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there's plenty of men to die, you don't jump your turn

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When he'd woken up under the dirt, hard-packed earth weighing heavy on his chest, he'd prayed for help and a god deep below the mountains had answered.

Potential, echoed a voice in the back of his skull, running over his nerves like scales across stone, rattling his bones like boulders sheared off a cliff face. Service. Reward.

Sure, he'd thought. Service, money—whatever the fuck you want so long as I don't suffocate first.

Acceptable, the voice said, loud and resonant and a sideways edge to it. The man under the dirt doesn't remember his own name but he knows enough to recognize the tone of a winning hand, the tucked-away smile of a paid-off bluff.

Maybe I would've been better off dead, he thinks briefly, but then there's a glow the color of melted honey flaring up from his hands, heat building in his palms until there's a blast of energy upwards, a sunburst that sends a six-foot spray of earth and stone into the sky. As he looks up, he sees a window of bright blue, a chimney for him to take his first breath of clean air.

So he's alive, then—no name, no memory, hands glowing like there's a star trapped under his skin and that voice still echoing loud in his ears, but he is, at least, alive.

 

 

He spends that first night in the woods not far from where he woke up, half-frozen at the base of a pine because what else is he supposed to do? Not like whoever buried him saw fit to leave any coin in his pockets. Not like he has anyone to turn to for help. His hands stopped glowing not long after he'd shifted the dirt enough to make it out of the grave, which is something of a shame, really. He could've used a fire.

He wakes up in the morning feeling stiff, like something soaked in saltwater and left to bleach in a winter sun. Light lancing past the branches and straight through his eyelids and he's cold and miserable and as fucking hungry as if he's never eaten a day in his life. In fairness, who knows when his last pre-burial meal was.

Somewhere along the horizon, he can see columns of smoke—clusters that suggest a town instead of an isolated campsite. As he makes to stand, muscles knotted up worse than the tangles in his hair, he feels something shift in the inner pocket of his jacket, some new weight he hadn't remembered falling asleep with. Digs his hands through fabric that's still heavy with dirt until he comes across a collection of cards, heavy paper rounded at the corners and dyed the color of pale amber. Purple-black designs painted all up the back and these fancy, inked-up illustrations across the front with calligraphy text written underneath. The Chariot. The Moon. The Silver Dragon.

The cards flare yellow as he sifts through them, some lightning spark that travels from the paper up his fingers and hands and into his bloodstream. New information bright in his brain that he knows without being able to say exactly how. He thinks of the honey-colored magic and calls up the spark of a fire like it was waiting below his skin. Smooths his hands across the mud-stained front of his shirt and watches the dirt flake off under his fingers, wrinkles given away to fabric that lies smooth.

Thanks, he thinks, only half-sure anyone is listening.

 

 

The closest town is a decent-sized village built into the base of a mountain, bordered on one side by the same forest he'd been buried in. Wood-and-stone structures settled on either side of a main road, roofs thatched with mud and hay, horses stabled out front of half the buildings and the occasional cart moving through slow. Nothing too special, but it looks capable of providing a warm place to sleep and bathe and right now that seems like nothing short than a gift from Bahamut.

(Later, he'll think back on these early moments, struck by what he remembered and what was still absent. That the Platinum Dragon had snared in his memory like something made sticky with molasses when even his own name escaped him.)

It's another hour before he makes it to the edge of the village, moving slow, easing through the trees with the hesitancy of something half-feral. The caution doesn't feel undeserved—he hasn't seen his reflection since waking but he can guess from the lavender hue of his hands that he'd stick out something fierce in a town like this. Doesn't know whether they'd react with kindness or knife edges and that seems too dangerous a gamble to make when he's got no weapon of his own to speak of (and no certainty of his ability to use one even if he did). Fuck him, then. Maybe a warm bed is still out of the question tonight.

He spends the rest of the day staying out of sight as he skirts the borders of the village, chancing a quiet moment near one of the outlying homesteads to sneak into a pantry and steal a bag of salted meat and a ceramic jar of preserved fruit. On his way out, he sees sunlight reflecting gold off a pond that borders the property of the homestead, too small to be a lake but large enough to at least have its own fish. It's a careless risk, but he still seems alone and so he stops by the water's edge before he goes, long enough for the surface to settle, allowing him a look at his own reflection.

He blinks.

He'd wondered if the purple of his hands was a dye or some strange result of the magic under his palms, but no. It goes from his wrists all the way up his arms to his neck and face, disappearing into a tangled mess of indigo-black hair that hangs down to his cheeks. He's got horns, too, spiraling out from the side of his head and curling to a point under his ears. He'd hardly noticed the weight of them for all that they seem to be made of solid bone. But for as unexpected as the rest of his features are, what catches him most are his eyes—without pupils and red as a bloody sunrise. He looks like something from a child's nightmare, something whose teeth should be filed to a point—his aren't; he checked—and it's seeming a better idea by the moment that he'd chosen to stay out of sight.  

There's nothing familiar in the reflection, though, and that sticks in his throat some—he'd wondered if the sight of his face might've brought something back. No matter. Add another unknown to the murky shape of his past whether he went into the ground this way or woke up as such, but he finds himself mostly unconcerned with the answer. It's a bold look, certainly—devilish, even—but there's life to it. Personality. A brightly colored canvas to work with, and if he can't remember the man he was before, he certainly has plenty with which to build a new one.

 

 

He dreams of the circus the night before it shows up in town.

He sees the tent, first—the sweep of midnight-blue fabric cresting down like a wave, starlight-colored streamers affixed to the peak and dancing like faeries in the wind. Would swear he could feel the weight of the cloth against his hand as he pushes back the curtain and wanders inside, a semicircle of empty risers framing the performers' half of the tent, a tall column of wood cutting through the middle to support the vast arc of fabric. Turns on his heel and suddenly the stands are full, applause echoing through the tent as a young dwarven girl begins to sing, steady and enchanting like her vocal chords have been gods-blessed. Blinks and sees two halfling sisters in serpentine makeup wending their way up the center column like one creature of shared muscle and scale. Hears the sound of a fiddle behind him and sees it floating in space around the head of a man whose face is painted up to match the blue of the tent. Then he's gone and it's a dark-skinned woman with flame-red hair dancing between the fan-shaped curves of breathing fire.

Find, the voice below the mountains says, raising the hair all along his arms. His head turns without his meaning to until he's looking at a lanky, half-elven man standing near the tent's entrance. The half-elf is smiling as he talks to the performers, shifting his knuckles as a silver coin dances across the back of them. He'll forget this part, but for a moment the half-elven man's eyes flash the color of amber, of bone lit up in firelight.

Find, the voice repeats, and the next day, that's exactly what he does.

 

 

He sees that same half-elven man in the morning while the tent fabric is unfolded across an open stretch of field outside of town, the center column still strapped to the back of a wagon at the tent's perimeter. While he waits between the trees like a lavender-colored shadow, he catches some of the figures from his dream moving among the carts: the angel-voiced dwarven girl walking in step with a hunched, lizard-skinned man; the halfling sisters practicing a series of acrobatics, dressed in simple tunics instead of the scaled makeup they'd worn during the performance; the dark-skinned woman leaning against one of the wagons with two metal-worked fans resting at her feet. 

How had you known? he wonders, but of course the voice beneath the mountains doesn't answer.

It's another hour of waiting before an opportunity arises, the half-elven man heading alone towards town, his path cutting through an isolated stretch of wood. He follows at a distance until the road curves past a hill, out of sight of either the carnival or the central stretch of town, and that's when he eases out of the shadow of a tree, making his way down the slope of dirt with enough noise to catch the half-elven man's attention. 

(That the half-elven man doesn't look surprised at his appearance, he initially chalks up to a lifetime spent surrounded by the stranger sights of the carnival. Later—many years so—he'll remember the way the man's eyes had turned yellow-orange in his dream, the same color of the magic that now lives on his fingertips. He won't fully understand its meaning, but he'll know enough to guess.)

"Afternoon, stranger," the half-elf says as he reaches the road, one hand raised to shield his eyes from the sun. "Have you come to take my money or will you be kind enough to pay a visit to our show and let me relieve you of yours?"

Neither, he wants to say, but the word sticks in his throat. He hasn't spoken in almost two days— let alone however much time he spent under the ground—and for a terrified moment he wonders if he's forgotten how. But the half-elf doesn't seem alarmed at his silence, the way his mouth opens and shuts like a water-starved fish, and he didn't know it was possible to feel so grateful for such a small act of kindness.

"Gustav Fletching," he says, one hand outstretched. It's callused and warm against the clamminess of his own palm. "I'm the purveyor of that carnival and manager of the fine group of folk who come with it." By now, the tent's been raised to its proper height, visible around the curve of the hill. Gustav pauses, offers a lingering stare over the fiend-fire red of his eyes, the ram-curled horns, his sunset-purple skin. "You know, we're always looking for new members if that seems something you're interested in. Any talent you can bring to the table is most welcome, but if not, we'll happily help you find a skill of your own."

He goes to nod, but before he does, the amber-colored magic flares up from his hands, the jewel-bright shape of a dragonfly rising from his fingers before it flickers out in a burst of sparks. Gustav laughs, full and rich like oak-aged whiskey.

"Now that's something I can use," Gustav says, glancing from his still-glowing hands to his face and back again. "Full of secrets, aren't you? Don't worry—most of us are. And we're a group that knows better than to ask too many questions. Trust me when I say you'd have a home with us if that's what you're looking for. If that's what you need."

Yes. Please. The words don't make it out, but Gustav must understand the sentiment because he nods in response.

"Good. The others will be glad to meet you." Gustav pauses, gives him a steady, searching look. "I will need a name, though. Or at least something for us to call you by. Believe me when I say it's the only piece of you I'll ask for directly."

I don't know it, but I'd offer it up to you gladly if I did.

That's not what comes out—though he does manage the first thing he's said so far.

"Empty." His voice sounds rough as mountain stone, lilting with an accent he doesn't recognize.

"M. T.?" Gustav asks.

No, but yes. Might as well be. Not that there's anyone else who'd know better.

"M. T.," Gustav repeats, looking thoughtful. "Is that first name or last name or both? Doesn't matter—I can work with it. Can work with the rest of this, too, if you'll let me. Seems a shame to cover up all that color with something so drab."  

He nods rather than try speaking again.

"I've got some errands to run in town before tonight's performance, but why don't I take you back to the others, first. My partner Desmond is something of a mother hen and he'll get you cleaned up and looked after. You seem in desperate need of a hot meal and somewhere warm to sleep."

You're not wrong. My stomach feels close to eating my ribs.

"Wonderful. Follow me, then," Gustav says with a smile. And he does.

 

 

He meets the other carnival members in quick succession before Gustav and Desmond get him set up in one of the tents, a warm bowl of stew in his hands and a blanket around his shoulders before he's had a moment to process it. He recognizes Desmond as the man with the floating fiddle, puts names to the rest of the faces: Toya with the lovely voice and her lizard-like companion Kylre, Ornna with the fire fans, the sisters Mona and Yuli. He spends most of the afternoon sleeping in a borrowed bedroll, resting properly for the first time in gods-know how long. Gustav leaves him be until some time after sunset, ducking back into the tent as the glow of a campfire filters through the tarp. He has a sheaf of parchment that he offers up, the words just visible in the light coming through the tent. They're identification papers marking him as a citizen of the Dwendalian Empire, stamped in official-looking burgundy ink and made out in the name of Mollymauk Tealeaf.

"Desmond and I thought it suited you," Gustav says. "You didn't give us much to go on, but we hope you like it."

I do, he thinks. The name sits warm and easy in his chest, fits around his shoulders like a tailored coat. Very much so.

"The rest of us will be having dinner outside, but I'll understand if you're not up to it, yet. Regardless—welcome to the carnival, Mr. Tealeaf." 

Gustav ducks back outside with a flourish, leaving him—Mollymauk. Molly—there with the papers in his hand. 

Thank you, he offers with sincerity to the voice below the mountains. In the shadows of the firelight, he would swear he sees the flash of an amber-hued eye watching him, blinking slow in response.

Potential.

In the succeeding years, Molly proves him right.