The ring of naked dancers had again drawn a crowd and Yawrab found herself among the curious onlookers. She watched the bodies move around the fire, parts bouncing and swaying, and found herself more fascinated by the movements than the nakedness. She was pleased with herself at that, glad that she had put so much of her non-gypsy past behind her. She had first seen the style of dancing practiced by the Gwynt Gyrun, the Wind Riders of the great plains south of Baranur, a sennight ago. At the end of the three-day wedding ceremony of Maks, a Rhydd Pobl gypsy, and Syusahn, one of the Gwynt Gyrun nomads, all of the bride’s people had formed a ring about the couple, stripped down to skin, and ha d started to prance in a circle to the beat of drums and vowel-sounded chanting. It had been all she could do not to stare at the jouncing, jiggling parts.
Yawrab was not well enough versed in the style to be able to distinguish between this dance of parting and that dance of union. She could feel the rhythm of the drum, though, and she found her feet beating the ground along with the dancers’. She was not yet uninhibited enough to join in as several gypsies had, but she could feel the music moving in her, moving her.
Smiling in contentment, she left the circle, her feet stepping in time to the chants and the drums. She crossed the large, sculpted clearing in the forest of northern Dargon that the gypsies called Eariaddas Hwl, passing celebrants clustered around myriad sources of entertainment. She caught the skirl of small-pipes from one, and the swirling, beat-driven strains of the gypsies’ favorite dancing music from another. From her previous wanderings during her time there, she knew that storytelling, drinking contests, and legerdemain exhibitions were some of the other amusements offered.
Yawrab wasn’t wandering this time, though, which was why she hadn’t stayed longer with the naked dancers. She had an appointment to keep. It was a gypsy sort of appointment, so she felt no need to rush or to try to tell time by how far the quarter-moon was over the trees or by ringing imaginary bells in her head. Ganba, her door into the Rhydd Pobl culture as well as her lover, had informed her the previous night that Sefera had offered the use of her divination skills to help Yawrab with her quest. From what she had heard of the fortune teller’s skills, she was looking forward to the experience.
She came to a quiet corner of the gathering place and found herself grinning with delight at what she found there. A table had been set up beneath a wide-spread, high-branched tree and at it sat brown-haired, bronze-skinned Ganba. Across from her was an older woman with long, dark hair, who had to be Sefera. Neither of them had prompted Yawrab’s grin; that was caused by the myriad star-like lights twinkling in the air between tree and table, creating a mystical, magical atmosphere.
As Yawrab drew nearer, she saw the wire-thin chandeliers supporting the tiny candles that made the light, but the otherworldly ambiance was not diminished. She walked up to the table and into the arms of Ganba, who had risen from the slatted folding chair to greet her. Yawrab had no qualms about kissing Ganba in front of a stranger, and she did so warmly, hugging her tightly. Ganba returned the affection just as openly, and then they sat.
Ganba said, “Yawrab, let me introduce Sefera, sign-reader and fortune teller. Her talent is legendary among the Rhydd Pobl, and she has some notoriety among your people, the Rooted Folk, as well. She is known to traveling carnivals and in large marketplaces as Madame Zeefra.”
Sefera extended her hand across the table, and Yawrab took it. The fortune teller was smiling gently, and her grip was warm and strong. Yawrab found her attractive, and the age that was written on her face made her look wise, not care-worn.
Sefera said, “I am pleased to finally meet you, Yawrab. I’ve heard about how you helped Ganba deal with that madman Lacsil and his Sageeza fanatics.” Yawrab was about to protest that she hadn’t done much beyond riding along with Ganba’s bantor, or wagon group, but the fortune teller didn’t pause long enough. “Of course, every stranger prompts gossip at one of our gatherings, even at a time like this, while the Wind Riders swell our ranks. You’ve heard the stories about the rooted-folk wizard and his apprentice?”
Yawrab nodded. She had listened to the gossip about Cefn, the cowled mage, and his partner — not apprentice — Je’en, who wore a silver half-mask and a brace on her arm. They were guests of the bride and groom, having performed some service for them. She wondered whether her own tale had grown as much as that pair’s had. She didn’t believe that they had really rescued Syusahn from a magically living tower!
“I’ve heard about your search,” Sefera said. “I haven’t pried into the details; I like to be open to what the other world has to say. Shall we begin to listen in?”
She produced a bundle of something wrapped in purple silk and set it in the center of the table. With a deft tug, the silk slid open, and she spread it out into a square under a deck of black-backed cards. She said, “Touch them, Yawrab. Just rest your hand, either one, on them for a moment or two, and let them get to know you.” Yawrab complied, trying not to feel either silly or skeptical.
Sefera took the cards from under Yawrab’s hand and began to shuffle them. She fanned them out and said, “Choose a marker, Yawrab, a card to represent you in the spread.”
Yawrab reached over and plucked a rectangle from the fan. Sefera drew the cards together again and took the one Yawrab had chosen, turning it over and putting it in the center of the purple square of silk in the middle of the table. The picture on it was of a tiny man standing on a mountainside.
“Good, good, the jester of rock. It makes sense; you are one of the rooted folk, so your suit is rock. The high rank shows good things about you. Next, we must examine your past.”
The fortune teller turned over the top card of the deck, followed by another and another. She set them down in a ring around the marker card, and began speaking in a rhythmic, measured voice.
“Your childhood looks clear. Yes, yes, but here, in adulthood, early, something very, very traumatic. I can see the damage to your mind and body.” Yawrab didn’t react to the cards revealing her rape by Lord Cranhull. Her past couldn’t hurt her any longer.
“A journey, then, without healing. A journey and then complacency. You found a routine, right? A place to fit in, a place you further shaped to yourself. Once a part of it, you never wanted to be apart from it. But you didn’t really belong.”
Yawrab realized that Sefera was talking about her years as the head housekeeper for the Denva estate, a job she had been good at, a job she had liked, or had seemed to like. Only now did she realize how confining that job had been, how restrictive, and how the restrictions had been ones she had set around herself.
The marker card was surrounded now, images showing flames and water and what she had to be told was wind, as well as more fanciful, abstract images that weren’t of any of the four suits. Sefera said, “Now we move to the recent past.” The cards she turned over now were set in a row below the ring around the marker.
“I see an ending, someone close, family.” Yawrab recognized Tillna, her sister. “A bad end. Murder. I see flight. You flee, the one you chase flees, the murderers flee as well.” Yawrab started at that. Lord Aldan was not one of the murderers?
“There’s Ganba’s influence, and your journey north.” Sefera was turning the cards more slowly. “The one you seek also comes north. But …” She flipped four cards into a line above the marker’s ring, and frowned at the results. “But nothing makes sense here. Random cards, no message. Why?”
Sefera gathered up all of the cards, shuffled them again, and dealt three cards off the top, hesitated, and dealt a fourth. The jester of rock showed first, followed by the four of wind that had been Ganba’s card. The deuce of rock showed next, and Sefera indicated that as the man Yawrab was following. “Lord Aldan, son of Baron Bindrmon,” Yawrab explained. The fourth card, the ace of flame, was set beside Aldan’s card.
“A new layout,” said Sefera. “Perhaps this will show us the future better.” She dealt an arrangement of cards around the first four, but hissed in frustration at what she saw there. She gathered all but the four up and tried again, and twice more. Completely different cards showed up each time, and finally the fortune teller said, “The cards are blocked. They see nothing beyond today for you, Yawrab. Nothing at all.”
Yawrab looked at Ganba, and then back at Sefera. “You don’t mean …?”
Sefera’s frown cleared for a moment, and she said, “No, no, it doesn’t mean you have no future, my dear, no. It just means the cards cannot reach into your future.” She sighed, and said, “I’m sorry, Yawrab. It seems I won’t be able to help you locate the man you’re seeking.”
Ganba leaned forward and asked, “Isn’t there anything you can do? You use more than just cards; I’ve seen you. Might one of your other methods be able to do what the cards can’t?”
Sefera said, “They are all fundamentally the same, Ganba. Whatever blocks the cards would block them as well.” She wrapped the cards up in their silk and made them vanish again. When her hands came back above the table she stopped in mid-motion, and looked up with eyes wide with possibility. “Unless … There’s one method that is more direct, more personal than the cards. Wait here for a moment.”
She rose and walked away. Yawrab looked a question at Ganba, who just shrugged.
Sefera returned with a small bowl, a bucket, and a roll of parchment. Ignoring her chair, she deposited her items on the table and used a knife to cut a large square of parchment off of the roll, which, when spread out flat, almost covered the table. She handed the knife to Yawrab and said, “I’ll need a little blood, my dear.” When Yawrab just stared at her, she continued, “I said it was more personal. I don’t need much, just a few drops.”
Yawrab took the knife and nicked her middle finger. She let a few drops of blood fall into the bowl, then put her nicked finger into her mouth. Sefera retrieved the knife and made it vanish to the same place the cards had.
Sefera took the small container and held it for a moment. Then she took a handful of white sand out of the bucket and dropped it into the bowl. She did that twice more before beginning to stir the sand with her fingers. Yawrab expected the sand to clump up in the blood, but instead it slowly turned pink as if her blood was really mixing throughout it.
The fortune teller finally took the small bowl and poured the whole contents into the palm of her other hand, where it fit without any trouble. She set the container aside, and cupped both hands above the parchment. She closed her eyes and began to hum softly. A moment later, she opened her fingers to let the sand through.
Only the sand didn’t fall, not at first. Sefera hummed louder, and it began to sift out, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Even though she didn’t move her hands, the sand fell all over the parchment, forming a pattern that grew ever more complex.
It was circular, as large as the parchment. In the outer third of the disk, six animals formed, three pairs of two. The design was stylized, and consisted of two foxes, two falcons, and two cats. Each pair was situated with its back to its twin, thus facing one of each of the other pair.
Filling the rest of the disk and surrounding the six animals were bands that wove over and under each other like the reeds of a basket. The pattern wasn’t totally regular, but it was balanced between the six figures and formed a pleasing image.
The strangest thing about the pattern was that Yawrab recognized it, or part of it at least. Ganba owned a segment of a stone sculpture that bore a portion of the pattern before her. In fact, she was sure that the match was exact: the part of the pattern of sand that held the cat facing the fox looked just like Ganba’s carved fragment.
Sefera’s hands were empty; the pattern was complete. Yawrab looked at Ganba, who was staring at the pattern intently. She shifted her gaze to the fortune-teller, and found a look of surprise and confusion on her face. Yawrab found her attention returning to the sand painting when the parchment suddenly began to vibrate rapidly, and the sand scattered across it and the table. In a moment, the pattern was gone. But the image, and the way it called to her, was one that Yawrab would never forget.
The room was dark. The windows were open, but the end-of-Seber moon was no more than a sliver, and there was no light coming from the street at that bell in the Old City section of Dargon.
Lord Aldan, son of Baron Bindrmon, broke a long, companionable silence with, “No luck, then?”
Bard Nakaz said, “No, Aldan, no luck yet. It would help if we knew exactly who has taken up the Margre’s quest, of course, but I think our current strategy will eventually pan out. Voesh had to seek out extra information before he and his friends could locate the second artifact. The curse brought doom on all six of those people, but we can’t trust to the curse to eliminate this new holder.”
Silence fell as the pair reflected on the Margre and her quest. The Margre Chalisento had been a powerful sorceress in the dim, distant past. She had lusted after absolute power, but had been thwarted just short of her goal. She had been magically separated into three parts, and these parts had been crafted into artifacts, which were then strewn across the breadth of the continent of Cherisk. So far, two of the three artifacts, a small rock and a stone cup, had been retrieved.
This brought up thoughts of Meelia, who had revealed her involvement in the Margre quest in her final, dying moments. She and her five friends, led by Bresk but directed by Voesh, had encountered Aldan and Nakaz in Valdasly. Meelia had been in an accident just after recovering the second of the three Margre artifacts, and had died of her wounds.
Nakaz and Aldan had chased after the remainder of the questers, finding dead bodies along the trail until they followed the final member of the group. That one had encountered some kind of struggle between some gypsies and a group of fanatics known as the Bloody Hand of Sageeza and had been killed as well. Unfortunately, the artifacts had not been on his corpse. Aldan and Nakaz had done the only thing they could think of: continued to Dargon, where Meelia had indicated the band was going.
Since arriving, the pair had been canvassing the city, looking for information about the Margre or anyone asking about her legend. To date, they had found out little.
Aldan asked, “How many more sages does Dargon have?”
“Quite a few, to my surprise. I’ve been visiting knowledge gatherers and sages for a sennight, but none have been visited by anyone besides myself looking for information on the legend of the Margre Chalisento. From what I can determine, there are at least a sennight’s worth to go. I suppose it’s the port that draws them all this far north. The sailors’ tales, the strange cargo, the frontier spirit. The freedom to think new thoughts, unlike a more tradition-bound city like Magnus.”
“And if the calendar turns to Ober and you still haven’t heard word?”
“Then I will have to start over. There’s nothing else I can think of to do, Aldan.”
Nakaz changed the subject by asking, “What about your search? Any sign of your Menagerie?”
Aldan said, “I’ve had no more luck than you, Nakaz, but I think that, given a few more days of searching, I will be able to say that they really aren’t here. I’ve spread the word that I am seeking information about Lords Eywran, Wannek, and Lothanin all over the Old City, and even down in the lower town. So far, no one has heard of them, and I can’t think of a reason that they would feel the need to disguise themselves this far north of Bindrmon. I’m beginning to think that Weasel, er, Lord Kuvey, must have lied.”
Nakaz turned on his side, and said, “I’ll turn your question back on you, then. What will your next move be once you admit that they are not here?”
Aldan remained on his back, staring at the ceiling he couldn’t see. “I’ll let it go, at least for now. If they didn’t come here, they could have gone anywhere and I don’t know where to start looking. So I’ll just forget about them for the time being. At least until we can deal with this Margre situation.”
Aldan sighed. “What about her? She’s dead, killed by my one-time friends. I’ll mourn her, of course, but no less or more than I would if I had been able to chase down the Menagerie right away. She was my fiancee, Nakaz, and I cared for her, but I’ve come to realize that I never loved her.” He turned to face Nakaz in their bed, and continued, “I think I knew that even when I proposed to her, but I am sure of it now. She shouldn’t have died, and I will do what I am able to see her murderers brought to justice. But if that has to wait until I can return to Bindrmon, then so be it.”
He reached over and drew Nakaz closer. “I’m not glad she’s dead, Nakaz, but I am glad that chasing her killers brought me to you.” He kissed the bard, and there was no more talking for quite some time.
Ratray stood in the shadows of a building at the corner where the Street of Travellers crossed Merchant’s Way. His walk from Dargon Keep across the causeway over the Coldwell River and along the lengthy stretch of Travellers before it entered the lower city proper had been uneventful, but the challenge was about to grow. He watched the flow of traffic along Merchant’s carefully. He had a scowl on his youthful, unbearded face and he mumbled under his breath, “Fifth of Ober; same errand five times. Shouldn’t have told Marnvik, shouldn’t have told nobody.”
The street before him was just as crowded now, at seventh bell, as it always was, and Ratray knew that he couldn’t hope for it to become suddenly deserted. He waited, fidgeting and fretting, long, thin fingers writhing around each other in impatience, until there was only a handful of people walking along in front of him. Then he sprinted across the intersection and dashed along Travellers, speeding unerringly for an alley on the right and slipping into its darkness with a sigh of relief.
The alley ended at Traders Avenue, another wide, busy street. Ratray huddled behind a barrel there, breathing hard from his run. His grey eyes darted furtively around the street, noting the solitary walkers and the people clustered in groups. When his breathing was back to normal, he slipped around the barrel and started sidling along the wall, his thin body swallowed by the shadows there, moving slowly as he angled for the best position to launch himself from. The crowds in the street eddied back and forth, and an opening appeared between him and the side street he needed. Ratray set off, scuttling as rapidly as he could without running, his shoulders hunched up around his ears, his head down, watching his path through the brown fringe of his bangs.
The side street was quieter, but Ratray didn’t slow by very much. He lifted his head to keep a better watch, though, as he made his way past two more intersections. Another busy street presented itself and again he paused in a shadow to determine his best chance of navigating the crowds. He shuddered violently when a group of four people, chattering busily amongst themselves, passed him from behind, and he pushed himself into the street as soon as they were gone, before he was completely ready.
His path across this street was not as swift nor as direct as the previous one. He continually dodged and diverted, avoiding walking closer than two arms-lengths to any group of three or more people. By the time he reached the corner he wanted, he was shaking and panting heavily, even though he hadn’t been running.
After pausing in a dark doorway one more time, Ratray made his way down the next street, crossing and recrossing it to avoid the few pedestrians he encountered. He approached a final intersection and peeked around the corner to see if the way was clear. Satisfied, he walked down to Abernald’s Apothecary and peered through the window. He waited until two of the three customers left before pushing through the doors and walking up to the counter.
“Hello, Tray,” said Abernald, the owner and only worker in the shop. “I saw you out the window, waiting. Haven’t gotten over your concerns yet, eh?”
“Hello, Abernald,” said Ratray, wishing that the people he worked with in the keep were as willing to use the nickname he wanted them to. Instead, they called him Rat, and then laughed when he shouted at them. Looking up at the shopkeeper, he said, “No, my worries haven’t gone away. I really don’t think they ever will, either.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong, my boy. Just give it time. So, Marnvik needs more pipedust?”
“Or so he says, yes, Abernald. I know he’s just teasing me, making me go out like this, but I gotta do what my boss tells me, straight?”
“He’s bound to get tired soon, Tray. Or broke. Just a moment.” Abernald walked over to a bank of small drawers and opened one. Ratray turned to look nervously at the door, shuffling his feet and clicking his fingernails against the counter. Abernald was soon back with a small cloth bag, which he set on the counter.
Ratray fetched the coins he had been given out of his pouch and pushed them across the counter. “Thank you,” he said as he took the bag. “I’ll probably see you tomorrow.”
Abernald laughed and said, “Good luck, Tray, and don’t worry.”
Ratray just shook his head as he walked out of the apothecary.
He set off on his return journey in the opposite direction from which he had arrived. He used the same methods as before, though. He darted and scuttled, dodged and scurried. He crossed the lower city without enjoying a single step, until he heard the music coming from the bar across the street.
Ratray’s face transformed from squinting fear to peaceful pleasure, looking even younger than his sixteen summers as it did so. He crossed the street without worrying about the pair who almost ran into him. He approached the door, but a single peek within restored his caution. He turned away from the entry and found a shadowy niche just along the wall from it. He listened to the sprightly tune for a few moments, and then began to sing along to the song he had never heard before in a clear, confident tone. His eyes were closed, imagining the impossible situation of sitting before a crowd entertaining them as the person in the bar was doing. He wasn’t even aware of the stares he got from passers-by, so rapt was he. He didn’t worry about what Marnvik would do to him when he got back to the keep late. He sang and dreamed, and for once forgot about the foretold future that normally ruled his existence.