,” Fjord says. “I’ve got somethin’ that, uh, not many folks can tell me much about. Are you religious, Mister Widogast?”
“Just Caleb, please.”
“Then just call me Fjord.”
Caleb nods his head, amused. “Very well then, Fjord. I would not call myself a religious man, but I know some about the workings of gods. What in particular are you looking for?”
Fjord looks around. The shop seems to be empty, but it’s also a dozen stories tall — maybe more — so he can’t be sure. He doesn’t know what the falchion does, and he doesn’t want someone who knows finding out he has it. “I don’t mean to be rude, Caleb, but are we alone?”
“Save myself and Frumpkin, yes.”
“Excellent,” Fjord says. “I have somethin’ to show you. Just wanted to see what you could tell me about it.”
“Set it down over there, if you would,” Caleb says, nodding to a smaller table off to the side, sandwiched spaciously between two shelves. On the ground level they stretch back far, far into the store, before disappearing into a darkness that is broken only by the occasional neat shaft of sunlight and the faint flickering of candles. How big is this place?
“Fair warning, things might get, uh, sorta wet.”
“Do not worry about that. These books are protected.”
Fjord raises an eyebrow at that, but only says, “Alrighty then, here it is,” and draws his falchion in a spray of seawater, and sets it on the table.
Caleb steps closer, peering at the blade. His fox winds closer as well, then traces idle circles around Fjord’s feet, little paws pattering all over his boots. Fjord goes very, very still. He definitely does not want to stomp on the wizard’s familiar.
Caleb picks up the sword, runs two fingers along the blade. Then he sets it down and looks at Fjord curiously. “You have found yourself a god, Fjord.”
“I — I have?”
“That is news to you, I see.”
Fjord see-saws his hand. “Sorta. I mean, I figured it had to have come from somewhere, but...a god.” He blows out a breath. “Okay. Okay, great. That’s...great. Hey, weird question, do you know which one?”
Caleb hands the sword back to him. Fjord dissipates it obligingly, then wipes at some of the salt water sitting on the wooden table as the wizard studies him, for lack of anything better to do. It’s strange; as uncomfortable as he should be, there is something soothing about this shop. Perhaps it’s the sunlight streaming in through the windows, or the homely flickering of lanterns that frequent the wall panelling, or even the soft smell of lavender from somewhere in the store, but it puts Fjord at ease.
He is still wary, of course. This could be dangerous, both for him and the folks around him. But danger seems far from him, in this little shop in a stone cliff that should overlook the Cyrengreen Forest, and instead watches over the vast sea.
“I have some thoughts, ja,” Caleb says at last. “But first, tell me about yourself.”
“About — about me?”
Fjord shifts his weight. He’s not what he’d call a sharing sort of person, but he does want to know more. “Okay,” he says. “Sure, yeah. So I’m, uh, I’m from the Menagerie Coast, down — down south...southwest of here by a couple days. Grew up in Port Damali, been on the sea for a while. My ship wrecked, and I, uh...didn’t think I was gonna make it, to be honest. But then I washed up on an island with this sword,” Fjord says, shrugging, “and I’ve been trying to find out about it ever since. Was hopin’ you could help me.”
“A sailor, then,” Caleb mutters. “That does explain the salt water. Tell me, Fjord, have you ever received communication from your god?”
The wizard disappears into his shelves as Fjord stumbles. Technically, yes, but also he doesn’t strictly want to tell anyone about the dreams he’s been having, especially given that he typically wakes from them choking on saltwater. It just seems...malicious, and that’s not something Fjord wants associated with himself, particularly not from a powerful wizard in a city so close to the Coast.
“I cannot help you if I do not know what you do, Fjord.” Caleb’s voice drifts over the shelves. “I can, however, promise you that what you say here will not leave the confines of this shop.”
Fjord squints, rolling his phrasing around in his mind. That sounds like some legal wording. Technically, if the wizard, maybe, got out on a window and shouted something about it, that would still be inside the confines of the shop, but would fuck Fjord over equally either way.
Then again, he came all this way to learn. So he’s going to have to give up some information in return.
“Yeah, I have,” he says at last. “Been gettin’ these, uh, these dreams. It’s this, like, big serpent-thing? With a bunch of yellow eyes, like the one — the one on the handle of this sword. Keeps telling me to consume. Well, more than just that. To consume, to grow, to learn. I have ‘em all written down somewhere,” he mutters, more to himself than the wizard. “Just gotta remember where....”
“That should be enough,” Caleb says, reappearing behind him so suddenly that Fjord jumps, caught off-guard. In his arms is a stack of books nearly as tall as he is, which he deposits on the table with both grace and a small grimace and shake of his wrist. Strangely, that makes Fjord feel better about him. “Well, I can tell you that this is not good, right off the bat. You must have made a pact with your god, I assume to save your life.”
“I — wait, what?”
Caleb waves a hand, and three chairs appear. He gestures for Fjord to take one, sits in one himself, and his fox curls up contentedly in the other, purring softly in the soft lighting. The chair is surprisingly comfortable. Then again he supposes most bookstores would have comfortable chairs, for sitting and reading all the time. Makes sense.
“When you were drowning,” Caleb says, plucking the first book off the stack and adjusting his glasses on his nose, “your god saved you. But your reaction tells me that it was not a pact you made willingly.”
“It was not made with my knowledge, no,” Fjord says, frowning. “I mean, I probably wouldn’t’ve said no if I’d been asked, but I don’t remember...bein’ asked at all, actually.”
“That could be important.” Caleb taps a page, and Fjord peers at it, and finds, to his surprise, a rough sketch of the very eye embedded in the pommel of his blade. “Uk’otoa is his name, I believe. And I have to tell you that he is not a kind god. In fact he can be quite cruel.”
Fjord’s heart sinks. “Oh.”
“Ja, it is not a happy tale. Right now he is bound, by three gates, I think, sealed there after the Calamity, but I suspect he is reaching out for — “
Caleb startles, and blinks at him. “The Calamity, yes,” he says. “Just after the Divergence?”
“A history lesson, then,” he mutters, and shuts the book, one finger marking the page. “I will keep this brief. In the beginning, when all races were nascent, there arose a faction of gods known as Betrayer Gods. As the name suggests, they sought to wreak havoc, and despite the little known about Uk’otoa, there is reason to believe that he was among them. The Calamity was the age in which the Betrayer Gods were defeated and locked away, with what is called now the Divergence. The age in which we live currently is known as post-Divergence, in that the gods that rule us are...merciful, by comparison. The old gods can be cruel.”
“And this Uk’otoa, then, he’s one of the old ones.”
“Yes.” Caleb reopens the book and taps the page. “He is one of the Betrayer Gods, sealed away in the Divergence, but I suspect he grows impatient, and looks for release. I do not need to tell you that to release him would be misfortunate indeed. There is little good he can do for this world.”
Fjord’s heart sinks further down, and his face must fall visibly too, because Caleb frowns and shuts the book. “All is not lost for you, Fjord,” he says, voice surprisingly soft. “You did not enter the bargain willingly, and that could be a salvation, should you wish to take it. Among the sea gods there is a great deal of competition, and also protection, and should you seek sanctuary, there are some who would provide it. Uk’otoa must have chosen you for a reason, and thus I suspect you would not have such difficulty seeking another patron.”
Fjord blows out a long breath. He’s just learned that his first patron is basically evil, and now he’s going to choose another? Hold up, he’s not actually sure he even wants to. This falchion, it’s — it’s sorta all he’s got. He’s not defenseless, of course, he’s made his way in this world for some time on his own, but he...he’ll definitely take the protection he can get.
Caleb tilts his head, adjusting his glasses on his nose again. “That was a lot,” he says kindly. “And I can imagine, overwhelming.”
“Yeah,” Fjord manages, sitting back in the chair. Somehow, the back is even more velvety and cushioned than the rest. “Listen, I’m not even — I mean, this is gonna sound, I dunno, crazy, but I don’t even know if I want...I mean, this sword...I have a patron. I already have one. I’m not sure I could find another.”
Caleb nods. “Yes, that is true,” he says. “But know that patronage does not come without a price. You will be asked to do favors in turn, and there is a chance that, if you are as good as I have seen you to be, Fjord, you will be uncomfortable with them. If not immediately, then in short time.” Caleb opens another three of his books in turn, setting them each to a certain page. In a brief glance Fjord sees sketches of all sorts of animals and ships: he sees dolphins, a crocodile, even one of a peaceful grove, split in several places by a flowing stream. Some illustrations are bright, and calming; others dark, and tumultuous. He squints, and in the book Caleb is holding, there is a depiction of a great serpent with three yellow eyes, and the pages are dark, as though charred over with ash. “There is no judgement here, Fjord. But if you would like to learn more, then I will help you.”
Fjord tears his gaze away, absently summoning the falchion to his side. He still doesn’t even know what this does. Could be something really cool. Something he could help folks with.
Then again, he has no idea what he has to do to keep it.
“Who else is there?” he asks. No harm in knowing. “Other sea gods, that is. Also, can the gods...hear me?”
Caleb shrugs. “I am not sure, but I think that, bound as he is, Uk’otoa’s influence would be limited here.”
Fjord relaxes slightly, dismisses the falchion again. “Good,” he says, part-relief, part-determination. “Good. Okay. What do you have to show me?”
“Ah, a great deal,” Caleb says, drawing the books toward him. “There are gods of all sorts of the sea. There are good and bad, kind and cruel. There is Eadro, of the merfolk, he is neither of the above; there is Eldath, the mother guardian — ” here he taps the bright depiction of a grove with singing waters, “ — she is good, there is Sashelas, who is also good, but of a, you know, of a more chaotic variety, hmm.... And of course there is Umberlee, who I first thought you might have been referring to when you walked in. She is the cruelest of the deep-sea gods, and often makes pacts with mortals. She is not kind.” Caleb flips through to perhaps the darkest page of them all. Bright red paint like blood streaks down the page, which Fjord would think was a touch dramatic if the sight didn’t send chills down his spine. “The Queen of the Depths, she is called. And then there is the champion who opposes her, Valkur, another force for good. Captain of the Waves is his title.”
Fjord peers at the pages. They’re all written in Common, thank the gods. Well, the good ones, that is. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Of course,” Caleb says, and gets to his feet. “Take your time here, Fjord. If there is anything else you would like to discuss, call for me.” He stretches, adjusts his glasses again, then smiles. “Or scratch Frumpkin’s neck. Either will work.”
“Scratch —” Fjord looks down at the red fox, happily asleep on the chair beside him. “What, you just mean, like the scruff of his neck — ?”
But the wizard is already gone.
“Wizards,” Fjord says, more fondly than he means to, then pulls the first of the books toward himself.
He loses track of how much time passes. If he’d had to take a stab just as he looked up from the last tome he might have guessed an hour, but the light streaming from the ceiling is tinged with pink, so it’s been four at least, if it’s already sunset. Or maybe sunset here is different? Caleb had said they weren’t still in Deastok, but then again now that he thinks about it, he reads pretty slowly, so maybe it had been about four hours anyway....
Fjord shakes his head, then rubs at his eyes. After so long staring at text, the neat lines of the bookshelves swim in his vision. He sits back and stretches a little, letting his gaze and his thoughts wander about the bookstore.
He’s still not sure about — much of anything, really. He’d love to’ve been chosen by someone else, but he wasn’t, so now he’s stuck with a patron deity who sounds like he’d rip apart the world if given half the chance. And sure, parts of the world that Fjord knows real well are awful, but he doesn’t want to condemn all of it. Might even like to save it.
Fjord’s gaze catches on a large desk, specks of light floating gently about the air around it. A shaft of sunlight murmurs brown and amber against polished wood, haloing perfectly the sheafs of paper stacked along precise creases on its center. In the valley between two stacks, a strange glint catches his eye. He squints at it, standing, and walks over.
Gradually, the light resolves into two perfect spheres. Gemstones, he thinks, but they shine more than they should. Fjord hasn’t had too much experience with gems, but to him those look like pearls, and normally pearls don’t shine like that.
Framing the pearls are a vast array of notes, almost all of which are in some language that shares most of its characters with Common but that Fjord can’t read at all. One book, left shrugged open on the desk, though, is in Common. Fjord probably shouldn’t be spying, he knows this, but curiosity overwhelms him, and he nudges it closer.
He skims: the first line reads, Phosphorous can be more difficult to acquire in most areas, and for higher-level spells you will need to buy some made specially at a store, but for cantrips such as these ash can be used. Light a fire, but far from what you hold dear, and when it is nothing but embers, gather them carefully while they still glow red. Be sure to wear gloves....
And on it goes like that, detailing the process for gathering a number of components that, after a few minutes, Fjord realizes must be spell components. Strangely enough, there appear to be two sets of handwriting in this book: one, clearly the wizard’s, stick-neat and precise, and the second a more cramped script, like a hand unused to writing.
I’m not supposed to practice Mage Hand indoors anymore because I broke some cups last time I tried. I scared the neighbor’s cat, too, he came over and tried to bite me when he heard glass breaking. I got a little scratch. Do you know any healing spells? No one else I know knows magic, so we just had to bandage it up, but it still hurts.
And in the other script, No, healing is not within my abilities, and I am sorry for that, little one. Be sure to wrap it carefully, and keep from practicing for the next few days as it heals. As for the spell, practice only on objects that cannot be so readily broken — wooden bowls, for example, or perhaps those other books on your —
Fjord is startled from reading when the fox barks once, sharply, very suddenly right beneath him. Fjord shrieks and jumps back, falchion flashing into his hand. “Oh shit!” he blurts, inching away from the book and those strange pearls. “Hey, hello, hi, definitely wasn’t, uh, snoopin’ around, no sir not me....”
The fox just stares at him, eyes slitted. He continues backing away, and the fox — Frumpkin — continues glaring.
Then, just as suddenly, apparently he must get far enough away, because Frumpkin chirps happily and skitters toward his ankles. Fjord stiffens, but Frumpkin only winds around his shins, soft tail batting against his legs.
The deep growling is gone, replaced instead by happy shallow breaths. Fjord crouches cautiously. He doesn’t lose a hand.
“You’re weird as hell,” he tells the fox, which turns two luminous eyes up toward him, and barks again. “Weird fox. Good fox though.”
He and the fox both settle back into their seats. Sure, Fjord’s heartbeat is still going strong in his ears, but he shuffles through his papers to calm himself. Three sheafs, all written in his own hand.
That sounded like a kid. Whoever the wizard was...writing to? Maybe that was a letter they passed back and forth? Except some of the messages had been one, maybe two lines. Seems impractical, communicating like that, but hell, what does Fjord know about magic? Nothing, is what. That’s why he’s here.
Speaking of which. He takes a deep breath and rests a hand on the fox’s scruff. He feels maybe a little silly, petting a fox to summon a wizard, but he’s not gonna go against what the wizard told him to do.
“Uh, Caleb?” he calls after a moment. “I’m done takin’ notes and, uh — ”
“Ah, good, so you are done then?”
Fjord jumps in his seat, nearly stabbing Caleb in the eye with his own quill. “Gods above, man, don’t scare me like that,” he swears.
“Do not be so easily scared then,” Caleb says, grinning at him. He pulls out a chair and sits comfortably by Fjord, eyeing the notes he’s taken. All of a sudden Fjord’s a little embarrassed of his penmanship, especially if that’s the wizard’s neat handwriting he sees curling in gold along the spines of some of these books, but before he can steal them back Caleb makes a pleased noise and shuffles through them. Predictably, he stops at the name Fjord has underlined and circled, a couple of times — Valkur.
“Valkur,” Caleb reads, and looks up. “You have decided?”
“I haven’t decided on much of anything, to be honest,” Fjord sighs. “I mean, it all sounds good in theory, but dissolving a pact with a god, that’s gotta be dangerous, doesn’t it?”
“I am sure that it is,” Caleb says. “It is up to you whether the risk is worth the reward. And it is not something you must decide now.”
“Yeah, of course.” Fjord takes his notes back and flips to the last page. “So I was doing some, y’know, more general reading, and I found somethin’ about warlocks, and then somethin’ right beside it about, uh, other ways to connect with gods, and I wanted to ask you about, uh...paladins.”
The wizard’s face brightens noticeably, pleased and surprised, before he settles again. “You have found the book! It was one I was thinking about lending to you, if you wanted it, but I am glad you have skimmed it already. What do you think?”
“Just, uh, some general questions, I guess,” Fjord says, tapping Caleb’s quill against the header of his page, which reads — predictably — Paladin, followed by several question marks. He was thinking about heading up to the Soltryce Academy to learn more, but maybe his notetaking methods aren’t the best as an, uh, prospective student. “The book mentioned oaths, but it wasn’t too concise, and I got sorta confused, I guess. I found the ones about the Ancients, and of Devotion and Redemption and just, a bunch of ‘em, but couldn’t find a good place to...couldn’t find one book that explained all of them.”
Caleb stands with a little ah, and vanishes into the shelves. Fjord, quill still in hand, freezes. Then he looks to the fox. “Your wizard is strange,” he mutters, and chances a quick pet between the fox’s ears. It’s kinda cute. The ears flick beneath his touch, and the fox thrums quietly before settling again.
Caleb reappears a handful of moments later, a large tome in his hands, which he dusts off before setting in front of Fjord. “This should help, I think,” he says, and splits the book precisely down the second third, which is labelled — much as Fjord’s notes were — Paladins. The book opens right to the correct page, and Fjord is maybe staring. “Oaths, you said? Here they are.” He taps the table on the page. “That of the Ancients is committed to helping the world grow, and that of Devotion to absolute justice, and Redemption to protection and helping others. Here.”
Fjord takes the book with no small amount of intimidation — this book is fucking huge — but Caleb sits next to him and explains them succinctly, before pulling out his own sheaf of papers and kicking up his feet — literally, kicking his feet up on his own table, which takes Fjord aback — and taking unrelated notes of his own, leaving Fjord to his thoughts.
With a sidelong glance at the wizard, Fjord surreptitiously changes his grip on the quill. He never really learned how to write, and Caleb would know better than he would. He quietly fits his fingers around the quill and mouths a silent curse. It feels weird.
He’ll work on it. He sets to skimming.
None of them quite click with him until he reads about Redemption. Justice is great, and the natural world is right on, he loves the ocean, but — he doesn’t have a party, yet, but he thinks if he did, he would want to be able to protect them. To help teach them to be better. To take damage for them, if they needed.
It resonates with something at the core of him. The thought of a group of people to look after, that he could do real good with. A — a family, really. He’s never had that. And he wants it.
He realizes his eyes are stinging and wipes them covertly with the back of his hand. The ship was great, of course, and he misses Vandran, but he could never protect Vandran. Not like he wants to be able to protect people.
“Think I got it,” he says eventually. Caleb looks up immediately, setting his notes aside. “This one, uh...Redemption. I think this one would be, uh, good.”
Caleb leans in toward the book. “Protection and charisma,” he reads. “You know, I knew someone once that I thought would be well-suited for this path, and you remind me something of him. I do not think you will go wrong here, Fjord, if this is what you choose.”
“Yeah, we’ll see,” he says, thinking of the great serpentine coils arching around his chest, ready to crush the life from him. “I’ll...I don’t know anything for sure yet. But. It’s good to know, I guess. These, uh, these oaths, if I wanted to take one, where would I...how would I do that?”
“You would go to a temple, I believe,” Caleb says. “For gods such as Valkur, finding one might be more difficult, as the clergy is often scattered among boats, but...ah, yes, he is the deity of tempests also. Perhaps near a temple of the Stormlord, or some other such mountain temples would do you well.”
“Huh.” There are mountains just behind him, between him and the Menagerie Coast, and also some down near Trostenwald, and there’s a river, he thinks, or maybe a lake, pouring out of Trostenwald? Rivers, those have ships, and there he might find a clergymember. Local fisherman might be good to ask.
He hasn’t decided yet. But it can’t do harm to head down that way and ask around. Get a feel for the land. Or a feel for the sea, as it were.
He nods to himself, plan decided. “Well, I’d better be off then. Thank you very much,” Fjord says, and rifles around in his pockets for his coin-purse. “How much do I owe you for comin’ in and, uh, readin’ all your books?”
Caleb laughs. “There is nothing owed, Fjord. The pursuit of knowledge, I do not believe that it should be restricted by such a petty thing as funds. Now, if you would like to take one of these tomes with you, that would be a different matter, but if not, do not think of it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you,” Fjord says, and is surprised by how unsurprised he is at this generosity. Most shopkeeps charge for their time, and heavily; and here he is, having taken up four hours of Caleb’s day, maybe more, which he seems happy enough to laugh off. “Really. I do appreciate it.”
“Ja, well, I help where I can,” Caleb shrugs. Beside him, the fox blinks open its eyes and yawns widely. “Good luck to you.”
“And you as well,” Fjord says. He’s not entirely sure what he’s wishing the wizard luck with — running this strange shop without customers, perhaps — but he wishes him well all the same. Feels right, in his bones.
A little awkwardly, Fjord stands. He aches, strangely, at the thought of leaving this shop behind. He thought it homely when he first entered, and that impression never left; the lighting, now the faint pink of sunset, renders the walls an incredible hue, the waving patterns of sunlight against a shallow shore dancing across the walls. The chairs were comfortable, the lighting soft, and he thinks he could spend more than five hours here easily.
But he has a town to get to, and questions to ask, and maybe a god to swear fealty to. Maybe an Oath to take.
Redemption. He likes the sound of the word.
“You take care, Caleb,” he says, waving slightly as he heads toward the door.
“Of course,” the wizard calls softly, as Fjord opens the door into the glittering sunset of Deastok. “Take care of yourself as well, Fjord.”
He shuts the door quietly behind him. It makes a satisfying click. The wizard’s words stay with him. Take care, he’d said.
Fjord means to. He means to take care; of himself, and of others.
Fjord sets off through the main road of Deastok, toward Trostenwald, head already full of the words he might speak to a newfound god.
Happy Monday! Not sure what's up with Talks tomorrow. Upload of the SDCC panel, maybe? I hope so. I heard Matthew said something about Yasha and now I'm big fear.jpg about it.
Fun facts, tidbits and liner notes about the first three sections (Yasha, Beau and Jester) have gone up on my tumblr here! Check it out for some clarifications, details, and behind-the-curtain cut scenes.
Chapter 5: CADUCEUS
A stranger drops by the Blooming Grove, and quite inconveniences Caduceus Clay's teatime ritual.
Man, Caduceus fought me the whole way through this chapter. See, in the first draft, Caduceus wasn't going to puzzle Caleb out at all, but then...well. He's Caduceus. There's very little he doesn't pick up on.
This was written before we knew anything about Caduceus's family. Before the Nein got their moorbounders, even. I picked names for Caduceus's siblings, and then found out I was totally wrong, and then liked my names too much to change them. So enjoy a slightly-adjacent-to-canon Clay family, whose names are explained in more detail here.
Time for everyone's favorite, tea-loving, insightful, call-you-on-your-bullshit cleric.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first knock is nearly swallowed by the sizzle of water chestnuts; the second, by the deft introduction of onions, and the third by broccoli, which doesn’t sizzle quite as much, so that one he hears.
Hypnora ducks slightly underneath the slight doorframe as she heads toward their front door, which is honestly too small for her larger frame, though she doesn’t complain.
“Oh,” she says, to someone Caduceus can’t see. Right now he’s much more occupied with the fry his brother is preparing. The whole house smells delicious. Even more so when the only scent in the wood had been his own tea. None of his family can make a decent pot of tea, so the work falls to Caduceus. That’s all right. He doesn’t mind. It’s soothing, working in the dirt, with his hands. “Hello. Did someone die?”
A murmured voice from the front of the house. Quiet, and male. Unremarkable, and attentively so. Caduceus shifts in his seat.
The man who appears in their kitchen is utterly dwarfed by his sister’s towering stature. Most humanoids are. He has yet to meet any humanoid race — human, elf, Orc — reach a head over his sister’s shoulders.
His vestments are as far more auspicious than his near-silent introduction. Well-pressed and clean, one pure color pervades his robes. High stitch count, quality thread. Similarly well-maintained is his hair, meticulously cleaned, and the scales smooth on the huge python draped about his shoulders.
A ball python. Not poisonous, that breed. Well-known for being highly social. They’re typically found farther east, he thinks, remembering from his books, and that’s about where his knowledge ends. One of those lives in his sister’s room. Atrophae hasn’t named her yet, which Caduceus thinks is for the best, because her name is Amethyst, and Atrophae hasn’t thought to ask.
The man — wizard, Caduceus mentally amends — introduces himself as Caleb Widogast, which is all well and good, names are fairly useful, though Caduceus is personally much more curious about the ring about his pinky finger. It looks too small for him, and is inlaid with dozens of tiny emeralds, casting the whole piece in pure green. It does not, if Caduceus can say so himself, match the rest of the aesthetic. Red and green clash rather horribly on him. But then there are faint stripes of pink skin beneath both pieces of jewelry, so it has been some time since they were last removed. Perhaps a wizard’s stone, or — less likely — sentimental value.
Caduceus does not often receive folks so well-dressed in his home. They’re not one for mourning in the open. Something about image and pride, something something. Caduceus can understand, objectively, the desire to keep grief private, but it doesn’t make much sense to him. Everyone loses, and everyone grieves. There is no right or wrong way to experience loss.
“Here,” he says to the man, passing him his brother’s mug as he slips into the seat where Caduceus can best see him. Convenient. Caduceus is admittedly curious. “It’s my brother’s. He won’t be joining us for a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” he says, and oh, that’s interesting as well. The accent curls up his vowels. Caduceus has never heard anything quite like that before.
He doesn’t speak as they sip their tea. Even more curious. Most folk that pass through his graveyard blabber on about their problems without any real respect for the craftsmanship of Caduceus’s tea. Thankfully, he’s never been without his family to remind them.
“So then, Mister Widogast,” Hypnora says after a long, peaceful moment. “How did you come across a ball python?”
“I simply stumbled upon him,” Caleb says, and holds out his hand. His python slides obligingly down, forked tongue hissing over the wood of the table. “His name is Frumpkin, and he is beautiful. Quite peaceable. He will not harm you.”
“Oh, we know,” Caduceus says, smiling. “My sister keeps one. What brings you to our part of the woods, Mister Widogast?”
The slight flinch on his face when Caduceus says Widogast is his first clue. It is gone just as quick, but it was there all the same.
“Caleb, please,” the wizard says. “Or Mister Caleb, if you must. I have a message for you. There, you know that there is a darkness on your woods. As I think you have begun to see.”
“Yes, we have.”
“It is not powerful, not yet, but will only grow stronger, I think. I have stumbled across a, ah — a preventative measure, for this blight. It is a difficult thing to cure, what has taken hold of the roots in this place, but prevention is, well, it is....”
“Easier than cure,” Caduceus murmurs. He didn’t know of anyone downstream of the Savalierwood Stream who would take an interest in their problems — he did not expect the community of Shady Creek to care if the Wildmother’s gifts around them withered until they died with it. “What is your proposed preventative measure, Mister Caleb?”
At the words, the wizard’s shoulders relax slightly. Almost as if relieved. The furrow in Caduceus’s brow has nothing to do with the vial of faintly-glowing green liquid that the wizard procures from his coat.
Hypnora is watching him as he takes the potion. She has a brow raised, curious, which is all well and good, because normally Caduceus can tell whether such strange visitors bear them ill will; but frustratingly, all Caduceus can feel from this particular stranger is a senseless sort of familiarity.
He turns the vial over in his fingers several times, before passing it to his sister. She’ll inspect it, then pass it to Atrophae, who might inspect it with the venom of her pet, then to Duamute, to make sure it is at least not poisonous. It would not do to kill all the trees in their graveyard in one fell swoop by trusting too easily.
But there is something in Caduceus that wants to trust. There is something about this man that feels like family, though Caduceus has no recollection of him, and that frightens him more than anything else.
“Hypnora,” he says, still studying their visitor, “would you take that to Atrophae, see if it isn’t poisonous?”
She looks from him to their visitor, a silent question, to which he shakes his head slightly. He can tell, at least, that this man does not intend to hurt him. Caduceus really isn’t sure what he’s doing here, to be honest. It’s unusual, and unnerves him. Normally he knows why people are in his home before they even open their mouths.
Hypnora stands — unfurls, more like, a sail billowing out from the mast as she straightens, tight-woven shirt spilling from the joints in her armor as she moves. Hypnora towers easily over him. Most of his family does, actually. Caduceus always was the scrawniest of the lot, much to Duamute’s dismay. Duamute told him he didn’t eat enough, which is ridiculous, because Caduceus eats plenty. Well, he drinks plenty. Of tea.
Which he does now. Through a wavering curtain of steam, he studies their visitor. “Do I know you?”
“Do you know me?”
The slightest hesitation, before Caleb says, softer now, “No.”
Caduceus’s brow arches high on his face. He’s lying.
That’s impossible, and yet it is. There is also the matter of this strange trust that he feels toward this man that should not be. There is something here he does not understand.
Silence stretches between them; despite the puzzle that this man presents, Caduceus hasn’t minded quiet since he was very young. Stranger still, the wizard seems unaffected as well. He drinks his tea with a curious expression on his face; sadness, he thinks? Perhaps nostalgia. Caduceus can’t tell.
“Mister Caleb, how did you learn about the darkness in our woods?”
Caleb’s answer is short, and simple. Caduceus cares far less about the words than the manner in which he delivers them.
And it’s promising: he says something about a village, near but not inside Shady Creek Run, concerned about a similar blight on their lands, and the cure one of his friends developed, and how he has been charged with delivering it, and it is all lies, all of it.
So after Caleb finishes speaking Caduceus lets the silence stretch again, warm and pleasant. Pleasantry in tense situations tends to put folks on edge.
But again, the wizard seems strangely immune. Only talking gets him to show his cards, so Caduceus presses. “And this cure, how was it developed?”
Over that one, the wizard stumbles. “A friend of mine,” he says, repeating himself, “ah, Ernst, was worried about his — about his farm, so he, you know, went to the city to develop, ah, this cure,” and it is more lies, still.
But they’re not malicious, he can tell; Caduceus rattles off more questions, face never wavering from its pleasant openness, and Caleb lies, and from his words Caduceus plucks a sketch.
First, the wizard is far more powerful than anyone Caduceus has ever met, and he has taken great lengths to conceal that fact. Second, the python on his shoulder is not really a python, nor is it usually a python, probably; it doesn’t move as a snake should, and it blinks.
Third — this is more observation than conclusion, for Caduceus truly has no idea what to make of it — all of his usual tactics, to draw out the truth with long pauses and kindly words, are utterly ineffective. It is almost as though they have spoken before.
So this time, when he lets silence stretch around them, it is more for him to collect his thoughts than to catch the wizard off-guard.
“You know, Mister Caleb, we don’t get many folks like you around these parts.”
“I suppose that these messages would be uncommon, ja, I should hope.”
“No,” Caduceus says warmly. “Liars. Especially ones so proficient as you.”
The wizard stares at him. Outside, a warm breeze sweeps around their gardens. Chimes of blue and purple beads sing softly from the trees of the long-dead. It is a soothing sound, and it wraps around Caduceus like a blanket, or a freshly-warmed cup of tea.
Then, the wizard laughs.
“I should have known,” he says ruefully. “I really thought, you know, perhaps you would not notice, but that — that was a fool’s hope, was it not, Mister Clay.”
Caduceus hums, and finishes off the last of his tea. “You know me well, then.”
“Very well,” the wizard says. “You were always the most insightful of us, and I had hoped, I am not sure, that perhaps you had not yet learned your trade. But then it has been a while since I have been a stranger to you, Caduceus, and I forgot what it was like. You are a difficult one to trick.”
The wizard is grinning openly, now, laughing at a joke that Caduceus is supposed to get.
“You understand I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Ja, of course you do not, it has not happened. And it never will,” the wizard says dryly. “Let me tell you a story, Mister Clay. For you, it starts some three years from now, in this very home. You were the only one within the temple, and had only three cups for tea, and then four stragglers knocked on your door, and proceeded to quite inconvenience your teatime ritual.”
The story he sketches is brief, and in total takes no more than ten minutes, and Caduceus should not believe the man, except he does. It is impossible, the tale he’s told — of a group knit together, come to him, stitched tighter, and then torn apart; and this man, a loose seam, popping out of the tapestry entirely. He should not believe it, and yet....
“Wildmother help me,” he says, steam now drifting slowly from between his clasped hands, “but I believe you, Mister Caleb.”
“It is the truth,” Caleb says. “Hard to believe, I know. But it is truth.”
Caduceus drums his heavy fingers along the edge of his teacup, thinking. It is an old thing, his cup, the once-vibrant pink faded and chipped in places. But his family is not in the habit of throwing out relics not yet past their time, so they use it still. That is the way of things of the earth: used until they should be returned to the ground.
“So what will you do now?”
Caleb blinks. “That is all? There are no questions about — about your family, or you, or what you will be like in the future?”
“That future isn’t mine,” Caduceus shrugs. “It has no bearing on the me that exists right now, really. It would be more an exercise in curiosity than anything else, Mister Caleb, and honestly I’m more curious about what’s left for you.”
“I do not know everything, but I could help,” Caleb says. “Your family, the Clays, the Dusts and the Stones, as well, I could tell you — ”
“And I do not want to know,” Caduceus says firmly. “There is a reason the Wildmother guided you here, Mister Caleb, and it was not for you to read my future, however accurate you assuredly are.”
“Very well,” Caleb says, sitting back. “Very well then. So, for me, then, I will go and — I will find the others. Help them, as I hope to have done here.”
“What did you really bring us, by the way? What is in that vial? I assume you can tell me now.”
“It is a gift, really,” Caleb says. “A preventative measure. I do not think, as far as this blight got in where I am from, that it could be cured — at least, not in a way that I would know — but prevented, yes, I think will work.”
“Where did you get it?”
“A god,” he says simply.
Caduceus stares. “Mister Caleb, what — which god?”
“One with domain over storms and turmoil,” he says. “He owed me a favor. I called in to collect.”
“With a god? That makes no sense.”
Caleb shrugs with one shoulder. Around his neck, the python stirs sleepily, one eye cracking open before fixing on Caduceus and then, slowly, closing again. “It is as I said,” Caleb says quietly. “We were a family. The barbarian, the aasimar I spoke of, I helped her, and her god owed me.”
“We aren’t a family now, though. You — you said we died, didn’t you? And you’re doing, what, helping people who don’t even know who you are? With all due respect, Mister Caleb, you have no idea what you’re getting into.”
Caleb smiles. “Oh, absolutely not,” he grins. “I do not know shit. But these — “ he gestures around himself, to the gardens, to the skies, “ — these are things that hurt you. That have hurt all of you.”
“They could do more damage in the future. Interfering with time, it’s — it’s pretty unspeakably dangerous, Mister Caleb.”
“I don’t think you do.”
“Well, I suppose I do not know,” Caleb amends. “It could cause damage, or trouble, yes. But in truth I do not care, Caduceus. These people, you, all of you, you deserve so much better than what you got. And if I can make sure that you get it, then I will. To say nothing of the cost to myself.”
Caduceus sits back in his chair. The more he learns of the wizard the more he understands and the less he knows. To parley with a god for a favor to — to save his garden, the garden of one small fragment of the Wildmother’s domain — seems foolish, and paltry, and yet this man has done it, and intends to do still more. All for a future Caduceus does not remember, for a version of himself that will never be.
And all at once it seems awfully lonely, to him. He knows the skeleton of their story, but none of the details. He’s heard of the shape of Jester’s face but knows nothing of the sound of her laughter, which is haunting, really, when Caleb so clearly remembers every time he’s heard it. This man walks among ghosts.
Caduceus shudders. What is killed and such displaced should stay dead. Subtly, he reaches out for the presence of the undead around him, but there is nothing. Caleb is still alive, however tenuously Caduceus has to redefine the word to make Caleb fit the category.
Across the table, Caleb sits at his tea. Caduceus wonders, not for the first time in this conversation, what he could possibly be thinking.
Remembering, probably. Memories that Caduceus will never know.
That sympathetic loneliness crests in him again, and Caduceus pushes it away. Caleb chose this path for himself, and he doesn’t want any of Caduceus’s pity, even if such a lonely past-and-future makes something ache sympathetically in his own chest. He thinks about the story Caleb told him, and all the questions he might still ask, about the others, especially about the one who died three times over. He thinks, for a moment, about his own long handful of years before the Nein ever knocked on his door, as his family left him, one-by-one, waiting for a sign from his goddess that might not have ever come.
“So what is he normally?” Caduceus asks, pushing those morbid thoughts away. “Your familiar.”
“That too,” Caleb murmurs ruefully, “of course you would notice. His name is Frumpkin, and normally, he is my cat. But this form, it is, it is — “
“It’s familiar to me,” he says. “I told you about my family, then.”
“All of us did, in time. Even me, which is...it is not a pretty story. It is as I said, Caduceus. By the end, we were family. We would have died for each other, and some of us made good on that notion.”
Caduceus goes to ask something else — who, perhaps, who died, and who did they die for, or how on earth have you survived so long alone — but abruptly Caleb clears his throat.
“I do not mean to intrude for so long, but if you have a moment, you — you know my story, now. Our story. It is a big thing, with moving parts, and if —” Caleb waves one hand through the air. “If you have some time, Caduceus, I would ask a favor. A few favors, to be frank.”
Caduceus frowns. “Your name is Caleb.”
“Oh,” Caleb says, tension lifting. “Oh, I remember now, you — no, that is an expression. It means to be honest, I do not mean that my name is Frank.”
“Oh.” That seems silly. He loves it. Folks going around, assigning themselves different names for a bit, just long enough to convey a particular sentiment? How delightful. “Frank. I’ll have to remember that.”
“Please do not,” Caleb mutters. “Anyway, no, I do not intend to take so much of your time, but if you have a moment...?”
Caduceus stands. He takes his teacup with him, and the little saucer. Caleb stands too. Caduceus grabs his set, empty of all tea, and heads into the kitchen, knowing that Caleb will follow. He does.
The kitchen still smells faintly of vegetables and sizzling chestnuts. Hanging on the cabinet is a wreath that he wove with Atrophae when he was no higher than her kneecap, and his aunt and mother keep it hung proudly there even still. Fondness bubbles up in him, for his whole, preposterous family, and nipping on its heels the sour thought that he could have lost them. He is finding it strangely hard to push that future-that-will-never-be away.
He sets the cups down firmly, and turns. “You meant to ask a favor.”
“Three, actually,” Caleb says. He opens his coat, spills some strange materials on the kitchen’s counter. Phosphorous piles promptly in little heaps by the salt-and-pepper, ball bearings glint a shiny complement to the coils of garlic strung from the ceiling, before Caleb retrieves a leather glove and a pair of pearls with a faint a-ha.
Caduceus squints at them. The gloves are leather, reinforced about the wrists. Fine, thick and supple. They shimmer faintly, too, in a way that leather normally does not.
And then the pearls, by comparison, are strangely dull. They seem to be nothing more than ordinary pearls, except that they are coated in a thin sheen of — sand? He doesn’t recognize the material, but it’s finely-ground, a dusting of faint green powder that almost shimmers.
He reaches for the glove, and Caleb starts before letting him pick it up. “Do you have a falcon, Mister Caleb?”
Caleb stares at him before laughing, faintly, the same incredulous-and-fond laugh he’d used when Caduceus had first called him a liar. “You know with anyone else I would ask how they guessed, but with you it is not so much a challenge, I think. No, I do not, but that is one of the favors I meant to, to implore. You have a way with, you can speak with animals, no? You have that gift?”
“Good. Good, that is — and falcons, they live near here, no? In the roosts of the trees being consumed by the blight?”
Caleb nods. “Then I will need to ask you to speak to one, the most patient and protective of them, if you can think — if you know of any like that.”
“I am sure I could find one. Why do you ask?”
“You remember the monk, in our story?”
“Ah. You mean for her to have a companion.”
“If I can. Do you think it is possible?”
“I do,” Caduceus says. There are a number of families of falcons that roost in some of the Greying Peaks. He’s sure he could talk one of their younger members into going on an adventure. “What else do you have for me, then?”
Caleb wordlessly hands Caduceus the pearls, taking the glove back.
Caduceus turns the pearls over in his hands curiously. The dust, whatever it is, is so finely ingrained into the pearl that it does not flake off in his hands. The surface seems almost to be smooth, however Caduceus’s eyes insist that it cannot be. “What are these?”
“They are spell, ah, they are, um...containers? Receptacles? When a spell is put into them, they will —” Caleb gestures vaguely over his head. “Go off. Be cast. They are storage, for magic, and that is another of the favors I will ask of you, though it will have to be of your goddess as well, because the spell they require you do not yet....” Caleb cuts himself off, straightens his coat decisively. He clears his throat. “Well. Just that we would, you know, appeal to your goddess. Put a spell in each pearl.”
“What will it cost?”
“Diamond dust, but I have that,” Caleb says, patting his pockets. “And another favor, if you would. I....”
He trails off, brow furrowed. Caduceus turns the pearls over in his palms. For the grain embedded in their surface, they are pleasantly smooth. “In a handful of years or so, Mister Clay, I will no longer be well enough to do what I am doing now. Checking on, on our family, and such. And I had not planned to ask this favor of you, Caduceus, but seeing as you know and I cannot check for myself....”
“Caleb,” Caduceus says gently, watching the tension racket up his shoulders. He sets a firm hand on the man’s shoulders. He visibly relaxes, and Caduceus offers him a tiny smile. “You’re rambling.”
“Ja, I do that, when I get nervous.”
“There is nothing to be nervous of here,” Caduceus says soothingly. “Whatever it is, if I can help, then I’ll do it.”
Caduceus doesn’t speak to the Wildmother frequently; he only recently learned to commune with her, and of course he has died several times and seen her face-to-face — thick ringlets of dark hair, smooth skin, and a warm smile — but there is something to be said of a message of a god that comes in the form of another person. And Caleb has appeared now, his family’s salvation in his hands, the power of several gods behind him, so if he is not a sign from the Wildmother that this is his time to take action, then Caduceus does not know what will be.
(Because what would have been will not be; that is the point of Caleb’s journey. There is something, too, in the fate inherent in forging your own path. Destiny is fraught with free will.
If he goes to Trostenwald, he goes with his goddess behind him.)
“Thank you,” Caleb says eventually. He runs a tired hand across his face, but manages a smile all the same. “There is — a woman, that I would ask you to, to check on. To make sure that she is well. If you are interested, and I would ask — to be sure that she is with her family, and that she is — that they are safe, and happy, and that —”
“Nott,” Caduceus interrupts. “You’re talking about Nott.”
Caleb makes a strange noise at the name, rather like Caduceus had punched him in the gut.
Caduceus shrugs. “You’ve mentioned her before.”
Caleb breathes out, all at once. And Caduceus has seen this before, sometimes, when speaking to the family of the dead. Mentioning names that have long since been silenced. Strangely enough, it makes him feel comfortable, to know that the man before him is just one more in a long line of the grieving of the dead.
“Of course,” Caleb manages finally. He laughs, but it’s more of a rasp than anything. “Of course, yes, it is just that I have not said or, or heard her name for....” He trails off, looking somewhere over Caduceus’s shoulder. “For some time now.”
“That makes sense. She’s named Veth now, right?”
“Veth Brenatto, yes,” Caleb says softly. “She lives in Felderwin. And I do not mean you to, to live there, but only to...I have done my best to leave them well, but danger is headed for their village sometime soon, and I would just ask you to make sure every so often that she is well. That she is alive. That her — that her family is whole.”
“Because they weren’t when you knew her.”
“They were not.”
Caduceus pats his shoulder. “I can do that. And the pearls, and the glove?”
“Ja, yes, those too, but one more thing — please do not tell them.”
Caduceus frowns. “Tell them what?”
“What I have told you.” Caleb shifts uncomfortably. “Our story. My — my story.”
Caduceus frowns. He wants to ask, why not? But then he imagines — meeting a group. Hearing that they knew each other, once, a lifetime and a half ago. He imagines that some of the more fearful of them — Fjord, and Beauregard, probably, though he’s supposed to call her just Beau, not like what Caleb does — would be unnerved. Might even leave. And that would be a shame.
“Okay,” Caduceus says. “I promise. If I go — and I don’t promise that, I can’t — then I won’t tell.”
Some of the stress obviously leaves him. He nods gratefully. “Thank you. That is all I can ask.”
Some hours later, after the sun has skated across the sky to tinge it with the first of pink, Hypnora returns to their little kitchen, vial clasped gently in her massive hand. She slips across the room to Caleb in a light-catching swirl of fabrics.
“I have no idea how you found this,” she says, nearly breathless, which is as excited as Caduceus has ever seen her, “but it works miracles. Caduceus, you must come see, the creeping darkness has gone entirely. A sprinkle along the roots, and it is gone! It is magic! Take this,” she says, and thrusts the vial toward him. “It is divine, we think, but we cannot tell.”
“It is,” Caduceus says. “A gift from the gods, according to Mister Caleb here. We’re lucky he stopped by.”
“Well then, I suppose we are,” she says, straightening to her full height as Caduceus returns the vial to her. “Later you will have to try to replicate the blessing in this water. It is too valuable to go to waste!”
“I’ll take a look,” he promises. “Hypnora, would you mind if Mister Caleb stayed with us for a few days?”
“Of course not,” Hypnora says, “so long as you give him a room that isn’t mine. Why, how many people that you knew died?”
“Seven,” Caleb says, an old, weary smile quirking up his lips. “But most of that was years ago. I am lucky to have found a presence so healing as Caduceus’s. And of all your house. It is...it is nice here. The air is clear and the house smells deliciously of tea.”
“That’s Caduceus’s influence, absolutely,” Hypnora says, turning a fond smile on her brother. For a moment, all Caduceus can think is how close he might have come to losing her.
To losing all of them. His sisters and his brother, gone for a fool’s dream. Not even Caleb could tell him if they had died.
“He is wise indeed,” Caleb says warmly. “It is good to have a home so pleasant to return to. Thank you for welcoming me. I will welcome also, I think, the advice he can give.”
“Oh, he’s been filling your head, then?” Hypnora laughs. “He always says these incredible things. I swear he rehearses them, but he insists he doesn’t, but I can’t tell if he’s lying like he can.”
“I just understand people,” Caduceus protests, feeling again like a little brother, some of the tension of earlier lifting from him. And if he is reading Mister Caleb correctly — which of course he is — from the easy smile lifting across his face, it is good for him, too. “Nuggets of wisdom can’t be rehearsed.”
“Yet you are full to the brim with them.”
“Begone with you, Mister Caleb,” Caduceus says, laughing, and prods him out toward the garden.
Happy Monday! Gods bless whoever arranges the cast's schedules, because Travis and Taliesin were exactly who I wanted to hear from this week on Talks, just because I'm so curious about more or less everything that happened in episode 72. That one was a wild ride, y'all. (Also, may the gods bless Caduceus! More specifically, the Wildmother. Love me that cleric.)
The previous chapter, the Fjord one, by the way, was written three(3) months before Episode 72, and published three(3) days before. Good timing.
A more general note: I think by this point it's safe to reveal that these chapters are arranged roughly by tone, and they'll get more somber/nostalgic. From this point forward, each chapter will reveal exponentially more about the threads that twine this fic together, and drop some hints to what happens in the final section (and even after that). Bonus points for folks who put things together before the relevant chapters go up! Honestly, I adore hearing theories like nothing else.
As always, a huge, thankful shoutout to Tea, or @gndy-dancer on tumblr, who was a wonderful beta, an excellent ear to bounce off ideas, and the support and motivation that helped me see this project through.
Hope you enjoyed! More to come next week. Check me out on my tumblr if you wanna chat. <3
Chapter 6: MOLLYMAUK
One midsummer's evening, Molly shares a drink with a stranger in a bar.
So Molly's something of an anomaly, right? All of two years old, pointedly living without regret. There's not really much that Caleb can do for him. This chapter, unlike all the rest, is less about action, and more about...everything else. Enjoy. :)
Quick disclaimer: I do not know anything about tarot cards. I googled "Major Arcana" to craft this reading, and that is all the work that I did. Do I know what the word inversion means? Hell yeah. Do I know what it means in the context of tarot? Not a clue.
Also, there are a set of extended-cut, behind-the-scenes drabbles that may, eventually, get added to this in a series! There's one post-Fjord about Caleb and our lovely semi-demi-minigod Uk'otoa, one about Caduceus and the story he heard, and oh, one that explains the, ah, significance of a certain silver trinket mentioned in the last paragraphs of the fic. Needless to say, there is a lot of history between Caleb and each member of the Nein, including (and especially) Molly, that the Nein cannot recall. Caleb doesn't often bring it up, because it's better for them to forget, but...he made a promise. And he doesn't mean to let it go unfulfilled.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This bar has to be his favorite one so far. Oh, the drinks are piss-poor, and expensive to boot, but the room itself is nice enough; some fellow in the back is smoking something sweet, clouding up the whole room, and instead of kicking him out the owner brought cushions to sit on while he nurse his awful ale. Good spirit, that bartender.
Even if his brews are a thing of the devils.
Mollymauk is shuffling cards between sips, mustering the nerve to take another, when the doors open to admit another patron. At first he doesn’t pay them much mind, what with the dim lighting and the darkened clouds threatening rain outside. Then they order a drink, and turn, in a ripple of fine robes, and then he’s paying close attention indeed, because there is a peacock on their shoulder.
He doesn’t even realize he’s stopped shuffling until the figure’s eyes land on him. They rest, for a moment, before the man accepts his ale with a gracious nod and takes a seat about halfway across the room.
Mollymauk continues shuffling absently, a soothing flick-flick of wrist and cards that he could — and does — perform in his sleep, gaze fixed curiously on the man. There’s something captivating about him, and it isn’t just the peacock on his shoulder. Maybe it’s the sleek fit of his cloak, and how little he belongs in a dingy tavern like this. Maybe it’s the shock of red hair, like a crown of flame atop his head. Maybe it’s the way no one except Mollymauk is even looking at him.
Maybe it’s the curious feeling that Mollymauk knows him, somehow. He’s met people he is supposed to know, from a life that isn’t his — one that he has no interest in reclaiming — but whoever this person is, they’re not of Lucien at all, and Molly should know him, he knows he should, except he’s certain he’s never seen that face before.
The bawdy tavern song fades, replaced just as quickly by another. Mollymauk taps his feet under the table, humming fragments of the melody he picks up underneath his breath. The strange man only sips at his drink, perfectly peaceful, whispering something occasionally to his fantastic pet and carding fingers through the feathers lining the crown of his head.
Molly stands and waltzes over, tail flicking. This man is so curious, to be found in a small pub in the south of the Empire with very little obvious reaason for being here. “Hello there,” he says cheerily, fanning his cards and folding them back into his palms in mesmerizing time. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
“Ja, that I am,” the man says, and Mollymauk is delighted to find that he has absolutely no idea where the man is from, even though his voice is fabulously meticulous. He’s never heard that accent before. “Are you?”
“I’m of everywhere, my dear!” Molly laughs, smoothing his cards back into one stack. “Of everywhere and nowhere, all at once. My name is Mollymauk Tealeaf, though it’s Molly to my friends, and if I may be so bold — so that I can call us friends indeed — what is your name?”
“Caleb,” the man says. On his shoulder, the peacock ruffles its feathers serenely. “Caleb Widogast. I am new here, in town.”
“I’ve certainly never seen you before.”
“I thought you were not from here?”
Molly toasts the quick response with a tilt of his mug, tail flicking happily behind him. Most folks can’t read tiefling body language, so he’s not too worried. Only amateurs give away genuine excitement at the game before the first card is dealt, and Molly is an old hand at this — at least, as old a hand as he can have.
“Here’s where I’m from now,” Molly says with a wink. “And next week, it’ll be where I am then. Wherever the carnival takes me.” They’re not doing a show this week, not in this tiny town, not so far from gold and coin. But Gustav has the tent stowed safely away, under the careful eye of the new pair of barbarians they picked up only a few months ago, and those two under the careful eye of Ornna, to make sure they don’t try anything funny.
So far, they haven’t. Mollymauk is rapidly growing fond of them both, but in particular the aasimar with two differently-colored eyes. They’re lovely to look at, and she is quiet and thoughtful and sweet, and she is everything a barbarian conventionally shouldn’t be. She’s fascinating, and Molly loves her.
“The Moondrop and Fletching Travelling Carnival of Curiosities,” Molly recites, with the best half-bow and flourish he can give in a tiny pub at an even smaller table. “The best carnival you’d ever see, if we were performing here in town.”
“Oh, I am sure, as I have not seen many,” the man murmurs with a small, private smile. He is lying through his teeth. “I am sure it would impress me greatly. Who all, if you do not mind my asking, who is part of this carnival with you?”
“What do you have for me in return?”
“Is that not public knowledge, then?” the man, Caleb, says, leaning forward on his elbows. “If I were to attend the carnival I would know, ja?”
“Ah, but there’s an admission fee,” Molly says, tail still flitting merrily about his ankles. “The two silver, if you’d like to cough them up, but if not — how about this. You seem an interesting man, you who walk in here with a peacock on your shoulder.” The man hardly even looks abashed at the observation. Molly’s grin curls up further. “Tell me a story. Something about yourself. You seem unique enough, so give me a tale I’ve never heard before, and will never hear again.”
“A story for a list of names? Those are personal things, stories. That seems unfair.”
“Well I’ll hardly give it to you for free.”
“What about this, then,” Caleb says. “A story for a list of names, and a reading. You do readings, yes? With your cards?”
In lieu of a proper response, Molly shuffles his cards with the smooth, rhythmic practice of years. The cards fan out satisfyingly between his fingers, the sharp sound of ruffling echoing pleasantly around the table, over and over, over and over.
Slowly, the peacock unwinds from the man’s shoulder — from Caleb’s shoulder, Caleb, who doesn’t even flinch at the movement. With a graceful flap of wings far too large and decorated to be truly flight-ready, it flutters down to the table, cocks its head, and stares at Mollymauk.
Molly studies it right back. This is — this is certainly not something he’s experienced before, and while part of him is giddy that there is a small peacock on a dingy table at a dimly-lit bar staring him down with irises the exact same red as his, purple threaded to the feathers to match his own skin, part of him is also a little terrified. This isn’t what birds are supposed to do. He’s never met a peacock himself, but he’s pretty sure this is not normal.
Then it chirrups at him, pecks at the cards in his hands, and settles by his elbow. The long, willowy feathers brush against the crook of his arm, and caught entirely off-guard, Molly has to stifle a startled laugh. It tickles.
“For that?” Molly manages, nodding giddily at the peacock, “You have yourself a deal. Reading first, or names?”
The man cocks his head, uncannily like his peacock. The peacock curls up in its spot, in a motion strangely far more feline than avian, and trains unblinking eyes on the tattoo crawling up Molly’s neck. “You can pet him, you know,” he says. “His name is Frumpkin. And, yes. Your carnival group first, then your cards.”
“I can pet him? He’s a peacock!”
Caleb shrugs. “He likes it.”
Molly, with that same mix of fear and giddiness, stretches a hand out toward the bird. Its gaze flicks from his neck to his eyes, and holds it there, for several long seconds, before leaning forward and bumping its head into his hand.
Molly runs his fingers down its spine, and it shivers beneath his fingers. “Good gods,” he breathes, half-laughing. “Mister Caleb, your pet is simply incredible. How did you get him?”
“If we are lucky that may be the story I tell,” Caleb says, his smile only widening. It blooms like rust along his face, a complement to the scattering of burnished red hair around his jaw. An attractive face, this one. “But for that, we will see.”
Molly dips his head in acknowledgement. The peacock, unblinking, mirrors him. Molly scritches his fingers along the ruffled feathers of Frumpkin’s head, and starts with Gustav, and as much as he knows about the man, from two years back.
Gustav and Desmond; the Knot sisters, and Toya, and how they had hated each other, at first, but are now like family; Bo, whose name Molly keeps writing wrong, with too many vowels, on the scarce occasions he has need to write; Ornna; and the two barbarians, Yasha and Zuala, who Molly does not know well, not yet, but intends to.
At the end of his list, the man nods, and the peacock almost seems to nod with him, a brush of head-feathers against his arm. But when Molly looks down, Frumpkin is only sleeping. “That is quite a merry band you have yourselves there.”
“Quite,” Molly lilts, imitating Caleb’s accent rather poorly, and winning himself a chuckle. “Yes, Mister Caleb, they’re...they’re family.”
Caleb nods, and it isn’t the awkward nod of someone who knows nothing of the subject; it is full of understanding, and something deeply, deeply sad.
Molly shuffles his cards again, and twice again, for good luck. “So then,” he says, tail still flicking, “I think you owe me a story.”
“Ja, I do,” he says, and leans back in his chair, the mug, now half-empty (or, should he say, half-full), clasped between his hands. “What would you do if I told you that I only recently fought a god?”
The strange man is grinning, privy to some joke Molly doesn’t know, but Molly takes it in stride anyway. “I’d ask you which one.”
“You would not disbelieve me right away?”
“I’d have to think about it,” Molly grins, tapping his temple. “Would you lie to me, Mister Caleb?”
“Nein, no. Never. No, you will hear stories like that one before your time is up, it is not so unique as what you requested. What about....” Caleb trails off. At his side, the peacock briefly stirs. “What about a love story?”
“Are you part of it?”
“Yes,” he says quietly, “but it is not only mine. It is, ah, dear to me. There were eight of us.”
“Those friends of yours,” Molly says, and takes a guess. “Family.”
“Yes,” he says, eyes soft again. “Yes. Family.”
“Go on then,” Molly says, leaning back in a mirror to Caleb’s posture, gesturing with his own mug. Frumpkin pokes his head up, blinking sleep from red eyes, then stands, and flits down to curl up on Molly’s lap. It’s an awkward, gangling position, and there are several painful pricks along his legs as the peacock starts wrestling the fabric of his pants between sharp claws, but eventually Frumpkin settles again, head tucked, contentedly, against his hip.
“We were family,” Caleb says. “And we would have died for each other. And some of us, we did. And sometimes I think, you know, that I would have done the same if I had been — hm. My thoughts are, they are a little messy. It has been some time since I told this tale.”
“I’m not the first to hear it?”
Caleb laughs at Molly’s overdramatic pout, rolling his eyes. Which, Molly thinks, is just rude. He’s spent years perfecting his pout. His whole life, in fact. “One of very few.”
“I suppose that’s well enough then.”
“Why thank you, Mister Mollymauk.”
Molly makes an expansive continue gesture, sitting back in his chair. Caleb rolls his mug idly between his hands.
“There were two in particular,” Caleb says. Instead of the piercing gaze Caleb had fixed on Molly’s face during the names, during their banter, his eyes have dropped to the wood of the table, hooded in remembrance. “One of them was a monk, and the other was a barbarian. From very far east. And sometimes she had to go, to go commune with, her god, I think. She never did really tell us where she went. And the monk, she was young, and she did not take it well. She had been left behind before, and though she did not so much show it, it hurt. Subtlety was not her style, nor was patience, but for this woman, for her warrior, she learned to be.”
“I know that type,” Molly grins, tail swaying lazily behind his back. Oh, but he’s butt heads with a number; bold and brash and pig-headed. Some of his favorite people are just the same as that. Doesn’t mean they don’t get under his skin like nothing else, but he knows the type. Knows them very well.
Caleb shrugs with one shoulder, gaze still fixed vaguely beside Molly’s hand, distant. “Ja, she was good. A good egg.”
“She and the barbarian, then?” Molly prompts.
“Yes. Yes, so — so then, time passed. And they danced around each other. They learned to dance for each other, neither of them were good at following or leading in time, but they grew. I — blossomed, I called it, and it is an apt word. Like a flower.” Caleb gestures upward, fingers sprawling into the air. “It was beautiful to watch.
“Eventually they talked. And the barbarian promised to try not to leave so often, though she would still have to go sometimes, and the monk to be careful, and to stay alive, so that she would always be there for her return. And they kept those promises, and it was...it was good.
“Then the first of us died,” Caleb says solemnly, and all of the sudden Molly thinks — in the beginning there were eight. A tragedy, indeed. “And he left us, ah, that left all of us changed. He was the first to go, the first to die for — you know, he had loved our group. He was big on having a, a community, on having a family, and when he died, he made sure that we stayed together. He was the best of us.”
Caleb takes a long drink. His hands are shaking.
“We were that way for years, Mollymauk,” Caleb says, for the first time lifting his gaze from the table. His gaze is grim, and the air smells of ash. “Incomplete. Hurting. We carried his memory with us, but it was heavy.
“And thankfully, before too long we were strong enough to raise even the dead, and the — the first of us, the one that we had lost, we brought him back. And I....” He chuckles a little. “This love story is not wholly mine, but I, I had loved him. When I grew to know him the second time.”
“Must’ve really been something.”
Caleb looks away, a faint, sad smile touching his lips. “He was. He was the best of us, and, sometimes, the better part of me.”
Molly swallows. There is nostalgia, there. A resignation too. And — strangest still — joy.
Caleb clears his throat. “He and I, we...when I first met him I was not in so good a place, and then he died, and then he came back, and I...by that time, I was different. And I could love him then. He was, you know — he was bright. Colorful. Insightful, even though he was, ah...immature? Not so versed in the ways of the world. And gentle. It was not something that I, something that I was so used to, but we learned from each other.”
His gaze trickles to the side, into the fire. His smile softens. “He made me happy.”
He made me happy.
Such a simple sentiment, but important, Molly thinks. So important. Yasha makes him happy. And he loves her. They go bird-watching in the fields outside the small southern towns they visit, and Yasha is not really one for laughing, but he makes her laugh, and that makes him proud. He loves bringing her joy.
He doesn’t even realize he’s smiling until he spots Caleb doing the same. “Ja, it is a simple thing, but important, I think.”
Molly smiles to himself. He doesn’t respond; he doesn’t need to.
He’s two years old, see. It’s not something he necessarily likes to think about but it’s not something he hides from, either. It’s just a truth. Most folks would assume he doesn’t know much about love.
Sure, he knows plenty about the physical bits. He’s extremely well-versed in those, especially for his age. But even the other bits — the sentimental, the romantic — well, a few months ago he would have told you romance was nothing more than a gimmick ripe for use by enterprising circus folk like himself.
A few months ago Yasha and Zuala found them in the southern reaches of the Empire. A few months ago, his impression of love changed. From watching them, of course, but more than that; he loves Yasha. He really does. It’s a new feeling, but one he doesn’t mean to let go of any time soon.
He toasts Caleb’s words with a silent tip of the mug. “I’m guessing there’s not a happy ending to this one, Mister Caleb.”
A wry grin sprouts. “That would be correct. There were more of us, in the beginning.”
“You said there were eight.”
He takes a deep breath, as if to steel himself. The softness of his face, the strangely-familiar crinkle in his eyes when he looks at Molly, fades all at once. “Yes. I had a, ah, a little goblin friend, and we were close. Our cleric, one of them, and our warlock, they were close too. He was the second to die. Our warlock was, I mean,” he says, words stumbling and crashing together, “he had a patron who would have dealt a great deal of grief, and he could not stand for it, and our cleric tried to save him, very nearly died for him, but she did not die that day. But he died soon after, and she followed, and then my little goblin friend, well, one day my life was in danger and she — well, she made a very poor choice that I...that I have spent a long time regretting.”
Here, Caleb stops, wincing, as though the words were caught in his throat. Molly feels the urge to say something comforting — take a moment if you need it, or skip over the end, they’re often the worst parts — but despite himself, he wants to know the end. This story, this tale, he wants to know the ending, and that is a rare thing.
“And in the end — because that was very nearly it, you see, very nearly the end, because once the second of us died we all started dropping like flies.” Caleb raps his knuckles against the table. “Then there were only three of us. And I, you know, I had with me a...a thing that others wanted very much. To wreak destruction. And they came calling. And it was in that fight, Mollymauk, that the barbarian was targeted. The man who attacked us had seen her before, and he wanted her dead.
“But even more, our monk wanted her alive. So our monk died.”
Caleb swallows, hard. His knuckles are white against the table. After a moment, he chuckles raggedly. “I am sorry, I did not think this would be — so fresh. Raw. It has been some time.”
“It’s not a problem, really,” Molly says. “It’s hard to tell these sorts of stories. Endings are often the worst parts. I don’t blame you.”
“Ja,” the wizard says quietly. “Give me, at least, a happy beginning, even though the end may be sad. We had one of those, at least. Our first days were good.” Then, softer still: “I would that they would have lasted.”
Molly wonders if his first days were good. If his first years, first decades, were full of joy. He thinks it doesn’t really matter, because he doesn’t remember them, and these days are good, these ones right now. More so now that Zuala and Yasha have joined their troupe. He finds himself very fond of them both.
Caleb relaxes, pointedly, and folds his hands on the table, fingers purposefully light. He clears his throat and says, “Barbarians, you know, their rages are awful to witness. And she — she had lost what she loved in a moment, because of this one man, so she tried to rip him apart. And I — I tried to help, of course, but in the end I was too slow. They died side-by-side, and I fled.”
Caleb trails off, fingers drumming almost absently against the table now. Outside, the sound is mirrored by the faint beginnings of rain. His peacock chirps, a sound so startling that Molly jumps; that’s a sound he’s much more used to hearing from an actual cat, like the one his barbarian duo adopted a few weeks back. The little thing sounds so pitiful in the rain. It’d hate being outside now. Molly takes a moment to hope, vaguely, that the poor stray is bundled up out of the rain somewhere. Much as he loves her, Molly more trusts Zuala to think of how to keep the thing happy than Yasha.
They work well together, those two. Them, and now their tiny little cat.
“I cannot call it beautiful,” Caleb says eventually. “But until the end they loved each other, and that is more than I can say for many people. To die assured of love.”
Molly sits back. He’s had people, of course, that he’s invited back with him, but nobody who’s stayed, and nobody he’s wanted to stay. He thinks it might be nice to...to have that.
(He wonders, only briefly, if anyone had mourned when Lucien died. There was no one around when he burst from the grave, and no headstone sat above his plot of earth. The name Lucien he learned, not in stone, but from a small halfling woman in an alley with a knife and a ferocious snarl.)
“You know,” Molly says, “I can’t tell if that happened to you, or if it’s secondhand. It sounds unbelievable, like — like something out of a fairytale.”
Caleb rasps a little laugh at that, some of the tension lifting. “And I suppose you never will know,” he says, smiling lopsidedly, “but I gave you your story, and in the end, it is only a story. What matters is how you think of it, and how you carry it with you.”
“It certainly seemed real,” Molly says thoughtfully, tapping his cards against the table. “Besides. I’d like it to be. If they were, you know, to be reincarnated, or something equally fanciful, at least they would have each other, there. When they woke up.”
Caleb stares at him. Molly shrugs. Then he says, “Ja, I suppose so. To wake to those who love you, it is a blessing.”
He wishes he’d had that. Someone next to him when he clawed his way up out of the dirt. Someone he’d went to hell and back with. Gustav is kind enough, and he’s fond of Toya, and he’s protective by nature, but he’s not found anything like that. Not yet, at least. And if that obnoxious monk from Caleb’s story can find someone, then maybe there’s hope for him, too.
Caleb takes a long drink, polishing off his mug, and shudders a little. Probably at the aftertaste. It’s a pretty foul brew. Molly follows suit, and grins at he finishes it, bites back an instinctive complaint.
Caleb toasts him with a small smile, signals for another round. At the movement, the tension, the thickness, all of it, vanishes into something lighter and merrier still. “On me,” he says.
“I’ll cover the tip,” says Molly, and fishes a silver out of his pocket.
One eyebrow curves. “A generous tip.”
“Hey, this is the worst beer I’ve ever had,” Molly says. “That’s gotta be worth something. You have to put effort into making something this foul.”
“I suppose,” the wizard says, smiling slightly. “An interesting way of looking at it.”
The barmaid swings around with another handful of beers, sweeps the coin off the table without looking too closely at it. Halfway back to the bar she freezes, staring at her palm, and swings back around to stare at them.
“Keep it!” Molly hollers, saluting her with his cup.
She half-waves back, a flushed and stuttering thing. Caleb clears his throat.
“I think it is time for a reading, no?” Caleb asks, eyes dancing. “I have enjoyed myself here, Mollymauk, but soon I will need to go.”
“Ja ja,” he tries with a grin, and finds the word falls clumsily on his tongue. Caleb laughs at him, and Molly laughs with him. “Fine. Here you are.”
Molly shuffles the deck, and one more time with a flourish, just for effect. The top of the table is rough, with little chips and dents and bumps, but he manages to splay the deck smoothly. “Pick a card, any card,” he says, his voice boisterous and full, even in the relative din of this little pub. “This one will tell us of your past.”
His fingers dance over the cards for a brief moment, elbows hunched on the table with interest, and picks a card, and hands it to Molly.
“The Hanged Man,” he reads. “I’d tell you about your own past, Mister Caleb, but I think you’ve already told me yourself. Making sacrifices to benefit a bigger picture. I’d say that family of yours has done plenty of that already.”
“That does sound familiar,” Caleb murmurs, and picks the next card. In Molly’s lap, Frumpkin’s head pops up over the top of the table, peering intently at the deck spread along the wood.
“Justice,” Molly says, wondering if this ties into Caleb’s story, and if it was even true. He has the aspect of someone who has paid in consequences as often as copper coins. “For every action, there is a reaction. This is a tenet you hold right now.” Molly looks at him over the cards. “You know, normally that’s a card I draw for the past. Or the future, really. Not many folks are dealing with consequences while sitting in a circus tent — or in a little pub, drinking beer.”
Caleb shrugs with one shoulder, a private smile toying at the edges of his lips. “The world is full of strange and mysterious things, but you, I think you know that very well yourself, Mollymauk.”
“I’m learning,” he says, and splays out the cards a third time. “Now. One final card, for your future. No pressure, dear.”
Caleb’s fingers dance over the cards, then he plucks one from the deck and passes it over. Molly looks at it, grinning, and just as quickly feels his smile fade. He knows this card. He knows this card very well.
“A question,” he says, his dramatic persona slipping. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears, like he does when he has to activate his swords but different, now, because he is not bleeding. “Do you read cards yourself, Mister Caleb?”
“I would not call myself experienced, no.”
“Ah,” Molly says, voice strangely cracked. He clears his throat. Damn him, damn him, he’s not usually invested in endings. He makes a point not to be. He can’t afford it, to get caught up in all the woes and wiles of the world, but here he is, a sucker for a gentle voice and a pretty face. Yasha was right. For all of the half-year she’s known him, she was right. He can be such a fool.
“Well, dear, I can tell you this is an unusual card,” he says, and when he does, his voice is much stronger.
He flips the card to show Caleb the Tower.
On the card is a white spire, yellowed slightly with age, the crowned top rent off the structure by a bolt of lightning. Flames curl from the top of the building, and tongues of fire like raindrops plummet against a grassy plain.
“It’s a symbol of strength,” Molly narrates with a hollow grin, the words falling off his tongue easily. Too easily. He’s grateful that tiefling eyes have no pupils and his gaze cannot be tracked. “A sign that, even as the world may crumble around you, Mister Caleb, you have the fortitude to get back up. To try again.”
Silence. Caleb studies the card, brows furrowed, then looks up. “Unusual,” Caleb murmurs. “May I?”
Molly hands over the card wordlessly. Caleb turns it over in his fingers, a thoughtful look in his eyes. He peers closer at the drawing, mouths the name, then hands the card back. “Well worth the story, I think,” Caleb says finally, and Molly breathes out.
He’s not sure — what he was expecting, really. For Caleb to call him on the lie? The man has no experience in tarot. There is no way he could know that Molly fudged his fortune, about this sudden and strange investment in Caleb’s own end, but his pulse is jumping like it does, like it matters, and abruptly all Molly can think is how badly he’d love another drink.
Then to make things even stranger, the peacock on his lap shifts sleepily, head feathers swaying lazily, and as he does Caleb signals for another round.
At this point in the evening, the music of the pub’s fire has blossomed around the whole room, lifting the place with faint sizzles and creaks of old wood, an accompaniment to the merry music carried valiantly from one corner by a trio of bards. Molly covers the cost, and wordlessly, Caleb hands her the extra silver; Molly thinks maybe there’s a faint smile curling up the man’s face as Molly studies him, behind the rim of his mug.
The slower song from the pub’s minstrels fades out, replaced by a more upbeat, roaring jig, one that Molly recognizes. He taps his feet against the ground happily, tail swaying to the beat. He knows this song. He tried to teach himself on the lyre, once, and he’d failed miserably at it — music isn’t really his thing — but he and Gustav had split a rib laughing at his horrible performance, so he remembers it quite fondly.
He’s lived two years now, a year and a half, maybe, and there’s very little he regrets. No; he’s in with good people, a good family, and they take care of him, and he takes care of them in turn, however he can. And with Yasha and Zuala, now, that family is growing.
Even now, even in this dingy pub, with rain starting to splatter the window, there’s a faint burn of gratitude against his chest. He’s lucky, is the thing. There are all sorts he could’ve fallen in with, after clawing his way out from the ground. He’s lucky he found his carnival, and he’s lucky he’s been able to stay, and he wouldn’t trade any of that for the world.
The little things, too. That it’s raining outside, that the rain means soon he’ll be joined by two barbarian women that are strangely protective of him already, and that while it’s wet and cold outside he’s here, drink in hand, warmed by attention and conversation and the light and heat of a little fire simmering just at his back.
Yes, Mollymauk has very few regrets.
Caleb sets down his drink, drawing Molly’s attention back to the present. “One last thing before I go.”
Despite himself, Molly frowns. “Leaving so early, dear? I do wish you could stay.”
For the briefest of moments, a flinch steals across Caleb’s face, so fast Molly nearly thinks he imagines it; but when it is gone, his expression is too smooth, too open, and Molly is enough of a performer to recognize a fellow. But before he can say anything, Caleb sets a silver piece on the table.
“A trinket,” Caleb insists. “The reading that you gave, it was very good. And I have no use for this, not any more, so I would like...I would like you to have it.”
Molly studies it curiously. It’s a delicate thing, simple on cursory inspection but wrought cleverly with enough detail and ribboned through with enough craftwork to glint at every angle, even in the dim firelight. He picks it up, and it’s heavier than he expected. This, whatever it is, is made of solid silver.
“Don’t play me for the fool, Caleb,” Molly says, turning it over in his fingers. “I can’t accept this. You know that.”
“I insist. It is — as a gift. I enjoyed this. Very much.”
“This is ridiculous. This has to be, what...” he lowers his voice. “Twenty gold? At least!”
“A tip, then,” Caleb says firmly. Molly settles the silver between his fingers and studies the wizard seated across from him. “You who, who gives such generous tips. Surely it is not so strange that Lady Fate should finally bequeath you one in return.”
There is a strange thread of desperation running through the man’s voice; faint, but still there. Molly is grateful for his pupiless eyes as he narrows them in Caleb’s direction.
He means to say no. He really does. Instead, he’s as surprised as Caleb to find himself saying, “Sure.” Then: “Yeah, why not. Never turn down something that’s free. That’s what my mom used to say anyway.”
Caleb relaxes all at once, a grin that is by now familiar stealing back across his face. “She never said anything of the sort,” Caleb says dryly, then sets down his drink and stands. “It is an earring, right now, but it can also be made into a cuff. For your horns. Give it a try, sometime.”
Both of Molly’s eyebrows shoot up on his forehead. He’s never heard of a piece of jewelry like this. He shouldn’t accept this, he really shouldn’t, but he could make good money off this. Could bark it for fifty gold, if he wanted to.
(He isn’t going to sell it.)
(He doesn’t know why he knows, with such certainty, that he won’t sell it. This, he will keep.)
Molly polishes off the drink, folds the trinket into the pocket closest to his chest. He sets down his drink and mirrors Caleb, standing.
He knows what this means, and he doesn’t like it much at all. Yasha was right; he’s a sentimental fool.
Endings always are the hardest part.
The happy flicking of his tail slows. The wizard’s gaze falls to his tail, face falling as well, before shaking it off and holding out a hand. At his side, his peacock clambers along the wood of the table and hops up his arm to crawl around his neck again, bright feathers sticking up from behind his head like some bizarre, loud crown.
“It was a pleasure,” he says simply.
Molly takes his hand, shakes it. “Pleasure was all mine, Mister Caleb,” he says, and means it. “If you still want to see that circus, we’re headed to Trostenwald, next. One of us is curious about that town.”
“Good. I’ve heard it has good people. If I am nearby, then I...I will.”
“Please do, dear.”
His smile only grows, impossibly, larger, and sadder. “Ja,” he says, voice hardly above a whisper. “I will. Be well, Mollymauk Tealeaf.”
And with those words, shaped like a benediction, like a blessing, the strange wizard turns from the tavern — from the drink, and the fire, and the light — and heads out into the rain.
Oh boy do I have questions for tomorrow's Talks. In the butt, Nott? Really? Did that really seem necessary to you??
As always, a huge, huge shoutout to Tea, or @gndy-dancer on tumblr, who was a wonderful beta, an excellent ear to bounce off ideas, and the support and motivation that helped me see this project through.
Hope you enjoyed! More to come next week. Check me out on my tumblr if you wanna chat. <3
Chapter 7: NOTT
They meet in a jail cell.
Some things change; but more importantly, some stay the same.
Without further ado: the single longest chapter of RMITI so far. Give it up for Nott the Brave.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Luc is starving.
She sees it every time she looks at him. The stark, gaunt cast to his face, the hollows beneath his eyes. No little boy’s face should look like that. Little boys, they’re meant to be plump, and rosy, and round, and her Luc is all sharp corners and shaking limbs.
It scares her, the thought that Luc is going to die here. It scares her so bad that she shakes, too, and holds him even tighter to her chest. Just weeks ago they were safe, they were happy at home, all three of them by the fire, Yeza passing her a cup of sherry and her proposing a quiet merry toast as Luc clambered around on two legs and oh, he’d just taken his first steps about a month ago by now, hadn’t he? She’d been so proud, she and Yeza, of their smart little boy. Yeza had held Luc’s hands, each one hardly fitting around his thumb, and they’d danced around the living room, both of them laughing. They have such beautiful laughs.
They don’t laugh anymore.
See, Yeza isn’t doing well, either. He hardly speaks. Oh, in the beginning he’d tried; he’d pleaded and begged and traded, or tried to, at least, but goblins have little use for chemicals. In their little fists and their clawed feet and their slitted eyes they have all the weapons they need, and Yeza — after days and days of talking, he’d given up. Now he lays down and doesn’t say much of anything at all.
At least he eats what Veth gives him. Both of her boys do. The goblins bring them less and less these days, and Veth eats only what she absolutely needs, and Luc eats just as much as he had when they were first thrown in here but it still isn’t enough, and he’s still going to die.
Gods, her little boy is going to die.
Veth runs her fingers through her little boy’s hair. It’s straggled and greasy, from lack of wash and the hundreds of times she’s done this same thing — held him tight to her chest, warming him from all around, and stroked his head until he can fall asleep.
Luc’s having a hard time falling asleep now, though. He has his face buried in Veth’s chest, his grip frighteningly weak around her hips, and he can’t seem to stop crying.
“It’s okay,” she’s murmuring, “it’s all right, Luc, Mama will get you out of here.”
When she first said those words, she thought they were lies.
“Mama will figure something out,” she breathes, her lips brushing the crown of his forehead.
See, she doesn’t — she doesn’t know what, yet, not exactly. She doesn’t have a plan. But she’s fast, and Luc and Yeza are slow, and they aren’t fighters. So she has the outline of a plan, and it’s an outline whose details she refuses to fill in, because she thinks she knows what will lay at the end for her —
But if it means that Luc and Yeza are safe, and if it means that they won’t starve, then Veth isn’t so much worried with what will happen with her.
Her planning is interrupted by a sound, down the hall. Veth sits up, stumbling backward until her shoulders hit the wall. She’s seen what goblins do with little children who make too much noise and fear grips her, tightening her hold around her little boy.
“Shhh,” she tries, combing through his hair faster, in a way she hopes is soothing, but her hands are shaking and have been shaking for days at this point, and Luc tries his best to hold his breath but can’t stop the sobs from coming. He’s in constant pain at this point — stomach cramps, headaches, exhaustion. For a moment Veth is furious, blindingly angry, but then the footsteps sharpen and her rage crumbles into terror. They’re probably not coming for her, they don’t care much about three halflings when there is a whole community off which they can feast, but one day, one day, it’ll be them, and they don’t need any excuse to take her boy —
“Shhh,” she tries again, more urgent this time, her own voice cracking. She can’t care about being strong for Luc right now. She needs him to be quiet and still.
The sound resolves into three — no, four — different shuffling steps. Distantly, growing louder, the strange click-crackling of goblin speech nears their cell, and Veth’s hackles rise at the sound, her grip tightening around Luc’s sides. She’ll kill them. If they touch either of her boys, she’ll kill them all.
She buries Luc’s face in her chest, half-turning so that most of him is obscured by the shadows in the corner of the cell, and shoves all of her breath from her chest in great rasping heaves. It’s not an elegant solution but it muffles the worst of Luc’s crying and hopefully it will be enough until the footsteps pass by their cell.
Except they don’t pass by, they stop, and there’s a clink of metal-on-metal as a key is inserted, and the door to their cell swings open.
Veth half-rises, her child clutched to her chest. She’s shaking all over from exhaustion, her head spinning and her vision blurring, but she holds her ground.
But the goblins don’t approach her. The first two step sideways, and the third throws a bundle of cloth into their cell.
Then the door closes with a strangely quiet click, and the footsteps recede.
Veth hardly breathes, listening, tracking the footsteps as they fade into the distance. Only when a handful of seconds has passed and none of the disgusting clicking sounds again does she breathe out a visceral sigh of relief, uncurling Luc from her chest.
“They’re gone,” she calls to Yeza, softly, though he won’t respond. “It’s okay,” she says then to Luc, pressing her forehead to his. He hiccups, his sobs quieting for a moment, and reaches for her hair with two tiny fists. Her braids were never neat, even before capture, but now they’re streaked through with dirt and horribly uneven. In the beginning of their imprisonment Yeza helped her keep them tidy. But that was in the beginning.
“Mama?” Luc squeaks, his tiny voice breaking. “Mama?”
“I’m here,” she says, voice shuddering, and sinks to her knees. Fear runs through her, bright and hot, then leaves just as quickly, leaving her drained. She’s so tired. Gods, she’s so tired.
She tried praying, in the beginning. She learned soon enough that no one was coming.
There’s a groan, and Veth freezes, the emptiness in her veins chilling straight to ice, as she whips Luc behind her as she snarls toward the center of the cell.
The pile of cloth that she’d mistaken for rags is, she can see now, actually a person.
At first she thinks it’s a halfling, another poor soul tossed in here with them. But then it sits up, and up, and up, and nearly hits its head on the stone ceiling. It has bright red hair and even brighter blue eyes. Yeza’s eyes are gray and Luc’s are green, but this body has blue eyes like the sky and all of the sudden she aches for it, bright sunny afternoons with quiet puffs of white cloud, trickling streams and happily babbling brooks....
“Ah, scheisse,” the voice says, thick and warm with an accent Veth doesn’t recognize. “I have been captured, then?”
“Yes,” Veth says automatically, studying it. Him? Him, she thinks. He’s too tall to be halfling, and his ears — she peers around to look at his ears, and they’re blunt and round and delicate. Human, then. “Yes, you...you must’ve been taken too.”
The human swears quietly, then pulls himself into a proper sitting position. The side of his head is matted with blood, and Veth frowns. “Your head,” she says. “You — it’s bleeding.”
The human tilts his head, one hand drifting toward his temple. His face twists downward in a frown, and his fingers come away slicked with blood. He swears again, shaking his head. “I tried to fight my way out,” he says by way of explanation, and he grins ruefully. “Seems I did a pretty poor job indeed.”
Luc totters to his feet and stands beside her, peering out from behind one leg. Veth scoops him into her arms and crosses the cell to the human, who blinks as she approaches. “Not too bad, I don’t think,” Veth says. “Most of us couldn’t make it either.”
“That is kind of you, it was — oh. Oh, no,” the man says, brows creasing as he sees Luc. “He is yours, the boy?”
“Yeah, he’s mine.”
The man studies Luc. Luc studies him right back, eyes red and swollen from crying. His hands stay folded in his lap, but the human leans forward. “Hallo, little one,” he says softly.
Luc hides behind her leg. “Hi,” he says, so quietly Veth can hardly hear him.
The human looks at her, worry twisting his frown deeper. “He is starving.”
“They don’t bring us enough,” Veth says, and her stomach sinks. She doubts their rations will increase, even as their numbers just did. They’re going to have to make do with even less.
The man nods. “They are cruel,” he says, and holds out his hand. “I think I will be here for some time, but hopefully not too long. My name is Caleb Widogast.”
Veth takes his hand, shakes it. His fingers are warm; he runs warmer than any other human she’s met. She winds her hand back underneath Luc, and he buries his face in her shoulder, still trembling. “Veth Brenatto,” she says.
“How did you come to be here, Veth Brenatto?”
“Just Veth,” she says tiredly, and sits beside him. “Got unlucky, really. We were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“All three of you?”
“Yeah. We were, uh, we were out by the riverbank, when they came.”
Caleb leans back against the wall, wincing. Veth follows suit, cradling her child carefully in her lap. Almost absently, she runs her fingers along his forehead. He’s hot, too. Hotter than any halfling child should be. He’s been nearly sick for several days now, but doesn’t have enough energy to even fall ill.
“What about you, then? Why’re you in here?”
“Much the same as that,” Caleb shrugs. “I was passing through Felderwin, on my way to Talonstadt from Zadash, when I was ambushed. Taken off-guard.”
“Your whole party?”
Caleb shakes his head, a wry tug at his lips. “I was travelling alone.”
Veth stares. Her fingers on Luc’s forehead still. “You were travelling alone? It’s not safe, Caleb.”
“Ja, I know, but I could not...I did not have a party.” Veth squints at him. There’s more to that story than he’s saying. “Anyway, the wrong place, and the wrong time. And now I suspect that we will be...I do not know, eaten? What do they mean to do with us?”
Luc sticks his face into Veth’s shoulder, hard, his shaking redoubling. Veth turns away, curling over her son, murmuring again, it’ll be okay, don’t worry, Luc, Mama will get us out of here....
When she looks back up, Caleb is watching her quietly. She lifts her chin, not sure what he will say — if he thinks she’s weak for putting her family first, or stupid for reassuring her son about something that won’t happen — she’s not brave enough to rescue her family all on her own, of course, that’s ridiculous — but instead, he reaches out a hand, and says, “I can help.”
She stares at it. There are little white-pink lines, very old scars, lashed up the meat of his palm and curling in toward his fingers. The rest disappear beneath his sleeve. She says, “What?”
“You mean to escape, yes?” he murmurs. “I am a wizard, I have some magic. Can you, do you have skill in anything that could...that could help?”
Veth shakes her head. “Not really,” she says. She shifts Luc onto her other arm. “I mean, I can run kinda fast, but I’m not brave, or smart, not really, I don’t know magic or anything....”
Caleb winces. “You know, I do not think I believe that,” he says quietly. “I think you are very brave. You, you are locked in a little cell, and have been for some time, and you are keeping your family together, ja? I think that is very brave.”
Veth scoffs. “I mean, it isn’t going very well. Yeza doesn’t talk any more, and Luc’s terrified.”
“Luc should be scared,” Caleb says, “and to go quiet is a normal reaction to fear, but they are turning to you, Veth Brenatto, when they are their most terrified. I think that — I think that makes you very strong indeed.”
Veth stares at him, again. Her, brave? No, she’s not...she’s not brave. She isn’t. There are a lot of things she is not.
“But I suppose that is beside the point,” he mutters, wincing as he resettles against the wall. “Any experience moving through small places, or opening doors?”
Veth thinks, rocking Luc as she does. Luc gnaws tiredly at the tough, dirty fabric of her shirt, one tiny hand wrapping around her sleeve. She’s small, but not small enough to fit beneath the door. And she’s been trying to worry an opening through the wall with the spare nails the goblins left lying about in their cell, but the nails have been too rusted, and too bent, to be of any real use.
“I can pick some locks,” she says, after a while. “I mean, it’s not...I’m not great at it, but with the right tools, I can probably figure something out.”
For the first time, Caleb smiles at her. It’s a bright and warm thing, and for some reason, for the first time since she was tossed in this cell, she feels warmer, too. Hopeful.
“That is very good,” he says, and shifts on the floor to face her. In her arms, Luc slumps over, finally falling asleep. “That is very good indeed, Veth Brenatto. I can get you some tools with the help of a magic friend I keep in my pocket, and with those tools, do you think you could get us out?”
Veth squints at his pockets. There are no telltale lumps there; just the faint scent of, strangely enough, incense.
Then she looks up, and gives the question its due consideration. She looks from the sleeping Luc to the curled Yeza, still silent on the bed, watching both of them with half-lidded eyes.
“I think so,” she says eventually, words strong enough to surprise even her. “Yes.”
The magic friend in his pocket turns out to be a cat.
Actually, it’s a bundle of herbs and a stick of incense. After drafting their plan, Caleb claims a corner of their little cell, muttering to himself. Curious, Veth sets Luc gently aside, curled next to Yeza on the floor space most comfortably molded to a halfling form, right on top of his father’s lap, and approaches him.
She finds Caleb scratching a circle into the floor with one of the nails she’d discarded. There is already one broken and useless beside him, so, wordless, she sets about collecting the four or five more she hadn’t worn through in her own efforts to tunnel her way out.
“What are you doing?” she asks, unable to restrain her curiosity as she delivers her little gift of a handful of nails.
He looks up and accepts the gift, surprised. “Ah, danke,” he says. “Ah, this is — thank you. This is a circle of summoning, for my friend.”
Caleb laughs softly, shaking his head. “No, my cat. My familiar. His name is Frumpkin, and he is very small and not so sturdy, but he is very precious to me. Would you like to see?”
Veth nods eagerly, forgetting her own fear in the face of this strange magic.
Caleb finishes scratching along the floor and sits back on his haunches. “This is a ritual circle. It is used to, ah, to conduct the power we find around us.” He gestures vaguely about their cell, as if to encompass the whole world. “The components we use, the lines that I have drawn, they will tell that power where to go, and in the end, I will have my cat.”
“Are you making the cat? From nothing?”
“No, not quite. No, I am summoning him. He is from a — from a different place, called the Feywild.”
Veth shakes her head. She’s never heard of it. Caleb hesitates. “It is a different plane of existence. We, the two — the four of us here, here we are on the Prime Material Plane, but there are others, with all sorts of creatures. The Feywild is a little bit behind us, but symmetrical to us, and there are other creatures there, too.”
“Like your cat.”
“Ja, like my cat.”
“So these symbols,” she asks, tapping at the strange runes etched along the outsides of the circle, “those are, like, honing beacons? To tell your cat where to go?”
“Exactly, that is it!” Caleb says, beaming at her. “I am proud of you, little one, this is not an easy thing to grasp. Yes, when magic flows across these lines a little, a gate of sorts is created, and these runes here — ” he taps the scratchings on the stone with the blunt end of the nail, “ — allow me to specify what sorts of creatures can cross through.”
“So you’ve said that only Frumpkins can pass through here! No nasty gnolls or drow or anything!”
“Ja, that is exactly it,” Caleb grins. “You know, this is a hard thing to understand, N-Veth. You say you are not so smart, but things like this, they can cost many hours to understand.”
“Oh, it’s not — I don’t know anything about magic, really,” Veth says. “But you! You’re so good at magic! And so good at teaching, too!”
“Ja, yes well, it helps to have such a bright student,” he says fondly. “I could see you easily as a teacher yourself, Veth. Or maybe a detective.”
Veth laughs, running her fingers along the curves scratched into the stone of the cell. A great sinking weight, a stone tying her to the bank of a river, lightens. “I wanted to be one when I was younger,” she says, a little wistfully.
“What do you want to be now?”
Veth shakes her head, curling back against the wall. It was nice, for a few moments, to forget everything but runes and magic and cats from different worlds, but in the end she is still Veth, stuck in a cage with her starving family. “Just...something, really,” she says softly. “Anything. Anything other than — I mean, look at me, I’m...ordinary. Plain. Not pretty, not strong, and not even smart, not really.”
She doesn’t meet Caleb’s eyes. She doesn’t want to see what he thinks of her now, if he’s going to laugh, like so many other people have. Her cheeks burn; that sounded pathetic.
“I know I have not known you for very long,” he says after a while, voice gentle, “but I think you are both brave and smart, Veth Brenatto. You know, I taught the arcane to a number of students, and you are the quickest yet that I have known. And besides,” he says, nudging her shoulder with a roguish grin sprawling across his face, “I am quite fond of your freckles. I think they suit you well.”
Veth can’t help but grin back, pokes him in the shoulder, hard. “That’s because you have them too, Caleb.”
“Exactly. And I think they are beautiful.”
Veth laughs, a little crackling thing, voice hoarse from disuse. “That doesn’t count,” she says, and forestalls any other compliments with, “well then, how about that cat of yours?”
“Very well, very well, here comes that little cat of mine,” Caleb says, and kneels before the circle. Then he pauses. “You know, it is not quite conventional to have multiple casters, but I have heard that the Feywild can be glimpsed — here, put your hands here,” he says, and scoots to the side, patting the runes a little to his left. She drops to her knees, curiously, and bends over the circle, mimicking his posture carefully. Hilariously, under her gaze, he straightens, correcting his own posture. “You may be able to see into the Feywild for a moment. If you are, ah, curious about it.”
“Yeah!” Veth says quickly. “Yeah, that would be great. Do I…I don’t need to do any casting, do I...?”
“No. Just close your eyes. It is a portal that we are opening here, and you should be able to see through for a moment or two, if you would like.”
Veth nods eagerly, eyes already closed. A whole other world! She wonders what it’ll look like. Will it even have a sky? How many suns?
“Here we go,” Caleb says, and then the cool stone beneath Veth’s fingers warms, and then —
Through the circle etched into the stone she looks down and sees a flare of bright blue. As she watches it unfurls, flattening and deepening, licks of bark and leaves curling up the sides of the scene. Trees of cerulean, of azure, arch toward the sky, the same homey blue as the wizard’s eyes, and even the sunlight spilling through the forest canopy is tinged with green, illuminating from the back the leaves hanging down in shaggy strands from dark branches, and just there, before her fingers curled tight around the rim of the circle, as though she were about to hop a wall, is a bright streak of red-orange fur trotting happily toward them —
And then the circle slams closed, and her fingers are flat again on the stone ground, and there is a loud thrumming in their cell. She looks up, and that same bright-furred cat is winding around Caleb’s knees, purring.
“You did it!” she cheers. “Caleb, that place was beautiful! It was all blue and murky like we were underwater, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Caleb laughs, picks the cat up, running his knuckles along the top of his head. The cat’s eyes scrunch shut happily. “Yes, we did it. We make a good team, I think,” he says, and holds that cat out to her. “Veth, this is Frumpkin. Would you like to hold him?”
“I didn’t do much, really,” Veth demures, and holds her hands out tentatively. There are a number of cats in Felderwin, but they don’t really like people. She’s never seen one up close, much less held one. “That’s a funny name. Sounds like pumpkin.”
Caleb plops the cat in her hands. Immediately Frumpkin clambers up her arms — she hunches her shoulders protectively, worried she’s angered the cat — but Frumpkin only winds around her neck, and she giggles, his tail brushing beneath her chin. He’s purring so hard that her chin tingles in response, eyes still scrunched happily closed, nose butted up against the corner of her jaw.
“He likes you,” Caleb says warmly. “Most people he does not take to so quickly.”
Veth scratches the underside of his jaw tentatively, and the thrumming turns quickly to something approaching a rattle. Then there’s a rasp of something rough and wet and Veth flinches back until she realizes it’s a cat tongue.
She must be making a face, because Caleb laughs, long and loud. “Your face, little one,” he giggles, “you do not — you are not so used to cats, ja?”
“I’ve never touched one before,” she says, unable to be defensive in the face of such bald amusement. “You wouldn’t know how to handle one either if you didn’t — if you didn’t have one as a familiar!”
“Of course not, I would have no idea,” he says, still grinning. “It is just, your face, it was very amusing. But you are doing well. He likes you.”
“I like him too,” Veth declares, letting her fingers wander down his spine, between his ears. Frumpkin squirms appreciatively around her shoulders. There’s a bright burst of prickles between her shoulderblades that makes her yelp, but then just as soon as they’d appeared, the claws retract.
“Frumpkin will be able to bring us what you need.” Caleb sits back against the wall, and Veth follows suit. Frumpkin scrabbles out from around her neck and scarfs around her lap instead, kneading his little paws against her legs before snuggling up against her stomach. “To pick this lock, what will you need to do that?”
“Something small,” she says decisively. She’s jigged some locks before, just for the fun of it, and — and this lock isn’t too sturdy. Thick enough that she couldn’t break it with her bare hands, but the tumblers inside are fairly simple, and she’s picked worse in her time. She was always curious, as a child.
It’s nice to be curious again. Caleb’s magic, this cat...these are so new, and she loves them. She feels like a proper halfling again. “Just a thin metal rod. About the width of the whites of your nails, if you can.” She taps her fingernails to demonstrate.
Caleb nods. He snaps, and Frumpkin vanishes from her lap — her lap chills instantly in response, and she stops herself from reaching for Luc on instinct to fill that space — and reappear outside the cell, tail fluffing as he rounds the corner and vanishes from sight.
“He will be back soon, with what you need. I can fight, some, but I think the most important thing is that we are all out of here safe, no? Where do you need to go?”
“Back to Felderwin,” she says. “And what about you, where do you need to go back to? Zadash, was it?”
Caleb shrugs, curling more comfortably against the dank stone wall. “Eventually. But the matter is not pressing. So long as I am out from here, I will be okay.”
Veth frowns at him. He seems very unconcerned about his own freedom, and that’s strange, and should make him untrustworthy, but....
For some reason, Veth trusts him. She can’t quite put her finger on why, they’re in jail and starving and there are so many ways that this human could be using them, but she can’t think of a single one right now. Instead she thinks about his cat, and his magic, and the genuine pride in his voice when she understood him.
“What do you want in return?” she demands. “You’re helping us escape. Why?”
“Because I want to get out of here just as much as you,” he says, cracking an eye open, slightly confused. “I cannot pick locks. You can. I can get you the tools that you need.”
“But you have magic,” Veth points out, crossing her arms. “Can’t you just, y’know, blow the door open?”
Caleb looks, for the first time, deeply uncomfortable. “Fire is...it is my specialty, ja,” he admits. “But I do not like using it much. Fire, it...I have used it to harm people before. People that were very important to me. And I do not ever want to do so again, so I use it only when I need to. And you, Veth Brenatto, you are quick and brave, so I do not need to. I suppose that is what I want in return.”
Veth frowns. “Doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Caleb turns to her, that same slight frown affixed to his face. “It is not enough that I want to see an innocent family freed?”
Veth fumbles. “I mean, I suppose so. But it’s weird. We couldn’t make it out without you, but on your own, you’d be fine.”
“I would not,” Caleb says sharply, then winces. “I apologize, that was more brusque — I would not do well. Having to use fire.”
Veth squints at him. She tries to push past the illogical trust, like her heart knows something she doesn’t, and fails. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“I will tell you what,” the wizard says, reaching for her hands. Without thinking, she takes his hands. They’re still warm, and soothing, somehow. Right. “We, if we make it out of here, you will see just how brave you are, Veth Brenatto, and you will never call yourself not again. No more of this ‘not smart’ and ‘not brave,’ because it is not true, see? I think we should make it a deal, ja?”
Veth stares at him, then looks down at their clasped hands. He jolts, as if just now realizing that they are touching, but Veth holds his hands tighter. She doesn’t want him to pull away.
“Deal,” she says, not fully understanding why. Maybe — maybe he’s right. Objectively, if she were Yeza, making deals and picking locks to free them, well, she would think he was pretty brave for that, wouldn’t she? “I’ll call that a deal.”
They decide: the next morning, they will leave. Neither of them have the advantage of darkvision.
Caleb curls up in his own corner of the little cell, cloak pulled tight across his body, and Veth wedges herself around Yeza and little Luc, making sure they’re both warm, and it feels — wrong, somehow.
She looks over to him before she falls asleep, and he looks perfectly content there, alone on the cold ground, but still. It feels wrong.
In the middle of the night she wakes to a voice crying “No, not — not — no!”
She’s awake in a moment. Beside her, Luc and Yeza, are still sleeping, both exhausted and hurt, the sleeves of Yeza’s shirt shredded where he’s taken to eating the fabric of his own clothes. Their breathing comes and goes relatively easily, neither of them dreaming, so it is —
She looks toward the corner with her strange human wizard and finds him wound tight about himself in sleep, face creased in distress as he reaches in half-aborted motions for someone who isn’t there.
Veth wrestles with herself for only a moment before leaping off the bed and kneeling beside him. This is wrong. It felt wrong before, that he should be alone, and it is almost unbearable now.
“Hey,” she whispers, shaking his shoulders roughly. At the sound of her voice, his trembling intensifies. “Hey, Caleb! Wake up.”
He shakes his head, fingers twitching where he’s pulled the cloak tight about himself. He’s crying, she realizes with a shock, a quiet broken thing that fits jagged on his face. “No,” he breathes raggedly, then chokes on another broken no. “Leave her be! Leave her alone, no — not, not, please....”
“Hey!” she hisses, sharper this time, cutting through his senseless begging. She yanks on the shoulder of his coat. “Hey!”
He jolts awake, sitting upright in a moment. He’s breathing harshly, eyes wide as he stares at her, still struggling through fear and what sounded like grief.
“You — ” the word breaks, dissolves in his mouth, and he gasps a trembling breath to try to steady himself, reaching for her with wide eyes. “Not, you are not — you are, you....”
“Veth, remember?” she says, taking his hands in hers and squeezing. Oh, her heart aches for him, alone and lost in a jail cell. “Veth. You and I got captured by goblins, and we’re....” she lowers her voice. “We’re going to break out tomorrow morning.”
He’s still staring at her, wordless. Slowly, he reclaims one of his hands, and clasps one of hers tight between his two. “Veth,” he says shakily, unsteadily, like he is just for the first time tasting the name on his tongue.
Then he exhales, his face screwing up again briefly before he buries it in his elbow, still clutching her hands between his. “You are Veth,” he whispers. “Veth, Veth Brenatto.”
“That’s me,” she says. “Breathe.”
At her word, he does, great trembling things that seem like they could split his chest, gulping down air like water. His fingers tighten around hers desperately. He’s shaking all over, and the outside of his coat is rigid with cold.
“I am sorry,” he manages, when his breaths are even again. “I did not mean to wake — “
“Don’t apologize,” she says impatiently. “It was a nightmare, Caleb. Everybody gets them.”
He breathes out unsteadily, draws his shoulder over his eyes. Then he looks up, slowly, and squeezes her hand once before letting go. “Ja, they do. I suppose a jail cell is not conducive to good sleep, is it?” Caleb sits back against the wall, then, something defeated and resigned to the slump of his shoulders. He nods behind her. “You should be sure that — that your family sleeps soundly. They have been here far longer than I.”
She frowns at him, then at Luc and Yeza, piled atop her collection of what few soft things they could find in this cell — straw, grass, errant leaves — then back to Caleb, whose eyes are already closed, brows tense with grief.
“C’mon,” she says, and grabs his hand again, and stands. He stares up at her. “That corner can’t be comfortable.”
He just keeps staring. Veth gives his hand another solid tug. “You’ll get a headache. And have more bad dreams.” He doesn’t move. Veth shakes her head. “Come on, Caleb.”
At that, he stands, shocked out of sorrowful complacency by her words. A swell of pride rises within her. She leads him to their little corner, then folds herself sitting by Yeza, head pillowed against his chest, and pushes and prods at Caleb until he’s lying across her legs.
“Better?” she asks.
Caleb swallows, hard. “Better, I think,” he says, so quietly she almost cannot hear him. “Thank you.”
Instinct grips her and she drops a quick kiss to his forehead, running a single hand through his hair before lying back herself and getting comfortable. “G’night, Caleb,” she says, drowsiness overtaking her already.
“Good night, Veth,” he says back, softly.
“Give me just a moment,” Caleb says, out of breath, as the jail burns behind him. All around them, through the fields, streams a mass exodus of halflings, children clutched to their chests and hand-in-hand with family; with siblings, with parents, with friends. There are many faces Veth knows in this crowd. “I have to attend to — to something, quickly, back there, but I will meet you in Felderwin, okay?”
“What is it, what are you doing?”
“There is a woman back there,” he says, “a witch, with the goblins, who took something from — from me, from a friend of mine, and I mean to...I mean to speak with her.”
Veth narrows her eyes at him. “You’re puny and weak,” she points out, and Caleb chokes on air, staring at her like she’d punched him in the gut. “It’s true! You just used up a lot of your spells, and you’re a wizard, so you can’t be all that tough — “
A strange rasping sound pulls from him, the noise rusty as though dragged over nails, and it takes a moment of Veth staring at him wordlessly to realize that he’s laughing.
“Never change, Veth,” he says fondly, and ruffles her hair. “I will be fine. I will be able to find you, back in your home, do not worry.”
She snatches his hand before he can leave, and looks him dead in the eye. Around them, still, swirls the village she grew up in. It’s strange; as they go, many faces turn toward her, and perhaps it’s her own imagination but she thinks she can hear, faintly, the brave, the brave, Veth the Brave, from lips that had once mocked her and scorned her name.
Caleb stares at her, wide-eyed. His eyes are even more obviously the same shade as the afternoon sky now that they are both standing under it. Then he unfreezes, limb-by-limb, and kneels before her.
“I promise,” he says, brushing hair back from her face. She blinks, surprised, but doesn’t move away. It feels right — the same sort of right that seeing his cat had felt, the same sort of deep and pulling wrong that made her drag him over to them last night. The same sort of right she feels with his hand in hers. “I will come back.”
“Okay,” she says. “I trust you.”
And she turns and runs.
And all around her, as she goes, there is a call from hundreds of awestruck lips: there she is, there she goes; there she is, Veth the Brave.
True to his word, he does come back.
His hair is darker and soot-stained, and there is something hard in his eyes when she opens the door to see him standing there, and she guesses that, whoever the woman was he went to find, she is dead by his hand.
But when he sees her, his face relaxes. “You made it home,” he says.
Veth grins up at him, moves aside to invite him in, and when he steps through the door she says, “So did you.”
He laughs again, that rusted rasping thing that sounds much sweeter in the walls of her own home than in a jail cell. She likes that sound. “How is your family?”
“Sleeping,” Veth says. They hadn’t been able to feed Luc as much as she had safely liked, when they got home, because he had been with so little for so long, but he had eaten a meal and a half, slowly, before falling straight asleep.
All around them is the faint smell of honey and raspberries. It’s one of Yeza’s specialties. He’s so tired he can hardly stand up straight, but he wants his family to eat well, so he’s baking, even now. A fond smile crosses Veth’s face before she can stop it. Ridiculous man, half-dead of starvation and terror, and he’s in their sun-stained kitchen, baking away.
She can’t bring herself to regret it. She’s very much looking forward to eating some, herself.
There’s a slow set of footsteps, then Yeza pokes his head out of the kitchen. He blinks up at Caleb, still for a moment, before recognition lights in his eyes, and a half-smile crawls over his face. “You must be Caleb Widogast, then?”
He proffers his hand, and Veth buries a snort in her elbow, because his hands are filthy with flour and grain up to his elbow, but before Yeza can pull back with familiar flushed cheeks Caleb shakes his hand.
“That is me, yes,” he says. “Yeza, then? Yeza Brenatto? It is good to see you well. Well, better.”
“Thank you very much,” he says, dusting his hands belatedly off on his apron. He’d been so excited to put it back on. It’s the little things, Veth knows; the little comforts that are strongest. The smell of honey and cinnamon, the brush of hair a familiar shade. The scent of woodsmoke. “I’m sorry I wasn’t more....” He gestures vaguely with the end of his apron. “Present, I suppose.”
Caleb waves his words away. “It is no fault of yours. To be imprisoned for so long, it is no easy thing.”
Yeza laughs. “Not for most of us, anyway,” he says ruefully, and elbows Veth. “My wife, though. Tough cookie, huh? Did you hear what they’re calling her now?”
“Yeza,” Veth protests, but Yeza only beams and crows, “Veth the Brave!”
His voice is hoarse and crackly for disuse, his hands shaking, flour floating down onto the floor, but gods, he’s so proud of her when he says her new title. Veth scoffs out a little half-laugh and looks to Caleb, expecting to share a — she’s not sure what, some sort of glance with him — but finds only a thick tangle of a half-dozen emotions that vanish just as soon as she sees them, plastered over hastily with surprise.
“Is that so?”
“Yes,” Yeza says happily, oblivious to the reason Veth is studying Caleb carefully. “My wife, the Brave! Even those — pardon my language — even those arseholes down on King’s Crown Way, Betra and her lot, even them! They’ve finally opened their eyes. You know, I think it fits.”
“I think so too,” Caleb murmurs, the stiff surprise settling into something softer and warmer and far, far more genuine. “Veth the Brave. What did I tell you?”
“Okay, okay, you can say I told you so now,” she teases, and punches Caleb in the hip. “It’s a little, you know, strange? I mean, I’m not....”
“If you say that you are not brave, Veth — ”
“But you are,” Yeza insists, at the same time as Caleb speaks, and both of them look at each other, and Veth looks at both of them, and bursts out laughing.
“Menaces, both of you,” she snorts, and bats at Yeza’s shoulder. “Your bread’s nearly burning, dear.”
Yeza yelps, and disappears into the kitchen with a hasty farewell and stilted half-bow. He bumps his head on the doorframe as he goes, muttering to himself — he never swears, they’ll be the infant versions of some nastier words, and it’s so funny, and also endearing, how her husband refuses to say anything fouler than shit.
“Dork,” she says fondly, watching him disappear into the kitchen. “He’s baking bread. Raspberries and honey and almond dust, too. It’s really good.”
“Ja, I am sure it is.”
Veth looks up at him and frowns. “You’re staying,” she says briskly.
“Are you sure?” he asks, a reluctant hand resting on the lapels of his coat. “I would not intrude, I do not want to take food from your family — ”
Veth grabs one of his hands in hers, on instinct, and he freezes. She tugs on it, tugs him down to eye level, and says, clearly, “You’re staying, Caleb. At least until tea.”
He stares at her, then laughs, again, shaking his head. “It cannot hurt, I suppose,” he says warmly. “Thank you.”
“You saved our lives,” Veth says. “It’s the least we could do. Besides. You’re stick-thin. Clearly you don’t eat enough.”
The teatime meal is just as delicious as Veth predicted. It makes her a little sleepy — it’s been a while since she’s eaten, too — but even as Yeza retreats upstairs, yawning, she stays stubbornly awake.
It doesn’t bother her, the silence. Neither she nor Caleb have much to say, but the quiet settles about their shoulders comfortably, like a well-loved cloak, or the cracked spine of a particularly good book. Even long after both of their cups are empty, they sit, knees knuckled together, looking out into the woods that arch around Felderwin.
Several times, Veth has caught some of her neighbors passing by, whispering — and sometimes those whispers stay whispers, but sometimes they become cheers, or calls of gratitude, and they are always, every time, ended with Veth the Brave.
It seems her little nickname has stuck. Caleb always returns her exasperated, bewildered glances with a proud little smile and another sip of his tea.
“You could stay here, you know,” she says, after a harmony of birdsong has faded, from a duet to quiet again. It’s peaceful; a warm breeze ruffles through the tops of the trees, smelling faintly of lavender and all the fresh blooming of spring earth. “In Felderwin. You saved us all.”
But Caleb’s already shaking his head. “It is you who broke them out,” Caleb says, that small smile on his face. “You who set them all free. I am not the hero here. Besides, Veth, I...I have to go. There are a lot of, of things that I need to do. People that I need to see again.”
“They can wait.”
“They cannot,” Caleb says softly. “They are – they are so important to me.”
“At least stay for a while,” she tries. She’s going to miss him. Gods damn it, she’s known him for a handful of days, but she’ll miss him. “For a couple of days. There’s a room beside Luc’s, for guests, you could stay there, Caleb.”
Caleb looks at her curiously over the rim of his mug. “Why?” he asks. “If it is gratitude you want to express, Veth the Brave, then you have already done more than your part.”
“It’s not that,” she says impatiently, shrugging off the nickname. He says it so easily; more easily than Yeza, or anyone else. It rolls off his tongue with a fluidity like river water. “I...it’s just...” she flounders. “Oh, I’ll miss you, all right?”
“But you will not for long,” he says softly, and takes another tiny sip of his tea. “It is not — that is not a judgement on you, at all, but in time, you will forget me. It is best, I think, for you to enjoy what time you have with your family.”
She knows he’s wrong. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she is certain; she won’t forget him.
And she could never explain why, could never explain how she knows, this deep in her bones, that the face of Caleb Widogast is one she will never forget.
But she doesn’t have the words, so she doesn’t try. She only sits back, her eyes stinging, and looks anywhere but at him.
“I did not mean to upset you,” he says softly. “It was genuine curiosity, truly. You are a hero to your people. There is not so much effort that should be spent on me, not now.”
“I’d spend it,” she says. “Just for a day or so. I’ll miss you.”
Caleb exhales a little shakily, and sets aside his little teacup. The mug and saucer were made for halfling hands, and are comically tiny between his fingers. “I will miss you too,” he says, after a moment, and this time it is he who does not look at her. “More than — more than you can know, Veth. I suppose a day cannot hurt.”
Veth grins, suddenly much lighter. “I’m very persuasive when I want to be,” she says smugly, and kicks her feet up into his lap, slouching comfortably in her chair. He chokes on a surprised little laugh, and her ears tilt upward with amusement. “Got you to agree to stay again.”
They spend most of the day wandering the streets of Felderwin. It is odd; strange, in that it is not strange to show Caleb the brown speckled-cow’s pasture, where her brothers had pushed her into mud, not strange to show him the inn where a bard had once composed a ballad about her face in all of its deformities, and not strange to show him the river, where the goblins had come.
She shows him the back alleys of the market, the hidden gem of central Felderwin with the dangling windchimes, the jeweler’s place that makes her fingers itch. She introduces them, and yet again finds her new nickname on the jeweler’s lips, where before there was scorn, and that will never not be strange. From the jeweler he buys two pearls, each large enough to fit comfortably in a palm, and tips five more gold than their price.
She shows him the main thoroughfare, the smaller, flimsier gates of the city. She shows him the crops and the fields, and the quiet peace of an afternoon spent by the brook.
As they walk, she hears her name on a dozen lips. Each time, she rolls her eyes, and each time, Caleb smiles. There is a pride in his expression that Veth cannot quite understand. The dirt and mud seem to fall from his clothes as they walk, and by midday he could passably be called clean.
Later, as the sun begins to set, they return to the apothecary. Yeza has vanished into the lab, and she can smell the sting of sulfur and hydrochloric acid even from upstairs — her beloved husband forgot to set out the lavender and jasmine, as he normally does when he works, but there is a tray of muffins waiting for them when they return, so Veth forgives him readily enough.
Luc’s form shows all signs of a ready recovery. That healthy flush and curve to his cheeks already begins to blossom again. Caleb slips out the door, and Veth picks Luc up out of his bed and just holds him to her chest.
This time, he doesn’t cry. This time, he buries his face against her neck and murmurs, quiet, “I love you, mama.”
She chokes a little as she says, “I love you too.”
Luc wants to meet the strange wizard man who’d helped his mama free everyone, so Veth hoists him against her hip. They find Caleb downstairs, idly skimming the worn titles of their little bookshelf above the fireplace. It is lit, and murmuring merrily, embers painted vivid reds and golds. The fire itself is without sparks.
“A good collection you have here,” Caleb muses aloud when Veth settles both of them into a rocking chair, nudging them into motion with one foot. “Many titles about baking, I see.”
“He doesn’t just make up stuff like that,” Veth snorts.
He grins just as wide. From somewhere, there's a great crash in the lab. That'll be Yeza. Then Caleb startles slightly as he notices the small halfling boy peeking around Veth's legs, studying the stranger with wide eyes.
Caleb softens his gaze, then drops before Luc in a kneel. “Luc Brenatto,” he says, all in one breath. “You are a very brave little boy, did you know?”
Luc clutches tighter to the hem of Veth’s shirt, but peeks out at Caleb from beneath a fringe of light hair. “You’re weird,” he says. “And magic.”
His laugh this time is nothing more than a breath of air. “I cannot disagree with you on that, little Luc,” he says. “Very strange indeed. How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Luc says. “Mama made me feel better.”
Caleb’s face softens. “Your mother is very good at that.”
Luc nods. “Yeah.”
For a moment, there is no sound in their little room save the whispering of the flames. It is a little odd, to have a fire without the pop-and-crackle of embers, but it isn’t bad. Then Caleb lets out a little ah and digs through his coat.
He emerges with two books. The first is a battered, untitled book bound in worn leather, water stains fringing the edges, and when Caleb smooths the cover hundreds of crinkled pages shuffle about. The second is far more polished: thick-bound and shimmering softly, the edges of the tome shimmering as though threaded through with gold.
“These very important books,” Caleb says softly, and holds the first out to Luc. Luc studies Caleb with the wide-eyed scrutiny of children, before slowly, slowly, wrapping his two pudgy hands around the cover and taking it. He turns it over, running a little finger along the spine. “This was the first book from which I taught myself magic.”
Luc looks up quickly. “Magic?”
“Magic,” Caleb says solemnly. “It is only for the very curious.”
“I’m curious,” Luc says immediately.
“Then it can be for you, if you would like it.”
Luc clutches the book to his chest. Then he gives up on protecting it entirely, deciding that Caleb is no threat, and lets the pages spill open randomly, squinting at the markings as if he could read. After a moment, he nudges his head against Veth’s collarbone and asks, “Mama, what does it say?”
“It’s...” she studies it, equally curious. It’s a list of requirements of some sort. A coil of copper wire, a sketch of a finger. “It’s a spell, Luc. This one will let you talk to people even from far away.”
Caleb chokes. He peers at the page, then relaxes all at once with a tiny twist of laughter. “That is a good starting spell for you, little Luc. That is a spell called Message. It is...it is very useful.”
“I want to learn it then,” Luc declares, shutting the book and holding it to his chest. “What’s the other one?”
“This is a, hm. It is a, a tutoring book of sorts. There is a magic, an enchantment in here. It lets you talk to magicians from very far away." Caleb proffers the book, and Luc takes it. "In this case, you will be writing to me, little light."
Luc takes the book with something approaching reverence. He opens it; all the pages are blank. He closes it again with a frown. "There's nothing in it!"
"That is because you will fill it with questions." Still kneeling, Caleb taps the spine with one finger. "And I will fill it with answers."
"Oh," Luc says, studying the pages like they can give him the answers already. "So for when I have questions about magic I can just ask you, even though you're far away!"
"That is it, little one," Caleb says softly. "I am proud of you."
“You are welcome,” Caleb says. He rests a hand on the boy’s shoulder and says, “Be good to your mother.”
Days pass. Two, then three, then a full week.
Caleb fits in with their little family in a way that even Veth could not have predicted. He sits with tomes of his own to supplement the two he gave Luc, teaches him how to properly hold a quill, and Luc clambers up on his knee with the stumbling coordination of a small child and curls up against Caleb’s chest. He watches intently as Yeza bakes, as though he is trying to learn, or perhaps commit something to memory; as the awkwardness dissipates they talk about Veth, and later, methods of farming. They learn from each other.
And with Veth –
Something was missing. Not something she’d forgotten, necessarily; something she’d never known. Something she will not forget again.
Days turn to weeks. He counts down the days with a chronometer that is never wrong. He has to go, Veth knows, but he stays as long as he can.
And most of the days, she and Caleb spend together. Wandering the fields, the villages, the markets. She shows him the great song-festivals of Felderwin, when wandering bards from all manner of halfling city congregate on a patchwork of bright blankets in the grass to share story and song. She shows him the trees and the fields and the brooks. She shows him her collections, her buttons and her stamps and her webs of spun glass.
And it is neither entirely her nor entirely him, but a place for him opens in Felderwin all the same.
“You could stay,” Veth tries, one last time. “We’d be happy to have you, Caleb. Really.”
It’s late at night. Crickets sound noisily from the trees, wood creaking quietly beneath them as they rock back and forth, slight enough to be only the wind. Above them, the stars shine bright enough to cast light along them both.
“I have to go,” Caleb whispers, something raw and open in his voice. She looks at him, and he does not look at her, and his eyes are glinting, so she looks away. Instead, she holds out a hand.
And after a long, long moment, he takes it in his.
But in the end, he leaves.
In the morning, he claps Yeza on the shoulder and thanks him again for the meals, the breads and the muffins, the hospitality. Yeza stumbles his way through the proper social graces, all the while with tomato sauce licking up his cheek, and gods, Veth loves him so much.
She walks him to the door, meaning to part there; and then they go past the door, and then to the fields that border Felderwin, and it is quiet between them again, and so comforting and warm that Veth aches for it, even though Caleb is still here.
There’s no words between them as they stop. Around them, bright gold stalks of wheat sway in a light spring breeze, the sky above bright, and blue.
“Be well, Veth the Brave,” Caleb says, eventually.
Veth reaches up and tugs his ear, then pulls him into a hug.
His arms wind immediately around her waist, hoisting her up in the air quicker than thought, and she latches around his neck and buries her face in his neck. Her eyes are stinging again, so she holds even tighter, like she can convince Caleb to stay with her grip alone on the back of his neck, her fingers through his hair.
Her chest tightens painfully. Gods, why is this so familiar? Why does she feel like something is missing? Why does she know that this, this, she will never forget, not in two years and not in two hundred?
“Be careful,” she manages, her voice tight and watery. She clings to him even tighter, like she can protect him here, and now, from everything that would hurt him.
She thinks, briefly, of asking him again to stay. But she doesn’t.
She knows what his answer would be.
His cheek nudges against hers as he nods his head, a tiny movement, and holds her just as tightly as she holds him, arms solid and warm against her back.
They stand there for a long time; time enough for the wind to ebb and flow, for the reeds to straighten and bend, time enough for clouds to sweep across the sun and part before it all the same. Time enough for the breeze to change direction, to carry from a long way away the sound of sheep and dogs, the gentle babbling of a river, the murmur of hushed voices. Time enough for Veth to realize, slowly, that some of those voices are speaking her name.
He kneels to set her down, and she’s crying when she straightens. She doesn’t bother wiping the tears from her eyes, because he’s crying, too.
“I will,” he says shakily. He swallows, and manages a smile. “I will come back to you if I can. I — I wish you the best.”
“Yeah,” she rasps. “Yeah. You’re always welcome here, I don’t — I don’t need to tell you that. And...and you too. Be safe. And thank you.”
He nods jerkily. “Thank you,” he echoes.
For a long moment, neither of them move. Then he stands abruptly and turns away, making haste through the fields and disappearing into the fields of wheat that swallow him and his cloak whole.
It’s a long time before Veth turns back to her home, before she can push away this sense of longing, of loss. The strange solid warmth that had bloomed in the core of her ever since goblins tossed a heap of ragged robes into her cell wilts and dims.
She watches the grain where he left, long after he disappears. Somewhere deep in her she thinks, somehow, that she will never forget the man that helped her save her family.
And she never does.
Chapter 8: CALEB
This is where the chapter ends.
First and most importantly, thank you to all the folks who supported me, who gave me ideas, who helped me write this. Thank you to all of you who left kudos and feedback and comments. Reading them has been, for the past two months, the absolute highlight of my Tuesdays. I couldn’t have gotten this far without you!
Second, at long last, I can cite the work of art that inspired this whole fic: galacticjonah’s piece, The Phoenix of the Empire! You’ll notice some similarities between the character design in this chapter and some of the, uh, other details in that work. (See: the phoenix.)
This is the last of the individual sections, but there are still a few loose ends that will need to be addressed by the end of the chapter. You may have noticed, for example, that this fic is no longer out of 8 chapters. There will be at least one more, possibly two. (Additional liner notes will be going up with those chapters, for clarification and other fun facts.) We’re going off the rails of a Monday schedule from this point forward, but with luck the epilogue(s) will be out soon!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Caleb has always loved Rexxentrum.
He remembers, so clearly — even more clearly than he remembers most things — the first time he laid eyes on the city. It was an autumn afternoon, nearing sunset, and he (and Astrid, and Eodwulf) were struck breathless by the sheer grandeur of it all; the scale, the majesty, the patchwork tapestry of colors kneaded together by an expert hand, each house and shop a seed in the grain of hearty, splendid dough. For Astrid, she remembered most the river flowing beneath the bridge leading to the main entrance, the clear blue waters and how they glinted with sunlight; for Eodwulf, the green, the forests darkened nearly to teal-blue in the shadows cast long over the shine of the city. For Caleb — who was not so much a romantic as the two of them, not back then, not as a boy — it was the waterfalls streaming down the bluffs that overlooked the city, and the birds that weaved in-and-out of the puffs of spray. He had always wanted to fly.
Now, with the clarity of retrospect, Caleb remembers the comforting press of Eodwulf’s shoulder against his, the excited tap-tap-tap of Astrid’s fingers against his arm as she spotted something new. They were warm, all of them, back then. They smiled.
Even after so many years, after a lifetime and a half, Rexxentrum inspires awe in him just the same. He does not grin so widely as he had at the sight, entering the city toward the back of a caravan of merchants. He does not stare quite so intently at the dancing children, or the winding dogs, or the vendors and their half-dozen tongues. But the sun is warm across his face, the fall breeze a welcome antidote to a hot afternoon, and he lets quiet wonderment rise up in him at the billowing flags from the steepled roofs of dozens of churches and large homes and, enthroned in the majestic crunch of the bluffs, the King’s Castle itself.
He thinks his family would have loved it here.
He thinks they would, still, if he could take them.
Caleb Widogast winds his way through the streets, unharried and unhurried, toward the towering silver parapets of the Academy. He passes through the gates with a fake name and a clean-shaved face and a robe that cost more than the pension of all the guards combined, and they let him through without comment.
Satisfaction wells up in him, slowly, surely, as he passes through the city. He is done. His work is finished; and his family is safe. For the first time in a very long time, he can relax.
There, on the left, a bakery selling cupcakes. The door is scrawled with The Croissant Capital, and Caleb pauses for a moment, studying it. Something seems to be missing.
Several minutes later, he exits the shop with two cupcakes in hand, and a little gift scratched in the wood of the bakery’s sign. He is not so good at drawing as Jester was, but he thinks the Traveler would appreciate the tribute all the same.
Caleb passes easily enough through the grounds of the Academy. Classes are out today, so most of the students he sees are talking idly among themselves, some twirling basic magic between their fingertips. There, he and Astrid and Eodwulf lounged in the sunlight of the crumbling stone of a window with glass long-vanished. Long-forgotten memories impose everywhere he looks.
So he sheds the memories like a duck sheds water, light and easy, and moves on.
Within the halls of the Academy, tucked between marble pillars, he finds his old room, and bypasses it. Whatever is in there now does not concern him. Then he finds Eodwulf’s, finds Astrid’s, and stops.
He plucks through the strands of enchantment braided thickly around Eodwulf’s room, slips into the ethereal plane to avoid the defenses around Astrid’s. In each one, he leaves a green-encrusted pearl, shimmering faintly. Even now, before activation, they seem to whisper of healing: of the tug of a warm blanket, the soft call of an old pet, of memories fondly-remembered.
And it is strange — on the way out of each room, he swears he sees the wood of their desks begin to sprout, and to bloom.
He remembers the way to his old teacher’s office as clearly as though it were seared into his skin.
Frumpkin sits on his shoulder, wreathed in flame.
It is a constant, steady burn. It blooms in the corner of his eye like a chrysanthemum, for the first time opening. Like a marigold or an azalea of gold. For a moment his head spins with all he has learned from Yasha; and with the rush of memories comes a familiar dizziness, so Caleb closes his eyes, and lets it pass.
“What is your business here?”
Caleb looks up. Before him is a young man, no more than twenty years old, with auburn hair and green eyes, sharp cheekbones and a jawbone like his. He wears the pale yellow vestments of the Cerberus Assembly.
Caleb smiles at him. “I am here to see the Archmage,” he says, and does not get up from his seat. He can be patient.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. But I suggest that you tell him I am here all the same.”
The boy blinks once, twice, then turns and goes. Caleb watches him vanish. It is no fault of the boy’s; very few can withstand his Suggestions. Perhaps the only one still left waits for him several rooms away.
The tips of Frumpkin’s feathers shift, sprawl in a slash of patient red. They make a strange pair, this wizard and his familiar. Caleb’s robes are colored a deep scarlet to match Frumpkin’s feathers, but looped around his shoulders is a cape wreathed in a handful of blues, a handful of greens, his boots and belt burnished with silvers and deep black. The accents and the joints of his robe are held together with threads of bright blue and gold.
The boy reemerges, gaze still slightly glassy. “He says to pass.”
Caleb nods, and stands. The boy watches him, enough room in the spell to be wary. Caleb smiles as gently as he can, and the boy is, for a moment, at ease. “What is your name?”
“Hendrick,” Caleb repeats. He straightens his robe. “That is a good name. What do you study, Hendrick?”
“Necromancy,” Hendrick says.
“And did you always mean to study necromancy?”
Hendrick shakes his head. “No. I meant to study abjuration when I arrived.”
Caleb hums to himself. “There is still time,” he says, and rests a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Consider what is most important to you before you graduate, Hendrick. More hangs on the decision than you know.”
Then, before Hendrick can finish blinking through his advice, Caleb is gone.
He winds through the long hallways of the Academy. The paintings have shifted, some arranged in different positions, some new faces joining their ranks. A few tapestries have been burned away. He remembers this path, as it was decades ago, with breathless clarity.
There is a door at the end of the longest hallway, and Caleb opens it.
Light spills against his face. There, on the opposite wall, gleams a massive window. In it sit gemstones, shining so brightly that they burn; emeralds and rubies and sapphires, a mesmerizing configuration of color. In the bookshelves beneath the windows lie, locked tight, records of his experiments, logs of the memories of his protoges, his results and his corrections and all the lessons he planned; and Caleb means to see all of it burn, all of it, so that Ikithon’s work can never be repeated.
There is the satisfying sound of a book shutting firmly, and the figure before the window turns. Caleb closes the door behind him with a quiet click.
“Ah,” Ikithon says. “When my apprentice told me you had arrived I confess I did not believe him.”
“I do not blame you,” Caleb says, striding into the center of the room. Ikithon mirrors him, and they stop, hardly an armspan apart, studying each other. Ikithon’s eyes are sallow and sagged, his cheekbones swollen as if rotten from the inside of his mouth. “You look poorly.”
“And you look well,” Ikithon says. Against the pale pallor of Ikithon’s skin, Caleb’s clean and darkened skin shines in the glisten of afternoon light. “I see you have mastered dunamancy. I am proud of you, my old apprentice. It is a difficult art to master.”
Caleb inclines his head. “It was.”
“I do not suppose I can convince you to share it?”
Caleb grins humorlessly. “Not for all the wealth in the world.”
Ikithon shakes his head, genuinely disappointed. As genuine as a man like him could be. Then he looks back up, an odd and curious look in his eyes. “I confess I am curious,” he says, voice slick, so smooth it could grow scales. He would make Caduceus’s skin crawl. “What could convince you? Anything in the world, my old apprentice. Your parents, perhaps?”
“I need nothing from you,” Caleb says. The flare of an old and dulled pain tears along his chest only for a moment before he quells it, running fingers through the sashes of blue and green cascading about his shoulders. “All of the gifts I could treasure I have already given.”
“No gold, then? Truly nothing?”
“Not from you.”
Ikithon hums. “That is too bad, Bren. There was much we still could have done together. It is a shame to have to kill you.”
On his shoulder, Frumpkin’s wings flare brighter, curling straight from red and gold to blue, nearly electric in heat and intensity, though when the flames lick Caleb’s ear and curl around his hair he only feels a pleasant, comforting warmth. A faint vibration, like a hum, or a purr. A small smile curls up the corner of his lips.
“That is not my name,” Caleb says softly.
Ikithon cocks his head at him. He starts to move, sinewy and graceful, flowing in a circle more akin to water than natural movement. “No? It was the name you were born with.”
“I am called Caleb Widogast,” Caleb says, his chin lifted and unworried as Frumpkin tilts his head to track Ikithon’s movements. “It is the name with which I grew, and it is the name with which I loved, and was loved.”
Ikithon laughs. To him, this is weakness, all of it; kindness, and caring. Sentimentality, he used to tell the three of them, when pink scars were fresh on their arms, could get them killed.
And he was right.
Ikithon laughs, and keeps laughing, the light in the room flaring and dimming with his movements. There is mirth in his voice when he says, easily, “Then it is the wrappings under which you will die.”
Now Ikithon stands before him, hands brimming with ancient roiling green magic, stinking of all the worst parts of Xhorhas, and none of the good, gravity and time and space compressed into one. There is no light in his hands, or anywhere about his body; his eyes are utterly, completely empty.
So Caleb settles himself, moving with grace into a stance Beauregard taught him, a lifetime and a half ago. Heat flares within his skin, licking through his palms and straight into his veins, and his fingers blacken and start to crumble away. On his shoulder, the tips of the phoenix’s feathers curl into ash as Frumpkin launches into the air with a powerful shriek.
The room seems to quiver, the books on the shelves rattling from their neat placements. Already Ikithon is calling on the power of the planes from the window behind him, wordless and breathlessly powerful, and Caleb, with nothing on his back but the colors of his family, with nothing at his side but his books, his familiar, and the knowledge of several lifetimes, raises his hands in defiance. No more will burn under Ikithon’s tongue.
There will be no more boys like him.
“So be it,” Caleb says, calm, and strikes.
The two pearls Caleb leaves for Astrid and Eodwulf are charged with the Wildmother’s Greater Restoration, which restores tampered memories. In time, when they return to their quarters, they’ll both find a gleaming pearl that — somehow — feels like home. They’ll pick it up, not really knowing why, and understand for the first time what Ikithon did to them.
Ikithon always told the three of them that sentimentality would spell their end. And in Caleb’s case, he was right.
See you at the epilogue(s).
Chapter 9: THE MIGHTY NEIN
One year after Trostenwald, a meeting in Zadash. (One member of an incomplete family is welcomed home.)
Alright, home stretch now! One scene to go before the epilogue.
BEFORE READING: this chapter is set about a year after Caleb's chapter. I'd recommend checking out the liner notes + bonus content + summary + recap piece that I posted as the second part of this series. It'll help make this chapter less confusing. It's not required to understand what's happening, but may help you pick up on stuff that otherwise would not be quite so obvious.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Peace and cheer hang like tangible things over the streets of Zadash. All the festival's decorations burn warmly with the bright ambers and golds of autumn: the drapings lit through with warm sunlight, the flags flying high on the reconstructed spires, the dapplings of the earth through fresh bright panes of stained glass.
A woman stands before a young ribbon-dancer’s stage, clapping politely along with the crowd as scarlet ribbons flit about her form. The dancer is small, can’t be more than ten years old — young, especially for an elf — but she seems almost weightless as she twirls about her stage. She’s humming under her breath, softly, and in the audience hands and feet alike keep time to her tune.
There’s music, here. There’s music everywhere: from the banjos, to the flutes, to the vendors calling their wares in a dozen tongues that blend like harmonies, there is not a spot in Zadash that does not hum with life. Even the silences of the Victory Pit, which fell stagnant and still as the King's funds funneled toward the eastern border weeks now, are brushed heavily with anticipation and glee. The tournament is about to begin.
The dancer is two measures into her second form when a muted cry sounds far above her entranced audience. A few of the gathered folk look up, and see nothing more than a circling hawk, and dismiss it quickly enough, attention falling back to the dance.
The hooded woman, however, leaves with a nod to the girl and the flip of a gold toward the troupe. She slips effortless through the crowd to the side of the thoroughfare, where shadows will keep her masked, and tugs back her hood, just in time for a falcon to drop from the sky and land on her shoulder in a practiced ruffle of wings.
“Hey, Thad,” the woman murmurs. She runs her knuckles over its head once, twice, and smiles when it nudges her jaw gently. “Find anything?”
The falcon flutters its wings, and cocks its head at her, then prods her nose with its beak. The woman bites down on an exasperated laugh. “Good,” she says, hand finding its flanks. “Keep looking. Let me know if anything seems wrong.”
The falcon calls out again, quieter this time, and takes off into the sky once more in a flurry of wings.
The woman watches it go for one heartbeat, then another. Then she takes a single step back toward the dancer and the crowd, whose feet tap cheerily along with the music, and stops abruptly.
“Hi,” says the halfling woman standing directly before her. “Hello. Down here? Hi. You’re Beau.”
It’s not a question. It’s a statement of fact. Beau’s hand falls to her hip, where her bo staff lays folded. “Yes.”
Beau pointedly does not roll her eyes. Great. Her full title, too. She pricks her ears. A name as famous and controversial as hers — as the names of any of her group — could draw unwanted attention, and there are mixed sorts at this festival. Far more so than usual. “That’s me. And you are...?”
“Veth,” she says. Jewelry drips from her ears and her hair, though it is made with buttons, and not the gleaming silvers or golds enriching the vendor-stalls that line the streets so prominently. “Hi. Veth Brenatto.”
Behind her, the dancer comes to an end, bowing deeply, cheeks flushed and grin wide enough to nearly cover her ears. A measure passes, then two, and as if on cue, the Victory Pit erupts with noise. The crowded street, even those outside the Pit itself, cheer as the first fight begins.
“You shouldn’t know my name.”
Just as Beau had not rolled her eyes, Veth does not laugh at her, and they are both close-run things. “You should take better care of it then,” she says, and sticks out her hand.
Even though she’s not entirely sure why, Beau takes it. It feels right. She knows enough of trusting her own instincts to act when something feels as secure as this.
The halfling woman’s hands are calloused and warm, and her grip is firmer than Beau expects. Beau studies her: the way the thin shadows of the leaves above sway in a mirror to Veth’s own breathing, and how Beau’s stature seems to hide her, even in the bright light of midday.
“How do you know my name?”
“I was at the trial,” Veth says. “In the back of the courtroom.”
“We took note of all attendees of the trial,” Beau says, scanning the halfling’s face. It is — it is not guileless, but in this, Beau thinks she’s telling the truth. It’s hard to lie to Beau.
“You missed one.”
“Why were you there?”
Veth shrugs with one shoulder. “I knew someone,” she says, gaze drifting. “Someone who trained under the bastard you locked up. I wanted to make sure that....”
“That justice was served.”
“And it was.” Veth turns toward her, more fully this time. Shadows clip over the points over her ears, along her skin, and had Beau not seen her fully in the sun, in that moment she would not know whether Veth were human or halfling or elven besides. “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to say thank you. To you and the, that white-haired woman both. It....” She looks to the side, as if in remembrance. “I might have tried to kill him myself.”
Beau raises an eyebrow. “You, uh, must’ve had quite the vendetta.” A question without a question. Strictly she no longer needs information about Trent Ikithon; she’s already put the man in jail six lifetimes over. But gathering information is a habit, and her curiosity deeply ingrained.
“Did you know a man named Caleb Widogast?”
“I did,” Beau says, carefully. She knows a dozen things about the man, none of which quite add up. “A student of Ikithon's. I...knew him. Knew of him.”
“Caleb mentioned Ikithon once,” Veth says softly. Not the warm sort of soft that pairs with honey; the chilled sort of soft, the one that carries the smell of beeswax from three miles away, ripped along on the outer winds of an oncoming hurricane. “Only once. He never explained his nightmares to me, but I had eyes and ears. I put two and two together.” Shadows move from dappling her ears to her eyes and away again, and when the sun shines on honey-brown again the animosity and cold fury is gone. Veth smiles. “So, thank you. I hope he’s at peace.”
Beau swallows, a strange sick feeling curdling in her stomach. She’s used to it, by this point. It happens every time Astrid brought up Caleb in their case — though Astrid had known him as Bren. There is so much she does not know about the wizard who gave her the Professor. There is so much more she wishes she’d had the time to ask.
(She put it together, too late — the scars on his wrist, the lies surrounding his supposed bookshop, the fear too sharp to be faked when she mentioned Ikithon’s name. Too late.)
(She never told Astrid that she might have known. She and the other Zemnian both — well. Beau does not frighten easy, but the depth of their fury unnerves her. Eodwulf no longer practices magic. Astrid took Ikithon’s place. If there was ever compassion in her, it is gone now.)
“I think he is,” Beau says quietly. And she’s not superstitious — most of the paranormalities she fights, she can put a name and a weakness to — but she thinks that, wherever Caleb’s soul is, he is at rest.
The long silence in the Pit shatters with a great swell of cheers. The regulars of the dance troupe add their voices to the volley, and then the rest of the festival-goers, too, in a great wave of merriment and excitement that blankets all of the city like a warm breeze, or — and Beau blames Caduceus for this particular metaphor — a particularly benevolent mold.
The sound does her good to hear. After so many weeks a fearful, tenuous peace and months of wartime tension, she’s glad that they are carefree enough to shout.
“How did you meet him?”
“How did you?”
Beau snorts, and drops the rest of her guard. She’s more aware of things like that, now. She trusts her instincts. This woman won’t hurt her. “At a ball.”
“Yeah. He was a fuckin’ awful dancer.”
“He’s not a bad dancer!”
“You ever actually danced with him?”
“No,” Veth sniffs. “But I’m sure he was quite good.”
He was a tolerable dance partner, and as a man, that meant he was decent enough. But the indignation on Veth’s face is too funny to wipe away. “Awful,” she repeats emphatically. “He, uh. He’s the one that tipped me off about Ikithon originally. I didn’t understand why he was so frightened of the man.”
“But it’s weird,” Beau says, not even sure why she’s sharing, not really. “Some of it seemed faked. Like he was....” She trails off, and shrugs. “I don’t know. He shouldn’t have known I was Soul. Part of me thinks he did anyway.”
“He helped me save my family,” Veth says. She fiddles with the buttons of her necklace absently. “We were captured, my whole village and I, by goblins. They got me and my husband and my son. I thought I was going to die there until he got thrown in jail too. He helped us escape. My whole village. My family.”
Beau thinks of wide miles of grapevines, then pushes it away for the salt-stained remembrance of Vandren, the cinnamon-waxed image of the Ruby of the Sea. She asks, carefully, “Your family, they’re, uh...they okay?”
“Better,” Veth says, a smile pushing across her face. “They’re well. My son — Luc, he’s named — he’s such a smart boy. Takes after his father. He cast his first spell just the other day.”
Beau returns the smile. “You have a mage in the family.”
Something strange happens to the corners of Veth’s mouth, like she smiles and slips and frowns all at once. Then she says, “Seemed right.” Then, quicker, “I have a nickname now. That’s probably the strangest part. Veth the Brave, they call me. Quiet, I could understand. Sneaky. But brave? It’s still strange.” She shrugs. “Can’t get Felderwin to shut up about it though.”
Beau tilts her head. “Felderwin?”
“It’s a small farming village, south of here — ”
“I know where Felderwin is,” Beau says. “You’re from there?”
“Huh,” Beau says. “I was headed there in a few days. My team and I. To investigate.”
Behind them, a cheer even louder than the first rises from the crowd. The Stock’s triumphant cries carry even from the Pit as the first round concludes. There’s shouting and rejoicing, and then the great noise fades to a drumroll as the second team enters the Pit. Maybe next year they’ll take on the tournament. Molly would love it — the chance to stretch his legs, flash his swords about, test out his wings.
“The Krynn paid reparations, just as the Empire had, but the new Council is still suspicious, so we are going to...to make sure that nothing was withheld.”
“Our village was burned,” Veth says. “What, exactly, are you going to tally?”
“The damage. And to make sure that nothing more was taken. No thefts, no kidnappings. The Council wants to determine what was lost in the war, and what still has left to be returned. The Krynn have estimated the reparations, of course, but if their numbers are found to be wanting....”
Veth squints up at her. She is silent a moment, before nodding in understanding. “Peace is tenuous.”
Beau grins, and it’s all teeth.
She will do whatever it takes to make sure that this peace, fragile as it is, sets down thick roots, in soil as fertile as she can tend. And a good government, she knows — is learning firsthand — makes for the most fruitful of nations. She does not mourn the Assembly’s passing. Very few do. “And we’d like to keep it.”
Across the way lies a thick strip of stalls: merchants with golds and silvers and gems, yes, but also bags and antiques and glassware, and all types of spice and goods that could not have been acquired without the tentative trade their new Council has built. There is a stall dedicated only to bowls. Smooth ones, rounded ones, ones crafted in the traditional style of the Empire; but also ones of cut-glass, glinting with straight-smooth edges welded into geometric shapes.
Veth’s eyes wander across the crowd, too. If she’s from Felderwin, Beau knows, it is not likely that she would often see crowds like this. It can be overwhelming, this constant stream of people. Around the two of them stream the usual fare: humans and halflings, dwarves and elves, halves of all kinds, and Beau is accustomed to those. But there are newcomers to the city, too; some researchers, some teachers, some wandering vagrants, and all curious. There are tieflings of all hue, there are Orcs, there are a handful of bugbears toward the outskirts, and there is even a small group of drow, tucked out of the view of all passerby save the falcon of the Expositor, clinging close to the fading mid-dusk shadows.
Veth’s gaze lingers on the drow, and her lips tighten — almost imperceptible — before smoothing again. She turns to Beau. “It was strange,” she says. “The crick attack. They tried to burn the whole village.”
“But your family survived.”
“Yeah, we did. All the houses on my block burned,” Veth says thoughtfully. Her gaze drifts to the side, toward a stall set nearer to the outer hull of the King’s Hall, one stacked so thickly with books that the brickwork of the Hall can’t be seen from the streets. “Every house ruined, except ours.”
Beside that stall, a pair of drow reach with gloved hands for one of the newest bowls, this one sliced carefully into six fragments, brought back together with veins of gold to form a hexagon. Their hoods hide their faces carefully, but the vendor accepts their strange coin curiously enough. The pair hold the bowl up to the light and study it, admiring it quietly to themselves in a tongue that Beau alone of the Empire citizens swarming the streets would understand. One of them tucks the bowl beneath their cloak and bows, deep and grateful, to the vendor.
“How is the village now?” Beau asks, watching them stride safely away through the shelter of the shadows. “Has Felderwin, y’know, recovered?”
“Mostly.” Veth hesitates, for the first time stumbling over her own thoughts. Beau faces her, patiently, and waits. “You’re headed to Felderwin, you said.”
“Will you be...hm. Will you be doing any spy stuff?”
Whatever question Beau had expected, that was not it. “What?”
“Spy stuff,” Veth repeats, miming stabbing with her right hand. “Sneaking around. And investigating.”
“Probably,” Beau says, staring a little. That sense of rightness in her core solidifies, warms. Once, she would have pushed it aside. Today, she pays attention; she and her family have reforged a nation. She trusts her instincts. “Why?”
Veth shifts her weight. For a long moment she’s silent, gaze flitting from Beau’s face to the gold-and-scarlet streamers flying from the uppermost branches of the trees lining the streets, the leaves of which are already crinkled in autumn browns, before fixing determinedly on her face. “Because I’m good at that,” she says. “Sneaking. Finding stuff out.”
That is one thing their group has always missed, aside from magic: stealth, and someone to take point when the world about them is dark. “You want to join us.”
Veth nods firmly. “I do.”
Well. There has always been something missing from their little group. They haven't talked about it, necessarily, not in words. But sometimes Beau finds herself searching for something in the group of six of them, something she expects fully to find, until she doesn't. Her stomach curdles every time.
Maybe this halfling rogue is what they've been looking for.
“Prove yourself, then,” Beau dares, and spreads her arms wide. She looks ridiculous, probably, but she’s grinning a challenge and she doesn’t care. “Do something impressive.”
“I got your name,” Veth points out, smug. “The one you guard oh-so-carefully. Isn’t that enough?”
“No. A name is a word. Do something better.”
“You got a middle name?”
"Oh, fuck off,” Veth says, baring her teeth, and Beau laughs at her. “Fine then. You want to be impressed? Watch this.”
She holds her hand toward the sky, fingers curled oddly in on themselves, and Beau watches her hand carefully. The fingers start to wave. Beau squints. This seems like magic, but Veth isn’t incanting, or using any components at all. Perhaps she specializes in wordless magic?
Then Veth’s hands drop, and Beau quashes a well of disappointment at the lackluster performance. “Was I supposed to be seeing, I dunno, lights or something?”
“Or something,” Veth says, but the shame that Beau expected on her face is gone, smugness settled firmly in its place. Beau’s gaze drops, and pinned to Veth’s dress, nestled comfortably between buttons of jade and gold, is Beau’s emblem of the Queen’s favor.
Veth is still grinning. Beau freezes. Then she throws her head back and laughs.
“You don’t know magic, do you.”
“Not a single spell,” Veth replies cheerfully. With deft fingers, she unlaces the emblem from her chest and hands it back to Beau, curling her fingers over it with a little pat.
“Thank you, Veth Brenatto.”
“You’re welcome, Expositor,” Veth replies, with a half-bow and a cheeky little grin.
She’s seen that grin before: on Jester’s face, on Molly’s. It means trouble and mischief, and — it strikes her, suddenly, how well Veth would get along with all of them. Oh, she and Jester would cause no end of chaos, and she can hardly imagine how she and Fjord would grate at each others’ sensibilities. Caduceus might calm her down a little, but Molly, Beau knows, would rile her right back up.
That solid sense of rightness grows even more certain. Veth fits, here, in a way that none of their allies have before. Even just standing here, the sounds of the Pit behind them and the rumble of city festivities around them, something that was long-gone fills.
(Fills partially. Only partly. Because there is still something missing.)
“Sure,” Beau says, easier than she should have expected. She grins, and it’s genuine. “Sure. Why not? We don’t have anyone who can do what you do.”
“No one can do what I do.” Veth smiles back. “So — Felderwin?”
“Will you travel with us afterward?’
“Yes,” Veth says. Then she looks surprised at herself; then she squares her shoulders. She meets Beau’s gaze head-on. “I want to. If you — yes.”
“What about your family?” Beau asks at last, hope welling powerfully in her chest. She wants to hoist Veth above her shoulders and never put her back down, but — “Your husband and your son?”
“They already know,” Veth says softly. “My little boy, he is so smart. And my Yeza, well...he knows. They both know mama has a taste for adventure. They both know I’ll come back to them.”
The words settle, and Beau lets herself smile, hope blossoming into something steady and sure. “Then follow me,” Beau says, her hand gentle on Veth’s shoulder as they carve a path through the crowded marketplace. “I’ve got a few people I’d like you to meet.”
Behind them, a troupe of dancers bow to applause, and exit the stage with flushed faces. In the great arena a hush falls as a warrior crumples to the ground, and then cheers erupt as they stand again, triumphant. In the shadows, a fine piece of metalwork is admired with long dark fingers and hushed exclamations.
And, basking in the warmth of the the afternoon sun of this Harvest Close festival, a cat whose coat shimmers with ambers and golds, curls up beneath the bookkeeper's stall, and rests.
I have a headcanon that familiars who live on after their companions have died can choose whether to remain as a fey in the Feywild, or in the Material Plane in whatever form they choose.
Expect the epilogue soon! And let me say this: I wrestled with how to end this fic for months. I've gone through six different ways to conclude the fic, and none of them really sat right, and I was stuck on it until I had a conversation with my wonderful beta, Tea, who inspired the only conclusion that felt like it fit. I like it so, so much better than anything I had before, and I'm so excited to share it with you!
As always, find me on tumblr.