Flaxbod Igerhorn had been working ticketing for the overnight tour ferries from Analerna since he was eleven, originally having made the crossing over the great Celestial Bay while fleeing the latest of Icyl’s long, grueling civil wars. Despite being rather touchy about the focus of that particular bloody conflict, his heritage ran thick in his blood and his heart, and it was enough for complete strangers to notice his stout, sturdy frame, thick lashes and glittering black eyes and dark, rugged complexion to know he’d spent his childhood being tempered by the battering winds of the Sandy Sea. It was simple work, but his tribulation that led him there instilled great pride in his work that was an invaluable asset to the Celestial Ferry Company. He greeted tourists warmly, worked with efficient but not impersonal speed, and never allowed an unticketed passenger, for any bribe. As a steward of the docks of the most infamous city in the kingdom of Jigsaw, he was perfect and crafted as the traditional Icyl kris dagger he insisted on having at his side rather than the usual standard issue dagger he’d been offered upon the beginning of his employment.
Midnight on Analerna’s seaside was the second most beautiful sight Flaxbod had ever witnessed, only falling short of the Fire Fountains back in Icyl’s capital. Come midnight, three to ten ferry boats, depending on the season, lined up ready to take passengers along the kingdom’s coast, or even across the bay to Icyl or Threed (assuming, of course, travel papers were in hand). Golden globe lights lit by magic clustered on each vessel and along the boardwalk like so many giant fireflies, each one matched by a shimmering specter in the restless black water below. Standing out against the endless indigo cold, they always made Flaxbod pause as he arrived every night. Tonight was proving to be an average one, wholly unremarkable and giving Flaxbod ample spare minutes to enjoy the sights, even with the demon slaves employing their usual barely-permissible jeers and antics, calling at tourists, teasing dock workers who were there willingly and sneaking in vulgar insults by singing them and claiming them as traditional demonic working songs.
Then, an all-too-sudden lull in this activity alerted Flaxbod to where a handful of slaves were manhandling some luggage bound for Asher; after all, they were currently on their eighth chorus of their favorite song, “Hey Nonny Nonny, That Man’s Face Looks Like a Toilet and I’ve Got to Take a Piss.”
What had apparently given them adequate cause to end their musical tirade was a young man and, presumably, his mate, accompanied by a muscular tawny gryphon casting wary glares at any demon his eyes fell on, as well some sort of oversized plush cat enchanted with an animation spell. Flaxbod had seen stranger every year at the Icyl Parade of Souls. They had very little luggage and were dressed for pleasure, not travel. Perhaps they were native and planning a jaunt to Asher for an evening or two—probably to see relatives, as Asher has never been the ideal place for a fashionable excursion.
Immediately, the demons began addressing the well-dressed horned man lewdly. Of course, saying a demon behaved lasciviously is rather like describing a cow as behaving in a bovine manner. And by Flaxbod’s keen ears, which could hear whispered Icylli stereotypes at twenty-five paces and whispered plans to share a boat ticket to cheat them out of money at fifty paces, they seemed to be asking the white-haired man about a “seeing to” they felt they’d been promised. Just as the victim’s female companion began scolding them in a maternal manner suggesting they’d be sent to bed without supper (coincidentally a common punishment for disobedient dock slaves), a nearby dockhand clad in a green-lined jacket matching the color of the demons’ magic-blocking collars trundled over and shooed his unwilling charges back to their work.
Flaxbod rolled his eyes; he was not opposed to slavery on principle but rather on the grounds that they were troublesome to work around, and home in Icyl there were plenty of perfectly agreeable people who could have been all too pleased to do twice the work for a survivable wage! No sense in it.
At last, the dapper unicorn man, who seemed to have made himself the de facto leader of the odd troupe, pushed past the demons and up to the creaking ramp rising off the boardwalk. Inwardly, Flaxbod smiled, having never grown bored of the pleasing sound of boots thunking hollowly on that ramp, in jolly harmony with the waves slapping against the docks. However, his wrinkled, sun-cured smile faded when these guests did not immediately produce from the folds of their finery the boarding tickets he’d been expecting (traditionally, almost all attractions in Analerna use coin-like tokens for admission rather than paper tickets). Having failed for some seconds to hand over the tokens, finally the gentleman chirped in a manner that brought to Flaxbod’s mind the pampered albino silkenbeaks kept on the palace grounds back in Icyl:
“Good evening, good sir. The number of tickets I will require will hinge on the whether or not admission is expected from gryphons or magical fabric golems. I am prepared to pay for both.”
Flaxbod found it to be a personal failure when his line slowed to a crawl, and now it had stopped. “You are expected,” he spoke in a voice that managed to be polite but sepulchral, “to have purchased your tokens in advance, good sir. The apologies of a thousand condemned serfs at harvest-time for the burden of your tragic ignorance.”
Surprised and affronted, the man drew himself up like a well-dressed viper. “I can certainly see my way to accepting your apology on the condition that you accept my most grievous condolences for your being afflicted with the fashion sense of a blind mole.”
Despite an uncontrollable admiration for the man’s skill at backhanded insults, Flaxbod further compared him to the king’s pampered albino silkenbeaks in that the poor beast could not realize that it was treated better than the ones charged with cleaning its cage, due to having only been bred exclusively to be a pretty, but stupid lawn ornament.
Before Flaxbod could counter, his woman companion spoke up. This female had a plain, unadorned beauty and a favorable full figure, but was far too pale, he thought, for the tastes of any civilized Icylli. “We’re the entertainment,” she explained hurriedly. “We didn’t know at all about advance tickets, you see, I’m afraid.” There was shimmering sincerity in her eyes, but those blazing eyes, the color of the sun shining through autumn leaves, were not the eyes of one that was customarily safe to take as one’s mate—too willful. “After all…”
“We are from Icyl!” the man finished.
Flaxbod, sizing up the troupe, found it very easy to believe that they were meant to be the entertainment on board his boat, though he couldn’t guess what their act might be. Trained gryphon? Puppet show? What he had a difficult time with was the claim that this pail-frail-looking pair hailed from his hot and harsh homeland. Obviously, his incredulity showed as he chortled, “But you are too pale!” He suddenly was amused at the attempt to put him on. It was a rare diversion. “You look like you’d burn up in a minute in the Icyl sun,” he said proudly. “You’d be looking like an overcooked trout before the day was out!”
The man put the back of his hand to his forehead, giving Flaxbod the impression that “operatic” was this fellow’s typical modicum of behavior, proving him, not for the first time, to be a frustratingly impeccable judge of character. “Alas and alack,” he said, “You have just described the very skin disease that forced my sister and I to flee to milder climes! We find ourselves more than slightly put off by the odd customs here, but one must adapt quickly to bizarre cultures in these fast-paced ages, lest one be spat out like a cherry pip, must one not?”
“Hmph.” The appeal to Flaxbod’s sympathy and romanticism regarding his homeland was not ignored but, like a sub-par fish in a fish market, he remained unsold, and the situation was beginning to smell progressively worse.
“We worked in the palace,” the woman explained sadly, “I was a cook, and he…”
She nodded toward her companion but all three of them, simultaneously, seemed to have different recollections about the man’s erstwhile occupation. While the woman identified him as a most talented jester and the man himself as a fashion consultant (doubtful), the gryphon squawked, “’e was a courtesan!”
Somehow, the man turned even paler, frowning sharply. “Gryphon,” he sneered through gritted teeth, “I thought we’d agreed never to bring up such sensitive subjects. After all, I do not bring up the fact that you were the palace rat-catcher.”
“Lies!” screeched the gryphon, bodily tackling his companion, sending them both stumbling awkwardly off the deck, the man in the midst of a startled yelp attempting to grasp the weathered, splintered wood with his nearest hand and receiving a nasty blow to his elbow for the trouble.
After the unicorn man and the waterlogged gryphon were rescued from the black midnight waters, Flaxbod found himself in a quandary of pride with his dripping would-be customers. Though it pained him, he realized that he would have to make a sacrifice to save face as the captain stumbled round to ensure that all was in order. Jigsaws and Icyllis have an important traditional aspect to their characters in common: the delicate art of the stiff upper lip. The more raucous a commotion, the more one felt obligated to go out of one’s way to show that it did not bother them—nay, that one did not even notice the disturbance. As such, those milling out in the line behind the horned man with the choppy hair, the gryphon, the woman and the plush cat erected a formidable barrier of forced indifference, instead discussing with total strangers the chipping paint on the ferry, the unseasonal humidity and how frightfully irritating it is when dock splinters snag one’s dress train.
All the same, Flaxbod felt the need to hurry things along. “Just go,” he muttered gruffly, waving the four of them aboard with the relief that, relatively in the evening, he’d encountered his customary troublesome customers of the night. Generally, ferry passengers did not acknowledge staff unless it was to request something—be it use of the ship’s crystal ball, a fresh drink, or their admission money back on the grounds of a minor complaint. Flaxbod was in close enough proximity to the unfashionable and dirty docks and the demons that worked there that those boarding the ferry generally had nothing to say to him that was important enough to supersede getting on board as quickly as possible. Immediately, he returned to the process of accepting admission tokens, placing them into the pouch at his waist and giving a cursory nod at boarding customers, a rhythm which formed a hypnotic percussion in conjunction with the lapping waves and the sound of boots and bags thumping damply on the docks. Yes, the remainder of the evening would be peaceful.
But treading nervously up the ramp as if it were a plank they were being forced down at swordpoint were three more men sporting horns and tails, conversing in harsh, rapid whispers as they placed as much distance as they could manage between them and anyone else.
“I hope you comprehend how much you’ve shamed yourself—I, your mentor, and your entire people and its traditions!” the oldest of the three huffed wearily as he approached Flaxbod.
The taller of the two younger creatures pouted. “I didn’t think it would hurt.″
“That isn’t the point! You can’t protect the balance if you’re constantly affecting it yourself!”
“Are you certain that’s true?”
The elder of the three twitched with just as much shock as with rage. “You… did you just ask a question?”
“I’m pretty certain that you just did, too.”
“That was a rhetorical question! See, this! This is what you have driven me to!” By now, the elder had forgotten to whisper and in turn even the most stoic of those waiting to board had begun watching the three shadelings.
And, to his mounting irritation, the strange men had been standing before Flaxbod for some tense seconds, bickering feverishly. Then, to Flaxbod’s unprecedented stupefaction, the men began attempting to pass him, and to board! “Excuse me?” He was so taken aback that his voice lost its commanding timbre, molded to stifle any impending demands regarding room changes or free food and drinks as compensation for a late departure.
At least the three shadelings' attention was wrenched from their incomprehensible argument, jerking their visages toward him, their thin paleness garish in the flickering torchlight.
“Yes!” the oldest of the three pale creatures demanded.
Flaxbod was almost afraid to say it. “Token, please.”
The men looked baffled and overwhelmed, as if they’d been asked to hand over each of their left nostrils. “… Token?”
Chapter Thirteen: In Which Relaxation is Found to be Rather Stressful
Eidolyn had never had an occasion to ride a boat before, certainly not for leisure, and she found the gentle rocking of the vessel to be inexplicably calming, adopting very naturally to the swaying, even those sudden jolts from a particularly large wave sloshing the side of the boat that sent her stumbling ever so slightly. Gryphon’s four legs and short, broad stature meant his footing stayed true, but Shard was behaving like an ornamental songbird in a cage that was periodically being shaken, and Eidolyn briefly wondered if it wasn’t due to his tiny feet. She’d had such little mundane social interaction as of late that lately she found herself having to dismiss unbidden notions of villainy afoot and enjoy the company of the diverting parade of people boarding behind them. Inevitably, their odd troupe was approached.
The two women wore grand dresses in matching styles, one a dark mint and the other a deep pink adorned all down the sides with tiny ribbons and with skirts so voluminous that they actually had to stretch their arms in order to link elbows as they walked in perfect step over to Eidolyn, who suddenly felt rather like that Cinderella girl who’d been in the gossip columns lately and wondering if her conjured gown might turn to rags at the stroke of midnight.
The mint-clad lady, whose short jet hair curled intimately about her cheeks and neck on either side of pursed glossy lips, regarded Eidolyn and Shard with scientific interest, while her pink lace-ensconced partner peered out from a rambunctious cascade of blonde curls with a sly, knowing smile.
“Oh, how darling,” Duchess Pink cooed, blurting out the words as if they’d fought their way up from her throat around her giggle.
“There you go, Florette,” Lady Mint chuckled as she stowed away her handbag, “Coming up with wild romantic notions in your head as soon as you meet someone. I’m sure you’ve already composed a four-act epic for these two, haven’t you?”
“Oh hush, Meeta. If I may inquire,” Florette whispered as if a tremendous scandal were hanging over them and she only had moments to ask before being chased away, “However did you come to be in such a… er… saturated state?”
Eidolyn drew in a breath as she anticipated Shard’s indignant pride leading him to say something untoward. But, with a shrug, he laid his hand, palm up, outward in front of him and, with a casual swipe downward, recited, “Seihra vaeri ahran amang.”
The water still dripping over Shard, rendering his no longer crisp white shirt attractively translucent, instantly evaporated with a barely audible whumph and a cloud of warm water vapor that Eidolyn could have sworn visibly increased the volume of Florette’s curls. “A jolly mishap,” Shard smiled with more restraint than he’d shown in some time. “Of course I cannot swim, so it was a tiny mite embarrassing.”
“A magician!” Meeta nodded her prim approval. “I thought it might be a valuable novelty to learn a few practical spells one day. Nothing too strenuous, surely… do you happen to know of a reputable mentor?”
With a couple jolly hops indicating her eagerness to chime in, Florette added, “One with a beard. The best ones have a beard and a pet raven.”
“Trust me,” Shard smiled wryly. “Very few of the best magic teachers are popularly considered to be reputable, beard or no. And alas, I am afraid I am self taught, scandalous though it may be.”
“A witch,” Meeta smiled with expertly-hidden caution. “How exciting.”
Magic is not an exclusive science, and many children are taught a handful of basic spells once their guardians deem them to be responsible enough about them. One does not want to teach their six-year-old a light spell and have to then lecture them about not turning it on and off repeatedly.
At that moment, a number of crew members clad in navy blue with lavender trim began urging mulling passengers to the port side of the deck as the vessel began to retreat away from the darkened Analerna slowly, as if trying to sneak away whilst the city was asleep. Eidolyn and Shard complied so as not to stand out, listening to the cheery, projected voice of one of the deck crew members:
“As we withdraw from the winking lights of Analerna, you may desire to cross to the starboard deck, where, on clear nights such as this, you may just be able to glimpse the dock lights of the south coast of Threed, which is host to a curious culture, exotic creatures and a thriving theater community. Analerna Tours has weekly ferries to Naelander City and its famous Hedgerow Maze and adjoining Driftwood Theater and Pavilion Dome. Prior reservations are recommended. As for our own jolly midnight sojourn, comestibles catering to a number of refined tastes will be on offer immediately, accompanied by live entertainment by our own flagship troupes: music by Clever Hans and His Ogres, followed by comedy and magic by Toadwart the Wizard. Then we will dim the deck lights for the Torchlight Ball and sea dragon watching and make port in Asher by roughly seven o’clock in the morning, when we encourage all to rest up for the local harvest festival, a quaint diversion sure to amuse…”
Though the crew member, sauntering about the deck as he threw his voice over the shyly meandering crowds continued, he received a decreasing amount of attention as he shifted the focus of his announcements from the evening’s events to onboard regulations and reminders as to the dress code, which included not shapeshifting into anything too large or in a manner that compromised one’s modesty.
Shard winced and dismissively turned to Eidolyn. “There. This should be lovely. No Lord Pelgrin, no shadelings, no duties of any sort but to indulge in the fripperies of a budget luxury cruise. Shame about my hair, puts a blemish on the whole thing. But let's have a bit of fun.”
“Whilst you continue to plot my destiny without me,” Eidolyn pointed out.
“Eidolyn!” Shard chuckled plaintively.
“I’d say we earned it, too,” Gryphon pouted, “But this ain’t exactly my idea of fun! Everyone finks I’m a fluffy ickle darling an’ wanna pet me ‘ead! The indignity!”
Gryphon trailed off as Eidolyn delved through the beast’s mane to scratch his cheek, causing him to arch his back and pitch back his great beaked head like a contented housecat.
“I’ll ‘ave you know,” he said, “You’re an exception, luv.”
All three were startled by the sudden appearance of a gentleman carrying a many-tiered silver tray of small snacks, none of which Eidolyn could identify with much certainty. “Complimentary refreshment?” he inquired with rehearsed indifference.
While Eidolyn was certain they were all safe to eat, she went with what seemed the most familiar, a tiny bit of dense, moist cake topped with some sort of runny syrup and half a walnut. Gryphon puzzled over the tiered palace of dainty delights as Shard wove his eyes through the array of plates as if watching for the appearance of an insect he suspected might be hiding amongst them.
“The gryphon,” the server spoke with some satisfaction, “may be more interested in the grats currently infesting the store room below deck, which have been fattening themselves for weeks on our precious provender.”
At that, Gryphon, who seemed to be deliberating over which bit of bacon-wrapped-pickled dragon pepper to try to spear on his claw, brightened. “Maybe dis wasn’t such an awful idea after all!” After receiving directions from the server, he padded away to, at last, go on the hunt he’d been wanting, and the server departed for more normal and less furry clientele after picking a bit of tawny fur from the plates.
Given Shard’s usual aversion to socializing, Eidolyn found herself hopeful at his apparent willingness to converse with others aboard the smallish vessel, which she would have thought to be too constrictive for his cagey nature. It was almost too wonderful to believe so easily.
“Shard?” she looked over to where Shard was acquiring a pair of drinks from a passing server. The drinking vessels aboard the boat were sturdy glass tumblers, probably for the sake of durability and the liquid contained within was an icy blue layered with a creamy white… except that one was slightly more full and had something swirling translucently within, an effect that Eidolyn likely would not have noticed had she not also perceived an obvious glowing exuding from the cup, lighting up the glass.
Come to think of it, a number of things on Shard’s person glowed as did most of the lights on the ship’s deck, Mittens curled up peacefully at the stern like an ordinary stuffed toy, and, embarrassingly, from beneath her gown, bathing the deck around her feet in a hot purple, and from under her collar and sleeves! She clasped her hands about her chest, panting, in the hopes that somehow no one else would notice. “Shard!” she demanded, aquiver with panic and wanting to melt into the boards of the floor and hide below deck—or better yet, find Gryphon.
“It’ll be all right,” came the too-calm reply as Shard took one striding step to her side, now near enough that she could feel his breath. That one step had, to Eidolyn’s impatiently-pounding heart, an infuriating “I’ll handle this” finality to it, considering the fact that he had taken the time to bring over the drinks he’d sequestered from the server. “Most people here probably can’t see it. Take this.”
The glass of glimmering liquid accepted Eidolyn’s frown stoically. “What’s in it?”
Shard quickly replied, “Cream and Pombrill cordial.”
“No, no! The world lights up purple so you give me a drink and tell me it’s perfectly okay? Why does mine have so much more in it?”
“I… already took a sip of mine.”
″I see.″ Shard’s momentarily relief as Eidolyn accepted the glass turned to consummate horror as she slightly tipped the glass downward, not enough to spill any out, but enough for him to elicit a wordless cry of alarm.
“Ah! Wuh...” he trailed off.
Knowing the game was up, the shadeling gave a frown of resignation as Eidolyn demanded, “How long have you been making my decisions for me?” She enjoyed Shard’s company perfectly well, but it would be preferable to not have any sort of peril attached to it, lest he begin deciding what was best for her while she wasn’t even aware a decision was being made at all. Even as he cooked for her and conjured gowns for her, did he have so little respect for her that he did what he felt was in her best interest without even considering her opinion? Or was it due to him being self centered, deeming himself the primary authority on her welfare? The confusion only frustrated her further, enough so that heat welled up from her chest into her cheeks.
Not tipping the tumbler upright just yet, she sighed tersely.
“It’s very complicated,” Shard whined. “It would be best, for the moment, that you restrain your curiosity. Please?”
“Curiosity?! Shard, my life has been in danger since I met you! I think this is a mite more severe than curiosity.”
“You don’t know what I’ve offered up to keep you safe, Eidolyn. And I’d rather you didn’t,” he spoke tenderly as he prodded the tumbler level.
She might as well have been trying to talk to the Dragon’s Spine Mountains, with the winds of creation howling in her face! “You dance around the truth just enough, don’t you? I wager that on more than one occasion you have lied outright! Shard, mayor of Obtuse Town! Shard, high priest of the Church of Obtuseness! Shard, king of the Obtuse Kingdom!” she spat in supreme frustration, trailing off in incoherent sputters as she reached for words strong enough to surmount the last.
“Emperor of the Obtuseness Empire?” Shard offered meekly.
“Yes! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome! Just... trust me, please, Eidolyn. It’s never done you any harm before.”
“How can I know that? I am beginning to fear that you believe no one’s opinion matters but your own! What makes you so much better than Pelgrin?” she challenged—just before recoiling, as she realized her words fell upon Shard with more weight than they carried when they’d formed in her mind. Deep, personal hurt clashing with indignant rage flashed behind the soft turquoise of his eyes, hardening his glare as his lower lip trembled.
And behind Shard, Gryphon padded toward them in an apparent elevated mood due to his full stomach, but his approach slowed to a submissive creep with his tail stowed between his legs as Shard retaliated,
“Y- you want to know? I’ll tell you what makes me so much better! In fact, there are a good few things you ought to know…”
“Shard,” Gryphon softly attempted.
“No, no, no! It’s fine,” Shard roared, his voice ragged and indelicate. “Let’s get it all out there! Now’s the perfect time!”
As he began to gesture at the gawking public in the manner of a grand invitation, Gryphon trotted toward with such force that his claws scraped the deck, leaped up to catch Shard around the back of his collar and dragged him away from the fray, the young man sputtering, both about being entirely in the right and of the rough treatment being exacted on his poor trousers, which had no part in the conflict.
Eidolyn was left holding the drinks as well as the crowd’s attention once Gryphon had dragged Shard out of sight. The threat of losing what Shard had poured into her glass had been her most pressing method of extorting information, but… while Shard was secretive, he was also willing to sacrifice his personal appearance in order to stand in a rain of slime whilst holding her in a dusty curtain, as well as do whatever he did that left him with shorn, sticky hair. She contemplated the faintly glowing whorls that distinguished her drink from his.
″Men, eh?″ Florette shrugged.
Gryphon dragged Shard, who had momentarily resigned himself to his friend’s superior strength, to a shady nook underneath the staircase leading to the upper deck, startling an amorous elf and dwarf couple who had retreated there to pretend that their partnership would be considered scandalous. Judging by their exaltations, they were laboring quite passionately under the delusion indeed. In the midst of asking her dwarven lover whatever his family would say back at the forge (which actually would be something to the tune of whether there would be a bar at the wedding), the elf emitted a hysterical startled squeal when a pale young man was tossed in with him among the old piles of sacks and ropes. Her partner joined her in the scream as a gryphon stamped its way into their midst, speaking,
Before the shaken couple could fully stagger from their shelter, Gryphon had pinned Shard with all of his weight, laying over him with paws crossed over him and staring down at him with a razor sharp aquiline glare.
“What!” Shard demanded, for the moment foregoing his disgust over the patina of dust and grime he was reclining in.
“You need to stop.”
In his insult not bothering to struggle, Shard repeated, “What!” as his old friend glowered sternly down at him in, Gryphon would relate later, was his best impression of his own father at his scariest. “You wanted me to tell her. You keep telling me that it’s not good to keep secrets. So now I’m telling her. What could you possibly be objecting to?”
Gryphon did not hesitate, speaking tenderly from his razor beak, “Not like this.” The shaggy beast let the three words sink into Shard’s skull as Shard felt the muscles holding him down relax slightly. “Not until you remember who you’re really angry wiv.”
In a wide-eyed daze, Shard exhaled a stale breath, and with it a considerable amount of anger and frustration, a great deal of it much older than that evening. “Myself?″
″Shard!″ he warned.
″Ugh...″ Shard thumped his head down on a sack of rigging ropes. He shook it in slow disbelief and shame. ″Oh gods, Gryphon. What did I almost do? I could have…”
“Dun mention it,” Gryphon shrugged. “Just get me off this boat as soon as possible an' we're even up.”
Escaping tension allowed Shard to give a little chuckle, and then a hearty laugh as he reached up and wrapped his arms around the mane of his friend and pulling the gryphon down.
“Bah, ya big peacock,” Gryphon chuckled, encircling Shard with broad, dirty paws designed for seizing large prey. Gryphons are not engineered to give hugs and so the venture was more than a little awkward, but in the end friendship prevailed and the two were joined in a prolonged, lopsided embrace in a fit of nervous giggles.
“Er… hello? Wouldn’t you two rather do that in a room?”
Shard blushed nervously at the baffled and embarrassed crew member who’d interrupted them, glaring at Gryphon when he squawked, “Wot! We won’t be a minute. Run along now. There’s a good lad.”
The brief diversion of the strange man being dragged away by a gryphon had quickly been forgotten elsewhere on the ship’s deck, as the on board entertainment had quickly swooped in to take advantage of the gathering crowd, setting out an array of hopeful upturned hats and instrument cases to intercept tips. Eidolyn thought she could hear bits of a comedy routine involving a dwarf and his goblin partner arguing over an imaginary treasure. None of the performers were dwarven or goblin, and both performing men compensated for the handicap by doing the routine on their knees, which not only made them difficult to see (assuming Eidolyn even wanted to observe the performance in the first place) but made their movement awkward—particularly when both of them drew a pair of flimsy theater daggers and began having a duel over the rightful ownership of the Legendary Flagon of Hangover Prevention.
Thankfully, this at least allowed Shard and Gryphon to return privately, all peevishness lifted from Shard, replaced by a bashful, penitent frown. His friend padded along with tactfully soft steps behind him.
For a moment, Shard and Eidolyn seemed to both silently vie with their eyes for the right to speak first. Feeling at the same time frustrated and guilty, Eidolyn held up the drink that Shard had offered her. “I do trust you, Shard. But...”
In a swift motion, Shard seized the tumbler and tossed it overboard. ″Let me get you a fresh one. I caused this mess, and I'll fix it without having to make you do something you're not perfectly happy doing on your own.″
“I’ll tell you everything when the time and place is right,” he said. “I already failed you once, and I'd rather you not lose all faith in me. I daresay that I got us into this predicament in the first place by assuming I could make decisions for others without their consent.”
Shard stood there, tense, as he waited for Eidolyn to accept or reject his apology which hadn’t actually included an apology, Eidolyn realized—just apologetic words and tone. Plaintively, mindful of how her words appeared to have more capability to hurt Shard than she’d previously estimated, she urged, “Really, Shard, you must let me do what I can.”
“I’ll agree to that,” Shard agreed with a firm, hasty nod.
He’s just as eager to put this conflict behind us as I am, Eidolyn realized.
“But,” he sighed, “Allow me time to… collect my thoughts. And to get us to a more appropriate place to reveal sensitive information. There are revelations to be made that carry the potential for both great good and great harm, and we must be mindful of who we reveal them before.”
That seemed reasonable, despite the fact that it made Eidolyn all the more savagely curious. Of course, her feeling that everyone but her was in on Shard’s secret couldn’t possibly be true. At the very most, Shard and Gryphon shared a tangled myriad of deceptions, and she was beginning to suspect that Pelgrin might be aware of what Shard was keeping from her as well, if the fact that he was targeting her specifically was any indication.
The rest of the evening was as much a haze as the atmosphere that settled about their glaringly-lit, noisy vessel as the sky to the west began its agonizingly sluggish transition from a cold, intimate indigo to a frigid violet tinged by warm tangerine, and no one noticed the three other horned creatures, huddled at the back of the vessel, the other two reassuring the stouter of the three that allowing himself to become helplessly and violently ill over the side of the rail would not disrupt ″the balance″ and that they would deal with matters upon disembarking from the accursed boat. The poor solitary member of the ferry staff that attempted contact with the three, aided by a tray of snacks and tower of beverages found himself scolded into silence and feeling inexplicably culpable.
Eidolyn had passed the evening with Shard and Gryphon mostly in stoic quiet, put off by the revelry of those around her and never having been one for partying at any hour, much less those hours when an entirely different type of person states that they are in pursuit of “beauty sleep.” The experience as they traveled home to Asher wasn’t entirely dreadful, but it did instill in Eidolyn the awareness that her dream to be a normal person full of normal memories may have been misguided by ignorance, and found herself less and less willing to trade a peril-filled life of few memories populated by a foppish wizard hermit and a jolly gryphon for what those around her seemed to take for granted. The three of them enjoyed, in a rather detached manner, a parade of music, displays of prestidigitation and genuine magic alike and a variety of novelty shows of varying degrees of quality. Any minute Eidolyn thought that Shard might take an inebriated leap into the crowd to regale them with some manner of trick, but for the remainder of the night he restrained himself. By the time a sliver of pure gold was visible over the black horizon of the Celestial Bay and the familiar sight of Asher’s cliffs came into view through the gray mist, even Shard looked as if he’d rather sleep than come ashore.
Asher was lit in the cold, fresh glare of dawn, a light Eidolyn had seldom experienced the city in, usually arriving past noon due to travel time. Their vessel wearily clunked up alongside the docks at the harbor, which simultaneously looked precariously derelict and as timeless as the cliff face it was braced against.
Somehow, the dock workers appeared alert and brisk, mostly human, but with a few stout dwarves, resilient elves and an arborn among those working. All of the dirty, graceless work of mooring the boat was kept as far from the discerning clientele as it seemed possible, who by this point all looked more interested in a long nap than the sensibility of not having to witness manual labor. A few passengers who had overestimated their capacity for all-night merrymaking and had shamefully slunk below deck for an hour of rest now made their way into the light of the morning, blinking furiously and groping the hand rails carefully until their eyesight had adjusted.
As for Eidolyn, she could not help but try to spot the uppermost boughs of Shard’s tree from the harbor before realizing that they might be just distinguishable at that distance, but indiscernible from the rest of the forest. Still, it was soothing to be back in familiar territory, as, having never been away from home for so long before, all the efforts and trials of their journey caught up with her quite suddenly as she heard the old city bells strike six, an achingly nostalgic sound. Besides that, as a gardener she was accustomed to worrying for her crop and so being on a long trip had caused her to constantly think of her little patch of sustenance back home, despite the fact that she had all but left it behind in order to be under Shard’s protection. That might have to be something she’d get used to until she discovered a way to…
“Hwrawwwwwwwk,” Gryphon yawned, his beak gaping for only a moment before Eidolyn felt compelled to join him in a slightly more reserved yawn, covering her mouth as she squinted up the cliff walls at the awakening city.
“Oh, don’t you…” Shard warned before he, too, was pulled along inexorably to a teeny, tense yawn, as if he believed himself above the notion of expressing being tired after a night of partying. “Eidolyn! Now you’ve got me doing it.”
But those who were determined to make a production out of every leg of the journey, as well as to see their customers off in order to collect another load, would have none of that kind of nonsense.
“Good morning, passengers of The Jaunty Clam!” a confoundingly cheery and alert voice intoned over the clapping, slapping waves and crying gulls. It was a clear voice that had so much energy that it seemed to sap the life out of those nearby, throwing them into an exhausted, frustrated confusion as to how anyone could possibly force themselves into such a perfect facade of joy at such an hour. The voice sounded off ahead of a figured clad in bright green, orange and violet velvet, topped off with a large feathered cap the mustachioed dandy was having to keep constant watch over for fear of it being wrenched from his slick black hair by the salty gale. “The time has just gone six in the morning and it’s a right lovely Thintimber day. The delightfully quaint Harvest Festival will be on throughout the day, and for those with more refined tastes, carriage rides to Lord Pelgrin’s Tower of Wonders will be conducted thrice throughout the day for a mere three copper (not including admittance), and the beloved Lord Pelgrin himself will be in attendance with a number of his magical constructs this evening!”
Eidolyn started at that, and Shard fared no better at hiding his surprise at this announcement, which was delivered with a cheer that seemed to mock their own disapproval.
“How could…” Shard stammered hurriedly. “That hack enchanter couldn’t have possibly made it back here ahead of us. If we are fortunate, this is merely an engagement our less-than-savory friend made some time ago and forgot about in the light of current conflicts.” At the thought of this, Shard beamed privately.
Those thoughts, as well as the excited chatter from nearby passengers was put on hold, however, by a raucous explosion of music that exploded the rustic dignity of the northern harbor. The parade that thunked down the ancient plank stairs leading down to the water, very sloppily playing the traditional drinking song “There’s One Drop of Elfbow Lager in the Barrel and I’ll Fight You For it” was accompanied by a handful of Asher townsfolk, likely staunch fans of the Harvest Festival who made a point of rising before even the cosmos had begun to think about bringing dawn to their damp coastal village. It was true that the entertainment to be had in Asher was limited to that which could be conducted between frequent windstorms in the time not spent continuously bracing the population for the next windstorm, and so those that worked the hardest tended to celebrate the most heartily when the time came to do so. The sound of old, rugged boots on old wood, clapping hands and out of tune singing out of beat with a battered old tambourine accompanied the stinging, smoky scent of torches mingling with the salty breeze.
All of this brought Eidolyn into a sort of half-consciousness, a conflicted slurry of exhaustion and mirthful energy and she felt pressed to join the merrymakers. These were as close to her people as she’d seen in some time, and homesickness overcame her. She was one of the first to the creaking old ramp leading down to the relative sturdiness of the docks, gripping the seams of her dress, ignoring how unsightly her tired face might be. It took her a moment to recognize that she was grinning broadly at the sight of the villagers coming to greet total strangers in the hopes that they might spend just one day as brothers and sisters—and, of course, make some money off the tourists with which to offset the cost of the celebration itself.
The passengers of The Jaunty Clam were led ashore in a din of queries and demands, mostly regarding accommodations and places to acquire refreshments not soaked in brine. Like a torch smothered by a moth, the crew and dock workers were briefly swarmed until, gradually, the tourists were as satisfied as they were going to be for the moment and began the timorous trek up the old staircase leading to the city at the top of the cliffs. Besides being a rather frightening climb, it was exhausting, and for those not used to it, the upward journey was peppered with platforms lined with benches for a brief moment of rest. Of course, many tourists were too proud to utilize them, and reached the top wheezing through their nostrils as discreetly as they could manage while keeping their lips planted firmly in a calm, curious little frown.
Gryphon, tired of being patted and scratched by strangers, braved the winds to meet Shard and Eidolyn at the top of the cliff, where greeters stood intercepting tourists with traditional clove bracelets. The traditions that were flaunted during the Harvest Festival may not be in the minds of most Asherians during most of the year, but that made them no less beloved when the time came to show them to strangers. Besides the bracelets and songs, orange ribbons were worn around the left wrist. These ribbons must not be tied by oneself; one must invite a friend or family member to tie the ribbon, using the phrase “fall’s embrace.” A practice seen much less often outside of taverns is the act of smacking a stranger upside the head with the reminder that the sting of winter is on the way. In his exhaustion, Gryphon failed to avoid having a clove bracelet tossed onto his beak and an orange ribbon wound round a bit of his mane.
“Humans,” he muttered as he trotted to where Shard and Eidolyn waited, far away from the crowd. “Always celebrating somefing. Never got it meself. It’s just fall. Soon it’ll be winter, den it’ll be spring. And there’ll be at least one party to remind us of each one. You’d fink these people brought about fall themselves, to watch them pat themselves on the backs!”
“Gryphon,” Eidolyn lectured emphatically, “A fall festival is celebrating the collection of a bountiful harvest that will sustain a village through a harsh winter. It is in recognition of an accomplishment, of sorts.”
“Awright, love,” Gryphon chuckled. He looked as if he still didn't quite get it, though. He was, after all, a predator. Agriculture was hardly something that nature called upon gryphons to be able to relate to.
“Come, now,” Shard said hurriedly. “If Lord Pelgrin’s going to be around for the festival, we’ll be keeping an eye on him. And I’ve got just the way to do it.”
Eidolyn had little time to speculate before Shard’s energy sent him rolling on into a gleeful, secretive grin. “Go on,” he said. “Guess how we’re going to keep an eye on him. It has to do with you. And me. And with Gryphon. And the Harvest Goddess play. And getting you into a starring role. Go on, guess how we’re going to keep an eye on him.”
Stifling a chuckle, Eidolyn raised an eyebrow at Shard as he groped about his pockets for his hand mirror and comb before remembering the state of his hair, pulling out the comb anyway and petulantly running it through a few times anyway. “All right,” he said. “It might be obvious, but it’s brilliant, and that’s the important thing. If you’re on stage for the entirety of the play, there’s no way you’ll be in danger.”
“Yes,” Eidolyn said, “But traditionally, the Guest of Honor is always required to take part. That would be…”
“Lord Pelgrin, yes,” Shard nodded hastily, raising his slender, pale index finger. “But he won’t be menacing you while everyone’s watching him. There’ll be no safer place for you, and in the meantime we can see what the man is up to whilst he is occupied.”
There was no denying that being in front of a crowd would likely ensure her safety, but besides the fact that she would rather simply take care of Pelgrin as soon as possible, she was far from comfortable with Shard’s suggestion. She’d never acted in her life, and while inexperience is considered to be part of the entertainment of recruiting average citizens to act in the Harvest Goddess play, she would rather not have been on the supplying end of the entertainment.
The Harvest Goddess play consists, from the cast to the crew, of volunteers with no experience in theater. Players are chosen the morning of the Harvest Festival and spend periods throughout the day rehearsing, interspersed by appearing in events in costumes supplied by the Dalabiot Theater Company, which travels by caravan to Asher every year for the event. To be a quality production is not the aim of this event; staging the play in this manner ensures that those who see it every year will never be bored, especially since in the course of the typical Asherian’s lifetime, they are likely to take part in the play at least once.
To that end, Eidolyn finally nodded her assent. After all, it wasn’t as if she had preserves to sell this year. “Very well. But you have to participate as well. There’s no way you won’t be chosen, with charisma like yours. And just imagine, having the mythical Shard himself taking part in the Harvest Goddess play!” she grinned with evident mischief. Already enjoying Shard’s horrified gape, she increased the stakes to a level that would tickle Shard's ego. “And just picture Lord Pelgrin’s expression when he’s met by his rival onstage without being able to do a thing about it!”
The shadeling gulped down the automatic protest that seemed to have been bubbling up from the depths of his throat, leaving him pouting with his chest puffed out like a frog holding its breath. “Ah…” he began. “Scratch that,” he murmured, tapping his cheek. “I’ve got an even better idea.”
“Oh!” Eidolyn scoffed.
“Hold your incredulity, Eidolyn. My idea simply improves on yours somewhat. You see…”